Review: Miles, the Autobiography

Review: Miles, the Autobiography

On a hot day a few summers ago, I took a trip to Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, with my dad. It is an enormous place, so even with the official map it took some time to find who we were looking for. Eventually we stopped the car and got out to front a large black slab, inscribed with two bars of music, so shiny that we could see our own reflections in it. This was the tomb of “Sir” Miles Davis (he was a member of the Knights of Malta), the man who had helped inspire my dad to devote himself to jazz bass.

Through my dad’s influence, I have been listening to jazz all my life (though not always intentionally), and I have come to know and love most of the great names. Some of them were right there in the cemetery: Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins. It was with this background that I approached Miles Davis’s autobiography, and I loved every minute of it.

The magic of this book is the skill with which Quincy Troupe has captured Miles’s voice. He is completely there, in all his profane glory (much to the chagrin of some readers). This, combined with an uncanny impersonation by Dion Graham in the audiobook, makes you feel like you are right in the room with him. But of course the person who ultimately deserves the credit is Miles himself, for agreeing to the project, and for being just so uncompromisingly blunt. His raw honesty is what makes this into a great autobiography.

And if you are in any way a jazz fan, this is a real feast. Miles knew close to everybody. From the very beginning of his career, he was thrown in with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, right at the center of the Bebop world. His stories of Charlie Parker alone—who seems to prefigure Miles in many ways—are worth the price of the book. After his early years, Miles becomes a bandleader, and helps to launch the careers of many other musical giants: Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock… In short, for decades Miles’s career was at the very center of jazz history. And more often than not, he was at the vanguard.

But this book is not just namedropping and a few memorable anecdotes. As I said, Miles the man really comes alive in these pages, and that means, most of all, his love for the music. Near the end of the book, he describes himself as having “musical demons,” and I think that is an apt description of the way that music ruled his life. It really seemed to open up the finest part of his nature: not only in pure musical expression, but also in his treatment of other musicians. Despite his mean reputation, he is generosity itself when discussing the accomplishments of his fellows, and does not stint on praise. This is what, I think, made him such an effective bandleader—he could really appreciate different sorts of musical gifts.

The dark side to an overwhelming obsession like this is that it leaves little in your life for other things. This is apparent in his often abysmal—indeed, abusive—treatment of the women in his life. This is perhaps even more apparent in his behavior as a father—or lack thereof, as his four children are barely mentioned at all in the book (he takes time to criticize two of his sons, though admits he had not been much of a father). Another major theme is drug abuse—an occupational hazard of touring musicians, I suppose—which ebbs and flows throughout his life. Indeed, his substance abuse and mistreatment of women often go hand in hand, as he depends on women either to enable his habit or to help him get clean. Suffice to say that this isn’t the autobiography of a saint.

The final impression is of a deeply restless man. He was never fully satisfied, and never content to sit on his laurels. This is what enabled him to stay musically innovative for so long, this constant searching. It is only near the end of his life that he seems to achieve a modicum of peace, and he accomplished this by turning to painting—another creative outlet that would make the musical demons quiet down. (I quite like his paintings, actually.)

As far as political opinions go, there really is only one Miles expresses, but he does so over and over: That white Americans are stealing black culture—copying styles of music and making millions off of them. Now, to me, this seems to be an obvious fact, as it has repeatedly happened throughout the course of history, most notoriously with Elvis Presley. So I cannot fault him for being resentful. I also think Miles is onto something when he says that black music is America’s one great contribution to world culture.

I picked up this book feeling curious, and put it down nearly obsessed with Miles. It is worth reading because he was one of the major musical forces of the last century, but also because it is simply a great autobiography by any standard. Miles was a complex, and contradictory person, and the book seems to capture his every vice and virtue, and even his living voice. I wish it were longer.

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Since Rick Steves has taken over my life lately—don’t ask—I decided to see how all his travelling has affected his politics. I was sort of afraid, given his background, that this book would be little more than a collection banalities and platitudes (“make friends with people from other cultures,” “don’t think your way is the only way,” and that sort of thing); but this book surprised me by being genuinely, well, political. Steves has definite opinions and a real message—with a few platitudes thrown in, too, of course.

It should be noted that, like almost everything Steves writes, this book is primarily for Americans. Many of his “lessons” will be obvious to people who live elsewhere. For example, he begins with a good chapter on the wars in former Yugoslavia. He paints a vivid picture of the how the Balkan countries are still scarred by the conflict—including a woman who still has a piece of shrapnel in her back. His point is simple: most Americans don’t know what it is like to be in a war, and seeing its effects up close might make us reconsider our proclivity to bomb and invade other countries.

Some of the content is to be expected by any thoughtful American who has travelled in Europe. It is hard not to think at least some aspects of life overseas are superior: public transport, social healthcare, bike-friendly cities, long vacations, family leave… the list goes on. I would add the lack of guns. After you spend some time in a country where you can be sure the vast majority of people—criminals included—do not have guns, the entire “debate” in the United States is immediately seen to be silly. When Americans argue that guns increase personal safety and ensure political freedom, the rest of the world simply laughs.

Steves is strongest on drug policy. He notes the many European countries which have substituted a public safety for a law enforcement model with drugs, and makes a strong case that it is both more humane and more effective than just locking people up. The travel writer is not just all talk, either, since he helped to promote and sponsor the bill to legalize marijuana in his home state of Washington. This is another excellent example of how travel can affect one’s politics, since the first time you travel to a country where marijuana is legal to consume, and notice that the sky isn’t falling, you wonder if it’s really worth imprisoning people for doing so.

The chapters on Iran and on the Holy Land were classic Rick Steves. They were both attempts to understand a conflict (between the US and Iran, and between Israel and Palestine) from a less partisan perspective. It is perhaps extremely naïve to think that by simply getting to know ordinary people “on the other side,” so to speak, we can reduce antagonism. As Steves himself makes clear, there are historical and structural forces at work, which push peoples into conflict. Nevertheless, I find it heartwarming that he so earnestly tries to focus on the ordinary humanity of these peoples, rather than on the political narratives. It is something we see all too little in conventional news.

The chapter on El Salvador was perhaps the most impressive. The United States’ interventions—often violent and undemocratic—in Latin American politics is something that most Americans are hardly aware of. It is an uncomfortable history to say the least, and only figures such as Noam Chomsky routinely talk about it. But Steves travelled to El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War, and several times after that, to see our foreign policy with his own eyes. He even had his travel diary printed and sent to members of Congress, in a bid (albeit an idealistic one) to stop American interference.

By the end, for someone who could easily have spent his life eating gelato for the camera, Steves is shown to be a man of strong convictions. Of course, the book is not perfect. Steves is prone to falling into stereotypes when he compares Europeans and Americans; and, not being an expert on anything he writes about, his analysis can be fairly superficial. And of course there is the trademark cheesy Rick Steves style—that is inevitable. But I think this book is valuable for voicing some opinions that are likely to be quite unpopular among many Americans, and for doing so in a way that is accessible and friendly. Maybe travel really is enlightening? Now, if we could only figure out how to fly without creating greenhouse gases…



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Review: The Dawn of Everything

Review: The Dawn of Everything

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on…

This is a difficult book to review. Not only is it long and extremely ambitious, it is also a beguiling mixture of strengths and weaknesses that are difficult to untangle. To begin with, this book is not, as its title promises, a history of humanity; and considering that the book only examines the past 10,000 years, it is also not about the dawn of humanity, much less everything. Really, this book has a far more focused purpose: to dismantle the standard narrative of how humans went from hunter-gatherers to urban-dwelling agriculturalists.

The standard narrative—as found in many popular books, from Steven Pinker to Jared Diamond to Yuval Noah Harari—goes something like this: In the beginning, humans were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, taking only what they needed from their environments. Only the most rudimentary technologies were employed; yet there was no war, no poverty, no oppression, no office jobs, no television commercials, no taxes, no bureaucracy, no robo-calls—in short, it was a simple time.

Now, depending on whether you follow Rousseau or Hobbes, you may differ as to whether you consider such a state of affairs a paradise or a slaughterhouse, and thus you may think that the switch to city life was a fall from grace or a stairway to heaven. But both camps agree that agriculture implies hierarchy, since the extra resources freed up some members of the group to do things other than just gather food; and once there was specialization, there had to be people to coordinate the specialists—in a word, leaders, middle-managers, and bureaucrats. Thus, the egalitarian band of hunter-gatherers eventually became the walled city controlled by an oligarchy, or the great empire ruled by a monarchy, or the insurance office run by the regional manager.

The simplest way to characterize this book is that it is a long refutation of this narrative. The authors do this by citing counter-example after counter-example from the archaeological record. This is where the book is most entertaining, as a great many of these archaeological anecdotes are both surprising and fascinating. By citing this evidence, the authors attempt to show, first, that hunter-gatherers did not all have the roaming lifestyle or the total lack of social structure that is often projected onto them. Elaborate burials and, most conspicuously, large stone monuments paint quite a different story of our ancestors.

The authors go on to show that the transition to farming was not sudden, nor did it immediately lead to dramatic social changes. Many communities, they aver, practiced a kind of limited farming for centuries before they became full-time agriculturalists. Furthermore, there is no necessary connection between the switch to city life and the rise of hierarchy, or the rise of empires and the invention of bureaucracy. In a nutshell, the authors contend that the main characteristics of the modern state—centralized leadership, a monopoly on violence, an administration to carry out laws, and so on—are a kind of constellation of social features, all of which have diverse and, often, quite unrelated origins, and which only came together to form the modern state gradually. To put the matter most succinctly, then, our world of nation states was not the inevitable outcome of a deterministic process.

Now, summarizing the book in the above manner is not exactly fair. The central thesis of the book is all too often in the background, and the reader is instead swimming through a sea of examples and ideas, struggling to spot land. This is both a vice and a virtue, since many of these observations, arguments, and examples—though leading off in a thousand directions from the central path—are quite intriguing. Still, it does often feel as though the authors are trying to take on the entire world, criticizing everything from the naming of epochs in archaeological literature to the academic treatment of feminist theories of prehistory. Interesting, yes, but a little distracting.

How to evaluate the book, then? As an attack on a commonly held myth of how humans went from agriculturalists to urbanites, it is successful. At the very least, the authors convince us that prehistory is an awful lot more complex and compelling than the simple, linear narratives we often project onto it. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering to what extent this myth predominates in the academic community. After all, the direct targets of the authors’ criticism are popular writers, whose specialty is not even prehistory (Pinker, Diamond, etc.). When academia is mentioned, the authors portray researchers as so hopelessly specialized, or so beholden to prejudices, as to be unable to see the big picture. Is that true? Regardless, I do think this book has a lot to offer the interested layperson, at least. It is a successful popularization of archaeology.

Yet it would be remiss of me not to mention the obvious political motivations of the authors. Both of them anarchists, this book can be read as one long justification of their beliefs. It is as if they are saying, “See? Humans don’t have to life in states, with huge bureaucracies and oppressive hierarchies!” But I do not think this was necessarily a good rhetorical strategy for promoting their philosophy. For one, when we are considering what we should do now, today, in a sense it does not matter whether humans lived in this or that place, at this or that time, in an approximately anarchist manner. History is not destiny. What is more, the societies the authors discuss are so totally unlike our own—in terms of scale, technology, and accumulated history—that it does not seem particularly relevant, anyway. (I am not, you understand, arguing against anarchism here, only the rather heavy-handed role their sympathies played in the writing of the book.)

While somewhat overbearing, disorganized, and not altogether convincing, as a corrective to many other popular accounts of human history, this book is valuable indeed.



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Review: Auschwitz, a New History

Review: Auschwitz, a New History

Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am having difficulty writing a review of this book without getting sucked down into a spiral of sputtering despair. So I will try to keep it short. There is plenty of information about Auschwitz available on the market; so what makes this book “new”? The simple answer are the interviews. Rees has personally spoken to both survivors and perpetrators, and weaves their individual stories into a larger narrative of the camp. In this way, the book becomes almost as much a psychological study as it is a history.

Judged purely as a history, this book is good but not superlative. Rees does an admirable job of covering the broad sweep of the camp’s history, including many unexpected (and usually quite disturbing) details. However, the book’s brevity precludes any detailed examination, and I was often left wanting to learn more about certain aspects of the camp. Curiously, Rees also includes many stories that are outside the purported purview of the book—such as the story of how the citizens of Britain’s Channel Islands reacted to the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews—stories that are usually quite compelling, but which seem difficult to justify including in a book of this size.

It is as an examination of inmates and perpetrators that the book is most valuable. One conclusion is that the common Nazi excuse—that they were merely acting under orders—does not hold water. Indeed, Rees shows that the National Socialist organization did not have to rely on violent coercion in order to motivate its members; the majority of men in leadership positions were genuine believers in the ideology. This certainly describes Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant. Another conclusion, even more unsettling, is that people can change—not just superficially, but fundamentally—when put under extreme conditions. As one survivor put it:

People asked me, ‘What did you learn?’ and I think I’m only sure of one thing—nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, ‘Where is North Street?’ and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves.

Yet, for me, the book’s defining character is Oskar Groening. He was a low-level SS officer whose job at the camp was to count the money of incoming (and usually executed) prisoners. He is memorable precisely because he is so ordinary: he worked at a bank before the war and at a glass factory afterwards, leading a quiet life. Indeed, he disliked the violence and bloodshed of the camp—not on moral grounds, but because it sickened him. Nevertheless, he worked diligently at Auschwitz for years, counting up foreign currencies with hardly a spot on his conscience. Hannah Arendt was undoubtedly wrong in applying the term, ‘the banality of evil,’ to Adolf Eichmann; but it fits Groening like a glove. For him, Auschwitz was just a job—and a rather cushy one at that.

Indeed, if there is one general takeaway from this history, it is that only the most strong-willed of individuals can rise above their moral climate. Most people (and I am thinking of perpetrators, not victims here) simply go along with prevailing attitudes. There were plenty of ideologically committed Nazis, such as Höss; and there were probably many Groenings, who just wanted a stable job. But there is no record of a single SS officer deserting or refusing to serve at Auschwitz on moral grounds. Indeed, the most disturbing thing of all is that, without exception, none of the former perpetrators interviewed by Rees feel much, if any, remorse. Groening was finally motivated to speak about his experiences, in his old age, not because of lingering guilt, but because he encountered some Holocaust deniers (he wanted to assure them that it was real).

Though it may seem off topic, Rees includes a lengthy section on the Danish resistance to Nazi persecution, which forms a sharp contrast to the many stories of shameful cooperation (for example, by the French, the Hungarians, the Channel Islanders). But he does so to make an important point: in all of these cases, individual behavior seems to be largely a consequence of cultural and social influences. Just as there is no evidence that every Nazi was a true sociopath, so is there no reason to believe everyone in Copenhagen was a born angel. Indeed, as Rees emphasizes again and again, we are talking about people who, in other circumstances, would have been quite ordinary. Yet this is very disturbing, since it seems to exonerate evil doers while depriving the virtuous of their dues. This is a paradox of human behavior: only individuals can be held morally accountable, and yet individuals so often go along with their group. So if the Danes are ordinary as individuals, what explains their extraordinarily praiseworthy actions in this circumstance?

I don’t have the answer. All I can say that few books will make you feel less optimistic about our species than this one. Yet it is important to learn about Auschwitz for that very reason.

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Review: The Phenomenology of Perception

Review: The Phenomenology of Perception

Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are few things more unpleasant than reading a book that you do not understand. One is writing a review of one. But as this is the life I have chosen, I must come to terms with the hardship. There are various strategies for this predicament, none perfect. You can admit that you do not understand (embarrassing), pretend that you understand (risky), or try even harder to understand (exhausting). I have found that the surest method is usually to mix all three, hopefully keeping the reader guessing as to which strategy was employed at any given moment.* On we go.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, along with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, formed the third wheel of the great existentialist tricycle that rolled through the twentieth century. While his two flashier comrades were busy plotting all sorts of revolutions in cafés (social, political, philosophical, aesthetic, sexual), Merleau-Ponty—more respectable, more sedate, and, dare I say, more bourgeois—was busy editing the magazine, Les Temps Modernes, shaping a solid academic career for himself, and enjoying the married life. The Phenomenology of Perception, his most famous contribution to philosophy, was just one of many triumphs in a parade of intellectual distinction.

Now, to cut to the chase, I did not enjoy this book very much, nor did I ultimately agree with much of what Merleau-Ponty (henceforth MP) had to say. But the man was brilliant and must be given his due.

The most influential parts of this book are concentrated in Part 1, on the body. It is telling that, before the twentieth century, this subject was almost entirely neglected by the philosophical tradition. For this alone, MP deserves quite a lot of credit. He also includes a chapter on sex, a subject that had hardly been touched since Plato advised that it is best avoid it entirely (the act, not the subject). Perhaps it helped that MP was married. (The list of unmarried philosophers is virtually identical to the syllabus in an introductory course.)

Another great virtue of MP is his engagement with psychological research. There is a long section devoted to the phenomenon of phantom limb, and an even longer one about a patient with brain damage known as Schneider. This latter case is quite fascinating, as Schneider’s injury profoundly impacted his ability to function, without either impeding his intellect or his motor function. His impediment consisted, rather, in his ability to sense his body, known as proprioception. That is, for Schneider, his body is rather like an object that he clumsily manipulates rather than an extension of his being. When asked to, say, draw a circle in the air, he must first wave his hand in the air, making shapes at random, until he can see what he is doing and, by trial and error, finally make the circle.

This is not an Oliver Sacks book, however; this (unfortunately) is a tome of French philosophy. So what is MP trying to say with all this? In a nutshell, his philosophy is Anti-Cartesian. By this I mean that he wants to dislodge the view that our subjective consciousness and the objective world stand irreconcilably opposed, totally distinct yet somehow in communication. MP prefers to see the subject and the world as two poles of a continuous field, with the body smack dab in the middle—both object and subject. This is in contrast to scientific materialism, which seeks to reduce the subjective to the objective, or to philosophic idealism, which seeks just the opposite.

Throughout the book, MP is at pains to contrast his own views with both the materialistic and the idealistic views, intending to sail a middle course that avoids the pitfalls of both. His solution is to turn reductionism on its head—that is, in characteristic phenomenological fashion, to regard basic human experience as fundamental and everything else as derivative. This basic human experience normally takes the form, in his view, of a gestalt—of a totality that transcends the combination of elements that compose it.

This is entirely within the tradition of Husserl and Heidegger (the two great influences on this book), in which logical arguments are discarded in favor of what an anthropologist might call a “thick description” of consciousness—that is, rather than trying to explain the world in the manner of a scientist, with theories about causal underpinnings, the phenomenologist operates more like an ethnologist writing a study of a particular village.

Advocates of this approach will argue that it is both logical and honest, since of course our experience is the only reality we have direct access to, and arguably all of our other theories and ideas are evolved from this primordial pool. And MP cannot, in fairness, be compared to the mystic or the monk who issues verdicts on the nature of reality based on his own private experience. As I tried to indicate before, MP’s philosophy is anti-Cartesian, by which I mean that he hardly even believes in “private” experience, much as Wittgenstein did not believe in private language. Experience is fundamentally worldly and only accidentally secret. In one of MP’s more poetic turns of phrase, he describes humanity as a “hollow” or a “fold” in being, “which can be made which can be unmade.” (This is in contrast to Hegel, who considered us a “hole,” and Sartre, who considered us a “nothingness.”)

This is reasonable enough. What irks me is that MP substitutes description for explanation. It could be perfectly valid, for example, to argue that depression—which responds to both medication and therapy, and which seems to have both physiological and psychological causes—is a non-reducible gestalt. And a phenomenologist as brilliant as MP may be able to pinpoint the exact structure of the depressed experience. Nevertheless, if we want to actually help a depressed patient, the irreducible richness of human experience will do little to avail us. We need either a therapy (inevitably based on some theory of the mind) or a drug (based on theories of biochemistry). In short, we need reductionism.

This is why much of MP’s philosophy rang hollow for me: it lacks the essential characteristic of an explanation, to reduce the complex to the simple. I must immediately grant, however, that reduction can easily be taken too far. As MP ably shows, for an awfully long time reductionist theories of human consciousness effectively ignored the uncomfortable fact that we have a body in addition to a mind. Similar criticisms can be lodged at any number of sociological or psychological theories of human behavior. Often these dogmas can blind us to the reality of the phenomena under study. Careful observers (and MP certainly qualifies) perform a great duty in puncturing these errors.

In short, my opinion of MP’s philosophy is rather mixed. But my opinion of his writing is decisive: I hated it. Whoever taught MP and Sartre how to write (someone at the École nórmale supérieure presumably) apparently did not believe in paragraphs. This book is one long block of text. I know this sounds petty, but for me the paragraph is the unit of writing, the fundamental organizing principle of prose. It tells us when one train of thought ends and another begins. At the very least, it provides a ledge where the mind can take a break from the relentless climb. Without at least two paragraphs per page, I feel lost and adrift. And it did not help that his prose is rather awkward and cumbersome:

The Gestalt of a circle is not its mathematical law but its physiognomy. The recognition of phenomena as an original order is a condemnation of empiricism as an explanation of order and reason in terms of a coming together of facts and natural accidents, but it leaves reason and order themselves with the character of facticity. If a universal constituting consciousness were possible, the opacity of fact would disappear.

The result is a book where some very sharp thinking is covered in dross and surrounded by masses of unfocused material. After Part 1, in which he makes impressive and original contributions, he spends the next two thirds of the book taking up every philosophical problem he can think of, fiddling with it, and then moving on, as if he thought the psychological material was not heavy enough. Thus it is a book that, while quite profound, is not nearly as profound as its author intended it to be. But if you shoot for the stars…

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*A fourth strategy is to write about something else entirely and hope nobody notices.

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Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

9-11 by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a book that is admittedly kind of a rush job (it consists of a series of interviews done within a few weeks of the attacks, at a time when we were still uncertain whether Bin Laden was responsible), it has held up pretty well. If you are familiar with Chomsky’s critiques of American foreign policy, there will not be very much new here. This book is, rather, an attempt to popularize his basic views; and this means contextualizing the terrorist attack of 9/11 within the history of America’s own violent attacks on other nations.

Ironically, though the tone and subject of this book are quite serious, I often found myself thinking of a comical exchange between Chomsky and the popular philosopher, Sam Harris. Harris presents himself as a paragon of reason; and as part of that, he attempted to have a sort of sober “exchange” of views with Chomsky. This quickly devolved into acrimony as Chomsky was not, shall we say, in a friendly mood. However, I do think that the exchange does, somehow, effectively pinpoint the ethical position that Chomsky is taking, and that so many people fail to understand.

The disagreement between the two centers around the 1998 U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, in Sudan. Chomsky uses this as an example of American state terrorism, and in this book asks the reader what would be the response if the situation was reversed, and Sudan had bombed a U.S. pharmaceutical plant. Harris’s defense—and I believe this is the standard argument in favor of U.S. intervention—is that our intentions were pure. We did not mean to kill anybody or deprive anybody of life-saving medication; we were just trying to stop terrorists from producing weapons.

Harris presents Chomsky with several thought experiments, making the (rather facile) point that intentions matter when making ethical judgments. If I try to save somebody and they die anyway, I am ethically superior to someone who killed somebody and succeeded. But Harris overlooks the (I think) quite obvious point that there is a grey area between altruistic and hostile intentions—that is, not caring one way or the other—which, ethically speaking, is often hardly better than being actively hostile.

This aptly describes the mentality behind the U.S. bombing of Al-Shifa. Consider: If we thought that weapons were being produced by terrorists in, say, Brussels, would we have sent cruise missiles to blow up the building? Obviously not, because the “collateral damage” would be deemed totally unacceptable. And yet, in the case of Sudan—a much poorer country, where people are far more dependent on a single factory for life-saving medicine—the decision was made quickly in favor of attack. Clearly, Sudanese lives were not deemed as important as Belgian ones would have been; and this shows an ethical stance of disregard.

A great deal of Chomsky’s critique on American foreign policy boils down to an attempt to get us to consider all lives as equally valuable, and all nations as equally sovereign. That is, to stop applying a double standard—one treatment for poor nations, another for rich ones. We are still very far from this stance. If we found out that the attack of 9/11 originated in, say, Ireland, what are the chances that we would have invaded the entire country? As Chomsky points out, the U.K. did not invade and bomb Boston, even though many of its citizens actively funded the IRA.

We can see this uncaring attitude of American foreign policy in the August 29 bombing that killed 10 in Kabul this year. None of those killed were terrorists, but six of them were children. Harris excuses “mistakes” like this by pointing to limitations in our intelligence and our weapons technology. With perfect knowledge and perfect weapons, we would never kill any civilians. This is like hunting for ducks in a crowded city park, and then blaming the shotgun when a person gets hit. Being ethical means acting within the limitations imposed by a situation, and considering the possible negative consequences of an action. No drone strike would have taken place in Brussels. But again, the possibility of killing innocent Afghanis is given very little weight.

It is clear that we are dealing with a serious sort of moral blindness, since it leads us to commit blunders as well as crimes. We even seem to think that everyone else will see past the accidental death and destruction, and give us credit for our irreproachably pure intentions. Thus, we are surprised when our long occupation of Afghanistan ends in a humiliating defeat, as we cannot understand why the population does not rally around our wonderful American values. But what speaks louder: the beautiful words on our lips, or the thousands of dead in our wake?



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Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I feel compelled to give this book top marks, not because it I loved every second of it, and not because I agreed with every one of Pollan’s many opinions, but simply because I cannot imagine a better book about food. For a book dedicated to such a seemingly banal subject as what to eat for dinner, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is remarkably ambitious—so ambitious, in fact, that I am inclined to view my dinner with even more reverence than I customarily do.

The titular dilemma refers to the difficulty omnivores have in choosing what to eat. A panda or a koala does not have to spare a moment’s thought in deciding that question. But for a human, capable of eating everything from fried beetles to foie gras, this choice can be dizzyingly open-ended. Traditionally, culture has cut through this infinitude of options by prescribing a typical diet. But in the United States—a place nearly bereft of culture—we have come to rely on government regulation, food science, and big industry to take the place of these traditional prescriptions. The problem, as our waistlines reveal, is that these make poor substitutes.

So Michael Pollan sets out to investigate the American diet, using four meals as focal points. The first is an order from McDonalds, which represents industrial food. Unsurprisingly, it is a depressing picture. Farmers grow acres upon acres of genetically modified corn, which is itself not fit for eating, but meant to be processed into any number of food products. Much of this corn (along with soybeans) is also fed to cattle, who are not really evolved to eat the stuff, but are fed it anyway because the corn makes them fatter, faster. One of the more memorable scenes of the book is Pollan’s visit to a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)—which is equal parts horrifying and disgusting.

The next meal is a dinner cooked with ingredients from Whole Foods, which represents industrial organic. Pollan takes the reader through the history of the organic movement, revealing how the designation “organic” has come to be defined by bureaucrats in ways that are not necessarily meaningful. The truth, he concludes, is that many of these products are only marginally better than their non-organic industrial counterparts. After that, we get to the centerpiece of the book: Pollan’s portrait of Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin. Salatin uses what you might call deliberately old-fashioned, small-scale techniques to create an ultra-sustainable farm—where cows, chickens, and pigs are used to graze, clean, and fertilize the soil. He sells his products directly to customers.

The final meal (after Pollan eats a chicken from Polyface) is one that he grows, gathers, or hunts himself. He shoots a wild pig, “hunts” some wild mushrooms, and gathers some vegetables from his garden to create what, for him, is the perfect meal. But why “perfect”? Because, Pollan says, this is the only meal he has ever had in which he knew exactly where everything came from, and what it took to get it to his table. In contrast to the meal from McDonalds, in other words—which is made out of who-knows-what from who-knows-where—the food is entirely transparent. This is Pollan’s ideal.

In the end, then, Pollan is advocating that we eat very much how Joel Salatin wants us to: old-fashioned, and small-scale. Perhaps it would be quickest to describe him as a modern-day Rousseauian—someone who thinks that the natural is always preferable to the artificial. He argues, for example, that scientists have not truly discovered what makes soil fertile or food nutritious, so traditional practices are possibly better guides. He thinks we should eat what we can get locally, and in-season, so that we can feel a connection to the land and understand where the food came from. He is, in a word, an anti-industrialist.

Now, that is quite an unfairly simplistic summary of Pollan’s positions. Even so, I cannot help but suspect that he is advocating something unworkable. I simply do not think that we could feed the world using farming practices like those in Polyface. And how could everyone in a major city eat locally? This is not to say that we cannot create more sustainable farms or attempt to reduce food transportation. But I don’t see this as a grand solution. Admittedly, Pollan was writing when the issue of global warming was not as omnipresent an issue as it is today. He has an entire chapter on the morality of meat-eating, for example, without mentioning what has become the primary reason for reducing meat consumption: greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be unfair to end this review without mentioning Pollans many virtues. For one, he is a great writer, able to both paint a scene and explain a concept with style. He is also intellectually broad. During the course of this book, he weaves a story together that includes chemistry, biology, government policy, history, philosophy, anthropology, and of course gastronomy. And he is thorough. He visits an industrial cornfield, buys a cow in a CAFO, spends a week at Polyface Farm, and learns to fire a rifle and identify wild mushrooms. I very much appreciated these eyewitness reports, as I often feel myself quite disconnected from my own personal food-chain.

In sum, if you want to think more deeply than ever before about what to have for dinner—so deeply that you accidentally start pondering the whole cosmos—then I can heartily recommend this book.



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Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find out when the time comes.


Along with millions of Americans, I was assigned to read The Sun Also Rises in high school English class. And along with (I presume) a good percentage of those millions, I did not finish reading it in time for the exam. But I do remember the teacher explaining that, for Hemingway, “the most important thing is grace under pressure.” At the time it struck me as very odd that this would be so important to someone. After all, aren’t there many other important qualities for a person to have? What about intelligence, education, kindness, wit?

My professor’s remark came back to me, with full force, as I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a novel about courage—not just grace under pressure, but grace in the face of mortal peril. This idea is developed almost into a full moral system, where instead of sinners and saints we have the brave and the cowardly. Everyone is measured by this metric. At first glance there is a lot to criticize in this worldview. Can’t you fight bravely for a horrible cause? Can’t you put your life on the line for something truly ugly? Indeed, the sorts of situations that Hemingway fixates on—hunting, bullfighting, war—are ethically dubious, at least in my opinion.

And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself thinking of Albert Camus, of all people. The perspective espoused in The Plague seemed, though obscurely, to be mirrored in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The characters inhabit an absurd universe, where traditional notions of good and evil have broken down, where death is unthinking and meaningless, and can come at any time. Both Robert Jordan and Dr. Bernard Rieux are fighting a battle that they are unlikely to win. But they continue to fight, mostly out of a simple sense of duty.

Of course, Hemingway’s hero is fighting other people, whereas Camus’s had to face a faceless disease. What sets Robert Jordan apart from his enemy—at least in Hemingway’s eyes—is that he kills out of necessity, in order to ultimately save others, whereas the fascists kill because they think they have a right to decide who is worthy to live. Indeed, perhaps you can even say that, for Hemingway, cowardice and fascism come from the same impulse: the denial of death—or, rather, the denial of our powerless in the face of death. Cowards run because they think they can exempt themselves from the basic condition of life. It is a form of inauthentic egotism. And fascists kill for the same reason: they think that they can decide who lives and dies, rather than accepting that who lives and dies is not really up to anyone.

The only authentic way to live, for Hemingway and for Camus, is in the direct face of death, with no illusions. This is why the bullfighter is such a central symbol for Hemingway: it is the most literal image of a man facing his own death. Thus, rather than simply a novel about a mission to destroy a bridge, this book becomes a kind of meditation on how a small band of men and women behave when they know they might have only a few days to live. In some places, Hemingway even sounds downright Buddhistic in his ecstatic embrace of the ‘now’ as the only time we ever truly have.

What is not exactly Buddhistic is the way that loves comes into the story. Love, for Hemingway, is a kind of shorthand for the sweetness of life. Or perhaps it would be better to say that love is the ultimate expression of life’s sweetness. And in an absurd universe, the joys of food, of friendship, and yes, of sex, are the only real values we have. To be truly brave, then, means fully embracing the sweetness of life, since it is only by understanding how precious life is that one can understand how much we have to lose. Likewise, one can only love authentically in the face of death, as it is life’s inevitable end that makes it so sweet.

Clearly, I have managed to read a lot into what is, in truth, a fairly straightforward war novel. Most readers will likely not find it as profound. Even without the philosophy, however, I enjoyed it quite a bit as a story of the Spanish Civil War, especially as I have spent a lot of time in the Madrid sierra myself. (As a side note, I am fairly sure that there aren’t many caves up in those mountains. At least not deep ones.)

But of course, the book isn’t perfect. The love story, for example, is lessened by Hemingway’s tendency to make his women absolutely subordinate to his men. This tendency does not extend to (in his words) “old” and “ugly” women, however, as the character of Pilar is quite compelling. As for the love story itself, I have trouble deciding whether Hemingway is touching or simply sappy. At least the tender emotions form a pleasant contrast with the harsh world of war.

An odd decision was rendering the Spanish dialogue as a kind of literal translation into English. When a character says “menos mal,” for example, it is translated (nonsensically) as “less bad,” when it really means something more like “thank goodness.” I had mixed feelings about this, since sometimes I did feel like I could hear the Spanish, but at other times it just was distracting. I particularly didn’t like his use of “you” and “thou” to convey the difference in the Spanish “usted” and “.” Thou and just have such vastly different emotional registers. Also, to be pedantic for a moment, I noticed that Hemingway would sometimes incorrectly use “thee” in his dialogue for the subject (as in, “Thee blew up a bridge”), when it is really an object pronoun (as in, “I blew thee up”).

In the end, however, this book, like all of Hemingway’s, is dominated by his distinctive style. If you enjoy that style, you will enjoy the book; and if not, not. And all the absurdist philosophy in the world won’t change that.



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Review: Contact

Review: Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A couple of weeks ago, on June 25, the Pentagon did something rather unusual: It released a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a subject that has long been associated with alien spacecraft. This was the culmination of the public and political interest piqued by the 2017 release of videos, taken by the United States Navy, of strange flying objects. The content of these videos was not especially groundbreaking—indeed, like all the amateur UFO videos before them, they feature grainy blobs—but their source was. It is one thing when the neighborhood loony says they were abducted; it is another when the most powerful military on the planet admits they cannot identify something in their airspace.

Opinions will differ as to whether report is interesting or boring. Of the 144 reported sightings (quite a lot), 143 remain unexplained. The investigators conclude, tentatively, that these objects are real (i.e. not optical illusions or sensory errors, since they were picked up on many different sorts of sensors, not to mention seen by eyewitnesses), but do not rule out technological malfunction in accounting for the remarkable flight patterns recorded in some instances. Of course, no rational person could conclude that any of this constituted evidence of a visitation by aliens, or even their drones. Still, it is difficult to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the sightings, for example, without one’s curiosity getting piqued. Even Obama seems interested.

In this spirit, I picked up Carl Sagan’s Contact, a physicist’s imagined version of how first contact with an alien species would play out. The book functions on two levels: as a novel and as a thought experiment. Considering that Sagan was no novelist, it is easy to imagine Contact being quite deficient as a work of fiction. Surprisingly, however, the story pulls its own weight. Yes, there is too much exposition and not enough characterization; and yes, the style is more akin to a work of nonfiction than of fiction. But the imaginative plot pulls the reader into the story quite effectively, making the book a pleasurable read.

As a thought experiment, the book is even more compelling. From the details of the message, to its decryption, to the assembly of the machine, to the social and political ramifications of the discovery alien life, Sagan has taken great pains to imagine how his scenario might realistically play out. Unlike so much science fiction, this book does not insult the reader’s intelligence by asking her to suspend disbelief or accept bizarre premises. And as the book is set in the (then) near-future, it is also fun to compare Sagan’s predictions with how events actually turned out. We have not, for example, made as much progress with commercial space flight as he thought we would. And our space billionaires are not nearly so enlightened as Sagan anticipated.

The main theme of the book is the conflict between religion and science: faith vs. reason. I cannot say that Sagan was especially insightful here, as he takes the fairly standard view that science is superior because it is based on evidence. What is more, if I am not mistaken, this issue has lost some of its teeth within the last few years. Nowadays, American conservatives are more concerned with preventing children from learning about racism than about evolution. And as the pandemic revealed, cultural resistance to science is just as likely, if not more so, to come from secular conspiracy theories, social resentment, or political affiliation as from traditional religions.

Above all, this is an immensely optimistic book. Sagan describes all of humanity coming together when faced with intelligent alien life, leading to the triumph of the better angels of our nature. I greatly admire Sagan for this hopefulness; it is one of his best qualities. Personally, though, I doubt that a message from outer space would prompt humanity to come together in the way he describes. A common threat—in the form of a virus—was not even enough to make Republicans and Democrats work together, much less Americans and Russians. At this point, I think even unambiguous contact from an alien race could be absorbed into our polarized politics.

As a last note (and warning, spoiler ahead), though interesting, I did not exactly follow Sagan’s idea of there being a message in π. If you were searching an unlimited string of random numbers—using arithmetic in multiple bases—then is it not inevitable to find a long string of, say, 0s and 1s? And even if a particular string is improbable, how could you rule out a statistical fluke? I suppose a message of sufficient complexity and length, with significant content (say, blueprints to make a Ford Model T), would be difficult to disbelieve. But being able to arrange a circle using 1s and 0s in base-11 arithmetic does not strike me as a clincher.

This is just a quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. Like Sagan’s series, Cosmos, Contact left me full of hope for the human future, and full of wonder for the universe. He was a treasure of a man.
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Sagan imagines billionaires living in luxurious space hotels, or chateaus. But as I learned from a recent story in the news, even now, astronauts in space do not even clean their clothes. They wear them until the stink becomes unbearable, and then throw them away. So it is not exactly opulence above the clouds.



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Review: A Splendid Exchange

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Five or six years ago, a Christmas mix-up resulted in my brother receiving two copies of this book. Not knowing what to do with one, he simply gave it to me. In so doing, however, he disobeyed Adam Smith’s doctrine that humanity has a natural instinct to truck and barter. Clearly, a rational animal would have used it to exchange for something he himself lacked, like cinnamon or frankincense or some textiles. What a wasted opportunity.

This book is part history of, and part homage to, trade. Four hundred pages is not nearly enough space to give such an expansive topic exhaustive coverage. But Bernstein does manage to pack quite a lot of interesting tidbits into his narrative. What most struck me was how central trade has been to human history. It has caused wars of invasion, spurred on colonialism, motivated the great journeys of “discovery,” helped to spread epidemic diseases, and stimulated newer forms of economic organization. In short, the urge to turn a profit has helped to join together every corner of the world—leading to many wonderful things and quite a few atrocities, too.

After reviewing this thrilling history, Bernstein ends by examining the old conflict between free trade and protectionism—or, more concretely, low tariffs or high tariffs. It is an interesting question. Low tariffs provide a small but tangible benefit to the general populace in the form of cheaper goods; but they do so at the expense of workers displaced by competition from abroad (and vice versa with high tariffs). So what is more important, knocking off a few cents from something bought by millions or allowing a few thousand people to keep their job? The traditional answer is that the government should keep tariffs low, and “bribe” those displaced with additional support in the form of welfare and job retraining. But in practice most workers are left to fend for themselves, which can eventually create political instability if resentment grows too widespread.

Another question has to do with the development of an economy. High tariffs can be used to shield domestic industries from foreign competition, allowing them to grow to the point that they can effectively compete. But high tariffs can also preserve inefficient companies and obsolete technologies, putting a country at a long-term disadvantage. Orthodox economic logic always favors free trade, but the evidence is mixed. According to Bernstein, several studies actually found a positive correlation between high tariffs and economic growth in the 19th century. Still, Bernstein comes down in favor of free trade, not because it offers an economic miracle (he says its benefits are overstated), but because it helps to foster bonds between potential enemies. But, if you ask me, when a nation is dependent on another (and potentially weaker) country for its resources, this can easily become a powerful source of conflict.

Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to disobey Adam Smith myself and donate this book to a library.



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