Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting black communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has turned what could have been a routine re-publication of old essays into a genuine work of art.

The bulk of this book consists of eight essays, all published in The Atlantic, one per year of the Obama presidency. But Coates frames each one with a kind of autobiographical sketch of his life leading up to its writing. The result is, among other things, a surprisingly writerly book—and by that I mean a book written about writing—a kind of Bildungsroman of his literary life. Even on that narrow basis, alone, this book is absorbing, as it shows the struggles of a young writer to hone his craft and find his voice. And that voice is remarkable.

But this book is far more than that. Though the essays tackle diverse topics—Bill Cosby, the Civil War, Michelle Obama, mass incarceration—they successfully build upon one another into a single argument. The kernel of this argument is expressed in the finest and most famous essay in this collection, “The Case for Reparations”: namely, that America must reckon with its racist past honestly and directly if we are ever to overcome white supremacy. Much of the other essays are dedicated to criticizing two principal rivals to this strategy: Respectability Politics, and Class-Based Politics.

First, Respectability Politics. This is the notion—popular at least since the time of Booker T. Washington—that if African Americans work hard, strive for an education, and adhere to middle-class norms, then racism will disappear. Though sympathetic to the notion of black self-reliance, Coates is basically critical of this strategy—first, because he believes it has not and will never work; and second, because it is deeply unjust to ask a disenfranchised people to earn their own enfranchisement.

His portraits of the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—are fascinating for Coates’s ambivalence towards their use of respectability politics. Coates seems nearly in awe of the Obamas’ ability to be simultaneously black and American, and especially of Barack Obama’s power to communicate with equal confidence to the black and white communities. And he is very sympathetic to the plight of a black president, since, as Coates argues, Obama’s ability to take a strong stance regarding race was heavily constrained by white backlash. Coates is, however, consistently critical of Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on hard work and personal responsibility (such as his many lectures about black fatherhood), rather than the historical crimes perpetrated against the black community.

Coates’s other target is the left-wing strategy of substituting class for race—that we ought to help the poor and the working class generally, and in so doing we will disproportionately benefit African Americans. The selling point of this strategy is that, by focusing on shared economic hardships, the left will be able to build a broader coalition without inflaming racial tensions. But Coates is critical of this approach as well. For one, he thinks that racial tension runs far more deeply than class tension, so that this strategy is unlikely to work. What is more, for Coates, this is a kind of evasion—an attempt to sidestep the fundamental problem—and therefore cannot rectify the crime of racism.

The picture that emerges from Coates’s book is rather bleak. If the situation cannot be improved through black advancement or through general economic aid, then what can be done? The only policy recommendation Coates puts forward is Reparations—money distributed to the black community, as a way of compensating for the many ways it has been exploited and disenfranchised. But if I understand Coates correctly, it is not that he believes this money itself would totally solve the problem; it is that such a program would force us to confront the problem of racism head-on, and to collectively own up to the truth of the matter. Virtually nobody—Coates included—thinks that such a program, or such a reckoning, will happen anytime soon, which leaves us in an uncomfortably hopeless situation.

The easy criticism to make of Coates is that his worldview is simplistic, as he insists on reducing all of America’s sins to anti-black racism. But I do not think that this is quite fair. Coates does not deny that, say, economic inequality or sexism are problems; indeed, he notes that these sorts of problems all feed into one another. Furthermore, Coates reminds us that racism is rarely as simple as a rude remark or an insult; rather, it is as complex, diffuse, and widespread as an endemic disease. Coates’s essential point, then, is that racism runs far more deeply and strongly in American life than we are ready to acknowledge—mainly, because persistent racism undermines most of our comfortable narratives or even our policy ideas, not to mention our self-image.

For a brief moment, after Obama’s election, we dreamed of a post-racial America. But, as Coates shows, in the end, Obama’s presidency illustrated our limitations as much as our progress. This was apparent in the sharp drop in Obama’s approval ratings after he criticized a police officer for arresting a black college professor outside of his own house. This was shown, more dramatically, in the persistent rumors that Obama was a Muslim, and of course in Trump’s bigoted birtherism campaign. And this was shown, most starkly, by the fact that Barack Obama—a black man entirely free of scandals, of sterling qualifications, fierce intelligence, and remarkable rhetorical gifts —was followed by Donald Trump—a white man with no experience, thoughtless speech, infinite scandals, and who is quite palpably racist.

As so many people have noted, it is impossible to imagine a black man with Trump’s resumé of scandals, lack of experience, or blunt speaking style approaching the presidency. Even if we focus on one of Trump’s most minor scandals, such as his posing with Goya products after the CEO praised Trump’s leadership, we can see the difference. Imagine the endless fury that Obama would have faced—and not only from the Republican Party—had he endorsed a supporter’s product from the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office! Indeed, as Coates notes, Trump’s ascension is the ultimate rebuke to Respectability Politics: “Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive—work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.”

Whether or not Obama’s optimism or Coates’s pessimism will be borne out by the country’s future, I do think that Coates makes an essential point: that racism is deeply rooted in the country, and will not simply disappear as African Americans become less impoverished or more ‘respectable.’ Communities across America remain starkly segregated; incarceration rates are high and disproportional; the income, unemployment, and wealth gaps are deep and persistent; and we can see the evidence of all of these structural inequalities in the elevated mortality suffered by the black community during this pandemic. The intractability of this problem is bleak to contemplate, but an important one to grapple with. And it helps that this message is delivered in some of the finest prose by any contemporary writer.



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Don Bigote: Chapter 9

Don Bigote: Chapter 9

The story so far:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God
  6. Don and Dan Find Themselves
  7. Don and Dan Find Happiness
  8. The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part I

The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part II

“Want a story?” some lady says. “I got one for you.”

To recap, we’re sitting in a circle in a kind of hostel for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, in northern Spain. But instead of continuing on the pilgrimage—which, to be honest, pretty much sucked entirely, since it was just a bunch of walking—we are inside, swapping stories to pass the time. This is because of this new crazy virus, called cobid or something, that is apparently like a super nasty flu that also kills you. So, yeah, that’s the predicament.

“Go ahead, my fellow traveler,” Bigote says. “We have nothing but time in our present circumstances.”

She takes a breath.


The Landlady’s Tale

The big problem with today’s world is that people think you owe them something. Like, they don’t understand, money is money, and nice don’t pay no bills. Let me tell you about my life, then. My dad worked for his money. He worked in a sneaker factory when I was young, so I didn’t have a ton of money growing up. Ok? Got that? I was no rich baby. But my dad, he had initiative.

For years, he stayed extra hours at the factory, doing experiments with materials and so on, until he figured out how to improve the sneakers. But he was nobody’s fool, and he went and got his idea patented before he showed it to the higher ups. They saw what he had, and they couldn’t say no. Next thing we knew, we had money pouring out our eyeballs, we was so damn rich. We moved from a little apartment to a big old house with a swimming pool. 

I’m telling you this because I want you to know where I was coming from. I saw what my dad did, and I wanted to do the same thing, to make my own money using my own brains. So what did I do? I’ll tell you.

When I was twenty, my dad gave me a small loan of a million dollars, and told me to invest it. At first, you know, I wanted to just have a big party and buy a nice car. But I started thinking in the long-term. How could I use this money to buy something that would make me even more money?

Then, I started thinking about what our life was like before my dad made it big, when he was just a normal worker. Back then, we was always worried about making rent. In fact, one time we didn’t make rent, and the landlord came down and started yelling at my dad, cursing and screaming, and my dad didn’t even say one word back. And that left an impression on me, since my dad normally didn’t take shit from nobody. I thought, That man must be really powerful to make my dad act that way. 

So then I thought, Why don’t I buy myself some apartments and rent them out? If you know where to look—in the poorer part of town, I mean—you can snatch up some property cheap. I got three one-family units to start with, and put them on the market. It was crazy! I didn’t even have to wait an hour. There were so many desperate people out there looking for an apartment. It was kind of, like, overwhelming, so I just tried to choose some people who seemed nice.

At first everything was hunky dory. The money was coming in every month, and I felt like a queen. But then, a few months in, the problems started. One family had some kind of domestic violence, and the police got involved. Another family kept complaining the sink was clogged. A third family said the heat wouldn’t turn on. Problems, problems, problems, and of course the rent started to come later and later. I started to worry: Did I do something really stupid? Because now, I felt like I was at the mercy of these people. They could just trash the place and refuse to pay me, and I’d lose my investment.

Then a friend of mine recommended that I go to this kind of landlord seminar. It opened my eyes to this new business. The presenter was like, “Hey, this is your property. This is your money. It’s all yours. You don’t owe anyone, anything. And, remember, the law is on your side. You can kick people out whenever you want.”

From that day on, business was booming. If a tenant complained, I would just say, hey pay me and shut up, or leave. That’s really what it came down to. I didn’t want to be a one-woman charity. It wasn’t my job or my business to be going around providing people with free housing. They pay or they get lost. End of story. Rent too late, I call the sheriff and he comes in there with a team of movers, and everything gets left out on the curb. Bye bye. Honestly, demand is so high for my places that I don’t even need to worry about loyalty. I don’t even need to take too much care of the apartments, since if the tenants call a government inspector the first thing that happens is a big fat eviction for them.

As you can imagine, business was really booming. I acquired dozens of properties, and each one was just another income stream. Best of all was when I got someone receiving housing aid, since that just was a check straight from the government into my bank account. I felt like every time I closed my eyes I could hear the clink, clink, clink of coins dropping into the piggy bank. In fact, I was making so much money that I started to travel like crazy, and hired an assistant to take care of most of the work. This was the life!

But a few months ago I ran into some trouble. You see, like any sensible landlord—and, I guarantee it, this is just what everyone does—I divided my properties into white and non-white. Like, basically if a black potential tenant came to us, they would see some apartments and not others, and likewise with a white one. It’s just basic economics. You start allowing black tenants in a white neighborhood, you got all sorts of problems. The neighbors are complaining. People call the cops. And you might even start scaring white folks away, which means your property is worth less. No, no, that’s not a good idea. And obviously most white people don’t want to live in the black neighborhoods.

But one day, I got notified that I was being sued. What? Apparently, the old black lady I had evicted the week before had a grown-up lawyer son, who said that it was discrimination. Excuse me? Before I know it, the court had me handing over all my records. Then a judge rules that I was guilty of housing discrimination. Oh yeah, like it’s my fault there are white and black neighborhoods. I had to pay a big fat fine and got suspended from business for six months. So, I decided I’d come to Spain to pass the time, and here I am.


“What an interesting story!” Franck says. “I had no idea that housing was paid for with money in this land. In my kingdom, all the subjects are simply provided with a place to live.”

“Yes, my royal prince,” professor Allesprechen says. “It seems that, in many parts of the world, people believe in a scientific law called Supply and Demand, which they take to be as powerful as the physical laws of motion. And, indeed, all society must operate on this basis, even food and medical care.”

“Did someone say medical care?” a younger guy says. “Because that’s what my story is all about.”


The Patient’s Tale

So, the long and short of it is that I came to Spain to avoid medical debt. But ironically, before all this, I was studying to become a doctor.

I don’t say this to boast, but I’m the first person in my family to go to college. Both my parents are immigrants. They owned a restaurant and worked super hard, all day long, seven days a week. Like most parents, I guess, they wanted me to have a different kind of life, so they were super strict about studying. No way I was going to work in a restaurant like them. I absolutely had to go to college. And, of course, I couldn’t study sociology or English literature or anything like that. I had to do pre-med. Luckily for me, I found that I really liked pre-med, so we didn’t have to have any dramatic, rebellious confrontations.

As you may know, in pre-med you need to take a whole bunch of science classes—physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, and lots of bio classes. I also had to take a class on vertebrate anatomy, and this class had a lab component where we had to do dissections. I didn’t really like it, to be honest. So squishy and gross, and the smell is awful. But, anyways, we did a rat, a frog, a snake, a bat, and finally we had to do a pig. I was making the primary incision in its abdomen when my hand slipped and, somehow, I gave my other hand a bad, bad cut.

They took me to the university hospital and stitched and bandaged me up. Luckily, I was covered under the university’s standard health insurance, so this didn’t set me back too much. But, after a follow-up exam and a few X-rays, the doctor told me I had cut myself so deeply that my ligaments had been damaged. Without surgery, they wouldn’t heal properly, and I would lose mobility in my hand forever. Obviously, this isn’t good, especially since I want to be a surgeon! But the surgery was way, way too expensive, even with my insurance. And this is not to mention the physical therapy I would need.

When you’re in this kind of situation, the only thing to do is beg. I didn’t tell my parents, since they are really proud people. I made a GoFundMe and asked for $10,000 for the surgery, without much hope I’d make it. But my classmates, they were amazing. As soon as they saw it, they shared my page everywhere, and got the whole school involved. In just a month I was over my goal. You can imagine I was feeling pretty great.

But you can also imagine how bad I felt when I found out that the total cost of my surgery was wayyyyy more than $10,000. It was like hitting rock bottom. My whole life seemed like it was over. And now I had the added guilt of having taken all that money from all those people. I was scrolling around on social media, just trying to distract myself from how shitty the situation was, when I stumbled on an article about the difference in prices for medicines and medical procedures between the US and other countries. In fact, in that article it used the kind of surgery I needed as an example. They said it was four times cheaper in Spain. I did some more research, and that was right! In fact, the surgery was so much cheaper that I even had enough money for airfare—even with no insurance!

So, next thing I knew, I was boarding a plane to Madrid. They fixed up my hand, good as new. Best of all, I had some extra time and money to enjoy Spain, so I decided to go on this pilgrimage. But, I gotta say, this whole experience has really soured me on the medical profession in America. I kept thinking: Shouldn’t I be doing this to help people? In the States we just milk people for everything they have. Other countries don’t do what we do. I’m really not sure I’d enjoy being a part of something like that. Unfortunately, by the time I graduate I’m gonna have so much student debt that I basically need to do something that pays well, at least for a while. I have to think about it.


“Now, my dear Prince,” Bigote says, turning to the prince. “You must not take away the wrong message from this story. You see, the greatness of Western society is based on the inalienable rights of property. That means, of course, that everything has its price, and all debts must be paid.”

“Did someone say debts?” a bald, middle-aged man said. “Because I got something to say about that.


The Debt Collector’s Tale

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that’s never been more true than in my life. You see, I’ve lived the American Dream: I started from the bottom and I’ve used my own grit and ingenuity to make a comfortable life for myself. America is truly the land of opportunity.

Let me give you my backstory. I had one of those tough childhoods. Father walked out, mom was poor, moving around from place to place, dropping out of school at 16. Truth be told, if it weren’t for my cousin, I probably would have ended up like all my old friends—getting into drugs, crime, trouble with the law, that sort of thing.

But one day, my cousin pulls up to our apartment and starts telling me about this job. It’s easy, he says. It’s basically just like being a mover. You just got to lift some furniture. And the pay was good—much better than fast food. I showed up the next morning and we got right to work. Turns out, the job was being a mover—a mover outer. You see, this moving company did most of its business with the sheriff, helping them to evict clients.

It would work something like this. The sheriff would go up to the door first, hand on his pistol, and deal with the tenant. Sometimes they would yell and complain and make a big scene, but most of the time they would just say, ‘Ok,’ and let us in. 

We saw all sorts of places this way. Sometimes the apartment would be all nice and organized, and the tenant would be running around, trying to make sure we carried everything correctly. Most often, though, the place would be a dump, with clothes and things everywhere. And sometimes it would be so disgusting—with overflowing toilets, trash everywhere, roaches and rats—that we’d just leave most of the junk in for the landlord to deal with.

All in all, it was a pretty cushy job, since mostly we didn’t even have to take the stuff into the truck. We’d just leave it on the curb for the tenant to deal with. And, honestly, this was probably the better option for these tenants, since if they let us take it to the warehouse, they’d have to pay some big fee to get it back—which of course meant they wouldn’t get it back. After stuff sat in the warehouse for a year, it became fair game for us—take it or trash it. I got some neat stuff that way.

I did this for a few years, until I decided that I wanted a more serious job, one that paid a little better. After looking around, and sending out a few applications, I got a job as a repo man. This meant repossessing cars once people fell behind on their payments. You know, even if you’re late by one day, your car can be taken away? And that happens a lot, especially when your business doesn’t do any credit score checks or anything like that before granting a loan. At least half the people slip up, so it’s just loan, repo, loan, repo. You make a lot of money that way. 

Good thing about this was I was paid on commission, so I made a lot more money. But the bad news was that I had to deal with the client directly. This was the tough part. I’d have to go find them and tell them I was taking their vehicle back. And you got to understand, even this was a courtesy, since technically I didn’t even have to do that. And, of course, I’m willing to be a little reasonable. I’ll drop them off at home before I take the car off. But I don’t give any kind of extensions. 

Well, I’ve learned that people react a few different ways. For some people, this isn’t their first repossession, so they are just sort of quiet and resigned, they don’t fight too much. Then there are the nice ones, who act all sweet and friendly, hoping that this will somehow help. More annoying are the negotiators, who try to buy time, to ask for just a day or a few hours, to run some kind of errand. That doesn’t get them anywhere. My least favorite are the cryers, who break down and start to beg. That’s just messy. But, inevitably, the fighters give you the most trouble. They scream, argue, make a big fuss. A few of them even get in their car and drive off somewhere.

This was the most interesting part of the job, since it could be a little bit of a challenge to find them. I’d have to develop all these strategies. For example, I would try to find the phone number of someone in his family or a friend, and then I’d pretend to be, like, an acquaintance, and I’d ask about him. Or sometimes I’d just sit and wait outside his job or apartment. Or maybe I’d drive around his neighborhood. The key was to find a moment when the car was left unattended. Then, I’d walk up real quick, and I’d use my duplicate key to get in and drive it back. Easy peasy.

Once I got good at the repo business, I started making really nice money. I even got married, settled down, and got a mortgage. But by the time I hit 40, I was feeling a little burnt out. It was just the same thing, day after day. I started looking for the next step. I had always wanted to own my business, be my own boss. But what kind of business? After some thinking, I realized that being a repo man is the perfect training for debt collection. Best of all, you don’t need a ton of money to get into the collection business.

The biggest investment is to buy the debt itself. Now, this isn’t as expensive as you might think. It’s not like you have to pay the full amount of the debt to acquire it. There’s a whole market for old debts, lots of it selling for just pennies on the dollar. This means you can buy a lot of it, and even if you don’t manage to collect it all, you’ll still make a good profit. A lot of this is old medical debt, credit card debt, student loans, payday loans.

The debt collection business is complicated, you see. There are all sorts of ways to get the money back—garnishing wages, or your income tax refund, or you can just be sued. That’s for the really legitimate debt, when the government gets involved. But our business is to collect on really old debt, or zombie debt, which is sort of in this legal no-man’s land where nobody is really sure if you have to pay it or not. It’s one of those things where the government won’t go after you for the debt, but they also won’t go after me if I collect on the debt. Got it?

You may not believe me, but debt collection is a real art. I’m serious. It takes a lot of psychological subtlety. You’ve really got to learn how to manipulate people’s emotions, to give them the right mixture of hope and fear, to confuse them or stress them out. That’s the nature of the business. The first step is always a simple call. For this, it’s important to assume the identity of the original loaner. So, for example, if it’s for a credit card, you’ve got to be the bank. The first call, you have to be really professional, remind them of the debt, and then offer a few repayment options.

Sometimes, that’s enough, especially if it’s not a lot of money. They say, “Ok, yes sir,” and that’s that. You have income. But of course most people aren’t so easy. Some people, you’ve got to scare them. You’ve got to play up all the terrible consequences—credit score, eviction, garnishing wages, and so on. Doesn’t matter if any of it is based on reality, you’ve just got to take a high moral tone, talk about responsibility and consequences, and then offer them a way out—which means, of course, paying you. That’s the fear method.

But that doesn’t always work, either. Specifically, you get some people who get mad instead of afraid. They wanna fight you. Now, you can get into a shouting match with them over the phone, but that’s not really productive. Basically, you’ve got to soften them up somehow, find a weak spot. Usually this means going after other people in their life. So maybe you call someone in their family and explain that you’re concerned about So-and-so, since they’re in debt and not responding. Better still, you call their boss. That usually works.

This is normally enough. But some people are real stubborn. They need more than routine intimidation. For them, what you do is you make your presence felt. This is pretty easy. Find out where they live, where they work, where they like to hang out, and just trail them. Park the car in an obvious spot outside their place of work, for example, and make yourself known. If they come up to confront you, just sit there and let them yell through the windows. Of course, we reserve this treatment for the really big prizes, when we think we have a chance at a serious payday. I’d be lying if I said we got everyone.

As you can imagine, my business did quite well. We expanded into several municipalities, and I personally train all of my debt collection agents. Naturally, we get lots of complaints. The government has even fined us a few times, which is just the nature of the business. We pay the fines and move on. After all, our profit margins are so big we can afford it. We are basically making money for nothing—buying some old bills and paying for a few working telephones.

So, that’s my story: How a man born poor pulled himself up by his bootstraps. That’s why I can now afford a European vacation.


“Wow, it seems that this business of ‘debt’ is very serious,” prince Franck says. “I wonder how we have gotten along so well in Geheimnissland for so long without any money, debt, or payments!”

“Indeed, my prince,” Allesprechen. “It is a strange custom. What is more, I wonder at this tale of debt collection. According to the economics textbooks I have read, sometimes debtors are allowed to default and the lender must lose money, is that not so?”

“Maybe that’s what it says in the textbooks,” a suavely-dressed, older man says. “But you have to remember who makes the laws—lenders. How should I know? I am a lawmaker myself.”


The Lobbyist’s Tale

When I was in high school, we had a class in American Civics and Gov. It was a revelation for me. For the first time, I was really able to appreciate the beauty of our constitution, and the genius of our founding fathers. Everything we thought through: the checks and balances, the separation of powers, the protection of individual liberties—in short, a set of institutions that allowed for governing based on consensus and shared values, which was simultaneously effective, democratic, and individualistic.

By the end of the year, I was so inspired that I knew I had to make this my life. So I studied political science in college. All my free time was spent pursuing my goal. I volunteered for campaigns, I built up a network, and eventually I ran for office on my own. One thing led to another—local office, state legislator—until I became one a United States senator at the youngest possible age: 30. It was a dream come true.

But, as they say, my sweet prize turned to ashes in my mouth. By the end of my first year on the job, I was miserable. You see, being a politician is nothing like you think it is. I imagined I would be busily making laws to improve the country: developing infrastructure, setting rules, designing foreign policy, and looking out for the freedoms of the common man. My head was full of all these principles and ideas that I had been carrying around since high school, and yet my job was a lot more like being a prostitute than a statesman.

It’s no exaggeration to say that politics is fundamentally about money and influence. We rely on voluntary donations every time we have a campaign, and campaigning is expensive. All year long we’re calling potential donors. Every politician has to do it. We spent hours and hours each week in a cramped little grey office, complete with cubicles and headsets, as if we’re telemarketers. And in a way we are: We’re just selling a different product—namely, influence. 

That’s not all. You might think we spend our days having high-minded conversations and hatching grand plans. Instead, we spend our days getting wined and dined by lobbyists of every sort. They are everywhere, like cockroaches, just waiting to spring out at you. And of course you can’t turn them away, because you really need to keep them happy if you want to keep your job, since they are also the same people donating to your campaign and mobilizing your votes. So you end up having conversation after conversation about how natural gas benefits communities, how regulation is killing business, how tax rates should be lowered. And when you finally get down to actually writing legislation, this is all the stuff you talk about, since everyone is in the same position. It’s like being a hostage.

I got pretty depressed about this for a while. In fact, by the end of my first term, I decided to drop out of the Senate altogether. It was a hard decision to make. I felt like I was throwing my life and my dreams away. But it was also a big relief. Still, this didn’t leave me in a good situation. Being a senator doesn’t really qualify you for any other job. So what would I do, go to law school? Go into business? Start a charity? None of those options appealed to me. I was tired, and I wanted a cushy job.

This led me, inevitably, to lobbying. Most lobbyists are former politicians, after all. It makes sense, since we have the contacts already, and we know how the system is put together. Admittedly I had a lot of reservations, since it was all the lobbying that made me so depressed in the first place. But as soon as I started working, I fell in love with the job. It’s easy, it’s pleasant, and it pays a whole lot better than being a politician. Best of all, I finally got the feeling of power—of shaping policy—that I was craving as a politician. Because, finally, I had the power.

I started off in the automobile industry. This was back in the early 70s, when there was a big push to tighten regulations on car manufacturing, to make cars safer. My job was to push back against these regulations as much as possible. And we quickly developed the basic model for all my other gigs: Find a bunch of pliant and cash-strapped scientists, write them a big check, and then use their studies to prove your point. Of course, their studies always prove what you want to prove, for example that seat belts don’t help save lives. Something like that. Then, you corner as many politicians as you can, and you aggressively push these studies. This is useful for them, since having “hard data” gives politicians cover.

Now, you need to understand that this is always a rear-guard battle. We know, of course, that eventually regulations will get passed. But this way, companies have a lot more time to adapt, without hurting their profit margins. It was the same story with cigarettes, which was my next gig. I had all these studies “proving” that there was no link between smoking and cancer. After that, I moved on to the oil lobby, which is where the money has been since people started to worry about global warming. 

It sounds a little awful when I describe it. And sometimes I do feel a bit bad. But, really, the money is just incredible. I save my clients so much money, you see, that they can give me a really whopping salary, and still come out way ahead. If my conscience bothers me, I figure I’ll devote some time to charity when I’m older and retired. Until then, I’ve got a cushy job, a big house, and all the money I could ever want. I even have lots of vacation days, which is why I’m here, on this pilgrimage route.


“What a fascinating story!” Franck says. “It seems that money is far more important than I could have ever dreamed!”

“I agree, my prince,” Allesprechen says. “I find all of this information new and exciting. Specifically, I wonder how this practice of ‘lobbying’ is compatible with the systems of ‘democracy’ that are so universally lauded in this world?”

“Well, uh,” Bigote says, looking a bit uncomfortable. “I suppose the possession of money confers upon one a certain nobility, as it is proof of worthiness and personal merit. Thus, such people naturally are granted a stronger voice in government.”

“Hey guys,” I say, cutting in. “Gotta say, most of these stories are a bit boring. Let me give you a good one.”


Dan’s Tale

You might look at me and think, “This guy is no casanova.” Yeah, I’m not athletic or even really that good-looking. But I got moves. I’m charming, I’m crafty. And I’m really, really determined. What I’m saying is, basically, I’ve had some success in the lady department.

Let me give you an example. Once, I went a whole party pretending to be a French exchange student, so that these university girls would think I was a cultured European. (I forgot to keep up in the act the next morning, and they weren’t happy about that.) Another time I drove 12 hours non stop when one of my old hookups—who had moved away—told me her parents were out of town for the night.

But let me tell you about the strategy I’m most proud of. There was this new girl in school, right. Apparently from Italy. Her name was Fiorella. And she was a babe. Like hard-core. All the dudes noticed it immediately. But we couldn’t get anywhere. First of all, her English was pretty shaky, seeing as she was Italian and all that. And she didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. She ate lunch by herself. After school, she’d walk right home. Sort of a loner type.

I wasn’t going to let no language barrier stop me, though. So, I downloaded a few language learning apps on my phone, and I practiced every day—at least an hour, and usually a lot more. I watched movies in Italian, I listened to music in Italian, I even read the Italian news. Sure, I was failing all my classes, but that was always true anyways. Point is, four weeks later, I knew enough Italian to have, like, a basic conversation.

Still, I needed to have a strategy. She was shy. Seemed to have a scared look on her face. I figured I shouldn’t approach aggressively. I had to be sort of innocent, like her. Non-threatening. So, I looked for an opening—we were paired together in a chemistry experiment—and I started in on my Italian. You should’ve seen the look on her face when I spoke. Like, jaw drop, eyes wide. 

Long story short, instant connection. We start talking every day. She opens up, starts laughing. I’m feeling pretty good. I think this is going somewhere. But still, everyday after school, she doesn’t hang around, but goes straight home. So I’m like, what’s up with that? Finally, I ask her, and she tells me the whole story. She lives alone with her father. And he’s a total nut-job. Like, believes in aliens and UFOs and big-foot. But also, like, super duper catholic. Really conservative and masochistic. Wears like a spiky ankle-bracelet and rough wool underwear, to torture himself all day. You know. 

Point is, this guy is super controlling, and doesn’t want her daughter having any friends—least of all, boys. So that’s why she has to rush home every day. “Listen,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.” I’ll figure something out. You see, when it comes to me and the ladies, no obstacle is too difficult.

Next Friday, I put my plan into action. I arrive at his door, wearing like a kind of monk custom I got together from the local party store. And I use a bit of make-up to look older. I knock, he answers. He’s a big guy, with slicked back hair, and a little mustache. Looks mean. I admit, I was a little scared, and I considered bolting. But quitters never get their just desserts. 

“Excuse me,” I say to him, in my best Italian. “I am a brother of the local Monastery of the Weeping Children of God, and it has come to my attention that you, my son, have moved into the area. My sources tell me you are a very pious Christian indeed.”

“Yes, father,” he says. “Once I went the traveled all the way from the Vatican to Milan while crawling on my knees, while reciting hail marys and counting the rosary.”

“Very impressive, my child,” I say. “I am inspired by your devotion. I wonder, though, if you would have the strength to recite the Prayer of the Blessed Winds of St. Jackson.”

“Oh, holy father, teach me this prayer,” he says. “I want to please God.”

“Ok, my son. Listen carefully. This prayer is very difficult and requires a great deal of time. First, it is paramount that you perform this prayer outside, facing east, with your eyes closed. And you must perform it between the hours of 9 pm and midnight, continuously, without any pause for rest.”

And then I show him a series of funny little twitches and movements, and then teach him some strings of holy words I put together from my mom’s prayer book.

“Do this every day,” I say, “and the Lord will not fail to look kindly upon you and your family. You will enjoy good fortune and heavenly blessings. Amen.”

And with that, I took off.

The next two months were fantastic. The padre would be in the backyard, muttering and gesticulating, and I would sneak up to Fiorella’s room for, shall we say, less spiritual sorts of pleasure. In fact, we probably would have kept this up for the rest of the year if he hadn’t gotten a job offer back in Italy. Hey, maybe the prayer worked? Sadly for me, though, he packed up and took my sweet Fiorella away. Hmm, come to think of it, is Spain anywhere close to Sicily?

To be continued…

Review: Tightrope

Review: Tightrope

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something is wrong with America’s tax structure when the working poor pay taxes so the federal government can make a payment to an e-commerce giant owned by the world’s richest man.

This book was timely when it was released, and it has only grown timelier since the pandemic struck. Normally, Americans are typified by high levels of patriotism and pride in our country—the unshakeable conviction that we are the greatest. (Indeed, as the authors note, while Americans students are not especially strong by international standards, they are most likely of all to think they have mastered the subject-matter.) But now, as the virus comes roaring back, with unemployment soaring and systemic racism undeniable, this illusion is difficult to maintain. Indeed, the pandemic may have been the perfect crisis to expose the underlying weaknesses in our society. With every country responding to the same challenge, we can compare successes and failures; and at the moment the US response is not inspiring.

The premise of this book is that the United States is falling behind its peer countries in many respects—high-school enrollment, healthcare, child mortality, incarceration—largely as a result of a governmental philosophy embraced in the 1970s. In a nutshell, this was the philosophy of extreme individualism: that every person is wholly responsible from themself. Put another way, this was a kind of radical, economic meritocracy—the belief that the distribution of wealth was a perfect reflection of people’s worth. Thus, the wealthy deserved their wealth and should not be taxed or regulated, while the poor deserved their poverty and should not be helped.

The effects of this mentality can be seen in all sorts of places. The IRS is much more likely to audit someone making less than $20,000 than someone making a thousand times that. White collar crimes are rarely prosecuted, and if so with a fine or a light sentence, while a shoplifter can face serious jail time. After irresponsibly marketing OxyContin—and contributing to a heroine epidemic that cost many lives—Purdue paid a fine that was a mere fraction of their profits, while there are many poor individuals serving life sentences for drug possession. Two zip codes in the same city, one rich and one poor, correspond with life expectancies that differ by twenty years. Income bracket is a stronger predictor of college success than SAT scores (and income partially predicts SAT scores, too). The list goes on.

One irony of American life is that the excuse given for not having welfare programs is always the same: How will we pay for it? When it comes to helping out poor Americans we suddenly become extremely penurious. Thus, we wring our hands about Section 8 housing assistance but not tax breaks for mortgages, and we knit our brow at public healthcare but rarely discuss the tax breaks for employer-based healthcare. We underinvest in social services, rehab facilities, education, and housing, but we do not bat an eye at the expense of cycling the poor through shelters, emergency rooms, and jails. When it comes to police, prisons, and the military, there is never any discussion of affordability.

What makes this book worthwhile is not for this information, however, as it can be found in many places, but for the stories from Nicholas Kristoff’s life. The son of Yamhill, a small town in Oregon, Kristoff has watched many of the kids he grew up with succumb to deaths of despair over the years. The most memorable case may be the Knapp family. After growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, the five Knapp children all died before their sixtieth birthday. One died of liver failure, one of hepatitis from injecting drugs, one of a heroin overdose, one of an explosion in a drug lab, one of a fire while inebriated and unconscious. In fact, when the book was published one of the siblings, Keylan, was still alive, but died last March.

While in any individual case you can make an argument about bad choices, the mere fact that a quarter of the children on Kristoff’s school bus died points to a deeper problem. In the authors’ opinion, the fundamental shift is the disappearance of decent, blue-collar work—particularly for men. By now, the story is familiar enough. Whereas, in the past, a person without a high school diploma could work a unionized job in a factory and afford a house, that is simply not the case nowadays.

The disappearance of jobs has a kind of domino effect: people deal drugs to make money, take drugs to ward off boredom, get arrested, lose custody of children, have their driver’s license revoked, get evicted—in short, the cycle of poverty.

Now, as Kristoff and WuDunn repeatedly point out, it is far too easy to write this off as a series of irresponsible choices. And it is true, many poor people make bad decisions. Being impoverished does not inculcate saintliness or enlightenment. But to ascribe the failure to individuals is, I think, both illogical and unfair, though that is so often how we choose to see it in America. Indeed, this sort of individualistic thinking can be quite compelling, such as in the case of Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a Nigerian immigrant who won the New York State K-3 chess championship at the age of eight while living in a homeless shelter. His tale attracted attention and Tani is now living in a real home, thanks to the generosity of many strangers.

Stories like this are intensely inspiring, since they seem to validate our belief that real merit will always get rewarded in the end. But arguably the more socially important fact of Tani’s story is that all the children he was competing against were from well-off families, with private chess tutors. And this underscores the essential point: that chess ability—like so many things—is not normally the product of raw talent and individual drive alone, but also the result of resources and environment.

For me, the best way of thinking about the competing influences of environment and individual merit is that they conflict only at their extremes. Here is what I mean. The environment is akin to the menu in a restaurant, and the individual chooses from these pre-set options. Only rarely, in extreme cases, does the diner get to switch restaurants and look at a new menu.

Just so, when a child is born into a family of a certain economic class, there is a certain range of likely economic outcomes. A child of a middle-class family has a decent chance of becoming, say, a doctor, while the child of a wealthy family has a fair shot at becoming a CEO. In the United States, at present, most children will not radically change the economic class they were born into. It is even more unlikely that a child of a billionaire will end up homeless than that a homeless boy will win a chess championship. But a small number of people, through a combination of luck and skill, will succeed in radically raising themselves (or, in some cases, lowering themselves). In these cases, individual factors will seem to have trumped environmental influence.

To continue the metaphor, just as it is the responsibility of the individual to choose wisely from the menu, it is the responsibility of the society to make sure that nothing on the menu is poisonous. Too often, however, people are born into circumstances that make it extremely difficult to choose correctly. And in the case of the poor, one bad choice can be disastrous. This is the meaning of the book’s title: the least advantaged have the least room for error—one mistake, and society brands them a criminal, a junkie, or a welfare queen—while those from wealthy backgrounds can make any number of mistakes without facing catastrophic consequences. To use the book’s metaphor, then, it is the individual that has to walk, but it is society that choses whether they will walk on a tightrope or a promenade.

How can we change this situation? The book ends with a series of policy suggestions—universal health care, jobs programs, child credits, maternity leave—which I suspect will not be terribly surprising. But if we are going to adopt any of these, we must first throw off the perspective of seeing every person as wholly responsible for their fate, our belief that the market is a faultless reflection of personal merit—which is the perfect excuse for inaction. We say of poor kids like Tani that they “beat the odds,” and they do deserve accolades. But these stories should motivate us to change those very odds, so that they are not stacked so heavily against the poor.



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Review: The Ambassadors

Review: The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.

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Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

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Review: John Adams (McCullough)

Review: John Adams (McCullough)
John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.

Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.

Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.

Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.

Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.

Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.



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Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)

Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)
Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I opened the pages of this book, I knew little about Alexander Hamilton aside from the fact that he wrote most of the Federalist Papers. But that man had a life indeed. I immediately found myself transfixed at a story that seemed more suited to fiction than to fact. No wonder that Hamilton’s life has been made the subject of a musical. (Unfortunately, from what I have heard of the music, it is not to my taste.)

Ron Chernow must have known that he had struck gold once he began research for this book. Hamilton’s story has all of the elements of a good Victorian novel: a poor and unfortunate upbringing (born an orphan out of wedlock); a good deal of bloodshed; an ever greater dose of scheming and argumentation; a tender love story and a sordid affair; and, to cap it off, an arch-rival who brings about a tragic end. Piloting through this maelstrom of adventure is the redoubtable Alexander Hamilton: clear-eyed, bright, industrious, at times imprudent and hasty, and always true to his own nature.

In short, I found this biography both extremely readable and a revealing portrait of the first years of this nation. Chernow is a flexible writer, capable of handling the pathos of melodrama, the intrigue of political scandal, the excitement of intellectual innovation, the frenzy of war, and the private moments of quiet intimacy. His primary strength is arguably his psychological insight. Unlike Robert Caro, who is a historian as much as a biographer, Chernow focuses in on the inner workings of his subject, letting us see history through the man’s eyes rather than the man ensconced in history.

Nevertheless, I do think that Chernow’s focus on psychology can lead him astray. At his worst, he is prone to a kind of cheap psychoanalyzing that I think adds very little to the subtance of this book. This was most in evidence in Chernow’s handling of Hamilton’s childhood on St. Croix. Chernow was quick to invoke this experience whenever he wished to explain Hamilton’s behavior. This is understandable, since it is arguably a biographer’s duty to make sense of their subject’s personality by tracing their experience; and Hamilton’s childhood was unique. However, the logic of psychoanalysis is so flexible as to be able to produce any conclusion you wish to wring from it.

Here is an example. We learn that Hamilton’s mother was accused of being a prostitute, and had children out of wedlock. She was abandoned by Hamilton’s father, cast out from polite society, and then died while Hamilton was quite young—penniless and alone. Now let us imagine that Hamilton, in adulthood, was scrupulously faithful to his wife and had a family life entirely free of scandal. The biographer could then say it was an intense desire to escape this childhood experience. Now let us imagine that Hamilton was a rake and constantly had affairs. The biographer could then say that he had a special sympathy for women on the outskirts of society. And so on. My point is that any subsequent behavior can be viewed as either a result of, or a reaction against, this childhood experience, which makes its use as an explanation extremely dubious.

This is my first critique of this book. My second is Chernow’s tendency to lionize his subject. It would be unfair to accuse him of writing a hagiography. Chernow is by no means blind to Hamilton’s faults. Still, one senses that Chernow for the most part puts a forgiving and generous interpretation on Hamilton’s actions, while casting the behavior of Hamilton’s foes—Adams and Jefferson, notably—in a far less tolerant light. As Chernow did in his biography of John D. Rockefeller, he is more eager to refute allegations against his subjects than to confirm them. In the hands of another biographer, I think that Hamilton could have come across as a less glorious figure.

In any case, Chernow has produced a well-researched biography that is both exhilarating and enlightening. It is a thoroughly fine book.



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Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)

Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)
The Civil War: An Illustrated History

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I understand what military fame is: to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.

—William Tecumseh Sherman

This documentary was long overdue. Aside from the basic overview, my knowledge of the American Civil War was embarrassingly sketchy; and I had also never seen anything by Ken Burns. Virtually everyone I know who has seen this documentary speaks about it in reverential tones. It lives up to the reputation. The eleven hours are packed with maps, dates, quotes, and most of all—stories. This is a history that focuses on individuals.

A documentary about a war that happened a century and a half ago, beyond all living memory, could easily have become dry and distant. But Ken Burns and his team overcome this obstacle through the dual use of photographs and quotes. The Ken Burns Effect has already entered common parlance, and you can see it displayed to great effect with these old photographs: the slow pan and zoom recreating, somewhat, the feel of watching a film. Combined with quotes of the men and women involved—soldiers, statesmen, generals, diarists—brought to life using voice actors, the watcher enters a bewitchingly immersive experience.

The war becomes, not merely troop movements on the screen, but an enormous catastrophe that our protagonists must live through. This gives the series an emotional force rare in documentaries. The horrors of war are the same as ever: seeing comrades fall, leaving children and widows behind, disease, malnutrition, homesickness, ghastly wounds, and the ever-present drudgery punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Some of the most disturbing images are of Yankee prisoners-of-war, totally emaciated through lack of food. Combined with this are the horrors of slavery, so central to the conflict, and the upheaval of the lives of so many civilians.

Virtually everything is well-done. McCullough brings both seriousness and sadness to the narration. The voice actors are uniformly convincing and effective. The music, too, goes a long way in recreating the mood and atmosphere of the times. Most of the guests were, however, rather unremarkable, with the notable exception of Shelby Foote, who was an endless trove of amusing and touching anecdotes. I can see how the documentary catapulted him to fame.

The series is not above criticism, however. Burns focuses most of his attention on the battlefield. This has the double benefit of being exciting and of avoiding the war’s most controversial issues. But I think the series should have delved far deeper into the causes of the war. I would also have appreciated far more about civilian life during wartime, rather than hearing mainly from soldiers and generals. Even Abraham Lincoln, though he makes his due appearances, is given far less space than a private in the Union Army. Such a wider scope would have made the documentary longer, more controversial, and perhaps more superficially boring; but as it stands the war’s immense political and historical significance is difficult to fathom from the documentary alone.

We are left with a rosy picture of the elderly veterans embracing on Gettysburg, with the war as a bad dream or even a glorious affair. Indeed, our species has been struggling to reconcile the heroic and the barbaric aspects of war since Homer wrote The Iliad. And it seems we still have not been able to face the horrors without including some shades of the bravery, the camaraderie, the brilliant strategy, to brighten up the picture. But the truth is that every war is a moral collapse, and this one was compounded by the taint of slavery. It is an extremely depressing picture, which may get somewhat obscured by the folksiness of this documentary.



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Review: 1491

Review: 1491

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should begin by saying that this book is not what I expected, which necessarily entails some disappointment. I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the major pre-Columbian societies and cultures. What this book instead offers is a sort of overview of trends in research in this area, highlighting how these trends contradict the popular image of the Americas before European colonization. This is, of course, also a valuable and worthwhile topic—and, considering the book’s popularity, many have found it to be so—but I nevertheless must admit that, after putting down the book, I still have only a hazy notion of the actual cultures in question.

Mann sets himself to undermine the popular notion of scattered groups of savages in a pristine, ahistorical paradise, living lightly off the land in a perfect harmony with nature. He sets out to show that, first, there were orders of magnitude more people in the Americas than was originally suspected; second, that humans arrived in the Americas far earlier than previously thought; and third, that pre-Colombian societies radically altered their environment. The picture that emerges is of a continent teeming with complex civilizations, each one manipulating the world around them in unique ways.

Due to the limited and often indirect evidence available to researchers, and the comparatively nascent state of the field, Mann is unable to give a textbook-like overview of pre-Colombian societies. Our knowledge is simply too fragmentary; there are too many scholarly disagreements. He instead chooses to focus on individual scholars and their lines of research, showing how these converge to suggest the aforementioned new conclusions. The advantage to this method is that his narrative is enlivened with the stories of real research; and it also allows Mann to give a more realistic impression of the state of our knowledge. But the disadvantage is that this book often reads like an extended Nat Geo article—the report of a journalist tagging along on research expeditions—rather than the bird’s-eye view I was hoping for.

Another major drawback is that, by focusing on pioneering research, Mann is unable to give answers that are wholly satisfying, since the field itself has not yet reached a stable consensus. The research he relies on for his section on pre-Colombian population, for example, uses a combination of indirect evidence and simple speculation. Granted, I was convinced even before opening this book that European diseases caused significant depopulation after first contact. But whether the fatality rate was as high as 90%, as he suggests, is difficult to accept without more decisive evidence. Personally I find it hard to believe that one-fifth of the global population (to use his figure) could die off without leaving a far less ambiguous archeological trace.

That the research is in this state is not, of course, Mann’s fault; yet he is not merely reporting the results of different experts in the field, but choosing those whose research most strongly supports this book’s thesis. This put me naturally on guard, since I know from my brief time studying archaeology how varied scholarly opinion can be in a field where evidence is necessarily scanty, incomplete, and suggestive. This being said, I do want to emphasize that I was convinced of Mann’s major points; it was only the details that put me in a dubious state of mind.

Mann’s habit of focusing on the research that most forcefully bolsters his conclusions is part of a more general tendency to overstate his case. For example, I find it difficult to accept Mann’s assertion that the first generation of European colonists did not have a decisive military advantage over their American counterparts (which supports the thesis that disease was the decisive factor in the conquest). Steel blades, guns, and mounted cavalry were all landmarks in military technology in Eurasia, so I do not see why they would not lend an advantage in this context. I also could not swallow Mann’s argument that American Indian cultures played such a decisive role in the emergence of Western liberalism and individualism. Now, I have little doubt that the example of egalitarian, non-coercive societies did play a role in this development; but Mann makes it seem as if Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were reliant on this example.

But I should stop nitpicking a book which is thoughtful, well-written, well-researched, and which dispels many obsolete myths. And, really, it is my fault for choosing a book on new revelations, when I really wanted to learn more about the religion, art, architecture, and science of these vanished civilizations.

(I should note one error I caught. Mann says that the Spanish missionary Gaspar de Carvajal was born “in the Spanish town of Extremadura.” But Extremadura is region, or an autonomous community, not a town; Carvajal was born in Trujillo, which is indeed in Extremadura.)

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Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Alistair Cooke's AmericaAlistair Cooke’s America by Alistair Cooke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. It says: ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’

(As in my reviews of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, this review focuses on the documentary, not the tie-in book.)

This documentary is a window into another time, when the public intellectual was a far more respected institution. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a popular program that contained long stretches of a man simply talking into a camera; nor it is easy to think of a contemporary program so fully dominated by the personality of one person. As the subtitle of this program indicates, this is “A Personal View,” not an attempt at impartiality or objectivity. Cooke is giving us America as he sees it, through the eyes of a highly-educated, well-traveled English immigrant.

The 13 episodes of the series follow a chronological scheme, beginning with the French and Spanish colonists and ending with the (then) present day. The exception to this is the first episode, the best in the series, in which Cooke tells his own story—coming to America as a young man during the Great Depression, and taking a road trip out west. As for the other episodes, there are few surprises in Cooke’s choice of subject: the English dissenters, the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, and so on, all the way up to the Cold War. We see Ellis Island and the Oregon Trail, New England foliage and the Hoover Dam, Hippie communes and Black Baptist churches—a panorama of American scenes.

In many ways this series falls short of the other two major BBC documentaries of the time, Clarke’s Civilisation and Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Cooke’s America has none of the gorgeous cinematography of the former nor the innovative editing of the latter. Indeed, the shooting style of the documentary is remarkably basic—which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case it imbued sections of the documentary with a soporific effect. Another difference in quality was due to the level of insight that the programs offer. Cooke, though no chump when it comes to American history, seems an amateur when his expertise is compared to Clarke’s grasp of art and Bronowski’s understanding of science. I was consistently interested, but I cannot say I came away from the program with any deep sense of insight into my vast homeland.

All this being said, there are some delightful sections in the program. Cooke has a great knack for finding fascinating props. He holds up a vial containing tea preserved from the Boston Tea Party, or he holds the manuscript of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the Morgan Library, or he itemizes the typical equipment and supplies taken by families on the Oregon Trail. And if the information he presents is not exactly striking, his easy eloquence and gentle wit give his facts a pleasing ring. Cooke’s voice—with his faultless Transatlantic accent—was made for broadcasting, and transmits a sense of confident sophistication that is entirely rare today. Most valuable for us is Cooke’s convincing sense of being above partisan politics—an intelligent observer unbound by any tribe. Again, could any similar program exist today?

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