A couple of friends have posted to Facebook asking “What are some good books for understanding the current situation”? I’ve been on something of a reading frenzy in the last six months on that topic, and here are my favorite books, essays, publications, and a couple of videos and graphics. In the ongoing torrent of news stories and blog posts and books one might read, these are the ones I have found most insightful.
Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. In the wake of the election, I sort of understood the Trump voters, a little. I’m from Indiana. I grew up with some of those people. What I didn’t understand were the Paul Ryans, the Lindsay Grahams, the Koch Brothers, the Ayn Rand and Heritage Foundation people. How could these seemingly intelligent people have so little regard for others? Especially Ryan, this guy who cares enough to want to have an anti-poverty plan, but apparently has no idea how to go about it. Robin helped me with this: and the main thesis is that conservativism is essentially the defense of hierarchy, especially hierarchy that is under threat or that has been lost (or perceived to have been lost) recently. At the top level that is a perennial threat of loss of wealth by super-elites, like the rich donors to the Republican party, and to a lesser extent to the Democratic party as well. The strategy for those top-level conservatives (i.e., rich white people), then, is to offer lower positions in that constellation of hierarchy in exchange for their vote. So maybe you aren’t rich, but hey at least you’re not Black and at the bottom of the totem pole. Maybe your a man and lost your factory job, but at least you are the boss of your wife at home.
The job of liberals has to be to explain how these are all just flavors of hierarchy, and that even white men (except the centimillionaires and billionaires, and even those guys, in a more egalitarian society, would get some peace of mind and not have to worry about buying luxury bunkers) would be better off in a society where economic, race-based, and gender and sexuality hierarchies were flattened. If I seem overly focused on economic hierarchy throughout this selection of books and commentary, it’s not because it’s more morally important, but just because it seems like it’s the easiest quick sell to a large segment of the population — namely, poor white dudes.
In addition to the defense of hierarchy, Robin demonstrates how there is also always an underlying conservative fascination with strength, glory of domination, and violence, often merged with a resentment of prior elites who were too soft or weak to hold on to their power. This is not a new thing; he extends it back to Burke the French Revolution, and I think connects it pretty well to modern day politics and the neoconservative obsession with warfare, and aversion to comfortable times like the Clinton years.
Robin says he is re-editioning this book to be “from Edumund Burke to Donald Trump” that will come out around Labor Day. He writes prolifically on his blog, coreyrobin.com, and has the rather unique position of being a person on the left who has managed to slog through about the right a lot, and can explain Trump in contrast to conservative history. A nice, slightly hopeful, counterpoint to the theories that the sloppy immigration order was all Bannon’s plan to set things up to consolidate power (possibly true) is his recent post, “If Trump is a fascist, he may be the most backassward fascist we’ve ever seen”.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Let’s start this by looking at the List of Countries by Incarceration Rate on Wikipedia and click twice on the double arrow below “incarceration rate” to get it sorted highest to lowest, you can see how clearly the United States is #1. It is above every other country; highest in the world, well past Russia, Iran, and, well, any other country that we consider repressive, or not repressive, or anything. The only country that beats us is the tiny Seychelles and that’s only because they are the home to an international prison for Somali pirates. This is not a #1 status you want to have as leader of the free world.
For me, The New Jim Crow felt like two books in one. The first part is an excellent concise history of the Southern Strategy: how white southern elites have, for 150 years, used racism as a class warfare tool, to prevent the political unity of poor whites and poor blacks. While there are other explanations of the Southern Strategy, this is the best I’ve read. The second part of the book is about “The New Jim Crow”, which is the use of the criminal justice system to systematically repress black people socially and politically. She makes this case fairly well, although I wouldn’t necessarily say airtight as to intentionality, except on the part of Wallace-style southerners.
The takeaway I get is that we are all implicitly biased against Black folks, because of the culture we have (if you think you’re immune, take a race-based IAT); and Southern elites have marketed that culture because it has been profitable. Those implicit biases, while obnoxious in ordinary people, are devastating when found in people with state power, like district attorneys and police. The judicial system, especially the Supreme Court, has been indifferent to this because at no stage can intentional discrimination been shown (“Oh, did we raid/arrest/kill/prosecute more Black folks than whites? Oops, didn’t mean to”), even though the racist effects are easily demonstrable as an aggregate. This book is from 2006, but still very relevant. A nice companion essay — both critical and supportive of Alexander — is Marie Gottschalk, “It’s Not Just The Drug War“, which essentially says “Alexander is right, Black people and the War On Drugs are ground zero for this problem, but it’s more pervasive than that.”
Noam Chomsky, Who Rules The World? Noam Chomsky is the classic modern leftist, a prolific writer who has been criticizing American power for a generation. I first learned about him when I was a computer science major, since about 60% of my undergraduate course on Computer Language Theory was based on Chomsky’s work, which gave him some credibility with me. Then I started reading his essays on politics, which were essentially a hobby or sideline for Chomsky from his work as a linguist. Every work by Chomsky reads like it was written by a slightly despondent alien anthropologist: very objective, and a bit overwhelmed by the negative implications of his analysis. With past books I’ve tried to read by him, his main failing is his thoroughness: there are so many footnotes and supporting details — one gets the sense that he is aware that his theories will meet with skepticism, so he is paranoid to source everything to death — that he gets lost inspecting trees instead of describing the forest. In his old age, with this book, he mostly gets over this: the essays are summary-level, all forest with specific trees only visited to make a point.
The first essay, on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is part of what convinced me to try to write more, on this chain of logic: (1) it made me realize “well, shit, I guess if I have a good education, have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the world, and I have some free time, I’m an ‘intellectual'”; (2) along with Robin, he made me realize ideas actually matter in the way that we shape our society; and (3) that leads to responsibility. As Chomsky puts it in the closing paragraph to that essay:
As for the responsibility of intellectuals, there does not seem to me to be much to say beyond some simple truths: intellectuals are typically privileged; privilege yields opportunity, and opportunity conveys responsibilities. An individual then has choices.
One of the other key takeaways from Chomsky is that the two existential threats to humanity are climate change and nuclear weapons, and I believe that to be true.
George Monbiot, The Age Of Consent: A Manifesto For a New World Order. For a while I have enjoyed Monbiot’s essays at The Guardian (all republished with a few days’ delay at monbiot.com) and so I decided to read one of his books. Although Monbiot doesn’t describe it this way, this book could be called a work of “political science fiction”, in which he works out what international organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN could look like if they were truly run democratically, in a way that reflected the interests of individual humans rather than those at the top. In some ways, it seems like fantasy, but I think it is important to be thinking this way, to keep a sort of lodestar on what the end game actually is. A lot of what he gets into deals with theories of international trade and finance systems; the main takeaway I get is that the United States chose, in the wake of World War II, to design a system that benefited it immediately in an economic sense, but in the long run undermined its interests by preventing the development of other countries.
Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It has been several years since I read this book, but at a time when we’re looking for hope, it has stuck with me as a hopeful book. That’s because its overarching concept is that humanity can change, and is in fact changing for the better. When liberal utopian ideas (see Monbiot, above) seem like unattainable fantasy, I think of this book. The premise, supported by seemingly innumerable chapters that painstakingly evaluate various categories of violence (murders, warfare, corporeal criminal punishment, rape, etc. etc.) over time, is this: we’re a lot less violent than we used to be, and a lot of that has to do with ideas about how we treat each other. It also leaves you with some worry, since while the 20th century was overwhelmingly peaceful, even accounting for the world wars, but the world wars stand out as huge anomalous spikes in violence to remind us that we’re not completely out of the clear yet.
In this same vein, also see Hans Rosling’s TED talk on “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen”, an oldie (2006) but goodie about how far the developing world has developed while we weren’t looking. The world is getting better, if we can just avoid exterminating ourselves first.
Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? I am midway through reading this now, but I like it. Streeck sort of takes as a given that capitalism is struggling and in some kind of decline, and is trying to work though what happens next. So far it seems fairly grim: he doesn’t think there will be any sudden transformation, but rather an interregnum between world orders while this order — the post-1970s version of capitalism, where money sloshes around the world to profit wherever it can, without a care to any social or environmental damage left in its wake — struggles to sustain itself and fails.
I spend a lot of of time reading things on the internet. Of all the essays I’ve read in the last two months, these stand out:
Joseph Stiglitz, Vanity Fair, Of The 1%, By The 1%, For The 1%. This is an essay from 2011 in the Occupy Wall Street era, but it is still important reading. I was thinking about reading a book by Stiglitz, and an Amazon reviewer pointed me to this essay as being better than any book-length thing he’s produced. The international nature of capital, and the extreme nature of wealth segregation, has led to an elite class that considers its fate as separate from the other 99%. I don’t particularly mind being in a somewhat hierarchical society, so long as I have a sense that those elites are more or less interested in the development or even maintenance of the country. I don’t really get that sense in present day United States.
Evan Osnos, New Yorker, Doomsday Prep For The Super-Rich. This is a recent essay on the (seemingly widespread) trend among Wall Street and Silicon Valley elites to have a home in New Zealand or in an armored bunker somewhere. This seems like a particularly graphic illustration of how modern-day elites (centimillionaires and billionaires) consider themselves disconnected from the fate of the United States.
Bill McKibben, We Need To Literally Declare War On Climate Change. When I think “what should we do, then? What is the path forward?” this is one of the top immediate items: a large scale mobilization to build a non-fossil-fuel energy system. Under-employment and too many minimum wage jobs? Coal miners that need new work? Let’s create tax incentives and financing systems that result in those folks building rooftop solar on every home in America, and turn plains states into giant wind farms. McKibben’s essay Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math is also important, not so much for the math — that’s been done elsewhere, and anyone who would be convinced by math would have been convinced years ago — but for the argument (in the section entitled “The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons”) that the fossil fuel industry is directly and unavoidably the enemy of humanity. There is no choice but to write off trillions of dollars in assets by leaving coal and oil in the ground, and they will fight that to the bitter end. Not everything is a zero-sum game, but this one is. Incidentally, the CEO of Exxon is currently likely to be our next Secretary of State.
Politizane, YouTube, Wealth Inequality In America. This is several years old, but I think it is important for graphically illustrating the extravagant extent of wealth distribution. I keep thinking about the steepness of that ski slope between the tippity-top and the rest.
On climate change, if you need to illustrate it to a nonbeliever or doubter, in non-math terms: XKCD, A Timeline of Earth’s Average Temperature and Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi, Bloomerberg, What’s Really Warming The World?.
If anyone knows of a good description — a vivid, science-fiction-like play-by-play — of how global warming will affect the lives of ordinary Americans, I’d be interested in that. Species loss and submerged islands don’t seem to be doing the trick.
3. Ongoing Publications.
As I mentioned above, I usually read the essays at monbiot.com, and coreyrobin.com. On Medium, I follow Lessig and Alex Steffen and read them fairly regularly. How I Accidentally Became the World’s Greatest Fake Russian Troll by some random guy gave me insight into why there are always so many weird reactionary comments on major news sites — they are probably from Russian troll farms. Yonatan Zunger, who is a Distinguished Engineer of Privacy and Chief Architect of Social at Google (LinkedIn), wrote pieces this week (in his personal capacity) on “What ‘Things Going Wrong’ Can Look Like” and Trial Balloon for a Coup? Both are interesting — perhaps alarmist, but then again he has a good point that, as a Jew, he has twenty generations of experience and anecdotes about when things are really heading downhill for minorities. If he’s worried, I’m worried. If Brietbart thinks it’s a conspiracy theory, I think it might be true.
VerySmartBrothas. On race, I read Damon Young all the time, at VerySmartBrothas.com. I found him when a friend from high school linked to “President Obama’s ‘Folks Wanna Pop Off’ Is The Blackest Thing That Ever Happened This Week” in 2015, and I haven’t left since. I wish he demonstrated more awareness of how race is used to create class divisions a la Michelle Alexander. But he is one of the funnier writers on the internet. The comments section of VSB is amazing, lots of funny an interesting thoughts, with hardly any trolls.
Jacobin. I follow Jacobin magazine on Facebook. They bill themselves as the publication of the “left of left of center”, so like Bernie Sanders and then everything left of that. I consider myself merely “left of center”, but I think it’s good to read some things that are on either side of that . . . and often I find that I am a bit left of left of center, because Bernie was, after all, pretty much just a New Deal guy. The quality seems somewhat variable, but some of them are quite good and will give you non-establishment left views. As a random good starting point I’d direct you to A Blueprint for a New Party. The premise is fairly interesting (why isn’t there a class-based workers party?) but it really lights up halfway through with a historical perspective on repression of third parties in the United States. Excerpt:
The Council of Europe, the pan-European intergovernmental body, maintains a “Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters,” which catalogs electoral practices that contravene international standards. Such violations often read like a manual of US election procedure. In 2006, the council condemned the Republic of Belarus for violating the provision of the code proscribing signature requirements larger than 1 percent of a district’s voters, a level the council regards as extremely high; in 2014, Illinois required more than triple that number for House candidacies. In 2004, the council rebuked Azerbaijan for its rule forbidding voters from signing nomination petitions for candidates from more than one party; California and many other states do essentially the same thing.
Newspaper. For newspapers, I favor The Guardian. All newspapers are struggling to figure out a way to survive these days, most are loss-leading, and many have billionaire ownership: Bezos owns the Washington Post outright; the NYT’s largest single shareholder is Carlos Slim; WSJ is owned by Murdoch. While I’m sure those guys are not directly calling the editorial staff and giving directions, I think it limits the range of what those papers can write about. The Guardian is owned by a nonprofit trust that also owned Auto Trader and sold it off for a billion dollars or so, which is about the closest thing to financial independence you’ll find in a news outlet these days. They are center-left in their views, and won a Pulitzer in 2014 for the coverage of Snowden.
I also read The Intercept, which is funded by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. It’s a bit new and seems skeletally staffed, but is getting more robust over time. Glenn Greenwald, the guy who ran the Snowden series for the Guardian, is an editor, as is Jeremy Scahill.
I read the New York Times. I’m not in love because I feel like NYT is a little too Wall Street friendly. It has such magnitude and reach that it’s almost like you have I feel that it is necessary to read it to know what’s going on, and it is sort of an anchor on shared reality that you can use it as a reference point with some conservatives. The Washington Post now feels a tier down under Bezos leadership, more partisan. I lost faith in it when they ran a pretty consistent string of sort of trashy anti-Bernie op-eds for multiple weeks during the primaries.
Ok. Gotta stop. I read a lot of things apparently. Do you have suggestions for more?