[By Nic Lindh on Monday, 06 September 2021]
Reign of Terror is subtitled How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, which is a good indicator of the tone of the book. A book that took me back to those years right after 9/11 when the W administration decided to respond to the terror attack by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, vastly increase the surveillance state, allow the CIA unsupervised right to torture whomever the organization pleases, and turn Muslim Americans into second-class citizens.
As we come up on the 20th anniversary of the defining event so far of the 21st century, it is our duty to look back at what was done in our names, to take stock and try to head down a better path.
Apart from the memory of watching the second plane fly into the tower on CNN—watching in uncomprehending horror—my personal biggest memory of the years after was of sitting white knuckled in rush hour traffic on the I-10 listening as NPR relayed the endless lies that brought us into an unwinnable situation in Iraq. We are going to be greeted as liberators! The war will pay for itself with Iraqi oil! We have evidence, oh such evidence! that Saddam was involved with Al-Qaeda! Evidence we’ll show you soon. Any day now. And weapons of mass destruction! Don’t forget those. We’ll have evidence for that as well any day now!
The moment I knew with certainty we were being led into a quagmire by grifters and lunatics was when, and it’s been a long time so my memory is hazy, but a prominent person in the War on Terror was interviewed, and he had no idea there’s more than one kind of Muslim.
Reign of Terror is not a fun read, but it is necessary. And a big thank you to Ackerman for having the stamina to write it. It can’t have been easy.
Evolution Gone Wrong by Alex Bezzerides is a breezy look at why we suffer knee and back pain, need expensive dentistry, and suffer horrendously painful and dangerous births. There are reasons for all of it! Which may be cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless.
Bezzerides makes a convincing case that our bodies are in the process of transitioning from a tree-based lifestyle to a life on the ground. A good example is the human foot:
In the few million years since our ancestors descended from trees, the human foot has undergone dramatic change. It has become significantly less flexible. The main responsibility of the foot is no longer gripping and grabbing but absorbing the pounding of walking on the hard earth. The foot does not always do a perfect job of absorbing the pounding […], but it also cannot grip and grasp the way it could have in the past. As with so many other human features, the foot is mired in a transition between very old and relatively new demands.
Evolution Gone Wrong is an easy and fun read which won’t make your knees hurt any less, but at least you’ll know why they are hurting.
Adam Server was looking at photos of lynchings, and was struck by how happy the white perpetrators were. In the background a mutilated Black corpse, and in the foreground, smiling white people who were clearly happy and proud of their handiwork. This helped him realize that for a certain kind of person, the cruelty is the point. For a certain kind of person, making “them” suffer is a bonding experience and a source of great personal satisfaction.
He wrote an essay to elaborate on this. That essay was hugely impactful for my own understanding of the Trump phenomenon.
The Cruelty is the Point is a collection of Serwer’s essays published during the Trump presidency, updated with new introductions with further reflections. It’s somber reading, and I think important reading. Tempting as it is for progressives to put the Trump administration in the rear-view mirror and move on, there are lessons we must learn.
Remember all the handwringing about economic insecurity once it was clear Trump had won the electoral college? The coastal journalists that parachuted in to diners across swing states to find what was in the hearts of the usually white Trump voters? That whole charade.
It was about racism the whole time, hard as America worked to not understand that.
Overall, poor and working-class Americans did not support Trump; it was white Americans on all levels of the income spectrum who secured his victory. Clinton was only competitive with Trump among white people making more than $100,000, but the fact that their shares of the vote was nearly identical drives the point home: Economic suffering alone does not explain the rise of Trump. Nor does the Calamity Thesis explain why comparably situated black Americans, who are considerably more vulnerable than their white counterparts, remained so immune to Trump’s appeal. The answer cannot be that black Americans were suffering less than the white working class or the poor; rather, Trump’s solutions did not appeal to people of color because they were premised on a national vision that excluded them as full citizens.
As to the cruelty, which I agree with Serwer is the point, that cruelty to The Other is such an ugly reality. We don’t want to think so many of our countrymen are racists, and we don’t want to think so many of our countrymen delight in the suffering of others. And yet, it’s staring us in the face:
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
The photos of smiling white people in front of mutilated Black corpses must be reckoned with or American history will keep repeating itself.
Ian Dunt is a liberal British political journalist, so he’s spent the last several years very angry and frustrated. We are all fortunate he channeled some of that anger into writing How to be a Liberal.
Which contrary to the title isn’t so much a how-to book as it is a history of liberal thought. It is also very good. Dunt has a way of writing smooth prose that helps complicated concepts go down easy and his choices in what to include in the history of liberal thought seem solid.
The times we live in being the times we live in, he also includes a contrast with liberalisms current main enemy, nationalism:
The lies of the nationalist movement range from the gigantic to the trivial, from the systemic to the opportunistic. This disinformation is not just a means to an end. It is an end itself. It serves two distinct agendas. Firstly it attempts to redefine day-to-day events in whichever way most suits the nationalist narrative. Secondly it works to degrade the entire notion of empirical reality.
And here’s Dunt’s definition of liberalism, which I agree with and am fighting for:
Liberalism is the struggle for the freedom of the individual. When it is truly followed, it can never be the tool of the powerful. It can never be used to oppress. It can only liberate. It rejects the false choice of the people versus the elite. It is committed to empirical reality. It stands up for institutions, and diversity, and, chief among all values, the liberty of every person to engage in their own act of self-creation. To be who they want to be. To live where they want to live. To love who they want to love. To do as they please, with the only restraints on their actions entailed by the protection of liberty for others. It pursues freedom, because freedom makes all other values possible.
How to be a Liberal is a solid read for a historical understanding of what liberalism is, the intellectual framework behind it, the ground out of which it grew, and how you can defend it.
I’m a bit of a World War II junkie and have been since I was a child. This means I’ve absorbed a lot of information about World War II in my life, including of course the Battle of Britain.
In The Splendid and the Vile Larson trawls through diaries and newspaper clippings to get a feel for what it was like for the people who lived through the Blitz while it was going on, focusing on Churchill and the people in his orbit.
Living through the Blitz through the eyes of the people who were there makes it a new experience as you feel their insecurity and fears. With results in hand, the Blitz was a bad experience, but through the eyes of the people who lived through it, unsure of whether they would survive, and above all unsure of whether the Germans would invade and take over Britain as they had the rest of Europe, it was a complete nightmare.
The tension and fear drips through the pages of The Splendid and the Vile.
The work also helps flesh out the complicated picture of Churchill the man, so well suited to a hopeless war and so unsuited to peace.
For example, the story of one of the most famous speeches of all time:
On June 4, the last day of the evacuation, in an address to the House of Commons, Churchill again turned to oratory, this time to bolster the empire as a whole. First he applauded the success at Dunkirk, though he added a sober reminder: “Wars are not won by evacuations.” As he neared the conclusion of the speech, he fired his boilers. “We shall go on to the end,” he said, in a crescendo of ferocity and confidence. “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender—” As the House roared its approval, Churchill muttered to a colleague, “And…we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.”
Deep Work was both useful for me and annoying at the same time. First, the usefulness. Over the years I had allowed myself to get sucked in to a very American “respond quickly” mentality.
As the book reiterates, for some kinds of work, like a help desk, how quick you respond is indeed a measure of your work, but for “regular” knowledge work you have to go deep into a problem. To be able to do, as in my case, web development, you have to be able to focus for extended periods of time. Breaking the concentration to answer a question or an email or a Slack breaks the flow and it takes around 20 minutes to get back and fill your mental buffers with the information you need to do the work.
All of this is to say that I am very happy Calport wrote Deep Work and that I read it. Blocking out uninterrupted pieces of time to do deep work is crucial if you’re going to be able to do anything but the most shallow tasks. It was good to have that knowledge reinforced.
That being said, Deep Work, like most business books, feels padded. There are very juicy and important nuggets in there, but there is a lot of repetition.
But be that as it may, the core concept is extremely important. You can respond to emails quickly or you can do work that matters, but you can’t do both. At least not at the same time.
A Desolation Called Peace is the sequel to the brilliant A Memory Called Empire and I’m pretty sure you know if you want to read these novels just from the titles. I personally could not be more in.
Desolation is not quite the knockout Memory was, but it is very good.
Like the first novel in the series, the plot is hard to get into without spoilers, but basically it’s the far future and the Teixcalaanli empire is a bit of a cross between the Aztecs and the Byzantine Romans, elegant and decadent, and they are now facing a Very Serious Crisis which they need the help of a barbarian to resolve.
A Desolation Called Peace is such a great title. Where did it come from? Martine does not hide the source:
To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles—this they name empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace. —Tacitus (quoting Calgacus), Agricola 30
The novels are stuffed full of brilliant flourishes, like how the admiral of a ship introduces herself to a new potential rival to the empire:
I negotiate on behalf of Her Brilliance the Emperor Nineteen Adze, the Edgeshine of a Knife, whose reign shatters all darkness.
Yes, Teixcalaanli names are a number and a noun. Which makes them a bit hard to remember and of course you can’t guess a person’s gender from the name.
Martine also has come up with the best collection of ship names since the late great Iain M. Banks (peace be upon him) in the Culture series.
Ship names like:
The Parabolic Compression, the Exultation-class medium cruiser Mad With Horizons, and the flagship Weight of the Wheel.
That is some good stuff. Very much looking forward to the next installment.
Black Stone Heart is the first novel in The Obsidian Path series and boy howdy is it something.
If you’re not familiar with the name, Michael R. Fletcher wrote Beyond Redemption, which is the most death metal fantasy novel I’ve ever come across. Seriously, Beyond Redemption is freaking nuts, and a great read.
Black Stone Heart on the other hand is not nuts, it is a descent into madness. It has the most awful protagonist I have ever encountered, who is in turn surrounded by the worst people ever in a world that’s subject to an awful system ruled by awful people.
Fletcher’s gift is to make that compulsively readable. I was staying up late turning the pages to find out what would happen to Khraen, probably the most awful human ever and probably a goddess-possessed demon lord.
Hot diggity, Black Stone Heart is really something.
Here we go. She Dreams in Blood is the sequel to Black Stone Heart and continues Khraen the demon lord’s journey to find out who he really is and what he really did to have his obsidian heart shattered and spread across the planet.
Turns out, things are bad, things are even worse than you thought at the end of Black Stone Heart. Khraen is a worse human than you thought. His goddess is a worse goddess than you thought. His friends are worse than you thought.
It drags a bit in the beginning as Khraen tries to justify his past and current actions to himself, but then it’s off to crazy town again.
And now, yes, I am waiting impatiently for the next installment.
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