“Freedom is as mortal as tyranny.” – Alan Dugan, “Argument to Love as a Person”
Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for January
Escaping the clutches of a diseased 2020 didn’t provide the respite one would hope for. There was death before and death after, the arbitrary threshold of one year ending and another beginning meaningless. Loss sometimes means remembering – and memories can be bitter, painful and unexpected.
To iron out the jagged edges of reality, books continued to work their magic.
Time feels as though it has accelerated, and I pack every day with so much that January (and all its books) feels like years ago already. For that reason, and in the interest of brevity (haha I hear you laughing as you scroll and scroll and scroll to the never-appearing end of this; there’s nothing brief about this book report), I’ll briefly mention books here without any kind of format (I tried to categorize my previous book reports). I don’t have the focus, time or energy to create categories. There were just too many books overall in January, so I’ve excluded some that were very engaging, wonderful books that just …didn’t end up making this list.
It’s all stream of consciousness now.
No explanation. I just liked it. The French Revolution. What’s not to like?
“History as taught to me in grade school tried to box all that is known of a fixed past into a universal, sequential story. A story that was innocent, independent, impelled. A story beyond human manipulation. … But that sense of history neglects our relationships to each other and to what is ‘known’ and ‘not known’ of the past. How and why do we know what we know? Who is doing the (re)collecting then telling?”
A beautiful book itself, but it struck me at the time I read it because Man’s Search for Meaning was cited. I had just finished re-reading Man’s Search for a second time before picking this up, and it added a certain richness and depth as an accompaniment. Then again, the more you read, the more there are pieces interwoven with other works and ideas, so considerable overlap isn’t unexpected. If you read enough, you discover that there are source materials that writers across disciplines return to, and Frankl happens to be one, appearing also The Upside of Irrationality, another book I consumed in January. Hannah Arendt is another. These repeated references stand to reason because they continue to make sense, and resonate deeply with more universal truths and clarity.
This is something I love about reading: interconnectivity. It is almost like a tonic or antidote to bite-sized, sensational, fast-paced and often fake “news”. An historical record that we can draw upon, question and interpret within a kind of shared intellectual milieu that’s always being built upon and enriched.
Trace explores memory and sense of place as well as point of view: what is history, who gets to tell the story?
“What to remember, what to forget. Colonial historian Bernard Bailyn writes that memory’s ‘relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.”
Of course reading a lot eventually leads to drawing parallels with other aspects of pop culture. I recently watched the HBO series How To with John Wilson, and it touched on the subject of, and subjectivity of, memory. The human mind distorts memory to the extent that we can be 100% convinced that something happened the way we remember. And yet it didn’t. Sometimes this mass misremembering extends to large groups of people, which is often called “the Mandela effect“. Wilson examines this, diving into some unusual communities who do, despite being shown they are misremembering, continue to believe they are right, but that their memories took place in some kind of alternate or parallel universe. Yes, Wilson’s show is that kind of rabbit hole.
On a more personal level, I often have to remind myself that just because I’ve shared an experience or relationship with another person, my memory of it is an entirely different reality. The larger canvas of history is no different.
“That inhabiting the same time, sharing a past, doesn’t mean sharing common experiences or points of view was never clearer than on the tour of Walnut Grove. We live among countless landscapes of memory in this country. They convey both remembrances and omission, privileging particular arcs of story while neglecting so many others.”
““Why do you laugh this silvery laugh, you sweet creature?” And me: “I’m laughing because I’m happy.” Thank God men are far too full of themselves to think that you could be laughing at them! And he told me he was an aristocrat. Well, I’m not so dumb to believe that live noblemen are running around in the streets these days.”
A German must-read, banned by the Nazis, focused on a young woman dreaming of being a starlet but never quite satisfying that — or any — hunger.
“If you’re human, you have feelings. If you’re human, you know what it means if you want someone and they don’t want you. It’s like an electrified waiting period. Nothing more, nothing less. But it’s enough.”
For anyone who doubts slavery ever ended and wants to know how the American capitalist nightmare machine was built (and on whose labor and at what human cost). Which, frankly, should be everyone. But sadly won’t be.
Henry immediately tells the reader that she knows a great deal about wrongful convictions. But even she, armed with the statistics, was shocked (as most readers would be) to discover that one-third of “all known exonerations involve people wrongfully convicted of crimes that never happened”. Yes… crimes that never happened at all.
“No-crime convictions start with the fictional narrative that a crime occurred. That fiction can be based on honest error, tunnel vision, lies, or corruption, but in every case it is an illusion manufactured from whole cloth. The entire criminal justice system then steps in to process an innocent person where no wrongdoing occurred—and somehow, the error is undetected at every stage of the proceedings. Society has no recognizable interest in spending the time, energy, and resources in identifying, prosecuting, convicting, and punishing a criminal suspect for a crime that never happened. Yet we do. More often than anyone could have imagined. No-crime convictions are based on phantom crimes. But for the wrongly convicted in no-crime cases, they are all too real.”
“It is exhausting to find oneself, over and over again, navigating a world rife with deadly assumptions about you and those who look like you, to see and read about insult and harm, death and anguish, for no other reason than because you’re black or black and poor or black and trans or…For me, the daily grind consumes.”
A beautiful book, visiting places and steps James Baldwin took in forging his identity against a backdrop of both historical and present-day racism and the lie (a thematic signpost returned to several times) that America is driven by some kind of inherent goodness or redeeming quality. Baldwin, and through this exploration, Glaude, have exposed the rotting core of this lie.
“Narrating trauma fragments how we remember. We recall what we can and what we desperately need to keep ourselves together. Wounds, historical and painfully present, threaten to rend the soul, and if that happens, nothing else matters.”
As usual my reading is all over the place. A lot of stuff about systemic inequality, but the rhetoric of why this is the way it must be rests on misleading arguments about debt, and more frequently, deficit. The system is broken, and we think about it, are taught about it, and discuss it in ways that betray our lack of understanding about it, according to Kelton.
“MMT radically changes our understanding by recognizing that it is the currency issuer—the federal government itself—not the taxpayer, that finances all government expenditures. Taxes are important for other reasons that I will explain in this book. But the idea that taxes pay for what the government spends is pure fantasy. I was skeptical when I first encountered these ideas.”
“The economic framework that I’m advocating for is asking for more fiscal responsibility from the federal government, not less. We just need to redefine what it means to budget our resources responsibly. Our misconceptions about the deficit leave us with so much waste and untapped potential within our current economy.”
Reading Kelton’s book took me back to a public sector economics course I took over 20 years ago. Our professors hammered the idea home that deficits don’t really matter. And, like Kelton, I struggled with this idea. Having been indoctrinated into the idea that lowering the deficit is somehow a worthy economic goal, accepting the idea that people do not, as Kelton writes, “deserve” to ask more from their government because it’s fiscally irresponsible.
“In a now-famous speech from 1983, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared that “the state has no source of money, other than the money people earn themselves. If the state wishes to spend more it can only do so by borrowing your savings or by taxing you more.”5 This was Thatcher’s way of saying that the government’s finances were constrained in the same way our personal finances are constrained. In order to spend more, the government would need to raise the money. “We know that there is no such thing as public money,” she added. “There is only taxpayer money.” If the British people wanted more from their government, they would have to foot the bill. Was it an innocent mistake or a carefully crafted statement designed to discourage the British people from demanding more from their government?”
I’d be genuinely interested to hear more thoughts on the assertions presented in this book. Some of them make a lot of sense, but others have been simplified to the degree that I think, “I must be missing something fundamental here.”
“Your taxes don’t actually pay for anything, at least not at the federal level. The government doesn’t need our money. We need their money. We’ve got the whole thing backward! When I first encountered this way of understanding how taxing and spending work in actual practice, I recoiled. It was 1997, and I was midway through a PhD program in economics when someone shared a little book called Soft Currency Economics with me.8 The book’s author, Warren Mosler, was a successful Wall Street investor, not an economist, and his book was about how the economics profession was getting almost everything wrong. I read it, and I wasn’t convinced.”
*The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous – Joseph Henrich
“Beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms—culture—can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate “culture” from “psychology” or “psychology” from “biology,” because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think. Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate.”
Yes, yes and more yes. I had not given a great deal of thought before going into the formal study of psychology to the problem that almost everything we think we know about human psychology comes from a very limited and relatively homogenous group of WEIRD people. That is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
“…almost everything we—scientists—knew about human psychology derived from populations that seemed to be rather unusual along many important psychological and behavioral dimensions. Crucially, there was no obvious way to tell whether a psychological pattern found in Western undergraduates would hold cross-culturally, since existing research going back over a half century had revealed differences across populations in people’s susceptibility to visual illusions, spatial reasoning, memory, attention, patience, risk-taking, fairness, induction, executive function, and pattern recognition.”
And how wouldn’t this skew “findings” that cannot necessarily be replicated or observed cross culturally?
Reading Henrich’s book reinforced one of the takeaways from my study: if you only have access to fellow university students as your study subjects, which is almost always the case as a student, how can you credibly claim to have concluded anything? The questions I was most interested in exploring had to do with things that no student population could possibly answer. For example, the perception of risk in people experiencing geriatric pregnancies. But how would one go about finding enough willing subjects for an investigation like this within the confines of a university-length semester?
Another key takeaway: the WEIRD societies the book describes, and their psychology, are individualistic.
“But, the WEIRDer your psychology, the less inclined you’ll be to focus on relational ties, and the more motivated you’ll be to start making up invisible properties, assigning them to individuals, and using them to justify universally applicable laws.”
In any case there were other fascinating points in the book, which had come up at various points in my previous academic career as well, for example, the influence of literacy on both cultures and on the brain.
“Learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition. Literacy changes people’s biology and psychology without altering the underlying genetic code. A society in which 95 percent of adults are highly literate would have, on average, thicker corpus callosa and worse facial recognition than a society in which only 5 percent of people are highly literate.”
By extension, it seems culture and religion has shaped the likelihood of one becoming literate, e.g. “literacy rates grew the fastest in countries where Protestantism was most deeply established”; “In Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, adult literacy rates were nearly 100 percent. Meanwhile, in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, the rates had only risen to about 50 percent. Overall, if we know the percentage of Protestants in a country, we can account for about half of the cross-national variation in literacy at the dawn of the 20th century”.
And what would my book report be without a shout-out to my beloved Scotland?
“When the Reformation reached Scotland in 1560, it was founded on the central principle of a free public education for the poor. The world’s first local school tax was established there in 1633 and strengthened in 1646. This early experiment in universal education soon produced a stunning array of intellectual luminaries, from David Hume to Adam Smith, and probably midwifed the Scottish Enlightenment. The intellectual dominance of this tiny region in the 18th century inspired Voltaire to write, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization.”
“One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus. And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.”
Who can resist books and films about pandemics when living through a pandemic? For many, focusing on previous health crises induces greater panic, but I find these kinds of materials comforting. They describe a panic, a critical turning point in culture and understanding of disease, but ultimately provide some reassurance that humanity as a whole gets through these things. This, coupled with having a better grasp of the trajectory of the pandemic itself, provides solace of a kind, i.e. it will get better, or at least the death toll is nowhere near that of the flu pandemic of 1918. Small consolation, I suppose, for those who have experienced tremendous upheaval and loss this time around.
“During the course of the epidemic, 47 percent of all deaths in the United States, nearly half of all those who died from all causes combined—from cancer, from heart disease, from stroke, from tuberculosis, from accidents, from suicide, from murder, and from all other causes—resulted from influenza and its complications. And it killed enough to depress the average life expectancy in the United States by more than ten years.”
Certainly it’s not for everyone. But I recognize that people take comfort in whatever ways they can. I was thinking earlier about how people return to the same vacation spots, reread the same books, and eat the same favorite meals repeatedly. I, who thrive on novelty, change and constant learning and stimulation, would not enjoy this, but the depth of my understanding of people’s need for comfort and familiarity has increased, particularly during our own era’s seemingly infinite pandemic.
*Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story – Angela Saini
“Having more women in science is already changing how science is done. Questions are being asked that were never asked before. Assumptions are being challenged. Old ideas are giving way to new ones. The distorted, often negative picture that research has painted of women in the past has been powerfully challenged in recent decades by other researchers—many of whom are women. And this alternative portrait shows humans in a completely different light.”
“‘In the modern world we look to science as a rationalization of political ideas,’ I’m told by Jonathan Marks, a genial, generous professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is one of the most outspoken voices against scientific racism. Race science, he explains, emerged “in the context of colonial political ideologies, of oppression and exploitation. It was a need to classify people, make them as homogeneous as possible.” Grouping people made it easier to control them.”
*Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century – Dorothy Roberts
First – read all of Dorothy Roberts’s books. Just read them. Do it.
“The emerging biopolitics of race has three main components. First, some scientists are resuscitating biological theories of race by using cutting-edge genomic research to modernize old racial typologies that were based on observations of physical differences. Science is redefining race as a biological category written in our genes. Second, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are converting the new racial science into products that are developed and marketed according to race and that incorporate assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level. Finally, government policies that are officially color-blind are stripping poor minority communities of basic services, social programs, and economic resources in favor of corporate interests while simultaneously imposing on these communities harsh forms of punitive regulation. These dehumanizing policies of surveillance and control are made invisible to most Americans by the emerging genetic understanding of race that focuses attention on molecular differences while obscuring the impact of racism in our society.”
I’d highlight the whole book if left to my own devices, but it’s such an important topic, and hidden behind a veneer of “science” (meaning average people don’t question, if they are aware at all), that you should read the entire book.
“Like citizenship, race is a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations. Race is not only interpreted according to invented rules, but, more important, race itself is an invented political grouping. Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.”
“The thought occurred to me: Yes, it had been Adam and Eve. But so what if it was only the story of Adam and Eve that we got in the Bible? Why did that have to exclude the possibility of a certain Adam and Adam or a certain Eve and Eve? Just because the story happened to focus on a certain Adam and Eve did not mean that all other possibilities were forbidden. Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean that woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable. I wondered about the Bible as a whole. Maybe the entire thing was just a history of a certain culture, specific to that particular time and place, which made it hard for us now to understand, and which maybe even made it not applicable for us today. Like Exodus. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy said it too. But what did it mean? What did it mean back then? Was the boiling of the young goat in its mother’s milk a metaphor for insensitivity, for coldness of heart? Or did it refer to some ancient ritual that nobody performed anymore? But still, there it was in the Bible, open to whatever meaning people decided to give to it. Also, what if Adam and Eve were merely symbols of companionship?“
“Atheism is not typically a philosophy of nihilism stripping all meaning from human existence but a position of principled conscience grounded on commitments to reason and science and open debate. Hypocrisy is what empties the public square of moral purpose, and nothing encourages hypocrisy more than a god of convenience who finds sin not in what we do but in what our political opponents do.”
A great book. Living as an atheist, agnostic or even a non-Christian in the “godly republic” of America, the themes Kramnick wrote about here are familiar and deeply felt.
“What matters in our story is how events conspired to keep nonbelievers under the same cloud of suspicion. Was it credible in the twentieth century that people who did not believe in an afterlife and divine judgment were more likely to lie than people who still believed in hell? The truth is that most perjurers in American history have happily professed religion and have freely taken an oath to tell the truth.”
“Unable to chip away at the omnipresence of God in official political discourse, nonbelievers are marginalized, even stigmatized, as well, by their fellow citizens. This was true in the past and it remains true. No surprise then that candidates for public office would be silent about nonbelief.“
“Christian nationalism is not a religious creed but, in my view, a political ideology. It promotes the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation. It asserts that legitimate government rests not on the consent of the governed but on adherence to the doctrines of a specific religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage. It demands that our laws be based not on the reasoned deliberation of our democratic institutions but on particular, idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible.“
Along similar lines and themes as Kramnick’s book on the marginalization and demonization of atheism, here we take a look at the rise of religious nationalism. The ultimate hypocrisy, really, when America will condemn and possibly even go to war with states because they are “oppressive theocracies”. If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…
“‘I will occasionally mention political topics from the pulpit but not partisan ones,” he continues. “The Bible is inherently political in that it routinely speaks against people who abuse their power in order to oppress other people.’“
*The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure – Jonathan Haidt
“What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or texts they label “triggering.” (This is the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.)”
Compassion, understanding, empathy and humanity underpin almost all of my interactions in life. One might imagine then that Haidt’s book on the coddling of the American mind, the removal and excoriation of all ideas and debate that create discomfort (at threat of violence and ostracism), would fly in the face of this commitment to compassion. In fact, no. There is ample space for sensitivity and constructive, respectful discussion. But that’s what has been lost. We are either at extremes, being as insensitive and offensive as we please, or we are tiptoeing around subjects and even words that might “trigger” someone. Is this a kind of censorship? Maybe. When it’s taken on as policy or code of conduct, probably. In individual university classrooms, where this problem has been most evident, it has become problematic to the point that professors have lost jobs and the support of their peers.
Where is the line between pushing the envelope, dissecting even the most abhorrent of ideas, to learn to argue and debate in a reasonable, fact-based and respectful manner and gross negligence toward other people and their lived experience? What else is university for than to encounter entirely different, new worldviews, philosophies and ideas? Why have people become so cocooned and fragile that they need to be protected from and encased in “safe spaces” from words and ideas?
“Students were beginning to demand protection from speech because they had unwittingly learned to employ the very cognitive distortions that CBT tries to correct. Stated simply: Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”
Sure, I get that ideas are dangerous. But isn’t that all the more reason to make a truly safe space for diving into them more completely and find out how and why they have the power to control, to trigger, to incite? By ignoring and burying unpleasantness, we threaten ourselves, our children, and society as a whole with a kind of collective amnesia and an inability to deal with even minor hardship or trauma.
“If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella. The modern obsession with protecting young people from “feeling unsafe” is, we believe, one of the (several) causes of the rapid rise in rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide…”
No, this is not as simple as I’m making out, but it’s worth thinking about how far the pendulum has swung away from open expression and how much more harm we might be doing by shielding people, especially children, from the full range of experience. It’s like allergic response to peanuts. By protecting babies from peanuts, the argument goes, you are actually creating a greater sensitivity than if you had introduced low-level exposure earlier.
“Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.“
I don’t know what to make of the book’s account of a troubling episode at The Evergreen State College (a frequent lightning rod for matters of political correctness and free expression) in Washington State. Having studied there many years ago, I found it difficult to balance the pursuit of pure academic ideas and following them to their conclusion against entrenched political ideas/ideals both within the student body and the faculty. I loved Evergreen and the flexible approach to learning. Indeed, I could always count on other students and faculty to challenge my ideas and thinking. That was purportedly one of the founding philosophies of the school.
Yet if your narrative, field of inquiry strayed too far from safe guardrails, you could find yourself ostracized within the community. But at the same time, there are two competing narratives about what happened in the so-called “attempted student coup”. There’s the “the left turns on its own” thread and then “alt-right media infiltrates to silence student protest” thread.
Probably valid points on both sides, but there’s no clarity about what actually happened – nor will there be. As Trace (written about above) declares, a shared history or shared experience will never produce the same recollection twice. But this is, I think, where Haidt is going: we should be able to discuss and consider both sides and the nuances of these in order to understand and strengthen our theories.
*Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House – Rachel Maddow
“Because Agnew’s is a story of a scandal so brazen that, had it not occurred at the same time as Watergate, would likely be remembered as the most astonishing and sordid chapter visited upon a White House in modern times. Heck, in any times. Agnew’s is a tale of a thoroughly corrupt occupant of the White House whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who then clings to high office by using the power and prerogative of that same office to save himself.”
Overshadowed by Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, the unambiguous and out-in-the-open corruption offensive that characterized Vice President Spiro Agnew’s career could well have served as Donald Trump’s presidential playbook.
“His now-all-but-forgotten story has also turned out to be an odd historical doppelgänger, almost a premonition, for what the country would go through with the next Republican president who would face impeachment, after Nixon.“
“Why sermonize about the superiority of your ideas and values when it was so much more effective to attack the motives and character of your opponents, to call them names, to question their love of country.“
Maddow delivers a wildly entertaining and informative book about a moment in history we’ve largely overlooked, but which tells us in no uncertain terms that history repeats and snake-oil salesmen will slither out every few years to attempt to put a legitimate face on criminal enterprise.
“Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again. Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.“
Just a beautiful book. Stop, take stock, breathe. Hibernate. Do what you need to do to accept and embrace winter.
“More than any other season, winter requires a kind of metronome that ticks away its darkest beats, giving us a melody to follow into spring. The year will move on no matter what, but by paying attention to it, feeling its beat, and noticing the moments of transition—perhaps even taking time to think about what we want from the next phase in the year—we can get the measure of it.”
“Evolution doesn’t always mean progress, Evans told me. It means change. And life can change for better or worse. Today, the human body is changing in ways that have nothing to do with the “survival of the fittest.” Instead, we’re adopting and passing down traits that are detrimental to our health. This concept, called dysevolution, was made popular by Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman, and it explains why our backs ache, feet hurt, and bones are growing more brittle. Dysevolution also helps explain why we’re breathing so poorly. To understand how this all happened, and why, Evans told me, we need to go back in time. Way back. To before Homo sapiens were even sapiens.”
I wouldn’t have thought that a book about breathing would be so inspiring, but I enjoyed it and became a lot more mindful and aware of how I breathe.
I remember the hubbub in both tech and mainstream media when Dan Lyons, well-known technology journalist dude in his 50s, was hired at marketing automation startup wunderkind HubSpot. It made a few headlines because it seemed to fly in the face of the “youth is power” ethos that dominates startup tech hiring. Lyons’s account doesn’t do anything to change the idea of ageist bias, or my own experience that startups are often blind-leading-the-blind crap shoot enterprises. If they succeed, it’s not usually because they are well-organized and driven by great leadership or great products. Rather:
“It seems to me that HubSpot is not a software company so much as it is a financial instrument, a vehicle by which money can be moved from one set of hands to another. Halligan and Shah have assembled a low-cost workforce that can crank out hype and generate revenue. HubSpot doesn’t turn a profit, but that’s not necessary. All Halligan and Shah have to do is keep sales growing, and keep telling a good story, using words like delightion, disruption, and transformation, and stay in business long enough for their investors to cash out.”
Some of what Lyons scoffs at (organizational terminology, generational priorities, political correctness) is just par for the course – he’s a fish out of water. Drinking the Kool-Aid isn’t on his menu. And I get that. But it’s not like this is exclusive to the startup environment. Go to any company, of any size, and you’ll get the same things. It’s just that he went very far outside his comfort zone. If one went to one of the news rooms he describes, I don’t know that they would find instant comfort there either.
Still, Lyons’s chronicle of the layer upon layer of ridiculous isn’t misplaced and it isn’t wrong. I’ve seen reflections of this in almost every tech unicorn (and wanna-be unicorn) I’ve seen, and many books about working within the early stages of various now-massive companies that once had nebulous goals and business models confirm these impressions. Also, underneath the layer of ridiculing the inexperienced labor by which he’s surrounded, Lyons gets around to making some sharp points.
“This is the New Work, but really it is just a new twist on an old story, the one about labor being exploited by capital. The difference is that this time the exploitation is done with a big smiley face. Everything about this new workplace, from the crazy décor to the change-the-world rhetoric to the hero’s journey mythology and the perks that are not really perks—all of these things exist for one reason, which is to drive down the cost of labor so that investors can maximize their return.”
“In tech, the concept of culture fit is presented as a good thing. Unfortunately what culture fit often means is that young white guys like to hire other young white guys, and what you end up with is an astonishing lack of diversity.“
Once again, yep.