Confront head-on our white racist sh*t: Readings

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The first step is admitting ignorance. The next step is shutting up and listening, reading, educating yourself. I am late to compiling a list of some of the things I’ve read in the last couple of years to stumble out of the ignorance and blindness I wasn’t even aware of. I consider myself aware, intelligent, worldly, observant – so it is not as though everything I have learned about race, the construction of race as an oppressive tool, white privilege, inequality, etc. was new – but it doesn’t matter what or how much I knew or know. It needs to be repeated, shared, discussed, and worked on – truly confronted –if ever true equality is to be achieved. We all have so much work to do.

In no particular order, here are books – by no means even close to an exhaustive list – that should be not just consumed but actively studied and carefully considered. I am in no way qualified to guide anyone’s education or action, but it feels like a small thing I can at least share based on my compulsive reading habit. What I have found in the breadth of my reading across an incomprehensible range of topics is that race, racism and inequality is woven into the fabric of… everything. This is why it’s difficult for people, particularly the most well-meaning, to see how pervasive racism is.

There are so, so, so many more voices, people, stories, subjects, books, tv shows, films, histories, and perspectives out there. Here’s a great list from Ibram X. Kendi (some overlap between this list and mine); my list includes the small handful I can start with and amplify (well, to the tiny degree I can amplify anything) and confront and combat my own inexhaustible ignorance.

To be sure, though, reading isn’t enough – it won’t cure anything. I feel embarrassed almost that I am compiling a list — as though that will contribute anything. It feels like I’m jumping on a bandwagon, but to build understanding, you have to start somewhere.

Books

*So You Want to Talk About RaceIjeoma Oluo

Essential.

“Race has also become alive. Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it. Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole.”

*Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About RaceReni Eddo-Lodge

These are structural, systemic issues – you can’t even call them issues at this point because the entire system itself is racist. You don’t have to be an overt racist to be part of, and mindlessly support and benefit from, that racist system.

“We tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist. We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power. When swathes of the population vote for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist, as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn’t about good and bad people.”

“Structural racism is never a case of innocent and pure, persecuted people of colour versus white people intent on evil and malice. Rather, it is about how Britain’s relationship with race infects and distorts equal opportunity. I think that we placate ourselves with the fallacy of meritocracy by insisting that we just don’t see race. This makes us feel progressive. But this claim to not see race is tantamount to compulsory assimilation. My blackness has been politicised against my will, but I don’t want it wilfully ignored in an effort to instil some sort of precarious, false harmony. And, though many placate themselves with the colour-blindness lie, the aforementioned drastic differences in life chances along race lines show that while it might be being preached by our institutions, it’s not being practised.”

*The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessMichelle Alexander

 The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.”

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it. Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans—of all colors—oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet as we shall see in the pages that follow, racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”

*At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black PowerDanielle L McGuire 

“The brutal rape of Recy Taylor in 1944, and the sexual exploitation of thousands of other black women in the United States before and after the Civil War, is a central part of our history that has been grossly understated and unacknowledged for far too long. Though it may seem unnecessary, even lurid, to examine the details of sexual violence, it is crucial that we hear the testimonies black women offered at the time.”

Sexual violence committed against black women by white men is one of the brutalities we don’t think about or discuss – but it is a central, if hidden, ritualized terror that accompanies and defines explicit racism and oppression.

“As a kind of cultural narrative, rumors of rape and sexualized violence had enormous symbolic power and political potency. Whites used outrageous racial rumors and rape scares to justify strengthening segregation and white supremacy. Meanwhile the stories of sexual subjugation and racial terror that circulated among African Americans exposed white hypocrisy about interracial sex and spurred demands for equal justice and bodily integrity.”

*Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of BlacknessSimone Browne

An insightful and thought-provoking look at surveillance – and how “race continues to structure surveillance practices”. Very relevant thoughts on the supposed neutrality of surveillance technologies and the questions that arise in their application. It’s timely in any case given the widespread adoption of surveillance (much discussion on loss of privacy and the “dataification” of all people, but examined through different lenses, i.e., race, gender, disability, it takes on deeper questions of control versus controlled.

“Racializing surveillance is a technology of social control where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise a “power to define what is in or out of place.””

“Where public spaces are shaped for and by whiteness, some acts in public are abnormalized by way of racializing surveillance and then coded for disciplinary measures that are punitive in their effects.”

“Understanding how biometric information technologies are rationalized through industry specification and popular entertainment provides a means to falsify the idea that certain surveillance technologies and their application are always neutral regarding race, gender, disability, and other categories of determination and their intersections. Examining biometric practices and surveillance in this way is instructive. It invites us to understand the histories and the social relations that form part of the very conditions that enable these technologies.”

“These cases of flying while black reveal the ways in which certain bodies, particularly those of black women, often get taken up as publicly available for scrutiny and inspection, and also get marked as more threatening, unruly, and, in the words of the US Airways official to DeShon Marman, “not like everyone else.””

*White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo

“In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts.”

“We” – the white progressive, self-proclaimed “ally”—are one of the biggest problems/barriers of all.

“These responses spur the daily frustrations and indignities people of color endure from white people who see themselves as open-minded and thus not racist. This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.”

“Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge—the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility because it protects our racial bias while simultaneously affirming our identities as open-minded. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be confronted with an aspect of ourselves that we don’t like, but we can’t change what we refuse to see.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

 “Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

*The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison

LET US BE REMINDED that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another. Something, perhaps, like this: Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power, and because it works. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit, or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.”

“Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy—especially its males and absolutely its children. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions: a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press; a little pseudo-success; the illusion of power and influence; a little fun, a little style, a little consequence. Maintain, at all costs, silence.”

*The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y Davis, Cornel West and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America TodayWahneema Lubiano, editor

“The United States is not just the domicile of a historically specific form of racial oppression, but it sustains itself as a structure through that oppression.”

*A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra BlandDaMaris B Hill

*Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the PresentHarriet A Washington

“The white physicians who were trained by peering at, ridiculing, and practicing upon the captive bodies of African Americans had been taught to view these bodies as expendable. When loosed upon the world as practitioners, they continued to view African Americans as subjects rather than as patients. Graduate physicians utilized unwilling blacks to display their therapeutic prowess or as raw material for research papers and surgical reputations.”

*Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of LibertyDorothy Roberts

A powerful and important account about all the ways in which “the denial of Black reproductive autonomy serves the interests of white supremacy”.

“The dominant view of liberty reserves most of its protection only for the most privileged members of society. This approach superimposes liberty on an already unjust social structure, which it seeks to preserve against unwarranted government interference. Liberty protects all citizens’ choices from the most direct and egregious abuses of government power, but it does nothing to dismantle social arrangements that make it impossible for some people to make a choice in the first place. Liberty guards against government intrusion; it does not guarantee social justice.”

*Thick: And Other EssaysTressie McMillan Cottom

“White voters allowed Barack Obama to become an idea and a president because he was a fundamental projection of the paradox that defines them as white. I almost forgot once. Old trees and new whites are a seduction. But my soul remembers my grandmother’s memories. It is imperative that one knows one’s whites.”

Essays on beauty “standards” and who gets to define those standards, competence “standards”, again – who defines them, and sexual violence and the irrational and oppressive obsession with assigning personal responsibility to individuals (particularly black women) for their victimization (e.g., “It was then that I learned that black girls like me can never truly be victims of sexual predators. And that the men in my life were also men in the world. Men can be your cousin, men can be Mike Tyson, and men can be both of them at the same time.”)

This selection of essays produced unexpected levels of emotion as I read it, perhaps because it succinctly collects and describes the egregious and outrageous injustices that make up daily life for most black girls and women for every single aspect of their lives across their entire lifespan.

“As long as the beautiful people are white, what is beautiful at any given time can be renegotiated without redistributing capital from white to nonwhite people.”

“When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it.”

“When white feminists catalogue how beauty standards over time have changed, from the “curvier” Marilyn Monroe to the skeletal Twiggy to the synthetic-athletic Pamela Anderson, their archetypes belie beauty’s true function: whiteness. Whiteness exists as a response to blackness. Whiteness is a violent sociocultural regime legitimized by property to always make clear who is black by fastidiously delineating who is officially white. It would stand to reason that beauty’s ultimate function is to exclude blackness. That beauty also violently conditions white women and symbolically precludes the existence of gender nonconforming people is a bonus.”

*The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s HouseAudre Lorde

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educated men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.

Simone de Beauvoir once said: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

*Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminismbell hooks

“No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women. We are rarely recognized as a group separate and distinct from black men, or as a present part of the larger group “women” in this culture.”

“Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation. Frequently observers of the black female experience confuse these issues.”

“Like Susan Brownmiller, most people tend to see devaluation of black womanhood as occurring only in the context of slavery. In actuality, sexual exploitation of black women continued long after slavery ended and was institutionalized by other oppressive practices. Devaluation of black womanhood after slavery ended was a conscious, deliberate effort on the part of whites to sabotage mounting black female self-confidence and self-respect.”

*Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practicebell hooks

*The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great MigrationIsabel Wilkerson

“The people did not cross the turnstiles of customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such. Their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow, a nineteenth-century minstrel figure that would become shorthand for the violently enforced codes of the southern caste system. The Jim Crow regime persisted from the 1880s to the 1960s, some eighty years, the average life span of a fairly healthy man. It afflicted the lives of at least four generations and would not die without bloodshed, as the people who left the South foresaw. Over time, this mass relocation would come to dwarf the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its one hundred thousand participants and the Dust Bowl migration of some three hundred thousand people from Oklahoma and Arkansas to California in the 1930s. But more remarkably, it was the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in this country for far longer than they have been free.”

*The Cornel West ReaderCornel West

“Black strivings are the creative and complex products of the terrifying African encounter with the absurd in America—and the absurd as America. Like any other group of human beings, black people forged ways of life and ways of struggle under circumstances not of their own choosing.”

*Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a MovementAngela Y Davis

“The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation. This happened and we should not underestimate its importance. The problem is that it is often assumed that the eradication of the legal apparatus is equivalent to the abolition of racism. But racism persists in a framework that is far more expansive, far vaster than the legal framework.”

“Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism—I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple feminisms, right? It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism, and racism, and colonialism, and postcolonialities, and ability, and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name. Feminism has helped us not only to recognize a range of connections among discourses, and institutions, and identities, and ideologies that we often tend to consider separately.”

*Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this.”

*Separate: The Story of Plessy v Ferguson and America’s Journey from Slavery to SegregationSteve Luxenberg

All of this will sound too painfully familiar and repetitive.

“The ruling in Plessy drew little attention at the time, but its baneful effects lasted longer than any other civil rights decision in American history. It gave legal cover to an increasingly pernicious series of discriminatory laws in the first half of the twentieth century. Under the banner of keeping the races apart, much of white America stood silent as black Americans suffered beatings, assaults, and murders.”

“He had listened as Douglass had exhorted the delegates to “make every organized protest against the wrongs inflicted on them.” Throughout his long career, the brilliant orator’s message had been strongly consistent: We must act now, we cannot wait, whites will always tell us that the time is not right.”

There is also so much fiction and poetry that should be included. Here are just a few things I have recently read or must-read classics, but there’s so very much more that absolutely must be explored.

*The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead

*The Nickel BoysColson Whitehead

*Anything at all by James Baldwin

*Magical NegroMorgan Parker

*BelovedToni Morrison

*Their Eyes Were Watching GodZora Neale Hurston

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Said and read – May 2020

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“Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realized. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”” Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

Image by S Donaghy, April 2020

We’re heading into another month of a pandemic that more and more people choose to ignore as though it’s over, while tensions simmered and civil unrest exploded, like a pressure cooker. It occurs to me more clearly than ever that the problems, addictions, insanities, lack of control that defined people’s lives before the various levels of quarantine not only remain but become outsized, as though studied under a microscope. If you are an aggressive, angry person prone to lose your temper, all of this feels likelier to boil over in these pent-up conditions. If you are an addict, attempting to run from yourself and the pain and anxiety that ail you, there is no worse time than being trapped in your home, alone with your thoughts.

I suspect we’re in for many more months of uncertainty; people’s anger at having made sacrifices (particularly in the face of loss) while their ‘fearless leaders’ did not leads to deeper and more fractious divides. People’s anger at the ineptitude of a federal government and its refusal to act at all during a pandemic, coupled with increasing anger about the abundant inequalities of the criminal justice system (e.g., how many black people must be murdered by police before something changes?), has made clear the brokenness of the United States, long in the making, a catastrophic implosion precipitated … protests, riots, and … what more? We don’t yet know the outcome, but it hurts to say that I fear things will go on being exactly the same or worse.

So, I read. I read so much that I find it difficult to find time to catalog my thoughts on the previous month’s reading. But I try. Each month I only capture here the things that struck me in some way, but this is never a complete rendering of all the things I’ve read.

I’ve ended up finishing these ramblings so far into June that it’s already my birthday; therefore, I’ve lived to pulse ocho for another year.

Here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

Highly recommended

*The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

“Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” –The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

I dreamt of writing something thoughtful about John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I found, however, that I become too frustrated and angry to properly formulate thoughts. The fact that this was written in 1869, followed by very slow change, almost immovable thinking, and a continued cultural conditioning about women’s inferiority, infuriates me. On reflection, there are material differences between what women could do in 1869 and now, but the underlying value assigned to women, their bodies, their experiences, their contributions continues to be underestimated, if considered at all. I urge careful reading and re-reading of this. And then reflect on the age-old arguments on nature and nurture. That is, recognizing the “eminently artificial” nature of women created by “forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”, and the assertion that women, being physically weaker, are somehow unequal to men, and for it to be otherwise would be “unnatural”, although “unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.”

“If anything conclusive could be inferred from experience, without psychological analysis, it would be that the things which women are not allowed to do are the very ones for which they are peculiarly qualified; since their vocation for government has made its way, and become conspicuous, through the very few opportunities which have been given; while in the lines of distinction which apparently were freely open to them, they have by no means so eminently distinguished themselves. We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule; though many of them have occupied the throne in difficult periods. It is remarkable, too, that they have, in a great number of instances, been distinguished by merits the most opposite to the imaginary and conventional character of women: they have been as much remarked for the firmness and vigour of their rule, as for its intelligence.”

*Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

“My own lived experience was the guide here, and all I needed was a willingness to meet it, to allow myself to ask certain kinds of questions and be willing to hear the answers that might follow, no matter how disconcerting those answers might be. This, then, was the real test of faith—not whether I was willing to change my beliefs but, rather, whether I was willing to give language to that which I had already begun to experience as truth.” –Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

Much like Ruttenberg as a young woman, I was never religious. I’ve never actively claimed to be an atheist, but because I don’t believe it’s possible to know (which is why we call it faith) for certain, religious and spiritual questions have rarely engaged me in more than a cursory and academic way. But faith and religion are powerful markers of identity and community, making them inspirational topics for thought and research, but also fascinating in grappling with the grittiest questions about oneself. I continue to come back to the big questions myself, particularly in terms of how I’ve lived and how I want to live, and this is tightly wound with ideas of community, isolation (self-imposed or societal), intention and compassion.

“What religion changes is not just our identity, our relationships, our politics, our sense of what the world is and how we move in it, but also, potentially, every small decision that we make. What religion changes, if we let it, is not just ourselves, not just our smaller home culture, but the world as a whole and the power structures that run it.”

Throughout my life, despite not being Jewish, I have been drawn time and again to progressive interpretations of Judaism and, for inexplicable reasons, I identify with this particular faith more than any other. Ruttenberg herself outlines succinctly exactly why it speaks to her, and it happens to apply just as well to me (and probably to many others who choose to be Jewish, whether they are actively embracing the faith into which they were born or adopt it much later as a conscious and conscientious choice):

“I can find a lot of different ways to explain why I was drawn to Judaism. There’s a strong ethical tradition, but also a tremendous awe for the transcendent. It’s a faith that is comfortable with debate and a diversity of opinion—of five thousand legal disagreements recorded in the Talmud, only fifty or so are settled on the page, leaving open the possibility that the “right” answer isn’t so obvious.”

This sense of needing to know about and experience Judaism has grown over time, and it has only been in the last few years that I have recommitted to exploring this feeling more seriously. I started this journey half-jokingly, half-curious in my youth, attending various courses at a Reform synagogue near where I grew up. But I didn’t take it further until recently, when I started studying psychology, then the psychology of religion, and then theology in the context of peace and conflict.

And while I frequently jest that I would like to become a rabbi, it would certainly help if I were first Jewish.

And before taking any conversion-related steps, I needed to dive deeply into the literature and truly understand what I feel and might want to be a part of. Happily, somewhere in this neverending journey, I stumbled across a lengthy reading list compiled by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and I’ve been making my way through it. This particular book, her own, was on the list, and I found that the rabbi had undergone a spiritual transformation herself, during which she dabbled in atheism and studied philosophy, and voiced many of the same complaints I’ve always had about my own academic aspirations, e.g. “I found that I was perfectly capable of unpacking Hegel or Hobbes, but that it just wasn’t all that much fun once the big ideas became too abstract, too disconnected from human lives.”; “Religious studies, on the other hand, was philosophy and anthropology and literature and history all rolled up in one.” This is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that has driven most of my scholarly and life choices. Where some might see a dilettante who can’t commit (and I do self-flagellate on this), I see someone whose curiosity cannot be contained. Where some might see a lack of willingness to dive deeply into the minutiae of one thing, I see someone who cares more about the human and person-centered roots of almost every discipline. It’s always about getting back to humanity.

When it comes to religious faith and practice, it can be deeply individual, particularly when its nascent and uncertain. And yet in some ways, at some point, it may become very public (if you begin to practice in a community). This can pose a barrier, but again, it is about getting in touch with humanity.

“Thomas Merton talks about the “tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which [those new to religion] feel about praying publicly . . . The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think that you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.”

First you must decide whether your pursuit is satisfying a curiosity or is actually driven by something deeper. Then, should you decide that it’s deeper, you must overcome the idea that you’re an impostor, that you’re “doing it” or “believing” wrong. And finally when you can start to let down the walls, softening yourself to hear and accept answers you needed to hear — but only after doing the sometimes painful and arduous work of waking up truly.

“Years down the road, I would learn how hard it could be to follow my intuition, to feel whatever was buried deep within my fettered heart, to try to meet God without denial. But I would discover that fear and pain were a hundred thousand times better than this unconscious sleepwalking through parties and distraction—that even when it was harder, I would prefer to be awake, and alive. But that was all later.”

Perhaps most powerful here, and there were a lot of resonant ideas, was Ruttenberg’s call to action, which aligns with so much of what I’ve been reading (and writing about here): transformation and change, social justice, community, and the detached ways we live today. We can defy the way our culture aims to commoditize humanity, innoculating us against the idea that our community and true spirituality can feed us in ways that consumerism and individualism cannot.

“The dominant culture depends on our sense of isolation. As long as spirituality remains an individualized, personal experience, chances remain good that the inherently revolutionary potential of religious work will sit forever inert and untapped. That is to say, those who practice their spirituality without community are much less likely to demand change in and upheaval to the status quo, or feel that they have the power to do so.”

“More often than not, the places where it’s necessary to mobilize for transformation in religion reflect our contemporary understanding of morality and compassion.”

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“Real, evidence-driven analysis, they believed, would overturn one of modernity’s most deeply held principles: that science will tell us which individuals and groups are naturally smarter, abler, more upstanding, and fitter to rule. Their response was that science pointed in precisely the opposite direction, toward a theory of humanity that embraces all the many ways we humans have devised for living. The social categories into which we typically divide ourselves, including labels such as race and gender, are at base artificial—the products of human artifice, residing in the mental frameworks and unconscious habits of a given society.”

“…in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. Culture, as Boas and his students understood it, is the ultimate source for what we think constitutes common sense. It defines what is obvious or beyond question. It tells us how to raise a child, how to pick a leader, how to find good things to eat, how to marry well. Over time these things change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. Yet there is no more fundamental reality in the social world than the one that humans themselves in some measure create.” –Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the people within the field and the cultures to which they belong. At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti, which ring true through American society today:

“FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WHO SERVED as the U.S. minister and consul-general in Haiti, once said that tracing the country’s history was like following a wounded man through a crowd: you just needed to follow the blood.”

“The key to understanding zombies, Hurston concluded, lay not in finding a secret potion or in debunking another people’s mythology. It was actually believing in them. Felix-Mentor wasn’t a person who was said to be a zombie. She wasn’t a make-believe one, like her fictional counterpart in a Hollywood film. She really was one. If you could twist your brain into seeing that fact, then you had taken a giant step toward seeing Haiti—and most important, its spirituality—from the inside.”

“A woman disappeared—conveniently, for her brother and her husband—and then reappeared and started causing trouble until she was put away in a mental institution, cowering, distraught, wordless, no longer herself, alive yet dead. Religions survive not because people love the faith of their fathers but because they help us navigate the world as we find it.”

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

““Gods always behave like the people who make them,” Hurston wrote in her notes from Haiti. A boisterous spirit could say the thing a peasant couldn’t. A person mounted by a loa could curse a field boss or a pith-helmeted American. Possession by unseen forces, escaping into a kind of death, could be a way of being truly, deeply alive, especially in places where it was hard to speak the truth in any other way. That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.”

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” –The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

I can’t explain why, but this book almost immediately had me in tears. I think it’s attributable in part, once more, to the inevitable dilution of historical events. Things that were intense, painful, sweeping — things I can’t even describe in words, such as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s — have become anodyne footnotes accompanied by inoffensive elevator music. I was a child during this epidemic, but watching it unfold affected me at such a fundamental level that I still cry uncontrollably watching footage of protests juxtaposed with images of the march of slow, excruciating and senseless death. As I say, I was a child. I can’t begin to imagine what this period was like for people most affected by it, those like Schulman and her community in New York at the height of the crisis.

“Bizarrely, this very day is the twentieth anniversary of AIDS. Decontextualized by palm trees, I listen. The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic that was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s book deals mostly with the gentrification process — but not just the material gentrification we can see in cities like New York, but rather a brainwashing of sorts: the gentrification of the culture, and the gentrification of the mind. It is woven into the institutionally sanctioned happiness-industry culture we are a part of in which we willingly become a part of a herd and ignore what we give up to be a part of that — both on an individual level and as a society. Individually we — this is truer for some than others — may, for example, as Schulman writes, come to expect that one’s “teacher does not remember them, even after intimate direct conversations in class about their lives and work” because somehow the individual is not important enough to remember, particularly if they have always been part of a marginalized group. Societally, we find ourselves acting against the community and its interests because we are encouraged and incentivized to participate in a culture that endlessly craves manufactured happiness and comfort — and the only way to achieve this, according to the rules of this society, is to compete or step on someone else, or in some cases, merely tolerate injustices that we see but don’t speak out against.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS struggle, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Autobiographically, the AIDS experience may be where I came to understand that it is a fundamental of individual integrity to intervene to stop another person from being victimized, even if to do so is uncomfortable or frightening.”

“Gentrification culture makes it very hard for people to intervene on behalf of others. The Nasdaq value system is and was a brutal one. Being consumed by it and being shut out of it are both deadening and result in distorted thinking about private sectors, economic and emotional. Gentrification culture is rooted in the ideology that people needing help is a “private” matter, that it is nobody’s business. Taking their homes is called “cleaning up” the neighborhood. ACT UP was the most recent American social movement to succeed, and it did so because AIDS activist culture of the 1980s was the opposite of Gentrification culture.”

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

“A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only “universal” but also “race-free” risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.” –Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

This is a unique moment to survey Morrison’s work on literary criticism and African-American literature. She calls out the “polite” color blindness of the dominant cultural system and exposes it as a thick layer of white paint that has for so long covered over necessary calls to consciousness, assessment and action. Today it is embodied in Black Lives Matter, and this must be named, seen, and understood by those who cannot understand it because the responsibility rests with them, i.e., the most dangerous being the white liberal self-proclaimed “ally” who nevertheless never questions and furthers systems of what Morrison refers to as “intellectual domination”.

“Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

Violence against black bodies is the most immediate emergency, of course, but as a reflection of a comprehensively racist system, we must also dig into things as esoteric as literary criticism to understand the depth of the problem.

“Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. What is fascinating, however, is to observe how their lavish exploration of literature manages not to see meaning in the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy—an informing, stabilizing, and disturbing element—in the literature they do study. It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts.”

*Pale Colors in a Tall Field: PoemsCarl Phillips

Poetry, of course.

*The FallD. Nurkse

More poetry. Always poetry.

*The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

My life was a story, dry as pages. Seems like he should have known/enough to like them even lightly with his thumb/ But he didn’t. /And I have to admit I didn’t much like the idea/of telling him how.” –The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

And yet more poetry. Every day is poetry.

Good – or better than expected

*Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

All I can say about Never Enough is that it balances the author’s own experience with addiction with the neuroscience behind addiction. It reinforces what much of science and social science instructs about addiction: addiction often escalates when faced with a lack of acceptance and community – seeing no alternatives or no possible way out – in a judgmental society that criminalizes addiction and in which some substance abuse (particularly alcohol) is second nature and not seen at all as abuse or troublesome (until it is). Grisel’s account states:

“Though there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began a few months after the ghost-in-the-mirror episode, when my father inexplicably changed course and took me out for my twenty-third birthday. Federal agents, friends’ deaths, expulsions and evictions, physical withdrawal, and myriad other tragedies weren’t enough to propel me to change; instead, it was human love and connection. My father’s willingness to be seen with me and to treat me with kindness split open my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had.”

She never claims that this turning point made her choice easy, but it was about choice — and it required connection and compassion to reach that stage. Having some meaning seems to be a deciding factor for many addicts, which is backed up by work from both Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Carl Hart, who also specialize in addiction. A unique part of the book is that it covers different categories of drug and in some cases proposes ways we might mitigate some of the pitfalls of use — that is, make alcohol-free spaces more common, find ways to cope with and treat pain, see others with compassion and look at what can be done rather than what cannot.

“So, who’s to blame for the epidemic of addiction? The truth is no one is to blame, but we are all responsible. Our collective shadow supports addiction because we must have a scapegoat even as we deny, or embrace, the many strategies of escape we employ ourselves. We support the tools of addiction, including pathological individualism that leads to alienation, widespread and enthusiastic endorsement of avoidance, and a smorgasbord of consumptive excess and self-medication. Though any search for a cause (or a cure) is bound to fall short, one source of this epidemic is our unwillingness to bear our own pain, along with our failure to look upon the suffering of others with compassion.”

*Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

“The triumph of exchange values over experiential values changed the world both for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, with the commodification of goods, land, and labor came an end to the oppression, injustice, and wretchedness of serfdom. A new concept of freedom was born, along with the possibility of abolishing slavery and the technological capability to produce enough goods for all. On the other hand, it prompted unprecedented new forms of misery, poverty, and potential slavery.” –Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

After reading Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist last month and continuing to think about the up-and-down waves of collapsing capitalism, Varoufakis’s simplified take on economics and capitalism would be a good addition to the basics, boiled down to the simple premise: ““My reason for writing it was the conviction that the economy is too important to leave to the economists.” This is much the same argument that guided the research and thinking behind Doughnut Economics.

“Today’s economic experts are not much different. Whenever they fail to predict properly some economic phenomenon, which is almost always, they account for their failure by appealing to the same mystical economic notions that failed them in the first place. Occasionally, new notions are created in order to account for the failure of the earlier ones.”

How far removed from human life and needs can economics — ostensibly the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, which are produced, distributed and consumed by people — get?

“With time, I recognized something else, a delicious contradiction about my own profession that reinforced this belief: the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real, existing economy out there. This is precisely the opposite of what obtains in physics, engineering…”

Very much aligned with the questions I continue to ask myself as I make reading and study choices: what are my values, what are society’s collective values? And Varoufakis does the same, hitting the nail right on the head — we live in a time in which experience holds no value, and everything is commodified and assigned a market value. People fall right into this — from assigning a salary, fair or not, to their time and labor (which do, in fact, belong to them) to turning people themselves into products and market experiments (how can we influence consumers, how much can be extract from them either in the form of direct consumption or in the data they generate and unwittingly share with us)?

“Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynical person is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Our societies tend to make us all cynics. And no one is more cynical than the economist who sees exchange value as the only value, trivializing experiential value as unnecessary in a society where everything is judged according to the criteria of the market. But how exactly did exchange value manage this triumph over experiential value? The commodification of everything…”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

“If Gandhi despised one thing more than cowardice, it was cowardice wrapping itself in the mantle of nonviolence.” –What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

No stranger to controversy, Finkelstein provides analysis of the tenets for which Gandhi is best known globally… not diving too deeply into the more controversial and troubling aspects of Gandhi the man. Finkelstein focuses squarely on Gandhi’s words and their constant contradictions, emphasizing Gandhi’s predilection for action over consistency of expression. While other readings I’ve highlighted here suggest that inconsistent expression is a hallmark of the dictator, I doubt anyone would claim Gandhi had dictatorial aspirations, even if it seems he had a control-freak streak (and preoccupation with sex and attempting to control it). In fact, according to Finkelstein, Gandhi’s commitment to acting on non-violent resistance came from the need to throw off colonial chains and rulers, not to grab power for himself once these occupiers were successfully resisted.

“Gandhi devoted the whole of his adult life to organizing the powerless 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent. He aspired in the first place to end the British occupation of India, but he also recoiled at the prospect of a corrupt clique of native Indians replacing the foreign occupiers.”

“He was convinced not only that the old world could be extirpated and a new world be brought into being nonviolently, but also that unless it was done nonviolently, the new world would hardly differ from the old world it superseded.”

Finkelstein attempts to show that Gandhi was not passive, and did not advocate being passive. He in fact would advocate violence if and when there were no other alternative.

“The real Gandhi did loathe violence but he loathed cowardice more than violence. If his constituents could not find the inner wherewithal to resist nonviolently, then he exhorted them to find the courage to hit back those who assaulted or demeaned them.”

The unfortunate problem here is that one cannot rely on the judgment of an individual that there “was no alternative”. We can see, despite the very different conditions and circumstances, that a number of police officers in the United States justify murder because they claim to have had no other recourse, and felt that their own lives were threatened. Never mind that they are in positions of power, authority and are armed. I use this example only to illustrate the subjectivity of the perceived alternatives.

Finkelstein also explores the limitations and contradictions of Gandhi’s teachings, which makes this book a worthwhile endeavor.

*Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

“All animals need time, experiences, practice, and failure to become mature adults.” –Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Oh, adolescence.

“It seems tragically counterintuitive that the most vulnerable and underprepared individuals would be thrown into the riskiest possible situations. But facing mortal danger while still maturing is a fact of life for adolescents and young adults across species.”

Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers explore the fraught period of human and other species adolescent period, which is fascinating overall but a few key points stand out, in particular the question of what happens to humans once old risks are eliminated, when there is capacity to manage more than just basic survival.

“What happens when brains and bodies that evolved in environments full of predators and other threats find those dangers removed? A similar question was posed thirty years ago by a British epidemiologist who noticed a rise in autoimmune diseases like lupus and Crohn’s. David Strachan wondered what happens to immune systems that evolved in environments with many varied pathogens when the world gets cleaner. The “hygiene hypothesis” suggested that human immune systems, unchallenged in overly clean environments, turn inward and begin to attack their own bodies, mistaking normal tissue for pathogens. Might a similar process be driving anxiety in modern adolescents and other individuals? Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher at the University of Bergen who studies fear, thinks yes. He believes that many modern humans have a “surplus of consciousness” that gets directed into imagining risks.”

“Safer than ever before, with more “brain space” to devote to thinking about risks that don’t pan out, we live in a state of what Svendsen calls “permanent fear.” Permanent fear, believes Svendsen, isolates individuals and creates anxious, lonely societies because “living a life of fear is incompatible with living a life of happiness.””

“Adolescents and adults who seem to have it all still get sad, sometimes even truly depressed. A human being’s internal self-perception can be very different from how others see them. Social experiences during adolescence shape individuals’ views of their status in ways that sometimes continue into adult life. The happiness that might come from success in adult life may be blunted by the enduring effects of social defeats during adolescence.”

Another key point, which seems obvious, but isn’t — based on how critically “sexual compliance” is handled in society. Overt threats are not required in a world that does not believe women, does not understand the subtlety of covert threats, and in which violence is glorified and some people feel entitled to “take”. That is, as Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers share:

“Sex between two animals that appears to be non-coerced, because physical force is not observed, may actually be coercive in a less visible way if the female has been harassed into submitting. Some males may persistently badger unreceptive females for sex, preventing them from foraging and feeding—a phenomenon documented in dolphins, sheep, quail, and coho salmon. Sexually harassed elephant seals, fallow bucks, and female tortoiseshell butterflies ultimately relent, submitting to sex simply so they can go about their lives. An uninformed observer, who sees no resistance or physical restraint, might not recognize these encounters as the coercive events they are. This is especially true because the intimidation and threats of violence may take place hours or even days before the sexual encounter.”

“Conventional wisdom of the time held that fertile female chimpanzees were choosing the mates they preferred. But Wrangham and Muller realized these females weren’t choosing; they were complying.”

*The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

“The timing of my new mustache—ten days after my wife miscarried, a week after I injured my back in a car crash, and two weeks after my father found out he had inoperable cancer—couldn’t have been better. Instead of talking about Dad’s chemo or my wife’s hospitalization, I could divert all small talk to the thick tuft of facial hair growing above my upper lip. And whenever anyone asked, “What’s with the mustache?” I had the perfect answer, and it was even mostly true: “It’s for the boy.” A mustache is not just a great distraction device; it’s also an excellent icebreaker. It’s amazing how many people who see a new mustache in the middle of a familiar face are happy to share their own private mustache stories.” –The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

I discovered Etgar Keret by accident – happy surprise, entertaining fiction, clear voice. That’s all.

“In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”

*Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

“Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”” –Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

Most of what Sacks produced is worth reading, and while this was not his best collection, I was mostly struck by his references to how public everything is now. Privacy, as we all know, is dead. And now that we lead almost entirely public lives, we have created identities for others to consume, and we create data that makes us consumable. An endless cycle of (false?) identity creation followed by someone mining that false or aspirational identity data followed by someone trying to sell or selling us something based on that data followed by the consumption and use that lends credence and authority to the identity we created for public consumption, reinforcing the whole cycle repeatedly. Do we consider the trade-offs? It is too late to opt out. How do we want to be — whom do we want to be — in this world we’ve created and submitted to?

“Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

*The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

“But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice—all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time—is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you.” –The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

While not surprising, and leaning a bit heavily on the mild shock value of its profanity-inspired title, this book more or less catalogs the complaint I, and many others, have had about the always-booming self-help industry. Not only does it create and inflate unrealistic expectations within the very population (usually vulnerable) that can least afford to sink a bunch of money and misguided hope into snake-oil in repetitive mantra form, it does, as Manson clearly broadcasts, project that “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”. YES.

Sure, I know I’ve been chastised and criticized for my “negativity” pretty much all my life. But I don’t care because I’m content, I’m realistic, I’m pragmatic. I have enough, and I am not on an endless and probably fruitless quest for “happiness”, which has become entirely meaningless because being “happy” has been warped by BS ideas about consuming, having, owning and usurped by the constant need for more. Happiness is different from meaning derived from experience, where I see great value. Manson quotes Albert Camus and Charles Bukowski in an admonishment not to seek out happiness; equating happiness with conformity and need to succeed or perform according to society’s arbitrary standards is probably what Camus, Bukowski and Manson would refer to as “giving too many fucks”.

“Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”

Not giving a fuck is not about indifference; in fact, it is having the fortitude, maturity and strength of identity to be able to stand alone, to weather difficulties and to be comfortable with uncertainty and with being oneself, even if that means going against the rest of the herd (perhaps by trying, however futile it is, to opt out of the always-on public life).

*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

“Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” –Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

An irreverent look at the body once it becomes…uninhabited. Unlike Bill Bryson’s book on the anatomy and functions of the human body, Roach dissects (not literally) the things that may happen to a human body after death.

Yes, irreverent.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with just lying around on your back. In its way, rotting is interesting too, as we will see. It’s just that there are other ways to spend your time as a cadaver. Get involved with science. Be an art exhibit. Become part of a tree. Some options for you to think about. Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

Yes, oddly filled with chicken-adjacent stories.

“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.

The heads have been put in roasting pans—which are of the disposable aluminum variety—for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings.”

“Eventually the taxi pulled up outside a brightly lit fried chicken establishment, the sort of place that in the United States might proclaim “We Do Chicken Right!” but here proclaimed “Do Me Chicken!” The cabdriver turned to collect his fare. We shouted at each other for a while, and eventually he got out and walked over to a tiny, dim storefront next to the chicken place and pointed vigorously to a sign. Designated Foreign-Oriented Tourist Unit, it said. Well, do me chicken. The man was right.”

*Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” –Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

As I ponder throughout this post, history is a moving target, and one experience is not representative of all, or universal, experience. This book manages somehow to be an example both of attempting to fit all of history into a single interpretation while also calling out how a multiplicity of experiences shelter under different umbrellas. After all, a book purporting to be a history of humankind will by necessity take a broad perspective. A dense and fascinating overview, it covers expansive ground, from money to religion, from the pace of change (the social order is in a state of “permanent flux”) to the accumulation of wealth and whether change and wealth have made us happier or more relaxed or “advanced”. It asks questions I wouldn’t (and Harari probably wouldn’t, based on the final words quoted below) expect of a book of this kind.

“But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions.”

Perhaps most appropriate and more specifically, Harari explores the always-controversial (although it should not be) debate (and it should not be one) about determining what is biological and what is “justified through biological myths”. An example here is the tendency to discuss concepts like race and gender in quite general, overarching terms while not completely making them reductive.

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.”

“Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”

I took many points away from this book, but it’s this last point — about the gender hierarchy — that struck me most of all. I find myself getting angrier about gender inequality as I get older, and the historical record justifies this anger. There is no biological basis for relegating women to a position of inferiority, and yet, throughout societies the world over, that’s exactly where women exist.

“How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

*The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

“…and for years the Balkans faded into our collective memories. No one ever said: “Remember the man who filled up the car in Pec?” or, “Remember the field by that cement factory called General Jankovic?”—because the Balkans were peaceful in those times, and we had no compelling reason to think of them.” –The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

I didn’t love this book but tend to read everything about the former Yugoslavia, its breakup, and different “western” takes on “Balkan drama”. I don’t generally buy into a lot of the analysis, but I nevertheless feel compelled to be steeped in it, if only to have close-to-the-skin reminders of what it was like to be there (by “there” I mean Bosnia, not so much Kosovo, as Winchester does) in the post-war period: the “fixers” that would get hired to act as… well, fixers, drivers and interpreters, even though their real jobs were as engineers, students or farmers, the Turkish-style coffee, the mélange of foods (I lived on shopska salad myself), people, styles, a kind of clash of old and new world (a man driving his horse and buggy along the same road down which a cadre of Bosnian politicians gunned their motorcade of brand-new Audi A8s while making a campaign stop), the random marriage proposals from strangers who simply sought an easy exit, intermittent electricity, random security evacuation exercises, and civil sector bureaucracy.

Reading this and similar accounts of the end of Yugoslavia, I can’t help but feel my age, but much more acutely, I feel the squeeze of insignificance… how diluted historical events become with time. I wouldn’t claim that I knew a lot of people outside certain circles who felt concerned about the situation in former Yugoslavia even at the time, but now, with the war well outside the living memory of young adults, I meet many young people who have never heard of Yugoslavia at all and had nebulous notions, if any idea at all, that a war was fought in this place that they associate vaguely (again, if they have any associations whatsoever) with the filming locations for Game of Thrones (Croatia) and coastal holidays.

*Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

“Your credibility arises in part from how your society perceives people like you, and we have seen over and over again that no matter how credible some women are by supposedly objective standards reinforced by evidence and witnesses and well-documented patterns, they will not be believed by people committed to protecting men and their privileges. The very definition of women under patriarchy is designed to justify inequality, including inequality of credibility. Though patriarchy often claims a monopoly on rationality and reason, those committed to it will discount the most verifiable, coherent, ordinary story told by a woman and accept any fantastical account by a man, will pretend sexual violence is rare and false accusations common, and so forth. Why tell stories if they will only bring forth a new round of punishment or disparagement?” –Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

Referring again to the idea that some people (men, white) have unlimited space to tell stories and be believed, few voices chronicle the struggle to be taken seriously, to be heard and to be respected as well as Rebecca Solnit. The ways women’s experiences have been distorted by the collective voice of dominance insisting that women are “crazy” have enabled the control men continue to have over women — and society as a whole. We can read about (and feel) the injustice of this in all kinds of discourse — some even dating back more than 150 years (see The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, listed above), and some much more recent, such as Sapiens, listed below, by Yuval Noah Harari.

“It was a kind of collective gaslighting. To live in a war that no one around me would acknowledge as a war—I am tempted to say that it made me crazy, but women are so often accused of being crazy, as a way of undermining their capacity to bear witness and the reality of what they testify to. Besides, in these cases, crazy is often a euphemism for unbearable suffering. So it didn’t make me crazy; it made me unbearably anxious, preoccupied, indignant, and exhausted. I was faced with either surrendering my freedom in advance or risking losing it in the worst ways imaginable. One thing that makes people crazy is being told that the experiences they have did not actually happen, that the circumstances that hem them in are imaginary, that the problems are all in their head, and that if they are distressed it is a sign of their failure, when success would be to shut up or to cease to know what they know.”

*Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

“Tyrants trust no one, least of all their allies. Duvalier disposed of friends and foes alike, striking down anyone he thought was too ambitious or might develop a separate power base. No one was indispensable.” –Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

We’re living through a time in which we are surrounded by a number of would-be dictators. For this reason alone, a chronicle of the lives of dictators in the 20th century is both timely and instructive. I could list off the present-day dictator wanna-be candidates, and I could list off their slogans. But we don’t need to amplify these names and their dictates further.

The takeaway here is confirmation of the many traits we can associate with and by which we can identify tyranny and tyrants: narcissism, penchant for performance/spectacle, ‘govern’ by slogans, practice and encourage inconsistency, personalize their power (“I alone can do…”), surround oneself with sycophants and ass-kissers and dismiss and discredit anyone who goes against you. The true believers will, like cult members, drink the Kool Aid, no matter what a tyrant does, and for everyone else, who sees the reality, a tyrant will “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity” to ensure that he isn’t credibly threatened by being removed.

Dikötter writes of Mussolini’s regime; sound familiar?:

“People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.”

“For almost two decades Mussolini had encouraged the idea that he alone could be trusted and could do no wrong. He had used the cult of the leader to debase his competitors, ensuring every potential rival in the Fascist Party was edged out of the limelight. Those who remained were united in their devotion to the Duce, sycophants determined to outdo one another in praising his genius. They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all, Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth’ in the words of his biographer Renzo de Felice. He knew that those around him were flatterers who withheld information that could provoke his ire. He trusted no one, having no true friends, no reliable companion to whom he could speak frankly. As the years passed Mussolini isolated himself from others, becoming a virtual prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Venezia.”

*Transforming Glasgow: Beyond the Post-Industrial CityKeith Kintrea and Rebecca Madgin, editors

“Ours is a city which perhaps more than any other of our size, shaped the Industrial Revolution, along with all of the great positive and negative forces that it unleashed.”

I binge and gorge on all things Glasgow – even urban planning and its history. I don’t expect others to care for this in the way I did, so it’s not exactly a recommendation unless you’re obsessed with Glasgow and the post-industrial transformation of once-heavily-industrialized cities.

On the other hand, many works I read this month, and more generally, deal with impoverishment of the urban landscape, de-industrialization with nothing to replace it, meaning that poverty almost inevitably travels hand-in-hand with some of these economic upheavals. Glasgow was once the “Second City of the Empire“, but you’d never know it if you were to witness the parts of the city hammered hardest by poverty and dilapidation that came with de-industrialization and privatization. Photographer Raymond Depardon captured this side of Glasgow in 1980 (it’s worth looking at the photos). To some degree, Glasgow has experienced many of the growing pains and tragedies that other cities have and do – and much of it boils down to misguided attempts at “modernizing” (in Glasgow’s case, people were moved out of the city to live in giant, horrible tower blocks and manufactured “communities” – and in so doing, much of Glasgow’s storied architecture was lost, and more appallingly, communities were torn apart. I’d argue that while Glasgow has not been as deeply affected by the powers of gentrification (essentially a destructive force masquerading as progress) as cities like New York (which is dealt with in Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind above), it is nevertheless a factor in Glasgow’s drive to redefine and reshape itself.

*Where the Wild Cooks Go: Recipes from My Travels in Food and MusicCerys Matthews

Not much to say here except that this was an enjoyable mix of recipes and music from all over the world; a nice tonic for not being able to travel anywhere.

*Salt HousesHala Alyan

“Easier, she thinks, to remember nothing, to enter a world already changed, than have it transform before your eyes. In the palaces, the grandparents must sit in their extravagant rooms, remembering sand. Nostalgia is an affliction.”

A beautiful book – evoking the pain and suffering of human memory and nostalgia.

“Poor innocent things, he thinks. What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.”

*I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned WriterAhmet Altan

“Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have. The prison, the cell, the walls, the doors, the locks, the problems and the people – everything and everyone placing limits on my life and telling me “you cannot go beyond” is erased and gone.”

The pain of memory, the relief of erasure. A different kind of freedom.

“There is a cure for everything. Except longing.”

Turkish political prisoner and journalist Ahmet Altan writes of being imprisoned and the conditions within the country that enabled his imprisonment. Sometimes with humor, fearlessly, and sometimes sparking emotion — both sadness and anger.

“While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on. “Would you like some tea?” I asked. They said they would not. “It is not a bribe,” I said, imitating my late father, “you can drink some.” Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father. My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, “It is not a bribe, you can drink some.” What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead. Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning. During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.”

*The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

“As with so much else, you experience the world that your brain allows you to experience.” –The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

I have never liked the self-satisfied and judgmental Bill Bryson, and some of his books betray these personality defects more than others. I include The Body here in spite of its writer, as I think the book simplified the human body in an engaging way — exploring anatomy through relatable language and analogies. Some interesting language and analogies, even if not new, included:

  • Color isn’t a fixed reality but a perception
  • “The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet. It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, “It’s a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.””
  • “It will not have escaped your attention that the mouth is a moist and glistening vault.”
  • the antibiotic crisis is already here – it’s not a looming crisis
  • ““You can make a real mess of yourself, but you are very likely to survive. Killing yourself is actually difficult.”
  •  “A meta-analysis showed that for older people the risk of a heart attack was raised for up to three hours after sex, but it was similarly raised for shoveling snow, and sex is more fun than shoveling snow.”
  • “It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.” (We’re seeing this now, aren’t we?)
  • “When I met Washington University’s Michael Kinch in St. Louis, I asked him what he believed was the greatest disease risk to us now. “Flu,” he said without hesitation. “Flu is way more dangerous than people think. For a start, it kills a lot of people already—about thirty to forty thousand every year in the United States—and that’s in a so-called good year. But it also evolves very rapidly, and that’s what makes it especially dangerous.”
  • “Two things can be said with confidence about life expectancy in the world today. One is that it is really helpful to be rich. If you are middle-aged, exceptionally well-off, and from almost any high-income nation, the chances are excellent that you will live into your late eighties. The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here.”
  • Your lifestyle is the most likely thing to kill you, and many of the cultural and socioeconomic inequalities facing society now contribute to this. “IN 2011, AN interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
  • “It is an extraordinary fact that having good and loving relationships physically alters your DNA. Conversely, a 2010 U.S. study found, not having such relationships doubles your risk of dying from any cause.”

Coincidences

*Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

“M. sometimes referred to our shared memory palace, where the two of us had invented our own times of day (he always found a different way to bring up “The Invention of Midnight”). The rooms of this building, he said, which contained replicas of the most unremarkable sights, had turned into treasures.”

“This idea of a palace has stayed with me, even if I believe it is too neatly constructed to shed light on the devious ways of memory. Its innocent sleight of hand is only in the amplification of what is remembered, when the truth has so much more to do with hiding and forgetting.” –Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

In asking ourselves questions about who we are as individuals and in relation to others, and how we are woven into, or fraying at the edges of, the wider tapestry of our familial and social circles, and more broadly into society, we may neglect to look at a lot of factors because they seem far removed from our own daily realities. Depending on who we are, these factors could include socioeconomic class, race, gender, our relationship to faith or religion, geography, and our place in the culture in which we live, even if we feel that we are not included in it. These considerations generate deeper questions that, even if painful, begin to free us to find out who we really are – outside the rules of traditional economics, outside the boundaries of consumer culture, outside of our relationships with others.

While Walking on the Ceiling did not delve into any of these questions, its inclusion in this list comes as a kind of meeting point among the uniting themes of the other works that influenced me this month. We are examining and re-examining the stories we’ve told ourselves as cultures and nations, and there’s a reckoning underway: who has the voice and privilege to define and decide what these stories are? Who will re-contextualize incomplete, one-sided histories? Who creates and enforces collective memory and how? For example, as the nefarious US attorney general, Bill Barr, alarmingly stated not long ago, “History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who is writing the history.” Or, as musician Sam Phillips wrote, “History is written to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our fault…”, which inevitably means that someone is on the other side of that equation taking the blame.

For more than two centuries of US history at least, history has been created (yes, created, because it is an interpretation) by those with the loudest voices, ownership, most to protect/lose – power – and this has in many cases become a kind of brainwashing-induced mythology by which Americans define their identities and their so-called “freedom”. But this history is not every American’s story, not every American’s history. Perhaps this is changing now, as at least large swathes of the population begin to confront the ugliness of history and how it continues to pervade, influence and oppress other large swathes of the population who have been systematically disenfranchised, ignored or abused. Even if memory, which underpins what we call history, is perhaps challenging and deceptive, and susceptible to corruption, it still cannot be erased or debased en masse. There can always be a counterbalance to the dominant retelling of the story. If, as Savaş insists in Walking, “…people lived their whole lives telling stories, and by story he meant something like delusion. Everyone, he said, had a story of themselves. They told it again and again, at every chance they got”, we should always have multiple narratives and voices to help define the story – and history, Bill Barr and his ilk be damned.

As a side note, I highlighted this book in the first place as coincidental because it featured the “memory palace” (method of loci) concept that also came up in tv’s Dispatches from Elsewhere.

Biggest disappointment

*The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

“What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

While I didn’t hate this book, my lack of appreciation probably represents a kind of fatigue after reading too much Ferrante in short succession. It’s not even that this book is bad – perhaps it is more my dislike for the shrill and shallow nature of the main character, who comes completely undone when her husband reveals he has been unfaithful and is leaving her. Over the course of the story more hurtful details emerge about the infidelity, and indeed cause the character near-breakdown-level grief.

I think what was remarkable about the book and its characterization this breakdown – filled with angst, regret, anger, jealousy and the whole gamut of (sometimes contradictory) emotions people feel when a relationship ends – is how well it describes what one must confront in the face of such a rupture. Over the course of a long relationship, one doesn’t see clearly how intertwined their life has become with that of the other. And sometimes, as was the case here – that life is not even combined or co-lived but is lost within and subsumed by the life and desires of the other.

When these realizations hit, it’s powerful, painful and starts an examination of the past, when the only way forward is to think instead of the future. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with having merged two lives together, the loss of identity (which I recently highlighted as a theme from tv’s imaginative and unusual Dispatches from Elsewhere) is crushing, all the more because its erosion is so gradual one doesn’t realize it until reality is shaken. Infidelity, as explored by Esther Perel in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is complex: it violates not only the sense of self and security of the “betrayed” (“being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all“), but can also reflect the fragmentation of the “betrayers” identity (“Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves“). Coming to terms with what was thought to be reality versus what actually was can create deep estrangement from…everyone, including oneself, and create obstacles to moving forward.

I didn’t enjoy this book in a standard way, but appreciate that Ferrante has captured in visceral color what it feels like to go through this.

“No, I thought, squeezing the rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. To immediately redo the grammatical tenses.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

*Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Interesting book – but not as interesting as I had hoped. Some interesting ideas here, for example citing Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that intercontinental inequality has more to do with plants, animals and agriculture than with culture. Culture, meanwhile, doesn’t explain everything.

“Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book’s explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspects of culture often emphasized—religion, national ethics, African or Latin values—are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist. Other aspects, such as the extent to which people trust each other or are able to cooperate, are important but they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause.” –Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Said and read – February 2020

Standard

Image courtesy of S Donaghy, 2020

“The anxiety and insecurity engendered by the danger of losing what one has are absent in the being mode. If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. My center is within myself; my capacity for being and for expressing my essential powers is part of my character structure and depends on me. This holds true for the normal process of living, not, of course, for such circumstances as incapacitating illness, torture, or other cases of powerful external restrictions.”To Have or To Be?Erich Fromm

The mildest winter I’ve experienced in Sweden is nearly behind us. As usual, February was dark in every way that dark exists. Reading is the antidote to this, and everything else.

As far as book reports go, here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February:

Highly recommended

“I can get through. I was right, but only just. You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person” –The TestamentsMargaret Atwood

*The TestamentsMargaret Atwood

I approached this book with some uncertainty. I find Atwood to be a hit-or-miss thing for me, and having overdosed on the excessive torture porn nature of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t know if I could stomach more of it here. But then, it’s better to see what the original writer of these tales would share. I was pushed in the direction of “read” rather than “not-read” because I spoke with a guy who’d praised it; he seemed exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful despite clinging religiously to Oxford commas (which is his right) but insisting on his lack of respect for anyone who did not share this adherence.

As an aside, I’ve become a relaxed pseudo-sociolinguist in relation to how language is used for communication purposes. I used to be a rigid grammarian as well, but I’ve lived long enough, in enough places, to see that rigidity in everyday life serves no one. Sure, this flexible, fluid approach didn’t win me any points with that particular dude, but I don’t really care. I explained to him that I apply the style guide required (thus, am accepting of the Oxford comma when called for), as dictated by the project I’m working on, or company I’m working for. He didn’t seem to find this acceptable.

Back to the point: The Testaments was better than I expected, shifting points of view throughout, and illustrating deftly how there are occasions when very different ideologies at times overlap to achieve a shared goal (albeit for very different reasons).

““But why did she do it?” I asked. “Did she want to die?” “No one wants to die,” said Becka. “But some people don’t want to live in any of the ways that are allowed.””

*To Have or To Be? The Nature of the Psyche Erich Fromm

We can all recognize the existence of two modes of being – having and being. We may, however, be blinded – particularly by the greed/have-oriented society we live in – to the fact that we don’t even know what it is to be in the “being mode”.

BECAUSE THE SOCIETY WE live in is devoted to acquiring property and making a profit, we rarely see any evidence of the being mode of existence and most people see the having mode as the most natural mode of existence, even the only acceptable way of life. All of which makes it especially difficult for people to comprehend the nature of the being mode, and even to understand that having is only one possible orientation. Nevertheless, these two concepts are rooted in human experience. Neither one should be, or can be, examined in an abstract, purely cerebral way; both are reflected in our daily life and must be dealt with concretely. The following simple examples of how having and being are demonstrated in everyday life may help readers to understand these two alternative modes of existence.

A valuable book to read to understand the “proprietary” approach we take to living, and how we might disentangle ourselves from the ownership model into which we have been indoctrinated.

“MOST OF US KNOW more about the mode of having than we do about the mode of being, because having is by far the more frequently experienced mode in our culture. But something more important than that makes defining the mode of being so much more difficult than defining the mode of having, namely the very nature of the difference between these two modes of existence.”

*White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo

In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts.

This is a powerful book, and one I must recommend (along with most of the works DiAngelo quotes throughout this book and lists in the resources section at the end of the book).

You’ve just got to read it for yourself. “You’ve” here refers mostly to white people, even if everyone can benefit in one way or another. Yet no one but white people needs to confront the reality of the social, political, historical constructs that make up racism and privilege white over anyone else.

White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism. Challenging this cocoon throws off our racial balance. Because being racially off balance is so rare, we have not had to build the capacity to sustain the discomfort. Thus, whites find these challenges unbearable and want them to stop.

Racism, as DiAngelo argues, is an endemic system – not just a mindset or an act. Like it or not, we are all part of a racist system, and until we can understand, acknowledge and act on that, we are not seeing things as they are or challenging the “racial status quo”, as DiAngelo frames it.

Instead I ask, “How does this claim function in the conversation?” If we apply this question to these two sets of narratives, one color-blind and the other color-celebrate, we see that all of these claims ultimately function in a similar way; they all exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem. They take race off the table, and they close (rather than open) any further exploration. In so doing, they protect the racial status quo.

*The Nickel BoysColson Whitehead

This book broke my heart. Less because it’s so tragic, which it is, but more because of how real it is. I find injustice more difficult and painful to bear all the time, and get angrier and angrier because I don’t know what to do about it. And books like this bring it home.

*The White Album Joan Didion

“We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Each time I read Didion, I think I will find it tired and not to my liking, and I am surprised every time by how engaging it is. You’d think I’d learn, but can we easily unlearn preconceived and ill-informed ideas? At least I attempt again and again to act against these preconceived thoughts.

“We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.”

Whether making general but pointed statements about how we live and think, or very geographically specific observations that challenge false logic, Didion always comes across as effortless.

“…suffering severe drought, many people in water-rich parts of the country seemed obscurely gratified, and made frequent reference to Californians having to brick up their swimming pools. In fact a swimming pool requires, once it has been filled and the filter has begun its process of cleaning and recirculating the water, virtually no water, but the symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting: a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body. Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.”

*The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better LifeAnu Partanen

Re: America: “In this country you are at the mercy of your employer. You really don’t have any rights. Because of that you live in a constant state of worry.”

Please bear with me (keep scrolling if you must)… I am including a large number of direct quotes from this book because it’s that important.

This book chronicles so clearly and in such detail the things I saw and always felt were missing from American life, and, despite not knowing any better (since I grew up there), knew didn’t have to be. The true and surprising ease and freedom of Nordic life, which has given me such comfort, still at times feels insecure to me only because I am coming from this ingrained insecurity and can’t trust that anything can be this … stable and free.

“Yet the longer I lived in America as a Nordic immigrant, something became clear to me. Regardless of whether Finland was the “best” country in the world or not, most people in the United States, as well as many of my Nordic countrymen back home, did not fully realize that to leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time. As a Nordic immigrant to the United States, I noticed something else, too. Americans, and many others around the world, did not seem fully aware of how much better things could be.”

Instability is the name of the game in American life, and I so much wish I could impart to Americans that the definitions they have been force-fed about their lives and non-American lives are so politicized that they are incorrect. People are sold a bill of goods that insists that they are free, but how free are you when everything is so complicated, opaque, decoupled, and you are tied to your job, your insurance, your insanely high loans, and processes that Nordic people are free from (it took me a long time to realize that actually I don’t have to go to a bunch of different offices to license my car or fill out a million unintelligible forms to file taxes, etc.)?

“The unknowable “new price,” of course, would be much, much higher. It was all part of a way of doing things in the United States that, as I would gradually realize, forced you to be constantly on guard, constantly worried that whatever amount of money you had or earned would never be enough, and constantly anxious about navigating the complex and mysterious fine print thrown at you from every direction by corporations that had somehow managed to evade even the bare minimum of sensible protections for consumers. Things didn’t improve when it came time to file my first tax return for Uncle Sam. I tried to research my tax situation on the Internal Revenue Service Web site, and was soon tearing my hair trying to comprehend the pages and pages of fine print and the endless exceptions and loopholes. In Finland filing my taxes had always been quick and simple. But here in America, buried under IRS instruction booklets and terrified I might make some crucial and costly mistake, I gave up and hired an accountant, something I’d never had to do back home.”

“The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met—and the more American I myself became—the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity—freedom, personal independence, and opportunity—that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today.”

“Gradually it dawned on me how much people in America depended on their employers for all sorts of things that were unimaginable to me: medical care, health savings accounts, and pension contributions, to name the most obvious. The result was that employers ended up having far more power in the relationship than the employee. In America jeopardizing your relationship with your employer carried personal risks that extend far beyond the workplace, to a degree unthinkable where I came from.”

“By now I was used to hearing the Nordic countries dismissed as “socialist nanny states.” But ironically it was here in America that businesses trying to manufacture products and make a buck had somehow gotten saddled with the nanny’s job of taking care of their employees’ health. Surely, I thought, Milton Friedman, the great free-market economist, must be turning in his grave! From a Nordic perspective, it seemed ludicrous to burden for-profit companies with the responsibility of providing employees with such a fundamental, complicated, and expensive social service. People in the United States were aware of this contradiction, of course, and in discussions of the American business landscape, experts often pointed to the burdens that health-care obligations placed on companies, especially on small businesses. But no one seemed to be talking about the other side of the coin: the unhealthy dependence on employers that this creates among employees receiving, or hoping to receive, these benefits. It was an old-fashioned and oppressive sort of dependence, it seemed to me, completely at odds with the modern era of individual liberty and opportunity. I could see the consequences in the lives of everyone I knew.”

“All the advantages I gave up when I left Finland and moved to America—universal public health care, universal affordable day care, real maternity benefits, high-quality free education, taxpayer-funded residences for the elderly, even the separate taxation of spouses—were not gifts from the government to make me a servile dependent on the state’s largesse. Rather the Nordic system is intentionally designed to take into account the specific challenges of modern life and give citizens as much logistical and financial independence as possible. This is actually the opposite of a community-centered system, or socialism, or whatever you want to call it. This is also why the supposed social solidarity of people in the Nordic nations is not really as noble an undertaking as it is often made out to be.”

“However, what really motivates Swedes and other Nordic citizens to support their system isn’t altruism—no one is that selfless—but self-interest. Nordic societies provide their citizens—all their citizens, and especially the middle class—with maximum autonomy from old-fashioned, traditional ties of dependency, which among other things ends up saving people a lot of money and heartache along with securing personal freedom. According to Trägårdh and Berggren, Nordic countries are, in fact, the most individualized societies on the face of the earth.”

And of course the endless argument I hear is that our taxes are SO HIGH. Guess what? They aren’t that high.

“So what income tax rates are people actually paying in different Nordic countries? The OECD has compared average tax rates for a single individual without children in thirty-four developed countries, including federal and local income taxes, along with an employee’s social security contributions. In 2014 Denmark had the third-highest average tax rate at 38.4 percent, but this was still lower than in Belgium and Germany. Finland came in ninth, at 30.7 percent, and—here’s a shocker—Sweden fell under the OECD average with a rate of 24.4 percent—less than the United States, which came in at 24.8 percent. It may seem hard to believe, considering how much more Nordic citizens get in exchange for their taxes, but average Finns pay income taxes and employee contributions at a rate only about 6 percentage points higher than the rate paid by average Americans, while average Swedes pay less than average Americans.”

And good timing for election season, as we listen to entitled billionaires insist that they alone understand economics and business because they built their empires through their own hard work…

“The reason for setting up such requirements is simple, and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren put it eloquently: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.””

And … just generally, people in the Nordics can make their choices without worrying, which is key given how anxiety levels have shot through the roof everywhere.

“When I look at my Nordic friends now, they seem so free to me. They work and have children, they engage in hobbies, they travel the world, and they never seem to worry about really going broke. They have health care, day care, and pensions. They can study whatever they want, and they don’t have to risk their financial future to do so.”

This is so true. I have watched all my friends have families, make the choices that suit them best in rearing their children, not lose ground in their career paths or earning potential, and so on. My friend can stay home and take care of her kids because she wants to – but she could equally go back to work and negotiate for a flexible part-time schedule and be welcomed. The system is set up to support people in this – and many other – way(s)… and I can’t imagine a better way/place to be.

Good – or better than expected

*Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene

“‘You should dream more, Mr Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.’”

A darkly comic and satirical tale of a vacuum-cleaner salesman, Wormold, who rather accidentally stumbles into becoming a secret agent.

‘We’re not shocked by that any longer.’ ‘It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.’

Exposing the incompetence and farcical nature of bureaucracy and how easily people and institutions see only what they want to see, holding a mirror up to where we are today, e.g. what is shocking erodes constantly so that previously unthinkable acts of corruption are ho-hum, who cares, regular blips on a radar screen full of malfeasance.

“‘I told them even if I’d known I wouldn’t have stopped you. I said you were working for something important, not for someone’s notion of a global war that may never happen. That fool dressed up as a Colonel said something about “your country”. I said, “What do you mean by his country? A flag someone invented two hundred years ago? The Bench of Bishops arguing about divorce and the House of Commons shouting Ya at each other across the floor? Or do you mean the T.U.C. and British Railways and the Co-op? You probably think it’s your regiment if you ever stop to think, but we haven’t got a regiment—he and I.” They tried to interrupt and I said, “Oh, I forgot. There’s something greater than one’s country, isn’t there? You taught us that with your League of Nations and your Atlantic Pact, NATO and UNO and SEATO. But they don’t mean any more to most of us than all the other letters, U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. And we don’t believe you any more when you say you want peace and justice and freedom. What kind of freedom? You want your careers.””

*CleannessGarth Greenwell

It was difficult to resist the beauty of the prose in this brief book. It was at times brutal, at times tender – and always human and difficult to read, difficult to pull away from.

“Of course it wasn’t his fault, I would say, of course he was blameless, entirely blameless; there wasn’t any invitation he could have given, even if he had wanted it there wasn’t any permission he could give. But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

*The Memory PoliceYoko Ogawa

No matter how careful we are, we all leave behind little bits of ourselves as we go about our lives. Hair, sweat, fingernails, tears…any of which can be tested. No one can escape.”

In an island society where everything eventually disappears – from roses to one’s own limbs – what has value? What role can memory, or nostalgia, play when one’s own memory is slowly wiped away and forgetting is enforced? Can one even trust memory at that point, or does everything just slip away?

While I am not sure entirely what to make of this book – it bears the hallmarks of many contemporary Japanese novels – more stylistic than plot driven, very atmospheric without much action – I found it nevertheless enjoyable and worthy of thought.

“Would you really like to remember all the things you’ve lost?” R asked. I told him the truth. “I don’t know. Because I don’t even know what it is I should be remembering. What’s gone is gone completely. I have no seeds inside me, waiting to sprout again. I have to make do with a hollow heart full of holes. That’s why I’m jealous of your heart, one that offers some resistance, that is tantalizingly transparent and yet not, that seems to change as the light shines on it at different angles.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest PredatorTimothy C. Winegard

“’We are not makers of history,’ conceded the esteemed Dr Martin Luther King Jr. ‘We are made by history.’ The mosquito prods our human journey along its uncharted course and stimulates our swing through time in mysterious, if not macabre, ways. She connects historical, at times seemingly unrelated, events separated by distance, epochs, and space. Hers is a long and warped reach.”

You wouldn’t imagine that a lengthy book about mosquitoes would be such a feat of gripping storytelling, but it is. It’s well-written and engaging, and paints the mosquito as a resilient and villainous adversary. It is no exaggeration when the author references something (DDT possibly) as the mighty mosquito’s Kryponite; nothing stops the mosquito, and DDT was only a temporary setback in its onslaught.

The book weaves together various moments and major turns in history that may well have been altered significantly by the humble but disease-ridden mosquito. Almost silent but deadly.

*Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and TrollsCarrie Goldberg

“Let’s be clear: Coercing someone into sending an intimate picture and then distributing that image without consent isn’t “sexting.” It’s a violation and a crime. And the first step to protecting young people from this kind of abuse is to teach about consent. I’m talking about no-holds-barred conversations with real-world examples of what pressure and coercion look like. As in, Yes, asking a girl over and over again to send you a nude is PRESSURE. And, Someone threatening to dump you if you don’t send a pic is COERCION. And, Sharing someone else’s naked pics with all your friends without their consent in many states is a fucking CRIME. Teaching sex ed to the digital generation is not only the responsibility of parents. Safe sexting should be taught in middle school, when most kids get their first phone (and also hit puberty). It should be woven into the plots of teen movies and disguised as listicles on BuzzFeed (“Ten Reasons to Not Send Your Friends That Nude Pic of Your Ex!”). This is an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

I did not enjoy this book. It would be impossible to enjoy it. It’s a really fucking scary account of the things people have gone through at the hands of stalkers, psychos, etc. – in particular in the wild west of the digital age, where laws haven’t understood or kept up with the new, pervasive and unforeseen threats and the far-reaching damage that can be done. People seem to understand less about the idea of consent and what they need to have consent for as technology makes spying, stealing, sharing easier than ever. Is there any such thing as privacy any more?

This leads pretty directly to the idea of better education – sex education, consent education, and even legal education (both for the layperson and for the legal field). And leads to the next book I read about building empathy despite the proliferation of technology (see below). As we become less connected with our fellow humans, and objectify them, how can we prevent the kinds of horrors that Goldberg describes in this book?

Coincidences

*The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed WorldKaitlin Ugolik Phillips

What has actually happened for many of us is that robots have seeped into our lives and our relationships somewhat without our notice. AI is part of the fabric of so many of the tools and services we use every day. How many people think critically about their relationship with Alexa and whether it’s healthy from an emotional or philosophical perspective? Does my skepticism of her, and my tendency to call her “her,” mean I am failing to ‘apprehend the world accurately’?”

The older I get, the more I think about the past and the barely remembered people who populate it. I have clear memories of so many colleagues, for example, who seemed very important at the time when I had to spent eight hours a day with them, but over time, some of the details have grown hazy. Don’t get me wrong – I remember an insane amount of detail about people with whom I was never close, but then big pieces are missing (if they were ever stuck in my brain to begin with). Not long ago I was thinking of a driven, confident, possibly even forceful, but gregarious woman I worked with 25 years ago, but I could only remember her first name and a ridiculous level of detail about parts of her life. But I couldn’t remember her surname for the life of me.

Imagine my surprise then when I selected a book to read at random, got about a quarter of the way into it, and came across a familiar name. I thought to myself, “Do I know this person?” And it was in fact the woman I’d worked with 25 years ago with whom I have had no connection at all. I had no reason to imagine that this book, its subject matter, would have had any connection to this woman from the past. She was, back then, completely focused on her vocal studies (she was a singer). But there she was, Celeste Headlee, cited as a “conversation expert”.

I am constantly stunned by how small the world is, how our paths sort of cross again and again. In this particular book, the author approaches Headlee with questions on how we might build conversations and connections in a tech-obsessed age. Headlee points out that tech is “a tool like any other” and is not the problem. I’d tend to agree. Tech can work for or against us; in this case, tech has actually helped me connect the dots about this long-ago acquaintance to confirm that yes, in fact, it was her I was reading about.

A secondary, but no less relevant, sort of coincidence related to this book was yet another mention of Stanley Milgram and his experiments in obedience to authority. This book referred to studies in human-robot interaction.

“Human-robot-interaction researchers have even replicated the historic Milgram experiment, in which Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram claimed to show how far people will go to obey authority by asking participants to apply shocks to a screaming person in another room. (Milgram’s results—in which 40 percent of participants stopped before reaching maximum voltage—were recently shown to have been manipulated.) In 2006 and 2008, Christoph Bartneck, of the Human Interface Technology Lab in New Zealand, and his colleagues found that all twenty of their research subjects were willing to apply the highest voltage to a robot with facial expressions that could move and talk. On the other hand, while all participants in a later study involving Microbug robots (little crawling toys) complied with instructions to destroy the bots with a hammer, they felt bad about it. Some said they didn’t enjoy “killing” the “poor robot” because it was “innocent.””

“a study by Peter Kahn of the University of Washington in 2012 brought it all home for me: 98 percent of children who participated were against putting a person in a closet, and 100 percent said it was OK to put a broom there—but only 54 percent were OK with putting a robot called Robovie in the closet. They knew the robot wasn’t a person, but they still felt bad treating it inhumanely.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59Douglas Edwards

After reading the Marissa Orr book (Lean Out) I really was not ready for another Silicon Valley tell-all. And this one was horrible. Orr’s book, at least, at some keen insights. This one just seemed like some dude who got bored and wanted to tell us how he ended up at Google in its infancy, and it reads like someone who actually never quite fit in no matter what he did. Sure, it’s interesting to see how precarious the early days at Google felt, but I don’t think this comes as a great surprise to anyone. They got lucky, and they had the smarts or good fortune to have hired a few people who kept things on track and could see more clearly than others. However, the book chronicled organizational and political growing pains that almost all companies endure, which made this less than remarkable.

In some cases some of what this dude wrote seemed contradictory. In one case, it is possible that the writer’s earlier complaints about not fitting in, not understanding what was expected of him, and not understanding the thinking of Google’s founders eventually passed, and his understanding began to fall into place, but the following passage seemed to contradict so much of what he wrote up until this point:

“Larry’s product-review meetings created a central information nexus. I could sit on the black couch, plug directly into Larry’s head, and get root-level access to all that I needed to know. Nothing helped me do my job better than downloading directly from Google’s wellspring of strategic direction. Cool draughts of clear vision washed away ambiguity about user interfaces, product features, and competitive positioning. I basked in my unobstructed view of the deliberations driving our company’s creation, blissfully unaware that I would soon be banished from this information Eden and forced to forage for the info bits that I had come to rely upon to do my job.”

Later he did something similar when he wrote about his anger that the company was not going to follow his advice about sticking with the CRM they were already using by bringing in some acquaintances with an untested CRM instead. The founders argued that by bringing them in, getting them to build to Google’s specifications, they would get exactly what they wanted without having to pay for some fraction of what they wanted, and eventually they acquired the company for peanuts. He eventually decided that the founders were wise and that this worked beautifully for them. But nearer to the end of the book he writes:

“One business-development person warned me that Microsoft’s MO as a company was to get close to startups, suck them dry, and then throw them away. Microsoft was methodical about it, giving generous terms to keep the startups alive, but essentially turning them into captive research-and-development centers. Microsoft would become the startups’ biggest customer and thereby drive the direction of their development, perhaps offering to provide informal technical help, which necessitated a look at the startups’ proprietary code.”

How is this any different, really, from what they did with the CRM startup?

I do not feel lucky for having made the misguided choice to read this book.

*Click: The Magic of Instant ConnectionsOri Brafman, Rom Brafman

I did not particularly care for this book – I don’t care much in general for popular psychology, and even though this was interesting enough, it didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know.

*Dead AstronautsJeff VanderMeer

Hated it. Like someone else said – this felt like a word salad that wasn’t meant to just be read.

*The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern ConflictWilliam T. Cavanaugh

I had to read this for my studies, so it’s not like I expected a lot from this book. Still it looked more interesting than it turned out to be. Most of all, I found its key point valid but then the author repeated it so frequently, presumably to make the argument through various lenses, that it lost its resonance.

“‘I argue that there is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion and that essentialist attempts to separate religious violence from secular violence are incoherent. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of different configurations of power.

That’s the disappointment here, but I didn’t hate the book. I found the argument valuable and salient – nationalism and the opportunity to wage war or die for nationalist causes, for example, is somehow seen as acceptable while violence perpetrated in the name of religion is defined as “other”, when they do in fact seem like the same thing.

thought bubbles

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No, because I do not scream my inner feelings from the rooftops and throughout the valleys of my countryside, it does not mean that my feelings are non-existent, weak, lukewarm or tepid.

Through all my actions, through all my willingness, in every spontaneous action and every fixed fiber, I feel. But it is only for us to share. Others may observe and see the evidence, but I don’t need to create evidence and images for the world to see – or for curious onlookers and interlopers to latch onto.

It is not up for discussion.

Internet of things = Big Data – Big Brother?

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This summer, George Orwell, the frighteningly prescient author of the classic novel 1984, would have turned 110 years old. In honor of the big day, a Dutch art collective, FRONT404, decorated Utrecht’s ubiquitous security surveillance cameras with party hats in an attempt to remind us that these devices are there, always on. The artists state: “By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays. And [how] the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.”

But the real surveillance state, if we want to call it that, is not necessarily as blatant as the camera on every street corner (although the cameras play their own big part). The real “surveillance” is in the data collected about you every day in your online dealings.

And contributing to the acceleration of this trend is the much-discussed “internet of things” (IoT) concept. A spate of articles about the popular IoT idea has churned through the media, mostly painting the rosy picture of convenience and ease enabled by connecting everything (did we learn nothing from the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica about the dangers of networks?), but also covering topics, such as the challenges of keeping the “things” secure and the potential lines crossed in terms of personal privacy. But if we stop to consider a few of the basic applications of IoT, such as rental cars with “black boxes” attached to monitor renters’ driving – or insurance-company customers and their driving, there are implications. What is the line between the collection of beneficial data and the violation of privacy?

A recent TechCrunch article framed the “monitored driving” angle as though it’s mostly a positive, but does – and we should all be vigilant here – sound the alarm on the caution we need to take in weighing the implications. In this article it is presented as letting you take risk into your own hands and gain from a prevention-based versus reactive insurance claim model, but what do you give up for that? The insurance industry and its relationship with drivers/consumers is highlighted as a potential source of positive change through IoT and the application of data. Insurance companies want to use data to personalize your policies, which will supposedly make coverage and claims more reflective of your personal use. “The idea of ‘connected coverage’ means that insurance companies will encourage you to take risk management into your own hands by leveraging IoT. Ultimately, that could mean saving a big chunk of cash.”

Saving cash = good news! Right? Probably, yes. But the new “You + IoT + Provider = A New Dialogue” equation demands a greater vigilance than most consumers are willing to exert. Many compare the changes and conveniences enabled by IoT and Big Data to finally living in a “Jetsons” era. But the flipside is living under the watchful eye of Big Brother. We accept it because of its potential bonuses and benefits, but I ask again: where does insight end and intrusion begin? The pool of data available to entities in all industries will continue to proliferate – how can this be managed – treating you, based on the individualized data collected about you, as a unique customer, without penalizing you for the same body of behavioral data?

A Backchannel/Medium piece by Angus Hervey perfectly expressed the ambivalence I feel and the questions we should all be asking:

“A world where our entire physical environment has the ability to exchange data with the internet and other connected objects. A world that’s more convenient, more streamlined, and more responsive to our needs. It’s also a terrifying prospect. A world of ubiquitous surveillance, a world where privacy is no longer a guaranteed right but instead a privilege you must fight for. The possibility of data breaches, backdoors into home systems, vehicles being hacked by shadowy forces, are very real.

Start thinking differently about the IoT. Make sure you place it within its larger technological context, and join the vanguard that’s establishing new design practices and principles for how we’re going to manage it. It’s not more of the same. It’s something new. And once we get past that stupid name, it’s going to change the world.”

Other Selves: Understanding the Difference between Privacy and Secrecy

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Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.

I stumbled across an article about the nature of affairs – how happily married people often “cheat”. It was an interesting article in general, but what struck me fundamentally were the ideas that underpin so many other aspects of life – not just romantic relationships. I debate quite frequently, as I have written about before, about the difference between privacy and secrecy and where that boundary is. What kind of information – how much information – do I owe someone just because they have asked, just because of the nature of our interaction (i.e., do I tell a potential employer X, do I keep Y private, do I reveal those same Xs and Ys to my husband or wife or potential husband or wife?)? Is total openness and transparency required – and what are the rules governing this? Are there any? In my case, there are a lot of things that are deeply private for me, but keeping them private is not always all about me if I have invited someone else into my life.

“Transparency is the whole culture. The way a regular person tells everything about themselves on television. The way technology allows us to find out anything—99 percent of the people I see, their affairs are discovered through email or phones. But transparency is also our organizing principle of closeness these days. I will tell you everything, and if I don’t tell you it means I don’t trust you or I have a secret. It doesn’t mean I choose to keep certain things to myself because they are private. Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.”

Of course some private things are personal and don’t involve anyone else. But then other people and their expectations and feelings are a part – is there not some responsibility there? As this article on affairs – and the reasons underlying affairs – argues, there is “…a distinction between cheating and non-monogamy. Cheating is about a violation of a contract. People misunderstand me because they think I’m saying affairs are OK. No! But I do think examining monogamy is our next frontier.”

Is examining monogamy really the next frontier? The article explains the researcher’s point of view – that at one time, premarital sex was also considered to be wrong and not a topic for consideration or debate. Is this the next logical step? Maybe not just monogamy but in a broader scope, marriage. What is marriage, how is it defined – not just by society but by negotiation between an individual couple?

Today, as the article discusses, “We have this idea that our partner is our best friend, that there is one person who will fulfill all our needs, which is really an extraordinary idea! So by definition, people must transgress because something is missing at home. We think, if you had what you needed at home, you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, instead of thinking that marriage is at best an imperfect arrangement.”

Maybe nothing is missing from a relationship or marriage at all that leads a party to the relationship to cheat. The most important takeaway from the article, actually, is a point that is applicable across life’s activities: Affairs are often not about wanting someone else but wanting to be someone else ourselves:

“Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.”

This being me, I immediately think of a poem.

I Can Not
-Anna Swir (Poland)

I envy you.
Every moment.

You can leave me.
I can not leave myself.

Is that the feeling behind these urges to have affairs? Not to leave one’s partner but to leave oneself? Or the oneself one is or has become within that particular relationship?

The changing workscape: Secrecy v privacy / Pretty time bomb

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I respectfully decline to answer that question. It is, if not illegal to ask, rather inappropriate.

Sitting in a job interview, growing more awkward and uncomfortable by the minute, I felt as though I was backed right into a corner.

Quite a long while ago, I applied for a job, was invited to an interview and circumstances in my life changed quite rapidly, and I needed to cancel the interview. I called to cancel well in advance of the scheduled interview time and offered no other explanations – because I don’t think you owe any explanation to a potential employer if you’re not planning to work there.

When circumstances changed dramatically again a few weeks later, I contacted the company again because I noticed that the job was still advertised and rescheduled the interview. I knew that it was probably a bit unorthodox of me – and if they did not want to give me a chance, they could have refused to reschedule the interview. No harm, no foul. But they seemed happy to give me a new opportunity, so I went to a series of interviews.

In the first interview, the hiring manager and the HR director were sitting across from me, and the HR person asked me why I had cancelled the first interview. Fair enough. I anticipated that they would ask me something like that. I replied only that my personal circumstances had changed, the issues that prevented me from attending the original interview were behind me and that the reasons behind all of it were private.

Somehow this was not a good enough explanation, and the HR guy grabbed onto this like a dog with a bone. Throughout the interview, even though I think I defused the question tactfully enough (in a way that should have shut the question down). The HR guy continued to poke and prod, even long after I thought the question had been answered and put to rest. It was as though it would suddenly pop back up again, and some nagging feeling in his gut would jump to his mouth, and he was physically unable to stop asking.

He started questioning my statement about “privacy”, claiming that it felt as though I was “keeping secrets”. But there is a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Which I stated at the time. The questioning escalated in offensiveness and discomfort, making me consider – in the moment – that I was not sure I wanted to work somewhere where an HR professional was so hell-bent on knowing personal information that had no bearing on my potential as an employee that he would veer into very uncomfortable territory to get it.

My workplace experience has mostly happened in the US where this kind of prodding would be dead wrong under any circumstances. Whole articles are written about illegal job interview questions. To be frank, I don’t know what is illegal versus just awkward in a Swedish workplace – but I would think that someone in a managerial role in human resources should have the tact and sensitivity to stop pushing when something is clearly not work-related.

The worst thing – when I was called in for follow-up interviews the next week, I assumed that the issue was settled. But no, the same HR person brought up the same pushy questions the next time, and then I felt really backed into a corner. I tried to remain tactful in conveying that I felt the question was answered as much as it was ever going to be. But his continued insistence felt like lighting the fuse on a time bomb.

Eventually I was hired and accepted the job despite these misgivings. This whole scene sort of plays into my feelings about HR in general – how is it that the one department that is meant to be the most in tune with people and the legalities of hiring could be the worst at dealing with people?