Interesting collection of atheistic and agnostic essays selected by Hitchens. The highlights were the pieces by George Eliot (great critique of poor a...moreInteresting collection of atheistic and agnostic essays selected by Hitchens. The highlights were the pieces by George Eliot (great critique of poor apologists and Christians who value their own holiness higher than loving their neighbor), Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen (his essay on agnosticism was the most intriguing in the entire collection), and Karl Marx (his opiate of the masses quote put in context).(less)
I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit that I've got a bit of a crush on Virginia Woolf. Her inimitable style both draws me in and frustrates me a tad...moreI'm only slightly embarrassed to admit that I've got a bit of a crush on Virginia Woolf. Her inimitable style both draws me in and frustrates me a tad, probably turning off as many readers as it awes. Plot suffers, and sometimes her character development feels a little like cheating, giving as much inner life as she does. (less)
Between a three and a four for me, but as this book has been in print for 40 years, the author isn't going to be adversely affected by rounding down....moreBetween a three and a four for me, but as this book has been in print for 40 years, the author isn't going to be adversely affected by rounding down. Brown recounts the destruction of the American Indians from 1860-1890. He deserves credit for trying to use Indian historical sources to the extent possible. The choice to use a narrative voice that sounded more Indian was interesting, but I felt it ultimately detracted. On the one hand it did successfully counter the traditional bias. On the other, it limited him stylistically, making all the stories with a similar arc sound more repetitive than they really were.
The tribes--Navajo, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Apache, Modoc, Kiowa and Comanche, Nez Perce, Ponca, and Utes--and their leaders were frequently heroic and admirable and ultimately tragic. It's difficult to know what to do with this past. There's a mix of strident and somewhat self-righteous condemnation or attempts to downplay. One lesson this reinforces for me is that humans are capable of unspeakable evils when we fail to credit the personhood of others. If adopted and internalized, the theological truth that all are made in the image of God seems essential to avoid committing similar atrocities in future generations. (less)
Massie's account of Russian Empress Catherine II was, for me, an intimate and helpful introduction to the Romanov dynasty. She was a powerful, smart w...moreMassie's account of Russian Empress Catherine II was, for me, an intimate and helpful introduction to the Romanov dynasty. She was a powerful, smart woman, whose embrace of enlightenment philosophy made her wise beyond her years and ahead of her time (even if some of her ideals were exposed as wishful thinking). The fixation on Catherine's lovers bordered on obsessive; I've never read a biography about a man that focused so much on his sex life (Note: there was no mention of any horses in her lists of conquests--so let's chalk that up to urban legend). (less)
Don't think I've ever read a play where I felt connected to the characters so quickly. Kushner develops a broad range of themes in such a short span o...moreDon't think I've ever read a play where I felt connected to the characters so quickly. Kushner develops a broad range of themes in such a short span of time, it's amazing that it hangs together so effortlessly and feels completely unforced. I give it 5 stars for knocking my socks off, but I won't feel like it's complete until I read Part Two.(less)
Hmm. I was very reluctant to pick this up. The cover is somewhat humorous but the title is off-putting, creating the impression that this could have b...moreHmm. I was very reluctant to pick this up. The cover is somewhat humorous but the title is off-putting, creating the impression that this could have been penned by Anne Coulter for more attention. But here's where I think it's coming from:
An example and contrast: Conservatives believe in "states' rights" as a way to ensure that Americans are truly governing themselves, that in smaller communities the leadership is more responsive to and respectful of the wishes of the governed. And it respects an essential component of our federal system. Even if the concept of states' rights is perfectly defensible and on its face completely race-neutral, some liberals are quick to associate the phrase states' rights with racism, attempting to invalidate the intellectual argument or intimidate opponents into giving it up altogether. Now, the minimum wage has a racist past too. Progressive economists first proposed the minimum wage as a way to protect white workers whose labor was being undersold by immigrants and other "undesirables". By design it would make some people less employable and maybe at the same time make it harder for the undesirables to reproduce. The right to abortion is another progressive ideal explicitly linked to racist eugenics. Despite this past, liberals advocating for increases in the minimum wage or for increased access to abortion never have to fend of allegations related to the history of either.
And I think that explains where Goldberg, who I've always seen as a temperate and reasonable and pretty funny conservative, is coming from. He complains that anything remotely conservative perceived as being bad is called fascist, which is unfair and historically ignorant. He makes a case that fascist was not a rightist movement, but merely right of communist. However, in many ways fascist movements drew ideas from the progressive mindset of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. His point is not to try to draw a direct comparison to the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler to today's liberals, but show there are more similarities to those regimes' (pre-genocidal) policies on the left than on the right. He points out that Locke, Burke, and Hobbes, the intellectual godfathers of conservatism, provided no intellectual foundation for the fascists. While Goldberg insisted repeatedly that he was emphatically NOT calling FDR, student radicals, or the Clintons little Hitlers, the comparisons still made me somewhat uncomfortable. And that I think that's his point. Such comparisons are completely unfair and uncalled for. It's written from the perspective of someone who's been on the receiving end of such comparisons for too long and who's had enough. (less)
Safe to say that Conquest knows his subject quite well. This biography is a good complement to The Great Terror, and if Stalin and his USSR interest y...moreSafe to say that Conquest knows his subject quite well. This biography is a good complement to The Great Terror, and if Stalin and his USSR interest you, I would recommend reading both (the bio first and then the Terror). STALIN is a brisk summary of Stalin's life and career. I almost didn't pick up this book due to the negative reviews on Goodreads, and the critiques were varied from "burgeois propaganda" to lack of sophistication in analysis to overly academic and verbose. I think the first speaks for itself. As for the the complaint that the analysis is lacking, Conquest states in the conclusion that his work was intended as description, not analysis. That's true to some extent, but Conquest believes--and I can't say I disagree--that Stalin was a natural product of communism, a paranoid world view that presumes, or even hopes for, persistent struggles against enemies, rather than an unfortunate accident that sullied Communism's good intentions. (less)
I think Wendell Berry is something of a national treasure, and there's part of me that wishes I was more like him. However, I knew him as a poet and e...moreI think Wendell Berry is something of a national treasure, and there's part of me that wishes I was more like him. However, I knew him as a poet and essayist first. There is something about reading a person's essays first that makes their fiction seem like a veiled version of their essays. it was rare that I thought that with this book, but I still thought it from time to time and it took something away from my enjoyment. Good book though. (less)
One frustrating thing about the intersection of politics and science is the dearth of analogies that are regularly employed. There's the flat earth, f...moreOne frustrating thing about the intersection of politics and science is the dearth of analogies that are regularly employed. There's the flat earth, followed by Galileo's persecution. Aside from the occasional reference to leeching, I'm drawing a blank on others. Ghost Map offers a helpful addition to this group.
Steven Johnson tells the story of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London and a doctor and parish pastor who figured out cholera was transmitted through contaminated drinking water. However, it took years for the theory to gain acceptance in large part because scientific consensus was behind the miasma theory of disease transmission, which held that disease was spread through unhealthy air (malaria literally means "bad" "air"). Confirmation bias tended to lead investigators to interpret evidence in such a way as to reaffirm their assumptions. Worse, the faulty theory actually contributed to the outbreak. Plumbing in 19th century London left a lot to be desired, frequently leaving "heaps of turds" (to use Samuel Pepys turn of phrase) in the city's cellars. Public health officials wedded to the miasma theory made removing human waste from the city a priority and constructed sewers that dumped the waste right into the Thames, thereby spreading rather than containing the cholera outbreak. Thousands of people might have died because consensus was wrong.
The reason this struck me as a more helpful analogy than flat earth or persecuting some astronomers was that the faulty science was a predicate for public policy decisions that had disastrous consequences. At a minimum, it's a cautionary tale about the importance of challenging consensus and the assumptions that underly our collective, and even our scientific, wisdom. (less)
Probably the biggest failing of my public education, which largely happened during the Cold War with Cold War era textbooks, is that I never learned a...moreProbably the biggest failing of my public education, which largely happened during the Cold War with Cold War era textbooks, is that I never learned about Stalin's extensive purges and the terror he created to consolidate his absolute control over the USSR. Thankfully Robert Conquest's masterful account corrects that glaring deficiency. Has to be read to be believed.(less)
The Price of Civilization is economist Jeffrey Sachs's diagnosis of and prescription for America's political maladies. Like any book of this sort, the...moreThe Price of Civilization is economist Jeffrey Sachs's diagnosis of and prescription for America's political maladies. Like any book of this sort, there is a lot to argue about, but all in all I found Sachs's contribution to this discussion beneficial to my understanding. That said, I found more areas of agreement in the diagnosis of the problem than in his prescription.
Starting with the diagnosis, two points stood out to me. First, American citizens are disengaged, easily manipulated, and I don't know if he said it exactly, but becoming unworthy of the job of self-government. He is careful to point out that there is nothing innate to the American character that makes this so, which is why he calls to more active engagement and "mindfulness" on the part of the average citizen. Can't say I disagree.
Second, government plays an essential role in economic well being in any society. He believes our society took a drastic, wrong turn in 1980 when Reagan identified government as part of the problem. He puts a familiar leftist gloss on the Reagan revolution, that in some ways warps Reagan's actual positions. For example, in the 'government is part of the problem" speech, also known as the first inaugural address, that particular line is in reference to the particular economic crisis of 1970s stagflation. A few lines later he even said, "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work -- work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it." Some sound bites are just too good to care about context. While I want to believe Sachs made straw men of much of Reagan's progeny, there is probably some faction of the libertarian/Republican/conservative/tea party right that he is accurately describing. It is harder to know who is representative of the right these days, but I'm not sure it's who Sachs envisions (racist, fearful, 100% anti-government at all levels, anti-tax, beyond-thunderdome individualists aware of only rights with no concern for societal obligations, as opposed to a party that accepts Social Security and Medicare as a baseline, for example). Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think this is an accurate description of the right over the last 30 years. The other fault in Sachs diagnosis here is it requires a belief in the infallibility of programs of progressive administrations from inception to infinity. Even as he acknowledges that government has frequently been corrupt and incompetent, his conclusion is still that more government is just what we need. He addresses this apparent inconsistency head on, but still, you would think he might take a more charitable view to someone who came to a different conclusion based on the same evidence.
I was less enamored with his prescription. However, I appreciated that he took on Keynesian economists (too bad not by name) along with tax cutters as both being delusional about their take on U.S. budget issues. I agree, but his explanation for raising revenue resorted to familiar calls to the rich paying their fair share. Maybe that line has poll tested well, but it never sat well with me. Partly because I'm never quite sure what we're talking about - income tax, capital gains, or something else or all of the above. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think many more would find it more convincing if we talked about the rich meeting their heightened obligation to give more for the good of society. It reminds me of America's discomfort with aristocracy. We seem to believe that the rich have a privileged position in society. However, we don't like aristocrats, so we don't want to admit that the rich might have a special place in society that also comes with special obligations. A tax increase justified on higher income earners or the wealthy along those lines would be more difficult to rebut than the fairness argument. (less)
Tacitus is amazing. I've never read anything quite like this. The factual account is lightning quick; I'm not sure I r...more"Any sluggard can start a war."
Tacitus is amazing. I've never read anything quite like this. The factual account is lightning quick; I'm not sure I retained half of it. The drama was intense--beheadings, suicides, wars, intrigue, betrayal and four emperors in one year!. Tacitus's analysis was pithy, aphorismatic, and brilliant. If you aren't overwhelmed by the cast of characters and the intricate geography, it's surprisingly accessible. (less)
I had an irrationally positive reaction to this book. Despite much of goodreads giving it middling marks, I loved it. Something about anthropomorphism...moreI had an irrationally positive reaction to this book. Despite much of goodreads giving it middling marks, I loved it. Something about anthropomorphism in the right hands that makes it an insanely potent weapon, and Sedaris used it masterfully in offering up a blistering, insightful social critique. Probably not the best Sedaris book to start with--it's not for everyone nor is it representative of his work--but it would come with a high recommendation if you won't be put off by stories of animals who are all too human.(less)