May 1, 2008


That abovementioned quote from Ambrose Bierce is an admonishment worth keeping in mind when reading the works below ... and as a principle for approaching life.

Amis, Martin, The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom (New York: Knopf, 2008) ("The current ideology, known to us by the wearying clunk of its initials, is bottom-up, working through the mass and not away from it. There is a vague feeling that PC, having made its gains in the restriction of the sayable, is now in modest retreat. And it is true that the expansionist phase, with its denunciations, its invigilation, its organized execrations, seems to have run its course. On the other hand, PC now occupies the preferred territory of all ideologies: it is among schoolchildren. The language and literature papers in our national exams are becoming implicit invitations to ideological conformity; and everyone knows that there are few marks to be had for bucking the earnest line on, say Maya Angelou. The weaker pupils will take the false comfort of belonging to a consensus; the stronger will simply receive early training in the practice of hypocritical piety." "We recognize this mental atmosphere, and its name is anti-intellectualism." Id. at 17-18. "The age of terror, I suspect, will also be remembered as the age of boredom. Not the kind of boredom that afflicts the blasé and the effete, but a superboredom, rounding out and complementing the superterror of suicide--mass murder. And although we will eventually prevail in the war against terror, or will reduce it, as Mailer says, to 'a tolerable level'..., we haven't a chance in the war against boredom. Because boredom is something that the enemy doesn't feel. To be clear: the opposite of religious belief is not atheism or secularism or humanism. It is not an ism: it is independence of mind--that's all. When I refer to the age of boredom, I am not thinking of airport queues and subway searches. I mean the global confrontation with the dependent mind." Id. at 76.)).

Connelly, Matthew, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge & London: Belknap/Harvard U. Press, 2008) (“As I went from archive to archive, pored through thousands of documents, and interviewed some of the people who made this history, I began to realize that much more is at stake than how we might redefine national security. This is a story of how some people have tried to control others without having to answer to anyone. They could be ruthless and manipulative in ways that were, and are, shocking. Perhaps we would expect no less of nativists or eugenicists, who assumed that people unlike themselves must be ‘beaten men from beaten races.’ Yet many more actually had the best of intentions, hoping to reduce poverty and prevent conflict…. The people I write about…were facing something utterly unprecedented in human history: world population was doubling and doubling again at an accelerating rate.” “”When contemplating the seemingly inexorable rise in human numbers, the most thoughtful observers have eventually asked themselves: ‘What are people for?’ One cannot read the debates that ensued without starting to take them personally, because they ultimately concern the meaning and purpose of life itself. This book will not try to settle existential question. But a work of history can at least show what happens when some people believe they can answer on behalf of others because they think they know best. In effect, they diagnosed political problems as pathologies that has a biological basis. At its most extreme, this logic has led to sterilization of the ‘unfit or ethnic cleansing. But even family planning could be a form of population control when proponents aimed to plan other people’s families, demeaning those ‘targeted’ as ‘acceptor,’ including tens of millions of poor people who were paid money to agree to sterilization. No less manipulative were those who denied hundreds of millions more people access to contraceptives and abortions because they wanted them to have more babies.” “This book is about the most ambitious population control schemes of all, which aimed to remake humanity by controlling the population of the world, typically by reducing the fertility of poor people and poor countries. But all population control projects shared the premise that societies should consciously reproduce themselves by design, even if that meant controlling how people disposed of their own bodies. And all looked at human beings not as individuals but as populations that could be shaped through the combined force of faith or manipulative forms of ‘family planning’ share a common history, one that helps us understand how they developed, how they diverged, and how the cause of reproductive rights was finally redeemed.” Id. at xi-xii.).

Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (The Oxford History of the United States (New York & Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2007) ("The most common name for the years this book treats is 'Jacksonian America.' I avoid the term because it suggests that Jacksonian describes Americans as a whole, whereas in fact Andrew Jackson was a controversial figure and his political movement bitterly divided the American people. Even more difficulties arise from the familiar expression 'Jacksonian Democracy.' Our own age finds the limitations on the democracy of that period glaring: the enslavement of African Americans, the abuse of native Americans, the exclusion of women and most nonwhites from the suffrage and equality before the law. The Jacksonian movement in politics, although it took the name of the Democratic Party, fought so hard in favor of slavery and white supremacy, and opposed the inclusion of nonwhites and women within the American civil polity so resolutely, that it makes the term 'Jacksonian Democracy' all the more inappropriate as a characterization of the years between 1815 and 1848. Nor did Andrew Jackson's presidential campaigns constitute a nationwide struggle on behalf of universal white manhood enfranchisement. In most states, white male suffrage evolved naturally and with comparatively little controversy. The consequences of white male democracy, rather than its achievement, shaped the political life of this period." "Another term that has sometimes been applied to this period--more by historian than by the general public--is 'the market revolution.' I avoid this expression also. Those historians who used it have argued that a drastic change occurred during these years, from farm families raising food for their own use to producing it for distant markets, However, more and more evidence has accumulated in recent years that a market economy already existed in the eighteenth-century American colonies...." "Accordingly provide an alternative interpretation of the early nineteenth century as a time of a 'communications revolution.' This, rather than the continued growth of the market economy, impressed contemporary Americans as a startling innovation. During the thirty-three years that began in 1815, there would be greater strides in the improvement of communication than had taken place in all previous centuries. This revolution, with its attendant political and economic consequences, would be a driving force in the history of the era." Id. at 4-5. It is dreadful the number of Americans who do not know American history. Significant narrative histories, such as this one, could go a long way in reducing that number.).

Manguel, Alberto, The Library at Night (New Haven & London: Yale U. Press, 2008) (“In order to find ways to cope with volume growth (though not always concerned with gaining quality), readers have resorted to all manner of painful devices: pruning their treasures, double-shelving, divesting themselves of certain subjects, giving away their paperbacks, even moving out and leaving their house to their books. Sometimes none of these options seems endurable. Shortly after Christmas 2003, a forty-three-year-old New York man, Patrice Moore, had to be rescued by firefighters from his apartment after spending two days trapped under an avalanche of journals, magazines and books that he had stubbornly accumulated for over a decade. Neighbors heard him moaning and mumbling through the door, which had been blocked by all the paper. Not until the lock was broken with a crowbar and rescuers began digging into the entombing piles of publications was Moore found, in a tiny corner of his apartment, literally buried in books. It took over an hour to extricate him; fifty bags of printed material had to be hauled out before this constant reader could be reached.” Id. at 71, citing Robert D. McFadden, ‘Recluse buried by paper avalanche,’ in The International Herald Tribune (Paris, 31 December, 2003)).

Manjoo, Farhad, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008) (This is an interesting, and non-technical, summary and commentary on the fragmentation of American society. We do not share the same reality. "[T]his book...explore[s] how modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth. [T]hat new information tools haven't merely given us faster and easier access to news, but that they've altered our very grasp on reality. The pulsing medium fosters divergent perceptions about what's actually happening in the world--that is, it lets each of us hold on to different versions of reality." It argu[es] that deception is on the rise--that there are more and better liars today because lying is simply easier. Now, it's true that social trust in the United States has been falling since long before the advent of the Internet, since before even cable TV, so these new things certainly didn't set the slide in motion. But they'll make the picture worse; a medium that makes lying easier, of course, won't foster trust. And although there are examples of trust flourishing online--eBay, for instance--the broad measures of American trust (plummeting through the 1990s) bears out the idea that new communication tools at least haven't revitalized trust (an idea that, in the early days of the Internet, held many adherents." The author's "theory that the new medium will contribute to an even greater fall in trust depends on a factor that people who study social capital call particularized trust. Whereas generalized trust has to do with what we think of strangers, particularized trust describes how we feel about people who are like us--in our families, in our ethnic groups, in people at our company, or in other groups we may belong to...." "[R]esearchers do know where particularized trust pops up often: small towns, for instance...." "Particularized trust destroys generalized trust. The more that people trust those who are like themselves--the more they trust people in their own town, say--the more they distrust strangers. And when particularized trust far outweighs generalized trust, loathsome things happen.... [T]hink of the Ku Klux Klan or street gangs or any criminal conspiracy.... [T]hese groups rely on very high levels of trust; as soon as members of the a band of thieves stop trusting one another, the jig is up. But their trust is particularized--it's with the group and comes at the the expense of trust in strangers. The Klan is,, after all, a secret conspiracy; people in the Klan don't even trust outsiders enough to allow them to know who's in and who's out." Id. at 225-226. "What arises form all this, finally, is the condition Stephen Colbert diagnosed as 'truthiness.' Truthiness means you choose, But you're not just deciding a reality; you're also deciding to trust that reality--which means deciding to distrust the others. Whenever you choose, you're making a decision to form a particularized trust. This is the essence of the new medium. Navigating it requires forming bonds with those who are going the same way you are and rejecting those who've decided to see things differently." Id. at 229-230.).

Motion, Andrew, ed., Anne Stevenson: Selected Poems (American Poets Project) (New York: Library of America, 2008) ( "A Marraige": "When my mother knew why her treatment wasn't working, / She said to my father, trying not to detonate her news, / 'Steve, you must marry again. When I'm gone, who's going / To tell you to put trousers on before your shoes?' // My father opened his mouth to--couldn't--refuse. / Instead, he threw her a look; a man just shot / Gazing at the arm or leg he was about to lose. / His cigarette burned him, but he didn't stub it out. // Later, on the porch, alive in the dark together, / How solid the house must have felt, how sanely familiar / The night-lit leaves, their shadows patterning the street. / The house is still there. The elms and the people, not. // It was now, and it never was now. Like every experience / Of being entirely here, yet really not being. / They couldn't imagine the future that I am seeing, / For all his philosophy and all her common sense." Id. at 86.).

Phillips, Kevin, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (New York: Viking, 2008) ("Many people today think that today's finance is too complicated for ordinary citizens to fathom or handle, Bubbles aside, other financial terms used by the media--credit derivatives, securitization, and even current account deficit--do not lend themselves to conversations in neighborhood bars or beauty parlors. Americans are excusing themselves accordingly. still, if the farmers of more than a century ago could study and understand Sherman Silver Purchase Act provisions and details of the nationwide currency shrinkage--and many studied and somehow managed--can't we expect as much today? Alas, probably not." Id. at 52-53. "Recent polls in the United States by Zogby/New Global Initiatives show an unprecedented 1.5 million Americans having already decided to leave the United States and another 1.8 million calling themselves likely to leave. Emigration was also pronounced from declining Spain (to Spanish colonial America), from eighteenth-century Holland (to Dutch colonies, and by professional and skilled workers to Britain and Sweden), and from declining rural and industrial areas of Britain in the first half of the twentieth century (to the colonies, the dominions, and the United States)." Id. at 208.).

Rauch, Jonathan, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (New York: Times Books, 2004) ("I fully expect same-sex marriage to have many subtle ramifications, good, bad, and indifferent. I do not expect social science to sort them all out. But the fact that the world is complicated is the very reason to run the experiment, not to ban it....Indeed, we never know for sure what the effects of any public policy will be, and so we do a limited experiment if possible and decide on the basis pf necessarily imperfect information." "And--an important point--who decides? Conservative intellectuals? Left-wing activists? Washington bureaucrats? University experts? You? Me? None of the above. Where marriage is concerned, the sovereign right to deem a policy successful or failed belongs to the people of the states. It is for them to judge whether same-sex marriage is an experiment worth trying, whether it has worked in their state, and whether it deserves adoption or recognition." Id. at 188-189.).

Sullivan, Andrew, Love Undectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (New York: Knopf, 1999) ("Liberals, in true Augustinian fashion, are suspicious of particular loyalties and seek to embrace universal values and egalitarian politics. Theirs is the politics of caritas. Conservatives, in contrast, prefer particulars to universals, and amicitia to love. They see more virtue in one person's actual regard for another than in, say, a welfare system which reflects a more consistent but more distant moral order. And they are also more likely to prefer nationalism to internationalism, and to support voluntary over political associations, Theirs is the politics of philia." "But just as modern politics finds a natural, if constantly shifting, balance between the political claims of universalism and particularism, so there might seem to be a moral via media as well, a plausible path between the Kierkegaardian either-or, one that manages to preserve the virtue of friendship while not denying the moral demands of love. Id. at 244.).

Sullivan, Andrew, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality (New York: Knopf, 1995) ("[A] liberal society cannot engage someone who bases his views of homosexuality on religious authority alone. Like unreasoned emotion, unanswerable religious authority is, well, unanswerable. The only legitimate responses are belief and unbelief.... In fact, dialogue of any kind is impossible. In the same way, a democratic society can forbid--as the constitution of the United States forbids--the state's coercion of people into unwilling obedience to religious authority; and it can fiercely delimit the scope of that authority's secular power. But it cannot truly engage religious authority on its own terms without undermining its own identity." "This is not to say that the political is prior to the religious, or that the faithless have nothing to learn from the faithful. It is simply to say that one of the first principles of liberal societies, as they have emerged from the theocracies and dictatorships of the past, is that the religious is not the same as the political; that its very discourse is different; and that the separation of the two is as much for the possibility of vibrant faith as it is for the possibility of a civil polity. So there is no argument here either against a religious conviction that doesn't respect or understand a separate, if related, political sphere." Id. at 24.).

Wikan, Unni, In Honor of Fadime: Murder and Shame translated from the Norwegian by Anna Paterson (Chicago & London: U. Chicago Press, 2008) (This is an important book, one which I hope will be read widely. "What drives a man to murder his child--for honor's sake?" "What makes a mother testify in favor of a man who has murdered their child--for honor's sake?" Id. at 1. "'Respect for culture' has been a central tenet of the integration policy of most Western societies--so central that you risk being branded 'racist' if you do not show respect for the culture of others. The intention is good: to support equality among groups and avoid stigmatization. Ethnic minorities should not be assimilated and feel pressure to 'become' Swedes or Norwegians. Everyone should be allowed to keep their identity, their culture, within certain limits. There must be respect for law and order. Respect for a culture is secondary to respect for the law." "In theory, this is straightforward. In practice, it causes problems...." "The rights of ethnic minorities to sustain their identity and preserve their culture may come into head-on conflict with the individual's right to self-determination. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes the individual's right to leave a group--the right to exit. Respect for culture is on the other hand often based on an opposing principle: that people have a duty to belong, that they have been given to the group to own. Fadime rebelled against this principle...." Id. at 251-252.).