American Manifesto by Bob Garfield

9781640092808_e7adaAs is often observed, Trump is a symptom of a virus that has been incubating for at least fifty years. But not often observed is where the virus is embedded: in the psychic core of our identity. Garfield investigates how we’ve gotten to this moment when our identity is threatened by both the left and the right, when e pluribus unum is no longer a source of national pride, and why, when looking through this lens of identity, the rise of Trumpism is no surprise. Overlaying that crisis is the rise of the Facebook-Google duopoly and the filter-bubble archipelago where identity is tribal and immutable.

Review:

I was primed to like this book because I love On the Media, a public radio show Garfield co-hosts. He isn’t afraid to skewer received wisdom and group think, so I was curious to see what he thinks about the state of democracy in the United States.

Overall I agree with Garfield’s idea that we need to recognize that the internet has not been the democratization machine we’ve been hoping for (with some exceptions) and that Google and Facebook have an outsized influence on American society. I also agree that those in favor of democracy need to put aside some differences to work together for the common good.

The way these ideas are conveyed, though, is not my cup of tea. The first half of the book was hit or miss, with some chapters getting at interesting points and others feeling disconnected. It’s written in his voice, as he would write for radio, but some parts don’t work as well in print. The most glaring example is lists that are compelling when heard but easily skipped over on the page.

While the tone aims at irreverent it dips into coarse. Dick joke level coarse. I understand that he’s trying to get us mad, to funnel that anger into action, but I don’t think it works. At least not on me.

Near the end of his manifesto Garfield posits that America has split itself into too many “micro-identities”, casting themselves as a highly visible other. When you make yourself stick out, he implies, you shouldn’t be surprised that people backlash against you.

So that pissed me off.

And then he talks about a kind colleague that hinted that he shouldn’t start speeches with “ladies and gentlemen” because it’s subtly “oppressive”. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m on the colleague’s side and think that we should try to use inclusive language that works for all people, not just those on the gender binary. His answer? It’s wasted effort when there are bigger fish to fry.

My response – it costs nothing to change a few words and as a result be kinder and more understanding of those around you. You say you want us to unite, so why are you clinging to a phrase that divides?

I was prepared to give American Manifesto a ho-hum three star review until these sections near the end of the book. There are decent points here and there, but I think they could have presented in a more engaging way, with less unnecessary coarseness.

Thanks to Counterpoint Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

FifthRisk.inddWhat are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works? Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.

Michael Lewis takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy it’s not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.

If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course.  Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.

Review:

This is my first book by Michael Lewis but by all rights it shouldn’t be, considering that he’s written Moneyball and The Big Short. Here he looks at how three government agencies have transitioned from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

…it didn’t go well. Surprise, surprise.

In a book slim enough to feel like three extended essays Lewis goes over the highly varied missions of three federal agencies, what they normally do, and how that’s all been turned upside down by the incoming administration. Remember the news stories about the Trump transition being anemic and ill-planned? We see all of that in its full glory.

But it’s more than tales of woe. Lewis also highlights former administrators and the work they did fixing government. You’ve probably never heard of them, but they’ve kept the rusty wheels of bureaucracy turning with smarts and a dedication to public service. It’s inspiring how many people work for the government with this sense of duty.

And the potential disasters that keep them up at night can be truly frightening – misjudging North Korea and inadvertently starting a war, nuclear waste flowing into a major river due to poor storage. Others “merely” bode poorly for our long term prospects, like the lack of funding for cutting-edge scientific research.

Other than these facts, what struck me most is Lewis’ assured and slightly casual writing style. It never felt academic and always welcomed me back to the page.

At the same time, I can’t say I’m blown away. It’s an interesting and well-written book but it will fade from memory all too soon, which is a shame considering the subject area.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

33917107An historian of fascism offers a guide for surviving and resisting America’s turn towards authoritarianism.

Timothy Snyder is one of the most celebrated historians of the Holocaust. With Twenty Lessons, Snyder draws from the darkest hours of the twentieth century to provide hope for the twenty-first. As he writes, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Twenty Lessons is a call to arms and a guide to resistance, with invaluable ideas for how we can preserve our freedoms in the uncertain years to come.

Review:

I came across Snyder’s 20 Lessons Facebook post soon after the election of Donald Trump and immediately saved it.  The lessons are simple – believe in truth, be wary of paramilitaries, take responsibility for the face of the world – but we need to hear and be reminded of them.  Totalitarianism has a way of sneaking up on you and Snyder is determined not to let that happen.

This book is those twenty lessons, fleshed out.  Sorta.  Historical examples are added and context is hinted at, but I would like a more detailed explanation of what has gone before. While the book clocks in at 120 pages it’s thanks to the formatting more than anything.  I would have finished it in one sitting if not interrupted (silly work).

If you haven’t seen the viral post On Tyranny is a great introduction to how power is taken away from the people.  If you’re looking for a deeper explanation you may want to tackle Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism instead.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone

34525527Reality. It used to seem so simple—reality just was, like the weather. Why question it, let alone disagree about it? And then came the assault, an unending stream of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and lies disguised as truths that is overwhelming our notions of reality. Now we can’t even agree on what a fact is, let alone what is real. How on earth did we get here?

Reality, as Gladstone shows us, was never what we thought it was—there is always a bubble, people are always subjective and prey to stereotypes. And that makes reality more vulnerable than we ever thought. Enter Donald J. Trump and his team of advisors. For them, as she writes, lying is the point. The more blatant the lie, the easier it is to hijack reality and assert power over the truth. Drawing on writers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Walter Lippmann, and Jonathan Swift, she dissects this strategy straight out of the authoritarian playbook and shows how the Trump team mastered it.

And she offers hope—the inevitable reckoning history tells us we can count on—and a way to recover both our belief in reality and our sanity.

Review:

‘What is reality, anyway?’ seems like an impossible question but Gladstone has us covered.   The answer starts from a single core idea – that each of us has our own personal reality – and builds out bit by bit to explain how we got to where we are today.

I highlighted so many passages it’s slightly ridiculous.  Complex ideas are articulated clearly and memorably, and many have been rattling around my head as the news cycle spins on – how beliefs and conspiracies affect our realities.  How Huxley and Orwell’s dystopian fears translate to our times.  How demagogues get and lose their power.  How to avoid pitfalls in messaging and what we can do to affect change.  “Meaningful action is a time-tested treatment for moral panic,” she says, and we’re pointed in the right direction.

This is one of those reviews that’s hard to write not because of a lack of things to say but because I have trouble putting all the awesome into a few paragraphs. Let’s try this: if you’re looking for an insight into current times, if you want a timely read that will make you think and wonder and gasp in recognition, or if you’d like to plot where things go from here, The Trouble with Reality is a must read.  Much love.