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“We suggest that hierarchy is a solution to the problems of voluntary organization…instead of personal leadership, authority is invoked.” –Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers


For whatever reason it’s easier for us to fall in line than to all share a common understanding of behavior. Personal responsibility cedes, ironically, responsibility to a higher authority that advocates for personal responsibility in the first place. Rather than handle our problems ourselves, we have to defer to the hierarchical system of punishment that supposedly knows best as to the proper course of action. Hammurabi’s Code would tell you that a punishment has to be proportional to the crime; this, I would say, makes sense to us on an instinctual basis. As a society we’ve codified this understanding to protect us as individuals from what Americans have immortalized to be cruel and unusual punishment. It is not proportional, say, to demolish someone’s house because they stole your newspaper.

The problem comes in when, while we agree on proportionality, we don’t agree on the terms and conditions of proportionality—someone might indeed think that demolishing a house for the crime of theft is proportional. Neither do we agree on the terms that dictate when punishment is even merited in the first place. Human beings, despite our best intentions, in spite of our best efforts to suppress our animalistic ancestry, contain within each person a degree of unreasonableness—the Chaos Factor, we can call it. It’s worse, actually, than animalistic since we can act irrationally all the while being aware of how irrational our action is, something Dostoyevsky called humanity’s “most advantageous advantage” in Notes from the Underground. This is the element of humanity that will always leave an unknown, an empty slot in the space of possible reactions and future decisions. Because we retain the right to act irrationally—perhaps this is the only right we keep, even after all others have been taken away—we are unable to organize ourselves as a society that completely abandons the idea of a higher power, or authority, or governing body. Based on our history, I would argue that we learned this lesson quickly and it’s only recently that people have thought they could do without this limiting and ruling actor or assemblage.

A system that truly advocates personal responsibility is a system that simultaneously roots for complete anarchy. What is anarchy? From an academic perspective, anarchy is simply what you have when you don’t have government: Anarchy is the absence of government. Personal responsibility, if everyone is one the same page, would lead everyone to follow the same set of unwritten rules. If a person breaks an understood rule, it is the responsibility of the affected party, not of everyone else, to rectify that breach, lest the crack in understanding and quid pro quo response become a rupture that results in ever increasing confusion. Just as a child tests the waters with how much bad behavior he can get away with, a society that operates under mutual understanding has a responsibility not to let spoiled behavior go unchecked. The only difference is that, in a society operating under anarchy, each individual member holds the complete role of not only calling out the breach of trust, but also fixing the leak. If the offender succeeds in his violation, the realm under which everyone else is operating with—that of personal responsibility—crumbles, completely. Acting as a coalition to right a wrong similarly destroys the anarchic system since it would then be substituted for a sectarian one, or one that advocates for a basic hierarchical system.

Why is that? Because we become aware that, if we cannot trust each other to play by the same rules, we have to recognize that we are not all built in the same way. The strong, should they decide to, will pummel the weak; the fast will take advantage of the slow; the lucky will overpower the unfortunate. A society operating under anarchy is extremely fragile, impossibly fragile, even. So we have hierarchy, instead, and power structures that recognize our inherent differences in intellectual or physical prowess. Is government, then, the safeguard for the weak and disabled? The answer to that depends on your priorities. Ayn Rand and her libertarian lot would say, yes, absolutely. Worse than being a safeguard, government is a looter that takes from the able and gives to the disabled, that is, the worst of society. A more sympathetic supporter of government would agree with a Benthamite description, meaning that government should exist to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. Rather than being the safeguard for the weak and disabled, government is the safeguard of the populace’s general happiness.

Like it or not, we can safely say that, as a species, this hierarchical model is what has aided our survival—that model is not just ours, by the way, since this is also true of pack animals and insects, like ants and bees. If our population were small, perhaps the strongest and smartest among us would recognize their place among their peers, but the smart knows that the strong can destroy him, just as the strong is smart enough to recognize that he may fall in the trap of the smart: In other words, the maniac may fall to the guile of the brainiac, and vice-versa.

Given the size of our societies, no one can be sure that they are the smartest AND the strongest, so hierarchies assure everyone that culprits will be forced to abide by the rules that have protected them, up to the point where they thought they were strong enough or smart enough to destroy them. Advocating for the overthrow of a present hierarchy, then, would bring to mind that lyric from The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Perhaps we could be more enlightened about the way our hierarchy is formed, so that those at the bottom are better protected, but that would still depend on a strong enough, though perhaps more benign, ruling body to look out for the well-being of society’s lower rung.

2017 Selfies…with Books! Yearly Review

Goodbye, 2017. Time flies when you’re having fun, and also when you’re in shock. The Trump presidency is here—and so far, it seems, here to stay. I still maintain that Trump is preferable to Pence in the White House, because Trump serves as the perfect symbol for the current state of our outrageous politics; Pence, on the other hand, would mask it all off in such a way so as to be considered insidious. Mike Pence looks like a guy who would stab you, look you in the eye, and say, “The Lord told me to do it,” before pulling the knife out and smiling while he did it, in an Aw, Shucks! manner—like it couldn’t be helped! Mike Pence looks like the poster boy for denial. Mike Pence looks like he would walk through a street of beggars and make a remark on their interesting lifestyle. Mike Pence has told so many white lies that his head is snowcapped. Mike Pence has all the personality of a toothpaste commercial. If Mike Pence continues to lavish praise on Trump, Trump might consider adopting him.

On the international stage, our relationship with our allies is proceeding about as well as everyone expected. Britain holds its nose when asked if they still like us; France and Germany have already looked away; South Korea and Japan don’t know how to answer; and Russia and China are now more friends than enemies. North Korea wants us dead more than ever; Cuba is standing on a tightrope and we’re shaking the cable; Venezuela is somehow still hanging on, but Zimbabwe decided it would keep the balance of dictators by ousting its own. At least Australia legalized same-sex marriage. Thanks, Aussies.


As I look back on my book selfies, I’m reminded of the time and circumstances surrounding each one. Since I spent the first six months of this year in China, it was nice to be reminded again of my life in Nanjing through the books I had read. If the first book you read sets the tone for your entire year, then I’m super lucky to have begun this year reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho because of its optimistism and sage wisdom. How different my outlook might have been if I had made my second read book my first: George Orwell’s 1984. It was around this time that White House Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, uttered that now infamous phrase, “alternative facts,” (she seemed to have suffered a mild stroke while doing it) and my jaw couldn’t hang on long enough to believe Orwell’s prescience. I would have started this year in a much bleaker way, no doubt, had 1984 introduced me to 2017. Thankfully, it didn’t, so I instead looked for the good omens all around me.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom had me in tears probably by the tenth page, and kept me in tears through every page turn. That’s not an exaggeration—I literally left a coffee shop because I couldn’t stop the tears. While in Thailand, I had Gabriel Garcia Marquez keep me company, with his book One Hundred Years of Solitude for beach reading. Those four fiction books were followed up by three non-fiction books that had me thirsty for facts and real-world drama. Diane Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, stands out as the most relevant, given the circumstances of the time, because Betsy Davos’ nomination as the Secretary of Education was announced. It seemed fitting to read the pro-charter and pro-public school arguments—and decidedly quash Davos’ charter-everything-or-bust stance on education.

Personally, non-fiction books require a lot more focus to get through. I can only take so many of them in a row, lest I get mired in pessimism and mild depression. So I switched back to fiction after reading Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen, a book about our appalling spending and horrendous practices in response to the war on terror. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden put me in California and Arabian Nights put me in the land of the prophet Mohammed.

Andrew’s Carnegie’s autobiography was not as interesting as his essay, The Gospel of Wealth. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground could not have had more opposite protagonists, a handsome socialite in the former and a bitter recluse in the latter. I do love my juxtapositions.

While I didn’t recommend The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Regime, 1975-79, by Ben Kiernan because of its density and overall academic writing, it is worth reading because it’s like running a marathon while hearing statistic after statistic of how many people died where and when and how. That book was the literary equivalent of an endurance run, and one worth reading for anyone who views the Communist system of government through rose-colored lenses. This book will break those lenses real quick. I actually waited to leave China before publishing the selfie I took with it (in front of the Forbidden City, of all places), for fear of detainment at the airport. I’m serious. China remains Communist, but only in the political sense. Abstain from any form of political criticism and China is actually not a bad place to live.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky welcomed me back to the United States. It survived being completely submerged while on a Kayak trip, and the glue held on just long enough for me to finish reading it on Santa Monica beach. Beyond Outrage by Robert B. Reich and American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips thrust me back into political literature, before I tired and retreated to sci-fi, which is not a genre I often read—fun fact: I’ve yet to read a single fantasy novel. Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee had its moments of captivating beauty, but I was overall disappointed. It wasn’t as fantastical as I wanted and I couldn’t make myself like the characters. Thankfully, The Ramayana went beyond any conception of time I could have imagined—we’re talking eons—and left me with a sense of fulfillment, somehow. If any books exuded a special kind of energy this year, they were The Alchemist and The Ramayana.

Lastly, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which is another great juxtaposition, provided me with two ways to think about life. I intend to read more Huxley next year, but I’m glad that I started with The Doors of Perception because I enjoyed the personal tone and mind-blowing observations—mind-expanding might be the more appropriate descriptor. Atlas Shrugged I’ve been reading on and off for about five years, which is insane. I almost gave it up until I saw it on some list of books people rarely finish, so I took it as a personal challenge not to succumb to the list. Just like Aztec from last year, this is another 1000+ page book that manages to stay entertaining throughout. You’ll inevitably pick up and understand Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, since it’s hammered into you throughout the 1000+ pages, but more importantly, it’ll allow you to think critically about the philosophy. I can see myself liking Objectivism and voting Libertarian every four years, you know, if I don’t think too hard about Objectivism. But since I have thought about it, no, I don’t buy into the philosophy.

I wave goodbye to 2017 with The Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice. Honestly, not the best book to say goodbye with simply because I didn’t like it. It started off interesting, with supernatural and biblical elements, but I was as confused as the main character for the entirety of the book. Maybe that was Rice’s intention? I don’t know. I just know that I didn’t like having more questions than answers, which is a problem Cradle had as well. Both ended prematurely, but both were so unpleasant to read that they also didn’t end soon enough.

Twenty-one books later, my 2017 reading year comes to a close. Below you’ll find the list of books I finished this year. With the exception of Atlas Shrugged, all were begun and finished this year.

  1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  2. 1984 by George Orwell
  3. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
  4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garca Mrquez
  5. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich
  6. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
  7. Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen
  8. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  9. Arabian Nights Volume I: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton
  10. The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and His Essay: The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie
  11. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  12. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  13. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Regime, 1975-79 by Ben Kiernan
  14. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  15. Beyond Outrage by Robert B. Reich
  16. American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips
  17. Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee
  18. The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon
  19. The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
  20. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  21. Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice

Happy 2018, everyone!