Two decisions came out today, one from the judiciary and another from a private business. I’ve taken an interest in both of these rulings simply because they were both released on the same day, as the result of happy coincidence, and because they coincide with a general confusion, I would say, that grips present American society.
“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.
Follow the link: VR
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.
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garca Mrquez
- This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich
- Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
- Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- Arabian Nights Volume I: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton
- The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and His Essay: The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie
- Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
- Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Regime, 1975-79 by Ben Kiernan
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Beyond Outrage by Robert B. Reich
- American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips
- Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee
- The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon
- The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice
Happy 2018, everyone!
The Person: Bruno
Two truths inform my nature as a reader: I read books primarily for entertainment and I read passively. My books you’ll find devoid of highlights and notes on the margins, each paperback or hardcover unburdened by the weight of sticky notes. I find those activities distracting and ultimately inconducive towards a meaningful immersion into the book’s universe. My nature informs my reading method as I’m reading, that is, while the book has yet to end. Invariably, the intellectual osmosis that occurs from passively ingesting an author’s ideas begins to set after the last punctuation mark and then calcifies; this process provides a concrete dimension to what was previously equal parts fluid and transcendent, like a state of matter that is and is not, at the same time.
They say you should make a to-do list before you sleep, or think about something that you want accomplished in the future, to let your mind ruminate over the list or ambitions while you sleep and find some kind of answer filed away in the forgotten files of your consciousness. I don’t make to-do lists before sleeping, but I have experienced my mind performing the equivalent of a background task at a book’s conclusion. A few days will go by after I have finished a book and I will suddenly become aware of much more than I had even been thinking about. Having recently completed Atlas Shrugged and The Doors of Perception, I am forced to examine, by a nagging desire, the two polar answers to the question of existence, to its meaning and purpose. Continue reading On the Spectrum: An Existentialist Comparison of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception
Trump’s whispers are heard in the atmosphere, hovering over the populace like clouds that threaten destructive floods to come. Someone reports seeing a blue bird, which has by now become the omen that foretells an inauspicious day. Another blue bird is reported, then another. The people have learned to let the flying beasts come, lest they risk attracting their attention and having the roofs of their houses collapse from the weight of the things. After a time, it becomes clear that Trump’s aviary, gold-plated and obtuse, no longer holds life, and instead hangs empty, extravagant, and dumb.
The blue birds perch on fire hydrants, stoplights, and cars. Their feathers are of such a brilliant blue as to appear celestial—somehow, they glow. The people can’t help but look at them, slack-jawed and mesmerized, in wonder of how creatures so strange could be seen every day and still look so new. But the people are careful around the blue birds, for the birds are eager to return to their aviary and feed their holder Trump with the bread crumbs gathered from the day. Added to the normal cacophony of the day are the blue birds’ cries: “McConnell! McConnell!”
“Oh, boy,” McConnell sighs. Continue reading The Ballad of Trump and McConnell
What you are about to read is biased. We can agree on this point right away—I don’t hide from making explicit my viewpoint. Read this with the knowledge, the affirmation, and my guaranteed re-confirmation that I am providing a view belonging to me. If one is to disagree with the points of an author, it does no good to say an author is biased and leave it at that. To call a source biased is to admit one’s comfort with redundancy. My reason for this introduction is the following: All too often, a source is instantly dismissed because of its biases, either obvious or implicit, and the ideas that inhabit a work receive no attention or consideration, since the author’s background, or ideology, or—as is increasingly the case—race, gender, and place of publication, prohibit serious discussion on those grounds. Everything has bias. The basic presence of bias does not merit instant dismissal of a work.
The inverse is equally true. Recognizing the inevitability of bias, favoring one bias over another, to the point of exclusively subscribing to one, at all times, and instantly writing off the other, creates the same kind of intellectual blockade I see as increasingly prevalent on the largest public space where discussions continue to exist: The internet. This great mechanism for worldwide connection gave rise to pockets of information, insular interpretations of every event one could think of, and increased the myopia of those who thought their mud was clearest. The Us vs. Them mentality has firmly entrenched itself in the minds of many, far too many, which is why, rather than keep their minds open, ideological zealots attack one another with ready-made slogans and catchphrases, you know, one is “mansplaining” and the other is a “snowflake.” The insult will either precede or proceed what’s bound to be a misunderstood reply, but the insult will always accompany the collection of words that the writer thinks combine to form a “mic drop” reply.
What Is My Problem?
Put yourself in the shoes of the rich and the poor; diseased and healthy; smart and dumb, knowledgeable and ignorant; gay and straight–do anything contrary to your lived-in reality and you’ll have willingly subjected yourself, admirably in that case, to an exercise in empathy. Notice the missing conjunction: or. Context and perspective are only possible when accompanied by a parallel yardstick, one that may even run perpendicular at certain intersections.
Citizen and immigrant are not two sides of the same coin, though our political environment on both sides tries to make us believe it. On the right, the separating line is a legal one, simply that of legal and illegal. On the left, the legal distinction isn’t a relevant one, because morality takes precedent; these are human beings, and by now I’m sure you’ve heard the latest slogan to come out of leftwing advocacy groups: No human being is illegal. I don’t agree with that sentiment, which is a dangerous thing to admit nowadays, because, while our laws aren’t perfect and can be quite cruel under certain circumstances, like those regarding immigration, the fact remains that our entire society depends upon adherence to these laws–this we call the rule of law–and to every other law that keeps this experiment in coexistence from explosive combustion. We have a process in place to amend, repeal or create new laws reflective of popular opinion, but that process is necessarily cumbersome–certainly burdensome for those trapped in the legislation–because it demands the deliberation of consequences, coupled with the consideration of those who stand to benefit or lose. The process is cruel in the same way that it’s cruel to put people in line when they are in desperate need of a heart transplant. But it’s the best we’ve got. Continue reading Born-again Immigrant
Some flights are rough. When faced with delays, turbulence, toddlers, Pepsi-only products, one can either groan against misfortune or one can accept that 7-Up really is the better beverage. Having a bright outlook means that even if you didn’t get the window seat, you can look up at the sky any time after you land. Outlook is everything.
My story begins in Nanjing, a rapidly-modernizing city with a sizeable expat presence.
“It’s nice,” Jennifer says, my school contact at Nanjing Foreign Language School where I was assigned. “But it’s getting expensive.”
During my stay, I transformed from American recluse to Nanjing gadfly, joining the chorus of locals who loved and loathed their city in equal measure—too many people, too much traffic, too much noise, but very convenient!—in the way that metropolitan dwellers do all around the world. I extol Nanjing’s transportation system and its ease of travel. Metros, taxis, and buses are inexpensive by any standard, with minimal wait times, and I wish I could implant their efficiency on my native DC metro system. Perhaps Nanjing traded authenticity for convenience, but for someone who wanted to spend his time in China on Easy Mode, or Mild on the Taco Bell scale of spiciness for this lightweight, I appreciated the Burger Kings and McDonalds’; the Starbucks’ and Pizza Huts; especially the H&Ms. But while these brands were available, they were comforting visuals more than necessary fallbacks, as I marveled at and regularly sang the praises of Chinese cooks, or the prices of Chinese clothing. Also, I found wonderful sources for French baguettes, which is an essential component of my Bolivian breakfast and occasional snack, so I was ready to excuse any slights against me, perceived or otherwise.
An experiment in solitude became an experience of growth. Although I was living in a country with over a billion people, I at first felt lonely. Possessing zero Chinese language skills and woefully poor knowledge of Chinese culture, separation became my unwanted companion due, quite simply, to these initial deficiencies. However, once I got an apartment with two other AYC teachers—and once I learned more words and customs—challenges shifted their connotation from negative to positive, and we used those challenges to guide our stay in the country, as we fixed upon what needed accomplishing and how best to accomplish those goals. Most of the time, pointing at things was enough for me to function alone in the wild, as I turned my index finger into a multitool for inquiries and requests. You’d be surprised with how much I accomplished with this simple gesture and rudimentary pantomime. I will forever appreciate the patience of Chinese cashiers, passersby, and store clerks who endured my gestures and my mumbles, my hand-waving, charade-playing self. Necessity may breed invention, but survival undoubtedly destroys shyness. Whenever I needed anything, the only way to accomplish my goal was to venture outside, surround myself with a language I could hear but not listen to, and make myself understood in any way my desperate mind could conjure—nothing less than lunch was at stake, or a cell phone plan.
While struggles make for funny, albeit whiny stories, it was the successes that created my most poignant memories. Early on, I set one thought to conviction: before touring my city, before looking for the things I thought were authentically Chinese—thanks, Hollywood!—I reminded myself that, first and foremost, I was here to teach. What an experience that has been. I worked quickly to undo my students’ shyness, with my reasoning being that if I couldn’t be shy in the street, they couldn’t be shy in the classroom. I regularly made a fool of myself, waving my arms erratically, milking humor out of PowerPoint slides for all their worth, but if you’ll believe it, I succeeded. It wasn’t long before walking out in the hall meant saying hello to every student that passed by; or before my students took their best shot, often with stunning success, figuring out the difference between literal and figurative passages, which I began most of every class with; or before their hands flew up to answer my questions. They were especially eager to mimic my gestures, which functioned as a great strategy for memory recall after the laughter subsided.
For me, the laughter will never subside. This is partly because I have enough videos of all my students to comfortably last a lifetime. It’s also because I’ve made friendships in the program that I anticipate lasting beyond our tenure in China. The support has been consistent, the answers immediate—the experience, deep and lasting. But mostly, I’ll continue laughing in optimism because of what the AYC program means: reminding one another that all around the world, there are people willing to teach and learn, to exchange ideas and cultures, to ask questions and be receptive to perspectives. And to share laughter.
Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 both depict a future devoid of thought, but not awareness. The protagonists, Guy Montag and Winston, are interchangeable in their demeanor, so I don’t need to specify which belongs to which novel. Both recognize that something isn’t quite right in the worlds they live in, with Winston referring to an ancestral memory that is his only hint into the way things once were. Guy Montag questions whether books were always burned, and thanks to his boss, Captain Beatty, he learns that in fact, no, books were not always burned. Books asked questions that could never be answered; they encouraged dissent by always challenging present ideas, ideas held sacred, and so books were deemed dangerous—not only dangerous, but unnecessary. 1984’s world also roots out dissenters, purging anti-Party terrorists for the continuation and assurance of party purity. Rather than burn the past, though, like in Fahrenheit 451, 1984 preserves the existence of the past, but with heavy alterations, edits, and revisions—this is no past at all, Winston observes. Continue reading Inextinguishable: An Optimist Reads 1984 and Fahrenheit 451