Vital But Flawed Read

Earlier this year, I discovered The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work by Donald F Kettl. I saw it advertised on the page of The Atlantic magazine. To my understanding, federalism is part of what made and continues to make such a vast and diverse country as the United States of America work. The blurb in the ad intrigued me, and I decided to buy the book and read it.

While the content here is of vital importance to anyone living today in the United States of America, the presentation is in sore need of further editing. The ideas are complex and deserve a fair amount of repetition in the text. However, it is overly repetitive to the point where I repeatedly found myself skimming passages that I was sure I had read ten or twenty or fifty pages earlier.

That said, it is important that the evaluation of the problem covered in this book be distributed far and wide. The solution proposed does not come till the final chapter, and it is embarrassingly meager and inadequate. Nonetheless, it is the description of the role of federalism and its role in our current political dysfunction that I find most compelling. It uses a blend of history and data to show how what was meant to (and has) preserved our republic for over two hundred years, is now on the verge of tearing us apart.

So I hesitatingly recommend reading this book. But if you can find a detailed summary of its ideas, this might serve you better. I can only hope that a second edition more ably edited will be forthcoming. I expect it might then become a bestseller.

A Hurried and Uninspired Memoir

Partisanship and the controversy surrounding John Bolton are not the reason I was interested in his memoir The Room Where It Happened. I am no Trump fan and am a registered independent voter. My interest lay in why he chose not to testify in the House impeachment proceedings and his experience working for the President. Since this was such a timely subject given the election in November, I decided to read it. I only made it through the first two chapters.

As you might expect, the book is very partizan, sharing the author’s very conservative perspective. This in itself does not bother me but rather intrigues me. I like to understand where people are coming from. I find that as a society we are too quick to pigeon hole someone in a box and then dismiss what they have to say. I’m interested in ideas more than party. As a result, I wanted to know what Bolton thought and how he advised the President. Unfortunately, I found the writing to be excessively detailed and overly flamboyant with too much name dropping.

The first two chapters that I read feel like he barely fleshed out his calendar based on his notes and memories. It doesn’t have the polish or introspection that is the hallmark of the modern memoir. He likes to repeatedly name the politically connected that he met or spoke with. An example of the excessive detail is that every time (yes, every time) he refers to the desk in the Oval Office he calls it the Resolute desk. That is a pertinent detail… the first time he mentions it. It just gets old and absurd after that.

It is clear from the author’s experience that President Trump was woefully unprepared practically and by disposition to act as president in the modern way. That way is to be someone who relies on his cabinet to bring him advice from which he makes informed decisions. Rather, he relies on family, friends, and his own seat of the pants judgment. Some may argue that this might have worked for him as a businessman, but it is certainly no way to govern. John Bolton was never happy with the chaos and haphazard antics of the Trump administration, eventually resigning.

After the first two chapters, I skimmed the rest of the book to see if it was going to continue in the same vein of subpar literature. It did. But I still wanted to know the author’s thoughts on the impeachment and his reasons for not testifying. This is in the final chapter of the book. I read that before laying the book aside.

Bolton’s opinion of the impeachment proceedings was that they were politically weaponized by both sides. He feels this was a dangerous precedent and a misuse of the Constitution. Interestingly, he feels that if the Democrats in the House had taken their time and broadened the scope of the investigation, they may have succeeded. According to the author, there is plenty of proof that the president regularly acted in his own personal interest or in the interest of his own re-election rather than in the best interests of the country.

As for why he didn’t testify, he anticipated having a similar experience to Charlie Kupperman’s. He was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives to testify in the impeachment proceedings. This resulted in the White House and the President ordering him to invoke “testimonial immunity”. Rather than choose which side to listen to, Kupperman filed suit in federal court for advice. Before receiving that advice, the House withdrew the subpoena leaving the court without jurisdiction. No decision was given. By that time, the House had passed the impeachment proceedings on to the Senate. John Bolton decided at that time that he would testify, if called. The Senate never called any witnesses and Trump was acquitted as expected. Given Bolton’s view of the process itself and his desire to hew closely to the Constitution, this makes sense.

In the end the overwhelming detail in this book and the author’s apparent need to brag about all the people he knows and is connected with render this memoir nearly unreadable. It seems that the author suffered from exactly what he accused the House Democrats of. He was in too much of a hurry to give the work the attention it deserved.

Infinite Detail Indeed

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan is speculative fiction at its best. It feels only a few years (if that) removed from today and has a perspective that really makes the book unique. While some may call it a dystopia, I see it more as an exploration of revolutionary idealists and their perspectives after the revolution.

There has been an event that knocks out the internet all over the world. It’s gone, along with all the trappings that go with it. The world struggles to manage without all that it has come to depend on. And it appears to have been done on purpose. Why? There are lots of reasons that are best experienced in the book itself. But in the end, the revolutionaries debate whether they got it right or not. And will things just go back to normal? And like any good artist, the author poses the question and leaves the answer to the reader.

On top of this fascinating exploration of political ideals in the realm of digital privacy, the author is a fantastic storyteller. The chapters alternate between before and after the internet is taken away. We slowly learn the stories of individuals who were affected by the events or made them happen. The connections slowly come to light as the prose paints vivid and realistic views of a world that could someday be our own.

If you are looking for an entertaining, well-written novel that will make you think, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Seeing the “Other”

As soon as I finished Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, I went to my library’s web site to borrow and start reading the sequel Starsight immediately. It does not disappoint. And where the first book was kind of like Top Gun in space, this followup is more of a spy thriller in space. Warning: casual spoilers ahead. I will end up revealing things you won’t know if you haven’t read both books, but nothing that I think will completely ruin your experience should you decide to read them.

For me, the beauty of this book can be summed up in the pseudo word “sonder”. It is defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

The main character, Spensa, goes on a mission as an undercover spy to discover a way to save her people. In the process, she interacts with a number of different races of aliens who are part of the intergalactic society known as the Superiority. As humans have been kept captive on her world for centuries, she sees all these races as her enemies to be overcome and defeated. But in the process of her spy work, she engages closely with a number of them, even becoming friendly with some. She starts to experience a form of sonder realizing that not all of these people are her enemies, not even all in the Superiority government.

Oh, Saints and stars. I couldn’t keep up the warrior act any longer. These weren’t my enemies. Some parts of the Superiority were, of course, but these people…they were just people. Mrs. Chamwit probably wasn’t a spy, but was instead really just a kindly housekeeper who wanted to see me fed. And Morriumur…they just wanted to be a pilot.

Chapter 28, Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

This is what I love about science fiction. In the midst of a page-turning story, I found an exploration of the very same challenges we find in our daily lives. And these experiences sometimes help me to see and have experiences wholly different from mine. A whole different perspective opens up.

This feels particularly important to me in our current polarized times. It is easy to see others who don’t think like me, as enemies or “others”. But they are all the main characters in their own lives with their own struggles and triumphs. And I believe that remembering this on a regular basis will help bring the world closer together. We won’t all agree, but I hope that by seeing the “other” as someone just like us trying to figure it all out, we can have some compassion and patience. And with that, we may even find ourselves not so far apart as we initially thought.

Escaping My Echo Chamber

echo canyon

We all live in an echo chamber constructed by the algorithms that build our newsfeeds. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media do their best to feed us more of what we like in order to keep us on their site or in their app. I recently decided that I wanted to get out of this box.

I think it is important to seek out ideas different than my own. I want to understand how the world works not only from my own perspective but from that of others who may think differently than I do. But I recently started to notice that all of the news I was seeing seemed to have the same slant. It felt repetitive and one-sided and made me uncomfortable. It reinforced what I already think and believe, but what about people on the other side? Surely they must have a valid perspective that led them to think the way they do. So I decided to take action.

The first thing I did was to seek out more news sources. I don’t read, listen to, or watch much news. I mostly listen to NPR in the car and occasionally look at Facebook online. I started by seeking out two separate news sources, one from the left (CNN) and one from the right (Fox News). I looked daily at each home page and read one or two of the articles there. After a few days of this, I’d had enough. I still felt like I was in an echo chamber, or rather two completely separate echo chambers with little depth to the reporting.

What I wanted was a more nuanced and complete picture of what is going on. Both of these sites operate on the “headline news” model. What’s happening now is what’s important to them. Getting there first is the driver as well as keeping people on their sites to view their ads. I wanted something deeper. I knew there were real people behind these stories, but I wasn’t seeing that in the reporting.

My next step was to subscribe to The Flip Side, a service that sends a daily email about a particular topic in the news with excerpts from the left, right, and in-between. It is a quick five-minute read each day that helps give me perspective on the headlines without drowning me in the partisanship. Very valuable and free. This was an improvement, but I was still missing a more complete picture.

So I sought out long form journalism with different perspectives, one left, one right. I settled on The Atlantic and Reason, respectively. I noticed that I had been reading and appreciating a lot of articles in The Atlantic. And Reason was a magazine I was familiar with and respected. I started to read what was on each website when I wanted to find out more about what was in the news. I found more substance and reporters genuinely seeking to understand things rather than spout a party line. Granted, they each are coming from their own world view, but they do so with thought and care that goes much deeper than throwing up a flashy headline as clickbait.

My final, and to me most important step, was that I now subscribe to both of these publications. I value what they do and having both of their perspectives. And if I value what they do and want them to continue doing it, I need to support them financially.

Today I get my news from both the left and the right and feel like I have a better perspective on the world and better insight into why each side feels the way they do. And I think that helps me be a better citizen than being stuck in an echo chamber that just tells me what I already know and like.

Our Technological Adolescence

butterfly emerges from its cocoon

Note: I am writing as a citizen and resident of the United States of America but I believe that the ideas in this post apply equally to all of us as human beings as fellow citizens of the world.

We hear it every day. Us vs. them. Right vs. left. Republican vs. Democrat. Red vs. blue. Globalization vs. protectionism. Urban vs. rural. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. How did we get here? Why do we seem to be more divided than ever?

A lot has changed in the world over the last twenty to thirty years. Technology has become a bigger and more dominant part of our everyday lives, changing the way we relate to each other and to the world around us. How are we handling that change? I would answer, “Not well.”

As human beings, we have a tendency to hold on to what we know best and resist change when that change is scary or particularly unknown. As we do this as individuals we start to seek out others who think like us, for comfort. Our journalists have been taught to distill stories down to “just the facts”, largely erasing the broad spectrum of struggles that are going on by individuals that don’t fit their story. (See this wonderful article for the beginning of a solution to this problem in journalism.) While this is understandable, it only serves to divide us further.

Collectively, no matter what “side” we are on, we all seem to be deeply dissatisfied with where we are politically and culturally. We are asking ourselves and each other (or we should be), “How did we get here and what do we do?” Perhaps an analogy will give some perspective and provide some direction. By way of illustration, I will share something a little personal.

Growing up, I was the “good kid” in my family. I got good grades and did what I was told (mostly). I graduated second in my high school class and attended Georgetown University receiving a bachelor’s degree in Russian. By all outward definitions, I was a success. But inwardly, I was still an adolescent. I had made no decisions about who I was at a fundamental level. Worse, I didn’t even realize it. I had goals and ideals, but these were ones that I had received from my community. I wanted to help the world not blow itself up. That’s why I studied Russian at (what we didn’t know then was) the end of the Cold War. I wanted to have a wife and family, so I got married and had children. But I wasn’t connected to what it really meant to be a husband and father. I simply expected things to happen and just fall into place like they had throughout my life in school prior to my growing into adulthood. So while I had become an adult, I had never really grown up. Ultimately, this led to a decades long breakdown in my relationship with my wife, finally ending in divorce.

This completely exploded my view of myself and my place in the world and forced me back to deal with my incomplete adolescence in a way that I never had in my teen years and early twenties. I am convinced that if I had used my teen years to wrestle with the questions of adolescence, then much of the pain I experienced and caused others over the past three decades could have largely been avoided. And I fear that my country is in the midst of avoiding its own adolescence brought on by the drastic changes in technology that are affecting every aspect of our daily lives and that this is expressing itself in the division and separateness we feel from others. We are so afraid that our way of seeing and interacting in the world is going away that we are clinging to it and trying to beat the other side into accepting it. This will never work, because our way (whichever way that is) will no longer work due to these profound technological changes affecting our politics and economics. We are in the “teen” years of our global technological adolescence. We need to figure out what this great change means for our coming adult lives in this new world of technology, globalization, and relative abundance. Our current solutions aren’t designed with the new realities we are dealing with, so none of them is likely to work. We need new models and views of our world based on these new realities. But where will these new models come from. I suggest that the answers lies in returning first to the universal lessons of our childhood.

From 1968 to 2001, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught children about their world and how it works. The host, Fred Rogers, also spoke directly to his young viewers about difficult subjects like death and anger. And he ended each show by telling each viewer that he or she was special “just by being you…. And people can like you just for being you.”

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here is an excerpt that succinctly describes the lesson expanded on throughout the book:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

These are not partisan ideals; they are human ideals and principles. All our politics and economies have grown out of these. And since the changes we are in the midst of experiencing seem to have blown up the models we have built since the industrial revolution, now is the time to think up new models and identities that will work in this new environment, together. Is it scary? It sure is. But we cannot avoid this “growing up”; we can only put it off. And putting it off will only make the transition more scary and difficult. We have to “embrace the suck” in the short term to get to the freedom and joy of adulthood on the other side. If we don’t, we will only extend the discomfort and pain of this transition period. What exactly lies on that other side? None of us really knows, but let’s explore it together with the same sense of wonder and joy that accompany the fear of growing up into the unknown.