How and Why to Rate Books and Things

Here’s the image that inspired this post:


Now, there’s an awful lot of political catnip in that post, but I’m actually going to ignore it. So, if you want to hate on Captain Marvel or defend Captain Marvel: this is not the post for you. I want to talk about an apolitical disagreement I have with this perspective.

The underlying idea of this argument is that you should rate a movie based on how good or bad it is in some objective, cosmic sense. Or at least based on something other than how you felt about the movie. In this particular case, you should rate the movie based on some political ideal or in such a way as to promote the common good. Or something. No, you shouldn’t. ALl of these approaches are bad ideas.

That's not how this works

The correct way to rate a movie–or a book, or a restaurant, etc.–is to just give the rating that best reflects how much joy it brought you. That’s it!

Let’s see if I can convince you.

To begin with, I’m not saying that such a thing as objective quality doesn’t exist. I think it probably does. No one can really tell where subjective taste ends and objective quality begins, but I’m pretty sure that “chocolate or vanilla” is a matter of purely personal preference but “gives you food poisoning or does not” is a matter of objective quality.

So I’m not trying to tell you that you should use your subjective reactions because that’s all there is to go on. I think it’s quite possible to watch a movie and think to yourself, “This wasn’t for me because I don’t like period romances (personal taste), but I can recognize that the script, directing, and acting were all excellent (objective quality) so I’m going to give it 5-stars.”

It’s possible. A lot of people even think there’s some ethical obligation to do just that. As though personal preferences and biases were always something to hide and be ashamed of. None of that is true.

The superficial reason I think it’s a bad idea has to do with what I think ratings are for. The purpose of a rating–and by a rating I mean a single, numeric score that you give to a movie or a book, like 8 out of 10 or 5 stars–is to help other people find works that they will enjoy and avoid works that they won’t enjoy. Or, because you can do this, to help people specifically look for works that will challenge them and that they might not like, and maybe pass up a book that will be too familiar. You can do all kinds of things with ratings. But only if the ratings are simple and honest. Only if the ratings encode good data.

The ideal scenario is a bunch of people leaving simple, numeric ratings for a bunch of works. This isn’t Utopia, it’s Goodreads. (Or any of a number of similar sites.) What you can then do is load up your list of works that you’ve liked / disliked / not cared about and find other people out there who have similar tastes. They’ve liked a lot of the books you’ve liked, they’ve disliked a lot of the books you’ve disliked, and they’ve felt meh about a lot of the books you’ve felt meh about. Now, if this person has read a book you haven’t read and they gave it 5-stars: BAM! You’re quite possibly found your next great read.

You can do this manually yourself. In fact, it’s what all of us instinctively do when we start talking to people about movies. We compare notes. If we have a lot in common, we ask that person for recommendation. It’s what we do in face-to-face interactions. When we use big data sets and machine learning algorithms to automate the process, we call them recommender systems. (What I’m describing is the collaborative filtering approach as opposed to content-based filtering, which also has it’s place.)

This matters a lot to me for the simple reason that I don’t like much of what I read. So, it’s kind of a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. 5-star books are rare for me. Most of what I read is probably 3-stars. A lot of it is 1-star or 2-star. In a sea of entertainment, I’m thirsty. I don’t have any show that I enjoy watching right now. I’m reading a few really solid series, but they come out at a rate of 1 or 2 books a year, and I read more like 120 books a year. The promise of really deep collaborative filtering is really appealing if it means I can find is valuable.

But if you try to be a good citizen and rate books based on what you think they’re objective quality is, the whole system breaks down.

Imagine a bunch of sci-fi fans and a bunch of mystery fans that each read a mix of both genres. The sci-fi fans enjoy the sci-fi books better (and the mystery fans enjoy the mystery books more), but they try to be objective in their ratings. The result of this is that the two groups disappear from the data. You can no longer go in and find the group that aligns with your interests and then weight their recommendations more heavily. Instead of having a clear population that gives high marks to the sci-fi stuff and high-marks to the mystery stuff, you just have one, amorphous group that gives high (or maybe medium) marks to everything.

How is this helpful? It is not. Not as much as it could be, anyway.

In theoretical terms, you have to understand that your subjective reaction to a work is complex. It incorporates the objective quality of the work, your subjective taste, and then an entire universe of random chance. Maybe you were angry going into the theater, and so the comedy didn’t work for you the way it would normally have worked. Maybe you just found out you got a raise, and everything was ten times funnier than it might otherwise have been. This is statistical noise, but it’s unbiased noise. This means that it basically goes away if you have a high enough sample.

On the other hand, if you try to fish out the objective components of a work from the stew of subjective and circumstantial components, you’re almost guaranteed to get it wrong. You don’t know yourself very well. You don’t know for yourself where you objective assessment ends and your subjective taste begins. You don’t know for yourself what unconscious factors were at play when you read that book at that time of your life. You can’t disentangle the objective from the subjective, and if you try you’re just going to end up introducing error into the equation that is biased. (In the Captain Marvel example above, you’re explicitly introducing political assessments into your judgment of the movie. That’s silly, regardless of whether your politics make you inclined to like it or hate it.)

What does this all mean? It means that it’s not important to rate things objectively (you can’t, and you’ll just mess it up), but it is helpful to rate thing frequently. The more people we have rating things in a way that can be sorted and organized, the more use everyone can get from those ratings. In this sense, ratings have positive externalities.

Now, some caveats:

Ratings vs. Reviews

A rating (in my terminology, I don’t claim this is the Absolute True Definition) is a single, numeric score. A review is a mini-essay where you get to explain your rating. The review is the place where you should try to disentangle the objective from the subjective. You’ll still fail, of course, but (1) it won’t dirty the data and (2) your failure to be objective can still be interesting and even illuminating. Reviews–the poor man’s version of criticism–is a different beast and it plays by different rules.

So: don’t think hard about your ratings. Just give a number and move on.

Do think hard about your reviews (if you have time!) Make them thoughtful and introspective and personal.

Misuse of the Data

There is a peril to everyone giving simplistic ratings, which is that publishers (movie studios, book publishers, whatever) will be tempted to try and reverse-engineer guaranteed money makers.

Yeah, that’s a problem, but it’s not like they’re not doing that anyway. The reason that movie studios keep making sequels, reboots, and remakes is that they are already over-relying on ratings. But they don’t rely on Goodreads or Rotten Tomatoes. They rely on money.

This is imperfect, too, given the different timing of digital vs. physical media channels, etc. but the point is that adding your honest ratings to Goodreads isn’t going to make traditional publishing any more likely to try and republish last years cult hit. They’re doing to do that anyway, and they already have better data (for their purposes) than you can give them.

Ratings vs. Journalism

My advice applies to entertainment. I’m not saying that you should just rate everything without worrying about objectivity. This should go without saying but, just in case, I said it.

You shouldn’t apply this reasoning to journalism because one vital function of journalism for society is to provide a common pool of facts that everyone can then debate about. One reason our society is so sadly warped and full of hatred is that we’ve lost that kind of journalism.

Of it’s probably impossible to be perfectly objective. The term is meaningless. Human beings do not passively receive input from our senses. Every aspect of learning–from decoding sounds into speech to the way vision works–is an active endeavor that depends on biases and assumptions.

When we say we want journalists to be objective, what we really mean is that (1) we want them to stick to objectively verifiable facts (or at least not do violence to them) and (2) we would like them to embody, insofar as possible, the common biases of the society they’re reporting to. There was a time when we, as Americans, knew that we had certain values in common. I believe that for the most part we still do. We’re suckers for underdogs, we value individualism, we revere hard work, and we are optimistic and energetic. A journalistic establishment that embraces those values is probably one that will serve us well (although I haven’t thought about it that hard, and it still has to follow rule #1 about getting the facts right). That’s bias, but it’s a bias that is positive: a bias towards truth, justice, and the American way.

What we can’t afford, but we unfortunately have to live with, is journalism that takes sides within the boundaries of our society.

Strategic Voting

There are some places other than entertainment where this logic does hold, however, and one of them is voting. One of the problems of American voting is that we go with majority-take-all voting, which is like the horse-and-buggy era of voting technology. Majority-take-all voting is probably much worse for us than a 2-party system, because it encourages strategic voting.

Just like rating Captain Marvel higher or lower because your politics make you want it to succeed or fail, strategic voting is where you vote for the candidate that you think can win rather than the candidate that you actually like the most.

There are alternatives that (mostly) eliminate this problem, the most well-known of which is instant-runoff voting. Instead of voting for just one candidate, you rank the candidates in the order that you prefer them. This means that you can vote for your favorite candidate first even if he or she is a longshot. If they don’t win, no problem. Your vote isn’t thrown away. In essence, it’s automatically moved to your second-favorite candidate. You don’t actually need to have multiple run-off elections. You just vote once with your full list of preferences and then it’s as if you were having a bunch of runoffs.

There are other important reasons why I think it’s better to vote for simple, subjective evaluations of the state of the country instead of trying to figure out who has the best policy choices, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Limitations

The idea of simple, subjective ratings is not a cure-all. As I noted above, it’s not appropriate for all scenarios (like journalism). It’s also not infinitely powerful. The more people you have and the more things they rate (especially when lots of diverse people are rating the same thing), the better. If you have 1,000 people, maybe you can detect who likes what genre. If you have 10,000 people, maybe you can also detect sub-genres. If you have 100,000 people, maybe you can detect sub-genres and other characteristics, like literary style.

But no matter how many people you have, you’re never going to be able to pick up every possible relevant factor in the data because there are too many and we don’t even know what they are. And, even if you could, that still wouldn’t make predictions perfect because people are weird. Our tastes aren’t just a list of items (spaceships: yes, dragons: no). They are interactive. You might really like spaceships in the context of gritty action movies and hate spaceships in your romance movies. And you might be the only person with that tick. (OK, that tick would probably be pretty common, but you can think of others that are less so.)

This is a feature, not a bug. If it were possible to build a perfect recommendation it would also be possible to build (at least in theory) an algorithm to generate optimal content. I can’t think of anything more hideous or dystopian. At least, not as far as artistic content goes.

I’d like a better set of data because I know that there are an awful lot of books out there right now that I would love to read. And I can’t find them. I’d like better guidance.

But I wouldn’t ever want to turn over my reading entirely to a prediction algorithm, no matter how good it is. Or at least, not a deterministic one. I prefer my search algorithms to have some randomness built in, like simulated annealing.

I’d say about 1/3rd of what I read is fiction I expect to like, about 1/3rd is non-fiction I expect to like, and 1/3rd is random stuff. That random stuff is so important. It helps me find stuff that no prediction algorithm could ever help me find.

It also helps the system over all, because it means I’m not trapped in a little clique with other people who are all reading the same books. Reading outside your comfort zone–and rating them–is a way to build bridges between fandom.

So, yeah. This approach is limited. And that’s OK. The solution is to periodically shake things up a bit. So those are my rules: read a lot, rate everything you read as simply and subjectively as you can, and make sure that you’re reading some random stuff every now and then to keep yourself out of a rut and to build bridges to people with different tastes then your own.

DREditors’ Best Books of 2018

Due to a long-term and acute case of lameness, I never published the DREditors’ best books of 2017. As part of my recover from this lameness-attack, I’m making sure that we get 2019 started off right with a review of the top-5 best books from each of our DREditors. Each who replied, at least. So, here we go!

Ro Givens

The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Many books like this one have a lot more science in them. This is more of a memoir/biography mixed with some science and medical law. So if you’re looking for a science-focused book, this is not the one, although if you’re looking for a book with no science, this is also not the one. This book tells the story of Henrietta and her family, interwoven with the medical industry’s use of her cervical cancer cells (HeLa), the author’s journey to uncover the family and medical history, and the legal precedents (or lack thereof) involving the consent for and use of human tissue sampled from patients and research subjects. One of the biggest legal takeaways is that if you have tissue separated from you (especially by a medical professional), you likely have no legal claim to it, the medical establishment can do whatever research they want on it, and, in most cases, they can profit from its use.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance

This book really touches on the cultural aspects of “hillbilly” America that have resulted in poverty throughout much of middle and southern America. It’s not all encompassing, as the author grew up white lower class, and not black, lower class (which brings a host of other issues, but which also has some overlap). Vance often talks about the pervasive feeling that “nothing I do matters” which results in people not trying hard and then blaming everyone else for their problems. He also discusses the feeling that “only other people can be successful”, the inherent tribalism among those who grow up in poverty, and thus the fear of admitting and showing success if you do end up successful. Ultimately Vance believes he “escaped” the poverty cycle because his grandparents didn’t let him hold on to these feelings and provided a safe and stabilizing home – even if he didn’t always live there. But he also benefited from getting into Yale law school – which gives some of the best social capital you can have in America.

Vance’s grandparents were amazing (in both great and crazy ways). I felt a connection to this book having grown up in a broken home (though my mom was the best) with economic difficulties (though not as extreme), with several last names in the household resulting from a complicated family tree, and with my grandfather being the most present father figure in my life. I also connected with the idea of growing up poor and unfamiliar with the academic and business world (my mom never went to college) and then trying to navigate that world all the way through graduate school and beyond. I think the book has the potential to bring empathy, understanding, and laughter to those who have grown up in stable, nuclear families and to bring a feeling of connection to those who have a family skeleton or two in their closets.

When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery by Frank T. Vertosick Jr.

Great read. Not for people who dislike gory details and sad endings, or anyone who needs to avoid webMD-like information for their emotional well-being.

I thought his description of cancer was super interesting.

Cancers and embryos are kindred spirits, both composed of highly mobile cells dividing at full throttle.  A fertilized ovum changes from a single cell to a miniature human body in a matter of weeks.  During this period of high speed construction, cells migrate freely from one region of the embryo to another, as complex organs are assembled from amorphous cell clusters.  The ability of cancerous cells to metastasize to distant sites is a throwback to the migratory  properties of embryonic cells.  The similarity of cancer cells to embryonic cells goes deeper than a simple capacity to migrate.  Proteins and hormones produced in fetal tissues suddenly reappear in cancerous tissues of adults… Mechanistically, cancer results not from the degeneration of adult tissue into decrepit forms, but from their regression into juvenile forms.  Cancer cells relive the heyday of their fetal youth… While adult tumors arise from differentiated cells lapsing retrograde into prenatal behavior, pediatric tumors arise from islands of embryonic tissue which never matured in the first place.  These “Peter Pan” cells won’t grow up, acting like embryonic tissue even after birth… The fetal nature of these tumors explains why they are so refractory to treatment.  Fetal cells have a mission: to create a child.  Their drive to complete this mission is so strong that only killing the patient will stop them.

Dr. Frank T. Vertosick, Jr. in “When the Air Hits Your Brain”

Honorable Mention / Fiction

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline aka 1980s Nerd Sci-Fi Explosion

The Martian by Andy Weir aka Space MacGyver

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness aka An Academic Writes a Vampire Novel

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller aka Young Female Pirate Captain is the YA Heroine We Need

Walker Wright

In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty by Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan

With populism on the rise, an empirical and philosophical defense of liberal trade and immigration are both needed. Brennan and van der Vossen give the best case I’ve seen in favor of an open economy, challenging both right-wing and left-wing populists. Perhaps even more important, they defend the notion of productive human rights: the ability to produce, work, build, create, etc. “To leave out productive rights,” they write, “…is not just to distort our picture of human rights and global justice. It’s to distort our picture of people—including the world’s poor. To fully respect people, we must not just make sure that they have enough welfare, happiness, or utility…We must treat them as active and productive agents, as contributors to their own lives and those around them, and no just as consumers or receptacles of goods” (pg. 111).

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motivations in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

In the era of social media, I have become extremely skeptical of people’s public moral grandstanding. Through a wide-ranging empirical investigation, Simler and Hanson demonstrate that I’m right to be skeptical: many of our motives are in fact selfish in nature (color me shocked…). We often seek to gain power and status through the accumulation of social and moral capital. And we do this through various mediums: consumption, charity, politics, religion, and so on. Of course, we are a mixed bag of motivations. But sweeping the selfish ones under the rug for fear of being called cynical does no one any good.

Sex & World Peace by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett

The impressive datasets and empirical research found in this book demonstrate the interdependence of macro and microlevel institutions. The authors find that the physical security of women and various factors of gender inequality (e.g., polygyny, inequitable family law) are strongly associated with state-level peacefulness. In sum, gender inequality in customs and law perpetuates state insecurity and war. This is likely why Hudson elsewhere has described companionate heterosexual monogamous marriage as human peace incarnate.

The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology by Jonathan A. Stapley

Priesthood has been a hot button issue in contemporary Latter-day Saint discourse, largely due to debates over gender and ecclesiastical authority. In Stapley’s historical construction, priesthood in the early Church was cosmologically identified with the eternal kinship bonds created and concretized through temple rituals. The eclipse of this understanding and its conflation with ecclesiastical priesthood offices had major effects on future interpretations of both scriptures and ordinances. Stapley’s recovery of this earlier meaning enriches our already temple-oriented theology.

Death (The Art of Living) by Todd May

May is a philosophical advisor for the show The Good Place and it was there that I saw this book briefly mentioned. May argues that death is the most defining feature of human beings since it permeates throughout everything we think, feel, and do. What’s more, he argues that immortality in some ways would undermine meaning by eliminating the sacrifice and urgency associated with time scarcity. As a Latter-day Saint, my theology views mortality as a necessary step in eternal progression toward divinity. Despite the author coming from an atheistic angle, this book offers possible answers as to what role death plays in this training ground for godhood.

Honorable Mention

Nathaniel Givens

Unashamed by Lecrae Moore

It’s like I said in my Goodreads review: if I could give this book 6 stars, I would. I started listening to Lecrae after hearing “Just Like You” on a campus bus in Michigan. I memorized enough of the lyrics to look it up when I got home, and from then on I was hooked. Lecrae is one of my heroes with folks like Dustin Kensrue and Josh Garrels: artists who refuse to pick and choose between their faith and their art. Between the world and the kingdom.

This book is Lecrae’s autobiography. It’s an awesom story. It’s well-written. A lot of Lecrae’s excellent lyricism translates from verse to prose just fine. And it’s also full of really insightful Christian theology. I’m pretty sure Lecrae is reformed Calvinist which is pretty different from my ow faith, but it’s OK. It’s OK with me, anyway. What we have in common is much more than what separates us, and I learned–and continue to learn–a lot from Lecrae.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” The word for “workmanship” is “poema”. We are God’s poem to the world. A poem articulates the heart, the mind, and the character of the poet. Your calling may not be to write music or produce music or sing music but that’s OK. You are music. You’re God’s music. And God doesn’t just want to break records and top charts with you. He wants to change lives and industries and society. By God’s grace, I’m going to keep making the music as long as I have air in my lungs. But my prayer is that you’ll make music too. Maybe not with your voice. Maybe not on a stage. But hopefully with your life. And may God get the glory from the music we create. 

Keep on creating.

Lecrae in “Unashamed”

Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

I grew up with friends who were Muslim. I learned about Islam in school. I studied Islam a little bit more on my own. But reading Destiny Disrupted was the first time I felt like I really started to get it. The most important insight for me was understanding the extent to which Islam is–and always was–a communal project. I also really enjoyed learning about the stories of the lives of the early successors of Mohammad. Hearing those stories made me think that to understand where someone comes from, you really have to know the stories that they heard as kids. Finally, it’s a tragic story of how the forces of fundamentalism won out over other branches of Islam and sidelined their progress. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who is interested in Islam or just wants to read great history.

The moment Mohammed died, the community faced an overwhelming problem. It wasn’t just “Who is our next leader?” but “What is our next leader?” When a saint dies, people can’t simply name some other saint in his placed, because such figures aren’t created by election or appointment, they just emerge; and if they don’t, oh well; people may be disappointed but life goes on. When a king dies, by contrast, no one says, “Wouldn’t it be nice of someday we had another king?” The gap must be plugged at once.

When Prophet Mohammed died, it was like a saint dying but it was also like a king dying. He was irreplaceable, yet someone had to take his place. Without a leader, the Umma could not hold together.

Tamim Ansary in “Destiny Disrupted”

When the Air Hits Your Brain by Frank T. Vertosick, Jr.

I know that Ro already picked this one for her list, but I have to add it to mine, too. I’ve read several medical or scientific autobiographies, but this one is probably the most touching that I’ve ever encountered. It is a book defined by one term that you don’t ordinarily associate with the medical profession, and especially not with neurosurgeons: humility. This book will touch you, and it will also enlighten you. Read it.

You have to care about the patients, but not too much. It’s unethical to operate on our wives. Why? Because we’d be too likely to choke. To get nervous and f–k up if its our own family on the chopping block. The very fact that medical ethics forbids treating your immediate family is proof that we shouldn’t get so involved with a patient that we are made nervous by the possibility of failure. Patients want us to care about them, but they want us to perform with the nerveless demeanor of someone slicing baloney in a deli at the same time. It’s one of those unexplained paradoxes we just accept.

Doctor Frank T. Vertosick, Jr. in “When the Air Hits Your Brain”

The Destroyermen Series by Taylor Anderson

I have had so much fun with this series this year! There are thirteen books in the series, and I read every single one of them. (OK, I listened to them.) The premise is pretty simple. The USS Walker, a World War I-era destroyer that was sent to the Pacific after Pearl Harbor (Walker was a real-life ship) is caught up in a mysterious storm that transports it to an alternate-history version of the Earth where humans never evolved, but other intelligent life forms did. And those other species? They’re at war. Also: dinosaurs. It’s so, so good, and it has grown so, so far from that initial premise. There’s no way that I can summarize 13 books, so just trust me: they’re great.

“Wherever we go, whatever we do in this goofed-up world, somebody or something always needs killing.”

– Jim Ellis, in Taylor Anderson’s novel “Firestorm”

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 – 1918 by G. J. Meyer

This is the best history of World War I I’ve read since Guns of August, and I’d even say it’s better than Guns of August. It’s always amazing to me how badly wrong everything I learned about history in high school was, and this is no exception. A lot of that is on me. What can you really teach a sheltered teenager about the Great War? Not much. So, yeah, a lot of what I learned about trench warfare was wrong. The combat in World War I was much more dynamic, even on the Western Front, than what I was taught. But the utter, monumental, tragic senselessness of it all? I was told about it, but it didn’t sink in. Of course I don’t believe I cna understand it now like someone who lived through it then, but at least a glimmer of it finally got through to me while reading this sweeping, majestic, terrible history.

“Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.”


Excerpt from a letter by Roland Leighton to Vera Brittain in August 1915 as quoted by G. J. Meyer in “A World Undone”

Honorable Mention

The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up #7

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m once again behind on my book reviews, so here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, their descriptions, and accompanying videos.

Image result for in defense of openness

Bas van der Vossen, Jason Brennan, In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty (Oxford University Press, 2018): “The topic of global justice has long been a central concern within political philosophy and political theory, and there is no doubt that it will remain significant given the persistence of poverty on a massive scale and soaring global inequality. Yet, virtually every analysis in the vast literature of the subject seems ignorant of what developmental economists, both left and right, have to say about the issue. In Defense of Openness illuminates the problem by stressing that that there is overwhelming evidence that economic rights and freedom are necessary for development, and that global redistribution tends to hurt more than it helps. Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan instead ask what a theory of global justice would look like if it were informed by the facts that mainstream development and institutional economics have brought to light. They conceptualize global justice as global freedom and insist we can help the poor-and help ourselves at the same time-by implementing open borders, free trade, the strong protection of individual freedom, and economic rights and property for all around the world. In short, they work from empirical, consequentialist grounds to advocate for the market society as a model for global justice. A spirited challenge to mainstream political theory from two leading political philosophers, In Defense of Openness offers a new approach to global justice: We don’t need to “save” the poor. The poor will save themselves, if we would only get out of their way and let them” (Amazon).

Image result for the coddling of the american mind

Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin, 2018): “Something is going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and afraid to speak honestly. How did this happen? First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths are incompatible with basic psychological principles, as well as ancient wisdom from many cultures. They interfere with healthy development. Anyone who embraces these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—is less likely to become an autonomous adult able to navigate the bumpy road of life. Lukianoff and Haidt investigate the many social trends that have intersected to produce these untruths. They situate the conflicts on campus in the context of America’s rapidly rising political polarization, including a rise in hate crimes and off-campus provocation. They explore changes in childhood including the rise of fearful parenting, the decline of unsupervised play, and the new world of social media that has engulfed teenagers in the last decade. This is a book for anyone who is confused by what is happening on college campuses today, or has children, or is concerned about the growing inability of Americans to live, work, and cooperate across party lines” (Amazon).

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Andrew Selee, Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together (PublicAffairs, 2018): “There may be no story today with a wider gap between fact and fiction than the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Wall or no wall, deeply intertwined social, economic, business, cultural, and personal relationships mean the US-Mexico border is more like a seam than a barrier, weaving together two economies and cultures. Mexico faces huge crime and corruption problems, but its remarkable transformation over the past two decades has made it a more educated, prosperous, and innovative nation than most Americans realize. Through portraits of business leaders, migrants, chefs, movie directors, police officers, and media and sports executives, Andrew Selee looks at this emerging Mexico, showing how it increasingly influences our daily lives in the United States in surprising ways–the jobs we do, the goods we consume, and even the new technology and entertainment we enjoy. From the Mexican entrepreneur in Missouri who saved the US nail industry, to the city leaders who were visionary enough to build a bridge over the border fence so the people of San Diego and Tijuana could share a single international airport, to the connections between innovators in Mexico’s emerging tech hub in Guadalajara and those in Silicon Valley, Mexicans and Americans together have been creating productive connections that now blur the boundaries that once separated us from each other” (Amazon).

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Blaire G. Van Dyke, Brian D. Birch, Boyd J. Petersen (eds.), The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism and Sacred Texts (Greg Kofford Books, 2018): “Among the most distinctive and defining features of Mormonism is the affirmation of continuing revelation through modern day prophets and apostles. An important component of this concept is the acknowledgement of an open canon—that the body of authoritative scriptural texts can expand as new revelations are made available and presented to the membership for ratification. This volume brings together both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars to examine the place, purpose, and meaning of the LDS Standard Works (Christian Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) in the Mormon tradition, as well as the extra-canonical sources that play a near-scriptural role in the lives of believers. Approaching LDS scripture from a variety of disciplines, methodologies, and perspectives, these scholars offer new insights into both the historical and contemporary understandings of Mormon continuing revelation” (Amazon).

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Beth Felker Jones, Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Zondervan, 2015): “Many believers accept traditional Christian sexual morality but have very little idea why it matters for the Christian life. In Faithful, author Beth Felker Jones sketches a theology of sexuality that demonstrates sex is not about legalistic morals with no basis in reality but rather about the God who is faithful to us. In Hosea 2:19-20 God says to Israel, “I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” This short book explores the goodness of sexuality as created and redeemed, and it suggests ways to navigate the difficulties of living in a world in which sexuality, like everything else, suffers the effects of the fall. As part of Zondervan’s Ordinary Theology series, Faithful takes a deeper look at a subject Christians talk about often but not always thoughtfully. This short, insightful reflection explores the deeper significance of the body and sexuality” (Amazon).

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Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Penguin, 2014): “Trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. He explores innovative treatments—from neurofeedback and meditation to sports, drama, and yoga—that offer new paths to recovery by activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score exposes the tremendous power of our relationships both to hurt and to heal—and offers new hope for reclaiming lives” (Amazon).

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Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 2018): “Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better – and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.” Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior. The aim of this book, then, is to confront our hidden motives directly – to track down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights. Then, once everything is clearly visible, we can work to better understand ourselves: Why do we laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do we brag about travel? Why do we prefer to speak rather than listen? Our unconscious motives drive more than just our private behavior; they also infect our venerated social institutions such as Art, School, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion. In fact, these institutions are in many ways designed to accommodate our hidden motives, to serve covert agendas alongside their “official” ones. The existence of big hidden motives can upend the usual political debates, leading one to question the legitimacy of these social institutions, and of standard policies designed to favor or discourage them. You won’t see yourself – or the world – the same after confronting the elephant in the brain” (Amazon).

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Michael D. Tanner, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor (Cato Institute, 2018):The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor energetically challenges the conventional wisdom of both the right and the left that underlies much of the contemporary debate over poverty and welfare policy. Author and national public policy expert Michael Tanner takes to task conservative critiques of a “culture of poverty” for their failure to account for the structural circumstances in which the poor live. In addition, he criticizes liberal calls for fighting poverty primarily through greater redistribution of wealth and new government programs. Rather than engaging in yet another debate over which government programs should be increased or decreased by billions of dollars, Tanner calls for an end to policies that have continued to push people into poverty. Combining social justice with limited government, his plan includes reforming the criminal justice system and curtailing the War on Drugs, bringing down the cost of housing, reforming education to give more control and choice to parents, and making it easier to bank, save, borrow, and invest. The comprehensive evidence provided in The Inclusive Economy is overwhelming: economic growth lifts more people out of poverty than any achievable amount of redistribution does. As Tanner notes, “we need a new debate, one that moves beyond our current approach to fighting poverty to focus on what works rather than on noble sentiments or good intentions.” The Inclusive Economy is a major step forward in that debate” (Amazon).

Fisking Slate’s Non-Review of Gosnell

When Walker saw Slate’s non-review of Gosnell, his response was admirably succinct:

Oh, is Slate Slating again?

Me being me, I went on a smidge longer, and Monica asked me to turn my comments into a post. So, here they are.

Ruth Graham’s hit piece is so by-the-numbers that it serves as a great template for how to dodge an accusation that you really, really don’t want to address head-on. For that reason, even though fisking is usually not my thing, I couldn’t resist in this case. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Be vaguely dismissive

That’s even more impressive considering what the movie is: a gory legal thriller about abortion.

Most readers aren’t going to get past the first paragraph (if they even get past the headline), so you’ve got to lead with something that will effectively change the subject. Characterizing the film as a “gory…thriller” is a masterstroke. It fictionalizes the very real horror of Gosnell’s crimes, putting the film in the genre with the Saw franchise instead of real-crime, where it belongs.

Step 2: Seize the moral high ground

It’s true that many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long. And it’s also true that some of the obstacles Gosnell has faced are plausibly evidence of institutional discomfort with the film’s subject matter.

For the rare readers that make it this far, it’s time to switch to defense in depth. That requires occupying the high ground by giving the appearance of a reasonable concession. The appearance alone is enough to make you seem fair-minded and reasonable, but you don’t want to actually concede anything. This means you can either pick a few innocuous, specific aspects of the accusation or some benign generalities and then make a show of conceding them.

Then, having planted your flag on Mount Moral Superiority, you can then proceed with the rest of the piece as though nothing had happened. You can keep this up even if some of your subsequent points contradict–or at least directly relate to–the faux concession that you led with.

Step 3. FUD as far as the eye can see

In August, he said, executive producer John Sullivan inquired about purchasing a sponsorship spot on Fresh Air. An NPR representative told him he would have to edit the ad copy to call Gosnell simply a “doctor,” rather than an “abortionist” or an “abortion doctor.” But NPR’s own reporters had used the phrase abortion doctor in straight news stories, including stories about Gosnell. Gosnell’s producers ended up pulling the ad. (NPR told the Daily Beast, which reported the claim in September, that “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”)

The more valid the accusation, the harder it is to rebut specifically. So don’t try. Just fall back on good, old-fashioned FUD: fear, uncertainty, and denial. FUD isn’t a rebuttal, which is a based on providing contradictory information, but rather a “disinformation strategy…to influence perception by disseminating negative and dubious or false information.”

In other words, don’t contradict the accusation directly. Just throw up a bunch of stuff that kind-of, sort-of seems to contradict the accusation but really just trail off into suggestive innuendo.

Did NPR request changes to the copy that would have contradicted their own journalistic standards? That’s the important question, and we’re left with the impression that it was addressed… but it wasn’t.

When they struggled to find a distributor, they called it a “media coverup.”

Well… was it? This is what I mean about the fake concession. Graham stated right at the outset that “many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long” and that there is “evidence of institutional discomfort”. Yet here were are, at the very heart of the issue, and those earlier statements have disappeared down the memory hole. Now we’re putting “media coverup” in scare-quotes as though it were some wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

When some theaters dropped the film in its second weekend—not an unusual occurrence—they suggested it was ideologically driven “suppression.”

Is it an unusual occurrence for films that have cracked the top 10 box office to get dropped? Did “some” theaters drop Gosnell, or was it more widespread? All the quantitative information–information that movie reviewer should have at hand–is conspicuously absent here and what we’re left with is one of the most dishonest sections in the entire article.

Step 4. Attack the accuser

This is what we’ve been building up to. In an honest article–one where you actually tackle the accusations head-on–this is just an afterthought. Maybe you get around to supplying an alternative theory and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already dealth with the accusaion itself. Going after the accuser is optional.

But in a dishonest article like this one, you haven’t really dealt with the accusation at all. And so attacking the accuser isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. In fact, it’s the whole point. Everything else–the moral high ground, the FUD–just lays the groundwork for the real payoff: an ad hominem response.

In 2015, he staged a drama in Los Angeles based on grand jury testimony from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that suggested the shooting was justified. When some actors in the show requested changes, and others quit, McAleer claimed censorship and requested more donations on his crowdfunding page. When your audience thrives on stories of its own oppression, it’s easy to turn stumbling blocks into stairs.

See? The Gosnell film and all the controversy around it are just a plot to milk an unwarranted martyr-complex for fun and profit. Also: racism. This is an article about conservatives in Slate, after all. We had to get that in there somehow. It’s in their journalistic policies handbook.

Let me wrap up by getting more specific about the “accusation” that pro-choice folks, like Ruth Graham, want to make go away.

You see, the entire Kermit Gosnell situation is basically a worst-case scenario for pro-choice Americans, because it exposes and then explodes basically all of the myths that the American abortion industry is built on top of.

For starters, there’s the humanity of unborn human beings. The pro-choice lobby likes to focus on the early stages of conception because the issues seems ambiguous and they can get away with “clump of cells”-style rhetoric. Gosnell’s penchant for performing “abortions” by delivering live, late-term fetuses and then severing their spinal cords with scissors makes it just how obvious how arbitrary and capricious the whole born/not-born distinction is while simultaneously underscoring the basic humanity of all human beings, even the unborn.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact of late-term, elective abortions happening in the United States. Folks like Ruth Graham–liberal journalists who have never had to leave the comfort of their warm, cozy liberal womb echo-chamber–like to look to Europe as a breacon of sane, common-sensen social liberalism. And yet, America’s abortion laws are dramatically out of step with Europe’s. As an example, consider abortion in France:

Abortion in France is legal on demand up to 12 weeks after conception… Abortions at later stages of pregnancy are allowed if two physicians certify that the abortion will be done to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; a risk to the life of the pregnant woman; or that the child will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognized as incurable.

A law like this, one that is typical for “liberal” Europe could never be enacted in the United States. Not without overturning Roe v. Wade. The fact that Gosnell could routinely perform late-term, elective “abortions” without running afoul of American laws underscores how extreme the American abortion regime really is. Only a handful of countries in the world have laws that allow abortion as broadly as ours do. Protecting Roe v. Wade isn’t about protecting common-sense, basic feminism. It’s about protecting a radical policy that is wholly out-of-step with the rest of the developed world.

Then there’s the fact that Gosnell operated a filthy shop of horrors while pocketing millions of dollars from his (often poor, desperate) “patients” underscores another major pro-life argument: legal, elective abortions aren’t a way of empowering women; they are a means of victimizing and subjugating them. Pro-choice activists will tell you that legal abortions are safe abortions, but the fact is that Gosnell operated entirely without any competent medical oversight whatosever because any scrutiny could be seen as violating the pro-choice ethos of protecting abortion at all costs, including costs to women’s lives.

For all the talk about abortion empowering women, it is in fact a part of a systematic transfer of all the burden and costs of casual sex onto the shoulders of women without even the compensation of having those frightful costs acknowledged. In the US, we expect women to be sexually available for men no matter what it costs them, and the same people who prop up this misogynistic exploitation want to lecture us about “rape culture.” Rape culture didn’t aid and abett Kermit Gosnell, pro-choice culture did.

And look, if that seems a little too extreme for you, the final fact that Gosnell killed some of his patients (the adult ones) makes it really hard to perpetuate the myth that legal abortions are safe abortions.

These are the accusations that the Kermit Gosnell episode raise. And these are the reasons that pro-choice Americans desperately, fervently want the entire thing to go away. They emphatically don’t want to talk about a major, successful, independent film that draws heavily from transcripts of the court case to bring these issues front and center. So, this is what you do instead. You write a dissembling, dishonest non-review following this playbook and somewhere along the way you manage to change the topic from, “These guys accuse us of bias for sweeping this under the rug” to “These guys are racist profiteers.” Does that answer any of the questions raised by Gosnell or the secondary questions raised by the refusal of the media to cover Gosnell? No, it does not.

It was never supposed to.

Woodward’s “Fear” Made Me Fear Trump Less

This post is adapted from my original Goodreads review.

Fear Book CoverWhen the first sensational excerpts of Bob Woodward’s Trump book came out, I knew that I had to read it as quickly as I could. But I also wanted to have some perspective, given how controversial Trump is, and so first I read All the President’s Men and Obama’s Wars to calibrate my response. So, in the past few days, I’ve gone through all of these books, and here are my thoughts.

First–strictly speaking about the book as a book and ignoring the politics for a second–Fear is much better All the President’s Men or Obama’s Wars, both of which were basically nothing-burgers. In contrast, Fear was much more interesting and I felt like I really had learned a lot at the end of it.

OK, so now let’s switch to the politics. What did Fear teach me about Trump? In a nutshell, it taught me that the anti-Trump case is pretty weak, he’s probably not going to be impeached, and there isn’t anything worthy of impeaching him for. I’m not happy with any of those conclusions. I consider Trump unqualified by moral character to be President, and on the few issues where he has a genuine conviction I disagree vehemently with those positions. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that Woodward himself uses to close the book:

Dowd remained convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case. He was looking for the perjury trap. And in a brutally honest self-evaluation, he believed that Mueller had played him and the President for suckers in order to get their cooperation on witnesses and documents. Dowd was disappointed in Mueller pulling such a sleight of hand… Dowd believed that the President had not colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. But, in the man in the and his Presidency, Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back and forth, the evasions, the denials, the Tweeting, the obscuring, crying “fake news”, the indignation Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the President: “You’re a f—ing liar.”

Fear by Bob Woodward

Although it’s hardly flattering, calling a politician a liar is not even newsworthy and if that’s the worst accusation you can throw at Trump, then we might as well settle in for his second term. That’s not to say that Trump’s dishonesty isn’t on a new level compared to other politicians, but Americans are too jaded from past accommodations with immoral behavior for an accusation of dishonesty to have any real traction, no matter how pathological. If you’re hoping for a smoking gun or something that will bring down the Trump presidency, this book not only isn’t it; it throws water on the whole prospect.

In fact, my overall impression of the book–especially in contrast to the early excerpts everyone talked about before the book was released–is that it humanizes and explains Trump. It doesn’t make me like him any more, but I do feel like I understand him more and that understanding isn’t always bad. For example:

Afterward, when Trump had phone calls with others from the military who had been killed, the White House staff noticed how hard and tough it seemed for him. “He’s not that guy,” Bannon said. “He’s never really been around the military. He’s never been around military family. Never been around death.” The deaths of parents of small kids struck him particularly hard. “That had a big impact on him, and it’s seen throughout everything.”

A staffer who sat in on several calls made to gold star families was struck by how much time and emotional energy devoted to them. He had a copy of material from the deceased service member’s personnel file. “I’m looking at his picture. Such a beautiful boy,” said in one call to family members. “Where did he grow up? Where did he grow to school? Why did he join the service?” 

“I’ve got the record here. There are reports here that say how much he was loved. He was a great leader.”

Some in the Oval Office had copies of the service records. None of what Trump cited was there. He was just making it up. He knew what the families wanted to hear.

Fear by Bob Woodward

That’s definitely not a description of a great president, but it’s not really a description of a monster, either. Woodward also finds some reason for the chaos in his administration:

Trump heard about the conflicts [among his staff]. He liked aggressive disagreements. They smoked out a wide variety of opinions. Harmony could lead to groupthink. He embraced the chaos and churn beneath him.

Fear by Bob Woodward

He also recounts Trump graciously thanking attorney John Dowd after Dowd had given Trump some really harsh criticism and advice Trump didn’t want to hear, recounting that “in a lifetime of law, Dowd maybe had only five clients who had so graciously expressed their thanks.”

Finally, Woodward revealed that Trump reads newspapers “more thoroughly than the public generally [knows],” which you have to contrast with allegations that Trump is only semi-literate. Sample:

This is what happens when you are functionally illiterate: Trump can read in theory but chooses not to, and therefore he is incapable of sustained learning.

“What on earth is Trump saying?” by Max Boot

This kind of reckless exaggeration from the press explains, to a great extent, why Trump seems invincible. As White House Communications Director Hope Hicks put it, “the media had ‘Oppositional Defiance Syndrome’,”:

Oppositional Defiance Syndrome is characterized by excessive anger against authority, vindictiveness, and temper-tantrums. As far as she was concerned, that described the press.

Fear by Bob Woodward

She’s not wrong, and Woodward deserves credit for avoiding that pitfall. I wish more journalists did, because if they hadn’t been so hysterical maybe they could have stopped him. The saddest part of the whole book for me was the revelation that–at the height of the Access Hollywood scandal–the plan was to have Trump step down and Pence run instead with Condoleeza Rice as VP. I don’t love Pence, necessarily, but I <3 Condi Rice.

The whole Access Hollywood thing is also a tragically ironic example of Trump’s resilience and the media’s complicity–intentionally or not–with that resilience. Here’s what happened:

By fall, the intelligence reports showed that Moscow, like almost every one else, believed that Clinton was likely to win. Russian President Vladmir Putin’s influence campaign shifted strategy to focus on undermining her coming presidency. Clapper and Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson were the most anxious to alert the public to the Russian interference. At 3pm, on Friday October 7th, the released a joint statement officially accusing Russia of trying to interfere in the US election, although they didn’t name Putin in the public release. 

“The US intelligence community is confident the Russian government directed the recent compromise of emails from US persons and institutions. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Russia’s senior most officials are the only ones who could have authorized the activities.”

Clapper, Johnson and the Clinton campaign expected this to be the big news of the weekend, as did the reporters who began working on the story. But one hour later, at 4:05pm, David Farenthold at the Washington Post released a story headlined, “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.”

Fear by Bob Woodward

So, instead of a major headline about Russian meddling before the election we got the Access Hollywood story. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been a story, but I do think it’s less important than the Russian story for the simple reason that nothing in the Access Hollywood story was actually news. We all knew Trump was a pretty awful misogynist. Just one more example of that didn’t actually change anything, but it sure distracted people from the Russia story, which actually would have been news to the American public at that time. The press went with the sensational over the important, and here we are.

Oh, and one more thing: in addition to the dim view of Mueller, Woodward recounted a pretty devious play by the FBI that explains a lot Trump’s animosity. After an NYT article about Trump aids having contact with Russian intelligence officials, Andrew McCabe came to Reince Priebus to tell him the story was wrong. He even promised that the FBI would publicly reveal the info, a huge win for the White House. But then… he didn’t. Preibus called and tried to get McCabe to reveal the info he had and that he’d said they would reveal, but he refused. And then CNN reported an exclusive story with the headline: “FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia story.”

So not only did the FBI not come through like they said they would, but they setup the Trump administration to make it look like they were trying to pressure the FBI dishonestly, when all they were doing was asking the FBI to reveal facts the FBI had first come to the Trump administration with. Only months later did the truth come out–far after everyone quit paying attention–when Comey public testified under oath that the original NYT story was “in the main… not true.” I’m not sure exactly what happened there–and Woodward doesn’t explain it either–but if the FBI did that to me, I’d be furious and suspicious, too.

What I’m saying is that, at the end of the day, this book made me–a committed #NeverTrumper–dislike Trump less than before I read it. This is mostly just a question of expectations. My opinion of Trump was so low that even a really damning, negative book is actually not as bad as my worst suspicions. Yeah, there’s a lot of pretty negative quotes from Trump officials, like Mattis saying Trump had the intellectual capacity of “a 5th or 6th grader” or Bannon saying adult logic didn’t work on Trump, and you had to use teenage logic instead, but (1) that’s not news and (2) these are insults hurled immediately after angry confrontations.

Understanding someone doesn’t necessarily mean liking them. I still think President Trump has no business being President, and I’m disappointed that so many Americans voted for him (especially primary voters!). But understanding does make it harder to casually hate a person. 

There’s still a lot left to understand, of course. The book isn’t a comprehensive biography of Trump, and so there’s still a lot left that I don’t get. Mostly: W=why did he run in the first place? Was it just outright egoism? Just an opportunistic grab for the biggest spotlight he could find? That’s my best theory, but it’s outside the scope of this book and so I don’t know.

I will say that the most interesting person in the book is Steve Bannon. He understands Trumpism better than Trump ever did, and I’m surprised he got the boot. Then again, that might be the problem. Trump seems to be a basically empty vessel that happens to be anti-trade, anti-immigration, and isolationist without any discernible foundation of principle that would explain these views. Steve Bannon has the same views, but he also has a brain and conviction. It’s like Trump is a cardboard cutout and Bannon is the 3d version. From that perspective, it makes sense that Trump wouldn’t want him around forever.

Here’s how Bannon outlined Trumpism before coming on board to lead the campaign to victory:

The elites in the country are comfortable with managing the decline, right?… And the working people in the country are not. They do want to make America great again. We’re going to simplify this campaign. She is the tribune of a corrupt and incompetent status quo of elites who are comfortable managing the decline. You are the tribune of the forgotten man who wants to make America great again, and we’re just going to do it in a couple of themes. Number one… we’re going to stop mass illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two, we are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country, and number three, we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars.

Fear by Bob Woodward

I disagree with all of that, but at least it’s comprehensible. And for the first time, the expression “make America great again” made sense to me. It’s not about restoring America’s place in the world or in the eyes of others, it’s a reaction to decades of America’s elites–with liberal academics as the point of this particular spear–deliberately attacking the myth of America and leaving nothing in its place. And yeah, America as a virtuous country is a myth, but it’s an important myth and (I would argue) one that is worth keeping in a conditional and aspirational sense. And maybe that’s what liberal academics intended, but that message got lost in translation and all everyday Americans heard was a constant, sneering repudiation of everything they loved. They’ve had enough. And now the pendulum is swinging too far the other direction.

My last thoughts are about the folks in the Trump administration who are actively working to thwart Trump’s plans, like the infamous anonymous staffer who wrote that NYT op-ed piece: I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.

I think they thought that America would be grateful for all they do, but the response has been pretty negative, with many accusing the resistance within the Trump administration of basically committing a soft-coup. It’s a tough decision. What do you do, allow Trump to do absolutely asinine and genuinely dangerous things like try to kill NATO or unilaterally end a trade deal with South Korea that is vital to our national security? Or actively undermine the democratic process by preventing the President from doing the very things that he campaigned and was elected to do, like pull out of free-trade deals? I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Some of what Trump wants to do is flat-out illegal. The Administration has a right and a responsibility to thwart that. But, on top of the coup-argument, I also feel like a lot of ignorant people in America voted for a President who shared their ignorance, and to the extent that we prevent Trump from getting us into ruinous trade wars we’re effectively enabling the people who voted for him to maintain their sense of grievance without paying the very real and very high cost for the idiotic policies they love so dearly. 

I’m conflicted, because I’m angry enough that it’s hard to separate arguments about democratic accountability from a desire to have people reap what they sow. Free trade deals like NAFTA and mutual defense pacts like NATO are a bedrock part of American and even global prosperity. I’d dearly, dearly like to see them preserved and–when it comes to the free-trade deals–expanded. We depend on immigrants to bring in fresh ideas and fresh patriotism and contribute to ensuring America stays true to its legacy as a country defined by ideas and principles and not by ethnicities or tribes. Being white should never be relevant to being an American. Supporting ideals like freedom should always be relevant. But if we’re going to have a large section of the American public repudiate things like free-trade and immigration and pluralism, then a part of me wants to see them get exactly what they’re asking for rather than be protected from the consequences of their actions. The electorate may have behaved like children, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like children. That paternalism is probably counter-productive in the long-run, not to mention corrosive to the very idea of democracy. On the other hand, nuclear war…

At the end of the day, I don’t really see any good options and I don’t really see any good guys. Thwarting Trump is vital to national security, but also further strains the very legitimacy of our system of government. Trump and his most fervent supporters are a dysfunctional, amoral disaster and his harshest critics aren’t opposing him, they’re codependent with him. Welcome to America in the 21st century.

Hey, at least we had a good run.

The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up #6

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m once again behind on my book reviews, so here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, their descriptions, and accompanying videos.

Image result for sex and world peaceValerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, Chad Emmett, Sex & World Peace (Columbia University Press, 2012): “Sex and World Peace unsettles a variety of assumptions in political and security discourse, demonstrating that the security of women is a vital factor in the security of the state and its incidence of conflict and war. The authors compare micro-level gender violence and macro-level state peacefulness in global settings, supporting their findings with detailed analyses and color maps. Harnessing an immense amount of data, they call attention to discrepancies between national laws protecting women and the enforcement of those laws, and they note the adverse effects on state security of abnormal sex ratios favoring males, the practice of polygamy, and inequitable realities in family law, among other gendered aggressions. The authors find that the treatment of women informs human interaction at all levels of society. Their research challenges conventional definitions of security and democracy and shows that the treatment of gender, played out on the world stage, informs the true clash of civilizations. In terms of resolving these injustices, the authors examine top-down and bottom-up approaches to healing wounds of violence against women, as well as ways to rectify inequalities in family law and the lack of parity in decision-making councils. Emphasizing the importance of an R2PW, or state responsibility to protect women, they mount a solid campaign against women’s systemic insecurity, which effectively unravels the security of all” (Amazon).

Image result for the hebrew republicEric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010): “According to a commonplace narrative, the rise of modern political thought in the West resulted from secularization—the exclusion of religious arguments from political discourse. But in this pathbreaking work Eric Nelson argues that this familiar story is wrong. Instead, he contends, political thought in early-modern Europe became less, not more, secular with time, and it was the Christian encounter with Hebrew sources that provoked this radical transformation. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scholars began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution designed by God for the children of Israel. Newly available rabbinic materials became authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of the perfect republic. This thinking resulted in a sweeping reorientation of political commitments. In the book’s central chapters Nelson identifies three transformative claims introduced into European political theory by the Hebrew revival: the argument that republics are the only legitimate regimes; the idea that the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property; and the belief that a godly republic would tolerate religious diversity. One major consequence of Nelson’s work is that the revolutionary politics of John Milton, James Harrington, and Thomas Hobbes appear in a brand-new light. Nelson demonstrates that central features of modern political thought emerged from an attempt to emulate a constitution designed by God. This paradox, a reminder that while we may live in a secular age, we owe our politics to an age of religious fervor, in turn illuminates fault lines in contemporary political discourse” (Amazon).

Image result for factfulnessHans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (Flatiron Books, 2018): “When asked simple questions about global trends―what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school―we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers. In Factfulness, Professor of International Health and global TED phenomenon Hans Rosling, together with his two long-time collaborators, Anna and Ola, offers a radical new explanation of why this happens. They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective―from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (usually some version of us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse). Our problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and even our guesses are informed by unconscious and predictable biases. It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most. Inspiring and revelatory, filled with lively anecdotes and moving stories, Factfulness is an urgent and essential book that will change the way you see the world and empower you to respond to the crises and opportunities of the future” (Amazon).

Image result for paul nt wrightN.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (HarperOne, 2018): “In this definitive biography, renowned Bible scholar, Anglican bishop, and bestselling author N. T. Wright offers a radical look at the apostle Paul, illuminating the humanity and remarkable achievements of this intellectual who invented Christian theology—transforming a faith and changing the world. For centuries, Paul, the apostle who “saw the light on the Road to Damascus” and made a miraculous conversion from zealous Pharisee persecutor to devoted follower of Christ, has been one of the church’s most widely cited saints. While his influence on Christianity has been profound, N. T. Wright argues that Bible scholars and pastors have focused so much attention on Paul’s letters and theology that they have too often overlooked the essence of the man’s life and the extreme unlikelihood of what he achieved. To Wright, “The problem is that Paul is central to any understanding of earliest Christianity, yet Paul was a Jew; for many generations Christians of all kinds have struggled to put this together.” Wright contends that our knowledge of Paul and appreciation for his legacy cannot be complete without an understanding of his Jewish heritage. Giving us a thoughtful, in-depth exploration of the human and intellectual drama that shaped Paul, Wright provides greater clarity of the apostle’s writings, thoughts, and ideas and helps us see them in a fresh, innovative way. Paul is a compelling modern biography that reveals the apostle’s greater role in Christian history—as an inventor of new paradigms for how we understand Jesus and what he accomplished—and celebrates his stature as one of the most effective and influential intellectuals in human history” (Amazon).

Image result for cross vision boydGregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017): “The Old Testament God of wrath and violence versus the New Testament God of love and peace it’s a difference that has troubled Christians since the first century. Now, with the sensitivity of a pastor and the intellect of a theologian, Gregory A. Boyd proposes the “cruciform hermeneutic,” a way to read the Old Testament portraits of God through the lens of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Cross Vision, Boyd follows up on his epic and groundbreaking study, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. He shows how the death and resurrection of Jesus reframes the troubling violence of the Old Testament, how all of Scripture reveals God’s self-sacrificial love, and, most importantly, how we can follow Jesus’ example of peace” (Amazon).

Robert Putnam, Our Kids, and the Future

I have thoughts on Robert Putnam’s most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and on the response he gave me when I asked him a question about his optimistic outlook while he signed my copy after giving a lecture at the University of Richmond earlier this year.

My first thought, and I might as well get this out of the way, was the jaw-dropping irony when someone at the lecture stood up to ask an “us-vs-them”-style question juxtaposing “the rich” against ordinary people, like those of us here in the audience. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, just that it assumed as a premise that rich people were some weird, money-grubbing, alien group far away and the students, faculty, and alumni in the room were all very different from them.

That’s an astonishing lack of self-awareness, given the fact that you can expect to cough up more than $60,000 per year to attend the University of Richmond. That’s right up there with the most expensive colleges in the country. The students at the University of Richmond come from some of wealthiest families in the country. The decadence was really off-putting for someone like me, who attended for free thanks to generous faculty benefits, and never could figure out how to fit in with the kinds of people who are chauffeured from their family’s private jet to their dorm room in a limousine.

The question was a stark contrast with Putnam’s own views. One of the primary functions of modern identity politics is the way that it absolves upper-class Americans of guilt and redirects inquiry away from any social or economic critique that could threaten their entrenched power. This is one half of the danger presented by this ideology: no matter it’s original intent or origins, it has been firmly and decisively co-opted by America’s upper class and obediently serves their interests.

The other half of the danger was best articulated in the Slate Star Codex post Against Murderism, where the threat was summarized like this:

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”

Putnam didn’t contradict his interlocutor directly, but he didn’t really need to because his book is so adamantly opposed to an identity-based view of social and economic inequality, channeling the focus instead on class. For example:

That gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts. Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, with the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing (the same pattern we discovered earlier in this inquiry for other measures, among them nonmarital births). By the opening of the twenty-first century, the class gap among students entering kindergarten was two to three times greater than the racial gap. (162-163)

And later:

What we found in our interviews is that upper-middle-class kids–even across differences of race, gender, and region–look and sound remarkably similar across the nation. The same goes for working-class kids. For example, a black working-class boy like Elijah in Atlanta share many more life experiences (parental abandonment, jail, poor school, and so forth) with David, a white working-class boy in Port Clinton, than he does with Desmond, a black upper-middle class boy in suburban Atlanta. This is not to say that race does not matter for children’s outcomes; as we say in Atlanta, both Desmond (upper-middle-class) and Elijah (working-class) face harmful prejudices and discrimination in their schools and neighborhoods. However, Desmond’s mother’s class-based parenting practices–intervening in institutions, thoughtfully building cognitive skills and self-confidence from early childhood, and even monitoring how Desmond dressed when he left the house–sheltered him from many of the harsh realities experienced by Elijah on a daily basis. (273)

Not only does Putnam refuse to allow identity politics to be used as a cloaking device for class, but he also eschews the more radical economic criticisms that equate wealth with immorality.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this is a book without upper-class villains. Virtually none of the upper-middle-class parents of our stories are idle scions of great wealth lounging comfortably on family fortunes. Quite the contrary, Earl and Patty and Carl and Clara and Ricardo and Marnie were each the first in their families to go to college. Roughly half of them came from broken homes. Each has toiled exhaustingly to climb the ladder, and they have invested much time, money, and thought in raising their kids. Their own modest origins–though not destitute–were in some respects closer to the circumstances facing poor kids today than to the circumstances in which their own kids have grown up. (229)

Aside from class, the major theme that Putnam addressed was family structure, although he also noted that the two frequently go hand in hand.

Ironically, the new research findings [into parenting strategies] tend to amplify class differences, at least in the short run, because well-educated parents are more likely to learn of them, directly or indirectly, and to put them to use in their own parenting. As we’ll see, a class-based gap in parenting styles has been growing significantly during recent decades. Simone and Stephanie both clearly love their children, but as their stories and the scientific research make clear, when it comes to parenting, love alone is not enough to guarantee positive outcomes. (117)

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression: I’m not claiming that Robert Putnam is a conservative. He’s clearly not. Nor does he suggest that race is irrelevant or unimportant. Although he’s generally skeptical of the idea that specific policies either caused the widening class-gap in the United States or could easily fix it, he does call out one particular group of policies that did “contribute to family breakdown” and thus the widening chasm in our society: the War on Drugs, ‘three strikes’ sentencing, and the sharp increase in incarceration.” (76)

So it’s not that I claim Robert Putnam as an ideological fellow traveler. He isn’t. But he’s the kind of nuanced, serious, open-minded, fact-based, honest researcher that I believe improves the conversation even when I disagree with him.

Now, let me get to my brief exchange with him during the book signing.

Putnam’s optimistic spin on all the negative statistics is pretty simple: America has been here before and it made us better. The last time things were this unequal and unfair in our society was the Gilded Age and it was eventually followed a wave of progressive reforms that remade our society and ushered in an era of unprecedented equality and social mobility. I’m not sure I buy this historical narrative, but even if I grant all of it to Putnam for the sake of argument, there’s one dark reality that overshadows his optimistic belief that we can reproduce last century’s turn-around.

You see, one of the most vital causes of our current inequality is (as I mentioned above) family structure. And on that metric more than any other, our current dismal state of affairs is not like what has happened before. It’s unprecedented. As Putnam observes:

Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored. Today the role of father has become more voluntary, which means that, as Marcia Carlson and Paula England have put it, “only the most committed and financially stable men choose to embrace it.” (75)

He also draws the connection to economic prosperity and equality directly:

Given these handicaps, it is hardly surprising that recent research has suggested that the places in American where single-parent families are most common are the places where upward mobility is sluggish. (79)

So, I asked him as he signed his book, how did he think we could turn things given the erosion of the family? He gave me a direct and honest reply. First, he pointed out that he left those points (and especially the quote on page 75) in the book intentionally to rile his own political allies. Second, he criticized conservative ideas that you could directly strengthen American families through policy intervention. (Which seems reasonable to me.) Finally, given these two facts, he suggested that we just had to hope that somehow our society could rediscovery prosperity and equality without strong families.

It’s an honest answer, but a bleak one.

The longer I’ve written and read about politics—not to mention the dumpster fire that is American politics in an age of Trump—the more I’ve come to see culture as fundamental.  I have my political and economic views, sure. But they pale in importance relative to the essential question of culture. A fundamentally honest and civil culture is resilient and can tolerate an awful lot of policy mistakes. A fundamentally dishonest and angry culture is brittle and probably can’t thrive even with perfect policies.

Much as I’d like to share in Putnam’s optimism, I just can’t.

T&S Review: Saints, Slaves, & Blacks

I have a review of Newell Bringhurst’s 2nd edition of Saints, Slaves, & Blacks at Times & Seasons. Some highlights:

Image result for saints slaves and blacksAccording to Paul Reeve, “one of [the book’s] most significant contributions…is…its exploration and thorough documentation of the racial universalism inherent in the first two decades of Mormonism” (pg. 193). As Bringhurst explains, “Initially, however, the status of blacks did not differ from that of any other ethnic group. As objects for probable Mormon salvation, black people fell within the purview of Mormon universalism. The Book of Mormon proclaimed a basic desire to preach the Gospel among all peoples, blacks as well as whites. “All men are privileged the one like unto the other and none are forbidden” (2 Ne. 26:28). Joseph Smith expressed this same universalism throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. According to Smith, the voice of the Lord was “unto all men” and he was “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:2, 38:16).3 As for the gospel, it was “free unto all” regardless of “nation, kindred, [or] tongue” (D&C 10:51).4 “All those who humble themselves before God” would “be received by baptism into his Church,” including the “heathen nations” (D&C 20:37, 45:54). The Mormon Prophet instructed missionaries to go “into all the world” and preach the gospel “unto every creature . . . both old and young, both bond and free” (D&C 43:20). Finally, the Mormon gathering to Zion would include the righteous from “every nation under heaven” brought together “from the ends of the earth” (D&C 45:69, 58:9, 45)” (pgs. 32-33).

Another insight:

[W]hile I was already convinced of the theologically bogus nature of the temple/priesthood ban, I came across yet another reason to question its veracity: the whole notion of a temple/priesthood ban based on “lineage” is undermined by another teaching put forth by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, namely that the Holy Ghost purges Gentiles of impurities and makes them the literal seed of Abraham. Bringhurst writes, “In fact, the Saints were anxious to “purge out . . . impure elements” not just from the larger Mormon community but also from the bodies of individual church members. This could be done, Young said, “through the Holy Ghost,” which could act upon individual Saints tainted with impure “Gentile blood.” These impurities would actually be purged “out of their veins” and replaced with the pure blood of Abraham. This process would remove impure “blood out” of the bodies of Mormons of varied ethnic backgrounds, including those who had the “blood of Judah”” (pg. 124).

I conclude,

I was admittedly hesitant when I was asked to reviewSaints, Slaves, & Blacks. Having read a good amount of the recent scholarship on the topic and knowing the book was a largely unchanged 2nd edition, I was worried that I wouldn’t have much to say about it. Fortunately, my worries were put to rest in the first chapter. Despite originally being published nearly 40 years ago, the scholarship still feels fresh and relevant. Bringhurst’s book simultaneously plays the role of both the foundation of and a contributor to modern scholarship on Mormonism and race. And we should be thankful to Greg Kofford Books for making it available once more.

Check it out.

The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up #5

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m once again behind on my book reviews, so here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, their descriptions, and accompanying videos.

Image result for a universe from nothingLawrence M. Krauss, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (Free Press, 2012): “Bestselling author and acclaimed physicist Lawrence Krauss offers a paradigm-shifting view of how everything that exists came to be in the first place. “Where did the universe come from? What was there before it? What will the future bring? And finally, why is there something rather than nothing?” One of the few prominent scientists today to have crossed the chasm between science and popular culture, Krauss describes the staggeringly beautiful experimental observations and mind-bending new theories that demonstrate not only can something arise from nothing, something will always arise from nothing. With a new preface about the significance of the discovery of the Higgs particle, A Universe from Nothing uses Krauss’s characteristic wry humor and wonderfully clear explanations to take us back to the beginning of the beginning, presenting the most recent evidence for how our universe evolved—and the implications for how it’s going to end. Provocative, challenging, and delightfully readable, this is a game-changing look at the most basic underpinning of existence and a powerful antidote to outmoded philosophical, religious, and scientific thinking” (Amazon).

Image result for alive at workDaniel M. Cable, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018): “In this bold, enlightening book, social psychologist and professor Daniel M. Cable takes leaders into the minds of workers and reveals the surprising secret to restoring their zest for work. Disengagement isn’t a motivational problem, it’s a biological one. Humans aren’t built for routine and repetition. We’re designed to crave exploration, experimentation, and learning–in fact, there’s a part of our brains, which scientists have coined “the seeking system,” that rewards us for taking part in these activities. But the way organizations are run prevents many of us from following our innate impulses. As a result, we shut down. Things need to change. More than ever before, employee creativity and engagement are needed to win. Fortunately, it won’t take an extensive overhaul of your organizational culture to get started. With small nudges, you can personally help people reach their fullest potential. Alive at Work reveals:

  • How to encourage people to bring their best selves to work and use their greatest strengths to help your organization flourish
  • How to build creative environments that motivate people to share ideas, work smarter, and embrace change
  • How to enhance people’s connection to their work and your customers
  • How to create personalized experiences that help people feel a deeper sense of purpose

Filled with fascinating stories from the author’s extensive research, Alive at Work is the inspirational guide that you need to tap into the passion, creativity, and purpose fizzing beneath the surface of every person who falls under your leadership” (Amazon).

Image result for saints slaves and blacksNewell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, & Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, 2nd ed. (Greg Kofford Books, 2018): “Originally published shortly after the LDS Church lifted its priesthood and temple restriction on black Latter-day Saints, Newell G. Bringhurst’s landmark work remains ever-relevant as both the first comprehensive study on race within the Mormon religion and the basis by which contemporary discussions on race and Mormonism have since been framed. Approaching the topic from a social history perspective, with a keen understanding of antebellum and post-bellum religious shifts, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks examines both early Mormonism in the context of early American attitudes towards slavery and race, and the inherited racial traditions it maintained for over a century. While Mormons may have drawn from a distinct theology to support and defend racial views, their attitudes towards blacks were deeply-embedded in the national contestation over slavery and anticipation of the last days. This second edition of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks offers an updated edit, as well as an additional foreword and postscripts by Edward J. Blum, W. Paul Reeve, and Darron T. Smith. Bringhurst further adds a new preface and appendix detailing his experience publishing Saints, Slaves, and Blacks at a time when many Mormons felt the rescinded ban was best left ignored, and reflecting on the wealth of research done on this topic since its publication” (Greg Kofford).

Image result for out of poverty powellBenjamin Powell, Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2014): “This book provides a comprehensive defense of third-world sweatshops. It explains how these sweatshops provide the best available opportunity to workers and how they play an important role in the process of development that eventually leads to better wages and working conditions. Using economic theory, the author argues that much of what the anti-sweatshop movement has agitated for would actually harm the very workers they intend to help by creating less desirable alternatives and undermining the process of development. Nowhere does this book put ‘profits’ or ‘economic efficiency’ above people. Improving the welfare of poorer citizens of third world countries is the goal, and the book explores which methods best achieve that goal. Out of Poverty will help readers understand how activists and policy makers can help third world workers” (Amazon).

The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up #4

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m once again behind on my book reviews, so here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, their descriptions, and accompanying videos.

Image result for the love of god levensonJon D. Levenson, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Princeton University Press, 2016): “The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? How could one ever fulfill such a requirement? The Love of God places these scholarly and existential questions in a new light. Jon Levenson traces the origins of the concept to the ancient institution of covenant, showing how covenantal love is a matter neither of sentiment nor of dry legalism. The love of God is instead a deeply personal two-way relationship that finds expression in God’s mysterious love for the people of Israel, who in turn observe God’s laws out of profound gratitude for his acts of deliverance. Levenson explores how this bond has survived episodes in which God’s love appears to be painfully absent—as in the brutal persecutions of Talmudic times—and describes the intensely erotic portrayals of the relationship by biblical prophets and rabbinic interpreters of the Song of Songs. He examines the love of God as a spiritual discipline in the Middle Ages as well as efforts by two influential modern Jewish thinkers—Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig—to recover this vital but endangered aspect of their tradition. A breathtaking work of scholarship and spirituality alike that is certain to provoke debate, The Love of God develops fascinating insights into the foundations of religious life in the classical Jewish tradition” (Amazon).

Image result for dream hoardersRichard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It (Brookings Institution, 2017): “It is now conventional wisdom to focus on the wealth of the top 1 percent—especially the top 0.01 percent—and how the ultra-rich are concentrating income and prosperity while incomes for most other Americans are stagnant. But the most important, consequential, and widening gap in American society is between the upper middle class and everyone else. Reeves defines the upper middle class as those whose incomes are in the top 20 percent of American society. Income is not the only way to measure a society, but in a market economy it is crucial because access to money generally determines who gets the best quality education, housing, health care, and other necessary goods and services. As Reeves shows, the growing separation between the upper middle class and everyone else can be seen in family structure, neighborhoods, attitudes, and lifestyle. Those at the top of the income ladder are becoming more effective at passing on their status to their children, reducing overall social mobility. The result is not just an economic divide but a fracturing of American society along class lines. Upper-middle-class children become upper-middle-class adults. These trends matter because the separation and perpetuation of the upper middle class corrode prospects for more progressive approaches to policy. Various forms of “opportunity hoarding” among the upper middle class make it harder for others to rise up to the top rung. Examples include zoning laws and schooling, occupational licensing, college application procedures, and the allocation of internships. Upper-middle-class opportunity hoarding, Reeves argues, results in a less competitive economy as well as a less open society. Inequality is inevitable and can even be good, within limits. But Reeves argues that society can take effective action to reduce opportunity hoarding and thus promote broader opportunity. This fascinating book shows how American society has become the very class-defined society that earlier Americans rebelled against—and what can be done to restore a more equitable society” (Amazon).

Image result for atheist's guide to realityAlex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (W.W. Norton & Co., 2011): “We can’t avoid the persistent questions about the meaning of life-and the nature of reality. Philosopher Alex Rosenberg maintains that science is the only thing that can really answer them―all of them. His bracing and ultimately upbeat book takes physics seriously as the complete description of reality and accepts all its consequences. He shows how physics makes Darwinian natural selection the only way life can emerge, and how that deprives nature of purpose, and human action of meaning, while it exposes conscious illusions such as free will and the self. The science that makes us nonbelievers provides the insight into the real difference between right and wrong, the nature of the mind, even the direction of human history. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality draws powerful implications for the ethical and political issues that roil contemporary life. The result is nice nihilism, a surprisingly sanguine perspective atheists can happily embrace” (Amazon).

Image result for textual studies on the doctrineWilliam V. Smith, Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Greg Kofford Books, 2018): “Joseph Smith’s July 12, 1843, revelation on plural marriage was the last of his formal written revelations and a transformational moment in Mormonism. While acting today as the basis for the doctrine of eternal nuclear families, the revelation came forth during a period of theological expansion as Smith was in the midst of introducing new temple rituals, radical doctrines on God and humanity, a restructured priesthood and ecclesiastical hierarchy, and, of course, the practice of plural marriage. In this volume, author William V. Smith examines the text of this complicated and rough revelation to explore the motivation for its existence, how it reflects this dynamic theology of the Nauvoo period, and how the revelation was utilized and reinterpreted as Mormonism fully embraced and later abandoned polygamy” (Amazon).

Image result for deep workCal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016): “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way. In DEEP WORK, author and professor Cal Newport flips the narrative on impact in a connected age. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, he instead celebrates the power of its opposite. Dividing this book into two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill. A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, DEEP WORK takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories-from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air-and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. DEEP WORK is an indispensable guide to anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world” (Amazon).

Image result for boundaries cloudHenry Cloud, John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life (Zondervan, 1992): “If you’ve ever wondered: Can I set limits and still be a loving person? How do I answer someone who wants my time, love, energy, or money? Why do I feel guilty when I consider setting boundaries? Unpacking the 10 laws of boundaries, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend give you biblically based answers to these and other tough questions, and show you how to set healthy boundaries with your spouse, children, friends, coworkers, and even with yourself. In Boundaries, Drs. Cloud and Townsend show you how to bring new health to your relationships. You’ll discover firsthand how to reclaim your freedom to walk as the loving, giving, fulfilled individual God created you to be” (Amazon).

Image result for enlightenment nowSteven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018): “Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing. Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature–tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking–which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation. With intellectual depth and literary flair, Enlightenment Now makes the case for reason, science, and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress” (Amazon).

Image result for peter enns inspirationPeter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2005): “In this accessible study, Peter Enns offers an evangelical affirmation of biblical authority that considers questions raised by the nature of the Old Testament text. Enns looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture. First, he considers ancient Near Eastern literature that is similar to the Bible. Second, he looks at the theological diversity of the Old Testament. Finally, he considers how New Testament writers used the Old Testament. Based on his reflections on these contemporary issues, Enns proposes an incarnational model of biblical authority that takes seriously both the divine and human aspects of Scripture. The book includes a useful glossary, which defines technical terms and an annotated bibliography for further reading” (Amazon).

Image result for the case against educationBryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Educational System Is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton University Press, 2018): “Despite being immensely popular–and immensely lucrative—education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students’ skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity—in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy. Caplan draws on the latest social science to show how the labor market values grades over knowledge, and why the more education your rivals have, the more you need to impress employers. He explains why graduation is our society’s top conformity signal, and why even the most useless degrees can certify employability. He advocates two major policy responses. The first is educational austerity. Government needs to sharply cut education funding to curb this wasteful rat race. The second is more vocational education, because practical skills are more socially valuable than teaching students how to outshine their peers. Romantic notions about education being “good for the soul” must yield to careful research and common sense—The Case against Education points the way” (Amazon).

Image result for the power of godliness stapleyJonathan A. Stapley, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford University Press, 2018):The Power of Godliness is a key work to understand Mormon conceptions of priesthood, authority, and gender. With in-depth research and never previously used documents, Jonathan A. Stapley explores the rituals of ordination, temple “sealings,” baby blessings, healing, and cunning-folk traditions. In doing so, he demonstrates that Mormon liturgy includes a much larger and more complex set of ritualized acts of worship than the specific rites of initiation, instruction, and sealing that take place within the temple walls. By exploring Mormonism’s liturgy more broadly, The Power of Godliness shows both the nuances of Mormon belief and practice, and how the Mormon ordering of heaven and earth is not a mere philosophical or theological exercise. Stapley examines Mormonism’s liturgical history to reveal a complete religious world, incorporating women, men, and children all participating in the construction of the Mormon universe. This book opens new possibilities for understanding the lived experiences of women and men in the Mormon past and present, and investigates what work these rituals and ritualized acts actually performed in the communities that carried them out. By tracing the development of the rituals and the work they accomplish, The Power of Godliness sheds important new light on the Mormon universe, its complex priesthoods, authorities, and powers” (Amazon).

Image result for branko milanovic global inequalityBranko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016): “One of the world’s leading economists of inequality, Branko Milanovic presents a bold new account of the dynamics that drive inequality on a global scale. Drawing on vast data sets and cutting-edge research, he explains the benign and malign forces that make inequality rise and fall within and among nations. He also reveals who has been helped the most by globalization, who has been held back, and what policies might tilt the balance toward economic justice. Global Inequality takes us back hundreds of years, and as far around the world as data allow, to show that inequality moves in cycles, fueled by war and disease, technological disruption, access to education, and redistribution. The recent surge of inequality in the West has been driven by the revolution in technology, just as the Industrial Revolution drove inequality 150 years ago. But even as inequality has soared within nations, it has fallen dramatically among nations, as middle-class incomes in China and India have drawn closer to the stagnating incomes of the middle classes in the developed world. A more open migration policy would reduce global inequality even further. Both American and Chinese inequality seems well entrenched and self-reproducing, though it is difficult to predict if current trends will be derailed by emerging plutocracy, populism, or war. For those who want to understand how we got where we are, where we may be heading, and what policies might help reverse that course, Milanovic’s compelling explanation is the ideal place to start” (Amazon).