Review: Between the World and Me

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Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very difficult book to read and to process. In the abstract, I think I can start to step into his world and see through his eyes. But I am missing thirty years’ worth of experience that would inform my instincts. Not to mention the entire body of art, literature, and history neatly wrapped up in what society calls “African American Studies.”

One thing is for sure, though. I, as a white male, do not buy into the mythology of our country’s founding. That heroic, liberty-loving humanists launched a beautiful struggle to form a more perfect union of rule-of-law-loving white Christians. I believe that America has always been defined by the melting pot, and how different waves of immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) have moved through the cycle of persecution, oppression, struggle, and then equality.

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Review: Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves

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Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves
Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves by Belinda Hurmence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Elie Wiesel’s Night, these firsthand accounts of a horrific episode of human history are above criticism. It is fascinating, in an academic way, to read about the American slavery experience from the slaves themselves, rather than the extensive secondhand literature. You get a sense of which elements were cherry-picked for cinema and which were overlooked. Most shocking is their manner of describing it. The vast majority of subjects answered, when asked whether slavery was a bad thing, in the negative. The typical response was along the lines of “slavery was bad because it broke up families, but we were better off then than we are now.” This unsettling statement contains a hint of all the injustice borne upon free persons of color since the end of the Civil War. Freedom without equal opportunity was a recipe for incredible suffering, the last vestiges of which still haunt us today. The writer prepares the reader for this odd nostalgia in the introduction, where she reminds us that the individuals most ready and willing to fight (before and after slavery) were the least likely to survive, and that the subjects interviewed, the survivors, were most likely the meekest and most compliant (today we would use the word brainwashed) among their people. That in itself is a tragedy.

I’m glad that someone finally thought to interview surviving slaves, even if it took until the 1930s (most subjects are in their 80s and 90s) for a government program to do so. This book is an excerpt of an enormous multivolume series housed in the Library of Congress. Its historical value cannot be overstated.

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Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won’t waste space recapping my 11-post recap series. This is a large book because it contains a lot of information about the human condition, information not taught in history class. I’ve done my best to distill it to these blog posts, which I hope was not folly, but I know it would be folly to try to distill it in a single concluding paragraph. Bottom line is, watch the TED Talk, and read (or skim!) the posts in this series. I challenge anyone not to be blown away by this evidence-based approach to world history and human psychology. I hope that a handful of people at least make it through this series and pick up the book itself. Its 1000 pages of lucid explanation and shocking facts are sure to challenge you as it challenged me. To think differently, to be less nostalgic and more optimistic, to question assumptions, and to seek out facts to support (or bust!) deeply-held beliefs.

Here are my blog posts on each individual chapter:
Preface
Chapters 1&2: The Past is a Foreign Country
Chapter 3: The Civilizing Process
Chapter 4: The Humanitarian Revolution
Chapter 5: The Long Peace
Chapter 6: The New Peace
Chapter 7: The Rights Revolutions
Chapter 8: Inner Demons
Chapter 9: Better Angels
Chapter 10: On Angels’ Wings
Wrapping Up

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Wrapping Up

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

This book has been about violence: its causes, its forms, its decline. It is only natural to ask, from our modern humanist vantage, “why is there violence?” Yet once these answers are understood, it’s far more difficult to answer “why is there peace?” Most would agree peace is preferable to war, but is that shared universal preference reason in itself for the decline of violence from ancient to modern times? Why do people think we live in the most violent of times, despite the stats? What role do literacy, wealth, trade, technology, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and self-control play in the reduction of violence over time? Most importantly, where are we headed?

Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth. A measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the form of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred. Yet there is a vast difference between the minimal violence necessary to prevent greater violence and the bolts of fury that an uncalibrated mind is likely to deliver in acts of rough justice.

The answers, briefly touched on in this post series, are enough to fill a very thick book. By page 481, I had realized I was reading one of the most influential books I would ever read, and learning a new worldview I’d be incorporating into my own. So I started over on page 1, highlighting and notating for the purpose of summarizing each chapter in this series. I read chapters here and there, interspersed with other books, because I knew that reading a 1341-page tome could burn me out. Luckily for me, on page 1018, chapter 10 closed and the next page started in on footnotes and citations. Surprise! I was finished before I knew what hit me. I picked up this book in February of 2015. Now, in July of the following year, laid out on the beach incidentally, I’m done.

I won’t waste space recapping my 11-post recap series. This is a large book because it contains a lot of information about the human condition, information not taught in history class. I’ve done my best to distill it to these blog posts, which I hope was not folly, but I know it would be folly to try to distill it in a single concluding paragraph. Bottom line is, watch the TED Talk, and read (or skim!) the rest of the posts in this series. I challenge anyone not to be blown away by this evidence-based approach to world history and human psychology. I hope that a handful of people at least make it through this series and pick up the book itself. Its 1000 pages of lucid explanation and shocking facts are sure to challenge you as it challenged me. To think differently, to be less nostalgic and more optimistic, to question assumptions, and to seek out facts to support (or bust!) deeply-held beliefs.

At least, they say, our ancestors did not have to worry about muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation. Surely no Boeing 747, no antibiotic, no iPod is worth the suffering that modern societies and their technologies can wreak. And here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

On Angels’ Wings

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 10

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 10: On Angels’ Wings

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” ~Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Fun fact: IQ scores have been steadily rising, at a rate of about 3 points per decade, since standardized tests have been invented. “Mankind is Getting Smarter!” is an easy headline. But is it real?

As you know, “IQ,” or “Intelligence Quotient” is a measure of general intelligence calibrated as such that a score of 100 means “average” and +/- 15 points means roughly “below or above average.” (For the stat-savvy, 15 is the standard deviation.) So, the Flynn effect seems to posit that a person of today’s average intelligence would have been considered “above average” fifty years ago, and vice versa: an person of average intelligence fifty years ago would today be considered “below average.” What’s going on here? Is there a flaw in the testing, or the number crunching, or the sampling? Is “intelligence” a murky, ill-defined concept whose very definition is drifting with the times?

Let’s consider a standard sample question: What do a fox and a rabbit have in common? If you said “they’re both mammals” then congratulations, you would have gotten that question right on a standard IQ test. Why is this a measure of “intelligence”? And if it is, then what is “intelligence”?

Luria transcribed interviews with Russian peasants in remote parts of the Soviet Union who were given similarities questions like the ones on IQ tests:
Q: What do a fish and a crow have in common?
A: A fish—it lives in water. A crow flies. If the fish just lies on top of the water, the crow would peck at it. A crow can eat a fish but a fish can’t eat a crow.
Q: Could you use one word for them both [such as “animals”]?
A: If you call them “animals,” that wouldn’t be right. A fish isn’t an animal and a crow isn’t either…. A person can eat a fish but not a crow.

Luria’s informants also rejected a purely hypothetical mode of thinking—the stage of cognition that Jean Piaget called formal (as opposed to concrete) operations.
Q: All bears are white where there is always snow. In Novaya Zemlya there is always snow. What color are the bears there?
A: I have seen only black bears and I do not talk of what I have not seen.
Q: But what do my words imply?
A: If a person has not been there he cannot say anything on the basis of words. If a man was 60 or 80 and had seen a white bear there and told me about it, he could be believed.

Flynn remarks, “The peasants are entirely correct. They understand the difference between analytic and synthetic propositions: pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts; only experience can. But this will do them no good on current IQ tests.” That is because current IQ tests tap abstract, formal reasoning: the ability to detach oneself from parochial knowledge of one’s own little world and explore the implications of postulates in purely hypothetical worlds.

Sound like this is hearkening back to earlier posts regarding the book’s themes? IQ tests, whose scores have been drifting upwards decade after decade, “tap abstract, formal reasoning.” They measure one’s ability to detach oneself from “one’s own little world” and consider “hypothetical worlds.” IQ scores and the Flynn effect therefore quantify our capacity for reason and empathy! [insert caveats here] A connection between increasing capacity for empathy and decreasing rates of violence would be tenuous at best, but it’s interesting to consider. Experts tend to explain the Flynn effect in terms of education. Schoolkids learn more about “how to think” in the classrooms of today. That equips them to answer questions like “Cat is to mouse as cow is to what?” better than questions like “What states would you pass through driving due south from Columbus, Ohio?” While both test for a kind of synthesis of knowledge, one taps more into an innate ability than innate knowledge. That ability, that capacity to reason, to abstract, and to empathize (to explore hypothetical worlds) is what is driving IQ scores up. Better and more widespread schooling is probably the main driver. It is worth noting, also, that people are getting better at answering certain kinds of questions, not all questions across the board. It is not “general intelligence” that is necessarily increasing, the innate potential of the human brain, as dictated by genetics.

What other trends, besides education, reason and empathy, have been major driving factors of peace? Pinker details three more: the leviathan, trade, and feminism. Recall from a previous chapter that the leviathan refers to Hobbes’s idea of a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as a deterrent against infighting. It’s why legal cases are referred to not as “Alice vs Bob” but as “The People” or “The State” vs Bob. In feudal and tribal societies, scores were settled privately which led to bloody cycles of violent vendettas and the kind of “self-help justice” seen in ganglands and warlord & mafia-controlled failed states. The consolidation of power by kings (and their eventual evolution into governments) led to a decrease in this kind of violence by punishing the kind of infighting that suppressed the common wealth. Trade is the other major driver of peace. Plunder is expensive, as is occupation, so when nations lay down there arms in order to trade they share what social scientists call a “peace dividend.” Lastly, the statistics confirm our intuitions that violence is disproportionately dominated by males. There is a large correlation (cause may go both ways!) between peace and women’s rights. More inclusive, egalitarian societies tend to be more peaceful, and more violent societies tend to eschew the rights of women and minority groups.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Review: The Coming Fury

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The Coming Fury
The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was exactly the book I was hoping it to be. For all the millions of pages of Civil War literature extant, there seems to be a shortage of well-known, scholarly writing about the events leading up to its outbreak. We are taught in school that “the South seceded” in December 1860, that Fort Sumter was fired upon the following April and that the first major battle happened in July. From a modern perspective, this seems ludicrous. Wars have been fought and finished in less time!

Bruce Catton expertly fills in the gaps. We learn of the politicking that led to Lincoln’s upset nomination and the fracturing of the Democratic party. We learn of the rhetoric that culminated in secession after the election. I was captivated by the four month dance around Fort Sumter, an antebellum precurser to the Cuban Missile Crisis in which both sides are daring the other to strike first and so be the aggressor. Amazingly, it is lost on the lay public that Fort Sumter produced not a single casualty and was thus a political symbol rather than the true start of the war. The last amazing fact I learned from this book was about the formation of West Virginia and General McClellan’s early successes in that campaign, before his caricatured ineptitude on the peninsula.

Having never read extensively about it, I consider myself representative of the public conception of what the Civil War was all about, and the basic sequence of events we’re all taught in school. While I’m still no expert, I feel I know so much more about the subject now that I’ve read this book. I’ve always been more interested in what led up to the war, why it broke out when it did, and what life was like in various sections of the country at that time, than the battle schedule and cast of romantic hero characters. If you feel the same, this is a must read.

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