Monday, December 25, 2017

Best Books I read in 2017

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

I'd already read P&P, and I was already thinking that I was done with old English lit., so I opened it up without the intention of reading it (figured I'd just thoughtlessly browse the first few lines), but by the end of the first page, I couldn't stop myself. The mother and father feel so “lived in” and real and precise. Lady Catherine and Collins the clergyman, in their stuffy absurdity, are seriously funny. I must confess that I fell in love with Elizabeth, a shining example of emotional intelligence, good cheer, and uncommon sensibility. We should all strive to be as smart and worldly and kind as Elizabeth Bennett, and I fear Austen would be aghast to see the sorts of ways young people occupy their time nowadays (though Austen might argue that young people could be just as frivolous then, as we see in two of Elizabeth's sisters). Darcy is essentially the male version of Elizabeth, equally smart and just as well-equipped with “understanding,” though he lacks the awareness to manage his ego and bloated sense of pride. The days after I read the book, I was speaking and writing with enhanced clarity and precision, which tells me that I should always have some brilliant English book being read in the background.



The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Blythell (2017)

Like books? Used bookshops? Dry Scottish wit?  Blythell uses the diary format better than anyone. Some days are just funny, short entries about running a used bookstore. Other days the prose is enriched with research about the area or the book-selling trade. It makes me wonder whether I could pull off something similar with a travelogue, a style I'd previously been skeptical of.

Here's a job reference Bythell wrote for one of his employees: Sara worked Saturdays at The Book Shop, 17 North Main Street, Wigtown, for three years while she was at the Douglas Ewart High School. When I say “worked”, I use the word in its loosest possible terms. She spent the entire day either standing outside the shop, smoking and snarling at people trying to enter the building, or watching repeats of Hollyoaks on 4OD. Although she was generally punctual, she often arrived either drunk or severely hungover. She was usually rude and aggressive. She rarely did as she was told, and never, in the entire three years of her time here, did anything constructive without having to be told to do so. She invariably left a trail of rubbish behind her, usually consisting of Irn-Bru bottles, crisp packets, chocolate wrappers and cigarette packets. She consistently stole lighters and matches from the business, and was offensive and frequently violent towards me. She was a valued member of staff and I have no hesitation in recommending her.


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

My expectations were low. The book came out soon after Jobs's death, and I was expecting that this was another biography that was hastily written to make money at an opportune time. This isn't the case at all. It's thorough and exhaustive, yet fun, even exciting, to read. Isaacson has somehow made the technical side of Jobs's life engaging, which is noteworthy given that this isn't a subject I usually have any interest in. Jobs reminds me to be dogged about pursuing dreams, meticulous about perfecting one's craft, and always thinking of the future.  










Nutshell by Ian McEwan (2016)

Worth reading if just for the delicious prose. It had a pitch-perfect Lolita-like caustic sense of humor. 

Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.











Game of Thrones Books 4 & 5 by George R.R. Martin (2005 & 2011) 

Books 4 and 5 have reputations for being inferior to the first three. They're not inferior. They're just different. The pace is slower and there is less action, but these books still manage to be amazingly addictive. There is wonderful character development and Martin's world is becoming ever more rich in detail. The history and geography of Westeros are getting filled in, and there's a deepening in his world's cosmology. The dialogue and characters and bits of wisdom are as good as ever. The books are not so dynamic as those of Books 1-3, with major beheadings, red weddings, and wildling battles, but I loved these books just as much. Martin’s mind is an international treasure. At the pace he's written these books, there's no way he can finish the series in just two more books...








If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron half helm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the small folk whose land they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad in all steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world.


Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot (2017)

I don't know why it's taken me so long to discover George Monbiot. He is a kindred spirit. Not only do we share interests in fringe topics like rewilding and the right to roam, but in this book he speaks to all the things I worry about: runaway consumerism, loss of social capital, our shattered democracy. His diagnoses of our country's ills seem spot-on, and his suggestions are well thought out and practical. He maintains a poised tone, but that doesn't stop him from dreaming big and thinking of the deep future. His style is exceptional. Warm, honest, smart, direct. He can venture headfirst into an idea, but also treat his detractors with respect. 




We are astonishing creatures, blessed with an amazing capacity for kindness and care towards others. But this good nature has been thwarted by a mistaken view of our own humanity. We have been induced by certain politicians, economists and commentators to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust other, and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.




Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010)

This is one of my favorite presidential biographies, which I put in the same tier as Team of Rivals. John Adams said, if Washington “was not the greatest president, he was the best actor of the presidency we have ever had.” This wasn’t an insult, I don’t think, because sometimes that’s in large part what a leader needs to be—an actor. Washington was in fact partisan, fiery, hot-tempered—this we see after his presidency, when he abandons the facade of the cool and nonpartisan leader and begins to actively conspire against the Jefferson- and Madison-led Democratic-Republicans. But for the the length of the Revolutionary War and his presidency, he mustered all the self-discipline he had, swallowed his tongue, and gave the disparate and loosely bound band of colonies — shaken by war, revolution, and tumult — what it most needed: a symbol of stability and republican virtue (except for the whole slavery thing). I think it’s fair to wonder whether the U.S. would have formed without Washington. The war may not have been won. The colonies may never have come together. The fledgling nation may never have taken flight with a lesser first president. He may be one of those few figures whose existence has dramatically altered the course of history.

Best books read in 2016
Best books read in 2015 
Best books read in 2014

Saturday, December 23, 2017

"The Last Jedi" Review

There will be spoilers.

1. It was a complete waste a time with hardly a redeeming quality.

2. There was no chemistry between any of the characters.

3. Unlike Episode Seven, there was no functional or adult-level humor. (Cute penguins screaming next to Chewy doesn’t count.)

4. The storyline was clunky and confusing, centered on a series of random chases. Characters would get in binds and immediately get out of them. In one case, two heroes were imprisoned, they complained and fumed for a few seconds, and then learned that a fellow prisoner conveniently(!) had the key to get them out. (They were imprisoned for less than a minute!) In another case, the little round robot mowed down professional soldiers by spitting coins at them. Later, it operated one of those robot brontosauruses. (How does a ball roll up a machine as tall as a three story building?) You need to give the audience time to FEEL stuck, anxious, hopeless; you can’t just put them in a prison one second and give them the keys the next. You can’t just incomprehensibly save them. They had forty years to think up these movies!

5. There wasn’t any character development, and, no, I don't consider Kylo Ren’s ceaseless vacillation between lightness and darkness "development."

6. Shoddy world building. The setting of Skellig Michael was wasted. It’s a craggy, remote island. It makes no evolutionary sense for there to exist giant lactating dinosaurs.

7. Overall, it was psychologically stupid: Yet more blather about forces of light versus darkness, good versus evil, and how the main characters must make a choice. (Can't we move on to new moral dilemmas?)

8. Villains were cartoonishly evil, weak, petulant, and completely unscary. Rogue One’s villains had charm and were rational, and they were far scarier because of it. Cersei is scary because she has a complex backstory and a functioning human's psychology. The Jungle Book managed to make Shere Khan scary because his hatred for humans was relentless and came from someplace real and legitimate. All it takes is a little humanizing. You can’t just have your character be evil; you have to have something BEHIND the evil.

9. This is going to sound alt-rightish, but it seems each frame was choreographed to create an image of post-racial multicultural serenity. It just seemed too obvious and politically “of the moment.” (Can't one be for multiculturalism and critical of an overly sanitized, Disneyified presentation of it?) Since this truly is a connected galaxy, doesn’t it suggest that there would likely be a lot more miscegenation, or there’d still at least be some racial congregating? I’m not calling for a whitewashing: it would seem truer if non-white races dominated scenes or the main character list. I’m thinking of the first Blade Runner and Cloud Atlas as sci-fi movies that dealt with race in a more thoughtful way.

10. There is almost no continuity to the story line. Every new movie is a standalone episode with little connection to the previous and probably little connection to what will follow. This is the same problem with Christopher Nolan’s otherwise-okay Batman series. There is no larger story; just a series of episodes, each of which builds off the previous, but are not part of larger cohesive, unifying, and far more gratifying whole. Perhaps the only thing planned is that “the good guys win.”

11. The Yoda cameo was unnecessary and derivative. Yoda was brilliant in Empire Strikes Back. He was an original character. With real wisdom. We got to watch the mentor-protege relationship between him and Luke unfold. But yet again Star Wars brings back a character for the sole purpose of stirring nostalgia. Why can’t there be a new Yoda (who at the same time is nothing like Yoda), with a new original character, with new meaningful wisdom? Also, when you're dead, you're dead! You can't just bring back characters whenever you need them. What's next, Han Solo’s voice echoing from the clouds? The mentor-protege relationship between Luke and Rey was nonexistent. She experienced no changes despite ticking off some boxes on the typical "heroine's journey" chart: visits to a mentor, visits to a netherworld...

12. I have nothing nice to say. Rey is crush-worthy, but her talents were misused.

Monday, December 18, 2017

On mean signs and our lousy democracy

North Carolina
[I wrote this essay a few years ago when I was living in North Carolina. It was for my photo blog, notrespassingsigns.blogspot.com. I recently reread it and thought it was worth reprinting, especially after I read George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage, which helped me piece together a few disconnected thoughts. So here it is, refurbished, updated, and Trumpified.] 

A few people in my neck of the woods have raised Confederate flags on flagpoles in their yard. Rarely are these flags displayed in a wealthy or middle class persons yard. Most folks who raise Confederate flags around here are quite poor.  

One home nearby doesnt look like its fit to house people. The driveway is muddy. Two mangy dogs live in triangular dog houses in the woods, tethered to short leashes. The house is a double-wide with severe water damage. It looks like it could collapse any second. On the window that faces the road theyve tacked up a Confederate flag.

I felt bad for them. They have practically nothing. When I first noticed the flag, I thought, Well, at least they have that.  

I thought about all the crazy signs: the Armed crazy red neck lives here,” or the Notice: If you are found here tonight, you will be found here tomorrow,or even your basic No Trespassing” sign. I feel the same with all these signs: Well, at least they have that.

These people might be dirt poor and have next to nothing, but they do have the right to put up a crazy sign. One workers CEO might be making two hundred times more money than he is, but, hell, he’s still legally allowed to raise a flag thats offensive to black people. His truck might need a new transmission, his best friend may be addicted to opioids, and he may be losing custody of his daughter, but, hell, he can still put up a big, mean sign in his front yard that no one can legally take down. At least he has that.

North Carolina
I believe that a person posts a crazy sign to feel something that his government, society, and economy fail to let him feel: like a free person and a citizen with a say. While that person does not have much and cannot do much, he knows he can at least stretch his First Amendment rights as far as they will go by waving a hurtful flag. To get to feel like a free person and a citizen with a say, he cant just put up a mild This is me using my First Amendment rightssign; rather, he has to put up something fucking crazy. He has to warn people that theyre going to get shot for placing their pinky toe on his property. Or that everyone should Fear God.Or he might just post a giant picture of a dead fetus. To get an adequate sense of validation, you have to be menacingly zany about what sort of sign you put up.

Because he feels his opinion doesn’t count, because he feels his vote means nothing, his only way of feeling like a citizen in a democracy is to radically embrace the First and Second Amendments—the constitutional crumbs left to him by his weak community, his broken government, and his corporate overlords.

Displaying the Confederate flag and the “No Trespassing” sign serves two purposes. The first purpose is, as I’ve mentioned, to embrace the First Amendment, which makes him feel a little bit like a free man and a citizen. The second purpose is to express the desire to exclude society from his life just as he feels society has excluded him. At bottom, he probably feels pointless, useless, and unimportant to his society. He feels ignored and left out. So instead of wallowing in the pain of his unimportance and his exclusion from society, it’s better off, he feels, to display his renunciation of society. By putting up a sign that’s so uninviting, he hopes everyone gets the message that he never wanted society in the first place. It’s his way of saving face. 

Surely there are people who raise their Confederate flags for reasons other than the mere expression of their First Amendment rights. And surely there are people who have many good reasons for posting No Trespassingsigns. (I could see myself posting one in the right circumstances.) But I think many people who post crazy signs do so out of desperation. It's likely that they have insufficient social lives. They probably play no role whatsoever in their government (locally or nationally). And they probably feel small, weak, and rundown. Because so many feel powerless and alienated by their community and government, posting a crazy sign may be some peoples only chance at participating in their democracy and within the marketplace of ideas. It is in the powder of shattered communities that anti-politics swirls,” writes George Monbiot. 

Utah
This brings me to Trump.

I believe that, in many cases, the instinct that made the flag wavers sling up the Confederate flag is the same instinct that made them cast a vote for Trump. When they vote for a person who’s completely unfit for the presidency, they’re doing so partly as a collective and desperate plea for recognition.

With a crazy sign, they are saying, “Look at me! I have a voice!" Same thing with a vote for Trump: "And I’m going to get your attention and show you I have a voice by supporting the guy who no rational person would ever support!”

These are people who feel ignored. New Yorker writer James Surowiecki wrote, A RAND survey in January found that voters who believed that people like me dont have any say about what the government doeswere 86.5 per cent more likely to prefer Trump.

The Trump voter is the forgotten voter, the voter who feels that no politician represents him. I don’t think he votes for Trump so much because of Trump’s ideas (which really just amount to a bunch of unarticulated and unachievable promises of prosperity); rather, Trump is the vessel into which all of these forgotten Americans are placing their frustration. He is like a giant “No Trespassing” sign: an absurd sign of hate posted by people desperate to be recognized.

I don't think it has to be this way. I think the sickness behind Trump, all the mean signs, and general meanness can be cured. 

Give people a voice, a meaningful social role, a fair wage, and I bet all the signs will come down. Let’s imagine that one of these poor, sign-displaying loners had been luckier. He got a job paying $30 an hour with benefits at a place that manufactures good, necessary products. He’s been invited to run for his local school board. His county commissioner shakes his hand, wants his vote, and listens to his opinions. He plays an instrument in a band, attends monthly barn dances, and interacts with his community all the time. He feels like his votes are going to politicians who haven’t been bought out by billionaires or special interests. Do we think this person, who now plays a role in his community and country, would still be as likely to raise an offensive flag or post an exclusionary sign?  Enhance democracy (locally and nationally) and make people feel like citizens, and I bet all the mean signs will come down.

An old neighbor closing down a public road in North Carolina. 
I can’t recommend George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage enough. As I mentioned in my last post, because Swiss citizens have lots of control over their government, the Swiss express more “confidence in government” than any of the other forty countries studied. 

There are lots of ways to enhance democracy. I recommend reading Monbiot’s book, but here’s one paragraph:
The people of Switzerland vote in around ten referendums a year, clustered into three or four polling days. Some of these are initiated by parliament, some by citizens. Any law passed by parliament can be challenged by the people. If, within one hundred days, someone can furnish 50,000 signatures from people opposed to the law, the government is obliged to put the question to the country. These referendums are binding: if the people vote against it, the law is struck down. People can also propose amendments to the constitution, if they can gather 100,000 signatures within eighteen months. The federal council might suggest a counter-proposal, which is put to the popular vote at the same time.
Think about that. In Switzerland, you are not merely a citizen in name, but in practice. Even though you're just one vote, that one vote actually matters and factors into actual results. 

I don’t know about you, but I feel like being a citizen in America is completely dissatisfying. There isn’t really a structure that allows or compels ordinary people to continually feel like engaged citizens. Maybe we vote every two years (about 55 percent of us do). Maybe we briefly volunteer for a candidate, write a letter to the editor, or call our politician to urge her to vote a certain way (5 percent of us?). Maybe we run for school board or county commissioner (.001 percent of us?) But mostly, we just wait another two to four years for the next election and hope our elected officials sort it all out. Marches, phone calls, Facebook posts—none of them are satisfying or feel like they're accomplishing anything. You feel so small, participation feels so futile. You’re frustrated with the unfairness of the electoral college, gerrymandered districts, disproportionate senate representation; you’re disgusted with how much political power our corporate overlords have; you’re deflated with the apathy of your fellow citizens. And then nothing changes and you just feel empty and demoralized and want to quit politics altogether.

Monbiot recognizes the importance of a strong national government, but he says a strong government is not enough: We need strong local communities, too. Local communities give us the everyday feeling that were part of something bigger. Our voice, on this local level, is heard. The products of our efforts are tangible. 

Strong, empowered communities can give us the opportunity to feel continually and meaningfully engaged. I’ve seen it! In Scotland, many communities are purchasing land to be collectively owned and managed. These communities (often classified as "trusts") are creating businesses, building affordable housing, making their own electricity, and giving votes and voices and important roles to community members. On the Isle of Eigg, where I spent a week interviewing as many of the 107 residents as I could, I discovered something quite beautifula full-fledged, functioning community. You could feel the warmth of the place. You could feel the confidence. These aren’t experts running the island; just ordinary folks who've learned how to monitor electrical grids, keep the Internet running, work with government officials, develop business plans, make architectural decisions. I spoke with a resident named Camille who said the community ownership of the island made ordinary people more engaged:
There’s quite a lot of community involvement in the affairs in the community. [The community purchase] made people on the local level more responsible, more interested in outcomes. I think that's why we are in some places seen as dangerous revolutionaries. It just shows when you give power to a bunch of ordinary people, they can deal with it quite well. It's dangerous to think that people can think for themselves and do for themselves.
On Eigg I saw an empowered people, a thriving community, and a functioning democracy. And not one mean sign.

Isle of Eigg, Scotland


Isle of Eigg, Scotland

Family exercising right to roam. Isle of Eigg, Scotland.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Big Forces Theory

A little more than a week ago, Trump retweeted anti-Muslim videos, called a political opponent “Pocahontas” at a ceremony honoring Native Americans, and reveled in Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct allegations (even though Trump has his own allegations to deal with). For any other president, a series of gaffes and embarrassments like this would have been catastrophic. But for Trump it was just another week.
  
These stories make me angry. They make me hate the voters who put such a monster in power. I want to slap them, shake them by the shoulders, berate them. Look at what you did! Look at who you put into office! In Trump’s immaturity, I see theirs. In Trump’s stupidity, I see theirs. In Trump’s moral depravity, I see theirs.  

But these fits only last a few moments. The part of me who enjoys being angry is weaker than the part of me who wishes to understand. My hatred eventually dissolves and turns into curiosity, making me wonder: Why did they vote for him? What made 62 million Americans vote for a man who is so clearly unfit for office?

There are plenty of reasons that have been cited: fear of immigrants, contempt for environmental regulation, anxiety over the economy, hatred for the political establishment, the desire to “blow the whole thing up,” racism…

I’m going to focus on racism, but first I’d like to establish a theory that’s essential for this post.

The Big Forces Theory

I’m proposing that Trump voters — all people, really — have only so much control over what they think and believe. Until I learn that this theory has already been developed and named, I’m calling it the “Big Forces Theory.” It proposes that our ideologies — and essentially everything about who we are — are shaped by tremendous forces that are often invisible to us. 

Let’s talk about the forces that contribute to our economic success. Our culture celebrates nonconformity, independent thinking, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Our culture would like us to believe that we are the creators of our own lives and makers of our own destinies. By pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we, as individuals, are principally responsible for our successes.

Studies show that this isn’t the case. We fail to appreciate how our place in the world — our health, our socioeconomic status, our life expectancy — has far more to do with when we were born, who our parents are, and whether we were fortunate enough to have been swept to prosperous shores by the grand tides of history.

The work of Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his team at the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that we are only partly in control of our fates. Our likelihood of achieving economic success is influenced by factors such as residential segregation, income inequality, social capital, school quality, the year we are born, and whether we have one parent or two, among other factors. Someone born in San Jose, California, for instance, has a much better chance at climbing the economic ladder than a person born in Atlanta, Georgia. Gregory Clark in The Son Also Rises has shown that our income mobility is partly determined by our surname and how our families fared hundreds of years ago.

The map shows the opportunity for economic mobility by county. Credit: New York Times
I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography on Ulysses S. Grant. We love Grant’s story because it’s the ultimate rags-to-riches story: from drunken firewood peddler to savior of the Union. When Grant had a young family, the economy was a mess and he became something close to destitute. After struggling to sell firewood, he had to swallow his pride and ask his younger brother for work. This is what we remember about his story. We tend to forget that Grant had an advantageous start. Grant’s father was rich (so much that he’d be a millionaire today) and had good connections—connections that he used to get a teenage Grant enrolled at West Point. Grant’s privileged education would come in handy during all those future military battles.    

We think of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as self-made men, and of course they, like Grant, had incredible vision, drive, and god-given talents. But they greatly benefited from stable home lives, early access to computers, great schools, and an environment that had a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Finding a true rags-to-riches story (in which the social climber has not benefited from wealth, connections, good families, or good schools) is difficult. Even Andrew Carnegie, who we remember as one of America’s great self-made men, had an uncle who was a politician. In his youth, Carnegie befriended a colonel who opened up an impressive library to Carnegie, giving the boy advantages that other boys didn’t have.  

There are probably a few true rags-to-riches stories and there are indeed people with rare, god-given talents, but I think we can agree that, generally, those who have wealth, good parents, good schools, and good health tend to succeed far more than those who don’t.

Let’s zoom out and look at how some societies succeed. Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, reports that Europe came to dominate the world, not because of brilliant, revolutionary leaders, but because of something far simpler: geography. The Fertile Crescent and greater Mediterranean area were blessed with good climate, a disproportionate number of animals capable of being domesticated, and 32 of the world's 56 most useful grasses. Europe’s geographic connection to these resources, not to mention all the diseases that they grew immune to (and that they would pass on to Native Americans), would put inhabitants of the New World in a serious position of weakness for the coming clash. In Earning the Rockies, Robert D. Kaplan, says that American geography  with our helpful network of rivers across arable land (perfect for transport and commerce) and two protective oceans — has made our global foreign policy, as policeman and world leader, practically inevitable. “What all of this amounts to,” writes Kaplan, “is something stark: America is fated to lead. That is the judgment of geography.”

These are examples of Big Forces. The big things — such as climate, geography, wealth, good institutions — largely determine the fate of people and civilizations. I’d like to extend the reach of Big Forces: I propose that Big Forces are almost entirely responsible for how you and I think. They determine who becomes a progressive, a conservative, an environmentalist, a libertarian, a Christian, a racist, and so on…*  


In the above meme, which appears to be well-vetted, we see many problems that plague the southern states, all of which voted for Trump except Virginia. In the South, there is disproportionate poverty. There is inferior education and poor health. And up close and personal is the legacy of slavery. (An updated meme also contains maps that show that the southern states have the highest levels of teen pregnancy and venereal disease, which I believe are accurate as well.) Together, Big Forces like these create large-scale cultural patterns and broad political trends.

Consider those maps as we go through post-election voting data analyses.

Health. Findings from The Economist suggest that poor physical health was one of the most reliable predictors of a Trump voter.

Educational level. According to FiveThirtyEight, Hilary Clinton (in relation to Obama’s 2012 election) lost voters in 47 of the 50 least educated counties in America. Nate Silver says education levels were the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016.”

Racism and xenophobia. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that racism and xenophobia were leading factors in Trump’s victory, more so than economic anxiety. An analysis done by The Nation also suggests that it had more to do with racial animus than economic anxiety. Analysis done by the Washington Post concludes that, “Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism.” Using data from the Southern Law Poverty Center, I’ve calculated that the states with the most hate groups per capita went solidly for Trump, including the top eight most hateful states and 16 of the top 20.   


Here we see Big Forces at work. Poor health, poor education, racism, and xenophobia — things, I’m arguing, that we have little control over — are all correlated with voting for Trump.

And how about propaganda as another Big Force? Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains describes the decades-long attempt to radicalize the right, dupe millions of voters, and undermine democracy. This effort has been funded by billionaire true-believers, like the Kochs. Elaborate strategy and billions of dollars make their way into millions of minds through AM radio, Fox News, and many dark, but well-supported, corners of the Internet. 

We could look at racist Trump supporters as angry nincompoops, or as the products (victims?) of not only wide-scale regional educational, religious, health, racial, and economic patterns, but also a conspiracy that is powerful and compelling enough to overpower the enlightened sides of their minds.

Maybe these voters, who consistently vote against their self-interest, aren’t deserving of our scorn. Maybe they’re deserving of our understanding. Instead of hating them, we must consider the tremendously powerful — and invisible — forces that have made them this way. They did not invent their own stupidity. They are not inherently racist. They do not control the Big Forces around them. They did not parent themselves. They did not under-staff the schools they attended. They are the products of an almost inescapable culture. They are inevitabilities. They are algorithms, as we all are. Their Big Forces made them into Trump voters, the same way our Big Forces made us into who we are.

Of course there are examples of people who’ve rejected their dominant culture. Take for example Derek Black, who grew up in a prominent white supremacist family and who is the godchild of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK. Derek, as a teenager, was an active white supremacist, but he would later renounce his family’s views soon after he went to college. Was this change due to the workings of moral logic in one young man’s independent mind, or might it have something to do with the fact that he attended a liberal arts college, far from his parents, and that a few Jewish students would kindly invite him to Shabbat dinners and show him up-to-date research that disproved Derek’s racial theories? Is Derek responsible for the change of ideology, or was it simply an opposing Big Force (the liberal arts and fact-based thinking)?

This all makes me wonder: How much is racism a choice and how much is racism imposed on us? How much of our minds are products of Big Forces, and how much of our minds are products of our own creation?   

Perhaps genetics play a role in determining who we become and what we believe. We’re all born with different bodies and brains. It follows that these differences may somehow affect how religious, liberal, or scrupulous we become. The term “genopolitics” describes how our genes may contribute to our politics. But this is not a theory I’m eager to endorse, as this skeptical New Republic article does a pretty effective job shooting it down. Perhaps you could talk me into believing that if you become sufficiently enlightened  which includes recognizing the Big Forces that shaped you  you might to some extent be freed from the grip of Big Forces. But this is leading me into philosophical thickets that I can't get through on my own. 

Enlightenment and genetics aside (which I don’t even get to choose), I feel it’s more likely that I am merely a ball of clay that my environment shapes. If I’d grown up in Wheeler County, Texas — where Trump got 90.5 percent of votes — I think it’s quite likely that, if I’d grown up with normal Wheeler County values and experienced the Big Forces typical to Wheeler County voters, I would have voted for Trump as well.** 

For the most part, I believe that we are malleable creatures, that we are products of our environments and Big Forces. Personally, I’m comfortable thinking that my thoughts and beliefs are not my own. I am merely a smoothie of all the things I’ve read, watched, listened to, learned from, and experienced. Sure, a little bit of genetic endowment, a little bit of spirited individuality might come into play, but for the most part I am an algorithm. While I actively watched, read, learned, and listened to a number of things that developed me, it was cultural and institutional forces (like the entertainment industry and the New York State school system) that presented me with a relatively narrow set of options that I could choose to be influenced by.***

I realize that I’m saying nothing original. We all recognize that our environments shape us to varying degrees, but I think we recognize this only on a higher intellectual level. We seldom apply these thoughts to face-to-face interaction. In the heat of the moment, it’s all visceral. Same thing with when I get frustrated with Trump and his supporters. But I think it’s worth writing about the Big Forces in the way I have because I think we tend to give too much credit to the concept of individual self-determination. We tend to think that racism needs to be solved on a person-to-person micro level, when I think it needs to be addressed on a much grander macro level. Also, as smart as we are, I think we need to be reminded of the forces around us that are so ever-present that they become invisible.  

When I think about Big Forces, I think of racist Trump voters less as baskets of deplorables and more as products of Big Forces. If you have the same tendency to feel anger and hate, I urge you to think of us all as Big Force products, which are impossible to hate. (Admittedly, the irrational part of me will most definitely get momentarily angry with these voters the next time Trump does something terrible).

I’m not trying to give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling about “respecting” the other side. I’m not trying to make racism or xenophobia in any way okay or forgivable. I may not even be trying to help you shed your anger, as anger and passion can be converted into useful activism. I’m merely suggesting that by acknowledging the existence of Big Forces, we may be more able to deal with unruly emotions, and we may think more on a Big Force level to help prevent future electoral calamities.

Under my value system (which calls for equality, justice, and fraternity for all of humanity, as well as care for the planet and all earthly species), I can think of a few helpful Big Forces that might produce a future citizenry that could accomplish some wonderful things.

1. Enhanced democracy. An enhanced democracy that promotes vigorous civic participation would severely reduce the number of voters who feel disenfranchised, alienated, and forgotten. These citizens, once they feel like citizens, will be less inclined to vent their frustration in elections by trying to “blow the whole thing up.” In his book Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot explains how the revival of tight-knit communities could resurrect a dying civic spirit, which could make everyone feel valued and give everyone a voice. On a more national level, referendums would make us feel like we play meaningful roles in deciding big things. Switzerland offers about ten referendums a year, which is a big factor in why 75 percent of Swiss citizens (the highest percentage among the forty countries studied) expressed “confidence in government.” On another (and rather obvious) note, getting money out of politics would be key.

2. Enhanced public trust. People feel like strangers in their own land. We are racist and xenophobic. We have extremely low levels of trust for our media and government. There is a severe deficit in social capital. We don't interact with members of our communities as much. We bowl alone, or we bowl at home on our Xbox. Studies have shown that income equality is a common feature among countries that have high levels of public trust. In other words, when society isn’t too stratified by outrageous differences in wealth, people tend to trust each other and their governments more. Society could benefit considerably from a different tax structure. On a related note, in my coming book This Land Is Our Land, I write about how the “right to roam” — and a more shared understanding of private property — could help us create a nation that’s more equal, neighborly, trusting, and united.

3. Enhanced education. In Against Democracy, Jason Brennan describes just how uninformed that average American voter is. In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Brennan lists a few findings from his research:
Voters don’t know which party controls Congress, who their representatives are, what new laws were passed, what the unemployment rate is or what’s happening to the economy. In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, while slightly more than half of voters knew that Al Gore was more liberal than George W. Bush, they did not seem to know what the word “liberal” means.
We need to be smarter, more savvy, more skeptical, more critical, more self-aware, more informed. We need strong public schools that make kids enthusiastic about learning. We need to make higher education dirt cheap. I just passed through Poland, and there, I’m told, the concept of being a “nerd” doesn’t really exist. It’s this way in many places across Europe. In other words, being smart is not the same as being uncool. I think we need to adopt this way of thinking. Americans universally value kindness, confidence, an independent spirit, a go-get-um attitude. These are great, but I think “worldliness” — achieved by travel, study, and self-reflection — should be added to the core values that we encourage each American to cultivate.    

These are just a few pie-in-the-sky dreams. You might call them implausible, but I’m okay thinking of these as long-range goals. And I’m finding inspiration from modern-day Western democracies, so these dreams aren’t all that far-fetched. Plus, this is a blog and there’s nothing stopping me from enjoying my role as armchair reformer. So there.  

These things won’t end racism (maybe nothing will?), but they might create a set of conditions where something like racism can be contained in its quieter Jekyll shell rather than being unleashed every few election cycles as a dangerous Hyde.  

***

*Of course I’m not suggesting something as simple as tabula rasa, that we’re clean slates from birth to be entirely shaped by our environments. I understand that we’re born with many things innate that direct us to, for instance, survive, be social, be cooperative, to laugh, to individuate.

**That said, I do wish to believe that there is in us all some “true you” that could never be touched by our culture, our environment, and our Big Forces. Sometimes I imagine myself in scenarios where I have the same genes, but where I’ve grown up in an entirely different place, with different guardians, with different circumstances. It begs you to ask the question: Just how malleable are you? Despite identifying as a peaceful person, if I’d grown up in a warrior tribal society, I can imagine myself enjoying war. Despite identifying as an atheist, if I’d grown up as a Western European peasant in the Middle Ages, I likely would have believed in the Christian god. If I’d been beaten and traumatized and unloved as a child, I could see myself as some broken human, capable of committing atrocities. If I’d grown up with a prized tutor in aristocratic England (and didn’t spend my boyhood playing Tecmo Super Bowl) perhaps today I’d be a much smarter and more accomplished person, though perhaps I'd be a more maladjusted person, too. But what characteristics would transcend all of your alternate reality selves? I know we all want to say “honorable” and “brave” and “principled,” but we’re probably so malleable that even our most cherished personal characteristics would be lost in certain circumstances. I’ve thought about this and to me my clearest answer is (apart from a set of obvious physical characteristics) my introversion. I think no matter what society I came from, I’d be introverted.

***Here are my Big Forces… I grew up in a Western New York suburb, where I had good public schools, good public parks, and parents who benefited from fair wages and unions. At a young age, I had a TV of my own and parents who didn’t restrict me from watching whatever shows and movies I wished to watch. I never felt threatened by immigration (my dad’s a Scot and I was born in Canada, so I’m sort of an immigrant myself), I’ve had very few unpleasant encounters with members of another race, and certainly nothing serious enough to make me judge a whole group in one way. I went to a good public university where I was exposed to a world of thought and where I intermingled with many cultural groups. The things that have hurt me or hurt others around me include fundamentalist religion, student debt, unchecked consumerism, Big Sugar, fossil fuels, private health insurance, and pollution. In short, these influences have made me into a progressive environmentalist who believes in institutions, who isn't afraid of diversity, who doesn’t have any weird gun complexes, and who can imagine living contentedly in several sorts of pre-industrial societies, but who, given the realities of the present world, would like it if America shifted toward a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy.