Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Best Books I read in 2020


The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (1960) This is one of the best history books I've ever read. It relies almost entirely on primary documents (speeches, letters, etc.). I appreciated how there was no cautiousness in Shirer's style; Shirer writes clean prose with moral ferocity. There's no vacillating university relativism here. It's not a dry read by any means. It reads like a thrilling war movie that ends happily ever after. 

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan (2019). This is a relationship novel more than anything, and there are a lot of funny and insightful things about the romance. But I was in it for the robot. I greatly enjoyed all the ethical questions the book explores, though I thought Adam, the robot, sometimes was powered off too much so the kitchen sink drama could play out. McEwan's smart prose makes up for any deficiencies in the plot. The counterfactual history (with a thriving Alan Turing) was a lot of fun. 

Heimat by Nora Krug (2019). This is a delightful book that's admirably researched. Krug reflects on her Germanness, and how she grapples with the complicated history of her wartime family.  

Walking the Great North Line by Robert Twigger (2020). This book goes to show that you don't need to walk around the world to write a good travel book. It's about Twigger's straight-line walk up England connecting weirdly aligned historic landmarks. The writing is fresh; there's something special on every page. Lots of honesty, history, humor, and hi-jinx: everything I love about the travel memoir genre. 

"To develop that earlier thought about not starting at the beginning, there should be a word for the instinct to start things in a half-arsed fashion (Farsing? Harsing?), as if starting properly will jinx the enterprise, set it up on too high and unachievable a pedestal. The instinct to start in a half-arsed way for fear you'll never start at all."

Bushcraft by Mors Kochanski (1997). This past spring I got an email from a producer of the TV show, Alone, inviting me to apply to be a contestant. I'd never heard of the show, but I've since become a fan and have begun a multi-year project to apply, get on, and win. I have lots to learn! I've read about five bushcraft books this year, and this one is the best. Mors is meticulous and scientific. The illustrations are very helpful. 

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (1989) This is a memoir of a teenage boy written with the detail and dialogue of a novel. I compare it to another old favorite, Angela's Ashes, except that This Boy's Life takes place in 1950's America. No one has ever captured how a young teen acts without thinking as well as Wolff has. It's as if the boy fails to have any ability for self examination and awareness, which is probably how most of us existed in our youths. We just can't remember it. But someone Wolff, as an adult writer, not only remembers this, but, somewhere down the line, discovered his amazing powers for intrapersonal intelligence. The De Niro/ DeCaprio 1993 movie of the same name looks too bleak; the book has a bit of humor on every page if you can find it.  

Self Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams (2019)

Eloquent and bold. As with sexuality, it might do us some good to someday blur and ultimately forget about binary racial boundaries, as helpful as they can be. I wonder if boundary dissolution will be one of the great social movements of the 21st Century.

"[S]ince the outcome of the 2016 election, I’ve been dismayed to see an opportunistic demagogue provoke racial resentment across the country and within families as well, but I’ve also been troubled to watch well-meaning white friends in my Twitter timeline and Facebook news feed flagellate themselves, sincerely or performatively apologizing for their “whiteness,” as if they were somehow born into original sin. The writer and linguist John McWhorter (who happens to be black) has called this development “the flawed new religion” of Anti-racism, or “The current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), ‘acknowledge’ that they possess White Privilege,” he writes in a 2015 essay of the same name. “Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal . . . The call for people to soberly ‘acknowledge’ their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.” In other words, it is to walk that special path."

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Best films I watched in 2020

I'm doing a better job cataloging the media I consume, so I have a better idea of all the films I watch from year to year. Here are my favorites watched in 2020, with an eye toward  lesser-known gems. 

The Cakemaker (2017, Germany & Israel) This is an almost flawless movie (save for one mistake toward the end). It's unbelievable to me that the actor in the lead, Tim Kalkhof, won no awards for his beautifully understated performance. 

Monos (2019, Columbia, various) I like my movies raw, gritty, and unforgiving. Monos is just my type.

Sicario (2015, USA) I had low expectations for this one, as I'm burnt out on drug and cop movies. But Sicario was electrifying. I had no sense of where the story was taking me, which is always a good thing. 

Meek's Cutoff (2010, USA) I've never watched a bad Kelly Reichardt film. This is hardly a Western, apart from the costumes.

Winter Sleep (2014, Turkey) Broody, atmospheric, and melancholic. 

Revanche (2008, Austria)
A grimy city thriller unexpectedly ends up in the Austrian countryside.

The Biggest Little Farm (2018, USA) I could have done without the cheesy premise of giving their dog a new home. But this multi-year documentary is visually stunning, epic, honest, and inspiring. It'll certainly make you want to have a farm, big or little. 

Big Night (1997, USA) 

1917 (2019, US/UK) I saw this in February, right before lockdown. I was somewhere in Maryland on a speaking tour. I stopped by a pizzeria beforehand. The pizzeria was closing so they offered me an additional slice of pizza, both of which were enormous. With a full belly after a long day of talking, my viewing of the masterfully-made 1917 was made all the more memorable. 

Uncut Gems (2019, USA) When I watch a movie and instantly have to rewatch it, I know it'll be a movie I'll always love. Sandler ought to have earned an Oscar nomination for his tragic-comic performance. This is one movie where a distinctive and innovative style (music, editing, cinematography) serves the movie, rather than just serving as window dressing.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Wigtown Book Festival Podcast

I forgot to post a podcast I was on a few months ago. The Wigtown Book Festival (Scotland) was inspired to start a podcast because of the pandemic lockdown. 

I've performed at the festival for each of my three books. My visits to Wigtown gave me the opportunity to meet my Scottish relatives, explore the country, and eventually move there. On this show, I gave a quick rundown of my books and reflected on being an author without a book to work on.

The podcast is available on the usual podcast apps. Here's the web version of the podcast

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Bushcraft - shelter building

I'm enrolled in a year-long bushcraft course, in which we're learning all manner of things, including axecraft, clothes making, primitive navigation, and shelter building. I decided to merge the old and the new, so I took liberties on my shelter with a bit of paracord and a tarp. I have the rafters up and the tarp secured, but I have a lot more work to do. I envision a more enclosed shelter when I'm done with it. I will have foliage entirely covering the roof in Picture #2. In Picture #3, you can see the makings of my bed, which will be made soft with spruce boughs.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Carrifran Wildwood

One of the most irritating rants I go on is about how ecologically impoverished the UK is. In America, it's not hard to find a mixed forest on the edge of many towns. In Scotland, finding a healthy-seeming forest requires Internet research and a long pilgrimage. 

The other weekend I pilgrimaged to the Carrifran Woodland in southwest Scotland, where conservationists are experimenting with one valley in the Moffat hills. They've planted 500,000 native species of tree and shrub within 1,600 acres, with the idea of showing what an ecologically-restored Scotland might look like. They are twenty years into the project, so the trees are not tall, but when you walk over the land, you get a sense of the project's potential, even during a time of year when the forest has sunk into its winter slumber.

Take a close look at this next picture.

There's a lot to unpack in the above picture. Look at the far hill in front of us. There, you'll see a forest on the left half of the hill and grassy vegetation on the right side of the hill. This picture tells us so much about Scottish ecology and the lack thereof. The forest on the hill is probably made up entirely of "Sitka Spruce," a non-native species which is being grown for timber. These forests are not really forests--they're typically monocultures that have almost nothing residing within them. The forest does show, however, that forests CAN grow in Scotland, even up and over hills. Now look at the bare side of the hill on the right. This moorland terrain used to seem beautiful to me, until I learned that it isn't naturally desolate. It is actually a human-created wasteland. The only reason that hill is bare is because there is an overabundance of deer and sheep which nibble any and all saplings to death. Walk on that bare hill and then walk through the Sitka Spruce forest and you'll be disturbed to realize that it is ecologically impoverished, with few birds, bugs, plants, and animals.

Now look at the shadowy forest in the foreground. This is Carrifran Wildwood, where most all of the trees have been hand-planted with a variety of tree species, and where sheep and deer are discouraged from entering. This piece of land, when it comes of age, might show us what Scotland could look like if it's managed until it doesn't need to be managed.

Town of Moffat, 7 miles from woods

Thursday, November 5, 2020

2020 election impressions

Thoughts and emotions as of this moment…

It appears that Biden, now that he’s secured Wisconsin and Michigan, will win. What relief I feel is dampened by:
1. the fact that Trump will use all the dark arts at his disposal to corrupt the election, meaning that we’ll, at best, have months of unpleasant post-election drama to suffer through.
2. the fact that the Senate seems like it'll be controlled by Republicans, meaning that, for the next 2-4 years, we'll have to deal with the same old legislative logjams and political rancor.
3. the fact that the Supreme Court will be dominated by conservatives.
4. the fact that this election does not sound the death knell for the Republican Party as we know it. The Party will be less inclined to modernize and clean up its image. Trumpism may well last beyond Trump.
5. the fact that, from 2021-2024, there likely won’t be an ambitious or productive legislative agenda. Just more of the same nonsense where Democrats try and Republicans obstruct.
6. and, worst of all, the fact that almost 50% of the voting public voted again for one of the most rotten, corrupt, untrustworthy, and incompetent conmen who’s ever played American politics. I find this disturbing. I might give the 2016 “blow it up” voters a pass, but these 2020 voters ought to know better. It’s cliche to say that one has lost his faith in humanity, but my faith is truly being tested, even with Biden ahead. I can still think America is a wonderful country knowing that there are a handful of KKK cells out there. No country is perfect and there will always be bad apples. But knowing that half of the voting Americans have learned nothing from the last four years makes me think the bulk of us are either politically deranged, tragically uninformed, or morally stupid. It is harder for me to love my country knowing that almost half of its voters have voted for someone who is, among a thousand other offenses, trying to corrupt an election and corrode all that’s good about our democracy. Why isn’t this offense enough to turn on him?
Lastly... I’m hoping that we all (and I'm including Trump’s supporters in "we all") have reached a point of exhaustion with Trump. I halfheartedly predict that his yammerings and tweets will burn out like a fire without oxygen. We just don't have the energy to pay attention to him anymore. His disappearance will be nice, but there is nothing about the next term that excites me. All of this makes me want to go on a vacation from political news for the next four years.

Friday, October 23, 2020

A primitive understanding of manhood

Some men like Trump because they think he’s “manly.” (Click for NYT story about why many Latino men are drawn to Trump’s machismo.) What grotesque understanding of manliness are such men evaluating him with? Can’t they see that Trump — who whines about “unfair” questions, who walks out of a tough interview, who constantly displays toddler-like petulance, who exhibits no impulse control, and who weakly hints at his impending defeat — fails to meet any traditional criterion of admirable masculinity?

One thought that keeps coming to my mind is: Haven’t these admirers ever played sports?

I played hockey and football from my early youth up until college. They were tough, violent sports that presented all sorts of intra- and interpersonal challenges. No matter the challenge, we were taught by our coaches to never whine, to never brag, to take personal responsibility for your mistakes, to support your teammates, to be gracious in victory or defeat, and to play to the last whistle even when the game was lost. We were by no means a brotherhood of principled Spartan soldiers; a lot of my teammates fell short of living up to these virtues, but no one disputed the worthiness of these virtues, and our coaches, to their credit, tirelessly reinforced them from year to year.

All of the above are not necessarily “manly” values because women embrace them just as well. But if we as a society are going to have vaguely tailored values for boys and men (and I don’t see why we shouldn’t), let’s get them right. No vision of ideal manliness should involve the ignoring of rules, the unscrupulous taking of what you want, and the putting on of a “strongman” front. Rather, it would be better to cultivate and practice:

stoic self-control (which doesn’t preclude emotional availability)
protection of those in need
physical courage
moral fortitude
awareness of and determination to manage one’s flaws
and the responsibility to serve our families, communities, and beyond

We should look up to, celebrate, and vote for people who possess these values because these are not only pro-social, but because they take work and discipline to attain. Humiliating your wife via an affair or walking out on an interview are easy because you’re acting on destructive impulse alone. It takes a cultivated and disciplined adult to weather a tough interview or manage unruly instincts.

I wish to put it more coarsely: If you like that whiny man-baby because you think he’s a strong man, you have a primitive understanding of what strength is and what an adult ought to be.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

"The Good Lord Bird" TV Review

I give the first episode of Showtime's The Good Lord Bird a C+.

I've been patiently waiting for fifteen years for a John Brown show/movie, and finally Showtime is featuring the adaptation of a James McBride book.
You can tell Ethan Hawke has fun with the full-throated Jeremiads (and what actor wouldn't?), but they're used too often when they could have been used to greater effect if used sparingly (think Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction). Hawke is one of my favorite actors, but he's too young to play Brown. Physical comedy is not Hawke's strong suit, and everything about the depiction feels excessive. I would have preferred a younger Robert Duvall.
I can handle a little teasing of John Brown, but he's almost completely depicted as incompetent, foolish, zealous, or insane. For his first depiction on the screen, I would have liked to see a bit of nuanced reverence. The book Cloudsplitter (which I highly recommend) did better to capture Brown's moral ferocity and amusing radicality. Same with Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising (also excellent).
Overall, the acting is largely poor; the action is choppy, unrealistic, and forgettable; and the script feels oddly rushed, even though they had plenty of space to tell the story. I don't have much hope for the rest of the series. What a waste.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Evils of Socialism

Evil baby box

I've lived all of my adult life in the U.S., except for the past two years when I've mostly lived in Scotland. It's probably safe to list Scotland, and the greater United Kingdom, as a "socialist" country, at least compared to the U.S. 

[One note about terminology: "Social capitalism," "democratic socialism," or "social market economy" might be better terms because "socialism" may conjure images of the failed and undemocratic puppet governments of the USSR. Nevertheless, it appears we Americans are stuck with "socialism" as the primary term to describe a social democracy, but bear in mind, when I use it, I'm using it with a country like Denmark or Scotland in mind, not the GDR or Venezuela.]

As a dual U.S.-U.K citizen who has sipped the poisons of European socialism, I may have useful insights into the evils that may come to America, championed by the likes of Bernie Sanders and the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Evil #1: Universal Health Care

In October 2019, my daughter was born via C-section in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, where, under the NHS system, we didn't have one bill apart from one non-essential test around the third month of pregnancy that I paid for out of pocket. Apart from that $600 test, my child was born for free. The quality of care was excellent: prenatal classes, five nights in the hospital, health visitors who come to our flat and check up on the baby, etc. The Scottish government mailed a “baby box” to us, which includes useful items such as clothes, a teething ring, and a changing mat. The box comes with a foam mattress and doubles as a crib.

I have been healthy these past two years, but I did have a brief check-up for something small. It took me about two-to-three days from requesting the appointment to seeing the doctor. I got a free prescription for a pill at the pharmacy. And I've received a free eye exam and I have a free dental visit scheduled.

Let's compare my U.K. experiences to what I would have experienced in the U.S. In the state of NY, a C-section WITH insurance would have cost $12,000. WITHOUT insurance it would have cost $22,000. Check here for your state's cost of delivering a baby. Under the horribly treated and much maligned Affordable Care Act (which, to be fair, never went far enough), I pay $35 a month for my subsidized NY State health insurance (great!), but this health insurance covers nothing, and I have an in-state deductible of over $7,000, meaning that I will receive no discount on medical bills until I pay over $7,000 in medical bills (not great…).

Evil #2: Maternity Leave

Scotland gave my wife one-year of maternity leave. For the first six weeks, she got 90% of her usual income. For the next thirty-three weeks, she got a check for $200 a week. The final thirteen weeks are unpaid. This is voluntary, of course. She could have chosen to go back to work after a few weeks after the birth.

The U.S. has no universal maternity leave legislation, meaning some moms get no paid leave. The inadequate Family and Medical Leave Act gives mothers twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave. But this is only given to mothers who work for companies that have more than fifty employees and who've worked for the company for 1,250 hours and a full year. Some states, like New York, have their own maternity leave laws. New York, which has one of the more generous systems, offers ten weeks of family leave, granting a parent with 60% of their usual pay.

Scotland's maternity leave system is actually pretty weak when compared to other European countries. Estonia, for instance, offers eighty-four weeks of maternity leave with full pay. In Germany, a mother can be on family leave and hold her job position for three years (though she won't be receiving full pay for those three years).

Evil #3: Early Education

Scotland increased the amount of free early education for three and four year olds from 600 hours to 1,140 hours a year (or about thirty hours a week during the school year). National U.K. policies provide early education (from age three up until proper school age) to 73% of U.K. children. That's low when compared to countries like Sweden, Iceland, Spain, and Belgium where virtually all young kids are given free early education.

Only Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma have universal Pre-K education. Research on Pre-K education has shown the kids enrolled in Pre-K experience, later in life, fewer arrests, fewer substance abuse problems, better graduation rates, and they're more likely to attend and complete college.

Evil #4: Child Benefit Assistance

Parents in the U.K. get about $30 a week to help with new costs, like nappies, food, whatever. You’re given about $20 for each additional child. My brothers- and sisters-in-law in Germany get $240 per child a month. As you have more kids, you get more money. For your fourth child, the German government will give you $275 a month. (A parent of four kids in Germany will be bringing in close to $1,000 a month just from these child payments.)

To my knowledge, no such program exists in the U.S., but there is a U.S. tax benefit for taxpayers with dependent children.

Evil #5: Free college tuition 

If my daughter attends a Scottish university, she won't have to pay any tuition. The situation isn't perfect. Students still have to pay for living costs. Denmark, according to this 2015 article, provides free tuition AND $900 a month to students to cover living costs. In Germany, education is free and interest-free loans are given to low-income people. They do not have to pay their debts until they begin earning a reasonable sum.

In the U.S., data shows that the average student debt is about $30,000. I, for instance, had to pay $35,000 in student debt for my American education.

Evil #6: Senior benefits

At age sixty, Scots get free bus passes, which is a bigger perk than you may realize, given how much more U.K. people rely on public transport than U.S. folks. Pension benefits begin at age sixty-six, when you'll receive $175 a week, though I understand that can be higher or lower depending on your contributions. 

Evil #7: Paid Leave

U.K. workers get twenty-eight days of paid leave a year. In the U.S., there is no national law guaranteeing paid vacation or paid holidays to workers. Some U.S. companies offer paid leave, of course, but how many days is up to the company. U.S. companies will, on average, provide twenty paid vacation days to people who’ve worked for the company for twenty years. For people starting off at their new job, it’s ten days.

Evil #8: The Right to Roam

Roaming in Scotland

The right to roam isn't necessarily a socialist policy, but socialist countries tend to generously open up the country for public recreation. Scotland, in 2003, passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which opened up virtually all Scottish lands and waters (including private lands and waters) for responsible recreation. Countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland have equivalent systems. Countries like Germany provide access to woods and around agricultural fields, though camping is not permitted everywhere. I use this evil all the time.

Evil #9: Manageable cell phone and broadband costs

One of the things that drives me nuts about the U.S. is how there are no truly useful budget mobile data plans. In the U.S., I pay $44 a month for 10GB at T-Mobile. In the U.K., I pay $22 a month for 10GB with O2. Click here to look up countries ranked by cost of mobile data.

As for broadband, I pay $22 a month in the U.K. In the U.S., the average broadband cost appears to be more like $60 a month.

Evil #10: State-owned industry

One thing conservatives love to do is discredit state-owned industry by pointing to failed states like Venezuela. Fair enough, but they conveniently leave out Norway, which took ownership of the oil and gas industry decades ago. Revenue from the industry goes into a $1.1 trillion wealth fund that supports welfare projects. This may sound too radical for Americans, but the conservative state of Alaska has a similar policy for its oil and gas industry. Every year, every Alaskan gets a dividend from between $1,000 and $2,000.

Evil #11: Reasonable taxes

None of the above benefits are free. They're paid for by taxes. You might assume your tax bills would be devastatingly high with all these generous programs (and they can be high for the well-off), but they're quite manageable for the average earner. For someone who earns around $40,000, like myself, I’ll be paying a Scottish income tax rate of 21%. In the U.S., it’d be 22%. in other words, I’d pay MORE in the U.S. It must be said that if you’re a Scot who earns more than $57,000, then you will have higher taxes than an American who earns that same income.
U.S. income tax rate 2020

Scottish income tax rate 2020

Evil #12: Prosperity for all

The World Economic Forum publishes an annual list of countries, ranking them on "global competitiveness.” Check out the Top-50 countries on this list (page xiii). These Top-50 are dominated by all of these European socialist countries. Or consider “social mobility,” which describes the ease at which an individual can climb the socio-economic ladder. According to the World Economic Forum, the most mobile countries are European social democracies. The U.S. is ranked at #27.

World Economic Forum, social mobility rankings

Honorable mention evils

There are probably so many benefits that I'm unaware of. There are no doubt benefits for the disabled, kids with learning disorders, senior citizens, and for arts funding. My sister in law, who works in Luxembourg, tells me that she gets roughly $700 a month in child payments for her two kids, plus additional money for school supplies. Child care is free for children between 2-6. Full pay was offered to her for four months during the pandemic lockdown. Fifty free face masks were provided to her family, plus vouchers to stay in a hotel to perk up the tourism industry. There are probably a thousand other small things like this that are under my radar.


All nonsense aside, I've experienced and benefited from at least six of these benefits in just my two years of on-again-off-again living in Scotland. There is so much I miss about the U.S.: the wildlife, the wild forests, the toilets that flush, the everyday cheeriness of its people, and my social connections. But there are times when I think: Why would I ever go back?

Health care, maternity leave, free education, a right to roam: these are serious life-enhancing benefits that have, for me, reduced stress and anxiety. They’ve made life easier and better. I’d think twice before giving them up.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"This Land Is Our Land" comes to China

China Daily, a state-run English-speaking international Chinese newspaper, printed an Op-Ed, calling for the right to roam across the Chinese countryside. My book and advocacy get a mention.

One of the shortcomings of my book, This Land Is Our Land, is that I was unable to do a complete survey of all countries' right of access laws. I was only able to report on a handful of European countries that have clear laws and whose systems have been written about in English secondary sources.

If I had all the time in the world, I would have researched the systems of Asia, Africa, etc. But let me get to the point: it appears, from this column, that China, despite being communist, has as lousy a roaming culture as America.

It's nice to see my ideas being spread to faraway countries. And it's encouraging to see this printed in a state-run paper, and not some fringe periodical for radical ideas that'll never get to see the light of day.

Here's a link to a more readable version of the article.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

History lovers, I highly recommend the comprehensive, 1,280-page, and irresistible The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. It was written in the 1960s and I’m sure a lot of the history has been updated, but I'm guessing it all stands the test of time since the author drew almost entirely from primary sources (speeches, documents, diaries, his own first-hand account as a foreign journalist). The exhaustive treatment might be too much for some (he spends what feels like one hundred pages on just one Hitler assassination attempt), but the writing is so clear and forceful that this savage bit of history was terribly enjoyable. It was fascinating watching the Nazis rise and great fun watching them fall. 

Stray thoughts: 

- Hitler could not have pulled off what he did (the near complete takeover of continental Europe) if it wasn’t for all of his pathetic appeasers. England was in denial. Poland was stupid. France had its head up its rear. Belgium was cowardly and Denmark and Norway were in la-la land. (Denmark was in denial of the Nazi’s invasion as they watched the Nazi ships approach their shore.) 

- The same can be said about the good Germans. In 1932, the Nazis received only 37 percent of the vote. But the remaining 63 percent of the country, which could have joined together and opposed the Nazis, were “too divided and shortsighted to combine against a common danger.”

- Hitler had a super power for self deception. I suspect, like any great liar, Hitler was able to convince himself of his own lies (such as the lie that Poland started the war) even if the lies were entirely baseless. This skill can be used harmlessly by athletes who gain an edge by convincing themselves of their superiority. The same tactic can be used by world leaders, who are able to get their underlings on the same page, provide a clear narrative for a gullible public, and sway weak leaders, such as Mussolini. Hitler creates lies, absorbs them, feels them, disperses them.

- If there’s such a thing as moral intelligence, Hitler had none of it. But he was brilliant in many ways. He understood geopolitics. He saw clearly the road to power (get legitimately elected, give a reason for average people to support them [stable employment], and make friends with institutions—military, church, etc.). He could see the weaknesses in his enemies. He recognized that it’s safe to expect complacency as the default disposition of peaceful nations. He had the brashness, boldness, and balls to take huge (calculated) risks. And he was imaginative. He had a knack for dreaming up the unthinkable. (Burning the Reichstag; initiating a dramatic airborne rescue of Mussolini when Mussolini’s gov’t turned on him; training a handful of glider units to land on and make quick work of the impregnable Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. His naval attacks on Denmark and Norway were completely unexpected, and he occupied Oslo, rather weirdly and definitely brazenly, by having a brass band march into the city.) 

- Needless to be said: Of course I don’t write any of the above as flattery for Hitler. It’s important to understand what combined set of traits helped the man take over the most powerful and developed chunk of the world. 

-What would the world look like today if Hitler didn’t make his back-breaking mistakes? What if he destroyed the 300,000+ Allied forces at Dunkirk (which he could have easily managed)? What if he maintained neutrality with Russia? Would Britain have eventually fallen? Would the Nazi ownership of Europe been too much for the U.S.? How long would the Third Reich have lasted? Would a Nazified Europe, before the turn of the century 21st Century, have crumbled piecemeal by resistance groups, or would the Nazis have managed to exterminate all dissent? 

- Non-Nazi Europe had far more people, land, and industry than Nazi Germany, but Nazi Germany nevertheless had clear advantages: 1) The Nazis, at first, were fighting a fragmented and uncoordinated collection of armies. The Nazis had a clear goal whereas the other European powers had their own selfish (and consequently self-defeating) interests. For instance, self-interested and shortsighted Poland was eager to snap up land from Czechoslovakia as it was being taken over by Nazis. 2) The German public was almost entirely deceived by its Nazi-controlled mass media. When the Nazis invaded Poland, the German people had been led to believe that Poland had initiated the conflict. 3) The Nazis had “no moral scruples.” 4) “The initiative of the attacker.” 5) And battle-tested confidence in themselves while the rest of Europe was still sharpening their bayonets. 

- Hilter’s gifts were rendered useless by his flaws. (His moral flaws, amazingly, did nothing to set him back, as he retained support from the German public and the great bulk of his army to the end.) But he was megalomaniacal: he bit off more than he could chew, he didn’t know how to strategically retreat; he underestimated his enemies (once they got their act together); and he eventually would come to dwell in a fantasy world, where facts no longer mattered (such as with the size of the mighty Russian Army advancing toward his shivering, ill-equipped troops). Attacking with full force, and placing his highest hopes and complete trust in the German troops, was a strategy that worked for the first couple of years, but he failed to recognize or adapt when it stopped working. He was a rageaholic—opinions contrary to his own were angrily dismissed; his ill-timed adventures in Yugoslavia were carried out because of a grudge; and he simply wasn’t a good listener. He yelled and ranted too much. 

- How could I read this book in 2020 and not think of Trump? I don’t think the comparison is entirely fair, but first the similarities: 1) Trump, too, is a heinous liar who will use propaganda to energize an aggrieved base. 2) Trump, in his wildest fantasies, might very well aspire to control the media, courts, and Congress (and his instincts seem entirely authoritarian), with which he could assume absolute power. 3) I believe a significant chunk of Trump’s base would be loyal to Trump up to and beyond the creation of death camps. 4) Trump is ultimately amoral and feels no shame for his misdeeds. 5) Trump demonizes the “other,” threatens to jail his opponents, incites domestic violence, discredits the media, and tries to create new realities from brazen falsehoods. 6) Trump campaigns on populism and rules like a plutocrat. 


1) Trump isn’t as smart as Hitler. Apart from his genius as a conman (and that isn’t an insignificant type of genius), he does not have Hitler’s knowledge of history and geopolitics. Trump can’t read the minds of other world leaders, and he is without talents for long-term-thinking. 

2) Trump has no grand vision beyond massaging his ego, burnishing his brand, and increasing his wealth and popularity. Hitler envisioned a Third Reich of a 1,000 years. Trump has a wall with a lot of holes in it. 

3) Trump isn't as evil or as ideological as Hitler. Trump is almost certainly racist, but he hasn't done anything to suggest that he wants to annihilate a whole ethnicity. 

4) The Nazi rise to power was swift, and it had a lot of momentum early on. The Nazis went from a few political victories to taking over the media, government, courts, police, and eventually military. Trump’s allies are comparatively paltry and he has not built up any momentum since he took office. Apart from Fox News, the mainstream media treats him fairly (and by fairly I mean they report on his nonsense competently). Even though Trump breezily dismisses “disloyal” government servants, it appears the intelligence services and military distrust him. And even though he's filling the courts with conservative justices, the right-leaning Supreme Court has just in the past few weeks ruled in ways unfriendly to the rightwing. Trump has nearly complete control of the Republican Party, but there are a few defectors within the party, which would have been unthinkable in Nazi Germany. 

-In closing, the U.S. is nowhere near where Germany was in the early 1930’s. Trump’s always-weak popularity continues to wane. People are marching in the streets, calling for equality and justice. The various strands of the Democratic Party have tied themselves to Biden (apart from a handful of history-disinclined Bernie Bros and Jill Stein supporters). And Trump in November will be kicked out of office (and perhaps even nudged into prison). The American experiment continues to reform itself, haltingly, and move forward, slowly.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Op-Ed in The Washington Post

I have an Op-Ed in The Washington Post today, arguing for my favorite thing--the right to roam. If you're interested in learning more about the subject, check out my book, This Land Is Our Land.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Essay on pandemic life

Illustration by Astrid Jaekel
[I've written an essay for the Wigtown Book Festival on my pandemic experience, where I've found myself marooned in North Carolina, living among preppers, doomers, and survivalists. Here's a few paragraphs, or just read it in full on the website.]

I’m an American who lives in Scotland and who got stuck in America because of the pandemic. 
I was on a short speaking tour at high schools and colleges in North Carolina when America was locking down and my flight home got canceled. It just so happened that I used to live in North Carolina and that I had a friend here, so I suggested to my wife that we head to my pal David’s home in a half-rural, half-wild part of the state in the forested foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I knew it would be the perfect spot to hunker down. 
David lives in Stokes County, near the Virginia border, about an hour from the mid-sized cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Here, there are about three “No Trespassing” signs per capita, the median age looks like it’s about 67, and one-syllable curse words are drawn out into raspy haikus. Imagine rolling country roads, woods colored every shade of green, clay-red soil soon to sprout rows of cabbage heads, and farmer-tanned arms dangling out the windows of well-polished pickups. It’s thoroughly Southern, Christian, and conservative. In 2016, 76 percent of Stokes voters voted for Trump. 
On a dead-end gravel road, David has five acres of land. He moved out here about thirteen years ago to live out his retirement in a small, steep-roofed Gothic revival cottage that he built, which he calls “Acorn Abbey.” 
Acorn Abbey has the feel of a monastery, if a heretical one. Books have been written here (including all three of mine), periods of silence are voluntarily observed, and the names of Augustine and St. Patrick are frequently mentioned, but only with contempt. There are teetering towers of books, a Rodgers organ that booms Bach and show tunes, and a vegetable garden and orchard. [Keep reading.]

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

More depopulation panic

In his latest column, NYT's Ross Douthat sounds the alarm about the travesty of reduced human fertility rates. I'm not sure why so many pundits are sounding alarms over the world population, which is 7.8 billion people, a number that's increased by roughly 800 percent in the last 200 years and which is projected to rise to 11.2 billion by 2100. Many of these billions of people consume at unsustainable rates. (Americans, per capita, consume four times the amount of the earth's carrying capacity, according to an estimate.) Yet Douthat worries that this “global fertility crisis" will result in "ever-slower growth." He writes that in this "age of stagnation" "growth prospects will dim." And even though we produce an additional 83 million people every year, Douthat quotes someone who worries that our population will "gradually vanis[h]."

What fascinates me about these depopulation critics is just how anthropocentric their thinking is. Why not try to imagine how positive human depopulation will be for the millions of other species that we share this planet with: the wild plants, the non-domesticated animals, and the bugs, as well as ecosystems and the climate? Instead, Douthat seems most concerned about the state of countries' GDPs.

Douthat does include a throwaway paragraph about the supposed environmental benefits of depopulation, but he seems to believe that we need to maintain population levels to "innovate" our way out of the climate crisis, which seems absurd to me as most of these 8 billion people are working on farms, in factories, and in retail. They’re not in labs inventing more effective photovoltaic solar panels. He also insinuates that depopulation proponents are extreme misanthropes, who want an earth without people. I don't think that's the case at all: my vision of a depopulated earth involves a sustainable population of humans, who have little concern for their country's GDP, and who thrive on a planet that's given a chance to heal and rejuvenate.

[If there's a weakness in my argument, it's that I'm being flippant about the difficulties to be faced by older generations. I just can't seem to summon the sympathy because the health of the earth and the good of the species seem immeasurably more important than the comforts of one generation in their twilight years.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Movie Reviews: "The Two Popes" and "Thunder Road"

During the first 45 minutes of The Two Popes, I thought I was watching a classic-to-be. That should have been the whole movie: two great actors, whether in a sunny garden or a marbled chamber, trading quips and confessions and building their unlikely friendship. It was as if another director directed the second half of the movie, when the film resorted to extensive expository flashbacks that build up to Pope Francis’s heroic and crowd-pleasing anointment. The flashbacks (which would have been effective if used sparingly) seemed to want to add complexity to Francis (this could have been just-as-well achieved during their garden conversations), but it all feels cheap in the end, as the movie veers toward what seems like hagiography, at best, or a Vatican-endorsed PR job, at worst.

I have nicer things to say about Thunder Road, which was highlighted by a very weird performance by Jim Cummings, who somehow manages to make tragedy-induced anguish feel both real and funny. I usually think rage-induced rants and screaming matches are usually desperate ways for filmmakers to manufacture “high drama,” and while Thunder Road has its share of these, they always seemed fresh, even a bit subversive. It’s an unfair universe where someone like Adam Driver (who’s in his own meltdown movie) will likely get a nomination for Marriage Story while Jim Cummings will likely be ignored. My main criticism is that the daughter character, and the supporting cast in general, couldn’t keep up with Cummings.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Best Books I Read in 2019

[I only read 21 books in 2019, my lowest total in the fifteen years I've counted the books I've read. But, of these few, I was lucky to have selected several books that were great enough to make this list.]

American Nations by Colin Woodard (2011)

Colin Woodard’s, American Nations, is one of the best books on American history I’ve ever read. It urges you to think of America less as Democrat vs. Republican, urban vs. rural, or liberal vs. conservative. Rather, America, he argues, is made up of eleven distinct nations, including “Yankeedom,” the “Deep South,” “New France,” and “El Norte.”

“First Nation is a highly communalistic society. Most tribal land in the far north is owned in common under a form of title that prevents it from ever being sold to an individual or exploited in such a way that diminishes its value to future generations. In Greenland there is no private property at all: everyone is allowed to responsibly use the people’s shared land, but it is thought the height of absurdity that any one person should “own” it, which would be comparable to someone’s asserting ownership of the wind. Inuit—whether dwelling in Labrador, Nunavut, Greenland, or Alaska—still hunt, fish, and gather a substantial amount of their food, and all of those “home foods” and the implements associated with them are generally regarded as common property as well. If a hunter kills a seal, it’s handed over to whoever needs it. Villages have communal freezers that anyone can access—free of charge or accounting—because food cannot belong to one person. If the tribe engages in an industrial enterprise, the proceeds belong to everyone… Communalistic, environmentally minded, and female-dominated, the people of First Nation will have a very different approach to the global challenges of the twenty-first century from that of the other nations of the continent and the world. And starting in Greenland, First Nation is building a series of nation-states of its own, giving North America’s indigenous peoples a chance to show the rest of the world how they would blend postmodern life with premodern folkways.”

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

Braiding Sweetgrass should be considered to be a part of the essential environmental-writing canon, alongside Walden, A Sand County Almanac, and Silent Spring. In an era of cynicism for our species, Kimmerer encourages us to imagine a future in which humans can play a leading role in developing a more sustainable way of being and promoting an ecologically prosperous worldwide ecosystem. 

"What I mean of course is that our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences."

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018)

Haidt's previous work put me off a bit, so I went into this one cautiously. However, I enjoyed this quite a bit, as Haidt and his co-author do a really good job with reporting crazy events that happen on college campuses and explaining why they happened. I think it really helps that he has a co-writer for this book, as the book just seems centered and well balanced and with none of the radical centrism that seemed to imbue his previous work.

"Safetyism is the cult of safety—an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims."

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015)

Prisoners of Geography is a fine introduction to modern-day geopolitics, which I was terribly in need of. The overall thesis is that so much of geopolitics comes down to simple geography. The good soils, waterways, and climate of France, Germany, and England, for instance, help to explain their consistent hold on power. The U.S, is not going to decline, as we always feel inclined to say, because we are in just about the most fortunate geographic position a country could ask for. Brazil will never be a major international power, despite its size, because of its jungles, poor soil, and un-ideal waterways. Russia is about to make a big play in the arctic to obtain fossil fuels. This is made possible partly because of technology (ice-breaking ships) and largely because of increasingly navigable waterways due to climate change. The great powers of China and India have long been at peace largely because they're separated by the Himalayas, and the Chinese occupation of Tibet was carried out largely to ensure this. Africa is a mess for a hundred reasons (colonial legacies for starters), but geography may be the central. 

The Problem with Everything by Meghan Daum (2019)

Meghan Daum is one of my favorite memoir writers and her latest is very good. It’s a memoir/manifesto/cultural critique of our modern culture wars, in which she defiantly flicks away creeping ideological groupthink and casts a critical eye on 21st Century moral panics, on what she calls “fourth wave feminism,” and on how younger generations have seemingly abandoned toughness as a character quality.

“But something was different back then. I shared a planet with those elders. We occupied the same universe. We breathed the same air. I had the great gift of being able to look up to my elders because it was possible to be like them. We may have been of different generations, with different problems and preoccupations and ideas about what constituted paying a lot of rent, but we still all grew up holding books in our hands. We called our friends from pay phones and negotiated sexual situations without technological assistance and registered opinions without being smacked down on social media moments later. We made mistakes in private and, in turn, respected the privacy of others in their mistakes. The same cannot be said for the relationship between my generation and those that are coming up behind us. Young people don’t want to be us because they’re not even the same species as us. Even if they did want to be us, the proposition would be absurd, like a human trying to emulate an orangutan. The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just ten years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. In this epoch, there are no pay phones for calling friends at the spur of the moment. The contact highs from walking down the street have been replaced by dopamine hits from Instagram likes. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?”

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (2018)

Nick Drnaso's Sabrina is the most 2019 book you could possibly read. It's about conspiracy theory culture, suburban malaise, and how the truth has become something to be reshaped and marketed for consumption. It's cynical about our country, but there's a whiff of optimism in how the characters operate, person-to-person. Though atomized, fragmented, and mostly connected by screens and usernames, you can sense that these characters are dying to connect, help, and be helped. This was my first graphic novel and I couldn't put it down.

Against the Grain by James C. Scott (2017)

This is a very readable history of both barbarians (who, unburdened by taxes, were typically semi-nomadic pastoralists living outside of the state) and all those early farmers, who tended to live much more miserably than their hunter-gatherer forebears.

"The burdens of life for nonelites in the earliest states, the subject of Chapter 3, were considerable. The first, as noted above, was drudgery. There is no doubt that, with the possible exception of flood recession (décrue) agriculture, farming was far more onerous than hunting and gathering. As Ester Boserup and others have observed, there is no reason why a forager in most environments would shift to agriculture unless forced to by population pressure or some form of coercion. A second great and unanticipated burden of agriculture was the direct epidemiological effect of concentration—not just of people but of livestock, crops, and the large suite of parasites that followed them to the domus or developed there. Diseases with which we are now familiar—measles, mumps, diphtheria, and other community acquired infections—appeared for the first time in the early states. It seems almost certain that a great many of the earliest states collapsed as a result of epidemics analogous to the Antonine plague and the plague of Justinian in the first millennium CE or the Black Death of the fourteenth century in Europe. Then there was another plague: the state plague of taxes in the form of grain, labor, and conscription over and above onerous agricultural work. How, in such circumstances, did the early state manage to assemble, hold, and augment its subject population? Some have even argued that state formation was possible only in settings where the population was hemmed in by desert, mountains, or a hostile periphery."

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik (2019)

Thousand Small Sanities is a history of liberalism (starting with John Stuart Mill). Gopnik proposes categories of conservatism that help us understand our moment, and he makes me proud to be a liberal. There is something in my DNA that makes me a reformer (or one who wants to make our laws and institutions more just), and this self-affirming book rang true on every page. 

"Reform our language, our pronouns, our cafeteria menus, our forms of addressing each other. Reform sexual acts so that they demand step-by-step consent. Some of this is ridiculous or can be ridiculously enforced. But our experience shows that reform is almost always necessary. On the whole, the reformers have got it right, even when no one thought they had. It is hard to recall how many even reasonable-seeming people thought slavery was tolerable. Or what a subject for laughter votes for women once was. Or how easily self-approving conservatives like William Buckley were perfectly content with perpetuating apartheid in the American South. For that matter, we only need look at the fight for marriage equality to recall how recently even liberal-minded people were suspicious of gay marriage. Now, the remaining arguments, except among hard-core resistors, are about how we fold gay marriage into a larger social blend. We may or may not be indignant about the refusal of a baker to make a cake for a gay wedding—but that we are arguing about this is in itself proof of how acceptable marriage between people of the same sex has become."

We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safron Foer (2019)

I really enjoyed Jonathan Safron Foer’s We Are the Weather, a ruminative book about climate change. His ruminations about his approach to something so enormous and devastating (climate change) is a theme that runs through my book Trespassing across America, but Foer’s thoughts are more developed. What I admire about Foer's nonfiction is just how innovative he is with style (his Eating Animals is stylistically dynamic as well). Some chapters are written in bullet points. In another chapter, he has a Socratic dialogue with himself. The gist of the book is that we have little control over climate change, but the decision we can make on a day to day basis is to finally stop eating meat.  

"Clearly, facts aren’t enough to mobilize us. But what if we can’t summon and sustain the necessary emotions? I’ve wrestled with my own responses to the planetary crisis. It feels obvious to me that I care about the fate of the planet, but if time and energy invested are expressions of caring, it’s undeniable that I care more about the fate of a specific baseball team on the planet, my childhood-hometown Washington Nationals. It feels obvious to me that I am not a climate change denier, but it is undeniable that I behave like one. I would let my kids skip school to participate in the wave at opening day of baseball season, but I do virtually nothing to resist a future in which our home city is underwater."

Best books read in 2018
Best books read in 2017
Best books read in 2016
Best books read in 2015
Best books read in 2014