Review | The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten AmericaThe View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

This book is a collection of essays written between 2012 and 2014 covering subjects including the collapse of the US economy, the loss of opportunities, the shrinking middle class, and the transformation of higher education into a debt trap by the super rich. While the book is focused mainly on ‘flyover country’ also called the mid-west or the ‘rust belt’ it will also ring true with those in such places as Williamsburg and Greenpoint Brooklyn, where gentrification has pushed out middle class families some of which had lived there for generations. The author successfully predicted the election of Donald Trump and each essay describes the angst that motivated disillusioned voters to cast their vote for him. To be sure, his populist rhetoric set fire to the simmering anger you could easily see at his rallies but populism is a plant that can only grow in a specific type of soil. These essays describe the soil in which his message took hold.

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Review |Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book the author delves into the perilous depths of predicting the future. Regardless of where you come down on the issues and his prognostications you will be thinking about this book long after you have put it down. The author takes two technologies still in their beginning stages, biotechnology and data processing coupled with ever more powerful AI algorithms and extrapolates the impact these two fields will have to economics, humans and the value of human life. The author uses a broad brush so the reader gets everything from the ‘rose colored glasses’ scenario to a bleak dystopian future chronicling the last days of the human race. One comes away with the impression that both scenarios are possible; it all depends on who gets their hands on the technology first and their subsequent ability to control it.

Of particular interest to me were the authors treatment of two subjects: free will and Humanism. Discussions regarding free will have become increasingly popular with a number of authors such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett recently releasing books on the subject. Dr. Harari’s treatment of free will is as good an introduction as I’ve seen to the subject. His treatment of Humanism is even better and, while I still have some issues with specifics he has forced me to rethink some of my assumptions and change some of my views. I would love to see Dr. Harari’s next book delve deep into Humanism. His historical approach to understanding a subject would work quite well with Humanism and add a great deal of value to the current discussions.

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A wonderful holiday gift.

I’ve been asked and am honored to have accepted the position of International Editor for Nastik Nation, India’s online forum for atheism and free-thought.  Why the name ‘Nastik Nation’?  As the website explains, “The word nastik generally stands for an atheist in the main languages of the Indian peninsula, except in Tamil. In Tamil it is naathigam, that too is a word derived from the same Sanskrit word nastik.”

The website publishes a monthly newsletter which can be accessed from their website which, in addition to being very well written, is also didactic for the secular community.  The issues facing the secular movements in both India and the United States are fundamentally the same though the particulars differ.  The insights that our secular brothers and sisters in India provide on these issues are invaluable.   More importantly, there is an instant connection you feel between yourself and the writer; the power of ideas to unite groups and cultures moves from the theoretical to the visceral. Seeing the ideas we both espouse at work changing the political, legal and cultural landscape in both milieus shows the power these ideas have. The power of these enlightenment ideas are still as strong as the day they were born and this gives me hope for future generations.

Most importantly, I will be able to have a hand in helping to bring attention to the work that is being done and difficulties our brothers and sisters are facing because of the ideas they hold.  These difficulties are far more strenuous than anything we face here in the States and as such each and every one of these brave men and women are inspirations to us all. A quick Google search will turn up articles such as this which illustrate the risks of being charged with blasphemy, or as I like to call it, thought-crime, by the religious fanatics.  I am constantly inspired by the bravery of the people who make up the Indian secular movement and am honored to be working with them.

Review | Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American DemocracySuicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”
― John Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife

This book is a great conversation starter and conversations are what are sorely needed at this point in our country’s history. Casting aside the “it can’t happen here” head-in-the-sand position the author shows that yes, Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics can and are happening here and, more importantly gives a lucid and powerful explanation why this is so and what we need to do to counter them.

This is first and foremost a secular argument; the author states plainly in the beginning of the book that you will not find God in these pages. This is befitting for a number of reasons. First, it puts the ideas of casting people in the “good” and “evil” camps, which is the surest way to end a conversation and start an argument, on the shelf. Secondly, a secular nation such as ours deserves a secular argument when defending the principles it is based on. These principles are the principles that came out of the enlightenment and are a scant few hundred years old. In contrast, our species is tens of thousands of years old and the societal systems we have evolved under are what we call Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics. They “feel” right to us. In contrast, the Enlightenment values of inalienable rights, democracy and the rule of law are foreign to our intuitions and, as such, take work. Work to understand them, work to implement them and work to keep them as the principles of our society. The arguments put forth in defense of this conjecture are lucid and powerful. One may not agree with everything but you will have your work cut out for you rebutting them. Sophistry and jingoism won’t do.

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Review |The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and FreedomThe Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting read/listen. Shermer presents a number of arguments to show and explain the apparent correlation between the advance of science and the advance of our moral sensibilities. Having considered Shermer’s arguments I am still not fully convinced that it is the rise of science and reason that is informing and driving the moral insights of society and is the prime mover of ‘bending the moral arc’ as Shermer calls it. We have had science and scientific progress in any number of societies over the course of history; the Chinese and the Arab world are two that come to mind yet there was no corresponding rise in either the standard of living or moral sensibilities which mimic Western society over the past 100 years. While I would agree that science is a necessary condition for moral progress to occur I don’t think that Shermer makes the case that it is a sufficient condition.

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Review | LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social MediaLikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

LikeWars is a well written, well researched and penetrating analysis on how powerful social media has become in influencing society, politics and our perceptions of what is real and what is not. More importantly, it attempts to chart a trajectory of how social media will evolve in the future and powerful role artificial intelligence (AI), specifically neural networks, will play in determining that trajectory. The solutions presented by the authors to the issues we are facing and will face are as insightful as their observations. I would hope that every educator and policy maker here in the United States would read this book and be motivated to take action.

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Review |Race and reality : what everyone should know about our biological diversity

“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
— Stephen Jay Gould

In this book Guy Harrison takes over where Ashley Montagu left off in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Where Harrison has the edge is the science of DNA sequencing has confirmed that there is no biological basis for the idea of race. Homo sapiens is not made up of different “races”; we are one unified species. This isn’t to say that there are cultural differences between various groups but these are as arbitrary as hairstyles and skirt lengths. Again, there is no biological basis for them. Harrison also makes a point of taking anthropologists and biologists to task for not being more vocal about the lack of any empirical evidence for race. He recounts his astonishment of not hearing this until he was in his late teens even though this fact was well known long before that. He makes a strong argument why this fact should be inculcated throughout the entire educational system starting at the earliest grades. This would do much to offset the racial canards that children are exposed to and prevent them from gaining much traction. Concerning the canards and myths about race he systematically takes them apart, chapter by chapter. This book will make you uncomfortable as any good book should but it will give you the empirical evidence and arguments you need to counter the bigotry and racism that runs through society all of which are based on the lie of ‘race’.

“For the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.” Hannah Arendt