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Welcome to Ruminations! A writing exercise combining various present hobbies (cigars and rum) along side that which keeps me intellectually exercised, philosophy. Somewhere on your screen is a MENU. The menu consists of categories and articles under them. You can use these to navigate to articles of interest. In the interest of convenience however, I present here a list of the categories as links you can use. If you click on a link you will see all the articles under that category. They are always arranged in reverse date order (latest on top). Some articles are multi-part. If you see a “part II” scroll a bit further down to find the part I.

A note about advertising. Ruminations is not a free WordPress account. I let WordPress layer ads into my blog posts hoping some income would offset the cost of this account. After a year, I have received $0, so obviously there is no point to this besides cluttering the reader’s experience. The advertising is gone.

There are three marketing-rich subjects discussed here.  Rums and cigars I suppose cannot be advertised even to adults. Stupid, but that’s the way our politically-correct society happens to be. But the philosophy and book reviews area is ripe for advertising. Even I link to dozens and dozens of books (all via Amazon). Why aren’t book sellers, especially of philosophy and science, selling to my readers? This does not require any sophisticated user tracking. Anyone at all who clicks on a philosophy blog page is obviously interested in philosophy! Be that as it may, you, reader, win!! No more ads!

Categories:

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Philosophy: Mostly metaphysics and epistemology in the English analytic tradition. The starting point is presently fleshed out in my books (presently 3 in number) described in this philosophy subcategory my books.

As of May 2017 a new subcategory here is my book reviews published on Amazon. I’ve reviewed many books for Amazon. These posts are the text to the reviews themselves, not Amazon links. However each review does link to the book reviewed on Amazon.  The books posted here are those that, in my opinion, warranted additional philosophical commentary. This commentary is posted at the head of the article. The book reviews themselves always follow.  At the end of 2019, there are as many book reviews as philosophy essays.  In December 2018 another new category under Philosophy: Philosophy Guest Posts. At the end of 2018 there is only one, but I hope eventually there will be others…

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Cigar Reviews: One of my present hobbies (I have had many). There are many reviews here focused mostly on affordable cigars (under $10). There are a surprising number of very excellent cigars in the single digit price range.

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General Cigar Articles: About cigars and associated products. Covers “care and feeding” of a cigar collection.

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Rum Reviews: A hobby enhancing my enjoyment of cigars. Many reviews.

 

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Bourbon Reviews: A couple of reviews here.

 

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A few non-rum related pairing options. Some of these I haven’t touched in years.

General Spirit Articles: Pairing drink with cigars.

Hope you enjoy. I continue to add to the blog in all categories. Hope you will like and/or comment.

January 25, 2017

Foreign Agent the Last Chapter. A Review

By Wehttam Tropapar

In September 2022, the anticipated Foreign Agent the Last Chapter arrived on the scene! Sequels are often formulaic and dull compared to first books, but this one is an exception to the rule. By comparison, the original Foreign Agent becomes a prequel –albeit a necessary one. Foreign Agent the Last Chapter is the real story; a masterwork of surreal, absurdist fiction! 

I asked Mr. Rapaport how this chef-d’oeuvre came about. I quote his reply in full.

“I hadn’t envisioned any sequel to Foreign Agent, but besides geopolitics, there were two other broad topics I’d always wanted to get into a novel, and for which there was no room in Foreign Agent: religion, specifically the religion of The Urantia Book, and an unusual (I think) take on an alien invasion of Earth.

About four months after the publication of Foreign Agent, while taking a shower (these ideas always seem to hit me in the shower), it suddenly occurred to me that a line in the last chapter of Foreign Agent [Chapter 20 ed], the 1976 crash of an alien ship in Xinjiang (leading twenty years later to the Chinese genetic experiments), along with the fact that the narrator of Foreign Agent is never told, despite his asking several times, exactly why his geopolitical opinions were so valuable to the Chinese, could be the two keys to a new novel.

There remained several problems. How to merge these ideas with all the sex, and how to get the aliens to Earth in a reasonable time. The Urantia Book is not anti-sex, even sex for fun. It is, however, anti-obsession of any kind, including sex, and no one is more obsessed with sex than the novel’s narrator. One of the essays on my blog, Prolegomena to a Future Theology, in which I describe the three pillars of reality, provided the key to solving both problems. Of course, the solution is ridiculous, even absurd from a Urantia Book viewpoint, but other ridiculous ideas have been linked to that book by others so I don’t feel too bad about it.

When I stepped out of that shower, I had the basic idea for the first half of the novel, the buildup to the scene where all the main characters come together. Beyond that, I had no idea what I would do, but I started writing anyway. When I reached that middle, chapter 11, I knew what the end had to be, but still not how to get there. Chapter 12 followed naturally from 11. In chapter 13, I put six words into the mouth of one of my characters (no spoilers). When she spoke those words, I knew how the chasm would be bridged. The rest is history.” 

Bearing in mind what Mr. Rapaport says above, there is a shift in the story exactly where he indicates. Chapters 1 through 11 proceed naturally. Beginning in chapter 12, the story becomes a bit unfocused and soon splits into three separate threads. Besides the main line involving the alien invasion (I hope that is not a spoiler, Mr. Rapaport mentions it above), two subthreads appear. Both begin naturally enough rooted in the main thread but end up having little to do with it or with one another except that the narrator must repeatedly traverse all three as the story, memoir-style, moves forward in time. Little is not nothing, however. The effect of each thread on the others is felt through their effect on the narrator, and Mr. Rapaport deftly uses this part of the book to expand on the subject of sex and drugs, in particular opium, introduced in Foreign Agent

Yet while these chapters are not wasted, indeed they are the novel’s most literary, there is one rather long section, I’ll call it an infrastructure description, that takes up a few pages but ends up not being used anywhere else. I asked Mr. Rapaport about this and he told me those passages begin elevating the significance of two minor characters first introduced in Foreign Agent. He admits he might have done a better (read shorter) job with that section.  

I’m not going to do a chapter-by-chapter review as I did with Foreign Agent. That book was a flat story, a single exciting thread from beginning to end. Foreign Agent the Last Chapter is more textured. Even the first eleven chapters describe multiple events occurring in parallel.

This novel, like Foreign Agent, ends with two epilogs, one by Mr. Rapaport and another by two new characters who are instrumental in the main thread. As in the former book, Mr. Rapaport tells me these epilogs are analogous to the photographs displayed at the end of the two movies “Hangover” (2009) and “Hangover 2” (2011). Their purpose is not so much to add comedy, though they are funny, rather to re-highlight comedy already encountered.  

I dare not, however, close this review without mentioning the novel’s seminal contribution to literature. Throughout the book, beginning in chapter 1 and in many, though not all, subsequent chapters, Matthew Rapaport himself is discussed in third-person by the narrator and other characters! In short sections of two chapters, Mr. Rapaport speaks to the narrator in the form of replies to emails! Both of these little sections serve to enhance the contrast between Mr. Rapaport’s ideas and what the narrator experiences. There are, Mr. Rapaport keeps reminding me, “no rules in the novel.” I know of no other novelist who embeds him or herself into the novel in this way. In my humble opinion, some significant literary prize, perhaps a Pulitzer, is due Mr. Rapaport for this innovation. 

In Foreign Agent the Last Chapter, Mr. Rapaport promised us a more complex and more ridiculous story, exceeding even the absurd limits of Foreign Agent. He has succeeded beyond my expectations on both counts!

Review: The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan, 2022

I have issues with this book (as always the full Amazon review is included below), but none of them involve the author’s contention that the present global civilization is going to unwind back a century or two (possibly much more) starting, well, now. My main problem has to do with Zeihan’s treatment of climate change but in addition, and in general, the problem is his own failure to fully integrate the impact of all the unwinding that will take place along every dimension he explores. I will give one example.

Zeihan says that as the world’s land becomes mostly barren again (shortages of water, fertilizer, and fuel for farm machinery) we might yet be able to grow more food on what remains thanks to genetic engineering. He forgets however that genetic engineering is an incredibly high-tech process demanding inputs (chemicals, plastics, facilities, instruments, electricity, computers) that will no longer be reliably available even in the best-off places. There are parts of the book where he goes to some lengths to illustrate the effect of such overlaps, so it surprises me to find such failures, and the elephant in the room is climate change.  

I sent Peter Zeihan an email after reading “The Disunited Nations” suggesting he read Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth”. I do not know if he took me up on my suggestion and this present book has no bibliography. From what he does say about climate’s impact on his geopolitical subject matter it does not seem that he has. Zeihan thinks the U.S. is in the best position to weather the storm (metaphorically and literally speaking). Even if he is right about the last part, things won’t be nearly as sanguine as even he thinks – and that isn’t very sanguine to begin with. 

To set some parameters and be fair to Zeihan, I note up front that his timeframe is a mere 30 or so years beginning now and extending into the 2050s. The Earth is not going to be uninhabitable as soon as 2050. On the other hand, Zeihan thinks that some sort of new geopolitical equilibrium will emerge around that time. That contention is problematic because by then the impact of climate change will have become extreme (and costly) enough to prevent any such equilibrium from evolving and that is the point he misses. As bad as climate-related issues will be in 2050, they will continue to get worse for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years.

By 2050, at least, the Eastern seaboard and Gulf coasts of the U.S. will be fighting for their lives if there is any money left to fight with. Zeihan seems to think there will not be a lot of cheap (or any) financing by then; for example financing to prop up sea walls and harden port facilities. If he is right about that part, then Manhattan will lose its subway system, and the barrier islands protecting our Eastern and Gulf coasts will be gone; if not underwater entirely, then so battered as to be useless to anyone. New Orleans will almost certainly be underwater most of the time as will the southern half of Florida. Port facilities can be relocated to the new coasts at great expense, but cities are not so easily moved at any expense. 

The southern half of the U.S. will experience unlivable summer temperatures not for twenty or so days a year as they do now but sixty, ninety or more, as will most of India, Southern Europe, the Middle East, much of China, and so on. Survival will depend on air conditioning, of which there will be much less because there will be much less electricity (gas and oil goes away for lack of transport, solar and wind for lack of critical imported materials, leaving coal as the only option for most including the U.S. which will have mostly exhausted its shale resources). In the winter, the jet stream becomes unstable projecting itself deep into the American south bringing freezing arctic cold. Not such a big deal (except when people in Texas freeze to death), but those icy intrusions move east and come into contact with ever warmer air coming up from the Gulf. The result is an explosion of tornados and torrential rain. The massive midwestern floods (I note in both the summer and winter) of the last few years will be small potatoes by comparison.    

A California forest service scientist recently said: “in twenty years every burnable acre in California will burn,” a timespan well within Zeihan’s forecast. Indeed this applies to almost the entire western third of the country and extends into both Canada and Alaska, not to mention drought-plagued Mexico and Brazil.

Zeihan says we cannot predict what will happen climatologically at the zipcode level. True, but we can do better than he does, especially as concerns that part of the world surrounding the Himalyan mountains, the source of water for both greater India and Pakistan, but also China and every country of South East Asia. The Chinese are daming every major river coming out of Tibet and passing through China – which is most of them! At the moment, water (albeit less of it) still flows through the Mekong delta. Soon enough (twenty-five years? Fifty?) it will not and much of that sub-continent will starve. How long before Himalayan ice is gone or irrelevant?

China will have the last of that water, but when the Tibetan glaciers finally disappear, the Chinese dams will do little good, much as the Hoover dam in Nevada which is now so depleted that its ability to generate electricity will soon be curtailed – so much for green hydropower. Southern California’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry could now suck down every remaining drop of the Colorado River. So could Phoenix, and they are but two of the jurisdictions that have relied on that water for the last ninty years!

This is the big problem in Zeihan’s book; he ignores obvious intersections between climate and his major sub-topics. For example, there is a long chapter on the world’s present capacity to finance mega-projects of all kinds. He gives very good reasons why, in a more disconnected world, such financing, and so such projects, will vanish. But that means money for climate disaster mitigagion (already unaffordable multi-billions a year for the U.S. alone) will be gone altogether. 

Even where we see disaster approaching, we will not be able to do anything about it! In my part of the world major highways and coastal infrastructure already begin to flood regularly in king tides – even in the absence of heavy rain. The region (a mere two or three hundred square miles in America’s still-richest State of 164,000 square miles) already cannot afford to address all the problems we see now! Above I noted that ports can be moved to new coastlines. But that takes a lot of money that won’t be available. How will America trade with even regional partners (or berth its mighty navy) with all her ports under water?

That is the sum and substance of the book’s problem in my opinion. For further reference, this review of “The Uninhabitable Earth” by Wallace-Wells is the center of my view on climate geopolitics. Have a look. 

The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan 2022

This latest by Peter Zeihan is something of a culmination of his last few books. The present interconnected world in which every independent State, even failed ones, can participate in a global market is coming to an end and what will replace it will look much more like 1850 in the “developed” world, and 1500 in much of the rest. 

Sustaining the world’s present connectedness rests essentially on three things: safe and cheap transport across the world’s oceans, energy for everything (including said transport), and a  population young enough to turn the economic cranks that make it all run. The first of these depends on the Americans who will soon find it too expensive to maintain the practice (and this especially in the face of headwinds put up by two powers otherwise the biggest beneficiaries of American protection of the sea lanes: Russia and China). If bulk transport becomes too expensive, energy supplies dry up. Not everywhere of course but enough places to disrupt every market on the planet. Demographically, most (but again not all) of the world is doomed to experience labor shortages and excessive costs for retirees in this decade.

Zeihan explores the intersection of transport, energy, economics, materials, demographics, technology, and agriculture. He tries to suggest who will be winners, losers, or fall in between in the great unwinding. Before the modern era of protected sea lanes, geography, where your country is on the globe, its climate, resources, and what it looked like, mountains, rivers, etc., made the biggest difference between the winners and losers. True global trade changed all that. It’s going to change back. I think his handling of all this material is superb (though many of the quips sprinkling the book fall flat). He does note that even at its most destructive, the sort of devolution he projects is not the worst that could happen if, for example, someone starts throwing nuclear weapons around. 

The shortcoming appears on the matter of climate change (one of the factors increasing the cost of everything and so corroding global interconnections) which Zeihan mentions here and there, but considers more specifically only with respect to agriculture. This is far from enough treatment. I will deal with this further in my blog, but here mention only one issue. Zeihan projects that the really bad stuff, the global unwinding, will begin now, go through its roughest patches by the 2030-40s, and in the 2050s will congeal into something new. Some stability will reemerge, at least in the better-off places. 

I think he is wrong about this last part because the climate situation (and he correctly notes many reasons why “green tech” will not save us) is not going to stabilize merely because a reduced human population comes to some new lower energy equilibrium in the 2050s. The climate is going to keep getting more destructive, and more inimical to human life across the entire globe for the next several (possibly more) thousand years!

Finally, I have a technical bone to pick with the publisher. This book is filled with tables and graphs impossible to read on a real Kindle. Yes, I can use a Kindle reader on my phone or laptop and examine the figures, but that is no excuse. There is a way to format embedded images so they can be expanded and read easily on a real Kindle. In this case, the publisher didn’t bother. The result, in the ebook, is less than optimum. 

Review: The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America

In the review (attached below), I said I would deal with two issues that Ellis Cose touches on but does not elaborate. The two matters are: first, a principled way to draw a line between acceptable speech and unacceptable speech in a liberal, democratic, political order, and second, how to prevent or significantly reduce garbage speech (lies, propaganda, even if technically acceptable) automatically so that it does not overwhelm true speech without having armies of censors passing judgment on every post. I’ve written about both of these points elsewhere, but not here on the blog, so I will lay out the argument.  

First, a tolerant society (liberal democratic order) cannot remain stable if it tolerates intolerance. Put another way; it is illogical for a tolerant society to tolerate intolerance. Why? I begin with what a tolerant society would look like. In an entirely tolerant society, every social institution would accept every other institution, with no exceptions. This does not mean that every social group would agree with every other group. Still, disagreement is not permitted to rise to the level of intolerance of any group’s existence. Such a society would be stable. If any intolerant group arose, they and their speech would be immediately suppressed, and the group banned if for no other reason than that they are intolerant.

Now let us look at a quintessentially intolerant society. By definition, such a society cannot be a liberal democratic order. Intolerance inevitably, over the longer or shorter term, rises to the level of national power and suppresses all dissent. See below for why this is so. This society is also technically stable (though uncomfortable and potentially dangerous for dissenters) because the intolerant government can theoretically maintain its position indefinitely, having a monopoly on legal violence. Of course, there are other reasons why such a society might someday unravel, but not merely because those in power are intolerant. Nazi Germany provides a good example.

Finally, I offer modern America as an example of a mixed society. Mostly, historically a blended culture, we try to maintain civility and tolerance. We tolerate intolerance in the mistaken view that a “tolerant society” must do this. Intolerant groups arise from time to time, and over time, intolerance tends to win out politically over tolerance. Sometimes this happens quickly, and sometimes more slowly. America has survived attempts to bring down its liberal order, but we are now very close to losing it; the Supreme Court and Congress are controlled by persons representing fewer than a third of the adult population. 

Why does this happen? The reasons are straightforward. First, to the intolerant, ends always justify any means, while the tolerant must strive with means constrained by fairness. Second, in any radical transition in political power, the better-organized group always wins out. The Nazis and the Communists in Germany were both intolerant, but the Nazis were better organized. The same in Russia, where the Mensheviks (relative liberals), having overthrown the Czar, were overthrown six months later by the better organized Bolsheviks. The intolerant are [usually] better organized because they have only one agenda (their intolerance) around which to rally, while the tolerant must deal with competing programs. Contemporary America illustrates this in the unanimity of intolerant Congressional Republicans compared to the competing demands of various liberal and quasi-liberal Democrat constituencies.   

The second issue is how to filter junk (lies, propaganda) from quality material without having armies of censors on salary. Ninety years ago, Paul Otlet envisioned a global network of content consumers and creators. It was not the Internet it rested upon, but it did mimic something like the world-wide-web built on top of today’s underlying Internet architecture. Otlet’s insight concerning our issue here was this: while readers could remain anonymous, if content creators were allowed anonymity, or effectively so, one would have, well, what we have now, a global social media filled with lies. 

When the American government opened the Internet to commerce in the early 1990s, there was good reason to insist that every user who wishes to put something onto the net be verifiably who he or she claims to be. Social (in an online context) problems surfaced even before the net’s commercial debut. I wrote about them in the 1980s! It isn’t specifically the web or its underlying architecture that is the problem here, but the anonymity of content providers in any architecture.

That is all I’m going to say here. Other than missing these two points, the Ellis Cose book is an excellent read.

The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America by Ellis Cose 2020

An excellent review of the U.S. constitution’s first amendment, its motivation, limitations, problems, and how its interpretation has varied. No one should be surprised that things have changed. The free speech debate (not to mention religious freedom also mentioned in the amendment) is considerably different today than it was in the past when the U.S. government, in WWI, for example, banned any speech criticizing the war effort.

The book roughly falls into two parts or themes. In the first, Cose mainly covers literal speech and how the idea of permissible expression has changed since the writing of the first amendment down to today. Propaganda is covered here. The best counter to lies and misinformation is truthful, competing information, a mantra still believed by some. This idea, sensible at one time, is no longer valid in a world where false information reproduces itself many times more rapidly than truth. The issue turns back to the matter of what are acceptable expressions. When does a lie become a dangerous lie? Cose asks this question but never quite answers it. 

In his second theme, Cose turns from speech to the structure of our political institutions, which, as it so happens, are hardly respectful of the notion that voting is political expression and so metaphorical speech. The founding fathers compromised on institutions like the electoral college and the senate (never mind restrictions on suffrage) as well as more recent efforts to limit or dilute political expression by various voter-suppression, all-or-nothing electoral college rules, and gerrymandering schemes, not to mention “Citizens United” allowing corporations to sway elections through unlimited campaign donations. 

The founders thought (1) they were ensuring only the qualified become candidates, or for that matter, voters, and (2) that they blocked a “tyranny of the majority.” Instead, as things have turned out (and not all to the blame of the founders), we now have a system in which the worst can become candidates, and vicious minorities control political policy and debate. 

There is an answer to the question: where to draw the line in acceptable speech freedom, at least in general terms. Cose never quite states it, and it demands a little explanation. I will address the matter in my blog. Overall this is excellent coverage of both direct and indirect free speech issues, historically and concerning our present cultural and technological environment. 

A Penetrating look at Foreign Agent: A Novel by Matthew Rapaport

Essay by Wehttam Tropapar

Foreign Agent, a novel, is described by its author as “A surreal absurdist fantasy melding sex, espionage, and a man who cannot say no to a woman.” The purpose of this essay is to evaluate this claim. I will get to that in a moment, but first, by way of full disclosure, Mr. Rapaport and I are very close. I asked him once how Foreign Agent came about. This is what he told me.

“First there are elements of the novel that are true. I do have a blog in which I write a lot of philosophy, theology, cigar, and rum reviews, and also book reviews in the hard and soft sciences, philosophy, politics, geopolitics, and so on. Slavoj Zizek is, in fact, featured in a number of them. The blog has been active since 2014, but it has only a few dozen subscribers, and I rarely get comments on my articles (to which I do always reply), perhaps a dozen or a few more in all these years. I do not write about sex on the blog the subject seems, to me, not to fit it, but I have written a number of adult short stories and with a co-author, one other adult novel mentioned in Foreign Agent (chapter 18). Two other things are true. (1) I am good in bed, and (2) I have had a number of affairs with both married and unmarried women.

In the months leading up to the writing, I read (and reviewed for Amazon) two books, “The Perfect Weapon” by David Sanger (not added to my blog as there were no philosophical dangling questions), and “We have been Harmonized” by Kai Strittmatter. Ironically, neither book could be mentioned in Foreign Agent as both were published in 2018, after the time in which the book begins. The first is about cyber warfare of many varieties. China is not the focus of the book, but it is included as are the U.S., Russia, Iran, Israel, and North Korea.

The second book is all about China, in particular its development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other technology (from street cameras and facial recognition to apps on individual cell phones) to develop the ultimate surveillance state. An official is quoted saying “we can identify the location of anyone in China in thirty minutes.” This is not quite true yet, but it clearly is the goal, and China is well on its way to it. Moreover, the Chinese are not content to perfect this capability within China. It extends also to the Chinese diaspora around the world, and ultimately (in the ideal case) to everyone on the planet. 

In addition, I have, for years, puzzled over how I could use all of my reading to make some money. The blog has been useless for that purpose, and my books (four non-fiction and the pornographic novella) have sold perhaps a few dozen copies altogether since 2012 when the novella was my first (and not very professional) self-published book.  

Having read these books, one morning I was joking around with my girlfriend about how we could be monitored in our homes and on our streets by any device, no matter where manufactured, containing Chinese-made chips. That would be anything from televisions and phones to our Internet-connected appliances. My joke continued by saying that since we were already bugged and monitored, I should invoice the Chinese government. I finished the conversation by telling my girlfriend “the only fantasy in all of this is that the Chinese would pay me!” I headed into the bathroom for my morning shower. It was during that shower I had an epiphany! The key to the whole novel would be that the Chinese offered to pay me for blogging book reviews! With that insight, the whole story fell together in my mind. Finishing my shower, I sat down at my laptop to write, and eighteen days later had a complete draft of Foreign Agent!

I had the luxury of communicating with Mr. Rapaport and asking questions about my analysis. I will thread his answers throughout the document where necessary.

Foreign Agent is a multi-level fantasy. First, there is the story, the basic plot about what happens to the narrator who claims (the story is written entirely in first person and mostly past tense) to be Matthew Rapaport. The story begins in December of 2017 and runs to December 2019. It begins innocently and then moves through various twists to its ultimate conclusion. More on that below. 

Second, there is the element, geopolitical opinion, and politics that is the product of the original fantasy: that the Chinese (or anyone for that matter) would pay Mr. Rapaport for his opinion. Since this is what drives the plot, the process and product must be at least described and treated as though it was important. This material figures twice in the story, near the beginning and again later where Mr. Rapaport does not merely blog his opinions but expresses them directly to senior staff of the Chinese military. In both appearances, it is purely the skeleton on which the original story idea was hung.

The third is sex. This is an utterly imaginative fantasy that goes along with the Chinese paying Mr. Rapaport for his opinion, but Mr. Rapaport does not leave us merely with lurid descriptions (though there are those), the narration comprises a manual on the subject “how to pleasure women.” Like the geopolitical commentary, the sex manual appears in two manifestations, the descriptions of sex with different women who make different sexual demands, and the classes to male cadets Mr. Rapaport gives while he is in Beijing, one of the two reasons he is invited to that city. The book is written at men, a manual on how to pleasure women, but it should be read by women both to help them get off and teach them how to train their men!

Fourth, the book is a marketing device. Not only does Mr. Rapaport find a way to advertise another of his sex books, but in a final twist, we are told that the author who claims-to-be but is not Matthew Rapaport, himself a grandmaster of sex (at least with women), is only “almost” as good as the real Matthew Rapaport! The entire book is said (by fictional characters) to be a “homage to Matthew!” Is Foreign Agent an over-the-top expression of egotistical narcissism or merely a reflection of Mr. Rapaport’s sense of humor? I asked him about this and he replied: “If the book is popular, every sexually frustrated woman in one-hundred miles will be beating a path to my door!” 

This being the case, I asked why he did not include other links to himself, his blog, or his email, for example. He replied that he “did not want to make connecting [to him] that easy. My blog,” he wrote, “is linked to my Amazon author page, and simply googling my name will pull up enough to find me.”

Humor abounds in this book, much of it self-deprecating. Ultimately, the book is a shaggy dog story, a long tale leading to a trivial conclusion. What makes it fun is the absurdity of the story told, nevertheless, in deadpan straightness by Mr. Rapaport who has told me: “most novels, like life, are about something. Even a pot-boiler detective novel is about solving a [fictional] crime with the detective over-coming problems, personal or otherwise. My novel is more like a game or amusement park ride. A game (monopoly or chess for example) or ride is not about anything. The fun is in the playing or the experience, otherwise having no purpose.” To see what is going on in detail it would be best if I go into some detail.

Detail

Chapter one is the fictional narrator’s bildungsroman, an introduction to Matthew Rapaport’s history. From now on I will refer to him as “the author” (without the quotes) because the history given here is utterly false as it concerns the real Matthew Rapaport. Normally this is a tacky way to introduce the main character, even in the first person. Maybe especially in the first person. But from this point, the story’s plot finds its legs quickly and assumes the reader now knows why the author is the popular figure he is. Specifically, we know why women simply invite him to bed. Not because he is some magnificent-looking hunk of man, but because he has a reputation for being a good lover! 

Chapter two begins with a simple rainy day scene-setting and an accidental meeting with a woman (both bundled up in rain gear as they are outside) who surprises the author by addressing him as they pass one another. The author naturally responds, and in only a few lines of dialog, the woman, Jane, reveals that she knows quite a bit about him. On learning this, the author’s first reaction seems to be that she must be a Chinese spy. To his further surprise, she immediately confirms this, even revealing her rank in the Chinese army (the PLA or People’s Liberation Army). Notice there is no literary subtlety here, no played-out process of suspicion and subsequent discovery. The author needs Jane to be a Chinese spy to fulfill the first fantasy idea that triggered the book’s writing: that China would pay him for his opinion, so he simply establishes it in the most straightforward possible way. 

Introduced in chapter two is the need for the author to register as a foreign agent, a theme that runs only through the first few chapters, but lends the book its title. Several other things are revealed in chapter two in good literary style. The omniscience of Chinese intelligence is first suggested (Jane knows everything about the author), as is the rationale for the Chinese interest (mosaic intelligence) in the author. The spy hints that there is a bigger picture of which the author is only a part. 

At the end of chapter two, Jane invites the author to bed. Chapter three is the first sex scene.

The real action happens after sex, where Jane and the author solidify their agreement (he signs a contract). The chapter also introduces Chinese omnipotence. Jane’s people, it would appear, have control over the local lobby security camera system!

In Chapter four the author begins the assignment for which he is being paid. He talks about it in some detail because he wants to show he took his work seriously and that it was serious work in the sense that it consumed time and attention. Chinese omnipotence is signaled again here, as he is paid as soon as he delivers his first assignment. He never gave Jane his bank account number (omniscience), but the money just appears in his account (omnipotence)! No timecards, no two-week (or longer) delay, not even a receipt to be signed (the Russians make their spies sign receipts for cash)! More fantasy! Not only are the Chinese paying him, but they are also the best employers he has ever had!

In chapter five, now six months later, he again meets Jane. Again she invites him to bed. This becomes the only sex scene in the book with the same woman, alone, twice. The author here wants to illustrate that even the same woman can want different things at different times, all part of the sex-manual layer.

After sex, however, Jane makes a new business proposal. She wants him to begin writing in response to secret emails that require the author to install Chinese software on his laptop. This is the twist into what might be espionage. The author is not to be privy to any military secrets or other information of political or technological value, but for whatever reason, the content of this new material (he is to continue also with the old) is to be kept secret. The author is explicitly aware of the potential problem. Not the material he is to write, but the presence of Chinese military software. Would his foreign agent status (for in the intervening time he applied and received it) protect him? He has to sign more papers.

As chapter six begins the author installs the Chinese software, and soon receives his first secret email. It turns out to be a trivial commentary on an essay by Slavoj Zizek, a presently popular philosopher. The author wonders why this should be so special, but as with chapter four, he shows us that he takes the project seriously with his own commentary on the Zizek article in response to the email. Now as it happens this particular Zizek article is about sex in a psychological, social, and political context. The author chose this essay to write about because its subject comes back into play later on in the story.  More months go by. The author continues with his normal work for China, and then receives another special email, a short novel. Just as he begins to look at it, two FBI agents show up at his door. He deletes the mail. 

Every novel should have an antagonist. Then again there are no rules in novel writing (see “How to Read Novels Like a Professor” by Thomas Foster). These two FBI agents introduce a little uncertainty, suggesting that the author is indeed involved in espionage. They threaten to return, possibly arrest him, but events take over, and except for two later mentions, the FBI agents are only a shadow adversary. They never interfere with anything that happens subsequently. They do inform the author that Jane is really Hui Jinping, and has escaped to China. Mr. Rapaport told me that he intended, originally, to make further use of the FBI, but this proved unnecessary to the rest of the story. He left them in, however, to get a little tension into the story, and highlight the contrast between the dour-American lack of humor and the humor of the Chinese (coincidentally, just like his). 

In chapter seven the secret story comes back. Like the earlier geopolitical material, the author gives us the plot of this novel within a novel, a silly and poorly written story about humans on another planet who encounter aliens. It turns out the aliens are sexually compatible with humans (though cannot reproduce with them) and as it happens so much better in bed than humans (both sexes) that their presence disrupts the previously thriving human society. The author wonders (as do the readers) why this sort of nonsense is worth secret emails, FBI intrusion, and more money than the original work. But the author here cleverly foreshadows the plot of the rest of the book. We also see the literary reason for all the geopolitics of previous chapters. The seriousness with which he responds to this silly story would make no sense without illustrating the author’s seriousness about the job generally. 

More time goes by. More regular work, no further secret emails. The author is confused, a bit insecure. Then, on another walk in his neighborhood, now almost a year after meeting Jane, he meets Joan, a little older than Jane, a major in the PLA, possibly Jane’s commanding officer. Nothing of substance is discussed between them, but she does invite him to bed. 

Chapter eight begins with another sex scene, but this one is different. Not just sex, but an experiment on Joan’s part, and then discovery on the author’s part that suggests the stupid sci-fi novella, but Joan refuses to explain herself. Joan has no new business to discuss. Perhaps Joan’s only aim in making contact with the author was sex?

Chapter nine sets up the rest of the book. Only two days later the author meets Joan again. There is no sex this time, but an invitation to travel to Beijing and share opinions with PLA senior staff directly. In addition, Joan tells him he is to teach a class to junior officers, the subject being “how to pleasure women”. This is yet another twist in the basic “Chinese will pay me” fantasy, but this chapter’s purpose seems to be the beginning of the fantasy’s hyper accentuation.

The chapter covers the author’s travels to Beijing. The trip’s first leg, a U.S. domestic carrier, is “a cattle car”. The next leg, a fourteen-hour flight to Hong Kong is in utter luxury! The author is treated to a pod with its own bed and mini-bar. He is served magnificent meals prepared by master chefs actually onboard the plane! He is served by two people, a young man, and a young woman. There is no sex here, in fact, the author sleeps through most of the trip thanks to a pill he is given by the young woman. More Chinese omnipotence here. The cabin crew was instructed to make sure he sleeps! The author does not imply that he is the only person on board (the cabin crew is away presumably dealing with other passengers), but he doesn’t mention the other passengers. The author here elevates the “someone will pay me” fantasy to ridiculous levels, as he is treated to something like the most expensive commercial flights on the planet.

From Hong Kong to Beijing is also all first class, but as the trip is shorter (only three hours), it is not elaborate like the prior flight. The author uses this flight to make an observation about the Chinese “one-child” policy and cultural deference to male children (the cabin crew is all young men). The plane lands in Beijing late at night and the author meets up with both Jane, Joan, and a male officer, Bojing, who is their driver. He learns Joan’s real name “Lia Zhang” and that Hui is now a major, and Lia a lieutenant colonel.

The author is whisked off not to a hotel, but to Chinese military headquarters somewhere outside of Beijing where he is briefly introduced to some high-ranking officers, though on this occasion they are not in uniform. The reason for his need to sleep on the plane, their late hours, is explained (Joan/Lia had mentioned it without elaboration). He will work with this group through the middle of the night each night he is there, and sleep through the day! This device turns out brilliantly. By having to sleep through daylight hours, the author saved himself any need to describe the sights of Beijing! Another of the author’s devices begins here.  Besides Hui and Lia, the officers in the room are a woman, general Singh, and four men, all colonels. Although the men happen to outrank Hui and Lia, the woman, the general, outranks them all. 

Where will the author sleep? Some military barracks? No! Following his first brief meeting with the PLA, he is taken to the most expensive hotel in all of Beijing where he has a suite replete with a built-in steam room in the bathroom (yes, this is a foreshadow)! The “pay me” fantasy reaching yet more ridiculous heights. Hui and Lia do accompany him to his room and give him a quick tour, but there is no sex. The women leave. The whole point of this chapter seems to be to hyper accentuate the absurdity of the fantasy. Mr. Rapaport tells me that as he ended one chapter he really only knew the beginning of the next. The story was self-evolving as he wrote it, absurdity piled on absurdity!

Chapter ten begins the author’s work in China. Having slept through the morning and afternoon, eaten, explored the hotel, he is whisked to HQ by Bojing. The women are not present. Interestingly, Bojing is the only male character of substance in the whole book. The author and Bojing have conversations on rides to and from HQ (they are alone in the car until chapter fourteen). More than a driver, Bojing is also the Author’s escort around the corridors of the headquarters.

Again in the conference room, there are three women and three men. This time (and from now on) all in uniform. General Singh who he has met introduces General Yuan (female), the other woman, a senior colonel, and the three men, all colonels. Again the women outrank the men. Having made introductions general Singh leaves, the interview begins. The author uses this literary space to expand upon his geopolitical and socio-cultural opinions (ironically like Zizek). Interestingly, while general Yuan becomes a character with a small subsequent role, the other woman in the room, the senior colonel, never plays a part. I asked Mr. Rapaport about this, and he told me that as the story developed, there wasn’t really room for her.  

After three hours (now midnight) they break for lunch. Again the fantasy twist. In the middle of the night, there is a fabulous buffet in the next room, the most delicious Chinese food the author has ever tasted. The conversation is lively. One of the colonels (male) asks about the author’s other purpose in Beijing and jokes that there is little to say on the subject of pleasuring women. The author then delivers a quote from one of his former lovers. Mr. Rapaport has sworn to me that this is a genuine quote from a real woman he knew in the Biblical sense. In response, general Yuan says something to the colonels in Chinese. They are horrified. Something else is said. The colonels relax. The author of course does not understand any of this.

Following lunch, Bojing is again present to escort the author to the bathroom, and then to his next assignment. Here he meets again general Singh who is at first alone with him in an empty classroom. She shows the author how to work the electronic whiteboard, and activates the class which happens to be holographic avatars! Chinese technology puts an entirely virtual class in front of the author. General Singh addresses the class, tells them no subject related to sex is off the table, hands the class to the author, and leaves.

The next four hours are spent with the class lecturing and answering questions. The author uses personal stories (the real Mr. Rapaport has told me the “Larry story” is absolutely true, except that Larry was not the man’s real name, and he did not work for Mr. Rapaport but was a colleague, another software engineer). Here, besides the sex described in scenes with various women, is the other half of the sex manual. After four hours, the author is escorted by general Singh back to Bojing for the ride back to the hotel where he sleeps. Bojing tells the author what it was General Yuan said to the male officers that terrified them. Both the author and Bojing laugh heartily about it.

Chapter eleven begins with the author waking up on day three now (counting the first night’s brief meeting) in Beijing. It is early-mid-afternoon. He goes down to the gym for some exercise. Upon returning to his room, he is about to shower when of all people general Singh knocks on his door. Under her winter coat (it is December in Beijing after all) she is dressed to the nines! The author explains that he must shower, and she unhesitatingly tells him she would love to try the steam room/shower. Not only does she strip in the suite’s bedroom and jump into the bathroom, but she (of course) also invites the author to join her.

Sex comes next, but not before a little kink, and as it turns out another sexual twist, though nothing resembling the alien story. After sex, General Singh must make a few calls to delay tonight’s meeting and Bojing’s pick-up time. 

In chapter twelve, Bojing tells the author that the general has never called him directly with an order before. The author responds only that “I am not at liberty to discuss this!” More geopolitics, General Singh makes a double entendre worthy of James Bond (in fact stolen from Goldfinger), and there is the next class. This is a long chapter mostly involved with the fluff of the geopolitics and sex manual. Back at the hotel, the author goes to sleep.

In Chapter thirteen it is the early afternoon of day four when the author wakes. He goes for a workout and swim where he meets the very pretty, and young, Yueliang. They chat, they meet in a hotel restaurant for lunch. Yueliang suggests dinner later, but the author explains he must work at night. She changes the suggestion to breakfast the next morning when the author returns to the hotel. At headquarters, more geopolitics, more sex class. Back at the hotel, the author breakfasts with Yueliang and of course has sex with her. Yueliang has a birthmark on her inner thigh, a crescent moon (Yueliang’s name means moon). Sex with Yueliang is not ordinary sex. There is something strange, alien, about her tongue. The reader is again reminded of the alien story! Having had this strange experience, once again the author sleeps through the day. 

Chapter fourteen now awake again, to Bojing, to HQ, more questions, but a different group of officers, chaired by Senior General Gao (a woman who again outranks all the men in the room). Different questions too, this time sex culture in America. After the geopolitics, but before the class begins, a trip to the bathroom goes awry. Bojing is detained, the author opens a door to a room where couples are having sex. He recognizes Yueliang, this time sees the alien quality of her tongue, and her partner, a man with a six-inch tongue! The door closes, the author finds his way to the bathroom where Bojing catches up with him. The author is clearly in a little shock. He tries to conduct the class but has a hard time focusing and is interrupted early by General Singh who takes him back to Bojing. Hui and Lia, along with General Gao are also present. Everyone leaves except Bojing, the author, and Hui. They get into the car. Hui induces the author to drink something. He falls asleep in her affectionate embrace!  

At the opening of chapter fifteen the story has been through three shifts: the first work, the second more secret work, the trip, and the first three days in Beijing, and now what? The author wakes up dreaming of James Bond. He is in some other hotel room with Hui and Lia, later a third woman joins them. He learns that he has been out for four days, factions in Chinese intelligence want him dead. His friends managed to smuggle him out of China. To where? As it happens to Bangkok. 

The author is told that he is a prisoner in this hotel. He is shorn of computer and phone, told that his life in America has been erased, though his money has been transferred entirely to Thai banks. He has no way to check on his prior American identity. He is now Francis Nash, a British citizen.  He is informed that if he stays put and learns Thai (the third woman’s role is to teach him. Of course she is physically appealing to the author) he will be given greater freedom. We never learn why this very strange and specific requirement is the case, but the utility of it emerges later in the story.

At this point, any normal American protagonist would reject what he has been told and risk life and limb to restore his American identity. Chapter sixteen opens with the author’s decision. He will hang around, learn Thai, and see what happens next. Besides his language teacher (they have sex eventually of course) he meets two other women, Buppha and Charanya who come to clean his room every day. Why this much cleaning should be needed I do not know. Nor does the author, and he asks about it. But these women ultimately answer to the Chinese, so every-day (for a while) it is. Of course, he has sex with them also, the first time, both together! It is here, that one of them, Charanya, slyly suggests the author write a book! He begins to consider it.

By chapter seventeen, the author has had sex with his language teacher (Anchali) twice and is having an ongoing affair with Buppha and Charanya. Most of this sex is not described. Eventually, Hui and Lia show up, have sex with him (a second menage a trois!) and they inform the author that he has successfully learned Thai and is now free to move about all of Thailand should he so desire. A few items are cleared up, in particular, the reason for the blow job by Yueliang in Chapter 13, specifically why he was chosen as the test subject (hint: see chapter eight)! After sex Hui and Lia leave him. He begins to think about the book he will write. A way to reveal what he has seen without blowing everybody’s cover. 

Chapter eighteen, the author tells us, must be the last. Here he reviews the scheme he came up with to write the book without a computer, but first, he denies that he is or ever was Matthew Rapaport.  What is going on here? Obviously, Matthew Rapaport exists, while the author’s American identity was destroyed in Chapter 15. Having obtained a computer (which he cannot use to write his book, see below) in Thailand, he does some searching and discovers that, indeed, every trace of his original identity has been erased. He cannot write the book as the British Francis Nash, he would be exposing himself, Hui, and Lia. 

He now has a computer, and a real phone, but he knows they are bugged and cannot use them for the book. Before the work ensues, he makes arrangements with Anchali, Buppha, and Charanya (he takes them out to an elaborate dinner away from the hotel) to continue housework, and language tutoring, this time Mandarin, allowing him to continue having sex with the three women. As for writing the book, the rest of the chapter describes the process, including the involvement of another American, Harry, who has lived in Bangkok since the 1970s and is part of its criminal underworld. It is Harry who suggests Matthew Rapaport, an American author who has a blog, and has written some books and stories including pornographic ones. In short, they find a man like the author and conspire (without his even knowing) to hack his amazon account and publish the book under his name. Of course it makes sense that all references to the author throughout the book must be changed to Matthew Rapaport, and even the author’s denial that he is Matthew Rapaport at the end makes sense in a sort of perverse way. 

Many differences and similarities between Francis Nash and the real Matthew Rapaport are highlighted. Both, for example, published an erotic book on Amazon. The book Nash, before he was Nash, published is gone, obliterated along with his original identity. Matthew Rapaport’s book is explicitly cited! Matthew has studied marketing 101! This is the set-up to the twist in chapters nineteen and twenty. A foreshadowing – not all is as it seems. You would think this would be the twist itself, but no. Like a good Beethoven symphony, Matthew has a grander ending in mind.

In addition to the book writing, chapter eighteen alludes to sex with the three Thai women, Hui and Lia, and also the three generals (Singh [again], Yuan, and Gao). None of this sex is described explicitly but summarized in quips. Having finished the book the chapter ends in December 2019 two years after the book begins (December 2017) with the author looking forward to 2020 (a sardonic reference to the pandemic about to hit the world). 

Yet this is not the end of the book. Chapter nineteen is an epilog written by none other than (he claims) the real Matthew Rapaport who was, apparently aware of this book project in 2017 sometime after he suggested it to Jane and Joan. In this chapter, Matthew goes so far as to suggest that the book is entirely fiction (yet serving Chinese interests), except for his knowing Hui and Lia as Jane and Joan! Matthew explicitly denies that he ever knew about Chinese genetic experiments, or what was going on in China, but he did invent an original story about that very subject and shared it with Hui and Lia (Jane and Joan to him), including the idea of revealing it to the world in an erotic novel so that, when the “real thing” (Chinese genetic manipulation of sexual powers) was noticed, no one would take it seriously!

The one thing Matthew claims (by implication) is true, is his affair (nineteen years of it) with Jane and Joan! Concerning this, his last word is “…they always invited me to have sex with them. Why should I complain?” This is the book’s key line. It is the line that ties the character of Francis Nash (or whomever he was) to Matthew Rapaport. 

Mr. Rapaport is not content to end here; he gives the final word (chapter twenty) to his main characters Hui and Lia (now promoted to lieutenant colonel and colonel respectively). If Matthew’s epilog seemed to cast doubt on the whole story, the two women affirm the whole book (or do they? A short quip at the end sows confusion). They readily admit that Matthew did invent a plot very similar to what was going on already in China, but that he did not know of this work. However, they claim the novel-idea, in particular an erotic novel, along with the recruitment of someone like Francis Nash to carry it out, was Matthew’s “seminal contribution” (perhaps the novel’s best pun) to the whole project! 

What is going on here? The Chinese are not interested in helping Americans have better sex lives (though some will undoubtedly benefit), but rather to sow confusion and suspicion further setting Americans at one another’s throats. Matthew was joking when he suggested that revealing [what he took to be fictional] the plot to divide Americans by providing better sex than Americans themselves can manage via an erotic novel no one would take seriously would exacerbate the acrimony between sexes, and give the Chinese leverage to deny the story (just a silly novel) at the same time! 

So why didn’t Hui and Lia just write the novel themselves? Matthew suggests just this (remember to him Hui and Lia [Jane and Joan] are real) in his epilog, but in this last word, the two women insist that the novel was written by the man they dubbed Francis Nash who actually witnessed that about which he reported! It is these two endings, both epilogs, that render the whole novel a shaggy dog story. In fairness to Matthew, he has told me that his favorite science fiction author of all time is Phillip K. Dick, and Dick’s novels always end with a twist that takes the reality conveyed in the bulk of the novel and turns it around on itself, suggesting it is the fantasy all along. In “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge” 1965, there is a double twist leaving the reader unsure of just which reality or fantasy he inhabits at the end of the story. This was (I am told) the purpose of this novel’s double epilog.  Of course, Phillip K. Dick was a writer several cuts above Matthew. Matthew would be the first to agree.

Finally, a last line about the last line. I do not want to spoil the ending, but in the book’s literal last line, Lia (now a full colonel) makes an announcement that is completely ridiculous. Conceiving a genetically manipulated baby just doesn’t happen that way, and Matthew (the real author) knows this perfectly well – he was a biologist before he became a philosopher and geopolitical pundit. This declaration is the final absurdist capstone to the novel, demonstrating that no amount of reality is spared for the sake of the joke!  

The novel is fully wrapped up here, no sequel is foreshadowed. Matthew, however, has told me that there is a second novel in progress in which all of the characters return. It turns out, Francis Nash (still writing as first person narrator) and the others, all have roles to play in an alien invasion of Earth! I cannot wait!

Review: In the Shadows of the American Century by Alfred McCoy

One of the points of this book is that America’s imperial decline is largely of its own making. Even well-managed empires eventually crumble (the geopolitical, technological, and political conditions that bring the empire about inevitably change leaving the empire fragile). A well-managed American empire might easily have sustained its dominance beyond McCoy’s projected end in the 2030-40 timeframe. I think Dr. McCoy would agree with me here (though the world’s center of gravity would inevitably return to Afro-Euro-Asia, the center of the globe’s landmass). Except for climate change, America might have managed it all from its peripheral position (the North-American continent) for a couple of centuries (its native geographic resources being less expensive to access) if it hadn’t, instead, stupidly squandered them. My purpose in this addendum to my book review is to review a little of that squandering.

I make no criticism of McCoy’s analysis. Looking at it from a global viewpoint, America’s power is clearly on the decline. He is a little sanguine about China which has, it is true, already eclipsed America on several important metrics, but has fragilities of its own he does not explore. 

If America’s power peaked roughly from the end of WWII to the Vietnam war, it experienced a ghost peak in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. I say “ghost peak” because the objective of American foreign policy from WWII through to that collapse was that collapse! Of course, the Soviets and Americans could not but be competitors, but the singular obsession with destroying the Soviets (it’s beginning in the aftermath of WWII when Western intelligence agencies began employing ex-Nazis in large numbers as strategic advisors – see my review of Blowback by Christopher Simpson) though ultimately successful (at ridiculous cost) was unnecessary and counterproductive. 

The Soviets were never, at any time in their post-WWII history, desirous of or in a real (fiscal and otherwise) position to invade Western Europe, the ostensible justification for all the expense that went into dismantling their empire. There were analysts in America’s intelligence services who understood this, but their views and reports were suppressed by superiors who much preferred the views of the Nazis who lied precisely to whip up anti-Soviet (and anti-communist in general) hysteria. Meanwhile, even in a weaker position than the U.S. and Western Europe, the Soviets did help to keep a lid on terrorist activities throughout central Asia and in great part also the Middle East. 

If in the late 1970s and early 1980s we had let the Soviets dominate Afghanistan (both Carter and Reagan were so advised) there would, today, be no Al Qaida or ISIL, no attack on the World Trade Center, and so on. If you think the liberation of Eastern Europe was worth our bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan (McCoy mentions Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s secretary of state, in this context) one has only to note that half of these liberated nations are slowly (so as not to jeopardize their EU funds) turning away from liberal democracy towards proto-fascism! Our first Afghan intervention may have helped precipitate the breakup of the Soviet Union, but it isn’t clear this has been a good thing for either the U.S. or the world. 

This is the first lesson American foreign policy experts (in particular intelligence operatives) never learned. Indigenous agents and partisans lie to their benefactors for their own purposes. These purposes are not usually aligned with American purposes (in fact they almost never are) other than on the single matter of defeating communists (or any socialists, American policy wonks have never learned to tell the difference) wherever they might appear. The failure to learn this lesson was in large part responsible for our subsequent involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (twice), Libya, and Syria. 

The second lesson is even more stark. In a civil-war environment (Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (the last two the second time around), no matter how well trained or equipped by the Americans, once U.S. forces pull out the more fanatically nationalistic (or religious) side will always quickly sweep our side away. The Korean war was fought to a standstill because American troops remained to the end, and are still there. In Vietnam, we left behind us a well-trained and equipped South Vietnamese army, but the Vietcong and North Vietnamese fought with patriotic fervor while the South’s soldiers fought for a visibly corrupt government. In 1975 the North Vietnamese made the same offer to the South’s soldiers that, thirty-five years later, ISIL made in Iraq, and ten years after that the Taliban made to soldiers fighting for the Kabul government: stand down and we’ll let you live. They all stood down.

President Biden was around (he’s older than me by fifteen years and I was around) to understand this lesson. But quite obviously (as concerns Afghanistan) he didn’t learn it. Why am I not a highly paid policy wonk? I am obviously more qualified than those who have held such positions since the late 1970s! 

Nowhere was American stupidity (a result of cultural ignorance and chutzpa) more obvious than in Vietnam and Cuba. If the election of 1954 (which Eisenhower blocked) had unified Vietnam under the Communist North’s government, they would have happily been aligned (by trade) with us in a few short years (we are culturally blind to the fact that not all Communists are alike. The Vietnamese have been at odds with China for a thousand years). We threw them at China, and yet now, after all that blood and treasure, we are happily working with them notwithstanding they are still Communist. 

In Cuba, Castro overthrew one of the most corrupt governments in the world at the time. Castro was not a Communist but a socialist (as noted above, Americans have never learned to tell the difference). He offered a fair price for the American-owned private companies he nationalized  (based on their own tax-motivated under-reported valuations) and offered to do business with us. Eisenhower and later Kennedy spent years pillaging and murdering, employing known criminals (literally organized crime) and terrorist partisans in Cuba literally throwing Castro at the Soviets. The world’s greatest superpower has ever since (except for a brief moment under Obama) carried on with what the Economist called a “sixty-year tantrum.”

Besides costly overt and covert military and paramilitary adventures (McCoy goes to great length about these), America has wasted its power in ways directly political and economic. Before globalization, America’s power rested on a high-capacity and versatile industrial base paying its workers a living wage. By the late 1970s, the power elite (a congress captured by the very rich) realized that fostering “global free trade” would produce a much larger world economy and about this they were correct. But you cannot “free trade” with nations whose labor costs are much lower than yours without hollowing out your own industry throwing tens of thousands out of work leaving only the wealthy elite in a position to benefit from the expanding global economy. This might not have gone so badly if the elite were properly taxed to subsidize the higher wages of a domestic industrial base. Of course, this did not happen given a congress captive to their interests alone. 

McCoy details many more bad foreign and domestic policy decisions serving to weaken the American Empire even before its time. Most of them (the foreign ones at least) in one way or another come down to American cultural ignorance, the naive belief that if a people want to get rid of a particular government, they must want liberal democracy in its place. I wonder if any other empire in Earth’s history ever rose to its peak while remaining so ignorant of its client’s cultures?  

In the Shadows of the American Century by Alfred McCoy (2017)

This is the first book in my geopolitical musings to “tell it like it is” concerning the doings of America in the geopolitical arena and places us firmly in the position of a declining empire. It is also the first book I’ve read that adds climate change to the list of external forces precipitating not only America’s decline but the rest of the world along with it. Indeed, besides myself, Dr. McCoy is the first author I’ve read who points out that the American collapse might first be economic; mitigation of environmental disaster will be unsustainable.

Dr. McCoy begins by reviewing what other empires looked like in their decline. Turning to America, he points out that we exhibit every single one of those characteristics. Historically, such declines can be seen from the viewpoint of the imperial center or in the way that client states (allies or otherwise) respond. In America’s case, all the signs are visible on both sides from increased repression at home to break-ups in long-established international alliances.

This is a nuanced look at the global situation. McCoy notes for example that America differed from other empires in that it attempted to bolster the economies and political inclusiveness of client states rather than merely exploiting them for resources. This was not done out of altruism, but rather the American empire (and the world in our time) is trade-dependent in ways prior empires never were. America’s client states increased American power by buying from (and not only selling to) America. Such an empire could only succeed if the center helped to enrich the periphery.

Alas, given much of what America has done in the world since the late 1950s (one might say beginning with Vietnam and Cuba, and never learning lessons since) has not only seen our advantages eroding but literally being thrown away (I will have more to say about this in a blog article). The amazing thing is that American hegemony (culturally if not always militarily) has taken this long to dissolve and is not yet entirely gone. China, by contrast (on which McCoy focuses as the present major player with an expanding empire), has already eclipsed America in many fields, with more to come. My only quibble with McCoy is here. China has its own kind of fragility, different from America’s, but surely inhibiting its imperial aspirations. McCoy doesn’t address these matters.

I’ll end this review by returning once more to the matter of climate change. McCoy focuses on America here, while noting some of the impacts rising temperatures (violent weather, rising seas, droughts, large-scale refugee migrations, and so on) will have on other parts of the world. But in this context, he also does not mention China whose coastal cities are subject to rising seas while its interior must suffer from all the same sorts of problems experienced in the United States. China will probably grow the world’s single biggest economy in a couple of years, but it is also a much bigger territory with far more people to feed. Mitigating climate disasters cannot be less of a drag on the Chinese economy than it is (and will become) in the United States.

In summary, a well-researched (the endnotes occupy 50% of the book) and well-written examination of the American empire. The signs of decline are everywhere. Future details cannot be known, but the general trends are unmistakable.

Book Review: Blowback by Christopher Simpson

“An intelligence agency that relies on indigenous people for military, economic, or political intelligence, will hear what those agents think will get them the most money and material support, not the facts of the situation.”

Matthew Rapaport: Student of history

That prescient assertion is the essence of the doings of spies in general. Of course, the book is about the post-world war II allied use of German Nazis and East European Nazi collaborators as spies, provocateurs, and propagandists, the latter inside the United States! My short commentary will draw attention to two more general points.

The second world war was, so far, the largest, longest-lasting, and most insidious example of this practice, but American intelligence agencies repeated the mistake in Cuba (years of terrorist action by mobsters supported by Eisenhower and Kennedy), Vietnam, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan (supporting the Mujahadin, and later against the Taliban), the second invasion of Iraq, Syria, and Libya! Korea, in 1950, is the only example I can think of where American forces were attacked unprovoked! In every other case, American policy was largely informed by the misreporting (lies) of indigenous agents! Will they never learn?

There is another lesson here, that being “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend”. Nowhere is this more obvious than it has been in Afganistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In most of our conflicts (against Communism or otherwise), where America ostensibly achieved its objectives, the resulting governments have hardly been democratic. All of the countries of Central Asia remain autocratic thirty years after the break up of the Soviet Union — not to mention Russia itself. In Eastern Europe, Ukraine is the sole exception. Following the Soviet collapse, Central European nations did set up democratic political institutions as they rushed to embrace the European Union. Yet, after only a few decades, the governments of Poland, Hungary, and Romania, are devolving into more autocratic forms.  

Simpson covers both of these issues as they pertain to the use of Nazi agents after WWII. The lessons [should] apply more generally. The review (below) says all the rest! 

Blowback by Christopher Simpson 1988

Blowback is a history book. Recent history, relatively speaking, World War II and its aftermath, up to the middle of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. At the conclusion of WWII the allies ostensibly made a systematic attempt to find, arrest, and prosecute Nazis for war crimes. This was to be a shared responsibility of all the European allies in both Western and Eastern Europe. But the Western allies, mostly the U.S., Britain, and France were suspicious of Future Soviet intentions, while the Soviets were equally suspicious of ours. 

How were the various allied intelligence agencies (on both sides) to deal with this? The answer, through spies! But creating a spy network from scratch takes many years. In the case of post WWII Europe, there was a ready-made cadre of experts on the disposition of Soviet forces, railroads, factories, and all manner of infrastructure, not to mention Soviet political intentions, namely the German senior intelligence officers operating on the eastern (Soviet) front. These men however, were not only Nazi party members (some since the late 1920s), but also, among them, the architects of the slaughter of millions of Western and Eastern European Jews, and just about anyone else who was not, in the German occupied territories, sufficiently (in their arbitrary view) anti-Communist! 

The bulk of Simpson’s book is about the employment of these men by the intelligence agencies of the U.S.: NSA and the nascent CIA, but even before them the OSS and other agencies operating in Europe at the end of the war (the British and French employed these people also, but while mentioning them, Simpson is focused entirely on the U.S.). Besides Nazi intelligence officers, the Russian and other Slavic defectors (Ukrainians, Belorussians, and many others) fled to Western Europe or hid in the East as the Soviet army pushed the Germans back. These traitors (to the USSR) were (we argued) sources of valuable intelligence (many had personally participated in the torture and murder of men, women, and children, who were not sufficiently anti-Communist), they also served (they claimed) as command and control of partisan forces in their territories who were ready to rise up against the Soviets if only they could get enough arms and other support needed to do that job. The Americans were only too happy to provide it to the tune of tens and then hundreds of millions – what would be tens of billions today!

Simpson’s history is filled with shocking revelations. Everyone knows we imported German rocket engineers in the mid-1940s, but most do not know that the man who administered the entire Saturn-V rocket program that put Americans on the moon was the Nazi administrator of factories making German rockets with slave labor, many of whom were literally starved to death! Reveals like this pepper Simpson’s book. 

All of these machinations have had consequences down through the decades. Why did the Americans do this? The excuse was that in 1945-46 we were about to go to war with the Soviet Union. The Nazi operatives we employed were telling us the Soviets were within months of rolling their tanks into Western Europe. They would know right? That’s why we employed them! None of it was true. These agents and assets were all lying to their American handlers for the sake of getting more money, equipment, and world attention! Moreover, none of the forward operational plans the Americans had for these people ever came to fruition, because there were also Nazis who defected to the Soviets and these men, thanks to their comradery with their old buddies working for the other side, had penetrated every such organization! 

There were American intelligence analysts who reported (correctly) that the Soviets were exhausted, economically broken, and had no intention of invading Western Europe. These analysts were systematically marginalized and eventually driven to quit by their superiors who preferred to listen to Nazis.  

Simpson identifies six distinct types of blowback stemming from our employment of Nazis. Worst of all, the pathological anti-Communism that informed U.S. policy from WWII to 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the billions of dollars wasted, the politics that brought us close to nuclear war, was all based on lies! 

To put it bluntly, American foreign policy was Nazified from two directions with the blessing and financial aid of America’s intelligence agencies, and often the approbation of congress! First, every president from Truman through the elder Bush received advice and briefings heavily influenced by Nazis in the direct employ of U.S. intelligence agencies. Second, the CIA (in particular) funded organizations employing thousands of East European Nazi collaborators as propagandists in the Eastern European and Russian diasporas in the U.S. (millions of people) in a largely successful effort to direct votes into the most virulently available anti-Communist foreign policy. Some of these people were among the most recognizable essayists, editorialists, book authors, and speech-makers of the 1950s and 60s in America!

Historians of the post WWII period should not miss this book!

Review: Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse by Timothy Carney

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I have read a few books now that touch on the subjects mentioned here. “Consumed” (Ben Barber) is about the corporate and technological contribution to our fraying social fabric. “The Once and Future Liberal” (Mark Lilla) is about (one might say) the Left’s contribution to alienation. “The Second Civil War” (Ronald Brownstein) talks about the “great sorting” taking place in American demographics, a phenomenon that began in the 1970s and has by now almost fully crystallized. In that book (as noted in my review), Brownstein tells us what happened but not why. One might say the point of “Alienated America” is to answer that question.

Alienated could be the centerpiece of this collection. Its author sets out to discover why Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. I can find no fault with his analysis. It is both extensively researched and subtle. Carney carefully identifies and disentangles every factor he can (he discusses many) while sedulously maintaining a neutral stance in two senses. First he does not judge these people other than to note that some (not all) of them are fundamentally racist. Second, he is careful to point out (many times) that even all the factors taken together do not explain everything. They do not, for example, explain individual exceptions (both pro and anti-Trump) found everywhere. 

His conclusions concerning the importance of the church as a third-place institution in those communities where social cohesion is strong, and alienation is low is well argued and perhaps the most insightful aspect of his analysis. Money, which seems always coupled with education, is the only alternative (sometimes both are present) primary driver. Carney enumerates many interlocking formal and informal institutions (a monthly book club or weekly stick-ball game count for example), but all of them end up resting either on money or the church, the individual instution in a physical place, of whatever denomination that happens to be. Carney isn’t being theological here though he notes the teachings of the world’s great religions always point to both community strength and inclusiveness. He also knows the more fundamental reason for this social centrality is history. Churches: individual parishes, congregations, ashrams, mosques, have been performing this role, sometimes with more and sometimes less political authority, for a thousand years! 

From what I can see from my interaction with the academic elite, this recognition, an active church’s positive role on community cohesion, is the book’s fundamental insight. Even so Carney is sedulously fair, recognizing that there are possible negative phases to this cohesion. Some congregations are exclusionary. Carney clearly believes this, where it happens, is not in the proper spirit of Christianity or any other world religion.    

Carney never really addresses alienation on the left.  I understand why his focus was on the primaries. His interest is Trump’s core, the people who voted for Trump when they could have voted for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich. But surely this applies also to the left’s vote, in the primaries, for Sanders. There must be an alienated left. They are a part of “Alienated America” also.

Carney waves off the non-alienated vote for Trump in the general election with a “who else would republicans vote for? Hilary?” This is a cheap shot for a couple of reasons. It utterly ignores the question of alienated Democrats . Presumably, in the primaries, most of these folks voted for Sanders. Surely alienated Democrats exist, or have they all declared themselves Independent? Are their reason’s for alienation different than those of early Trump supporters? Does their preference for centralization (the left) as Carney puts it stem from differences in the conditions of their alienation? Carney says the alienated right say they are religious, but do not seem, to attend church. I suppose (but do not know) the left would deny being religious altogether. As goes being alienated, this might be the only significant difference between them. Carney doesn’t talk about it.

His wave off here is disappointing for another reason. While I get his focus was the alienated right, this being my blog, I want to note also the hypocrisy of the non-alienated Republicans who did not vote for Trump in the primaries. These people, remember, have functioning churches! 

What would happen if the situation were reversed? What if Donald Trump ran as a Democrat? Would I have voted for him in my State’s primary? No, I would have voted for Clinton or Sanders (as I did). What about the general election? I would have three choices: vote for Trump, don’t vote at all (handing Trump the win: what [alienated] Democrats and Independents who didn’t like Hilary did in those States Trump needed for an Electoral college win), or vote for the Republican nominee. I would have chosen the third option. If my critics say that I have the benefit of hindsight (being 2021, not 2018), I am on record in mid-2016 noting that any of the other Republican nominees would be preferable to Trump! Well-educated (elite) Republicans might have preferred a Romney or Kasich. Still, in the end, knowing (how could an educated person not know by October 2016 that Trump was a habitual liar) what Trump was, they helped to put him in power anyway. Elite Republicans were knowingly complicit in electing a con artist. 

We know that there are both left and right-wing conspiracy theorists. The alienated left’s hatred of Clinton was (and remains) as irrational as the right’s (alienated or otherwise) belief that Trump meant anything he said other than those matters connected to racism and xenophobia. If the alienated right is inherently racist, so, apparently, are the non-alienated elite! Electing a xenophobic mad man, compared to a steady, if ideologically disagreeable (Clinton), hand on the tiller of state was important to both the alienated and the non-alienated right alike! As it turns out Carney fails to draw a lesson (I know, not his purpose): disaffection on the right is the greater political power than that of the left (or Sanders would have won the Democratic nomination). To this is added the hypocrisy of the Republican elite. What gave us Trump the nominee was alienation on the right. What gave us Trump the President was the hypocrisy of the Republican elite! In the national election, the Republican elite could have chosen, as did the alienated left, not to vote at all. Instead, these non-alienated communities, suffused with so much money or religion, chose an irreligious narcissistic xenophobe; an Anti-Christ-type if ever there was one! Carney admits that Christians do not always act Christianly.

I’ll end my diatribe here. A good book still! 

Alienated America by Timothy Carney 2019

This book is about what happens when “third places” disappear from geographic communities. Mostly that part of the subject is political, not in the narrow sense of elections and political parties, but in the broadest sense of “the polis” or the people taken not merely as individuals but also in social institutions, formal (unions, rotary clubs, local civic events, the PTA, and especially churches) or informal (the corner diner, bowling leagues, book clubs, school or culturally-related events, even bars). “The family” (as in married, with children – no not the tv comedy) is intrinsically involved here. Where third-place options exist, families tend to be stronger and stronger families lend more support to their local third places. When these things disappear, people become more isolated and more alienated in the way Carney means. 

The book is also about why these places disappear. Carney explores dozens of reasons from the economic (nothing simplistic here, there are many forms of economic impact on third places) and educational to the psychological, from centralization (the tendency of government at all levels to take control and regulate) to hyper-individualism (the notion that I have only to look out for my interests). As it turns out (not surprising), all the factors reinforce one another. Sometimes, there is a domino effect even when money (a factory closing) is not the first support to disappear. Carney points out that American suburbs are designed with cars in mind.  People in the spread-out suburbs make fewer social connections (there is no local pub within walking distance) than those who live in older, more dense, communities.

Interestingly, this book could have been written at any time in the last twenty years. The socially fraying places Carney describes were well in evidence by then. But writing in 2018, Carney had to hand a phenomenon that gave his statistics and arguments a laser focus, Donald Trump’s presidency, and this is politics in the narrow sense. The story here is rightly wrapped around those who voted for Trump, not in the national election, but in the primaries where they might have voted for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich! By evaluating those who first voted for Trump, often people who never voted before, Carney discovers that this group quintessentially embodies every (or almost every) socially alienating environmental factor (remember these are of many different sorts) enumerated. The big problem here is that modern life, including technology, the dominance of large corporations, changes in the nature of work, regulatory expansion (all discussed by Carney), are, by in large, making the problem worse. The population of the alienated in the United States is expanding!

Carney acknowledges there may be good reasons (particularly as concerns increased centralization of government power at all levels) for some of what has proven corrosive to third places. Unemployment, food stamps, and Social Security were not set up because the States or Federal government wanted to administer entitlements, but because the third places (churches, neighbors, locally organized food banks) were not keeping up with the local need. Counties do not forbid the organized giving-away of cooked food, in the absence of proper health certificates, to the poor because they want the poor to starve. They outlaw it because somewhere, someone got food poisoning and sued the city for not regulating it (interestingly, one symptom of alienation Carney does not investigate is the American reliance on the judiciary to settle every problem)! 

Carney does not get into these countervailing matters in any detail, but that is not his mission. While mentioning these things, he takes care not to justify or condemn any particular policy of centralizing authority, but only to investigate the connection between policy and the weakening or disappearance of the third place. If a church or rotary club cannot give away food, people who volunteer to work those giveaways are shorn of an opportunity to serve their community. Some purpose is subtracted from their life, and that is alienating! To be sure, one rule does not an alienated community make. Receiving State unemployment insurance does not by itself alienate a person. But the combination of many third places gradually disappearing from a community over time erodes the polis of the whole place. It is these places, often fraying socially for decades, where Trump’s core voters reside. 

None of the corrosive factors discussed have been removed from the American scene. All of them are present and growing stronger in the American political environment. These factors also overlay communities where the polis is strong. Carney explores these also. As one might expect, the combination of money, education or religion, and intact families makes all the difference. As corroding factors reinforce one another negatively, the factors that make for a strong social environment are positively reinforcing in those places where they exist. The Republicans in these communities did not vote for Trump in the primaries.

As he winds up his investigation, Carney discovers the two single factors that most underpin, non-alienated communities, are money (lots of it), or vibrant religious communities with houses of worship that do more than hold services. He looks at Christian churches of many denominations, Mormon temples, mosques, and synagogs. More money, or more [attended] churches, correlates to more intact families, better-socialized adults and children, more social involvement, and much less alienation. 

Carney acknowledges he is a conservative and not a Trump fan. But he is eminently fair to all political sides. There is really nothing to disagree with here. His research is impeccable, his writing clear. He maintains his awareness that no socially rich (not necessarily in dollars) community is perfect, and even the most alienated communities have some social interaction. If 60% of Republicans in a community voted for Trump in the primaries, that means 40% didn’t. No one factor explains everything anywhere. Yet his conservatism does cause him to dismiss certain issues (like educated Republicans voting Trump in the general election) that deserve comment. I will address some of these in my blog.

Review: We have been Harmonized

I’m putting this review on the blog not because there are dangling philosophical issues here, but because this book is so direct and exhaustive about its two most important themes:

  1. China is not a State with a party. The party is the State, and increasingly since 2012 and absolutely since 2018 Xi Jinping has become, like Mao before him and Stalin in the Soviet days, the chairman of the party for life.
  2. China, under Xi is embarking on a serious attempt (using everything modern technology can provide) to build the ultimate surveillance State! Further, there is nothing unrealistic about this effort. They are mostly there. 

We Have Been Harmonized by Kai Strittmatter

This book is geopolitical in scope and theme. It is a warning to everyone but particularly the West concerning China’s international intentions and its present and future capacity to get what it wants. It is also about the West’s abetting China’s goals politically and especially economically. But make no mistake, China is not only a people and industrial power, a State with a government. The Chinese Communist Party and the State are synonymous, and since 2013, the CCP is more and more synonymous with the will of Xi Jinping. 

As long as it is, this book is direct and to the point. Dr. Strittmatter does not spend chapters on Chinese history, alluding to it only where parallels pertain or narrative becomes part of the modern problem. There is enough reference to the period since 1949, and especially the cultural revolution (1966-1976) to bring a sense of what the Chinese people have been put through for the last three generations.

Following an unusual period of intellectual openness in the 2000s, China is, since 2013, constructing a now well-on-the-way-to-completion, ultimate surveillance State. Not only are AI-driven systems watching everyone from the outside, but citizens are being made to carry apps on their phones tracking everything from travel to conversation. It isn’t possible even to opt-out because doing so in itself brands you as an enemy of China and blocks you from any travel, jobs, apartments, and so on. Nor does complying with authorities guarantee your good standing. You will be docked social credit points if you do or say something you should not. If this isn’t bad enough, what counts as good or bad behavior or speech is at the daily whim of the CCP and Xi in particular.

Strittmatter cites many examples and drills the multi-faceted nature of the CCP program home. If the system isn’t quite finished (it is not), it soon will be. But this isn’t the end of the story. The Chinese are doing their very best to extend this ability overseas! Chinese citizens must travel with these apps and connect them to foreign Internets tracking them anywhere on Earth. When the Trump administration tried to ban certain Chinese-centered payment apps there was a huge outcry! Part of this came from Americans who now use those same apps, but a good measure was Chinese-sponsored propaganda. If the apps were blocked, the CCP would lose its best foreign surveillance asset! 

So far, in many instances, foreign governments and corporations have backed off when China cries foul.  The core motive is dollars flowing from China into NGOs on foreign soil and into the coffers of the world’s largest corporations (other autocratic governments can be paid directly). Unlike Russia, the Chinese, particularly the CCP which commands more capital than any other single entity in the world, is rich enough to buy much of what they want, including good press, and Western corporations are only too happy to sell it to them. 

“We Have Been Harmonized” is about all of this and more. Strittmatter delves into the effect this is having on the psychology of the Chinese people. He hopes, of course, that this will not go on for very long, but he does not see any end to it. There is nothing to suggest the CCP will not ultimately succeed within China. He is not so hopeful about the world outside of China either. Democracy is under assault everywhere. Even where not Chinese-influenced, the present internal struggles, political polarization, and populism play into CCP hands, some greased by the money China is throwing around. Everyone working in Western executive and legislative institutions should read this book!

Book Review: Water

This review is not on the blog because of dangling philosophical issues, but to add to a series. “The Uninhabitable Earth”, “The Geography of Risk”, and now “Water”, each in their way tell us (boldly or in hints) about what is about to befall the Earth in the next 20-50 years and beyond. 

Oddly, for me, this all began with Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. In commenting on that book I pointed out that economic exhaustion precipitated by climate change mitigation will collapse the present capitalist world order long before the left ever has a chance to make a substantial impact. I then stumbled on these other books, reviews and Amazon links all given above. 

Water by Steven Solomon (2011)

A long book methodically drilling down into an important subject. Of all Earth’s resources, air and water are the two most necessary to sustain life, and of the two only water exists in three phases, gas, liquid, and solid, on in and above the surface. There have been other books covering the history of water (particularly freshwater) use since antiquity. Solomon goes the extra mile and looks at water from more than the usual angles. Learning to sail the oceans is a part of the water story as are the world’s inter-continental canals (Suez and Panama) and oceanic choke-points (straights like Hormuz and Malacca) and also the story of the steam engine. He also notes that food is “virtual water”. Not only is water a consumable input in growing crops, but is also a component of the many steps needed to bring the crop to the table. 

Solomon begins with a review of the freshwater situation on Earth and then visits every historical civilization digging into their history of freshwater management. A general cycle is visible everywhere. A civilization arises when its region’s water resources (including bordering seas if any)  are successfully tapped to yield increased food, strategic trade or military advantage, or lower cost, usually all three in one mix or another. Successful water management results in population growth and territorial expansion until the population reaches the limits of its technology’s ability to maintain and expand its water management. Politics plays a role. Even where technology and knowledge exist, a society may become unwilling, politically, to do what is necessary to manage a degrading water system. As water management declines, so does the civilization, and this is so even where the needed water still exists. In the modern age, existing water, at least freshwater, is being increasingly used up or evaporating away as ancient glacial stores melt.

The real problem of course is not exactly water but population. Solomon notes but does not comment on this, rather treating it as an inevitable background to the whole story. On the one hand, an expanding population needs more water, but it also increasingly pollutes and otherwise abuses the freshwater still to be had.  

Having reviewed water history around the world all the way up to the end of the 20th Century, Solomon goes into the modern challenge. He revisits each of the world’s regions and summarizes their present and near future water challenges. Climate change is re-arranging the freshwater balance around the world. Some places become much drier, and others much wetter. Winter snows melt earlier in the season, and summer heat more quickly evaporates stored water. Mitigating water-related disasters, whether larger fires in dry places or bigger, longer-lasting floods in wetter ones, are consuming a larger percentage of the world’s resources. Technological and political success managing these changes is key to the survivability of each nation, and the world collectively. There is no guarantee of success and in fact, the present trajectory does not bode well for anyone.

Book Review: The Know-it-all Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture

As noted in the review (included below), Lynch raises the question of intolerance in a tolerant society, but he does not answer it. “Must we listen to Nazis”, or must a tolerant society tolerate a social group (Nazis are not the only intolerant group in the western world, but they are a quintessential example of intolerance) who are intolerant? If the answer happens to be no, a related question is what sort of behavior constitutes intolerance that need not be tolerated?

North America, Europe, and associated “western nations” and India are presently the world’s more “tolerant societies”. These societies, taken as political entities, are beset by problems arising from the conflict between tolerance and intolerance, the mistaken belief that a tolerant society must tolerate intolerance. 

An ideal tolerant society would be one in which every social group and every political alignment is committed to a tolerance of every other group, not merely in principle but in practice, the group’s declarations, documents, political appeals, and so on. The people of a tolerant society need not agree with one another intellectually, need not have the same ideas of what constitutes a good or better society. They have the right to vote for their views and, if their numbers are sufficient, dominate the society’s political process. Permitable differences include income disparity, at least to the point where it becomes effectively intolerant by precluding those on the downside from acquiring resources needed to continue their [tolerant] activities. The tolerant collective cannot advocate for advantage that precludes the same right to support whatever social, political, or economic policy any other group happens to hold, provided only that they are likewise tolerant. 

Since, in our ideal tolerant society, every other tolerant group must be tolerated, there cannot develop any motive to cheat on the political process because the rule of tolerance, everyone must have the same opportunity for social and political expression, would preclude it. No group could justify its social or political ends on grounds that other [tolerant] groups have no right to their expression. Intolerant means never yield tolerant ends except in the single case of ridding society of intolerance. In that one case, tolerant means cannot work because the intolerant will always refuse to accede to the tolerant. Refusal on the part of a tolerant society to rid themselves of intolerant groups is the source of the intolerant group’s political advantage. More on this below.

Obviously, in such a society, there could be no Nazis for the simple reason that what makes a Nazi a Nazi (speaking of the collective) is not their economic theories, but their intolerance of certain groups, notably Jews, people of color, homosexuals, and so on. In the end, their intolerance becomes intolerance of every other group that disagrees with them on any subject. 

By intolerance (on the Nazi part) here, I speak of the target group’s illegitimacy in the views of the intolerant group. The target group (or groups) have, in the eyes of the Nazis, no right to suffrage of any kind, even to the point (ultimately) of their right to exist, not merely as a social or political entity, but as individuals! Intolerance of this sort ends up asserting an “end justifies the means” social (and so political) attitude. If the target group does not even have the right to exist, the Nazi has no problem breaking with the “rules of tolerance” up to and including taking life. 

An intolerant social or political group can only be comprised of intolerant individuals. That intolerant individuals might exist in an otherwise tolerant society cannot be ruled out. So long as intolerance is confined to them personally by criminalizing intolerant behavior (for example, hate crimes) and forbidding them to form collectives with any political or social voice the tolerant society survives. Groups of intolerant individuals might come together to express their mutual intolerance, but no such group can apply to be a political party or formal social group having any recognized political legitimacy, special tax status, or what have you.

When a tolerant society signals an intolerant group’s acceptance (socially or politically) by granting it political legitimacy, a certain inevitable, historically documented dynamic begins. The intolerant group has an inherent political advantage. Since, for the intolerant, the ends justify the means, they are free to cheat while those who are tolerant are not. Though it may take some time, the intolerant gain advantage, politically and economically, because their intolerance is [mistakenly] protected by the tolerant. This brings more people into the group (they sense an economic or political advantage in belonging) giving it even greater political influence. The cycle is self-reinforcing. The intolerant group eventually grows to overwhelm the formerly tolerant society. 

This is why the answer to the original question: must we listen to Nazis, is no! Tolerating intolerance, possibly defensible on some theoretical grounds, is illogical because the intolerant are intrinsically corrosive to any society that tolerates them. Intolerance, like cancer, is inevitably destructive of the body that harbors it. It is not logical to do anything but struggle to root it out. 

This commentary is already long enough, but I would briefly address the second question only implicitly covered in the above discussion: what counts as legitimately disallowed intolerance? Suppose I am the publisher of an astronomy magazine. Must I allow the publication of an article arguing that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe? If I sponsor a conference of astronomers, must I allow the flat-earther an official voice with a formal presentation? Must I allow her to attend the conference at all? 

To all but the last question, the answer is no. As noted above, the issue is political and social intolerance, not intellectual disagreement. In my view, intolerance of intellectual viewpoints (“your ideas are idiotic”), even ad hominem (“you are an idiot”) do not automatically count as intolerance of the disallowed sort. My position as conference sponsor allows me to reject papers and speakers whose intellectual views clash strongly with my own. I am not denying this person a political or social voice or within her social group, nor social interaction with my group.

Forbidding her even to attend my conference might amount to disallowed intolerance provided she has not proven to be a disruptive influence at past conferences; this because a conference is a social as well as an intellectual event. To avoid unrealistic restrictions on human psychology, the tolerance demanded of every social and political organization is limited to the right of each organization as such to exist legitimately in the eyes of every other organization. The association of astronomers is not intolerant of the flat-earth society politically or socially, only intellectually. 

We might go on to examine a more complex and perhaps realistic case. Must the flat-earther be permitted to teach astronomy or earth science in a public school? Imagine she is otherwise qualified by having the appropriate teaching certificate. What complicates this example is the public nature of the school (supported by taxes on the community of all social groups in its district) coupled with the curriculum approved (presumably) by that community. I leave this example as an exercise for the reader. 

Review Know-it-all society by Michael Lynch (2019)

Another book about the polarization of American politics, this time, the viewpoint of individual and social psychology. Lynch makes some excellent general points about extreme polarization and unwillingness to listen to other views poisoning American politics. He well describes the harm this does to democratic polities in general and the U.S. in particular. There is nothing new in this. There have been other periods of extreme polarization in American politics, but not like this one since before the Civil War.

Among the new features, this time around, the Internet and the sheer scale of many modern corporations contribute to the problem. The Internet market is filled with people who actively seek to limit their exposure to ideas running counter to their own. Providing individuals tools to build these barriers to alternatives  (the same tools can explore alternate viewpoints) is just good business. Individuals, of their own free will, choose to use them to limit perspectives to which they are exposed. 

The Internet is but one facet of this problem of know-it-all arrogance infecting polities all over the world. Still, the pain is both acute and different in the U.S. and Europe because these are among the few places in the world (Australia, Japan, among others) where political and ideological alternatives are not criminalized. Lynch lays out the problem and its consequences both for the health of society and “the truth,” which he points out, is always out there even if not directly accessible or utterly denied by postmodern critics.

While the book is good in general terms, Lynch elides specific problems. He asks at one point, “must we listen to Nazis?” In other words, must a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? He asks the question but never really answers other than to point out that opinion on this goes both ways. 

If this is not a great book, it is a good one and another solid addition to the literature about dangerous sickness in Western cultures.