Review: Spy Fail by James Bamford

There aren’t any philosophical danglers in this book (that I can see) to discuss, but there is the matter of Israeli apartheid. Several stories Bamford ties together begin with Israel and apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, particularly the man Arnon Milchan, an Israli agent who became (and still is) a billionaire Hollywood film producer. His story threads its way through half the book.

In the 1970s and 80s, the Israelis and South Africa were allies. In particular, the Israelis were actively helping South Africa maintain and strengthen apartheid. Arnon Milchan (before he was a Hollywood producer) was Israel’s primary asset on the ground in South Africa. But why? It was one thing for Israel to want friends; it had few enough. But why would a State composed of formerly oppressed people actively work to promote racial oppression? Jews are, as far as I can tell from America, no more biased against Black people than anyone else. But Jews in Israel, not all the people, but the government, are biased against Palestinian Arabs and have been since before 1948! When Israel became a State, there were far more Palestinians living in the territory than Jews. Supposedly emerging from the European democratic tradition, Israel immediately created a two-track hierarchy. Jews were citizens who had a vote. Palestinians living in Israeli territory were second-class citizens who did not.

Zionists (the term for militant Jews still in use today) planned an apartheid state from the beginning. There were more Arabs in Palestine than Jews, and no matter how many Jews flocked to the new Israel, the Arab population would always be able to out-reproduce them. There would never be a Jewish government in Palestine if Arabs had an equal vote. Today, the situation has become even more fraught. As Bamford points out, Israeli apartheid is worse than what black populations suffered in the southern tip of Africa! South Africa, after all, is a big country. There were places for the oppressed population to live. The same is not the case in Israel. Even the territory the Palestinians occupied until the 1967 and 1973 wars is now 85% Israeli! Further, the political climate in Israel has shifted far to the right because extreme right-wing Jews (mostly religious fundamentalists whose theologic egotism blocks any compromise, and not coincidentally are the occupants of all the Israeli settlements in what was Arab land on the West Bank) have, for decades, been out reproducing the much more liberal secular population.

Still, why support South Africa? A reading of Bamford’s book explains much. Israeli apartheid was overt from the beginning, but South Africa’s oppression of the black population went back to before the turn of the 20th century and was much more in the focus of the world’s attention than Israel’s. The longer South Africa could maintain apartheid, the longer Israel could avoid the world’s scrutiny. Zionists had an excuse. South Africa was not the world’s only white-dominated nation, but Israel is the world’s only “Jewish State.” When apartheid ended in South Africa (early 1990s), Israel was already decades into its American influence operations, with Milchan orchestrating much of it, and American presidents of both parties looking the other way for the sake of the Jewish vote and the lagress of big donors. 

Spy Fail by James Bamford 2023

This is, to put it bluntly, a fantastic read. Mr. Bamford is a professional journalist with almost forty years of investigative credentials in the counterespionage world behind him, beginning with the Puzzle Palace in the 1980s. Overall, the story is about the failure of America’s counterintelligence agencies (mostly the FBI, but also the NSA) to catch any spies until long after they have spied, sometimes for decades. But incompetence (and sometimes just bad luck) is one thing. In the book’s last tale, the FBI and Justice Department become positively demonic, persecuting a wholly innocent woman–whom they had themselves determined was innocent–because there was, at the time, a hysteria over Russian election meddling (Russiagate) and the FBI needed a Russian to parade before the media.

Bamford begins with a couple of hacking stories. One can complain about the shoddy state of security in Military computers and those of the NSA, CIA, and FBI. Still, in the end, it is impossible to prevent all penetration of even [supposedly] secure systems whether by actors outside the U.S. or employees within it. The most laughable case cited was one of the most serious, the theft of the most sensitive spy tools, software, developed by the NSA, and stolen by a hacker calling her/himself “Shadow Brokers.” As I said, it is hard to stop a hack until after it happens, but the shameful thing about this case is that Shadow Brokers, who claimed to be working INSIDE the American government, has to this day not been identified! By way of illustration, Bamford next relates the story of the North Korean hack of Sony Pictures as revenge for the Seth Rogan movie “The Interview.” That attack, and a number of others around the world by Russia, perpetrated with the tools stolen by Shadow Brokers!

The next and longest section in the book is about the Israelis, who have spied on and run influence operations in the U.S. for fifty years! In the 1970s and early 80s, it was about stealing nuclear secrets, not only secrets but physical uranium and nuclear bomb triggers. Since then it has been about managing perceptions of Israel (declared an apartheid state by every human rights organization in the world including those inside Israel) inside the U.S. Besides the Russians, no State wanted Trump elected president more than Israel; the Russians because Trump would weaken NATO and the European alliance, Israel because Trump would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and look the other way as Israel continues to squeeze the Palestinians! Russian disinformation has been all over the news, but not a whisper about Israel!

But this particular story, as Bamford details it, is not exactly a failure in U.S. counterintelligence. According to the author, the FBI has known all about what the Israelis have been doing in the U.S. since the beginning (the 1970s at least) and has dutifully reported it up the chain to the Justice Department under every president (Democrat and Republican) from Carter to Biden! But every administration, afraid to lose Jewish campaign money, has ignored the reports! The names of the head people involved on both the Israeli and American sides–Israel’s fifth column in the U.S.–are given, and their portfolios are detailed! Readers will be shocked at the revelations, even more so if they are familiar with the Hollywood scene. Israel is after much more than merely electing pro-Israel candidates. Bamford lays out a vast Israeli operation since the mid-2000s to suppress the “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” movement that seeks to have Israel abandon its apartheid anti-Palestinian policies by applying the same sort of pressure the world applied to South Africa. I will address some of this further in my blog.

Beyond the Israel story, Bamford delves into more traditional sorts of spies, all of which the FBI failed to catch until after much damage had been done. Sometimes not even then. In one case, a beautiful Chinese double agent (ultimately working for China) was sleeping with her two FBI handlers (see the book Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China by David Wise for more detail on that story)!

Bamford’s last story is that of the brutal treatment of a young graduate student, Maria Butina, who had the misfortune of being Russian, interested in geopolitics, and have started a small organization in Russia hoping to promote gun ownership. The FBI had investigated the girl a year earlier and concluded that she had no connection whatsoever with the Russian government. But when the Russiagate hysteria broke out in 2017, and then just after the release of the movie “Red Sparrow”, the Justice Department decided they had to go after someone to divert media attention from their own bungling of the matter. Ms. Butina was Russian, like the character in the movie. She was young, pretty, and a redhead. She was interested in the NRA and went to some Trump rallies. An entirely fabricated case was put together. Maria was arrested and psychologically brutalized before she pleaded guilty to conspiracy–a bargain to get out of indefinite solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. For three months she was held in solitary having done nothing at all! Still, the poor woman served another twelve months in prison on the trumped-up conspiracy charge before being flown back to Russia!

But the FBI and the military learn little. Despite Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, a young man, a twenty-one-year-old air national guardsman has been arrested for putting a trove of top secret documents on a server in a private chat group some six months ago! He wasn’t trying to sell or release the documents for political purposes. It was all about impressing his buddies on the chat group! Of course, the boast went on too long. Somebody in that private group released the documents more widely. The FBI didn’t catch wind of it until the whole world saw them!

Highly recommended reading! I expect America’s counterintelligence has successes (however that is measured), but the depth and extent of the failures are shocking. Enjoy!

Some Issues Related to the Origins and Authenticity of The Urantia Book by Bob Boden

This essay by Bob Boden, was written originally in response to my essay “Problems with the Cosmology and Astronomy of The Urantia Book”. It is still reproduced at the end of that article. It notes problematic issues I did not discuss and I thought it deserved a wider distribution. I have but lightly edited (syntax only) the version published here.

Hello Quine,

By way of introduction, I’m Bob Boden and have read and studied the UB since 1970. I was an early FUSLA (First Urantia Society of Los Angeles) member…#78 as I recall. I knew Julia Fenderson quite well; she sponsored my membership. I met Emma (Christy) Christensen in 1973. From such folks as these I’ve heard first-hand a number of stories about Sadler and Urantia apocrypha. I knew Vern Grimsley for more than a decade before his great unraveling. I’ve read the book from cover to cover on multiple occasions, and my wife and I hosted study groups for many years. For nearly 50 of those years, I was confident of the authenticity of the book. I am no longer.

I decided to write this after reading your essay. We have both taken the increasingly apparent inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the UB under consideration. The improbability of a physical universe as described in the book, and the impact that has on the personality ascension scheme, combine with questions about book origins to cast increasing doubt in my mind regarding its authenticity. I’ve come to a different conclusion regarding these issues than your own, and I’d like to share it with you.

Three years ago, a cover-to-cover read left me uneasy. Though containing some fine philosophy and useful wisdom, it no longer appeared to be authentic in its claims of otherworldly origins nor its description of the cosmos. This was a significant change in my thinking. I had long accepted the explanations for inaccurate science in the book, counseled as we are regarding the “need for revision” of much of the science, but the scale of outright fantasy being passed off as cosmology, biology, archeology, and particle physics, among others, seemed puzzling. What was the point of this? That which I had previously viewed as novel cosmological and historical planetary information appeared incorrect, as those sciences have advanced markedly since the mid-twentieth century. It was apparent that the information offered as science or history in the book that could be testable was often wrong for reasons difficult to explain.

Many stories seemed contrived. The examples are legion, and I mention but a few. The Original Sin story got a more modern twist with humans being animals with no future universe career until adjuster indwelt. I don’t think it is any more believable for the makeover. The Eve default seemed laughably improbable for a being of such alleged universe experience, and there is real trouble with fandors, or at least the physics of riding on one. An extinct condor, Argentavis, had a wingspan of 20 feet and weighed about 160 pounds. It is the largest known true flying bird. It could not generate sufficient lift by wing flapping to stay aloft without riding columns of heated air and probably took off by running into the wind. A human riding on a bird taking off is not possible. The physics is pretty clear. As the wingspan increases, the wing area increases by the square, and the bird’s weight increases by the cube. Large birds can only carry about 30% of their weight. In order to carry a 200-pound adult human, the bird would need a wingspan in excess of 40 feet and weigh about 600 pounds. That’s a pretty big bird. About the size of a small jet like the Embraer Phenom 100. Takeoff from the ground would be impossible, as flapping the wings would cause them to strike the ground with each stroke.

The Rebellion story is equally problematic. Isolating helpless beings for hundreds of thousands of years while more realized and experienced beings are given unlimited time to choose between good and iniquity seems hardly sporting. It reminds me of the Covid pandemic…mass quarantines ultimately had little effect on disease transmission but produced disastrous collateral damage. It would seem that the best policy here would be to protect and nurture the young and less able while the big people war with each other. Civilized beings do it that way. The idea of being an experiment for these beings feels a bit too much like a William Golding novel. It appears to me that the rebellion story is likely fiction, and like other “revealed” content, appears to be embellishments of apocryphal stories in Iron Age religious texts from a time of superstition and widespread illiteracy.

Despite saying they would not foreshadow scientific discoveries of a thousand years, the revelators offered a new fundamental particle. My readings in particle physics suggest that ultimatons have no theoretical or experimental basis. There is, as I understand it, a fairly good understanding of electron architecture, though precisely how it obtains its mass is unknown, and it is not known to be reducible. Quantum field architecture, in its mathematical description, does not suggest being composed of tiny spheres. Some argue that we simply lack the current requisite capacity to detect them. That general argument can’t be dismissed out of hand. There are many instances where new discovery replaces old theory. But quantum mechanics has brought us to the Planck level of propagated perturbations in quantum fields. Even more than our increasingly accurate view of the cosmos, quantum electrodynamics is astonishingly accurate in its predictions of physical phenomena. It has been referred to as the jewel of physics and used to successfully explain why silk is soft, diamonds hard, and all physical phenomena except gravity and nuclear forces which have only conjectural quantum counterparts. One would need to revise current theories of the strong nuclear force, gluons, quarks, and gravity, among other things, in order to substantiate the UB version of field potency, electron, and hadron dynamics. I was surprised to learn that by the mid-1920s quantum mechanics theory was fairly fully developed. de Broglie’s 1923 theory of matter waves was extended by Heisenberg, Born, and Jordan who developed matrix mechanics, and Schrödinger who invented wave mechanics. It was widely accepted by the late 1920s. Not surprisingly, the book makes reference to it without attribution but extends it to invent a particle more fundamental than the quantum field.

42:5.4 2. Ultimatonic rays. The assembly of energy into the minute spheres of the ultimatons occasions vibrations in the content of space which are discernible and measurable.

This puts ultimatons into the Standard Model with no theoretical or experimental validation.

Amazingly, quantum wave/particle duality is solved with the flick of the wrist thus:

42:5.14 The so-called ether is merely a collective name to designate a group of force and energy activities occurring in space. Ultimatons, electrons, and other mass aggregations of energy are uniform particles of matter, and in their transit through space they really proceed in direct lines. Light and all other forms of recognizable energy manifestations consist of a succession of definite energy particles which proceed in direct lines except as modified by gravity and other intervening forces. That these processions of energy particles appear as wave phenomena when subjected to certain observations is due to the resistance of the undifferentiated force blanket of all space, the hypothetical ether, and to the intergravity tension of the associated aggregations of matter. The spacing of the particle-intervals of matter, together with the initial velocity of the energy beams, establishes the undulatory appearance of many forms of energy-matter

This sounds pretty good, but there are underlying assumptions that we currently don’t observe. Undifferentiated force blanket, the hypothetical ether, and intergravity tension are novel explanations. They may ultimately appear in our physics, perhaps with different names, but the whole thing violates the precept of not revealing future science and cannot be taken for true.

What is the point of fabricating this stuff in order to deliver a spiritual message? Its assertions about the transit of a surviving mortal personality through a structured, corporate universe appear to be a metaphor or invention. Increasingly the testable assertions in the book have been found to be false. JWST has pretty much dispelled any illusions of the book’s cosmology being correct, as you thoroughly explained in your essay. It is then more difficult to take as true other assertions which seem contingent upon that cosmology. I’m reminded of an old phrase that “only half the lies the Irish tell are true”. I’m having difficulty telling which lies are true here. There seems to be no rational explanation for these and many other issues which have come to my mind, except that the book is not authentic.

You’ve suggested a metaphorical or literary/dramatic solution to the question…a vehicle to convey otherwise less understandable or dramatically compelling content, as I understand it. I can’t make sense of it in that way. Is that saying that the real story of personality survival would not be interesting enough or understandable to humans without these apparent fabrications? What seems to follow from this is that the actual story is so unintelligible or uninspiring to humankind to require this device. I would then have to conjecture that the reality of the spiritual universe and the experience of personality survival would be alien to human experience and understanding, calling into question the applicability of the experience of human phenomenal consciousness as an initial phase of the personality’s universe journey. Taking these things on “faith” requires me to swallow a caravan of camels.

There is another hard problem with the UB, and all religious doctrines. Perhaps the hardest. I’m deeply skeptical of claims of events that transcend natural physical law. My skepticism increases when secrecy is used to obscure or prevent a thorough examination of the claim. A study of Joseph Smith and the “revelatory” Book of Mormon, as well as the various “miracles” now associated with the origins of the LDS Church, reveals two marked similarities with the appearance of the UB… both origins are shrouded in secrecy, and both depend upon events which transcend natural physical law.

I think it is important not to “whistle past the graveyard” with this, as it is at the core of the UB’s existence, the authenticity of Jesus, and the authority of the world’s religions. For instance, the 1848 Mormon “Miracle of the Gulls” was not recognized as a miracle until a few years after the event. It was local knowledge that the resident gulls of the Great Salt Lake periodically descended upon the massive blooms of Mormon Crickets. There are no known records contemporary with the event which describe it as miraculous. The LDS Church’s official summary of the first few years of the Mormons living in the Salt Lake Valley mentioned the crop damage, frost, and crickets, but not the gulls. It was not until 1853 that it was designated a miracle and became part of the central narrative of the Mormon Church. What is one then to think about the miracles of antiquity? What credence may one attach to descriptions of events transpiring two millennia in the past from persons who did not witness them? Or the writings of those who spoke with those who claimed to witness such things. Or to claims even from Chicago from the early 20th century. It is entirely logical and reasonable to cast a jaundiced eye upon all such claims.

I find it most probable that all miracles of the past, including the resurrection, reviving the dead, and other supernatural events associated with Jesus and all other religious figures, are likely to be of the same character. I have heard readers accept the miracles of Jesus, while discounting those claimed by other religions. This is characteristic of human psychology. Humans both filter and embellish their experiences in psychologically predictive ways, especially in groups and over time. Muslims prefer the miracles of Allah.

Thousands claimed to witness a miracle of the Sun dancing in the sky, which they interpreted as divine, in 1917 at Fatima, Portugal. Modern scientific analysis revealed the event to be one of illusion prompted by expectation and meteorological phenomena. Extremely low probability outcomes, which nonetheless have some actual small probability of occurring within the constraints of natural physical law, like surviving accidents or avoiding disaster, are often described as miraculous. Cloth or even toast with the purported image of Jesus is viewed by some as miraculous. Apocrypha from two millennia in the past provides unreliable testimony as to actual events. I am convinced, for instance, that there have been no “translations” of humans in “fiery chariots” a la Enoch. One might reasonably expect a fairly large number of these events in more modern times, given the exponentially larger current human population. They don’t occur. Seems probable that this is, like the Melchizedek saga and so many stories in the UB, most likely an embellishment of biblical Apocrypha.

In 2005, neuroscientist Karl Diesseroth used optogenetic techniques of selective control of brain neurons with light to trigger or suppress specific behaviors in mice and to probe the structure and dynamics of circuits related to schizophrenia, autism, narcolepsy, Parkinson’s disease, depression, anxiety, and addiction. Other researchers have probed the functions of brain structures in humans which seem to produce the sensation of mystical awe and of the invisible presence of another being. These studies suggest a more natural explanation of “revelatory” religious phenomena. There are documented cases of stroke or seizure victims with no prior history of personal religiosity suddenly becoming hyper-religious. A study of Vietnam veterans (Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience, (Cristofori, Bulbulia, et al, Neuropsycologia, Jan. 2016, Vol 80, pp 212-220) showed that those who had been injured in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were more likely to report mystical experiences. Studies with psilocybin propose a theory of the chemical induction of mystical thinking and revelatory religious experience by the mechanism of decoupling of the Default Mode Network of brain activity affecting the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus. ( Barrett, Fredrick S, Griffith, Classic Hallucinogens and Mystical Experiences: Phenomenology and Neural Correlates, Current Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2018, 36, 393-430). I experienced effects like those identified with spirit contact when I took psilocybe cubensis mushrooms in 1971.

The intentional decoupling of the DMN through meditation can also produce the sensations of mystical awe and the invisible presence of another being. One might argue that these brain structures and responses are evidence or proof of God or other spirit influences that they are part of the brain encircuited by the adjutant mind circuits described in the UB, and that what is sensed is the presence of deity. But no such frequencies have been discovered to which the material structures of the brain are known to respond, and artificial stimulation or pathological and traumatic injury to specific brain regions are known to produce these phenomena. I think it is illogical to invent a metaphysical explanation in the presence of such evolving understandings of brain science.

This does not diminish the observable positive effects resulting from the stimulation of these brain assemblies in some people through meditation and prayer. Au contraire. There seem to be powerful evolutionary predispositions, imperatives, and advantages associated with these attitudes and behaviors. Some of the finest people I have met have been religionists who routinely engage in these practices, as well as non-religionists whose meditations are not deistic. Many successfully rely upon them to cope with and explain life’s vicissitudes.

Dr. John C. Wathey, Ph.D. ( The Phantom God and The Illusion of God’s Presence) explores a possible neuroethological basis for human mystical experience and identifies specific evolutionary imperatives and brain structures which are involved. Neuroethology is “the evolutionary and comparative approach to the study of animal behavior and its underlying mechanistic control by the nervous system. It is an interdisciplinary science that combines both neuroscience (study of the nervous system) and ethology (study of animal behavior in natural conditions).” (Wikipedia). His assertions are novel…that the feelings of religiosity and the sense of an invisible presence are at least partially generated and mediated by specific brain structures which are the source of innate templates related to the relationship of infant and mother. But for the most part, they are logical and defended with both established and plausible science. Theories like his are useful because they are testable, unlike metaphysical explanations. This particular theory may be incorrect, but I think that progressive evolution, absent the assumption of divine design or overcontrol, may well have the capacity to explain these phenomena.

Consideration of Dr. Sadler’s history and writings has played a role in my deliberations. I never met him, but many of my older associates had. I won’t discuss it all here; his history is available from multiple sources. Marvin Gardner discusses much of it in his book Urantia, The Great Cult Mystery, and concludes that it is more probable that the book is of human origins, with Sadler either being taken in by a psychological phenomenon or orchestrating its production with objectives similar to those of Joseph Smith or Ellen White, the Adventist channeler. That is, to create a new and better religion. It is apparent that Gardner has much less detailed knowledge of the book than a long-time reader, but his critique is not superficial. It is a serious conclusion by a serious intellect, not to be brushed aside casually.

Folks have gotten around issues with the text in a number of ways. Matthew Block has made a great effort to discover the events where the “revelators” have used the best human thought instead of an inspired explanation. He defends divine origins in the face of rampant unattributed plagiarism and takes it as evidence of the book’s authenticity, ostensibly because the authors said they were doing it. Many believe this to be true. Parsimony suggests it was curated and used by humans absent divine inspiration. Many other readers, like Meredith Sprunger, have in the past elaborated explanations generally consisting of the perspective that the spiritual truths are so powerful as to render the issue of manifold factual errors and mysterious origin moot. I believe, If I read you right, that is your conclusion. Phil Calabrese has for years defended the science in the book. His predictions that we would discover the truth of such UB assertions as Eden and ultimatons have required significant revision over the years. His more recent, mathematically dense essay ( The New Cosmology of The Urantia Book) comparing book content with current particle physics is erudite, but to the extent I could understand it, his assertions and proofs were unconvincing (they are very technical and require a grasp of particle physics and mathematics well above my pay grade). As part of his thesis, he references Kurt Gödel’s view of universe construction and rotation.

“The Gödel metric, also known as the Gödel solution or Gödel universe, is an exact solution of the Einstein field equations in which the stress-energy tensor contains two terms, the first representing the matter density of a homogeneous distribution of swirling dust particles (dust solution), and the second associated with a negative cosmological constant (see Lambdavacuum solution). Following Gödel, we can interpret the dust particles as galaxies so that the Gödel solution becomes a cosmological model of a rotating universe. Besides rotating, this model exhibits no Hubble expansion, so it is not a realistic model of the universe in which we live but can be taken as illustrating an alternative universe, which would in principle be allowed by general relativity (if one admits the legitimacy of a negative cosmological constant). Less well-known solutions of Gödel’s exhibit both rotation and Hubble expansion and have other qualities of his first model, but traveling into the past is not possible. According to Stephen Hawking, these models could well be a reasonable description of the universe that we observe. However observational data are compatible only with a very low rate of rotation. The quality of these observations improved continually up until Gödel’s death, and he would always ask “Is the universe rotating yet?” and be told “No, it isn’t”.” (Wikipedia)

Phil selects one of the lesser-known solutions, all of which, unless I am misunderstanding, violate one element of Einstein’s field equations. We either have to accept a negative cosmological constant value or a violation of time expression in quantum physics to make it work.

I think attempts to justify seemingly incorrect cosmology and science like this reveal a basic uneasiness about this dichotomy with many readers. He has also offered a probability analysis of the book’s provenance. Despite its elegance…Phil is a brilliant mathematician…I think it may suffer from the same problem as Drake’s Equation in providing estimates of the probable number of worlds in the universe inhabited by intelligent life. Contained in each are variables that I think cannot be derived from experience.

The book indeed contains much wonderful philosophy and should, given the unrestricted use of the best of human thought. It also contains an engaging, inspiring, and detailed story about the life of Jesus. But all of that appears within the context of the book’s empirically untestable or provably false assertions. Sadler’s personal bias, known from his previous writings, regarding a number of religious, social, and biological theories, appears too frequently to be disregarded. I don’t dispute the ennobling philosophic and moral value of some UB content, rather I now suspect that the whole corporate universe and God delineations are fantasy and the Jesus story an embellishment on previous accountings. If Michael of Nebadon, in his earthly guise, performed acts that transcended physical law, he must have been aware that those “miracles” would provide the bona fides of the Christian religion. The Resurrection is his bona fides. It’s reported in the Jesus Papers as a factual event. Surely a few modern demonstrations of the craft could do no harm.

The fact remains that Sadler destroyed all material that would elucidate the actual processes by which the UB came into existence. If indeed he witnessed actual events which transcended physical law and directly communicated with non-human universe personalities, one wonders if he and the small group of individuals who claimed this contact then sacrificed their agondontor status in doing so. We know things most unusual are claimed to have taken place. In his writings, he argues that some of the transactions with the revelators defied description. I should very much like to try.

That is an interesting proposition. If no impediment to witnessing celestial contact exists, why not give a crack at it to a regular Dick or Jane? Or billions of them, for that matter. The teaching mission claims this, but the content of their messages often contradicts the book, themselves, and good sense. On one occasion a group with such leanings built a bonfire and danced around it to welcome the appearance of a Melchizedek to the planet. The ritual was apparently unsuccessful. Gabriel of Urantia (aka Tony Delevin) predicted the end of the world and apparently arranged for spaceships to rescue his followers from the cataclysm. Predictably, neither the end of the world nor the spaceships arrived. Vern Grimsley convinced himself and a large number of otherwise rational book readers that celestial personalities told him nuclear war was at hand. I think that it is unfortunate that the book’s most probable future is to have it’s useful content diminished by some of its more bizarre adherents and its unsupportable claims and inaccurate telling of history, science and cosmology. One might suppose that the Most Highs would have thought this out a little more fully.

The book has been hijacked by charismatic and clever crackpots like Gabriel of Urantia, many in the so-called Teaching Mission, and more reasonable though intensely evangelical folks like Vern Grimsley, all of whom succumbed to voices in their heads after demanding to hear them. It has been fought over like a marrow bone among starving dogs with Martin Meyers proclaiming celestial guidance in unsuccessfully directing the scrum during its critical copyright transition. This internecine warfare has polarized the movement. I watched an old friend “channel” many years ago during the beginning of the “Mission”. Folks were all in a lather about it. Even back then I rejected the authenticity of the thing, and in this particular case, felt for many specific reasons that it was no more than a self-fulfilling prophecy in a person psychologically predisposed to such activities. The “messages” were usually rather pedestrian or outright nonsense, exemplified by all of us finding out our “spiritual” names. All of this, I think, is the mind deluding itself.

The book also contains needlessly inflammatory content. It has sown the seeds of rejection by many rational folks for its statements about race and eugenics. One wonders if the Most Highs might not have anticipated our current cultural turmoil less than 75 years after publication and thought better about opining in the manner they employed unless, of course, it was Sadler showing through. He seems to quite often. It is difficult to see the utility and not difficult to imagine the harm of presenting such content and making such statements directly after the close of WWII. I would have expected that the Most Highs would have ordered such content edited out prior to publication.

My wife Cheryl and I were both Registered Nurses by profession. Perhaps more than most other folks, as a function of our work, we saw much of the worst and most terrible human suffering, as well as some of the saddest and most disrupted human behavior. We are also parents of a schizophrenic son. We never saw a glorified hem to touch for agonized parents experiencing the death of a child. The sheer cruelty of afflicting nearly two of every one hundred humans, regardless of culture or race, with schizophrenia and shattering the material mind for the sake of an experiment in biology, or a default in cosmic watch-care, strains credulity. And that is just one element of widespread human suffering. The suffering of many millions born into circumstances exponentially less advantageous than our own with no greater comfort than “don’t worry, it will all work out” seems too easy to bear by our unseen “friends”. I don’t buy the idea that many must suffer desperately so that others might be afforded the opportunity to be altruistic. Many do believe that. They tend to be on the altruistic side of things. I spent my working life in service to folks in crisis and spent much more time among them than most. The suffering is local, personal, devastating, and often undeserved. I can’t imagine sitting back after the failure of my own efforts, and surveying the scene with some sort of cosmic smugness while consigning blameless humans to such terror and misery, no matter how short the time may be in cosmic terms. Seems hardly equitable to blow so critical an assignment as the genetic uplift project and then blame the primitives (in a very real sense) for failure to upstep themselves biologically. It also seems to me unlikely that those responsible for the creation and watch-care of struggling and suffering beings would display behaviors clearly absent from those central to loving parenting. I have carefully considered the justifications in the book for such behavior. They suggest either a rather bumbling set of outworlders or ones demonstrably cruel. The uber-reality evolution of the Supreme would appear to involve some roadkill. The results of the genetic crapshoot are perilous for many and borne too easily by many less afflicted.

Some of my Urantia associates have been reasonably inquisitive, though often surprised, regarding my change in thinking. Others don’t care to discuss it with me. One was concerned that I had come under Caligastia’s nefarious influence. I’ll take that risk, as opposed to fearing non-existent influence from a likely fictional character. It’s an extraordinary explanation for a much more ordinary event. One must first accept the reality of an invisible being who would have the power to influence one’s thought if one were to question or abandon the orthodoxy or seek other possible answers to these questions. That acceptance is based upon a story in a book that contains a great deal of provably false content. I think that kind of magical thinking is quite dangerous and destructive of inquisitive thought. How could one operate intellectually under those circumstances?

I have no thought to dissuade others from their beliefs but rather to describe a few of the factors which have now persuaded me, after so many years, that the book is most likely one of human philosophy embedded in a fanciful accounting of the origins and nature of the universe. It appears to have been written by men with no verifiable contact with unseen universe personalities. I do not think that its statements about the human soul nor those of the transit of that soul in the universe can be regarded as authentic.

I have given up my former assurances grudgingly. This perspective is the product of my own evolution. As you can see, I have extended my readings well outside the orthodoxy to include reasonable alternative explanations for these things as part of my deliberations. It was more comfortable to think that the book actually reported spiritual realities and destinies. I have always wanted the book to be true and authentic. But after much reflection, I think that it is probably not so. That said, I remain open to the truth as I can perceive it.

I don’t have a good answer for creation. We are not privy to hundreds of millions of years of the universe’s early history. Even the heat from the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation that pervades all space only gets us to within about 400,000 years of the singularity event we call the Big Bang. It is unclear to me whether eternal deity is the creative force behind universe reality or if the universe is simply pre-existent. One is as remarkable as the other and no less probable. I don’t have an acceptable theory for the origin of life, but I don’t rule out an origin devoid of divine intervention. That science continues to evolve. The Fermi Paradox bothers me. The universe should be teeming with intelligent life if the book is to be believed. Yet we find no evidence of it. I don’t know what if any destiny a person has in the universe. I’m unable to accept their story at face value. If it is true, we will all discover it eventually. Matthew Rapaport and others observe that the core theology of the book eclipses anything previously produced by humankind. I agree. It is the only reason for my reticence to reject it entirely.

I am aware that much of this essay involves a reductionist approach, which has limitations when explainable phenomena are apparently no longer reducible and emergent phenomena are not explainable with current science. The physical brain and emergent mind illustrate that principle. But that doesn’t prompt me to abandon logic and rational thinking in the face of so many unsupportable claims in the book. From the times when earthquakes and thunder were thought to be caused by invisible agents, humans have always attributed unseen agency to things they don’t understand. Science and rational thought have progressively pushed that agency out of the earth, animals and sky out into the universe. I think it is true that an assertion made without evidence may be dismissed without evidence. Subjective “spiritual” testimony is too widely variable to be definitive, and current science is suggesting an underlying ethological and neurobiological explanation for the ground state upon which the subjective mystical experience is constructed.

I don’t write this to demean or diminish the personal experiences or convictions of those who believe the UB is authentically inspired. The mystical experiences they have may well involve authentic contact with deity, and my current persuasions may well be wrong. I cannot rule out the possible spiritual authenticity of the UB, but I am not convinced of it. I suppose I will eventually learn the truth about this or not. In my case sooner than later at age 75. I share your impatience with those who seem to need to defend the “science” in the book in order to justify its origins and spiritual authenticity. They do no good service for those to whom they introduce the text. Honest faith is one thing, clever reframing or plain denial quite another. I will continue my wondering. Thank you for your thought-provoking essay. It was a pleasure to read.

Book Review: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (2016)

There isn’t much extra I want to say about this book I haven’t said in many other essays. The review itself (see below) says what needs to be said about his projections for humanity. The issue for me here is his contention that (1) physics is all there is, (2) we have no free will, and (3) personality and mind are illusions. None of his projections for a human future depend on these assertions. If God is real, human religious institutions might be substantially wrong about his nature. Like almost everyone else, Harari fails to distinguish between religion (and what God is) and religious institutions (what the churches say about God). If we are mostly wrong about God (should he exist), we might still pursue the course Harari lays out in his book. The same is true of free will and personality (distinct from character). In the review, I’ve already pointed out the absurdity of denying free will. If Harari was right, he would no more deserve credit for his book than my printer deserves for an essay I print on it. Indeed, the obviousness of free will, along with its impossibility under a purely deterministic/random universe (quantum phenomena aren’t random, by the way, they are indeterminate. There is a difference). In fact (I contend), the manifest obviousness of free will is the evidence that physics is incomplete!

For more on this, see my other essays on the subject:

The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism

Arguing with Automatons

Mental Cause

Response to Criticisms of Agent-Causal Libertarianism

From What Comes Mind

Why Personality

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (2016)

God-Man is what this title means, but the content isn’t quite so literal. There are no themes in this book that haven’t been dealt with by numerous science fiction novels. But this isn’t supposed to be fiction, instead a sober look at where the history of humans, coupled with the technology of the twenty-first century, is taking us.

So where is that? The author cites three overall goals motivating humanity since its inception, and, according to Harari, now nascent and imbedded in modern technology. They are: (1) to be ageless, literally to live forever (beginning with living much longer than we do now) provided that we are not killed in accidents or murdered, (2) to be happy always, and (3) to acquire god-like (small ‘g’) powers of mind and body through mechanics, genetics, and cybernetics,

All of these are, he thinks, possible in the next 50 or so years despite the first’s violating the second law of thermodynamics, the second being a mental state that appears to demand an occasional (at least) lapse into something else to reset itself, leaving the third as the only one understood well enough to be achievable in some measure. Interestingly, achieving the third goal would have the most predictable negative impact on our present value systems and ways of life–illustrated to chilling effect in his last chapter. Putting it bluntly, post-sapiens humans take over the world, enslaving (or just eliminating, there being no further need for human labor) the rest of us. In a further twist, cybernetic intelligence eventually eliminates even those quasi-sapiens for its own sake, there being no further need for humans of any sort.

Concerning these specific prognostications, Harari gives himself an out. This is only speculation. The future is open, and there are many ways our technology might develop, and not everything we want may be possible. He also understands that perhaps time is not on our side. Some near future events (global nuclear war or civilizational collapse due to climate or ecological disaster) might derail our progress. Concerning the foundational assumptions of his projections, what makes them reasonable (and possible), he leaves himself no wiggle room.

Three things he assures us must be true: (1) the universe is entirely physical (no God, no extra-physical mind). As a consequence (2), free will is an illusion, and (3) so is the self. This leads him down a path of epistemic nihilism. Our brains react to every sensory input and make every decision some seconds (or fractions of seconds) before we are even aware of them. Our experiential arena is subjectively real (how this is given there is no subject) but has no impact whatsoever on what we think, feel, or do–there being no individual “us” anyway. The absurd consequences of these assumptions (he is not alone in believing these and cites long-challenged experiments purporting to prove them), for example, that there is no “he,” no Yuval Harari to whom we might give credit for this book, escape him.

Homo Deus is rich with philosophical implications, but the author is writing from a historical perspective and a forecast of “future history.” He is not trying to do philosophy, so I leave explorations of these implications for a blog essay. The book is well-written and entertaining. His take on human history from the paleolithic to the Enlightenment, the book’s part one, is novel. He credits literal religion (among other things) with pushing mankind forward until our own discoveries dethroned it, installing a new [metaphorical] religion, Humanism, the book’s part two, which brought us to the edge of the present age. Humanism is to be dethroned now, part three, and yet another [metaphorical] religion Harari calls Dataism is emerging. This overall thesis is coherent given his assumptions and gracefully presented with considerable humor, so four stars, even if it is more than a bit presumptuous!

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 Dis-United 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 Uninhabital 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.


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


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.