Review: The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas

Another of my review of Trump books. This one not about the daily doings of the administration, but more a psychological profile of Donald Trump and what he is doing to imitate autocrats and tyrants in an effort to erode American political institutions. Why? Like many autocrats (Trump a wanna-be autocrat, Klaas illustrates with many examples of real ones throughout the book) Trump does not seem strongly wedded to a political ideology. Rather his aim seems to be to keep himself in power as long as possible while enriching himself and his family.

Most autocrats leave it at that, but some become also despots by adding to the mix a fragile ego that thrives on self-aggrandizement, a characteristic of those who commit atrocities.  Trump is, alas, in this group as well, or would be if there weren’t powerful institutions around to constrain him, the very institutions he is doing his best to erode!

Most interestingly, this book was written in 2017, less than a full year into Trump’s first term. Even then, he has exercised (or attempted to exercise) every trick of every autocrat (or despot)  Klaas uses in his examples!

The other book reviews in this series (Trump) are listed a few paragraphs down in this link here.

 

The Despot’s Apprentice (2017) by Brian Klaas

Another in what is now a considerable series of books about the problematic Trump administration. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed, this one is less about day to day happenings in the West Wing, nor any history of how we got here. It is rather a comparison between the sorts of things Trump does personally (berate the media, accuse non-partisan government agencies of conspiring against him, dissemble, amass family wealth, and much more) and the acts of autocrats around the world both past and present. As it turns out, most of the autocrats do most of these things, but Trump does all of them. But Trump also adds in a fragile ego, and relative ignorance of the political process, something even most (though not all) of the real autocrats used for comparison, do not suffer.

The book’s chapters are not divided up by time or crisis, but by type of autocrat-like behavior. For example Trump’s attacks on free press, the politicization of non-partisan institutions (Trump has accused the Office of Management and Budget of conspiring against him), nepotism, personal and family financial gain, misdirection in foreign policy, and so on. Klaas begins almost every chapter with a brief review of one or more famous examples of such abuse either from history or today’s headlines. He does not neglect past American presidential examples either. The amazing thing about Trump is that he engages in all of them at the same time. More unbelievable still, this book was written less than one year after Trump formally took office! Now, almost four years into his term, the most alarming thing is that so many of these abuses are to a great degree taken for granted, or “the new normal” by the institutions that should be calling them out! The free press has stopped beating the drum because their audience has largely dialed out, and what used to be non-partisan institutions (the OMB, intelligence agencies, FBI, NASA [believe it or not]) are largely cowed into silence with “trump loyalists” dominating the upper echelons of their leadership.

To be sure, Klaas notes, America is not an autocratic nation, and Trump is no autocrat. But he does show every inclination to want-to-be an autocrat and that in itself is dangerous particularly when surrounded by other powerful people who want much the same thing. Further, the degree of political polarization in the United States, a social and political phenomenon that began long before Trump, becomes much more detrimental to the survival of a plural society and democratic regime when a want-to-be autocrat comes along and takes advantage of it. Trump has leveraged the polarization for his own personal gain and in so doing amplified it. If it was always difficult to bring both sides of the American polity together, it is rapidly becoming impossible.

Despot’s Apprentice is a short book that says a lot. Unfortunately, those who dislike Trump basically know all this about him already. For them this book will do no more than apprise them of the vast depth and breath of his malfeasance. For the others, the 30% of Americans who now believe (so the polls say) that a free press are the “enemy of the people”, such books as this will not be read thanks to the magnified political polarity Trump has deliberately fostered, and that is precisely the point of it all!

Book Review: The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

Once again, for consistency sake (there being little of additional philosophical import) I include this review of John Bolton’s memoir of 18 months working as National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019 for the Trump administration. It would I think be unfair of me to criticize Bolton on the basis of my politics compared to his. In point of fact I do not disagree with some of his assessment of threat situations. Iran and North Korea will never give up development/possession/proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear or otherwise). Bolton is quite right I think to believe that the only way to stop these developments is with overwhelming military force, but he is far to sanguine about assessments that, in response, millions of people (especially South Koreans) would die.

Is there any other option? India and Pakistan (bitter enemies for 72 years) possess nuclear weapons (Pakistan also a known proliferator) for some decades now and neither have used them (the potential collapse of the Pakistani State being another kind of problem). Perhaps there are sensible means of preventing N. Korea or Iran from ever using their weapons? In this respect, not sanctions, but trade and economic engagement make more sense. Why? Because when you tighten economic and diplomatic screws to the point where a people figure they have “nothing else to lose”, you provoke war rather than prevent it. Bolton knows history well enough to know this. He also knows what happened to Qaddafi in Libya after he gave up his weapons programs, yet dismisses this history as though it mattered not to Iranian, and especially to N. Korean calculations.

So I differ from Bolton on these matters, but I am not sure enough about my own views to say Bolton must be wrong. In any case this chasm between us does not take away from his observations and criticism of Trump’s administration concerning both substance and (more importantly) its lack of consistency, not to mention Trump’s self-serving, ego-maniacal fixations.

Like the other books reviewed in this series (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning” “Devil’s Bargain”, “A Very Stable Genius”,  and “The Despot’s Apprentice”), this is a frightening book and the only one of the six reviewed focused on foreign policy.

The Room where it Happened (2020) by John Bolton

People mostly either like or dislike John Bolton based on their alignment with his politics. I do not see him that way. I have had jobs (never in government) where my role was to highlight and advocate for some specific aspect of a corporate hardware and software infrastructure. Bolton’s job was to advocate for the national security interests of the United States, and of course the recommendations he made (like mine) flowed from his background, experience, and yes, politics.

His experience is the key here, for Bolton has consummate knowledge of the workings of international institutions and also the governments they serve. He has also an appreciation for geopolitical history and isn’t afraid to call out a pointless exercise when he sees it. In part his politics is informed by his historical knowledge, for example the duplicity of nations like Iran, North Korea, and yes also China and Russia, with regard to respecting treaty obligations. But if anything makes Bolton more angry than Trump’s waffling and sometime expressed admiration for tyrants, it is his treatment of our own allies, the EU (NATO), Japan, and South Korea in particular. All this is revealed!

This book is about what Bolton found himself facing from April 2018 until September 2019, Eighteen short (must have seemed very long to him) months in the middle of Donald Trump’s administration. Reorganization of the NSA early in his tenure, the book touches on every new and on-going global threat of the time stemming from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China, and others. Each of these regions is a fount of over-lapping threats.

Bolton is in a unique position to appreciate the complexity of these situations. He castigates the Obama administration on a few matters, but points out, with some irony, that Trump’s instincts sometimes paralleled Obama! With regard to North Korea he is fair enough to note that none of the past four administrations (two Republican and two Democratic) have accomplished anything useful. When he alludes to differences in procedural style between Trump and former administrations, he mentions only the prior Republican administrations for whom he worked.

Very much this book is a detailed account of the operation of the Trump administration as concerns foreign national security issues with an occasional domestic matter (the Mexican border, Russia’s 2016 election interference) crossing the line. Although the NSA is involved in these matters, Bolton does his best to minimize his role in them, preferring the more global threats whether immediate or more temporally distant. As with my own some-time role in corporations, Bolton does not expect his boss to agree with his every recommendation. He notes that as goes national security, Trump’s instincts are often like his own. The problems threaded throughout the book are concerned with Trump’s flip-flopping almost constantly on matters where waffling, with mixed signals sent via tweets to the world, is universally detrimental to the outcome we want, that is a more, and not less, secure United States. There are a even a few examples, (to my politics not Bolton’s) where the President made the right call (even if for the wrong reasons) over Bolton’s recommendation as when Trump chose not to risk Iranian lives (Iranian body bags would make him look bad) in exchange for an American drone!

The bigger problem, as Bolton sees it, is that the decisions Trump does make, whether coming out right or wrong for national security, are made only on the basis of what Trump thinks makes him look good in the press, helps him in the 2020 election, or furthers the enrichment of his family! Along with all of this come also problems with the bureaucracy surrounding Trump. Bolton is an astute critic of bureaucracies in general (see his “Surrender is not an Option” also reviewed) and where warranted, individuals who do little to serve the organization’s purpose. In this regard the Trump administration is no different than others except for the extraordinary number of musical chair events and as consequence the style and substance variations already and still passing through this administration — including of course now Bolton himself.

In only a couple of places in the body of the book does Bolton call attention to what his government book reviewers forced him to remove. In an epilogue he describes a little more of this process but on the whole does not seem too unhappy with its results. He also offers a critique of the House impeachment process that got going after he left the NSA. This short analysis is among the most telling of Bolton’s real feelings about his time as National Security Advisor. He does not say that Trump should not have been impeached. The Ukraine matter over which the House obsessed was, in Bolton’s opinion, only one, and a lesser one at that, of Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses! The House should have taken more time, let the court processes (for documents) complete themselves at their own pace, and evidence of more serious malfeasance would have turned up! By rushing the job for political reasons, the Democrats shot themselves in the foot, and left Trump more unconstrained than he was before. No one, after all, is going to try to impeach him again!

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Some months ago I reviewed Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. I suggested that Zizek’s political projections would have little chance of materializing because economic collapse precipitated by climate mitigation efforts in the rich world would overwhelm everything else in but a few short decades. Next I came across G. Gaul’s “Geography of Risk” which, though focusing on storms and sea-level effects on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, supported my prediction. Now this, “The Uninhabitable Earth” (review & link below), comes along amplifying everything in the Gaul book and laying down an even more frightening picture not only about where present trends are taking us, but the almost certain inevitability of vast tracts of the equatorial and presently-temperate Earth becoming uninhabitable by 2100.

Most of the cascades described by Wallace-Wells have already been triggered and will not stop (though they would slow a bit) even if we ceased all industry-related atmospheric carbon production tomorrow, something that is obviously not going to happen. Technology (as he points out) is not going to save us this time. We do know how to pull carbon out of the air yes, but as Wallace-Wells shows, we cannot afford to deploy enough of it fast enough to block a two to three degree (celsius) rise in average global temperatures over the next 75 years.

Wallace-Wells is (non-optimistically) hopeful that humanity will wake up in time to stop carbon output at least soon enough to halt future warming at three degrees. In fact I believe human industrial carbon output (most of it, globally) will cease in another ten or twenty years, roughly when we are close to two degrees of warming (as of 2018 we were at one degree and some change with atmospheric carbon rising faster now, year on year, than it has ever before). But it won’t stop because humans wake up and do something about the problem. It will stop because all of the economies of the world will have collapsed. Over a few decades, people will starve (or die from disease and war) in such vast numbers that few will be left to put any substantial carbon into the atmosphere more than the cooking fires that could be found dotting the Earth ten thousand years ago. The human population will be about where it was ten thousand years ago. That might be by 2100, likely sooner than that.

Still all of the cascades, devastating forest fires and melting permafrost will yet be releasing billions of tons of carbon even in the absence of human industry, and of course ocean levels will continue to rise utterly changing the geography of the world. By 2200 there will be very few places on Earth where food can be grown or hunted and the human race may be reduced to levels barely able to avoid extinction, if even that. If this isn’t frightening enough, the news gets worse from here. Even if the temperature rise tops out at three or four degrees, the planet will not again return to a cooler, human-comfortable climate regime, for thousands, possibly tens-of-thousands, of years!

Uninhabitable Earth  by David Wallace-Wells 2018

This book opens with what, for me, was a surprise. I know that carbon emissions have, world-wide, steadily increased even since the first international “climate mitigation agreements” of thirty years ago. What I did not know is that since 1990, the world, collectively, has pumped twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as it did in the thirty years from 1960 to 1990. There are other surprises: Bitcoin anyone? Sure there’s some electricity involved but how much could that be? It turns out to be about as much, per year, as one million international jet flights! Our own industrial activity is only a part (albeit still a large part) of the problem now. Other, cascading effects, are now adding their impact. Global wild-fires now consume, on average, ten times as much forest every year as they did thirty years ago. That’s a lot of extra carbon. Even worse, the world’s permafrost is beginning to melt releasing carbon in the form of methane which, depending on whether we are speaking of low or high altitude, has between four and eighty times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The title of the book is prescient. Think of the climatologically worst environments on the Earth today (having warmed a bit more than one degree Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1800. We are on track to hit two degrees by 2050 or so), perhaps the middle of the Sahara, or someplace where it never stops being hot and raining. These are today’s most inhospitable climate environments. By 2100, that sort of place will be among the best and most livable we have on Earth. Large parts of our world will be largely and literally uninhabitable, places where humans die because their bodies cannot cool themselves by sweating unless immersed in cool water, or because there is no water the glaciers being gone, and this at only three degrees of warming (2100).

The first third of the book is about various cascades, most already triggered, some on the verge. Effects of warming that add up both by directly making things worse, and by degrading the planet’s ability to absorb carbon and mitigate the other effects. Wallace’s picture here is very dire. In the rest of the book Wallace deals with the economic, political, social, and psychological future. Here I do not think he is dire enough. He speaks of refugees in the tens of millions (try hundreds), extremist movements on both the right and left, of wars, pandemics, crop failures, of collapsing economies unable to sustain the cost of climate mitigation, and that only the economies that can afford any mitigation to begin with. The rest will have since joined the refugees. Wallace touches on all of this, but I do not think he fully appreciates how quickly and thoroughly human beings can (and will) turn on one another long before this all becomes as bad as it’s going to get!

Technology will not save us. Wallace covers that too. We can desalinate water and even pull carbon out of the air. There will never be enough of either that the world can afford. Besides, both are energy intensive processes and even if powered with renewable energy, that is not easy to do as concerns the chain of activities that must be powered to build and maintain that technology. Rare-Earth mining is a very dirty business.

In the end, Wallace is hopeful, though not optimistic, that the global polity will wake up and de-carbonize the global economy, not in time to halt two to three degrees of warming, it is already too late for that, but in time to prevent it going to four degrees or more. I think he is over-optimistic here too. It is simply not possible, politically, and this for economic reasons, for soon-to-be nine-billion humans to de-carbonize as quickly as needed to hold the line at two to three degrees. What will force the race to de-carbonize will be economic collapse, leading to socio-political collapse, leading to mass death (over some decades) from starvation, disease, or war. I think Wallace sees this grim possibility. He hopes it isn’t inevitable.

This a good and timely book though I doubt it will have much effect on the carbon trajectory of our so-called civilization. It is good to see the ground covered as much as Wallace covers it. He does a good job of showing how the climatological and the political go together (alas perversely). I think he fails to draw some obvious conclusions from his own well-made points. Perhaps it’s for the better. He would be accused of doom saying. I am a doomsayer! Feel free to accuse me! Meanwhile, the book is frightening enough as it is!

Review: A Very Stable Genius by Leonnig and Rucker

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The idea behind these commentaries and book reviews here is that in many cases (whether politics, science, or philosophy), the books themselves leave dangling and potentially interesting philosophical issues un-addressed. Exploration of such issues is not usually appropriate (in my opinion) in a book review, so I bring the reviews over here always attached at the end of these little (and sometimes not so little) commentary essays, along with a link to the book itself on Amazon.

In this particular case there were no dangling philosophical issues that struck me as worthy of an essay. But because this collection of my reviews of books about the Trump administration is growing (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning”, and “Devil’s Bargain”), I’m including this review for the sake of completeness.

A Very Stable Genius (2019) by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

Here we have yet another very carefully and competently written book illuminating the dysfunction in the American Presidency of Donald Trump, addressing both the man and the administration. Journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have done both the Washington Post and history proud with this tale of malfeasance and character disorder in the man himself and the chaos among those who surround him, some trying to moderate Trump’s worst impulses while others encourage them.

This is the fifth book on this subject that I’ve read and reviewed. As each one, all excellent histories, slides into the ocean of non-fiction literature, they seem to have less and less impact on the world, though perhaps that is only my jaded perception. This one is superbly written, told broadly in temporal sequence from the 2016 election up to September 2019 when Trump asked “a favor” on a call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky, witnessed (listening in) by several military and foreign policy personnel. This particular call follows by a few weeks Trump’s “exoneration” by Mueller.

Although it moves along generally from the past towards the present, it preferentially follows subject threads to their conclusion rather than try and document everything that happened on a particular day or week. Sliding as necessary between domestic and foreign policy matters, eventually all the days and weeks are covered somewhere. I can’t remember any of the salient matters reported in the news (not to mention Trump’s tweets) that aren’t in the story. Following the text, there are copious notes and documents listed. Historians will appreciate this.

In the opinion of the authors, Mueller made a big mistake. He treated his mission (the Russia probe and accusations of obstruction on Trump’s part) perhaps appropriately for a normal administration in which the Justice Department and Congress were not prior-determined to “protect the boss at all costs”. Mueller did not feel it was his job to say, explicitly, that Trump should be impeached or indited on the obstruction charge at least, obstruction being more clear cut than any personal collusion with the Russians. Instead, he phrased his report in such a way as to leave it to Congress to decide. Yet even a democratic congress did not begin the impeachment process until the content of the Ukraine call emerged.

The book ends with that call. The book’s authors are at that point sure not only that Trump committed a clear-cut crime, but intimate at least that Congress and the Senate would at last do their job and get rid of this embarrassment to the American presidency. History has shown otherwise, and we are now faced with a president, surrounded by sycophants (most significantly a throughly corrupted Justice department), who thinks (apparently correctly), that he can get away with anything.

Like the other books written on this subject, this one is very scary.

Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.

First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.

My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.

The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.

The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.

You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.

In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla (2017)

This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.

In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).

Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.

Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.

The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.

This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.

All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.

Book Review: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

I haven’t much additional commentary to add here except perhaps to expand a little on my comparison between Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s Fear. Wolff’s published much earlier covers a shorter time, about 200 days compared to Woodward’s 760+. As mentioned in my review, Wolff focuses on the ring of people immediately surrounding Trump (of course he brings in the next outer band) while Woodward expands his focus to that next outer band while the characters in the inner most group (other than Bannon) receive somewhat less scrutiny. This approach makes perfect sense given the expanded time frame of Woodward’s book.

Woodward is more sympathetic to all concerned (even Trump) than Wolff. Wolff’s picture is one of conflicting and shifting groups running around like chickens with severed heads while doing their best to increase their political influence and personal wealth. Woodward reveals the same self-interested politics in the inner circle while many of those in the wider circle, and even a few in the inner one, are trying sincerely to keep Trump from destroying the nation at every impetuous turn. Sincerity here has a mixed result as many of these people have incompatible political views concerning what constitutes a rational course in the first place. Both books paint a terrifying picture. Wolff’s is more terrifying, but Woodward’s is more frustrating because he highlights many opportunities (never taken) to bring parties together.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward 2018

My first observation is that this book is not as long as it seems. The first 63% (my Kindle tells me that) is the body of the book followed by a long chapter of acknowledgements, a detailed listing, chapter by chapter, of sources with lots of online links (including many of Trump’s infamous tweets), and a long index. Trump assumed the presidency on Jan 20, 2016. The last date mentioned in the book is March 21 2018 so about 760 days into the present (Sept. 2018) administration.

One cannot help but compare Woodward to Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” (also reviewed). Wolff’s focus is the shifting cabals immediately surrounding the president in his first (roughly 200) days. Woodward hits all the same characters and follows them as well but more through the lens of national and international incidents and issues occurring at the time, some precipitated by Trump himself. The characters are painted almost sympathetically, even Trump, relatively speaking. The unifying issue throughout is how the staff, principal cabinet secretaries, and members of Congress struggled to prevent the ever impetuous Trump from wrecking the economy or starting world war III, while a few were eager to egg him on in support of his most destructive instincts. The influence goes both ways. Trump appears to have supported DACA recipients specifically (though he never liked any of the rest of U.S. immigration policy) but was turned away from even DACA support by congressional hard liners.

There are lots of missing pieces. I suppose it would be impossible to include everything. Sean Spicer is mentioned, as is the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci but there is no word about their departure. Of course many characters do come and go. Like Wolff, Woodward focuses early on Bannon, but he hardly touches (of course they are present in the story) Jarad and Ivanka. Like Wolff, Woodward paints a picture of a man whose comprehension of the world’s complexity rises to the level of an elementary school graduate, a man mercurial and impulsive with uneven check on his actions by the adults in the room, often because they themselves are conflicted over every issue.

Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham seems to be credited with the observation that “Journalism is the ‘first rough draft of history'”. That rough draft is unfolding before us in books like Wolff’s and this one from Bob Woodward. I expect there will be a few more before this presidential term is over. Historians of the future (if there is a future) will not lack for sources. If like me you are a news junkie, this book will be an enjoyable, if frightening and possibly frustrating (so many opportunities lost) ride.

Book Review: The Attack of the 50 Foot Women

I try to read on subjects outside my mainstream interests. This is one of those books, broadly feminist. Not philosophy, but rather a clear statement of what inclusiveness in terms of the politics of sex means, how an ideal tolerance would come out in social institutions political and otherwise. Besides this, the book is a catalog of some ten years of investigation into the status of this ideal in various parts of the world. Finally, it threads in the history of one such attempt (still going on I hope), literally a political party focused on these issues, in the United Kingdom.

Philosophically there are two issues she fails to develop. One more minor she mentions but does not explore; the impact of present diversity (racially, sexually as it stands in different cultures) on the trajectory of political attempts at realizing the ideal. The more major issue is that of history. From the outset of human existence women have labored (literally and figuratively), the only member of the species that bears children. In fact this goes back far deeper into the past, to the earliest mammals at least, but in human society the distinction matters more and has always mattered more. Primitive hunter-gatherers were not egalitarian (Mayer appears to believe they were) but highly specialized along sexual lines. Men hunted, stood guard, and fought (until there were no more men and the women had to fight). Women gathered, bore, and mostly raised children; girls for their whole lives, and boys until they were old enough to hunt, stand guard, and fight. There are a few, but very few counter examples in Earth’s history.

There is literally a million years of such history behind us and this differential has had social-psychological consequences in the form of inate bias on both sides, male bias and female bias manifesting quite differently conditioned by the still considerable difference in physical size and strength of [most] men compared to [most] women. Should we, now in this “civilized age”, be attempting to erase this bias? I think yes, we should. Will we be entirely successful even in the next thousand years? Likely not. I address this further in the review below.

So was it a good book? Sure, why not! If nothing else, philosophically, Ms. Mayer has deliniated for us what sexual-identity-tolerance means and at least one example of its political expression. I wish her well!

Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: From man-made mess to a better future – the truth about global inequality and how to unleash female potential by Catherine Mayer 2017

I thought I might take a little side trip in to the political and social philosophy of feminism, but this book really isn’t that. Ms Mayer is more about a historical review and international survey. There is a chapter on just about every possible arena in which women and men either compete, cooperate, and frequently do both at the same time. She highlights both the common threads and differences between issues of gender and those of race and economic status across all races and genders. Throughout her intellectual and geographic wanderings (traveling widely interviewing people of many perspectives) Mayer weaves in a thread about the beginnings and organization of a United Kingdom political party (The Women’s Equality Party) that she and a few others launched but a few years ago.

Historically Mayer covers four generations of feminist movements, the suffragets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (in some nations extending as on down to today), changes brought about by the demands of World War II, the movement in the U.S. and Europe of the 1970s, and of course the situation in the 21st Century. Pay differentials, political representation (government and corporate), violence against women, the situation in education, the real (nuanced) nature of physical and psychological gender differences, the role of institutional religion, and how all of this plays out in various parts of the world are given consideration.

On the whole Mayer does a good job of surveying the historically recent (last few hundred years) and present scope of issues and how these might be adjusted. On the whole her view cannot help but be colored by modern “identity politics”, but she does not call for absolute equality in the economic sphere. She does not expect that half the fire fighters or soldiers in the world will be women, nor half the nurses men. But she does think that we can do much better than we are in the political, and overall in the economic, sphere. She insists that a world in which women are genuinely respected, genuinely recognized to be the equals of (if not the “same as”) men in the process of building a society, will be more productive and peaceful. I am sure she is right about this because a society, such as ours, where respect is lacking is distorted socially, economically, and psychologically. It cannot help but be worse for all concerned (generally, the super-rich will always get by).

So her survey is good and her points well made, but in this reviewer’s opinion she is mistaken as concerns the roots of the problem. There is no excuse, in our modern world, for the gender (or for that matter racial) disparities that presently exist. But she never asks the counterfactual question that sets up the difference that really made a difference through 99% of human history: why aren’t men having more babies? Every social, economic, and political difference between men and women on this planet is rooted in that inconvenient biological fact; only women can bear children.

This is a handicap that men, and not merely women (as Mayer well notes) should be striving to mitigate, and while it might be overcome in the social sphere, violence against women must cease, it will never be quite overcome in the economic or political spheres because whether men have “paternity leave” or not, women, most women, MUST drop out of the economic and political spheres for a time or there won’t be any future economy or politics to worry about. In modern society there is no real excuse for any inequity between the sexes. We can COMPENSATE for the child handicap. But it is a compensation and not merely an acknowledgement of women’s equal importance. The devil is in those details.

Review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Another diversion here into pop culture, this time the more strictly political. We live in dangerous times and there is no better symbol of them than this book. I did note in the review a single philosophical issue I had with the book. I will spend my time here in these comments elaborating a bit on it. As usual, the original Amazon review is included in full following these comments.

The matter concerns the accuracy of the portrait Wolff paints of both President Trump and the Whitehouse West Wing organization with particular focus on Steve Bannon, and the duo Bannon began to call Jarvanka, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared. In a way, the story is told from their viewpoint while pulling together observations and comments of other parties both a direct part of the Trump organization (however temporarily) and those on the wider periphery.

According to the story various cabals formed and evaporated over the course of Trump’s pre-inaugural period and in the first 200 days or so of the administration. It seems like the only constant was the antipathy between Bannon (painted as an essentially driven fanatic with the old fashioned instincts of a bomb throwing anarchist), and Jarvanka a pair of rich and spoiled children whose politics were liberal leaning but who hadn’t the slightest idea of how to really accomplish anything (or what could be accomplished) aside from protecting their riches and their relation to Trump. Nobody had the slightest real political experience.

Wolff gives us no reason to believe that in talking to any of these people (both the narrow and wider set of players) he was getting an unvarnished truth uncolored by their desire to use Wolff himself to “get at” any of the opposing cabals. If what he tells us is true, it would have been almost impossible for these players to relate to Wolff with the unbiased truth. Wolff became (or it was hoped he would become) one of the arrows in each cabal’s quiver. It is therefore impossible to tell if the emerging picture is a caricature or faithful photographic image. That question, I believe, will remain unanswered until further journalistic accounts of Trump’s first year (or tenure however long it goes) are written.

But all the same, and this is the scary part, the answer to the question doesn’t much matter here as concerns the relation between the Trump administration and the world (including ourselves in the U.S.). Whether caricature or photograph, the image is that of a very disturbed and dangerous situation, an American administration that not only does not know what it is doing broadly speaking, but whose ostensible leader appears pathologically unfit to serve in this office. Worse, he is surrounded by other pathologies of various kinds all of which overlap with at least two of his; great wealth taken for granted, and an unswerving belief in their judgments about matters with which their lives have prepared them in not the slightest way.

That, my friends, is frightening to me. But it gets even worse. Not only do they not understand the consequences of their actions as concerns the world at large, they do not really care so long as their wealth is preserved. That is only a little unfair because Wolff does paint Jarvanka as caring, they just don’t know what or how to do anything about it so their focus remains, as with the others, on their wealth, power, and even (especially in Bannon’s case as he was not rich) in the appearance of power.

The story continues to take bizarre twists. Today, January 16 2018, results of the President’s medical examination, including investigation of degenerative cognitive decline, were effusively described. The doctor, a military man with rows of campaign ribbons on his breast told us that this 71 year old (and obviously overweight) man was in perfect health physically and mentally. One wants to believe the doctor and perhaps it is so that there is no disease process detectable in the President’s brain. But perfect health is a bit hard to believe and would be of anyone who looked like Donald Trump does today. The doctor attributed it to “good genes”. Based on what Michael Wolff has told us, this could only be a signal that the news conference was a put on, a show. Or am I being paranoid?

Now September 2018 and Bob Woodward has released his book “Fear: Trump in the White House” which I have reviewed. More good journalism.

That’s all I’ll say for now. Happy to discuss in comments.

Fire and Fury Michael Wolff

This must have been a difficult book to write. There is so much story to be told and the principle threads so entangled that it must have been very difficult to tie them together in a coherent story. Wolff mostly succeeds, but not entirely. Then again that is an important part of the very story Wolff is trying to tell, the story itself is about an incoherent presidential administration.

Told in broadly chronological order of the presidential election of 2016 and the roughly first 200 days of the administration up to the middle of August 2017. At the end an epilogue focused on Steve Bannon, who has a claim to being the book’s main character, brings the story up to roughly October 2017, but the pace of news has hardly stopped there. As I write this in January 2018 I can only be sure that much more will happen. Within its chronology, there are frequent steps backwards as Wolff brings in the various characters and their varying alliances coloring-in their relation to the then forward moving part of the story. Of all the characters brought to the fore, at least among the dozen or more who are in direct proximity to the president by living or working in the West Wing, only a single pair (Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner) keep the same relationship relative to one another throughout. Every other person or cabal-like group changes relationships often multiple times as most of the individuals involved come into the story and then go out!

I do have one philosophical matter to bring up. Let’s grant that Wolff reported accurately on everything he was told by everybody. He presents a fair picture of that to which he was a party either first, or at most second (and occasionally third) hand. At the same time that which he is reporting is, he points out, the back stabbing testimony of each cabal out to paint the others in the worst light possible. Even if those to whom he spoke were not outright lying to him, at the least they were telling highly selective truths almost surely leaving much out. Our only hope in this mess is that from the back stabbing of all sides towards one another and the occasional more neutral voice (though nobody was entirely neutral) from the periphery, Wolff has put together if not a true portrait, then at least a portrait true to the Kafka-esque nature of the administration! If that is a horrible thought, it is what makes this an important book.

This is high class journalism first and foremost, but it reads at the same time like an Elmore Leonard novel! As Sean Spicer began to say “you can’t make this shit up!”. Frankly this book would be hysterically funny if it was not so downright dangerous and disturbing.

Book Review: Assholes A Theory

My only additional comment here is that Amazon rejected my review (below) because it contains the word ‘asshole’. This is political correctness gone crazy. They asked me to delete the word or perhaps change it to something like ‘A******’ but I refused. Considering that the title of the book appears at the top of every review I cannot comprehend how Amazon algorithms would permit the publication of any review of this book. Be that as it may, I am not politically correct and I publish my review of this excellent book here on the blog for your edification.

Assholes, A Theory

Bravo for a brilliant book. Dr. James takes what appears at first to be a trivial notion, “the asshole” as a metaphor for a particular sort of human
behavior and uses it to illustrate how philosophy is done, what it must consider, and the directions in which it can be applied.

He begins by defining the term and then comparing it to other “terms of derision” like ‘jerk’ exploring various examples both hypothetical and drawn from the headlines so that after the first few chapters we are comfortable understanding what an asshole is as compared to other kinds of behavior worthy of opprobrium. Following this set up he moves on to social philosophy; why this behavior exists, how it comes about, various possibilities concerning its root cause (or causes) and why most (but not all) assholes are men. He next discusses what people who are not assholes can do about those who are, both on the individual level and in small or large social systems. In the closing chapters he moves further into the realm of the political and economic. He argues for a refreshing view of what might be called “the problems of capitalism”. Far from the Marxist idea that capitalism is inherently and necessarily unstable, James argues that modern (State regulated) capitalism can be perfectly stable and what makes it unstable are the presence of, you guessed it, assholes, whose behavior distorts the system rendering it less and less stable over time.

Does James make his case here for this final claim? I think he does, and it puts a nice capstone on an all around excellent book in the philosophical arena of ethics. An easy read. If you are looking for an example of good philosophical technique applied to a trivial notion that turns out to have world shattering consequences, this would be a good read.

Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.