Review: Rising Star

Earlier this week I finally finished David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. I say finally for a few reasons. The book is so long – my e-book, in regular typeface, was about 2,000 pages – and so detailed that it reminded me of War and Peace. In fact, the first chapter opens with 1970s Chicago, well before Obama ever set foot there. And it contains so many different characters that it’s difficult to keep everyone straight. Nonetheless, Garrow effectively shows the inner war and peace Obama encountered on his path to the presidency.

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Those who read Obama’s Dreams From My Father are familiar with the gist of Obama’s background. His mother is a white American and his father was a black Kenyan.  Neither parent was physically present for the majority of Obama’s childhood, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents after living with his mother and stepfather for several years in Indonesia. Obama describes himself, in his autobiography, as someone searching for identity and place.

Garrow unravels the vignettes written by Obama, and digs much deeper into Obama’s past.  While many of Obama’s Hawaiian friends from childhood remembered him as a smart and laid-back individual, Obama’s book doesn’t necessarily portray the same, but instead describes racial conflict. Garrow, instead, posits that Obama actually became more aware of racial conflict and identity while at Occidental College.  It was then that Obama ceased allowing friends to call him “Barry,” and became “Barack.” It was then that he chose his identity as black (rather than someone of multiple ethnicities.)

Another fascinating portion of the book follows Obama’s relationship with Sheila Jager. Garrow suggests that Obama ultimately broke up with Jager because Obama believed that he could not successfully run for higher political office unless he developed ties in the African-American community by marrying a woman from the same. Michelle Robinson filled that role perfectly. (And Michelle Obama did all that she could to keep her husband from running for office, believing politics was beneath his talents.)

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about President Obama, Chicago politics, or campaigning. While the book focuses on both the personal and the political, the personal accounts, gleaned through interviews Obama’s friends and relations, were the most interesting. They provide insight into the motivations of a man that led America for eight years.

Review: In Our Hands

You might’ve heard about political scientist and professor Charles Murray recently. He was the subject of a recent campus protest, and is also (in)famous for writing The Bell Curve. I picked up the most recent draft of his call for the creation of a universal basic income (“UBI”), In Our Hands: A Plan for Replacing the Welfare State.  As a person who relies on government welfare programs (e.g., Medicaid), I’m skeptical of most libertarian plans for reform. However, Murray and his book surprised me in a very positive way!

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Unsurprisingly, Murray calls for the elimination of most wealth transfer programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and additional programs that may not initially come to mind when one thinks about welfare (e.g., farming subsidies). However, people – citizens, at least – will not be left completely without government support. Wealth transfer programs will be replaced by UBI. The figure Murray gives is $13,000 per year for each individual aged 21 and older (the amount can be proportionally reduced by up to $6,500, depending upon how much income a given citizen receives each year). Lest you think this is going to cost taxpayers even more than current welfare programs, Murray’s proposal is actually less costly than the status quo!

Unlike current programs that place in enormous restrictions on how each form of wealth transfer may be used, Murray’s UBI has at least $3,000 each year must be used to purchase catastrophic health insurance. This should please Democrats, in that all Americans would have healthcare. It should also please Republicans, in that catastrophic care truly is health insurance. Believe it or not, I am also impressed by Murray’s proposal because he states that long-term care would be included in the mandatory health insurance packages. People with severe disabilities in need of personal care assistance have been looking for a Medicaid alternative for years – could Murray’s UBI be it?

There is much more to discuss in this short book, and perhaps this blog will revisit some of the other benefits of UBI at a later time. I’m intrigued with the idea, and have been mulling over Murray’s proposal all week. Needless to say, this is definitely a book I recommend to anyone interested in government reform.  AEI-affiliated ideas strike again!

Review: The Death of Expertise

Yesterday I finished Tom Nichols’ quick read, The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell:

Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.

Immediately coming to mind after reading that excerpt was images of Sean Hannity and other commentators  railing against “snowflakes,” a pejorative term for millennials that demand “safe spaces” and recognition of their value. In fact, Nichols devotes an entire chapter to higher education, noting that students are increasingly rude to professors, increasingly less deferential now that education has become a business and the customer is always right – even when the customer is clearly, factually, and undeniably incorrect. Most institutions of higher learning now give out As and Bs to 80% of the students in any given class.

Although conservatives are usually quick to point out the disturbing consequences of this failure of higher education, an area dominated by liberal thinkers, Nichols ideologically balanced in his arguments against anti-intellectualism. He blames talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh for only featuring single viewpoints, and even screening callers to ensure that there will be no on-air debating. Nichols also targets President Trump, who has promoted misconceptions about vaccination and President Obama’s birth place.

Regardless of who is to blame for the tension between intellectual elites and the larger populace, the mutual contempt could spell disaster for the American republic, which relies on an informed citizenry.  Although Nichols fears that an economic collapse or natural disaster may be necessary to bring these warring groups together, he does provide a roadmap for going forward. Nichols implores the general citizenry to take the time to consider expert opinions, for example, and directs experts not to withdraw into their proverbial ivory towers.

Given that every American bears responsibility to the republic, this book is worth a read.

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Review: Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is quite possibly one of the most demoralizing works I’ve ever read. This feeling is driven home even farther when considering that the book is written as a letter to Coates’ 15-year-old (at the time of its writing) son. Ouch!

I picked up the book for two reasons. First, it’s been on the New York Times Bestseller List for quite a while, and I was sick of looking at it without having read it. Second, I’m always interested in hearing other perspectives, and Coates has a significant reputation as a voice in the black community.

Coates does have an interesting perspective on race. For starters, he writes that “race is a child of racism, not the father.” In other words, race is a classification artificially manufactured by humans, rather than reflecting any meaningful distinctions. Nevertheless, Coates recognizes that black people have formed a community; it is diverse, but black people have come to identify with one another as a result of the oppressive American sorting system.

However, Coates begins to lose me when he begins decrying the education system as a tool of oppression, “a jail of other people’s interests.” To many, including many people with disabilities who have also suffered oppression, education has provided a path to economic freedom and upward mobility. Coates never really answers challenges such as this, except for saying that the individual intentions of educators should be forgotten: “What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary.” Later he writes that his “classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.” What a great thing to tell a teenager…

Coates continually engages hypocritical thinking Although he writes that he “raised [his son] to respect every human being has singular,” he refuses to respect individuals, such as the teachers described above or the police officer that shot his friend. Instead, he considers them tools of an oppressive system that cares only about promoting the American Dream. Throughout the book, Coates lovingly discusses past girlfriends, his wife, son is, and friends. But he refuses to grant individual white people the benefit of the doubt or to even view them as individual actors rather than “majoritarian pigs” in some diabolical system of systemic oppression.

Don’t get me wrong – Coates has ample reason to be upset about the way America has treated black people. Beyond slavery and sins of the past, America still makes it difficult for black people to find things like affordable and accessible housing. There are prejudices built into the system. However, unlike Coates, I haven’t given up on trying to improve the system. He tells his son, “Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.”  That statement sickens me, as does Coates’ Jeremiah Wright-like reaction to 9/11. I still believe in my country, in all of its people.

Review: Planet of the Blind

In honor of Disability Awareness Month, I decided to read a memoir about disability: Stephen Kuusisto‘s Planet of the Blind. It was a great choice, and I give it two thumbs up.

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As a person with a disability, myself, I’m not a big fan of the disability memoir-genre. Typically, they tend to bemoan lost status (especially those written by authors with spinal cord injuries) or start out from the perspective of wanting to inspire readers. While Kuusisto does expend pages writing of his desire to “pass” in “normal” society, he uses more to show the folly of his attempts. In effect, Planet of the Blind is a story of disability acceptance.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Kuusisto’s work is that he is a poet, and his prose is stunning. For example: “My masculinity is fragile, my ego crawls around blindness like a snail exploring a piece of broken glass.” For the most part, readers are free from repeated clichés about overcoming and finding peace; Kuusisto has the vocabulary to invite readers more deeply into his thought processes and emotional responses.

In chart, if you are interested in reading something more than a memoir, consider Planet of the Blind.

Review: A Really Good Day

Yesterday I finished Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. Waldman, a former public defender, acquires a bottle of diluted LSD and studies its effect on her life. More rigorously, she provides daily updates in regard to influences – or a suspected influences – upon her mood, relationships, irritability, sleeplessness, productivity, and pain.

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Waldman’s research is brave, in that LSD was categorized as a Schedule I drug by Congress and President Nixon in 1970. The Controlled Substances Act clamped down on legal access to the drug. It wasn’t until 1994 that the FDA gave approval for human testing regarding psychedelic drugs again. Yet, many are still reluctant to experiment with LSD, even if authorized to do so by the federal government and internal review boards.

The War on Drugs’ propaganda regarding LSD and other psychedelics is noted throughout the book, as is unfortunate consequences. Waldman considers, for example, that MDMA was regularly used by psychiatrists in the 1990s with very positive results. In one experiment, 83% of research subjects that obtained MDMA and talk therapy to resolve PTSD were cured after two sessions. The cure rate for those receiving a placebo? Only 25%. Importantly, the effects lasted long after MDMA was flushed from the subjects’ systems. Presumably, MDMA could be helpful to other PTSD sufferers, including veterans.

Certainly, Waldman notes that drugs are not without negatives. Although LSD has a remarkably low toxicity level, it occasionally led to sleeplessness and agitation. MDMA can indirectly lead to death, if people fail to take proper precautions. Nevertheless, Waldman astutely recognizes that even SSRIs (prescribed to approximately 10% of those in the United States) are not without risks. But not for the law, why not experiment in order to learn more about whether certain Schedule I drugs may offer benefits that outweigh the risks – and the alternatives?

Aside from being uncomfortable about appearing to endorse Waldman’s illegal activity, I found the book fascinating, and even encouraging. No, I would not personally take illicit drugs, nor would I advise anyone to do so. Yet, I would ask that the federal government and researchers be more forthcoming regarding the positives of certain chemical substances and determine whether they could be used for the benefit of those who suffer.

 

Review: Reflections on the Revolution in Europe

Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West isn’t a new book, but it’s one that I’m glad I picked up. In fact, the 2010 tome sheds important light on why Britons Brexited and Donald Trump is the United States’ next president.

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Caldwell suggests that when European nations began guest worker programs in the post-World War II era, they situated themselves, unknowingly, to become “a continent of migrants.” At the time of its writing, the book claims that of 375 million residents of Western Europe, approximately 40 million non-natives are domiciled in the region. Many of these migrants come from Islamic cultures. This is notable, in that “the Islamic and the Christian worlds have opposed one another, violently at times,” for more than a millennium. The book considers whether Europeans and Islamic immigrants can live together peacefully in the years to come, as well as contemporary socio-political circumstances.

According to Caldwell, less than one-fifth of Europeans believe immigration has had positive results for their nations. Before the reader write Caldwell and his fellow Europeans off as racist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic, it is enlightening to objectively consider immigration’s net effects. Caldwell’s book offers that objective analysis.

Indeed, civil liberties have been restricted for all Europeans in the wake of mass immigration. As authorities have placed radical mosques under surveillance, governing bodies have rolled back privacy rights for all Europeans so as not to viewed as singling out those of a particular religion. (Again, no one wants to be considered a “hater” or “Islamophobe.”) To keep from being overwhelmed by the outcome of family reunification programs (noting that practitioners of the Islamic faith traditionally have far, far higher birth rates than those of generally-secular Europeans), Denmark made it increasingly difficult to gain Danish citizenship, making it tough for even for a native Dane to get citizenship for a foreign spouse.

Although some – Caldwell cites European elites, and I’d cite Hillary Clinton in her latest attempt at becoming president – argue that immigrants bring benefits, particularly in economic form, to their home countries, this has been questionable – at least in Europe’s case. Caldwell writes: “Instead of using their benefits to pay for say, food, [immigrants] may use them to pay for, say, Islam. Two-thirds of French imams are on welfare.” Eventually, Europeans determined that immigrants were threatening the sustainability of their welfare economies.

The result was that elites began couching immigration in terms of moral imperatives. We hear something similar in the United States when people claim we have a moral obligation to admit Syrian refugees. The trouble with arguing that the admission of refugees is a moral imperative means that one cannot pick and choose among those asylum-seekers with the best credentials; one is morally obligated to accept all in need, or at least those in the greatest need (i.e., those worst off). It also means that many of the refugees admitted into Western countries are Islamic. “For Europe, the biggest nearby humanitarian catastrophes and the bloodiest nearby wars were either in the Muslim world (Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Eastern Turkey) or on its borders (the former Yugoslavia).” Further, these people are moving to their new land not to do, but to be. This dynamic has created a situation in which immigrants are coming in great numbers – in entire communities. Rather than assimilation, these many communities coexist within their own subculture.

The next two sections of the book – which I won’t spoil for you here – address Islamic and Western culture. Caldwell tackles difficult questions that make Westerners squeamish, including: Is Islam a peaceful religion? Is tolerance beneficial for its practitioners? Is Western culture in decline? Is Islam more sustainable and attractive than Western culture? I found Caldwell’s analysis truly helpful and balanced. Given that “the clash of cultures” is likely to be a hot topic in 2017, I highly recommend this book!