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!

Review: Crisis of Character

I recently read Gary Byrne’s Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operate. I thought I was in for some exciting red meat-style dishing about political scandal. Although a part of the book told tales about Bill’s dalliances with White House staff, it wasn’t what I was expecting. In fact, the book only made fleeting references to Hillary giving Bill a black eye during an argument and mistreating administration staffers.51uz1Izzz5L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Instead, a much larger portion of the book focuses on the Department of Justice (DOJ) forcing the author to testify during the impeachment situation. Apparently the author is no fan of the DOJ nor even the Secret Service, which wasn’t particularly helpful in advising Byrne when his career was on the line.

The book is basically an autobiography of the years Byrne served his country in the Air Force, Secret Service, and eventually as an air marshal. He frequently discussed the ineptitude of bureaucrats, and suggested that middle management positions are rarely awarded on the basis of merit. Moreover, he shared scary anecdotes about how management repeatedly lowered standards for those serving as protectors of the American people in the interest of political correctness or laziness.

If you are looking for a book that bashes the Clinton Machine, other books are probably better suited to that end. However, if you are looking for an insider’s perspective on federal bureaucracy and service, this book is worth a read.

Review: Crippled America

Yup. I did it. After weeks of hemming and hawing about whether I should read it, I finally picked it up. Blame it on the fact that I was stuck in a hotel room for four hours with nothing else to do or blame me for not resisting the title. Either way, I have digested Donald Trump‘s Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.

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As I recently joked in an MSNBC article, I was initially excited about the tome. Was a presidential candidate actually devoting an entire book to disability policy? Would we finally have a comprehensive long-term care program? New incentives for employers to hire people with disabilities? Of course, no such luck.

Crippled America is classic Trump. In fact, the first few pages of the book are actually devoted to discussing Trump’s portrait on the cover. He explains why he chose to scowl rather than smile. He also repeats things again and again and again – especially why he is a winner. But, if the reader can get past the self-praise with a few eye rolls, the book is not a complete bore.

Trump has received much criticism about his supposed lack of nuance and policy detail. Crippled America does answer some substantive policy questions. For example, readers learn which tax rates Trump would like to see enacted, in addition to the two tax loopholes he is in favor of keeping. Readers will also get a better understanding of Trump’s healthcare ideas (or admitted lack thereof). Trump explains that he has evolved from believing a universal payor system best, but is open to hearing from experts regarding what type of plan should replace Obamacare.

Because people should be voting in November, I do recommend they read this book to better understand Trump the candidate. I can’t say it’s “fun” or academically challenging, but it is important.

Review: If at Birth You Don’t Succeed

Remember Zach Anner? The disabled demi-god of YouTube is now out in print – his autobiography, If at Birth You Don’t Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Disability, is absolutely hilarious and well worth a read! I was prompted to make the purchase after Zach graciously agreed to Skype with a nonprofit I’m involved with, NMD United.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Zach’s life, largely focusing on career and relationships, through the latter half of his 30 years. What makes Zach’s story unique – in addition to his winning a show from Oprah – is his sense of humor. And, because he has CP (cerebral palsy, or the sexiest of the palsies, for then initiated), his cripple jokes are particularly funny to me.

My only criticism of this book is that I wish Zach would have spent more time discussing childhood and what he went through while in his high school years. I understand that these were more difficult, and probably less interesting than his years in Austin and LA, but it would’ve been nice to get a more complete picture of the awesome guy presented in the book. (Maybe I’m partial – he was just as congenial and kind in person as he sounds in print.)

If my review hasn’t yet convinced you to put this book on your shelf, it comes with funny pictures. When’s the last time you had the chance to read an illstrated book?!

Review: Evicted

Yes, another housing book. This time, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Not only did the book come recommended by one of my former law professors, but also, strangely, a former love interest. But I digress…

Desmond, a Harvard professor and winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, demonstrates the toll eviction takes on families by following several evicted Milwaukee residents. His subjects come from various backgrounds and demographic categories – both black and white, gay and straight, disabled and able-bodied. Their common features? Poverty and eviction.

Interestingly, and part of what makes the book so unique, is that Desmond is honest with his narrative. Clearly, Desmond has an agenda, as outlined in the book’s epilogue.  While one may believe someone pushing a universal housing voucher program and expanded public legal aid programming would want the victims of eviction to sound sympathetic, Desmond exposes that one renter spent all of her food stamps on lobster tails and king crab, on which she gorged herself one night. Another renter left her children unattended, and the youngest died in a fire

Although I cannot say that I liked any of the people featured in Desmond’s book, I could relate to them. Desmond does a good job of showing that the featured renters are simply people,  with flaws and gifts that could be shared if circumstances permitted. In the same vein, Desmond also shares stories of two landlords, neither horrible villains nor sacrificing heroes.

Indeed, it is these complex relationships between tenant and landlord that cause the book to stand out. Certainly, Desmond gives the reader well-researched statistics and history regarding eviction in American cities, both past and present, but these statistics can be gleaned easily from the many housing papers and books available.What readers did not previously have access to was a candid glimpse into how eviction comes to be, how it affects both landlords and tenants, and its effects on the greater community.

Because I did enjoy the book, I would be remiss if I did not point out my disappointment that, on multiple occasions, Desmond refers to people with disabilities as “invalids.” For all the care he takes in representing other minorities fairly, using a word like invalid is seriously bizarre. Perhaps the Milwaukee winter froze the thesaurus inside his head???

Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I have resisted my penchant for All Things Morbid for some time, but couldn’t manage to force myself not to read Caitlin Doughty‘s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.  It seemed fitting literary romp for the gal whose Make-A-Wish was to go to Salem, Massachusetts for Halloween. In fact, one of my favorite books of all time is Mary Roach’s Stiff.

Doughty’s book began wonderfully – full of wit, and eyes-wide-open. We learn why she chose mortuary work, and get to learn fun facts and figures about the funeral industry. Some subjects, like stillborn infants, are written about with grace and intrigue, which I can respect as an incredibly difficult juxtaposition to manage, let alone pull off with Doughty’s finesse.

Yet, my beef is in book’s perception of human dignity, not significantly discussed until the end of the book. Part reference book and part memoir, the reader learns about how certain bodies caused the author to reflect on her own life, love, and mortality. Discussing a particularly poignant exchange, Doughty remembers a “wheelchair-bound” widow that she believes “should have been the first to go.” In addition to these stereotypical conclusions, she also infantilizes the widow; after receiving his wife’s cremains, the widow “just thanked me in his thin voice, and cradled the brown box in his lap like a child.” Why should someone that uses a wheelchair die before his able-bodied wife? Why is he any less vital than any other grieving spouse?

It’s not that Doughty has ill-intentions toward the disabled widow; in fact, when he is brought to the crematory not long after, Doughty weeps for the loss of love – deep, beautiful love – that he and his former wife had. Their love is something that Doughty appears to envy. Why not, then, respect other aspects of his life?

It wasn’t until reading this book that I began to realize the deep roots of ableism in American society. I had always written the time off as liberal mumbo jumbo. But when the author began to talk about dignity, linking it with death, I grew alarmed. Doughty even references a piece by Atul Gawande (who also writes beautifully about mortality), and questions whether grandma and grandpa should be enabled to try and cheat death through medical intervention. Why not, then, the poor widow in a wheelchair?

Indeed, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes got me thinking. Just probably not in the way the author intended.

Review: Smarter Faster Better

I recently decided to take a break from heavier academic reading and indulge in one of my favorite genres: pop science. The bright orange cover of Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business caught my eye on the iBooks shelf, ironically destroying my own productivity as its lessons drew me in.

Duhigg devotes one chapter to each piece of the productivity puzzle, concluding with an appendix of quick tips for applying these lessons to one’s life day-to-day routine.  At first glance, the keys to productivity – motivation, teamwork, goal-setting, the management of others, decision-making, innovation, and data absorption – may appear obvious and overbroad. After all, how does one force creativity out of themselves? Well, Duhigg tells you how in Chapter 7, using Disney’s Frozen and the Broadway hit West Side Story to explain the innovative process.

My favorite part of the book was the chapter on goals, in which Duhigg cleverly melds anecdotes about the Yom Kippur War and General Electric to describe a phenomenon known as “cognitive closure.” For years, ex-love interests have complained about my need to always label relationships and know exactly where I stand within them. Of course,  this penchant for decisiveness carries over into other aspects of my life, pulling me away from the indecisive and willy-nilly. Finally, I’m able to put a label on my certain brand of neurosis: cognitive closure. Duhigg explains that approximately 20% of the population similarly craves finality  and conclusion. While this characteristic is helpful in many situations, it can also be detrimental when one refuses to consider other possibilities or change their mind in the face of impending alternate truths.

Less interesting was the chapter on data absorption, which uses the example of inter-city Cincinnati schools to show that hands-on data manipulation better enables people to understand the data available. While the chapter’s conclusions are doubtlessly sound,  they are also incredibly intuitive. This created a bit of an anticlimactic ending.

Nevertheless, anyone with a few hours to kill will be entertained by Duhigg’s latest book – and perhaps have the necessary toolkit moving forward to avoid wasted, motivation-less chunks of time.