Audio-book Review
 By Chet Yarbrough

Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Landfall (A Novel)

By: Thomas Mallon

Narrated by: Robert Petkoff

Thomas Mallon (Author, novelist, essayist, and critic.)

Thomas Mallon’s book is a fictionalized account of George W. Bush’s administration. Mallon cleverly includes a fictional love story that adds some drama to his story. What one should be wary of is Mallon’s political bias and how it might color the story.

In listening to a book of fiction that uses the names of the known, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Fictionalizing history-making characters is particularly difficult when it is written about events of the near past. What helps is the knowledge that all history books are partly fictionalized by choice of an author’s facts. Revisionist history is why past Presidents have both risen and fallen in the eyes of historians and the public.

George W. Bush makes some bad decisions as a young man, but more importantly and significantly, as a two-term President.

The son of former President H. W. Bush comes across as a decent and flawed human being. America’s consequence from Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and George W.s response to Katrina show American government hubris and failure. Mallon’s story shows American’s fallibility as a democratic government. Both Republican and Democratic parties in America have made good and bad domestic and international decisions; some of which have been reversed, others not.

Mallon writes of the difficulty of working through America’s deadly mistakes in Iraq.

Mallon chooses to write a fictional account of the bad decisions made by President George W. Bush. Some of us have short memories but Mallon reminds listeners of the last four years of George W.’s Presidency. Some in Bush’s administration reluctantly suggest America must withdraw from the mess America created by removing Iraq’s autocratic and brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. Some of George W.’s leaders were misled (or lied to themselves) about Iraq’s threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). No one in George W.’s administration manages to persuade policy makers that American nation-building in foreign cultures is a fool’s errand.  

Autocratic governments know little about what it means to be free, or at least free within the rule of law.

Mallon creates a story that implies there is a great deal of descension in the second term of George W.’s administration. This is particularly evident in the intellectual conflict between the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. There is a growing recognition by leaders in the administration, that America could not re-build Iraq’s government. Rumsfeld may have suggested immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq with political spin that infers America’s job is done.  The President and Secretary of State Rice realize the Presidency and American resolve is tarnished by withdrawal, whether it is militarily or diplomatically accomplished. Mallon’s novel concludes G.W.’s legacy is the Iraq debacle and the mishandling of the Katrina disaster in Louisiana.

Katrina disaster in Louisiana

As time passes and history is rewritten, Mallon’s conclusions are likely to be repeated. Neither George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, nor Secretary Rice will be remembered as great leaders. It is not judgement about their patriotism or their desire to make America safer or better, but a consequence of political mistakes.

George W’s administration fails to understand nation-building is folly, and natural disasters are not about the dead but about quick and organized aid to survivors. Mallon’s book is a reminder of how difficult it is for any organization’s leader to become great in the eyes of history.


Audio-book Review
            By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Heart of the Machine (Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence)

Release Date 3/14/17

By: Richard Yonck

Narrated by: Robertson Dean

Richard Yonck (Author, futurist, consultant, TED speaker, MA from London Film School 1981-1983, Attended Univ. of Wa. 1977-1980.)

Richard Yonck argues the next step in technology is to program emotion into machines. As a skeptic, one’s first reaction is to search for information on Yonck’s background. One finds it is eclectic and more literary than science driven.

Yonck notes human learning is intimately connected with emotion. Emotions of parents and offspring arguably shape children’s view of the world as much as genetic inheritance. Yonck explains parents’ and people’s faces become a school from which children learn the characteristics of emotion. Yonck explains emotional signals reinforce human’ memory, belief, and behavior.

Yonck notes as the growth of facial recognition expands, facial expressions can be programmed into machines to interpret human emotion. The troubling thought is that machines programed with emotions may either negatively react to human facial expression or worse, become unbalanced, like children who act out of anger. With the addition of emotion, machines become capable of learning but also of becoming psychotic just like humans. Yonck suggests a safeguard like Asimov’s three robot rules that argues for programing machines to protect humanity. These rules are meant to deny machines any right to harm humans.


Assimov creates a fourth rule to preserve humanity, but a recurrent theme in his stories show ways in which these rules fail. In the real world, even if the rules were effective, who ensures all machines are programmed with Asimov’s rules?

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992, Russian born American author and professor of biochemistry.)

Programming emotions into machines gives them an essential requirement for learning but that learning can be subverted. Human nature accompanies every decision made by human beings, whether a Hitler or Mahatma Gandhi. A non-conforming leader could refuse to program machines with Asimov’s rules. Government leaders could have machines programmed to kill anyone who disagrees with their leadership.

Money, power, and prestige incentivize both good and bad leaders. The same might be said for learning machines.

Putting concern with the history of human nature aside, Yonck notes some benefits from programming emotions into machines. Machines will be able to think and learn on their own with emotion programming. The demographics of countries like China and Japan suggest an aging cohort will hinder economic growth and diminish needed help for relatives of the working population. Much of that help could be provided by programmed intelligent’ machines. Just as happened with the industrial revolution, jobs will be lost, and retraining will be required. But, a benefit will inure to the elderly who need assistance and the working young who do not have the time or inclination to care for the elderly.

Yonck suggests machines will be partners and companions of human beings. Psycho-sexual relationships will develop between machines and humans. Machines will replace work for humans while increasing product research, development, and production. Machines will reduce social inequality by increasing the general wealth of the world. That is a best-case scenario.

A consequence of thinking-machine programming is that machines will either outlast their human companions or break down and be grieved by their survivors. Of course, machine death is not much different than the birth and death of humans. Humans break down (die) and are grieved by those left behind.

Another evolutionary possibility suggested by Yonck is the melding of human mind and machine. He notes a treatment for PTSD (actually approved by FDA) that involves electrical stimulation of a portion of the brain that appears to activate anxiety from recalled traumatic events. Yonck suggests continuing brain research will reveal neuronal pathways of thought and action that can be modified by electrical stimulation. He infers this is a first step in a journey toward a human/machine singularity like the transition from ape to humanoid to homo sapiens in geological history. He suggests a new human/machine society might be the next evolutionary change of humankind.

In the last chapters of Yonck’s book several examples of brain intervention are noted. Two interventions are direct with invasive insertions of wire into the brain and electrical stimulation from skull caps and clothing. A third type of intervention is with drugs. All have mixed results.

Yonck is a TED conference speaker. His writings have a quality of entertainment that makes him interesting if not steeped in science. On balance, Yonck appears more optimistic than pessimistic about the future of A.I. whether emotion programing for machines occurs or not.


Audio-book Review
            By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World)

By: The Great Courses

Narrated by: Robert Bucholz

Robert O. Bucholz (Professor at Loyola University in Chicago, Graduate of Oxford and Cornell.)

Robert Bucholz’s brief history of London walks the curious through ancient and modern streets of London. Like John Wayne in “True Grit”, this history shows what grit means to British Londoners. Possibly as far back as 1750 BC, archeological remains show evidence of a community on the Thames that later becomes the site of London. Around the year 43 AD Londinium was founded by the Romans. It became the capital of Roman Britain with a population estimated at 60,000 inhabitants.

King Aethelberhtl (589-616AD.)

The Saxons displace the Romans in the 5th century AD. An Anglo-Saxon (mixture of German and British descendants) was established as King. His name is Aethelberht (spelling varies). He was the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity.

Bucholz notes Saint Mellitus is the first bishop of London appointed when a Cathedral is dedicated to St. Paul in AD 604. Though the site (the highest point in the city, Ludgate Hill) is the same today as then, the original cathedral evolved and was replaced four times.

St. Paul Today

It was destroyed in the “Great Fire of London” in 1666 and soon after rebuilt to its current form at the direction of Christopher Wren.

“Great Fire of London” in 1666

In 1066 the Saxons are replaced by the Normans (mixture of Vikings and French). They rule into the 1400s when the Tudor’ monarchs (a mixture of Welsh and English) come to power. King Henry VII, and then Henry VIII take charge.

King Henry VIII (1491-1547, Coronation 1509)

It is the reign of Henry VIII that is most well-known, in part, because of the split that occurs between the Roman Catholic Church and England’s Protestant Anglican Church. The other reason Henry becomes well-known is because of his future wife, Anne Boleyn, whom he has beheaded. The consequence of church schism reverberates through the rest of London’s history.

Bucholz gives a brief history of Chaucer who is born around 1340 and lives until 1400. Chaucer lives in the heart of London. Though Chaucer is known to most as the author of the Canterbury Tales, he is an important servant of the crown as comptroller of customs at the Port of London.

LONDON 1600s

Bucholz reminds his audience of the first Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She is shown as a consummate politician by opening herself to the London public.

The wealth of the empire was diminished by the devaluation of money and profligacy of King Henry the VIII. Elizabeth’s political skill replenishes the royal coffers. London grows to an estimated 200,000 residents. Though the wealth of the royal coffers improves, poverty rises dramatically. Bucholz notes the population increase in London rises faster than the economic benefits to its people. The increase is not from natural births but from the country people moving into the city in greater numbers than can be handled by the local economy. Bucholz notes more babies die than needed to replace the population that dies from natural causes.

Bucholz briefly recounts the unsuccessful gunpowder revolution during James I’s reign (1601-1625). James I is not a popular King. Though he manages to bring Scotland into the empire, the rift between Catholics and protestants continues to roil the country. At the same time, poverty increases as London’s population expands.

Jumping to the 1800s, Bucholz addresses the consequence of London’s rapid growth. Now the population is nearing a million. Pollution, crime, and poverty are aggravated by industrialization. Crime is an everyday reality ranging from pickpockets to, to prostitution, to the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murders. The Thames is a running sewer, streets are spottily paved, the city is dark or poorly lit by candles, burning torches are carried by guides who will pick your pocket as often as guide you through the city.

The infamous London fog is caused by coal burning factories and home heating demands. This is the London which Charles Dickens writes of in “A Christmas Carol”, “Oliver Twist”, “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities”.

LONDON 1800s

Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850, Home Secy, Chancellor of ther Exchequer, Prime Minister served from1828-1846.)

Each 19th century problem is attacked by London’s leaders. In 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel forms a municipal police force. Initially, it was formed for the countryside on the outskirts of London but became institutionalized and eventually adopted within the London city boundaries. Those who were employed in these new police wore uniforms, including distinctive hats. They became known as “Bobbies”, possibly because of Peel’s first name. By 1851, there were 13,000 police across England and Wales.


Cholera infected the London’s population because of Thames’ pollution.

By 1858, the stink from the Thames was so great in the summer that one had to hold their nose. Cholera and the stink of the river dropped dramatically when a large system of sewers was built. It was commissioned by the Metropolitan Board of Works which became the London County Council in 1889. It was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, an English civil engineer. It took 9 years to build with future repairs and improvements as the years passed and the population continued to grow.

Its estimated length is around 82 miles of brick main sewers and 1,100 miles of street sewers.

Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891, English Civil Engineer.)

A British Clean Air Act was passed in 1956. The key to its abatement was the reduction of coal burning particle emissions. Of course, pollution remains a worldwide problem.

London fog worsened through to the 1950s. In December 1952, the pollution level grew so dense, 150,000 people were hospitalized and an estimated 4,000 died.

Bucholz reminds listeners of Londoner’s grit during WWI and WWII. WWI introduces the reality of war to every 20th and 21st century human. The consequence of war never leaves those who experience it. PTSD is not diagnosed in WWI but found as an incurable disorder in all subsequent wars. It is never cured but many have learned how to live with it. With the help of friends and medical assistance, PTSD is managed by many but not all.

Visiting London today is a great pleasure. It has some of the greatest theatres, museums, and entertainments of the world. Bucholz’s history of London shows political unrest, pollution, poverty, and crime are killers but there are solutions.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Be Like the Fox (Machiavelli in His World)

By: Erica Benner

Narrated by: Karen Saltus

Erica Benner (Author, British political philosopher and historian)

Erica Benner gives context to Machiavelli and his role as a diplomat and advisor to leaders of the 15th and early 16th century. Machiavelli is not depicted as a supporter but as a clever advisor to tyrannic leaders of Florence and city-state regions of Italian power. What Benner reminds one of is that there is no country called Italy at this point in history.

There are three centers of power in the country now known as Italy. One is Florence where Machiavelli is born and raised, the second is in city-state regions, and the third is the Catholic Church in Rome. All are centers of power.

Benner’s history infers most of Machiavelli’s life is a duel with the Medici family’s power. The Medici family initially controls Florence when Machiavelli is a young man. The Medici family is dethroned in 1494. Machiavelli comes under suspicion as a possible co-conspirator. In August 1512, the Medici’s return to control of Florence.

Nicolo Machiavelli lives (1469-1527) in interesting times. The Renaissance occurs between the 1300s and 1700s. Benner infers Machiavelli is like a fox with nine lives.

When the Medici family is overthrown, Florence comes under the rule of a Dominican friar in 1494. The new leader is Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola is an ascetic who unwisely ridicules the Pope’s Catholic Church leadership and influence. He accuses the bishops of simony, mismanagement, and greed. Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia family descendent, becomes Pope and has Savonarola beheaded. Savonarola’s experience undoubtedly influences Machiavelli to keep his own counsel when dealing with power.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498, Ruled Florence from 1494-1498

Benner explains Machiavelli counsels the Borgia’s but only serves in a way that seems supportive. Benner suggests Machiavelli’s advice to the Borgias hides his real beliefs about city-state’ leadership. Machiavelli is in his twenties when serving the Borgias. These seem the formative years of Machiavelli’s future book, “The Prince”.

Cesare Borgia (1475-1507, died at the age of 31)

There are three Borgias that become Popes. It is the second, Pope Alexander VI, which has a son named Cesare Borgia which appears to be a model for Machiavelli’s “…Prince”. Benner suggests interpretation of Machiavelli is often wrong. After the Borgias, Machiavelli’s leadership beliefs are shown by Benner to be more nuanced. One might consider Machiavelli a political genius, ahead of his time. Benner explains “The Prince” is filled with irony while appearing to laud tyrannic power while his true belief is in just treatment of the ruled. Machiavelli warns of tyranny’s negative consequence.

Caterina Sforza (Noblewoman of Forli.)

An interesting acquaintance of Machiavelli in 1499, before the Medici restoration, is Caterina Sforza, an Italian noblewoman who succeeds her husband as a leader of an area identified as Forli. Women are shown as a force, even in the 15th century. She shows herself to be a tigress by facing down Borgia’s martial control of the town. The reason this is an interesting note is because Benner refers to a dream Machiavelli has of a forceful woman who counsels him to confront the new Medici rulers of Florence and offer his services as an experienced diplomat.

A not widely known contribution in Benner’s history is that Machiavelli promotes the idea of drafting citizens of a city-state into an army for defense of their homeland.

Most Italian city-states hired mercenaries to fight their battles and expand their fiefdoms. Machiavelli recognizes the concomitant risk with mercenaries who can turn on their benefactors for their own interests. Machiavelli convinces Florence’s leaders of the folly of using mercenaries because of their loyalty to whomever pays them best. Machiavelli is charged with raising what we today call a national guard. Soldiers would spend several days for training, and later be called-up when there is a threat to their country. By being citizens of their homeland, Machiavelli argues a home-grown army is more effective and reliable than a mercenary military force when defending their homeland.

Machiavelli is imprisoned and tortured when the Medici’s return to power. He is implicated in an effort to keep the Medici’s out of power in Florence.

With the support of Spain, and a Medici Pope, the Medici family returns to power in Florence. In 1513, a Medici Pope is elected by the Catholic Church. The Medici family returns to rule in the 16th century. Machiavelli’s career is partly resurrected when he writes to the Medici’s about how foreign powers should be handled. He is known to be speaking from personal experience. Though the Medici’s mistrust Machiavelli, they note the value of his understanding of negotiation and diplomacy.  Machiavelli is now in his 40s. “The Prince” is generally thought to have been published in 1513.

Another interesting note in Benner’s history is that Machiavelli becomes an accomplished playwright when the Medici family returns to Florence. His plays are comedies, dramas, and satires about Florentine customs and habits,

Two other momentous occurrences happen during Machiavelli’s life. One is Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church and its purposeful belief that one can buy their way to heaven with indulgences offered for sale (aka simony) by the Church. The second momentous occurrence is the rise of the Muslim religion with the advance of Sulieman the Magnificent. Both were viewed as direct threats to the Church and Catholic faith. Machiavelli is near the end of his eventful life.

Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church with the 95 Thesis in 1517.

Sulieman the Magnificent captures much of the middle east and spreads belief in the Muslim religion. (6 November 1494 – 6 September 1566)

Benner implies “The Prince” is a compilation of Machiavelli’s life as a diplomat. She suggests “The Prince” reflects on the dual nature of leadership with one side beneficent, the other maleficent. Bennet’s history suggests Machiavelli dies penniless and in obscurity because of his sly political fencing with great powers like the Borgia’s and Medici’s.

Machiavelli’s life story shows two leadership styles that effectively lead Italy’s city-states. In Benner’s opinion, Machiavelli’s life experience reinforces belief that beneficent (more democratic and enabling) rather than maleficent (autocratic, and top down) leadership is best. She argues “The Prince” satirically criticizes the second and extolls the first.


Ferguson’s book is an excellent biography of an American WWII veteran, a hero, an intellectual giant, and a flawed human being. Ferguson shows Henry Kissinger certainly is the first three, but also a flawed human being-just like the rest of us.

Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Kissinger: Volume I: 1923-1968: The Idealist

By: Niall Ferguson

Narrated by: Malcolm Hillgartner

Niall Ferguson (Author, Scottish American historian, former professor at Harvard University, London School of Economics, and New York University.)

It is a tribute to Kissinger’s intelligence to have chosen Ferguson as his biographer. However, in some ways Ferguson’s story reminds one of Shakespeare’s characterizations of Marc Anthony’s speech at the burial of Caesar. “I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him”.

“Kissinger: Volume I” is as objective as seems possible for the biography of an important man of history. It is written by an historian of erudition and intellect.

Niall Ferguson’s biography begins with Volume I that covers Henry Kissinger’s life from 1923 to 1968.

Ferguson’s erudite assessment of Kissinger seems so comprehensive that little is left to be known for a second volume.

One’s view of Kissinger will be changed by this detailed biography. Many who lived through the 60s and the Vietnam war think of Kissinger as a primary influence in Nixon’s withdrawal from war and America’s belated welcome of communist China.

Ferguson reinforces belief in Kissinger’s influence but implies Nixon is the prime mover. Nixon directs the end of the American war in Vietnam and opens communist China to the world of diplomacy and trade.

Kissinger is revealed as a brilliant teenage boy who lives in and experiences the beginnings of WWII in Germany. Along with his immediate family, he escapes Nazi Germany before the holocaust. When he returns as a soldier in the U.S. Army, he bares the consequence of relatives lost in his home country.


Ferguson shows Kissinger to be a good soldier. He is promoted to staff sergeant and awarded a medal for his work in exposing Nazi sympathizers in post-war Germany. Many believe Kissinger’s recommendations as adviser to American politicians is Machiavellian in the sense that fear is the best form of diplomatic control of adversaries. Ferguson suggests that labeling is a mischaracterization of Kissinger’s view of diplomacy.

Ferguson infers Kissinger’s experience in Germany were formative in respect to what is characterized as an idealized view of power in the politics of diplomacy. That experience is reinforced by Kissinger’s research and education at Harvard, after the war.

Ferguson explains Kissinger is an idealist. Like the founding fathers envision the structure of American government, Kissinger focuses on balance of power. Kissinger advises American leaders to adopt international policies based on balance of power among adversaries.

Ferguson’s evidence is Kissinger’s doctoral thesis on the history of Metternich and the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mid-19th century. In Kissinger’s thesis, he explains Metternich withstood Russian and Ottoman incursions by using censorship, a spy network, and armed suppression against rebellion to maintain a balance of power between opposing forces interested in dismantling the Austrian empire. When Bonapart and Russia covet the Austrian empire, Metternich influences Napoleon to marry Austrian archduchess Marie Louise rather than the sister of the Russian Tsar. Ferguson explains the approach Kissinger uses in nation-state diplomacy is Metternich’s balance of power idea, not Machiavellian fear.

Kissinger, like Metternich, looks at balancing power among vying nations to achieve stability within one’s own state.

However, Ferguson infers there is a flaw in Kissinger’s reliance on balance of power diplomacy. America’s support of Pol Pot makes some sense in respect to Kissinger’s “balance of power” argument, but its cost exceeds its value. Cambodia fell to communism whether either warring party would prevail. America’s support of Pol Pot did not stabilize or improve America’s position in Vietnam.

Some might characterize America’s support of Pol Pot is Machiavellian. However, another way of looking at it is America’s support balanced two warring factions (the Vietnamese army and the Khmer Rouge who are both opposed to American hegemonic influence) to maintain America’s national stability. If anything, it increased American instability by inflaming anti-war demonstrations in the U.S.; not to mention the horrific human consequence of Pol Pot’s directed murder of 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians. Pol Pot is never tried or executed for these crimes against humanity.

A memorial is filled with the skulls of men, women, and children murdered by Pol Pot in the Cambodian “killing fields”.

What Ferguson makes clear is Kissinger focuses on the ideal of “balance of power” when recommending actionable political policy to American leaders. Kissinger focuses on stability, not equity or fairness when recommending American political policy. Cambodian massacre of its own citizens shows the weakness of Kissinger’s idealization.

Where “balance of power” becomes even more difficult as a diplomatic tool is in a nuclear age where annihilation of a nation becomes a zero-sum game. There is no balance of power. There is only mutual destruction and end times.

Ferguson shows Kissinger believes there is a place for limited nuclear bombing in war. Ferguson infers Kissinger agrees with those who believe nuclear weapons can be used as a strategic weapon. Kissinger believes diplomacy based on “balance of power” can ameliorate Armageddon. It seems a faith-based conclusion from a diplomat who is driven by intellect, not emotion. The problem is political leadership is often driven by emotion, not intellect.

Is Putin driven by emotion or intellect? Western support of Ukraine is a test that will answer the question.

Human emotion makes the idea of “balance of power” in a nuclear age chimerical and useless.

Ferguson shows, like all great leaders in history, there is education, experience, and often a mentor that influence one’s intellect. Education and experience are clearly evident in Ferguson’s story of Kissinger’s life. Ferguson reveals two influential people, one clearly identified as a mentor: the other as a great influencer.

Kissinger’s early mentor is Fritz Kramer whom he met when serving in the U.S. Army (Kramer is pictured below in a conference with President Nixon). Ferguson explains, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, former V.P. of the U.S., and candidate for President becomes a great influence in Kissinger’s life. Rockefeller’s influence is personal as well as professional.

Kissinger promotes the idea of limited nuclear war as a tool for balance of power. This is an argument inferred by Putin in Ukraine’s invasion. To some Americans, and to Ferguson, that seems a slippery slope.

Ferguson’s book is an excellent biography of an American WWII veteran, a hero, an intellectual giant, and a flawed human being. Ferguson shows Henry Kissinger certainly is the first three, but also a flawed human being-just like the rest of us.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

No Turning Back (Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria)

By: Rania Abouzeid

Narrated by: Susan Nezami

Rania Abouzeid (Author, Lebanese Australian journalist based in Beirut.)

“No Turning Back” is a “just the facts” reveal of the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and still simmers in 2022.

General Hafez al-Assad, (seated to the right), the father of Bashar, created a military dictatorship which became a totalitarian police state run by the Asad family business.

Rania Abouzeid interviews many sides of the war which seems to imply the Syrian civil war is not over. The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, remains. The Assad family business has ruled Syria since 1971.

Abouzeid’s picture of the Syrian civil war infers authoritarianism is the only way for Syria to survive as an independent nation. This sticks in the throat of democracies’ idealists. Checks and balances in America imperfectly regulate the excesses of capitalist enterprise. There seems nothing in Syria’s autocracy that even tries to moderate government leader’s self-interest.

Abouzeid shows disparate religious beliefs and ethnic diversity make Syrian democracy highly improbable. Factional leaders during the Syrian civil war demonstrate it is only “their way or the highway”. Without government checks and balances, today’s Syria is only manageable as an autocracy. Sadly, one family and a religious minority choose to victimize Syrian citizens who are not part of the “in” group. Abouzeid infers that is the proximate cause of the 2011 revolution.

The western world seems incapable of understanding that democracy is not a universal need or desire of all nations.

There are differences that cannot be resolved by votes of constituents in an environment that has few of the hard-won tools of democracy. That is particularly true in non-secular countries with strong religious beliefs. The slaughter of innocents and torture of prisoners noted by Abouzeid during Syria’s civil war is appalling.

Bashar al-Assad or some demented faction in war-torn Syria choose to use poison gas to murder Syrian men, women, and children.

Abouzeid’s stories rend one’s heart. The worst parts of human nature are unleashed to torture and mutilate many who only desire peace and fair treatment. This is an unforgivable tragedy compounded by President Obama’s empty “red line” speech that further alienated Syrian people from the ideal of democracy.

What is often missed in reports of Syrian atrocity is the leaders who led factions in Syria.

Some factions plan to erase Syria from the map and create a religious state to replace the Assad family business with their view of the Islamic religion. This is not to say suppression is not an Assad tool to benefit the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, but that outside Islamic zealots want to install their own form of authoritarianism.

The Syrian government manages to draw on foreign powers (particularly Putin’s Russia) to help strengthen the Assad family’s autocratic control. Though Abouzeid does not address Russia’s assistance, one doubts Assad would have survived.

What Abouzeid reveals with her facts is that one autocracy could have been replaced by another. The question becomes would Syrian citizens be better or worse off under a different autocracy?

Obama’s “red line” is an empty promise that may have been made in good faith but is viewed by Syrians as a betrayal. In one sense, Obama is right in not having America become directly involved in Syria’s civil war. America has made too many mistakes in recent history to warrant invasion in another country’s sovereign independence.

Abouzeid suggests Russia acts as a more reliable friend to the Syrian people than America. In view of the factional nature of Syria’s population, Abouzeid has a point. Syria, and all nation states are on their own in working out what their citizens feel is right. The inference one draws from Abouzeid’s facts is that in Syria’s stage of social development, democracy will not work. Democracy is a choice, not an inevitability. The success of a democracy depends upon the will of the general population to accept diversity as a strength, not a weakness.

The Assad family and the Alawite sect remain autocratic rulers of Syria. The best one can hope is that Assad’s autocracy will more equitably treat all Syrian citizens, whether they are a part of the family business or not. If Assad has not learned that lesson, civil war will return with greater force, and possibly a more repressive autocracy.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Excellent Sheep (The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life)

By: William Deresiewicz

Narrated by: Mel Foster

William Deresiewicz (American author, essayist and literary critic.)

William Deresiewicz offers a view of life and education in “Excellent Sheep”. The author begins by arguing students of the Ivy League are disadvantaged in their acceptance by the best universities in the world. One presumes Deresiewicz comes from a wealthy family because he is a student, and later, professor at Yale.

One thinks about eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices being graduates of Harvard. It is difficult to feel sorry for an American who has guaranteed life employment in one of the most prestigious jobs in the world.

When listening to any audiobook, one thinks of titles of a review for what one hears. In the first few chapters of “Excellent Sheep”, Deresiewicz’s book might be titled “Mostly Baloney”. However, “Mostly Baloney” is disrespectful, and somewhat unfair, as becomes clear in later chapters.

Lack motivation or ability to sustain effective action. Rigid. Unyielding, unable to accept new ideas, etc… Intemperate. Lack self-control and enabled by followers. Callous. In uncaring or unkind, ignores needs of followers. Corrupt. Lie, cheat, and steal; put self-interest ahead of public interest. Insular. Draws clear boundaries between welfare of organization and outsiders. Evil. Use power to inflict severe physical or psychological harm. Incompetent. Lack motivation or ability to sustain effective action. Rigid. Unyielding, unable to accept new ideas, etc.. Intemperate. Lack self-control and enabled by followers. Callous. In uncaring or unkind, ignores needs of followers. Corrupt. Lie, cheat, and steal; put self-interest ahead of public interest. Insular. Draws clear boundaries between welfare of organization and outsiders. Evil. Use power to inflict severe physical or psychological harm.

Toward the end of his book, one finds Deresiewicz is raised in an upper middle-class family but with no college graduates. A listener begins to realize Deresiewicz’s acceptance at Yale comes from hard work, and good grades, even if his family could afford the Ivy League. The author’s presumed hard work and good grades demands respect and fairer evaluation of what he has to say.

Many (if not most) Americans go to college because it is a ticket to better paying jobs, not to become better educated citizens.

To a large extent, this critic went to college to get a ticket for better pay—of course, not to the ivy league but to a State University and graduate education at a midwestern university. The point being most American’s purpose in higher education is to get a ticket for higher paying jobs, and only secondarily, to become better educated. The “ticket mentality” is part of what Deresiewicz is trying to explain.

Deresiewicz explains Ivy League students are pushed throughout their lives to strive for admittance, not to become better educated but to have the best job opportunities in America.

The author suggests that push makes them unsure of themselves because they are constantly measured at every point of their life by the artificiality of SATs, class grades, student activity, and the wealth and influence of their families. What Deresiewicz misses is that despite these student pressures, those who go to any school beyond high school have more tools to help them cope with life. College, contrary to Deresiewicz’s opinion, is not a transition from childhood to adulthood. College is only a continuation of childhood.

Deresiewicz is prescient when he explains how important it is for students to follow their passion.

However, not all people are motivated by passion. Most follow paths of least resistance. The path of least resistance is influenced by education, but not formed by it. To infer that is a bad thing is unreasonable because most of society follows rather than leads. The followers are not motivated by passion. It is leaders who have passion. That, of course, is a two-edged value because leaders can lead to the worst, as well as the best outcomes in life.

An added criticism by Deresiewicz is that upper income families push their children to achieve good grades for admittance to the Ivy League and are damaged by the experience. That seems false.

Basic liberal arts and sciences for adolescents (before college) are exposure that may or may not become passions for the geniuses of life. Parents should encourage, if not push, their children to get good grades in school. That is where passion is born.

No one would deny Sir Isaac Newtons, Einsteins, and Diracs are needed as much as the George Eliots, Dostoyevskys, and Tolstoys of life. Without knowing if they were pushed by their parents is not the point. It is the passion each had for a discipline they were exposed to early in life. Undoubtedly that exposure is either encouraged tacitly or directly by parents or guardians.

What Deresiewicz attacks in his last chapters is the nobles oblige of Ivy League graduates who dominate America’s leadership class. That domination reinforces class distinction and exacerbates the gap between rich and poor.

The author notes many Presidents of the U.S., before the mid-twentieth century did not go to Ivy League universities. With few exceptions, a majority of American Presidents after the 1970s are Ivy League graduates. Deresiewicz suggest the Ivy League aggravates class distinctions in the U.S.

More importantly, Deresiewicz argues Ivy League education narrows the thinking of American leadership because graduates fall into a camaraderie trap and fail to understand the needs of most Americans.

Deresiewicz suggests higher education fails to teach the value of liberal arts. Whether true or not, emphasis on liberal arts seems superfluous. Most who listen to the author’s book cannot feel sorry for Ivy League students that are fearful of what life has in store for them. Every student transitioning to adulthood has that fear. Teaching liberal arts is not going to change that fearfulness. Of course, that is not Deresiewicz’s point, but America’s attention needs to be focused on improving liberal arts and science education for all, not just Ivy League students.