AMERICAN CONSCIENCE

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Water Dancer

By: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Narrated by Joe Morton

Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates (American author & journalist, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction with–BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME).

This is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first book of fiction.  What makes “The Water Dancer” a fiction is its hero’s mystic ability.  He is a water dancer. 

Coates’ story is a history that stains American conscience.  It is about the tragic sequel of slavery.  Slavery is introduced to America in the British colony of Virginia in the 17th century. 

Though Virginia tobacco plantations were first created in the 17th century, Coates story is undoubtedly set in the early 19th when plantations were in decline.  In 19th century Virginia, soil is depleted by poor farming practices and mismanagement.  White property owners turned to sale of their slaves to pay their debts.  The ugliness of slavery is compounded by the breakup of black families and friends that shared a common history.  Though that history is blooded with servitude and violence, Coates illustrates how slaves created close-knit communities. They were close; in-spite of their sorrowful condition.

Just as soil depletion reduced plantation owner’s income, they increased sale of slaves to sustain their standard of living.  Though black slaves had always been treated as property, the crash of the tobacco industry accelerated their sale. 

(Thomas Jefferson is a prime example of an American slavery apologist who sold slaves to reduce debt.) 

Sons, daughters, husbands, and wives were sold to other white slave holders.  Many families were broken apart; some sent to other States after being sold; others escaped to the North. 

Some were caught by slavers.  Coates writes–runaway slaves were sometimes caught and thrown into makeshift prisons and sold back into slavery.  In Coates’ story, prison is a hole in the ground for its hero. Hiram (Hi) is not sold back into slavery but tested for a critical role in the underground.

To compound the humiliation of being caught, Coates writes of slaves who betrayed their own race. Their purpose was to maintain some level of freedom from harsh conditions on the plantation.

Black women were subject to the whims of their owners.  Women could be raped by their owners without repercussion, or sold to the Fancy industry, i.e. brothels.

Coates reveals the depth and breadth of what Philip Roth called a human stain, i.e., broadly known as discrimination.  Slavery may have been abolished in 1865 but its institutionalization lives in the 21st century.  It is a stain that resists removal.

Coates’ story reveals much about America, the abolitionist movement, the growth of the underground, and the human toll of slavery.  Coates suggests some wealthy white southerners participated in the underground to salve their conscience.  They were heroes but they hid behind the degradation being felt every day by black Americans subject to an economic system based on slavery.

Coates shows how southern white abolitionists were important to the growth of the underground.  Their role grew out of a first-hand view of human beings being treated as property. 

Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900, Richmond, VA Abolitionist.)

Coates fills many gaps in the history of slavery by seeing it through the eyes of extraordinary slaves. 

Harriet Tubman (American abolitionist who rescued an estimated 70 enslaved people. Unknown date of birth; Died in 1913.)

Families were torn apart, men and women were degraded by their enslavement, husbands had to cope with plantation owner abuse of their wives, blacks victimized their own people, and mothers suffered from guilt for the life their children had to live.  These are irremovable stains on the American conscience; for both Black and White Americans–each are stained in their own way.

MEDIA TROLLS

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Antisocial Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation

By: Andrew Marantz

Narrated by Andrew Marantz

Andrew Marantz (American author, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine)

Marantz researches social media trolls in his book “Antisocial”.

For those who are not familiar with the meaning of media trolls, they are people who use the internet to create discord by writing or saying something that is controversial. 

Of course, what is said in the media does not have to be true.  The difference is, the measure of success on the internet is an increase in the number of clicks one receives and the number of follower’s gob smacked by the messenger.  It has zero to do with truth.

The internet lists 8 of the greatest internet trolls of all time.  Their media names are irrelevant, but their followers are legion.  All hide behind the rubric of a free press.  

What makes internet trolls a societal cancer is their distortion of truth.  Some trolls believe “buyer beware”. Like in any sale of product, the truth of speech (to a troll) is the responsibility of the individual.  If a viewer or listener cannot separate the truth from fiction, that is the audience’s problem. A troll feels no compunction for lying, misleading, or stretching the truth.  A committed troll argues that everyone should have the choice to believe or not believe.

Trolls argue truth is fungible because of inherent bias in the messenger.  At best, trolls view their role is to mitigate corporate and government brain washing; at worst, they create a forum for massing hate and discrimination.

Say anything is the terrifying thing about social media.  The irony of America’s free speech is its only defense is free speech. 

Marantz interviews numerous trolls that believe all media communication is good, or at least useful communication.  Marantz explains trolls argue media has historically distorted the truth. 

Marantz notes the fallacy of the Troll’s argument is in the release of white supremacist and hate-filled speech that aims at changing the norms of society.

Trolls say the unsayable for wealth and notoriety; not for the betterment of humanity, or the search for truth. 

White supremacy becomes a flag around which a small minority of society can join to become a political force. 

The drive for wealth is nothing new in American society.  However, the monetization of lies and overt discrimination are licensed by media that reaches the worst prejudices of society. 

The risk to the American electorate from media trolls is that they create a disillusioned and apathetic public that doesn’t know who or what to believe.

In the book “1984” Orwell showed how media control is dangerous. Marantz shows how no control is equally dangerous; particularly in the internet era. 

Marantz makes listeners realize how dangerous internet trolls are to America, and any nation trying to improve the quality of life for their citizens. 

Twenty first century American democracy seems particularly at risk.  Americans believe in the critical importance of freedom, but American freedom has always been qualified by rule of law in “doing no harm” to others. 

The infancy of the internet needs regulation.  The government must fight the hijacking of the American electorate by internet trolls.  The internet is driven more by popularity and money than morality and truth.

Marantz convinces a listener that American freedom of speech is not a license for anarchy.

BULLY OF THE WORLD

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Accidental Superpower

By: Peter Zeihan

Narrated by Peter Zeihan

Peter Zeihan (Author, American geopolitical strategist)

“The Accidental Superpower” is a wild ride.  Peter Zeihan is a geopolitical strategist and futurist who argues that geography is destiny.  His prognosis for America is perversely positive.

Zeihan suggests America is in the “cat bird” seat for this and the next (yet to be born) generation.  The “cat bird” seat implies a superior position of survival in a world headed toward crises.

“The Accidental Superpower” is a cautionary tale that suggests the tail will wag the dog. 

If America’s current actions and future intent is to abandon Bretton Woods’ history, then Zeihan implies wars will continue, famine and pestilence proliferate, millions will die, and self-interest will be humanities’ only interest.  In the era of Trump, Zeihan shows the reach and potential of bullies in the world. 

Zeihan builds a credible and terrifying argument.  The Bretton Woods Agreement was created in 1944.  Its purpose was to set up a system of rules to ensure economic stability around the world.  Zeihan notes that America has steadily abandoned the principle of Bretton Woods since 1973 when the U.S. suspended the gold standard for the American dollar. 

It is not to suggest that the gold standard should be re-instituted but that the American dollar became the new standard for world economies.  In part, because the basis for economic wealth became the American dollar.

The American dollar gives the United States an outsize influence in the world. That influence is reinforced by an unparalleled military/industrial complex.

The resources of America became a primary standard for economic stability in the world.  Zeihan argues the legitimacy of Bretton Woods is replaced by the geographic existence of the United States.  America is bordered by two oceans, blessed with an internal river transport system, natural energy resources (including Shale oil which makes the U.S. oil independent), a replenishing labor force (supplemented by immigration), and economic growth. Therein, Zeihan explains America is capable of ignoring the rest of the world.  

This is a disturbing book.  It opens the door to an America dreamed of by ignorant nationalist like the current President of the United States. Zeihan infers the United States can be the bully of the world because of its military superiority, wealth, and geographic isolation. 

Empathy is an essential characteristic missing from a nationalist credo that believes it is “my way or the highway”. With a belief system based on “self-interest”, and the mantra of philosophers like Ayn Rand, the world seems destined to destroy itself. 

Zeihan supports his future predictions with a logic borne from geographic facts, history, and philosophical belief.  Zeihan’s perception of the world’s future creates fear and trembling in any who choose to believe it.

A few of Zeihan’s predictions are:

  1. China will not grow to be a superpower and will follow the path of Japan with an aging population that cannot maintain its economic growth.  The diverse nature of its population is hidden by the false belief that the Han people are of one mind.  Internal dissension will rise.  China is subject to river flooding and hemmed in by mountains and narrow waterways.
  2. Russia will covet the land of other nations because of an economy that rests on dwindling natural resources, a harsh environment, and lack of international trading ports.  The Tatar and Chechen populations will continue to plague consolidation of power in Russia.
  3. South African nations will suffer from starvation because of its lack of arable land.  Angola is one of the few African nations that may escape that fate because of its fertile land and young population.
  4. The European Union will fail because of nationalism, a lack of a viable common currency, and its failure to consolidate political power.
  5. Great Britain will become more dependent on the U.S. for trade and survival.
  6. Turkey will strengthen its influence and control over the Middle East through military strength and a young and growing population.
  7. Uzbekistan will become a more powerful independent nation because of its relatively young population and abundant clean energy (largely from hydroelectricity).
  8. Australia and New Zealand will prosper because of its vibrant agricultural economies, and ocean-bound isolation.
  9. Saudi Arabia will fail as an economic powerhouse because of its dependence on foreign labor for all industrial development. Saudi citizens are minor participants in the labor market, and unprepared to compete in an industrialized world.
  10. Iran is demographically young but burdened by an arid climate.  Its religious intolerance will be an impediment to economic growth.
  11. Spain, Portugal, and Italy are vulnerable to outside influence, inflation, high unemployment, and growing economic weakness.
  12. Germany may once again rise as a belligerent state because of its need to expand to continue its economic growth.  Its driven and well educated population reinforces industrial and technological growth.
  13. Canada will become a failed nation because of its aging demographics and diverse population.  Failure will only be abated by its relationship with the U.S.  Zeihan suggests Alberta should consider becoming part of the U.S. because of its one industry dependence (oil).
  14. The relationship between Mexico and the U.S. will improve because of proximity and mutual trade benefits.  The drug war will continue and perversely improve the Mexican economy. Drug war areas will be isolated to narrow parts of the country.
  15. Climate change is real, but its impact will be mitigated in the U.S. with hardening infrastructure in coastal cities that will mitigate or abate flooding.  Most of Florida will disappear under water.  Many island archipelagos will also disappear.
  16. Pakistan’s diverse population will continue to disrupt political control of the country.  Its conflict with India will continue despite diminishing financial support from the U.S.
  17. India’s economy will suffer from environmental degradation.

In conclusion, Zeihan suggests America will remain a superpower with outsize influence on the success or failure of other nations. 

A caveat might be America may become the bully of the world; at least until a nuclear war or accident decimates the environment. 

There is good reason to have fear and trembling for this world’s future if “self-interest” is the only criteria for well-being.

SATIRE

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

My Man Jeeves

By P. G. Wodehouse

Narrated by David Thorn

P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975, British Author, humorist)

Amazon shows there are 46 books written with Jeeves as a main character in the Wodehouse series.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011, Author, Essayist, Social Critic) was a great fan of the “Jeeves” series written by P. G. Wodehouse, published between 1911 and 1974. 

With Hitchens’ Oxford English education, he had a keen understanding of Wodehouse’s skewering of the English upper class; particularly the ridiculously wealthy.

One wonders what delicious comments Hitchens would have for today’s American President.

Hitchens arrives in the U. S. in 1981. He becomes an American citizen in 2007.  He dies at the age of 62 in 1975 from the same cancer as his father.

After listening to Wodehouse’s first book, one is inclined to believe Hitchens high praise is partly due to his personal life experience.  The books are about an upper class English character who chooses to move to New York to live life as a wealthy New Yorker. 

Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

Hitchens is more like the brilliant butler than the dull-witted upper class Englishman in Wodehouse’s books, but his upper class English education (at Oxford) gives him a prescient understanding of the very wealthy.

Jeeves is a wunderkind working for a slightly dull witted bumpkin that has great family wealth.  Wodehouse’s wealthy English aristocrat, Wooster, exhibits “bumpkiness” by wearing garish ties, hats or facial hair that Jeeves steers him (sometimes humorlessly) away from. 

Wodehouse’s humor is subtle and somewhat endearing but it is difficult to suspend disbelief. With a man servant like Jeeves who diplomatically surpasses his wealthy patron in every category of being, it stretches credulity to a breaking point.

How could a servant of great intelligence, social grace, and aesthetic taste remain in the service of a moron.  In 2019, it appears more possible than one might have believed. ( James Mattis, former Secretary of the Dept. of Defense serving President Trump.)

This first book is a series of short stories with a few that exclude Jeeves.  It is funny but not “lol” to those who are not English; a member of the enlightened, or those particularly fond of satire.  This is not to suggest Wodehouse is not at times hilarious but Wodehouse, like Mark Twain, is an acquired taste.

Wodehouse’s rich bumpkin is a kind of “helpful Hannah” wishing to do the right thing for his friends. In Wodehouse’s stories, a wealthy “helpful Hannah” inevitably creates more trouble than help.  Jeeves comes to the rescue.

Volodymyr Zelensky (President of Ukraine)

As is often the case, doing for others what one thinks another needs leads to unintended consequence.

One is flummoxed by the idea of Jeeves not using his prescient ability to escape servitude.  On the other hand, John Steinbeck creates a brilliant minor character in “East of Eden” who makes a case for servitude in order to live a life of contemplation.

Hitchens fascinating mind and skill as an essayist of life, books, and politics suggests he knows more about the value of Wodehouse than this reviewer.  Listening to another Wodehouse book remains in one’s mind; maybe not soon, but in the future.  If Mark Twain is an acquired taste, so may be Wodehouse. 

HUMANITY’S SURVIVAL

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Horizon

By: Barry Lopez

Narrated by James Naughton

Barry Holstun Lopez (American author, essayist, fiction writer.)

As a first exposure to Barry Lopez’s writing, “Horizon” is a disturbing review of the state of nature.     

There is a “Let It Be” determinism in Lopez’s memoir of travels around the world. 

There seems little rage in “Horizon” about the decline of earth’s environment. Particularly in comparison to Greta Thunberg’s accusations against spoilers of the world.

Of course, Lopez is in his 70 s.  Thunberg is 16. Her generation is more likely to feel the consequence of world’ ecological change. One doubts pessimism is the intent of Lopez’s recollections. But pessimism is a sense some may get from a 23-hour narration of “Horizon”.

From Lopez’s varied experience as a writer, historian, amateur archaeologist, and world traveler, he concludes humankind may be destined for a sixth extinction

Lopez lives a peripatetic life that exposes him to the remains of animal species lost; the evolutionary fragments of human remains, and the disparate changes of weather around the world. 

Lopez visits parts of the world discovered by explorers.  Particularly men like John Cabot, Christopher Columbus, James Cook, and others.  Lopez writes many vignettes about James Cook and his obsession–to map the world.

Man’s inhumanity to man has been recorded many times by many writers. Lopez regrets the passing of native populations, and suggests their passing is because early explorers paved the way for new civilizations.  In recalling various expeditions, Lopez makes one aware of the nature of human beings. 

The American Indian’s “Trail of Tears” are repeated in many civilizations. 

Lopez notes the lows of human beings with a story of two older men who want him to ghost write an essay about their experience with underage girls in Thailand. In a bigger historical picture, Lopez explains the nature of explorers who destroy as well as initiate new civilizations. 

Lopez infers human civilization is trapped in a cycle of self-destruction.  Every society desires stability and longevity. Lopez infers human nature gets in the way of those desires.

Lopez writes about Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the arbitrariness of genetic selection that sustains human life. Lopez holds the view that Darwin’s theory may be key to human’s future survival.

Lopez infers a chance genetic modification will seed human survival as the world ecological system changes. Lopez notes many civilizations are gone; others are headed for extinction. Today, human advancement is a product of greed and self-interest. Tomorrow, human advancement may be dependent on love and care for others.

Just as greed and self-interest are genetic markers for today’s world cultures, a new genetic marker might offer love and care for others for tomorrow’s world cultures.

Lopez illustrates slavery still plagues the conscience of 21st century civilization.  Discrimination because of race, color, or creed are evident in every nation of the world. 

Jews, Palestinians, Houthi, Saudi Arabians, Taliban, Afghani, Iranians, Pakistanis, Indians, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Inuit, Canadians, Americans, Chinese, Asians, Russians and others feed into humanities self-destruction. There is blame to go around with a mentality of “my way is the only way”.

Cortes Conquest of the Aztec Empire.

 

From Oregon to Antarctica; from Africa to California, to New York to Australia, to the Galapagos Islands, and back to Oregon, Lopez reflects on the state of the world. 

What can break humanity’s cycle of self-destruction?

Lopez leaves a slender hope that the evolution of human beings will rescue humanity.  He is neither optimistic nor pessimistic.  Lopez suggests the world will go on, but humans may be the sixth extinction.  The question is—is it up to us, fate, nature, or a Supreme Being?

ADHD

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Unbroken


By Laura Hillenbrand

Narrated by Edward Herrmann

Laura Hillenbrand (Author)

Hyperactivity in children is a blessing and curse. 

Louis Zamperini (1917-2014, American WWII Veteran, participant in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.)

Every parent that faces life with a hyperactive child listens to Hillenbrand’s story of Louis Zamperini and thinks of what might be if their child’s high energy can be focused rather than blurred by the hurly-burly of life.

Hillenbrand vivifies Louis’s life with stories of his early years of running away, hopping trains, practical joking, stealing, and raising hell.  Louis idolizes an older brother that lives a more conventional life but Louis refuses to follow the placid image of the good son; the obedient child.

Fortunately, Louis is blessed with a tolerant mother and a stern, but understanding, father who accepts Louis for himself rather than what he, or his mother, want him to be.  Louis does not outgrow his hyperactivity but channels his energy into the discipline of a sport.

With that beginning description of Louis Zamperini, Hillenbrand tells the story of Zamperini’s advance as a world class runner; i.e. the youngest member of the near 4 minute mile club of the 1936 Olympics.

Louis meets Adolph Hitler, not as a winner of the race, but as an Olympic competitor that gives all he has-to be the best he can be.

Zamperini is alleged to have said “I was pretty naïve about world politics, and I thought he looked funny, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film.”

Louis Zamperini returning from imprisonment as a POW with his mother (Louise) and father in the backrground.)

World War II strikes the United States at Pearl Harbor.   Zamperini’s stellar running career is grounded.  He returns home to be drafted by the Army/Air Force.  He becomes a bombardier.

Zamperini is assigned to a B-24 Liberator as a bombardier.

The story of “Unbroken” begins with a rescue mission for a B-27 crew downed in the Pacific Ocean.  The rescue crew includes Louis Zamperini.   

The rescue crew is unsuccessful; i.e. the lost crew is not found. 

On the return flight, engine trouble forces the rescue plane into the Ocean. Three men (possibly four out of 20 plus men) survive the crash.  With a poorly provisioned life raft, two live to be placed in a Japanese prison camp, Louis and the rescue plane’s pilot.

This story of survival is inspirational.  It can be listened to as a true adventure.  One may also hear a cautionary tale about parenting. 

It is difficult to raise children in an affluent society where both parents must work to pay the bills. One wonders about the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). 

Where does a parent draw the line on drug treatment for children with this diagnosis?  Is the diagnosis real or is it a symptom of a society that does not have enough time to parent?

American Capitalism

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Americana, A 400-Year History of American Capitalism


By Bhu Srinvasan

Narrated by Scott Brick, Bhu Srinvasan

Bhu Srinivasan (Author, American citizen born in India, Emigrated at age 8 to the United States with his mother.)

“Americana” is homage to the muscular success of capitalism in the United States.  It appears it takes someone born outside America to unapologetic-ally endorse the gift of capitalism to the world. It seems Bhu Srinvasan lives the American dream in the 21st century. 

Srinvasan “leans in” by arguing libertarian-ism’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.  “Americana” speeds through the history of great men (because women’s contribution is largely ignored) who settle America in the 17th century.  With the help of English entrepreneurs willing to risk investment in the voyage of the Mayflower, the egg of American capitalism is hatched. 

Mayflower Replica

(The Original Mayflower Sailed September 6,1620 and landed on Cape Cod 66 days later, which was 500 miles north of its intended destination in Virginia.)

The investors expect a return on their investment.  They finance the expedition based on an expectation of success from a settlement in Virginia.  The first years of the Pilgrims’ progress is nearly a bust.  The author explains the initial investment is nearly lost but recovered by an agreement among the settlers to buy out their Mayflower investors.  The buyout is a success because the settlers find a ready market for American goods in England; particularly beaver furs which were provided to settlers by native inhabitants.

With growth of the fur trade, new settlers come to America.

The beaver fur business is expanded with new settlers who learn how the Indians ply their trade.  Competition grows and undoubtedly many tribes are shut out of the trade.

This, as in many more stories told by Srinvasan, reminds one of the boon and bane of capitalism.  That is not Srinvasan’s intent, but the effect of competition from acquired knowledge, new technology, and entrepreneurship is repeated many times.  There are winners and losers in the growth of capitalism. What is one life worth?

There is an “end justifies means” theme in Srinvasan’s view of America. This is an attitude reflected by President Trump’s suggestion on March 24, 2020 to re-open America in April.  The reality of quality-of-life improvements in America makes Srinvasan’s, and some would say Trump’s view, a worthy subject of contemplation.  America is the most economically successful nation in the modern world.

Srinvasan glosses over issues of slavery, racism, and corporatism. Trump’s suggestion that America should be reopened for business in April of 2020 is a judgement that suggests ends justify means. The spread and human impact of the coronavirus is unknown.

Many of the harsh realities of a transactional economic system bare down on America with exposure to the coronavirus. Do ends justify the means? 

Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Ford, Rockefeller, Morgan, Edison, Westinghouse, Watson, Gates, and Jobs are a few examples given for the success of American Capitalism. 

What is missed is the “blood in the water” from changes wrought by these men of steel, automobiles, energy, finance, communications, transportation, and technology.  With each advance in American ingenuity, there is a general rise in America’s standard of living.  Indeed, Bhu Srinvasan himself is a tribute to the success one can have in 21st century America. But, Srinvasan tells only one side of the story.

Homelessness in America is a disgrace.  Rat infested ghettos in large American cities perpetuate poverty and crime.  A deteriorating education system is gamed by the wealthy who neglect what can be done to help the poorly educated. 

Corporations have a duty to educate people displaced by technology.  Government needs to move beyond the transactional value of health care to provide basic health services to all Americans.  Environmental degradation needs to be abated before the world’s 6th extinction. 

To ignore the price paid by a growing underclass in America, is side-stepped by Srivasan’s “…History of American Capitalism”. 

America capitalism can do better.  We are no longer a struggling economy like that which existed in the days of the Pilgrims and later so-called robber barons.

Srinvasan is an excellent primer on capitalism but that is history; not a prediction of a future where homelessness, a deteriorating environment, a failing education system, inadequate health care, and racial injustice are ignored.