Nonfiction November: Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

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Week 3 of Nonfiction November is hosted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction. And the prompt is:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to learn more about sustainability.  Humanity isn’t acting fast enough or boldly enough on climate change and other environmental issues.  But even just understanding the problems is daunting, let alone taking meaningful action.

I won’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve now read enough that I can at least recommend a few good books.    

Big World Small Planet

Cover of Big World Small Planet

A great book to start with is Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries.  This is the book where I first learned about the idea of planetary boundaries. These are the upper limits on how far we can stress Earth’s critical ecological systems. Keeping average global temperature to no mare than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels is one boundary. Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, outlines nine of them. Together they form a “safe operating space” for humanity.

If we can live within these boundaries, we have a chance of a sustainable and even a just future.  Exceed these boundaries and we will cause the Earth’s ecological system to become destabilized, wildly unpredictable, and possibly even hostile to human life.

Big World Small Planet makes a call for urgent action, but it’s also surprisingly optimistic.

The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Mattias Klum.

Doughnut Economics

Cover of Doughnut Economics

If the planetary boundaries form upper limits that we must not exceed, then the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015, form a floor or a foundation for addressing hunger, poverty, disease, illiteracy and other social development issues. Taken together (and bent into circles) these two sets of boundaries form a doughnut, a “safe and just space for humanity.”

In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University, presents both an in-depth critique of economics as a whole, and a framework for thinking about economics in a new sustainable way. One key message is that we need to move away from our “take-make-use-lose” pattern of consumption towards a more circular flow of resources.

Living within the Doughnut is the task Raworth sets for us. As I mentioned in an earlier Nonfiction November post, Doughnut Economics is the most important and far reaching book I’ve read in 2020.

More From Less

Cover of More From Less

One thing we must do in order to live more sustainably is to consume less of the Earth’s resources. Good news: we’re already starting to do this.

More From Less, by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee, examines a growing trend called “dematerialization,” producing the same goods from less material and energy.  For example, McAfee asks us to consider the humble soda can. Back in the early 1960’s aluminum cans weighed about 85 g,  By 2011 they weighed just 12.75 g. We now use about 80% less metal – less material — to make a can.  The soda can makers did this to cut costs, but it has environmental benefits too.

McAfee is unabashedly pro-capitalist and he takes the time to carefully define what he means by “capitalism.”  Still he’s not opposed to appropriate government action either, such as a tax on carbon emissions. Instead, he argues that combined with the right policies, dematerialization can enable us to have both continued economic growth and a sustainable environment.

I think he overstates the case for dematerialization, but it’s real and it’s a step in the right direction.

A Life on Our Planet

Cover of A Life on Our Planet

I’ll end with a book that I’ve just started reading: A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough. The book is a companion to the Netflix film of the same name. So far it’s both autobiography and an environmental vision statement.  He has seen so much of the world and witnessed so much change during his lifetime that his perspective is invaluable.

And what a lifetime! The man is 94 years old! I’ll consider myself lucky to live that long, let alone have the physical energy and mental clarity to write books and go traipsing off around the planet.

I’ll post a full review when in a week or so once I’ve finished reading.

I still want to learn more. So if you can recommend any books on sustainability, especially on concrete steps individuals and families can take, please leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Humans are storytellers.  We tell stories to understand our place in the world and to give our lives purpose and meaning.  Shared stories help bind us together into communities, tribes, nations and civilizations.  We understand stories better than facts.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is about humanity’s search for new stories that are meaningful and relevant and effective in the 21st Century.

Harari is an author, historian and philosopher who lectures on world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His 2014 book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, became an international bestseller.

Cover of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century21 Lessons for the 21st Century
By Yuval Noah Harari
Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2018

20th Century Stories

In the 20th Century, Harari says, humans created three great stories: communism, fascism and liberalism.

The fascist story was all about conflict between nations. It aimed for the violent triumph of one nation over all the others. Fascism was defeated in World War 2. The communist story was about class conflict and the coming victory of the working class led by a centralized authority which promised equality but not necessarily freedom.  It collapsed at the end of the Cold War.

The liberal story was about the fight against tyranny. It envisioned a world of great freedom with minimal centralized authority at the expense of some inequality. At the end of the 20th Century it seemed that liberalism had triumphed.  But the global financial crisis of 2008, rising inequality around the world, rapid technological advancement and climate change have led to disillusionment with liberalism too.

So what is the right story for the 21st Century?  Do we need just one?  Can the liberal story be reformed? Or should we abandon the idea of stories altogether?

Harari explores these questions and more in a set of 21 wide-ranging, thought-provoking essays. They don’t provide clear answers so I wouldn’t call them “lessons” exactly. But the book will give you a broader historical perspective and greater clarity about what the important questions really are.

21st Century Challenges

Harari is very concerned with the problems of technology. When AI can make better decisions than humans, and when it can deliver precisely targeted advertisements and news feeds, do any of us really have free will anymore?  How can we have equality when improvements in biotechnology mean that the rich not only have more money than the rest of us, but also live healthier and longer than us?  And most concerning of all, how many people will be displaced by the automation of both physical and cognitive work?  Will the problem of worker exploitation be replaced by the problem of worker irrelevance and the emergence of a “useless class”?

Failed Stories, Wrong Answers

We don’t seem to be making much progress on addressing these questions, and some of the answers, some of the new stories we’ve come up with, are not helpful at all. Take nationalism for example. Harari does not advocate the end of the nation state. In fact, he thinks national identity is essential for democracy to function. We’re unlikely to accept the results of democratic elections involving millions of strangers without some common identity, he says.

But the rising nationalism we’re seeing in many places around the world (America, Britain, India, Turkey, Hungary) is incapable of responding to the global problems we now face. Nationalism, Harari says, suffers from a failure of imagination. It concerns itself with local questions such as, “will Israelis or Palestinians rule Jerusalem?” or “can women in France wear the hijab?” Nationalism has nothing useful to say about global problems such as nuclear war, climate change or technological disruption.

“… the nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot return the world to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global existential threats that no nation can solve on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has at least three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. If despite these common threats humans choose to privilege their particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than 1914 or 1939.” [p. 127]

Harari is even more skeptical of religion. None of the five major world religions escape his critic’s scalpel. Religions have lost a lot of their influence, he states, because they “weren’t very good at farming or healthcare.”  But they still create powerful identities.

“So in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs – but they do get to determine who are “us” and who are “them,” whom we should cure and whom we should bomb.”  [p. 137]

As a result, Harari explains, the world’s major religions are part of the problem because they create identities that divide us and make it more difficult to work together to solve global problems. It gets even worse when religious and national identities are combined.

Harari dismisses the need for another one of our stories: God.  Humans have created two kinds of gods. First, there’s the mysterious god, the god we know nothing about. When we confront questions we cannot answer, like “what created the fundamental laws of physics?” god is our fallback answer. In other words, “we give our ignorance the grand name of God.” [p. 202] Then there’s the lawgiver god; stern and demanding.  This god is said to be the foundation of all morality.  Harari rejects this. He says, and I agree, that we don’t need gods to act morally. “Morality” isn’t about obeying god; it’s about reducing suffering.  And we can all do that without god.

Better Stories

So what stories will help us in the 21st Century?

21 Lessons for the 21st Century does not offer a prescription, but it does point out some ideas that, while not perfect, are likely to help us address humanity’s problems.

Harari starts with humility. The Universe is 13.5 billion years old.  Humans have existed for a mere 100,000 years. The religions we have created are just a few thousand years old and our nations are at most a few hundred years old.  Yet our stories ignore all this and start with the birth of our nation, or the founding myth of our religion. Each one concerns just a small segment of humanity. Rubbish, says Harari. We are not the center of the Universe. We need to start thinking about humanity and the Earth as a whole, not just our little corner of it.

Harari favors secularism. He quickly and clearly sketches secularism’s core values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility.

On courage, for example, Harari notes that it takes courage to fight oppressive regimes but even greater courage to admit ignorance. Yet that’s exactly what secularism teaches – if we don’t know something we should admit it and look for new evidence. We shouldn’t be afraid of the unknown, and we should certainly not put our faith in a fixed set of absolute answers.

“Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”  [p. 214]

But even secularists can become dogmatic and Harari advises us to beware of this shadow.

Side note: Harari’s list of secular values is very similar to the principles that Stuart Kauffman proposes for a new global ethic in Reinventing the Sacred.  Kauffman is a scientist rather than a historian so it’s interesting that both authors arrive at a similar place.

While the book criticizes many of the shortcomings of liberalism and democracy, Harari does so out of a desire to see them both adapt and improve.  He thinks liberal democracy is,

“… the most successful and the most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world. While it might not be appropriate for every society in every stage of development, it has proven its worth in more societies and in more situations than any of its alternatives. So when we are examining the new challenges that lie ahead of us, it is necessary to understand the limitations of liberal democracy and to explore how we can adapt and improve its current institutions.”  [p. xix]

Better Yet, No Stories

Humans have always created stories to find meaning in life, but Harari concludes the book by telling us that the important question facing humans is not “what is the meaning of life,” but rather “how do we stop suffering?”

He says we first need to understand ourselves – our bodies, minds, desires and emotions.  He’s a strong advocate for meditation and mindfulness as a place to start.  From there we can begin to understand suffering.

“So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is.

The answer isn’t a story.”  [p. 315]

Unsolicited Feedback

There’s so much in this book I feel like I’ve only touched on a few of its themes in this review.

I really liked Harari’s overarching message that our task in the world is to reduce suffering. That perspective forces us to look critically at our own personal impact on each other and on the world. It motivates both action and humility.

I’m an atheist so I really liked the chapter on secularism and its values. To be clear, I don’t think Harari is saying people should completely abandon their religious beliefs or practices or the community and comfort they provide. But he is saying we need to recognize that all our stories, including religions, are just that, stories, fiction, not true. And if we want to address the global problems facing humanity, we do need to overcome our religious divisions.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century was published in 2018, before the Covid-19 pandemic.  (Incidentally, I think the acronym BC should be redefined to mean “Before Covid.”) But the pandemic proves Harari’s main points. The virus doesn’t care about your religion or your nationality. It will infect communists, fascists, liberals and conservative equally and without mercy. It’s a global problem that requires a global response.

Harari calls attention to urgent global problems but I wouldn’t say he’s a pessimist.  He notes that the world has already knit itself together into a single global civilization.  Despite our differences there are remarkable similarities in how countries are organized and operate, and how people communicate with and relate to each other around the world.

That’s a hopeful foundation to build on.

Related Links

A Guide to Worrying in the 21st Century
Bill Gates’s review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

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It’s week 2 of Nonfiction November and this week’s prompt comes from Julie @ JulzReads:

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I thought about this for a while and decided to pair up The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.

I think they make a good pair becasue what they have in common is The Quest.

Cover of The HobbitThe Hobbit
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Unwin Books, London, 1966

Almost all fantasy stories are built around a quest. The hero or heroine takes up some daunting task that invariably requires them to set out on a long, adventure filled, actuarially dubious journey. They endure countless hardships, encounter dangerous beasts, fearsome enemies and merciless weather. They’re often accompanied by one or more companions and occasionally they find new friends and allies along the way.

Of course, frequently the quest is as much about self-discovery as it is about completing the task. Just ask Luke Skywalker. Or Bilbo Baggins.

The Hobbit fits this pattern exactly. Bilbo sets off with thirteen dwarves to help them reclaim their ancestral home (and its treasure) under The Lonely Mountain from the evil dragon, Smaug. They encounter trolls, orcs, giant spiders and ferocious snowstorms. They’re aided by eagles and shape-shifting bears. And Gandalf, of course.

In the end, Bilbo discovers he’s cleverer and braver and more adventuresome than he ever imagined.

Cover of Undaunted CourageUndaunted Courage
By Stephen E. Ambrose
Touchstone, New York, 1996

Undaunted Courage is the story of a real-life quest.

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory – all the land stretching west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains – from the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for $25-million.  Possibly the greatest real estate deal in human history.

The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. Much of the territory was unmapped terra incognita. Jefferson commissioned his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to find out what he’d bought.  Jefferson was especially keen on discovering a navigable water route across the American continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Lewis and his friend William Clark assembled and co-captained a company of about 30 men called the Corps of Discovery. They left St. Louis in May of 1804 and headed up the Missouri River.

There were no dragons on this quest, but Lewis was one of the first white Europeans to encounter a grizzly bear. (Lewis’s musket shot merely pissed off the bear and he had to run for his life when the bear charged after him.)  They had no wizard guide either but Sacagawea, a young Shoshone Indian woman, traveled with the Corps from North Dakota to the Pacific and proved to be indispensable in establishing connections with many of the tribes they encountered along the way.

The Corps reached the mouth of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805. They spent that winter at what is today Fort Clatsop, Oregon, returning to St. Louis and a hero’s welcome in late September 1806, completing a 3,700-mile journey.

Lewis & Clark never found a navigable water route to the Pacific. There isn’t one. In that sense they failed in their quest, but they explored and charted much of what became the Western United States.

I first read Undaunted Courage shortly after I moved to the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to learn something about the history of the area.  It was spellbinding.  Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition with flair and enthusiasm. You can’t help getting swept up in the journey.

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Election Reflection:  A Narrow Escape

New York Times front page on November 8, 2020

New York Times front page, November 8, 2020

What a relief!

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected President and Vice President. Although the last few votes are still being counted in a couple of states, and there will still be some legal challenges, it’s clear they have won both the popular vote and the electoral college.

Their speeches Saturday night were eloquent and hopeful.

It’s a huge relief that we won’t have to endure another four years of Donald Trump.  But somehow, I don’t feel like celebrating. This doesn’t feel like a victory. It feels like a narrow escape.

It should have been a landslide

Over 70 million people voted for Donald Trump. That’s about 8 million more votes than he got in 2016.  Despite his execrable behavior over the last four years, despite his Administration’s appalling human rights violations on our southern border, his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, and his blatant disdain for democracy and the Constitution, still 8 million more people voted for him.

As Tom Friedman points out in his November 4 column in the New York Times, there was no moral victory. America did not say “enough is enough!”  There was no resounding repudiation of Trump’s divisiveness, racism, “alternative facts”, or autocratic ambitions.

There was no blue wave. Democrats actually lost about ten seats in the House. Clearly Democrats have not yet figured out how to respond to the economic concerns of white, male, working-class voters.

Republicans retain control of the Senate, at least until Georgia holds run-off elections in January. Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham both won re-election.  McConnell will probably be re-elected as Senate majority leader. A GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to be any more cooperative with a Biden Administration than it was with Obama’s. Expect more obstruction. A total blockade on judicial appointments wouldn’t surprise me.

Democrats have not flipped control of any state legislatures. This means Republicans will control the redistricting of most Congressional seats based on the 2020 census. There will be little change in the extreme partisan gerrymandering in many of these states. (Democrats, I should note, are guilty of gerrymandering too.)

In the end, Republicans paid no price for enabling Donald Trump. They therefore have little incentive and no apparent inclination to reform themselves.

Reasons for hope

I don’t want to be a complete downer, however. There are some bright spots.

We will have a President who respects facts and science and truth. That hopefully means he will appoint competent, qualified people to his Cabinet and to senior posts in his Administration.  It should lead to a medically sound national approach to the coronavirus pandemic. It should give rise to an environmental policy that recognizes climate change is real, caused by humans and needing an urgent response.

The Administration will tilt in a more progressive direction. Although Democrats received no mandate for a leftward leap and the progressive wing is bound to be disappointed, at least the orientation will more progressive and more compassionate.  We should expect attempts to shore up the Affordable Care Act in response to the pandemic. We should see efforts to address racial injustice and police reform. There’s even an opportunity for the Biden Administration to address some of the economic concerns of working-class Trump supporters who feel they’ve been left behind by globalization and technological change.

I’m less hopeful about any meaningful changes on immigration legislation. But the Biden Administration should be expected to roll back much of Trump’s harsh, blatantly racist treatment of immigrants and refugees.

The Trump Administration’s cruel and senseless persecution of transgender people will end.

The Equal Rights Amendment could be enacted as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sex.

More optimistically, the 2020 election reflects on-going demographic trends in the US.  According to demographer William H. Frey, author of Diversity Explosion, in 2011 more non-white babies were born in the US than white babies for the first time. The US Census Bureau reports that as of this year, 2020, less than half the children under 18 are non-Hispanic whites. And by the mid-2040’s, Frey projects America will no longer have a single racial majority. We will be a “majority-minority” country. These demographic trends are “baked in.”  Even Trump’s immigration policies will do little to shift them. That’s because natural growth of minority populations is now larger than growth from immigration.

The political impact of these changes is already visible in the 2020 results. There has been a narrowing of Republican majorities in some southern states with large Black and Latinx populations.  Most important of course are Biden’s wins in Arizona and, most likely, Georgia. In Texas, Trump beat Hilary Clinton in 2016 by 9%, but he beat Biden in 2020 by just 5.8%. In South Carolina, Trump beat Clinton by 14.2%. His victory over Biden in 2020 shrank to 11.7%.  On the other hand, in Florida Trump increased his margin and, apparently, his support among Black and Latinx voters.

Democrats cannot take the support of minority voters for granted. And Republicans cannot long remain viable as the party of white males. Both parties therefore have a strong incentive to court non-white voters. This should lead to a gradual reduction in the differences between the parties on issues like immigration, policing and racial justice. But I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. It’ll take decades to play out.

So much damage has been done to institutions like the State Department, the Department of Justice, the CDC and the EPA.  Our reputation and our influence abroad have been trashed. The damage will take years to repair. But at least we escaped the complete subversion of our democratic institutions. Trump’s autocratic ambitions were well-documented by writers like Masha Gessen of The New Yorker, and The Atlantic’s David Frum.  Fortunately, America has taken a last-minute off-ramp from autocracy. But our system of government is sorely in need of reform. In particular, the power of the Presidency needs to be scaled back. No one person should have the power to threaten our democracy or wreak havoc on our institutions and our lives like Trump has.

All US Vice Presidents and Kamala Harris

All US Vice Presidents and Kamala Harris

I think the most significant and the most hopeful outcome of this election is that America has elected its first woman and first person of color as Vice President. Kamala Harris’ election sends a hugely important signal to everyone, here and abroad, especially to women and people of color, because I do think it shows America at its best, as a place of possibility.

It’s this idea of possibility that gives me the greatest hope. We’ve had a narrow escape from Trump. With the election of Biden and Harris, the country has changed course. Incrementally, but still meaningfully. We’ve rejected a doctrine of anger and hate and instead chosen hope and decency. We’re no longer spiraling inward, downward and backward. Progress may be slow, uneven and frustrating, but we have an opportunity to move forward. Let’s seize it.

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Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

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I’ve been informed by reliable sources, namely Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction, that this month is Nonfiction November. Great idea!

Apparently there will be weekly prompts throughout the month.  Even better!

This week’s prompt comes from Leann @ Shelf Aware: 

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

This is the first time I’ve participated in one of these events. I’m hoping I’ll make some new connections with nonfiction readers and bloggers. So without further ado:

I had planned to focus my reading this year on the environment and sustainability. This continued a trend from 2019. I started off the year very much on track.  I read several books and a couple of academic research papers on the subject.  By far the most profound was Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. This book is both an in-depth critique of economics as a whole, and a framework for thinking about economics in a new sustainable way.  “The Doughnut” refers to a safe and just space for humanity between a ceiling of planetary boundaries on critical environmental systems and a foundation of minimum standards for human development and justice embodied in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Living within the Doughnut is the task Raworth sets for us. This is the most important and far reaching book I’ve read in 2020.

I’d say The Optimist’s Telescope by Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman gets an honorable mention even though it’s not completely focused on the environment. The Optimist’s Telescope is about making smarter decisions for the long-term. Many of those decisions concern how we take care of our planet. I loved her idea that we should strive to be good ancestors by treating the Earth as a family heirloom to be cared for and handed down to future generations.

All Hell Breaking Loose by Michael T. Klare rounds out the environment category giving us a look at the Pentagon’s perspective on climate change.  The generals are worried, folks. Very worried. We should be too.

Cover of Doughnut EconomicsCover of The Optimist's TelescopeCover of All Hell Breaking Loose

The murder of George Floyd on May 25 made me want to learn more about racism and other forms of discrimination in America.  I had read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist last year, and I followed up with three more books this year.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, is about the defensive emotions and behaviors like anger, silence and withdrawal that white people often resort to whenever they are confronted with racism. These defense mechanisms close off uncomfortable yet meaningful discussion about the systemic nature of racism, she says.  If we want to make progress, and be allies, whites must accept the fact that even though we may do our very best not to commit individual acts of racism, we still benefit from the system of white supremacy and we have the responsibility for changing it.

Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny is a highly academic work that deeply analyzes the systemic nature and operation of misogyny, how it enforces female subordination and upholds male dominance.  It is not light reading in any way, but the analysis is brilliant.

I think So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo is a more approachable book. It’s essentially an FAQ for white people on how to talk about race, drawn from Oluo’s own work and life experiences.  I like how Oluo gives practical and immediately useful suggestions for understanding and taking action.

Still, I have to say if you have never read anything about racism, start with Kendi’s book.

Cover of White FragilityCover of So you want to talk about raceCover of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

As the year progressed and the election drew closer, I started reading more about America’s political and judicial systems including Supreme Inequality by Adam Cohen. It’s about the how the Supreme Court’s decisions over the last fifty years have favored the wealthy, the powerful and the white, dramatically increasing inequality in the United States. I shudder to think what the Court will do now with a solid 6-3 conservative majority

The most eye-opening and the most alarming book in this category is Surviving Autocracy by New Yorker contributor Masha Gessen. It’s a stark warning about Trump’s autocratic actions and ambitions. Gessen worked as a journalist in Moscow for over ten years tracking the rise and rule of Vladimir Putin. He knows an autocrat when he sees one. The book traces how frighteningly far Trump has progressed, and how resistance has proved largely ineffective so far. This book is my second choice for most important book of 2020, especially with the Presidential election still up in the air as I write this.

Lastly, The Socrates Express by former NPR foreign correspondent Eric Weiner isn’t about politics, at least not directly. It’s about philosophy. Weiner takes us with him as he journeys around the world seeking wisdom, exploring the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers from ancient thinkers like Socrates, Epicurus and Confucius, to modern ones like Gandhi, Rousseau and Simone de Beauvoir. I found it comforting and entertaining. I even discovered some ideas for coping with the turmoil we’re living through right now.  You might too.

Cover of Supreme InequalityCover of Surviving AutocracyThe Socrates Express cover

There’s still nearly two months to go in 2020 and I hope to read a few more books this year. I’m looking forward to Barack Obama’s forthcoming memoir A Promised Land, and David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet.

2020 has been a truly horrible year. At times I’ve felt like reading and blogging were utterly pointless activities. But I’ve kept at it for two reasons. First, to preserve some sense of normalcy. I just want to stay curious and keep learning. And second, books have always been my refuge, ever since I was a shy young kid with thick glasses. I think I needed to read this year as much as I ever have.

I hope you found what you were looking for in your 2020 reading.

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My Own Words

If you’re looking for something to distract yourself from the dismal spectacle of the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, you might find solace in My Own Words, a collection of essays, articles and speeches by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My Own Words cover
My Own Words
By Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2016

The material in this book has been accumulated by Ginsburg’s biographers Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. It appears they decided to publish this book first, to be followed by the actual biography at some point in future. They provide detailed biographical notes and commentary to set the scene for each chapter and for many of the individual pieces.

The book covers a lot of ground, from Ginsburg’s earliest writings in her high school newspaper right up to summary remarks about the Supreme Court’s 2015-2016 term. It also contains a couple of speeches about Ginsburg written by her husband Marty, who was a tax lawyer.

The book does not include any of her actual written judgements. You can find those on the Supreme Court’s web site at https://www.supremecourt.gov/.

I think the most interesting parts of the book are Ginsburg’s bench announcements which she read when she strongly dissented from the Court majority, and a detailed look inside the inner workings of the Court in a piece called Workways of the Supreme Court.

For someone who dedicated her career and her energies so forcefully and persistently to women’s equality, Ginsburg’s writing is restrained, unemotional, and often quite dry. Other Supreme Court justices, notably her friend and ideological opposite Antonin Scalia, wrote with much greater passion and flair.

Nevertheless, Ginsburg’s impact on the law has been immense. I bought this book as a tribute.

 

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The Socrates Express

How about a little philosophy, just to lighten things up?

Over the last few months I’ve been reading serious books about serious topics: climate change, racism, misogyny, injustice at the US Supreme Court, and autocratic threats to our democracy.

I needed a break. Something a little lighter. And something to take my mind off The Great American Shitshow 2020 Edition. Just reading the news these days makes me feel anxious, helpless and angry.

So I ordered The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner. Maybe some of those dead philosophers could help me out.

It turned out to be just what I was looking for.

Eric Weiner is a journalist, author and speaker. He’s been a foreign correspondent at NPR and a reporter for The New York Times. His books include The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius. The Socrates Express is his latest book.

The Socrates Express coverThe Socrates Express
By Eric Weiner
Avid Reader Press, New York, 2020

Philosophy is about the search for wisdom. Not information or knowledge and certainly not data. Wisdom. About how to act in the world, and above all how to think.  Weiner puts this succinctly in the introduction.

“Philosophy is different from other subjects.  It is not a body of knowledge but a way of thinking – a way of being in the world.  Not a ‘what’ or a ‘why’ but a ‘how’“  [p. xvi]

Weiner takes us with him as he journeys around the world seeking wisdom, exploring the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers from ancient thinkers like Socrates, Epicurus and Confucius, to modern (though still dead) ones like Gandhi, Rousseau and Simone de Beauvoir. He travels by train. He likes the “amniotic” atmosphere on trains. You can think on a train, he says, you can pause and reflect.

Structure of the Book

Every chapter of The Socrates Express opens with a little vignette written aboard a train to set the scene. And each one is devoted to a philosopher and a question; a “how” question that the philosopher’s work can help us answer. The first chapter, for example, is called How to Get Out of Bed Like Marcus Aurelius. “The Great Bed Question”, as Weiner calls it, is more about why we should get out of bed than how.

Weiner give us a brief sketch of Marcus Aurelius’ life and then explains his philosophy clearly and approachably. Aurelius was mainly but not exclusively a Stoic (more on Stoicism in a minute). But like many philosophers he’s also a “wisdom scavenger” picking up bits and pieces from others. Weiner then tries to apply Aurelian philosophy directly to his own present circumstances. We see him wrestle with the ideas, trying to understand them and to rigorously apply them. It’s warm and comfortable under the blanket. Why should he get out of bed? Something to do with duty, apparently.

The rest of the book follows this pattern.

The chapters are loosely threaded together but you can read them in any order you like.

Coping Like a Stoic

The chapter that resonated most for me was How to Cope Like Epictetus. It’s about Stoicism.

Stoicism, as Weiner explains, is about living in harmony with nature. This has nothing to do with environmentalism, at least not directly. It’s more about understanding that large parts of our lives are beyond our control. Stoicism teaches us to change what we can and accept what we can’t.

Stoicism seems to be enjoying a resurgence in recent years and it’s not hard to see why.  As our world has become more integrated and more complex, its problems have become more diffuse and abstract.  Globalization, technological advancement and climate change, to name just three, are powerful forces well beyond our control that profoundly impact our lives.  How do we cope?

At the same time, we also have unprecedented opportunities to act in the world. A teenager like Greta Thunberg can travel the globe and reach millions more through the internet with her powerful messages about climate change.

Yet it turns out that Stoicism is primarily concerned with controlling our inner lives.  As Weiner explains,

“Much of life lies beyond our control, but we command what matters most: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. Our mental and emotional life. We all possess Herculean strength, superhero powers, but it is the power to master our interior world.  Do this, the Stoics say, and you will be ‘invincible.’” [p. 229]

“Do what you must, let happen what may,” say the Stoics.

I find some confort here. I can’t control anything I read about in the news. I should stop getting anxious and angry. Instead of feeling helpless I should do what I can – make donations, write letters, and hey! maybe even write book reviews to help people become more aware of the issues I care about. And instead of worrying about external outcomes I should focus on internal goals like doing all that I can to the very best of my abilities.

It’s not a completely satisfying answer because those external outcomes sure seem important. But it’s a start. I may have to learn more about Stoicism.

Themes

I was really struck by the common themes that emerge from these vastly different philosophers across centuries and geography. Like walking. Many of them walked long distances every day, not because they had no other means of transportation but because they did their best thinking while walking. Rousseau, Thoreau, Schopenhauer and even Nietzsche were all walkers.

One of the benefits of walking is that it slows you down. It allows you to better perceive the world. This is another theme: the importance of sense perception, of seeing, listening, paying attention, and appreciating the beauty in small things.

In Tokyo, Weiner meets a friend for drinks at a bar featuring a model train running through an exquisitely detailed miniature town.

“I nod and sip my whiskey, delighting in the solidity of the serious glass and the oaky taste and the slightly sweet aroma, all the while gazing at the tiny beautiful world that lay before me.”  [p. 199]

Acceptance is another theme. In the 21st Century we’re all about doing things, achieving things, having impact, “making a dent in the Universe,” as Steve Jobs said. But Weiner shows us that many philosophers, not just the Stoics, are trying to teach us acceptance: acceptance of things we cannot change, of things that don’t really matter, of growing old, even acceptance of dying.

Unsolicited Feedback

I really enjoyed The Socrates Express. Weiner is very open about the personal struggles and demons that drive him along this philosophical journey. He’s also a terrific writer, a skill many philosophers lack. Weiner translates for us, writing with down-to-earth clarity, enthusiasm, and delightfully sardonic humor.

At one point, Weiner is in rural Colorado trying to get back to Denver to catch a flight to Paris.  But overnight snowfall has blocked the road. He’s anxious about missing his flight.

“I turn to Seneca, who promptly pisses all over my immediate predicament – and my life’s work: therapeutic travel.  ‘Do you suppose that wisdom, the greatest of skills, can be assembled on a journey? Believe me, there is no journey that could deposit you beyond outbursts of temper, beyond your fears.’  Roman bastard.”  [p. 241]

And sprinkled throughout the book are little gems like this one about Nietzsche:

“His poor eyesight was a secret blessing. It liberated him from the tyranny of the book. When he couldn’t read, he walked. He walked hours at a stretch, covering great distances. ‘Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement,’ he said. We write with our hands. We write well with our feet.”  [p. 209]

If you’d like to learn how to wonder like Socrates, how to see like Thoreau, fight like Gandhi or grow old like Beauvoir, if you’d like a little help seeking wisdom in these tumultuous times, or if you just want a break from them, you’ll find The Socrates Express rewarding and enjoyable.

One caveat: “The Socrates Express” is a catchy title but it’s completely misleading. The book meanders, it ventures down obscure sidings, it stops frequently, it walks. And it never does arrive at a destination.

Of course, that’s the whole point.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

RBG

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday at 87 from metastatic pancreas cancer.

The tributes have been overwhelming, including this New York Times review of her life and career by Linda Greenhouse, and this post by Amy Howe, a reporter for SCOTUSBlog.

Reading through them, I’ve been impressed with two aspects of Ginsburg’s career.

First, she thought and fought strategically, with subtlety and with perseverance. Her work on gender equality at the ACLU in the 1970’s started with cases where men were being treated unfairly. In the 1975 case Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, a man named Paul Wiesenfeld, whose wife had died in childbirth, was denied Social Security survivor benefits because a woman’s income was considered unimportant to the family. Ginsburg’s point, and the basis of her entire strategy, was that discrimination on the basis of sex harms both men and women.

Second, in the early 1960’s Ginsburg worked at Columbia University on a project comparing civil procedure in the US and Sweden. The project required her to learn Swedish and to spend time in Sweden. (She was later awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University.)  At that time, women’s rights in Sweden were far ahead of those in the US. Ginsburg participated in a trial where the presiding judge was a woman eight months pregnant.  Her experience in Sweden was enormously influential, showing her that a country could make different and more equal choices about how to structure society. Since I work in the travel industry, this is also a welcome reminder of the benefits of travel in bringing people together and in broadening our perspectives.

Ginsburg’s death has hit the country hard. And it’s not just because of the inevitable bitter fight over her successor (she cannot be replaced) that has already begun in the middle of a rancorous election.  For progressives, and maybe others too, RBG was a beacon of hope.

Her career, her voice, even her mere presence on the Supreme Court, showed us that a different path was possible. Equality and fairness were not just idealistic pipe dreams for her. They had a firm and rational basis in the law. Even in her dissents, perhaps especially in her dissents, she gave us reasons to hope for progress, for a better, a more equal and a more just country.  In fact, as she said herself, “that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”

Some of that hope has died with her.

It has certainly darkened my outlook, adding to the pandemic, racial injustice, natural disasters, and toxic politics that have made 2020 one of the worst years I can remember.

On a personal level, I think RBG’s death prompts us to examine our own lives. Are we doing something meaningful, something worthy with our time? Are we dissenting when we see something that’s not right? Are we, in her words, fighting for the things we care about, but doing it in a way that will lead others to join us? Are we making the world a better place?  Are we doing all we can, exerting ourselves to the limits of our capabilities?

For me, I have to admit the answers are “partially” and “somewhat” and “not enough” and “I could do more” and above all “not to the same extent as RBG.”

An example and an inspiration.

RIP RBG.

Posted in Law and justice, Reflections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change

Those tree-hugging liberals over at the Pentagon just don’t get it. They don’t understand that climate change is a hoax and the Trump White House doesn’t want to hear about it. They keep working away, defying Presidential directives, studying and planning and preparing for a hotter world where all hell is breaking loose.

Cover of All Hell Breaking Loose

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change
By Michael T. Klare
Metropolitan Books, New York, 2019

All Hell Breaking Loose, by Michael T. Klare, is a well-researched, crisply written book that details how senior United States military officers are thinking about and responding to the threat of climate change despite current White House policy.

Klare is Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s the author of fourteen books. His articles and essays have appeared in The Nation, Salon.com, The Guardian, The New York Times and Foreign Affairs.

Before I go any further, l should say I know very little about the military. I grew up in Canada where the armed forces are respected but small. I’ve never served in the military, nor has anyone in my family. And I’ve never been particularly interested in military history.  So one thing I appreciated about this book is that it taught me a little bit about how officers think and plan.

Klare makes it very clear – despite my sarcastic opening – that US military leaders are not concerned about climate change per se. What they care about is the impact of climate change on their ability to fulfill their primary missions: protecting the US homeland and defeating America’s enemies, principally Russia and China. In that context, climate change is a secondary threat to US national security because it makes the military’s job harder and could even make it impossible at some point in the future.

Senior officers understand that in order to succeed in its primary missions, the US military must respond the threat of climate change.

“There is, therefore, a direct clash between current White House doctrine on climate change and the Pentagon’s determination to overcome climate related threats to military preparedness.”  [p. 5]

Threats from Climate Change

The Pentagon perceives climate change as a threat multiplier, Klare says. It increases global chaos. Climate change’s direct impacts – extreme weather events, sea level rise, prolonged drought, wildfires and pandemics – increase tensions and pressures on some of the most vulnerable and volatile places in the world. When the rains don’t come, when crops fail, when forests burn, the results can include water and food scarcity, mass migration, ethnic conflict, civil unrest, state collapse, the emergence of “ungoverned spaces”, and intense competition for scarce resources, especially water, both within and between states.

I like how Klare catalogs the ways climate change threatens the US military.

First, climate change increases the demand for military intervention in locations all around the world in response to climate-related events. These interventions lie along a spectrum that Klare calls the “ladder of escalation.”  They include everything from quick in-and-out deployments to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief, to “stability operations” needed to support failing states, all the way up to great power conflict and war.

Second, the physical territory of the United States is not immune to the impacts of climate change. (As I write this, the air here in the Seattle area is grey and acrid from wildfire smoke.). The military faces increasing demands to help disaster-struck communities within the US. In August and September 2017, for example, hurricane Harvey smashed into Houston, America’s fourth largest city. Then hurricane Irma pummeled the island of Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands. Shortly after that, hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Relief operations for this cluster of catastrophes required tens of thousands of national guard and US Army and Navy personnel, plus ships, vehicles, equipment and supplies. These were not short-term deployments, especially in Puerto Rico.

Finally, the military’s own facilities are impacted by climate change. Sea level rise, storm damage, drought and wildfires affect US bases and installations just as they affect surrounding cities and towns. Klare highlights the impacts of climate change on Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval installation and home to the Atlantic Fleet. By 2100, scientists forecast that 60% of the base will be exposed to regular tidal flooding, and a category 4 hurricane would inundate the land areas under ten feet of water. Nearby Langley Air Force Base can expect daily flooding to cover 90% of its land area by the end of the century.  Of course, long before that, both installations would experience frequent and severe operational disruptions.

Klare sums up the danger succinctly.

“This threat to the Pentagon’s installations at home, combined with an increased tempo of climate disasters abroad, conjures up the military’s worst nightmare: a future in which the armed forces are called upon to overcome multiple emergencies around the globe while many of their bases are out of commission and large numbers of their troops are engaged in domestic relief operations, leaving them ill-equipped to address any major threats at all.”  [p. 37]

Adapting to Climate Change

So what is the Pentagon doing about it?

First, they’re spending tons of money to upgrade bases and other installations to be more resilient to climate-related events.  For starters, $21-billion to shore up Naval Station Norfolk and surrounding facilities.

Next, the military is trying to reduce its climate footprint.  According to this research paper, the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, and therefore the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. So the Pentagon is adopting alternate sources of energy in order to reduce its own contribution to global warming.  It turns out that alternative energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear bring additional benefits:

  • Providing a more reliable and assured supply of energy with less price volatility than fossil fuels.
  • Reducing the energy, effort and casualties involved in transporting fuel in combat zones. Portable solar arrays, for example, reduce the need to deliver fuel to forward operating bases by oil tanker trucks which are susceptible to enemy ambush.

At stateside bases, the military is moving to be a “net zero” consumer of energy, producing 100% of its energy needs by itself, and even “islanding” bases off of the commercial electrical power grid.

“All of a sudden, American military bases became giant laboratories for the large-scale utilization of alternative energy.”  [p. 219]

Finally, the military is collaborating with international allies, helping them develop their own climate-related capabilities and resilience. This strengthens our allies of course, but it also reduces the burden on the US of providing disaster relief and security to these countries.

All very sensible. All done quietly, without fanfare so as not to overtly contradict current White House policy.

Klare concludes the book by noting that the military doesn’t concern itself with threats to wildlife and natural habitats, but rather with the threats posed to human systems like energy infrastructure, transportation and communication networks, hospitals and governments.

“From this perspective, climate change presents its greatest harm not by hastening the extinction of endangered species but by decimating the vital systems upon which our communal life depends.”  [p. 235]

Caves and Caravans

All Hell Breaking Loose provides some additional insights and examples that I found really fascinating.

Did you know that the US has enough battle tanks, artillery pieces and munitions to supply a fighting force of 15,000 for up to 30 days of combat stockpiled in climate-controlled caves near Trondheim, Norway?  Yup, they’ve been there since the early 1980’s.  Could come in handy if there’s ever a war with the Russians in the Arctic.

Speaking of war with the Russians in the Arctic, global warming has caused such a dramatic reduction in Arctic sea ice that it’s becoming increasingly accessible for commercial shipping and, more importantly, oil drilling.  Five countries have Arctic Ocean coastlines and the offshore boundaries are far from clear. Competition for undersea resources is likely to cause heightened tensions between them. From the Pentagon’s perspective, the warming Arctic is a “whole new ocean” with complex geostrategic implications.

I sincerely hope humanity is not so brain-dead stupid as to fight a war for control of fossil fuel under the Arctic Ocean which is only accessible because we’ve burned so much fossil fuel we’ve melted the ice cap covering that ocean.

Klare also informs us that senior commanders were not amused to have over 6,000 troops deployed to the southern US border in 2019 to guard against a so-called “invasion” of unarmed Central American migrants, including destitute women and children, who posed not the slightest security threat to the United States. He cites internal memos from officers alarmed at the “unacceptable risks” these border deployments posed to combat readiness.

And what is causing these migrant caravans that Trump rants about?  Prolonged drought from climate change in places like Guatemala and Honduras is one leading cause.  Farmers and their families flee when crops repeatedly fail and they can no longer support thenselves on the land.

Ironic isn’t it: If the Trump Administration adopted aggressive measures to deal with climate change it might actually help slow mass migration from Central America.

The Pentagon is Worried. We Should Be Too

I am impressed with the long-range planning that Klare tells us the Pentagon is grappling with. Although there are lots of scientists and research institutes thinking about very long-range scenarios, I can think of only three organizations on the planet that make plans for themselves over such distant time horizons; the Pentagon, the Communist Party of China and the Vatican. It’s good the Pentagon is thinking about climate change.

Now imagine what could happen if the Pentagon was actually encouraged in these efforts by the White House. Imagine if they shared their expertise with local, regional and state governments. What if there was effective joint civilian-military planning going on across the country? Maybe even a coordinated national strategy on climate change?

And what if, instead of spending countless billions to shore up military bases, we decided to conduct our foreign affairs so that we didn’t need such a gargantuan military and we could just close some of those bases? Yeah, I know: in my dreams.

All Hell Breaking Loose is a timely book well worth reading. Just be aware that even though it was published in November 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, the overall message is still grim. While it’s encouraging to read about the Pentagon’s efforts to plan and adapt, the scenarios described in the book paint a bleak picture of the many ways climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact our world and the global systems we depend on.

If you live in the US, chances are there’s a military base or facility not far from your home. After all, there are more than 3,000 of rhem scattered across the country. And that means your city or town is facing the same climate threats they are.

The Pentagon is worried about climate change. Its leaders are preparing, adapting to a climate-affected world so they can continue to fulfill their mission.

The rest of us should be too.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

“All hell breaking loose”: How the Pentagon in planning for climate change
Vox interview with Michael Klare, February 24, 2020

Pentagon Fuel Use, Carbon Emissions and the Costs of War
Paper by Neta C. Crawford, published by the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, Brown University, June 12, 2019

 

Posted in Books, Energy, Environment | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America

Supreme Inequality
By Adam Cohen
Penguin Press, New York, 2020

The Supreme Court is not your ally.
The Supreme Court does not protect the weak, the poor, or the downtrodden.
The Supreme Court will not save us from Donald Trump.

Those hard truths struck me as I read Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America by Adam Cohen. Cohen proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the Court’s decisions over the last half century have favored the wealthy, the powerful and the white, dramatically increasing inequality in the United States.

Adam Cohen is a lawyer, journalist and author. He graduated from Harvard Law School and worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.  He’s been a writer for Time magazine and an editor at The New York Times. Cohen is the author of five books. Supreme Inequality is his latest.

Photo of author Adam Cohen

Adam Cohen

The “Nixon Court”

On October 5, 1953, Earl Warren, then Governor of California, was sworn in as chief justice of the US Supreme Court. Over the next fifteen years, the “Warren Court” as it came to be called, was responsible for some of the most progressive legal decisions in US history including Brown v. Board of Education which ended racial segregation in American schools.

That progressive era ended abruptly in 1969 when Richard Nixon became President. In his first three years in office, Nixon appointed four judges to the Supreme Court, including a new chief justice, Warren Burger. Nixon’s appointments moved the Court sharply to the right making it far more conservative.

One of Cohen’s main themes in Supreme Inequality is that we are still living under the “Nixon Court” today.  All the chief justices since Warren – Burger, William Rehnquist and John Roberts – have been conservative.  Conservatives have held a 5-4 majority on the Court for the last fifty years.  Cohen argues that the conservative justices have used their majority to transform American society into one that is more unequal and unjust.

i  When you preside over one of the lower courts, like a district court or even a federal appeals court, you’re called a judge. When you get your appointment to the Supreme Court, you become a justice.

Structure of the Book

The first chapter of Supreme Inequality takes a detailed look at the progressive judgements of the Warren Court, laying out how they increased legal protections for the poor and the under-represented. In each of the remaining seven chapters Cohen examines a particular area of law including education, workers’ rights, criminal justice and campaign finance. He paints a disturbing picture of how the post-Warren courts changed direction across a wide range of legal issues leading to increased economic and political inequality in America.

In each chapter, Cohen walks us through a sequence of important cases showing how the Court’s rulings have developed over time. Cohen explains each case clearly and simply, presenting the issues at stake, the history and events of the case, and the key legal arguments on both sides. He analyzes the Court’s decision and then highlights the consequences; how it influenced future decisions and how it affected people’s lives. Actually, that’s a consistent theme running throughout the book – how the Court’s decisions affect the lives of ordinary people. The justices are not just deciding abstract legal questions. Every decision affects real people, often millions of us, for years and decades to come.

I’m going to summarize just one of these chapters because the topic is so critical right now.

Elections and Voting

In a damning chapter titled Democracy, Cohen argues persuasively that the Supreme Court’s decisions on elections and voting since 2000 have made it more difficult for Americans to vote and made our votes count less equally.

In December 2000, the Court decided the outcome of the 2000 US presidential election. Cohen recaps the history of that election and the infamous Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore. The election results were very close that year. Whoever won the State of Florida would win the presidency. Voting in Florida was a mess, with voting irregularities and malfunctioning voting machines in several counties around the state. In early December, with Bush leading by about five hundred votes, the Florida State Supreme Court ordered a statewide manual recount of about nine thousand ballots which had not been properly marked or counted by Florida’s faulty voting machines. Bush appealed to the Supreme Court. Two days later the Court, splitting 5-4 on partisan lines, ordered a halt to the recount thereby making Bush president.

The decision was widely criticized and Cohen reviews many of the reasons why. The strongest one in my opinion is that the Court decided whose ballots would be counted and whose would not. The Court disenfranchised thousands of voters when it halted the Florida recount.

In case after case, Cohen details how the Court has upheld voter id laws that make it more difficult to register to vote, and voter roll purges that make it easier for government officials to delete eligible voters – tens of thousands of us – from voter rolls.  These laws are supposedly enacted to prevent voter fraud, such as people voting twice, or people casting the ballots of dead voters, or people voting in places where they don’t live. But despite what Donald Trump says, there is zero evidence of widespread voter fraud. It hardly ever happens. Cohen shows that what these laws actually do is disproportionately disenfranchise the poor, students, and people of color. And that of course is the real purpose of these laws.

Cohen also examines the legal decisions around partisan redistricting. After the census is taken every ten years, State legislatures around the country redraw the boundaries of electoral districts to reflect changes in population size and distribution. Partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering, occurs when one political party draws the district boundaries for its own advantage, ensuring they can win a disproportionate number of seats. Under partisan redistricting, politicians choose their voters and not the other way around. This is one reason why incumbents are so hard to defeat in the US.

Gerrymandering is a bipartisan sin; both Democratic and Republican governments do it.

Cohen tells us the Supreme Court had never taken a firm stand against partisan redistricting preferring to leave these disputes to elected politicians to resolve. Finally in a 2018 case called Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that partisan redistricting is “nonjusticiable”, which means it is not a question the courts can decide.  (This is the legal equivalent of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: you can pass a law but we can’t tell you whether it is valid or not.)

In other words, the majority ducked the question. In doing so, they made it virtually impossible for any future lawsuits about gerrymandering to succeed.  And that means that governing elites have been given a green light to manipulate district boundaries with impunity.

person dropping paper into ballot box

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

Finally, Cohen describes how in 2012 the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.

The original Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement, and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looking on.  The Act was designed to prevent intimidation and other tactics from being used to prevent Blacks from registering and voting.  Section 5 of the Act required certain state and local governments to get approval, in advance, from the Justice Department or a federal court for any potentially discriminatory changes to their voting laws or procedures. This was known as the “preclearance” requirement. Section 4 set out a formula that determined which parts of the country would be subject to preclearance. It covered most of the South and a few other jurisdictions.

In 2012, Shelby County, Alabama sued the Justice Department, arguing that preclearance was unconstitutional. The Court agreed. In Shelby County v. Holder the Court struck down Section 4 of the Act by another 5-4 partisan split.  With no formula for determining where preclearance applied, the major provisions of the Voting Rights Act collapsed.

i  Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority decision in Shelby County has a long history of opposition to the Voting Rights Act.

Cohen takes us through this case in detail and dissects, eviscerates really, the majority’s reasoning, which among other things claimed that times had changed and voter suppression was no longer a problem. Predictably, the decision opened the floodgates to a new wave of voter suppression laws, rules and procedural changes, mostly in southern Republican-controlled states.

The net impact of all these cases has been to weaken American democracy; making it more difficult for people to register to vote, to cast their ballots, to have their votes counted and to have them count equally.

Most of these cases have been decided by 5-4 votes along ideological lines.  Cohen argues that while the Court could have taken a different approach,

“Instead the Court has taken an approach to election law that defers to the decisions of elites about which voters should be allowed to participate in democracy and whose votes should count.”  [p. 192]

Consistently Conservative

Why have conservatives dominated the Supreme Court for so long?  Cohen maintains it’s because Republicans want it more than Democrats. Republican presidential candidates routinely pledge to appoint only conservative judges to the Court. Donald Trump went so far as to publish his list of potential nominees during the 2016 campaign. Democrats have not done this.

Republicans have also been more strategic about keeping control of the Court. Cohen describes how Nixon forced liberal Justice Abe Fortus off the bench in 1969, opening the way for his conservative makeover of the Court.  And the Trump Administration enticed Justice Anthony Kennedy, the “swing vote” on the Court, to retire, appointing the reliably conservative Brett Kavanaugh to succeed him.

By contrast, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not retire early in President Obama’s term when she could have been replaced by a younger liberal judge.

Cover of Supreme Inequality

Cohen concludes the book with observations about the role and long-term impact of the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court is more than a legal tribunal ruling on disputes between parties—it is also an architect. The Court’s interpretations of the Constitution and other laws become blueprints for the nation, helping to determine what form it will take and how it will continue to rise. For the past half century, the Court has been drawing up plans for a more economically unequal nation, and that is the America that is now being built.”   [p. 317]

It could have been so much different, Cohen argues, if the progressive views of the Warren Court had continued to hold sway. A Court in the Warren tradition would have laid down different blueprints.

“That different set of blueprints would have built a different society. For the past five decades, all families could have been lifted above the poverty line. All children could have attended schools that were adequately funded and racially integrated. There could have been elections that were decided by the most persuasive arguments to the electorate, not by special-interest money, and a government that put the public’s interest ahead of the billionaires’. There could have been workplaces with less discrimination and more unions, and prisons with fewer inmates.“  [p. 318]

We could have had a much different America.

Unsolicited Feedback

It’s hard not to be outraged after reading Supreme Inequality. Cohen argues clearly and passionately for a more progressive, equal and just America, and shows how the Court has thwarted that vision for the last fifty years. There have been a few exceptions, such as abortion rights and same sex marriage, but Cohen warns that even those decisions shouldn’t be taken as carved in stone.

Cohen does a great job showing how the Court’s thinking evolves along a line of cases, sometimes stretching back decades.  In the process we see the strategic – dare I say, political? – way the judges work to advance their beliefs.  They’ll write comments or footnotes in one case that they refer to years later in another. Most of the time they take an incremental approach, chipping away at previously decided cases, limiting their scope or narrowing their applicability. They wait for particularly favorable cases to come along before taking bigger, bolder steps. It’s slow motion chess. Or a slow motion train wreck depending on your point of view.

I have two concerns with the book. The first is that Supreme Inequality contains a lot of hypotheticals. If the Court had made Al Gore president in 2000 and if Gore had been reelected in 2004 then he would have appointed a liberal Chief Justice to succeed William Rehnquist in 2005. There are many examples like this throughout the book. They paint an enticing picture of an alternate America, but it’s really impossible to predict the full chain of consequence that might follow any of these hypothetical events. If Gore had won in 2000 and 2004, maybe a Republican would have won in 2008 and not Barack Obama, in which case Justices Kagan and Sotomayor would not have been appointed to the Court.

Similarly, if the Court had made more progressive decisions on labor or employment law, maybe there would have been a conservative backlash in subsequent elections resulting in more inequitable legislation getting passed.

Nonetheless, Cohen’s fundamental argument stands: the decisions of the Court follow a consistent long-term pattern dictated by the ideology of the majority of the justices. The justices are not just umpires “calling balls and strikes” as John Roberts claimed during his Senate confirmation hearings. They’re human beings just like the rest of us. They come to the Court with experiences, opinions and biases. They are not neutral.

That leads to my second concern.  Supreme Inequality focuses on the last fifty years of Supreme Court decisions.  But there is plenty of evidence that the Court has been leaning conservative for a long, long time. After all the Supreme Court has quite a checkered history when it comes to upholding civil rights.  In 1857, the Court ruled in the Dredd Scott case that people of African descent, free or enslaved, were not US citizens and had no rights to sue in US courts. In 1896, the Court upheld racial segregation laws in Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1944, in Korematsu v. United States, the Court upheld the exclusion of Japanese Americans from areas of the US west coast during World War II. And in case you might think those are just extreme examples of the Court’s behavior from decades past, the Court upheld the Muslim travel ban in Trump v. Hawaii in 2018.  (You can read my review of that case here.)

I understand Adam Cohen is trying to draw a sharp distinction between the progressive rights-oriented Warren Court and all the Courts that followed. I think it’s likely his argument applies to the Courts that preceded Warren too.

 * * *

OK, this has been a very long review, but the book has got me thinking about the future of the Supreme Court. I want to add one more thought.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 86 years old and battling cancer. Justice Stephen Breyer in 82. The next US president will most likely appoint their successors.  If Trump is re-elected in November, he will appoint conservative justices and there will be a 7-2 conservative majority on the Court.

Do you think the US needs to address the problems of racial and economic inequality? What about universal health care?  Do you care about preserving abortion rights?  Do you support reasonable gun control laws?  Want an end to qualified immunity for police officers?  Do you want to preserve and extend minority rights?  How about a decent and compassionate immigration and refugee system?  Should there be limits on the power of the Executive Branch?

None of this will happen with a 7-2 Court.

If you care about any of these things, please vote this November!

Thanks so much for reading.

Related Links

Republicans have a strong message on the courts. Democrats need one too.
Washington Post opinion by Melissa Murray, Professor of Law at NYU School of Law
August 20, 2020

Strict Scrutiny Podcast
“A podcast by three women about the Supreme Court and the legal culture that surrounds it.”  Adam Cohen has been a guest on this podcast.

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