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How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

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The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't read this last year when everyone else did because I had other fiction-reading goals at the time, so I'm late to the conversation.

I enjoyed the conceit and how the various sections allowed Whitehead to explore broader themes--What is freedom? What is America? He was also able to explore other periods of American history, such as the DuBois-Washington debate paralleled at the climax of the story.

What did puzzle me were some of the individual decisions of various characters, which seemed poorly motivated and therefore constructed to achieve some plot goal rather than authentic decisions of the characters.

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Upon a Bright Red Bench

Upon a Bright Red BenchUpon a Bright Red Bench by Pallavi Rebbapragada
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meeting Pallavi was one of the many delights of attending the Yale Writer's Conference in 2014. And I have enjoyed our on-going Facebook friendship since then. How cool in the 21st century to watch the daily lives of acquaintance around the globe.

And the delights of this series of short stories include richly descriptive writing, imaginatively conceived characters, compelling plots, and revelations of life in contemporary India.

Congrats on an enjoyable book.

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Brooks's Final Chapter: Humility Code

The final chapter of David Brooks' The Road to Character is a rich and complex summary and an discussion of why and how our culture changed.

He opens by contrasting Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath.  Both grew up in the same area of western Pennyslvania and only a decade apart, but were fundamentally different people.  Unitas said "I always figured being a little dull was part of being pro."  Namath was anything but dull.  Brooks explains that Unitas viewed football as a job that was not fundamentally different from a factory worker or plumber.  Namath engaged in self-promotion.

Reading this section made me think of Tom Landry.  I miss his style of coaching.  Dressed in a suit like a professional, he was generally stoic in his response to the what was happening on the field.  I don't really care for the way most coaches dress and behave these days.

So, when did this change occur?  Brooks says that it wasn't the Baby Boomers and the upheavals of the late 1960's, like many people think.  No, the change occurred in what Brokaw called the "Greatest Generation."  In the post-war world they promoted a new culture of self-esteem and authenticity and abandoned the tradition of moral realism.

Brooks cites a number of examples, like Norman Vincent Peale's bestselling The Power of Positive Thinking.  Interesting, I read back in November that Peale was Trump's favorite minister and even performed his first wedding.

He writes that this change was a response to its time and that there were good reasons and results for the change, but I want to write about those in the next post.  But with the change "A moral vocabulary was lost and along with it a methodology for the formation of souls."

Key to the tradition of moral realism, according to Brooks, was a grasp of human limitations.  

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex.  We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves.  Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves.  Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves.  Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures.  To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence--on others, on institutions, on the divine.  

Brooks does not believe we need to abandon the new culture and return to the old one, but that we need to find greater balance between the two in order to respond to the moral needs of our time.  But more on that in a future post, in which I'll also share some personal reflections.

Sun, Sand, and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62

Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62 by Nancy a Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun, witty, and insightful glimpse of a lost world. It may only have been a half century ago when Nancy Gray lived in Arabia and visited throughout the Middle East, but the world she experienced--of Beirut as the "Paris of the Middle East" and pre-Revolutionary Iran--is no longer.

She arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1960 to teach school for the Aramco oil company. Initially her exotic expectations are unfulfilled as she struggles to create social connections and find her place. But soon the narrative turns to her series of adventures in the region--from the unique way she visits an island in the Gulf to attending Christmas Eve services in Bethlehem--and the lessons she learns about the region, its history, and its people.

One interesting feature of Nancy's story is how many of her conversation partners are themselves exiles and refugees sharing about the lost worlds of the early 20th century--including the Joneses who organized relief for fleeing Palestinians during the 1948 war or Natalya the refugee from Czarist Russia living a diminished life in Beirut or the Armenian shop owner relating tales of the genocide of his people at the hands of the Turks.

From one smart and witty perspective we receive an intimate view of the turmoil and turbulence of the twentieth century.

Note: It was my privilege and honor to twice workshop portions of this memoir at the Yale Writers Conferences in 2014 and 2015 and to spend many mealtimes in extended conversation with the author, the delightful Nancy Gray.

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The Little Red Chairs

The Little Red ChairsThe Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

O'Brien writes wonderful sentences ("The current, swift and dangerous, surges with a manic glee, chunks of wood and logs of ice borne along in its trail.") and wonderful paragraphs. She richly reveals her characters and the setting.

But I didn't care for the story at all. And the structure which at first seemed to serve a point of revealing various points of view in the Irish village of Cloonoila became a jumbled mess of characters and settings as the plot developed and we moved to London and beyond.

And the moments of horror were more than I cared to read. I'd rather be ignorant.

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