Books I Finished in August (of 2020)
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Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk by: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by: Iain McGilchrist
Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16) by: Jim Butcher
Cutting for Stone by: Abraham Verghese
How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by: Francis A. Shaeffer
August was pretty quiet for me, though much hotter than I would have liked. I’m not sure how many days were 100 or above but it was at least a half dozen, and just about every day hit a high of at least 95. I’m hoping we’re done with triple digit days now that September is here, but I guess we’ll see.
As I said August was quiet for me, but I don’t think the same could be said for the rest of the country. I’m not sure where things are headed, though in general I get the sense that things are escalating. And if they’re escalating now, one can only imagine how much worse they might get as the election draws closer.
I- Eschatological Reviews
Who should read this book?
This is another book which puts forth a theory for why the current world is so fractious, and as these things go, it’s better than most. It’s not the best I’ve read, but if the premise is intriguing to you at all, I think you’ll be happy you picked it up.
I’ve read quite a few of these books, and it’s always interesting to consider why so many people are convinced that the modern world is broken in dramatic and fundamental ways. It is of course possible that people are wrong, that modern media and communication is biased towards amplifying negative events and trends, but that in reality things are actually great. We only think it’s horrible. But it also seems possible that Western Civilization in general and the US in particular is suffering from the cultural equivalent of multi-system organ failure.
In the case of grandstanding, it’s the organ of “moral talk” that’s failing. As the authors point out, moral talk is an essential tool for getting others to behave morally, and for bringing about positive social change. Grandstanding is the equivalent of that organ becoming cancerous, of a runaway expansion in moral talk, and unrestricted, ever more extreme versions of it. (The cancer analogy is mine not theirs, but it’s a good one, I’ll have to use it again. Technology and progress as a beneficial process suffering from uncontrolled growth makes a lot of sense.)
So what exactly is grandstanding? According to the book grandstanding has two parts. The first is the grandstander’s desire to impress others with their moral qualities. The second is their attempt to satisfy this desire by proclaiming these qualities in public, ideally to a large and appreciative audience.
Some of my readers may hear that description, and assume that the authors have just come up with another term for virtue signalling. As it turns out they have been working on this book for so long that the term virtue signalling wasn’t around when they started, and even if it had been they feel that grandstanding is still the superior label, because it’s not politically charged (yet), it’s always intentional whereas most signalling isn’t, and not all grandstanding is about virtue, much of it is about communicating to your in-group. But let’s return to this idea of runaway growth.
In a sense, though the authors didn’t make this connection, grandstanding is to displays of morality as spam emails are to marketing. In the past a far greater percentage of marketing happened in person, in the presence of the product. It’s harder to reach people that way but far more effective when you do because you’re demonstrating features in a tangible fashion. In a similar manner, in the past if you wanted to impress others with your moral qualities you had two choices: Do something moral in their presence or talk about your morality. Before social media came along when you only interacted with a handful of people it was nearly as easy, and far more effective to just do moral things, the people you interacted with were about as likely to see you do something moral as they were to hear you talk about it, and actions are always the more effective signal. But if you suddenly can talk to millions of people for essentially free then that equation changes. Why bother showing off a product in person when you can tell a million people about through an essentially free email. And why bother doing something moral when you can tell a million people how moral you are, thus the runaway growth. Which takes us to the next section...
Anytime you encounter runaway growth, you’re also encountering something with eschatological implications, because there are really only three possibilities. If the runaway growth is positive then we stand back and wait until it reaches some sort of beneficial singularity. If, on the other hand, it’s negative, then hopefully we’re able to arrest it at some point, but the question is how are we able to arrest it? And why didn’t we do it sooner? Perhaps it’s impossible, in which case we’re left with the final option, this negative runaway growth continues until something catastrophic happens.
The book identifies five attributes of grandstanding, and all five of them have either recently experienced runaway growth because of the internet and social media, or they’re still experiencing runaway growth. These five attributes are:
1- Piling on: This refers to people's ability to add their voices to some instance of moral talk generated by someone else. The way social media has enabled righteous mobs. Accordingly when a teenage girl in my home town of Salt Lake City posted a picture of her Chinese prom dress, the problem it wasn’t that one person called her out for cultural appropriation, it’s that
hundreds of thousands of other people were able to join in and say, “I agree with what that first person said, ‘you’re a no-good horrible individual.’” Obviously this connectivity and group formation represent the whole point of social media.
2- Ramping up: The story of the Chinese prom dress also represents another aspect where social media has brought runaway growth, and where it still has plenty of room to metastasize. One can hardly imagine that a teenage girl's prom dress is really the best example people can come up with of cultural appropriation, but when you’re grandstanding, pointing out the same egregious examples of moral harm as everyone else doesn’t get you nearly as much attention as pointing out some new and even more extreme crime. “Oh, you have a problem with cultural appropriation? Well, so do I, and I’m so attuned to that sin that I’m going to target high school girls and their prom dresses!”
3- Trumping up: Closely related to the last item is the concept of Trumping up. While the last attribute was focused on stronger and stronger reactions to smaller and smaller crimes, this is the idea of taking something that historically hasn’t been immoral and pulling it into that sphere. Of taking something that wasn’t a crime and making it one. The example the book provides is when Obama saluted two Marines while carrying a cup of coffee. Military protocol is that you don’t salute when carrying an object, but given that presidential salutes are a recent invention to begin with, this would appear to be a mistake, not a sin. Still as you might imagine the right-wing media spun it into a condemnation of Obama’s patriotism, his stance on the military, and probably his upbringing as well.
4- Strong emotions: As you’re doing all of the above your moral talk ends up having more force if it’s accompanied by strong emotions. One hopes that there’s no infinite increase in how strong these emotions can get, but as the book says, “Where moral outrage gains social purchase, the implicit assumption is that the most outraged person has the greatest moral insight” (emphasis mine).
5- Dismissiveness: Grandstanders generally refuse to engage, and such refusal is offered as proof of the strength of their moral stand. “If you can’t see that police brutality/abortion/COVID is an unmitigated disaster, and the most important issue facing our country than you are beneath contempt and I refuse to engage with you any further.” As you can imagine this attribute, as well as all of the previous attributes are fatal to public discourse.
With all of this in mind, I think it’s easy to see how social media creates a mechanism for “piling on”, adds in the incentives necessary to reward “ramping up”, “trumping up”, and “strong emotions”, and finally the separation necessary for “dismissiveness”. It’s much harder to tell someone in person that they are beneath contempt, but thousands of people have found it easy to do that and all the rest online. Worse, most of these things continue to trend negative, and as it becomes harder and harder to get noticed, the grandstanding is just going to get more and more outrageous.
Who should read this book?
Everybody? Which is not to say that I think everyone would enjoy it (which is normally what I’m aiming for in this section) more that I think everyone would benefit from it. That said, I am not 100% confident that McGilchrist’s science holds up in every particular, and I’m even less confident about his historical narrative, but I nevertheless think that he has pinpointed something profoundly relevant to any diagnosis of the ills of the modern world. Something that is being almost entirely overlooked.
I already spent quite a bit of time on this book in my last post, and if you haven’t already read it and you want to get deeper into things I would point you there. My intention this time around is to briefly cover a bunch of other things I thought were interesting, Mostly as a way of piquing your interest, given that I just said that everyone should read it.
To start with, if you’re anything like me, one of the chief hurdles I imagine people running into when making the decision whether or not to read this book is thinking, “Wait, wasn’t the whole pop culture idea of the left brain being logical, and the right brain being emotional and all the stuff that went along with that, debunked, or at least exaggerated?” And the answer to that is yes, but as McGilchrist explains in the preface:
‘Psychiatrist debunks the left brain/right brain myth,’ the headline proclaimed. Always interested to learn more, I read on, only to discover the psychiatrist in question is - myself.
This puts its finger on the nub of the matter. I don’t believe in the left brain/right brain myth: I believe in discovering the truth about hemisphere difference. There can be no question that it would be foolish to believe most of what has passed into popular culture on the topic of hemisphere differences. And yet it would be just as foolish to believe that therefore there are no important hemisphere differences. There are massively important ones, which lie at the core of what it means to be a human being.
With that established it’s time to get into some of those differences, that is, beyond the ones I already covered in my last post. And rather than go into a lot of detail I’m just going to give you a quick list of bullet points:
Many languages have two words for knowing. For example in German you have “kennen” and “wissen”. One for knowing someone and one for knowing something. This apparently is a decent way of describing the hemispheric split.
The hemispheric differences are exhibited in the size of the hemisphere’s themselves, the right is larger in some areas and the left in others. In fact, every known creature with a neuronal system no matter how far back you go, has a system with asymmetries.
You know that thing when you’re trying to come up with a name, and you just can’t remember and then the minute you stop trying it’s there? McGilchrist says that’s an example of the difference between the two hemispheres, the left struggling to pin it down in the first case, and the right easily retrieving it in a holistic manner once the left gets out of the way.
McGilchrist asserts that the concept of boredom didn’t arise until the 18th century. That until we “left-brained” time making it a Platonic concept rather than something we inhabited, that boredom was not something people experienced.
The book reminded me a lot of Neil Postman’s Technopoly, which I discussed previously here and here. One of Postman’s arguments was that technology requires applying discrete values to everything and that by doing that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. This very closely mirrors the way McGilchrist describes left hemisphere dominance.
Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphors, and “metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world”. This was good to hear since I presented my own defense of analogies and metaphors in this space, in particular how they provide a useful secondary framework for understanding the world which can often be more productive than science alone.
Most of these points represent curiosities. The kind of thing that you might see in an end of year trivia game the professor has put together as a reward for reading the book. But this book is not a collection of gee whiz “Did you know?” reveals, it’s a book that claims that Western Civilization is profoundly sick, and it’s this claim which should draw the majority of our attention, which takes me to the next section.
In a sense we’re dealing with the same problem here that we were dealing with in the last review. If you have a positive feedback loop or some other runaway process, how does it come to an end? One of the many assertions McGilchrist makes is once the Emissary starts to displace the Master that this usurpation is self reinforcing, that the focus of the left-hemisphere sees a world in need of yet more focused attention. (This was part of the point I was making in my last post.) In other words it’s another positive feedback loop. And, if, as he said, this is a bad thing then we’re presented with the same questions. How do we arrest this runaway process? And if we can’t arrest it what doom awaits us?
Let’s take the last part first. Once again, I think there’s so much to cover I’m just going to spit out a bunch of bullet points:
First, there are all the harms I mentioned in my last post. A fixation on data and pieces of evidence which creates a very black and white view of the world.
While McGilchrist doesn’t deny the many technological advances attributable to a more left-brained view of the world, he wonders if it ends up forcing us to choose either material prosperity or psychological health. A choice that many people are remarking on.
Worryingly, McGilchrist has noticed that without the context provided by the right hemisphere that the left often ends up doing the opposite of what it intends. “How was it that the French Revolution, executed in the name of reason, order, justice, fraternity and liberty, was so unreasonable, disorderly, unjust, unfraternal and illiberal?”
As I mentioned in a previous post, religion seems inextricably linked to culture and civilization, it might even be said to act as a link to right-brained modes of thought. As we concentrate more and more on banishing it from society, does this accelerate whatever problems were already occurring?
Finally, McGilchrist claims that an overactive left hemisphere is responsible for a host of psychological issues, including autism, schizophrenia and anorexia. (I may have more to say about this in a future post.)
While you may disagree with some of the harms I just outlined, you might nevertheless be convinced that the world needs to be more “right-brained”. If so, to return to our question, how do we arrest this process?
McGilchrist doesn’t offer any simple or straightforward solutions, and it would be suspect if he had. It’s hard to claim that something which started at the dawn of civilization could be corrected by some simple tweak we’ve overlooked. That said McGilchrist does mention that the eastern mindset might be more conducive to a balanced approach. He also points out that despite the runaway nature of the problem that hemispheric dominance does appear to pendulum back and forth over long enough periods. It’s to be hoped that we’re experiencing one of those pendulum swings right now. Certainly I see hints of it in the rise of things like the minimalist movement, a greater focus on diet and health, the popularity of meditation, and even psychedelic microdosing. For my part, I spent quite a bit of effort arguing for a greater focus on mercy.
II- Capsule Reviews
By: John Coates
Who should read this book?
If you’re in a stressful job, and you want to read a neurological examination of how to know when your stress is productive vs. destructive, I think this is a great book. I’ve occasionally mentioned some of my own past work experience (startups, a lawsuit, failed businesses, etc.) and there were many points over the last decade or so when I would have really benefited from this book.
John Coates was a derivatives trader who worked for some of the big banks during the dot-com bubble, and it was around this same time that he got interested in neuroscience, later leaving trading to train as a neuroscientist. But even after he switched careers he was still interested in trading, particularly the hormonal and cognitive changes wrought in this high stress environment, so that became his area of study and this book represents his conclusions.
My big takeaway from the book is that the body does really well at dealing with short term stress. When it’s temporarily put into fight or flight mode, but such incidents of stress need to be followed by an extended period of rest and recovery. When these stressful incidents are infrequent, but similar enough that some learning can take place, the body's automatic response, your “gut”, if you will, gets pretty good at reacting in a rapid and sensible fashion. On the other hand if you get stuck in something of a permanent fight or flight mode — which happened to me for several years (though I doubt my example was at the extreme end of things) and happens to traders when the market is tanking — then not only is the perpetual stress profoundly unhealthy, but all of your decisions get worse as logic and even good instincts get warped by constantly bathing in cortisol and adrenaline.
Beyond that there are some great “behind the scenes” stories of trading floors from the time when the bubble burst. And some general discussion of managing stress that I found very interesting. Coates ends the book with some recommendations, which may have been the weakest part of the book. As is so often the case there are many ideas which sound great in isolation, but which would require a complete reworking of the industry and probably human nature in order to actually be implemented.
By: Jim Butcher
Who should read this book?
I can’t imagine why you would even consider reading this book if you haven’t read the 15 preceding books. But on the other hand if you have done that then it almost feels like you have to read this book, right? Unless you feel like this is the time to write the series off as a sunk cost, and if so, given the length of time between this book and the last, that might not be a bad idea.
I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Part of the problem is that this is the first Dresden Files novel I really had to wait to read. I came to the series late, and while the book before this one had not been released when I started the series, I think at most I waited a few months for it. If Butcher had kept up his previous pace of one novel a year, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but for reasons I never bothered investigating, there ended up being a 6 year gap between this one and the last (the aforementioned 15th book). That gap made my experience of reading this entry into the series very different from my experience of reading past entries.
First off, while I had no problem remembering the main characters, there were numerous minor characters, allusions to past events, plot points, and other miscellaneous references to the previous novels that were completely opaque to me. I can’t imagine I’m the only one suffering from this problem and it really feels like Butcher could have done a better job reminding his readers of things given how much time had passed. Second, and this is going to sound cheesy, I think I’m a different person and a different reader than I was six years ago, and the things that appealed to me back then about the Dresden Files (mostly his world building) are now no longer sufficient. Or at least that’s my theory of why this entry in the series felt flat to me.
I guess the next obvious question is whether I’m going to read book #17 when it comes out later this year. Probably, I’m kind of a completist and even though I understand the sunk-cost fallacy, I’m not very good at incorporating it into my behavior. Also I thought I’d heard that he was ending things around book 20, and it seems a shame to give it up this close to the finish line. I guess my plan with future books would be to wait a little longer before jumping in. Give it a month or two so that the reviews can accumulate, see how they’re trending, verify that whole “ending at 20” thing and then decide.
Having talked around the book quite a bit, let me try and quickly sum up some of the good and bad points. I’ve always felt that Butcher’s primary strength is world building, and in Peace Talks that continues to be excellent. Character wise, I think he’s lost a step, or perhaps painted himself into a corner, as quite a few characters have the same, virtually identical quality of being unreasonable hard-headed brawlers. Other than that the plot is pretty good, though it follows the typical Dresden formula of being an unending series of crises, which frankly can get a little bit tiring, also it’s basically only part one of the story. Which I guess means, to tie it all together, that you should wait until book 17 comes out and then read both of them. If Amazon is to be believed you’ll only have to wait until the end of the month.
Who should read this book?
If you expect to find yourself transported back in time to a university in the late 18th century, and you’re too lazy to learn Greek, then you should at least read all of the Greek Tragedies in English. If you’re lucky this will be enough for you to bluff your way through things. If this scenario seems unlikely, then you should still read them unless you want to be an uncultured schlub your whole life.
I have reached the end of the extant Greek tragedies, and it’s time for me to move on to the comedies, though if I live long enough I expect I’ll want to return to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides at some point.
Having reached the end I’m not sure what overarching statements I can make, or at least what I can say that hasn’t been said in previous reviews. Though I will repeat my assertion that though they were written over two thousand years ago, the tragedies seem surprisingly modern, in a way that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and even the Iliad and the Odyssey didn’t. There’s some recognizable shift between those works and these, and I’m sure other people have done a much better job of identifying what that shift might be, but it’s definitely there and it appears to mark the beginning of a long, long road. One that we still haven’t reached the end of.
I guess, just like with the last review, that I should say something specific about this book, rather than opining on the series in general. Continuing the subject of how modern these tragedies are, The Bacchae is either the precursor of the modern horror movie or an example of how “primitive” they still were. It ends with a mother killing her son using her bare hands and carrying the head into town unaware of what she’s done because Dionysius has made her insane. On the other hand Iphigenia in Aulis has a scene that just breaks your heart.
Agamemnon has been told by a prophet that the only way for the Greeks to make it to Troy is if he sacrifices his eldest daughter to Artemis. So he decides on a plan of sending for his wife and telling her to bring Iphigenia using the lie that she’s going to be wed to Achilles. But then he has a change of heart and sends another message telling his wife to turn back, but of course the second message never gets there.
This might not have been a problem except Odysseus knows about the prophecy, and in typical Odysseus fashion when it looks like Agamemnon might have a change of heart, he tells the entire army knowing that if they realize that the only things standing between them and Troy is Iphigenia, they will demand that the sacrifice proceed. In any event the scene that broke my heart is when Iphigenia arrives and joyously runs to meet her father, and it’s revealed how close the two of them have always been. The scene continues, with Agamemnon undergoing the severest torture as he talks to his daughter, knowing about what’s going to happen if he follows through on the prophecy, but also what will happen to his whole family, as they sit in the center of the army, if they refuse.
For my money it’s one of the greatest tragic scenes I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. And a fitting end to the whole series.
by: Abraham Verghese
Who should read this book?
This book was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and it sold over a million copies. Obama put it on his summer reading list. I’m sure it’s been read by thousands of book clubs (including my wife’s). It isn’t the Great American Novel it’s more like the great Ethiopian/Indian/surgical novel, but it is pretty great. If any of that entices you, you should read this book.
You can easily find a plot summary for this book if you wish, as well as thousands of reviews. So doing much of either seems kind of pointless. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you’re looking for a great novel to read, I feel pretty confident in saying you won’t be disappointed by this one. Still, once can’t help but wonder what kind of legs this book will have. Will people still be reading it 100 years from now? Is it an actual classic? I’m not sure, I kind of suspect that it won’t be. But maybe I’m wrong, it feels like it’s right on the edge of things. That fate could easily consign this book to the ash heap of history, or alternatively it could still be on whatever passes for a bookshelf decades from now.
As a final note I will say that personally my favorite characters were Hema and Ghosh. Forget the main character I would read it just for the parts featuring those two.
III- Religious Reviews
Who should read this book?
I’m not sure. It comes across as pretty dated, but if you’re interested in a fairly simple defense of Christianity told through the lens of history, then that’s what this is. It also has an accompanying TV series which is available on Amazon Prime, which has some surprisingly high production values. Apparently the whole package was a big deal in the 70’s among evangelicals.
For the moment imagine that you had someone who had their doubts about the importance of Christianity in the formation of Western Civilization. And you found out that the TV series, which was based on this book, was playing at some church, so you took this person to go see it. I can imagine that you would spend most of the time cringing, because in 2020, the arguments made by this book and its accompanying show look pretty simplistic.
In saying this I don’t mean to imply that the arguments are wrong, more that they are the product of a simpler more straightforward time, when people cared more about the overarching narrative than getting the details of every last particular correct. But things are different now, and probably the first thing a modern academic would do is point out all the mistakes Shaeffer makes, all the factual errors, large and small. For example these days historians are pretty sure that the Roman persecution of Christians has been greatly exaggerated, and barely happened at all. And while people might be right to point out these mistakes (or not, see my last post) what’s interesting is that Shaeffer’s central point, as far as I can tell, is still true. A Secular Age (which I reviewed last month) and Francis Fukuyama’s books on the origins of the state (reviewed here and here) don’t simplify things, and are otherwise punctilious about the facts. You might even say the level of detail they engage in is excruciating, and yet they both still arrive at the same fundamental conclusion about Christianity’s importance that Shaeffer does.
A few posts ago I talked about epistemology, and I mentioned that in the past people adopted an epistemology of national greatness. In this book Shaeffer is pushing an epistemology of Christian greatness, and while the negatives of this epistemology are obvious to nearly everyone these days, reading this book once again reminded me that there are probably some positives to this approach as well, particularly from the standpoint of keeping a civilization and a culture unified and happy. And it would be one thing if this epistemology were untrue, if America actually was horrible, or if Christianity had nothing to do with the development of the modern state or Western Civilization. But it’s not untrue, America is a great nation relative to essentially every other nation you can think of, and Christianity was central to what we think of as the West. Which means, in the final analysis, if I found the TV Series cringe worthy maybe the problem isn’t with it, maybe the problem is with me.
As I’ve mentioned in the past I frequently forget who recommended a book or how it ended up on my list. The last book was a great example of that, but starting now, I pledge to write it down! If you want to help me with the purchase of a pen and a pad of paper so I can do that, consider donating. (Okay I’ll actually probably use a computer but those are even more expensive.)