Militarism and National Pride


What kinds of things should Americans be proud of?

Only since the late 1940s have we been proud of military might as a token of national strength. In a way, being a military superpower wasn’t something we asked for. World War Two started in far away places, and we joined the fighting only when our hand was forced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (And, less noticed, because FDR increasingly came to see the war as a global, existential conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, from which we could not in good conscience absent ourselves.)

So we had to build a war-winning machine, which we did. The scale of the task was larger than in times past, but we prepared for war in 1941 the way we always had–on the fly. These days it’s difficult, if not impossible, to recall a time when our country was not on a permanent war footing.

We didn’t used to consider war a normal part of life. Before the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, we had had a Department of War, not Defense, and we only had that intermittently, when necessary.

To put that in perspective, our country existed for 171 years without a permanent department to organize the provision of national defense. We also lacked a standing army for most of that time. But when World War Two ended, not with a clear and decisive victory for liberal democracy but with a lingering, persistent threat of conflict with the USSR, it became necessary to form permanent institutions of defense.

This was, in my estimation, a national tragedy. Our hand may have been forced, but in any case the country turned a corner and became something it had never been before, a national security state.

With the passage of the National Security Act, the resulting colossus of a defense- and intelligence bureaucracy imbricated itself with a massive network of defense industries and educational institutions. The whole thing became precisely what Dwight Eisenhower warned could overtake our national purpose–a military industrial complex.

And of course, Ike had no idea what a corporate lobbyist was, or he would have referred to them as part of the MIC too. This suave and canny battalion of retired generals grow rich promoting the business of defense–and in doing so they keep the permanent war economy humming.

Today the U.S. national security state is unstoppable. This is primarily because it is politically unquestionable. In 1981 Ronald Reagan immunized the national military budget against meaningful review, saying in a speech that defense was “not a line item expense.” He meant that defense was a fixed cost, to be paid out before the leftovers–which make up the discretionary budget–are divvied up.

You can see the legacy of this doctrine today in the way the defense budget is set aside. Although politicians give lip service to the idea that we gauge our future military to specific threats we anticipate, this argument is mocked by the way the budget is really drawn up.

As Jessica Mathews wrote in the New York Review of Books in July 2019, “For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.”

Regardless of all the work that scientists, intelligence analysts and other experts put into understanding future threats against which to calibrate our military capabilities, the Pentagon spending graph simply describes an unthinking upward arrow. It represents a percentage of national wealth fixed by dogma, not intelligence, imagination or empirical information.

The uncritical conviction with which we accept this arrangement is relatively new. Americans viewed President Lincoln’s first-ever levying of an income tax as an emergency measure necessary to win the Civil War, and they were eager to turn it off as soon as the war was won.

There was no permanent income tax until the 16th amendment to the constitution was ratified in 1913. Today the tax spigot runs night and today into the Defense Department, at full blast. I’m not sure how many Americans understand how much political choice has been taken away from them by the normalization of unquestioned defense expenditures and the national security state that perpetuates them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie peacenik. I served in the military. So did my dad. So does my sister. We have all fought in foreign wars. I believe in having a strong enough military to provide for a national defense. I even acknowledge that some costly overseas military commitments that were once characterized as unwelcome “foreign entanglements” have evolved into constructive alliances and real friendships. Our abiding military alliance with Germany, for example, is the world’s best guarantee that vibrant, powerful, ingenious countries will not be tempted once again into the darkness of militarized fascism.

The necessity of having a national security state is what the political scientist John Mearsheimer calls the “tragedy of great power politics.” The logic of security competition dictates that the safest place in a dangerous world is at the top of the military power order. So, if you live in a big, powerful country, you are always gunning for that goal. Second place is not good enough.

In line with this logic but without anyone voting for it, our number one national priority became military supremacy sometime between 1945 and 1947. Then, it was fixed as law. And whatever onerous job Americans take on, we take pride in doing it well. We became great military-industrialists.

I’d like to take a few minutes to think about the unseen, neglected costs of this development. What kinds of great accomplishments we had taken pride in in the past, before we became militarists?And what kinds of great accomplishments ought we to take pride in going forward? The shadow cast by our overwhelming military power obscures many other things we used to be good at and consider vital to our national character–things worthy of national pride.

Pride and patriotism have gone out of fashion with much of my tribe of progressives and communitarians. Pretty much the whole left started going silent on national pride since Vietnam, and the theme hasn’t picked up much since then. This is a mistake.

In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty argues that national pride is essential to good politics whether of the left or right. He writes:

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history–is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation probably will not occur unless pride outweighs shame.

Whatever causes we may have for pessimism at particular moments in history, our longer-term national faith in progress requires that we override them. “Democracy,” wrote William James, “is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure.”

We have a deep need to believe in our country and to find reasons to be proud of it. Ideally, there should be some consensus about what these reasons are, but the pursuit of this consensus must be guided by moral seriousness. As the Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in the introduction to her 2019 book This America: The Case for the Nation:

Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will. The endurance of nationalism proves there’s never any shortage of fiends and frauds willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence. When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.

Liberalism, the cause on which our country was founded, is at risk of dying? That sounds dire. But, Lepore continues, more hopefully:

Liberalism is still in there. The trick is getting it out. There’s only one way to do that. It requires grabbing and holding onto a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws. This requires making the case for the nation.

Notice what she said there at the end. We must make the case for the nation. Not the laws; those will be determined by the question, What is the nation for?

this america

There are three reasons, I believe, to look beyond our country’s military strength for the sources of inspiration capable of renewing our sense of national pride and making the case for the nation.

The first is that, even if military might can be seen as an intrinsically noble national characteristic, it is one that has been forced upon us by the logic of state-level security competition. As such, it is more a reflexive adaptation to global circumstances than an informed, creative choice about what our nation is for. When I think of the struggles and accomplishments that underwrite my self-respect, I think first of the things I freely chose, such as studying hard or having children, over adaptations forced on me by circumstances. Make no mistake, one’s responses to unbidden challenges are certainly a mark of character, but surely it the the things we must first imagine before pursuing them that lie closer to the glowing core of  who we are.

Second, military might is a value-neutral characteristic, neither good nor bad in itself. Abraham Lincoln built a military juggernaut between 1861 and 1865 to defend the cause of liberal democracy. But then, Josef Stalin did the same from 1941 to 1945, in the service of monstrous authoritarianism.

My point is, any country with a certain amount of resources and organizational capacity can become militarily powerful without affecting their internal character. Don’t we want to focus first on the character we are seeking to defend?

Third, and this is relatively new, militarism at the national level has trickled down to the individual level, poisoning communal life by turning every public space you enter into a potential armed standoff. The same tragic circumstances our government is forced to confront in the international arena we have voluntarily re-created in our home lives. Stand Your Ground and Guns Everywhere laws mean the citizen is now legally obliged to regard normal life as armed conflict. And it touches us at our most tender points. In public schools across the country, the normalization of mass shooter drills and the corresponding provision of armed guards make up “rational” solutions to a problem that no decent, morally literate people would ever choose. But choose it we have.

Was this what our country was created for? To promote such a robust common defense that its by-products of military chauvinism and runaway gun culture dominate our social and cultural existence?

Thomas Jefferson, our greatest rhetorical defender of freedom, thought not. In the 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl surveys the yawning gap between where Jefferson saw our nation going and where we have actually come:

“[T]he care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good governance,” [Jefferson wrote]. A politics that spreads guns, blocks health care and defunds schools seems to have forgotten Jefferson’s basic principle. Behind these agendas are core assumptions that the happiness of a select few persons takes precedence over the care of a great many others.

All of the things that make me proud of America have something to do with care. I love Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park system. It was a grandiose but deeply humane way of caring for our natural endowment. I love Ellis Island, and the idea that our land can take in broken, desperate lives and give them a new chance. I love the creation of frontier- and Freedman schools in the 19th century. They show we cared about children, and the mind. I love Walt Whitman. He wrote a poem that said all Americans are creating and re-creating ourselves all the time. We care so much about our destinies we are always working on them, perpetually busy, as Bob Dylan would put it, being born.

In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty wrote this about art and politics and pride:

Nations rely on artists and intellectuals to create images of, and to tell stories about, the national past. Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.

And, to adapt Jill Lepore’s observation above, you can get those symbols from conscientious students of our history, or you can get them from reactionary jackboots.

In closing, here are the symbols of American greatness that get my vote. They are the wellspring of the stories I would want to have told about us. They may not describe us in our totality, but they say something vitally important about who we are at our best.

We have safe public spaces with a robust built environment that helps the most people go the most places and do useful, desirable things. There are few if any lethal weapons in my America but lots of sidewalks, bike paths, libraries and ice cream shops. The poor and infirm go into these space and are not walled off from the rich and healthy, or useful destinations. The elderly are not made to live shut-in lives after they stop driving. Cars take second place to people. That would make me proud.

Healthcare is good and accessible to all. We abandond the sadistic fantasy that says helthcare is a scarce commodity and the poor and middle class people must compete with the rich to get it. Healthcare is a human right, and we have the laws to protect it as such. Most of the world’s developed countries understand it is wrong to price people out of widely available healthcare resources.

We have great public schools, and teachers are paid on a scale commensurate with the job they do. Educating the next generation is the most important task there is in a republic. It is the sine qua non of having a great country. At a rough guess, I would say pay all public school teachers twice what they are getting now. I would be proud of that.

I could go on, but i think you get the flavor. For much of our nation’s life, we’ve been busy pioneering, creating, envisioning, becoming something bigger. As we create new reasons to be proud of our nation, I think it is worth looking back on what made us bold and inventive in the past. And then looking forward, to imagine a new republic, in which we re-order our priorities in creative, life-affirming ways.


This Is the End: Thoughts on Mortality and the Meaning of Life


In his justly famous 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin writes this luminous passage on the sacredness of human life:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

In a way, Baldwin is presaging Bob Dylan’s sentiment, to come in 1965, that “He not busy being born is busy dying.” But we are all busy dying, as Baldwin makes clear. The important thing is to do the work that builds a meaningful life, else we are busy only dying. I’m pretty sure that’s what Dylan meant too.

(Image: Shutterstock)

The myth that we will not die is not just an idle reflection of a childish wish, I believe. It does actual harm. It is a fantasy that decent, thinking people ought to avoid, threatening to lure us into all those diversions that Baldwin says can make us “sacrifice all the beauty of our lives.”

And it can do worse than that.

Consider the family of one rural Missouri teenager who shot and killed himself on Christmas day 2014 after being snubbed by a girl. In his 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl, records an interview with the boy’s aunt. The boy’s family is coping with the unimaginable trauma, says the aunt, by reflecting on “the fact that we know my nephew is in heaven.”

The fantasy of heaven is infinitely useful. It can divert our minds from almost any kind of loss or tragedy. One of the difficulties the dead boy’s family had to cope with was that he killed himself with one of two handguns lying loaded near his parents’ bed, put there for “home defense.” But, the boy’s suicide “absolutely has not changed [the aunt’s] view about guns,” Metzl reports. Nor were the boy’s parents moved to change their views.

I do not mean to sound uncharitable, but using the fantasy of never-ending life to erase one’s share of responsibility for the death of one’s child–as the parents did in this case– is inexcusably sordid and wicked. It is a shameful indulgence in the kind of demeaning religious escapism Orwell notes in his wonderful 1949 essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”:

Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.

No need to tell that family in Missouri that life is mostly suffering. I imagine it suffuses their whole existence now. But how much wiser and better prepared for life they would have been had they taken seriously the idea that their guns could very well end the only life each member of their family would ever have. “The meaning of life is that it ends,” wrote Philip Roth. Imagine life going on forever, and it means nothing.

The fantasy of immortality robs life of moral seriousness. It teaches us, among other things, that we’re all bound for a court date in the real life to come, so a great deal of thoughtlessness, recklessness, and a brutish disregard for the sanctity of this life are permissible and normal, so long as one’s pieties and religious prejudices are kept intact.

Ivan Ilyich is in physical anguish as he lies dying in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. But more traumatic is the mental realization that he had let his whole life pass by unexamined, hypnotized into believing the mass delusion that death does not exist. When he eventually senses the dishonesty in this dogma, it devastates him. At several points in his last, bedridden month of life, Ilyich rages against being “enmeshed” in a web of lies–an intricate deceit constructed by everyone around him that neither he nor they are dying.

The most heartrending part of Ivan Ilyich’s death is the depth of his estrangement from his family. At the end, when death is certain, he openly hates his wife and is coldly distant from his children. On rumination, he sees this horrible, decisive separation had its insensible germ in the decades of his “ordinary” past, as he and his family built separate, self-serving lives. They could have been building real connections based on love. (Ilyich had married for rank, his wife for money.) All those years he could have been busy being born, he was busy dying.

The prospect of dying urges us out of a transactional attitude toward others. “Only connect!” it tells us. E.M Forster knew this.

Forster’s best novels show us that binding our lives with others is not just our noblest purpose on earth, but that the act of connecting realizes life’s highest beauties and most abiding passions–the things we count as worthwhile on our deathbeds. In A Room with a View, the freethinking Mr. Emerson tries to kindle a spark between his reticent son George and pretty Lucy Honeychurch in the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. There is much more at stake than young love and concupiscence (but don’t discount those!). Love is the best, possibly only way of striking out against finitude’s meaninglessness. “We know that we come from the winds,” Mr. Emerson tells Lucy, “and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice. I don’t believe in this world sorrow.”

But sorrow surely comes, for all of us. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a tragic reminder of what happens when death arrives unannounced. One lesson is clear. If you are going to earn your death in the way Baldwin means it, you must begin to do so in the thick of life.  You cannot wait for the ravages of the dying process to strip you of this capacity.

When Baldwin says in “The Fire Next Time” that too many of us are willing to sacrifice the beauty of our individual lives for some trumped up, death-denying ideology, he is actually understating the case. Some of us are so eager to believe that an eternal amusement park awaits us in heaven that we positively long for not just our own deaths, but a species-wide extinction that is said to be necessary to clear the ground for the fun-filled Kingdom of Heaven.

In a 2007 essay that has somehow avoided wide publication, “End of the World Blues,” Ian McEwan dissects the religious fundamentalist’s lurid fascination with apocalypse and extinction. The apocalyptic frame of mind, McEwan observes, responds to an anxiety we all must eventually feel–that (1) the world will go on existing after we die, and (2) its existence will not be fixed to any particular endpoint or purpose that gave sense to our lives (like the ones usually defined in holy scripture, such as the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem and the reign of Christ on earth). In other words, life is, and will remain, higgedly piggedly. No one knows what it is leading up to, if anything.

As Mr. Emerson puts in in A Room with a View, “There is no cosmic plan.”

This prospect is awfully hard to take while one is poised at the edge of an all-enveloping destiny that approaches with unfeeling determination–the dark eternity that will take one back into the same vastness from which one came. One wants a good story instead. I was was the star of my show for so long, we feel, it cannot be that there was never really a show to begin with. “What could grant us more meaning against the abyss of time,” McEwan suggests, “than to identify our own personal demise with the purifying annihilation of all that is.”

In other words, if I am bowing out, then the whole story, stage and all, must come to an end. As patently childish as this attitude is, end-of-the-world fantasies are ubiquitous and have had impressive staying power. Almost all “civilizations” still nurse dreams of apocalypse that exert significant control over the human imagination. “Our secular and scientific culture,” McEwan writes, “has not replaced or even challenged these mutually incompatible, supernatural thought systems.”

It is no surprise that religions provide climactic, end-of-the-world stories. That’s sort of what religions do. Oddly, though, when we occasionally see cults and other fanatics acting out their own squalid apocalypse narratives in the real world, we can easily espy the wickedness and delusion inherent in them. When Jim Jones brought his followers to drink poison in Jonestown or Joseph Goebbels killed his five children and then himself as the scenery of the Nazi pageant was collapsing around him in Berlin in May 1945, we clearly perceive their acts as evil incarnate. But when we blithely send our children off to Sunday school or Bible camp to have them imbibe bloodier, more comprehensive visions of apocalypse (replete with “earthquakes and fires, thundering horses and their riders, angels blasting away on trumpets, magic vials, Jezebels, a red dragon, and other mythical beasts,” as McEwan catalogs), we catch not the slightest whiff of the death wish wafting from them.

It’s strange.

The idea that the whole world must end with my death, McEwan observes, is a way of resisting the revocation of meaning that looms as one’s demise comes clearly into focus. If for several decades my life meant everything, how can it simply (“absurdly” is Camus’ word for it) slip back into the eternal nothingness that preceded it?

Thus we come back to Baldwin and the idea of death as a gift. If death must come into focus, wouldn’t it be nobler, more hopeful, and altogether better to use it in the service of wisdom rather than dramatize it as part of a tawdry fantasy? Isn’t the wise use of death exactly what we have in mind when we draw up bucket lists or conjure up scenes of our deathbeds to clarify our big-picture priorities?

Dogmas of immortality would have us believe that the eternal bliss that awaits us is all that really matters: whatever slings and arrows assail us in the here and now are to be discounted as mere nothings. Jorge Luis Borges draws a fundamental paradox from this view in his short story “The Immortal.” Imagine yourself living forever in heaven or hell–and Borges means really try to imagine it, eon upon eon of foreverness. Whatever your experience is in this eternity, it was determined by an infinitesimally small segment of your total existence, an aburdly, vanishingly small flash of a microsecond when compared with the cosmic span of your eternal repose. Doesn’t this make it clear, Borges writes, that even the religiously-minded person knows instinctively that it is this life that has ultimate value?

I close with his words:

I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those first hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.




Review of “These Truths: A History of the United States” by Jill Lepore


“The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable,” James Madison reflects in Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States.

But it was not so with America. We have a clear record of the founding acts. Madison himself kept detailed notes about the crafting of the constitution. There were numerous newspapers that recorded the goings on in Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1787. The flourishing businesses that were enriching young America kept extensive books and made reports of their commerce. They thrived on, and archived a wealth of, factual information about the tastes, ambitions, and livelihoods of Americans at the time of our founding.

Perhaps most famously, three of our country’s founders, Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, wrote the Federalist Papers, 85 essays on why the Americans of 1787 should form a single nation under the constitution written in Philadelphia rather than remain in a loose confederation of independent states.

You can pick up the Federalist Papers for a couple bucks, by the way. Now that I’m in my 50s I don’t really care if I sound like a scold when I say: Please do acquire and read your own copy. Or, refrain from making any political arguments that start with, “Well, the Founders believed . . . ” If you’re going to do the latter, you must do the former. And do keep quiet if you cannot bother to acquaint yourself with the intellectual record of a country founded on a basis of literacy.

Jill Lepore, a scant two months older than I am, manages to strikes a friendlier tone than I do as she invites you to read the history of our country. She is an acclaimed Harvard scholar and writes clear, incisive, often beautiful prose so effortlessly (it seems), she has time to contribute frequently to the New Yorker. So, if you aren’t moved by my harangues to come to grips with the Federalist Papers, try Lepore instead.

I recently read These Truths, in about a week despite being busy with job, family and all the usual. It is a breathtakingly good book. This is less a review of it than a zealous appeal to read it for yourself.

These Truths

Why did Lepore write a one-volume history of the United States? A fair question. It is long–933 pages with notes, 753 without. But for Lepore, it is the through-line of our whole history that gives sense to the big question she wants to ask.

The purpose of the book, Lepore writes, is to work out a 2018 answer to a 1787 question, posed by Alexander Hamilton:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Reflection and choice. Or accident and force. That dichotomy is the lens through which Lepore examines the whole history of our country. It is a simple device that produces magnificent clarity.

When our country began, accident and force determined (among other things) that African slaves were to be treated as property, not persons. Even as the founders debated, disputed and drew up an explicit plan for liberal democracy, they mutely allowed the growth of a parallel totalitarian regime to rule the enslaved humans in America who did not count, in Hamilton’s formulation as “men,” capable of choosing, forming, or participating in a government.

Our history is a record of the long struggle to stop pretending that this regime did not exist, and that accident and force did not frequently overmaster reflection and choice as our guiding principles.

But make no mistake, These Truths is not a simple, prosecutorial history of slavery and repression and all the ways America has gone wrong because of its original sin. It is a much more complicated and satisfying story of how Americans have, with courage and daring and vision, persisted in seeking an answer to Hamilton’s question despite the original sin and despite the wrong turns along the way. I urge you to read it.


It Was A Very Good Year — 2019


The best thing about being a citizen of a republic of letters is that you always feel at home, no matter where your feet are planted on Earth. The books you read hold you in place.

You can always submerge yourself in fascinating stories about what it means to be human. I think we can all relate to that. For about 30 years now I have believed that all good novels are in some way about human destiny–being “prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” Orwell wrote that in the last year of his life.

Orwell is known as the ultimate political thinker. But the funny thing is, politics came in a distant second place for him in the overall scheme of life. Orwell viewed political systems as powerful corruptors of human feeling and believed that you had to perfect a feeling of loyalty among your intimates first, before you could hope to achieve anything in politics. Hear, hear.

Looking back, I spent an unusual amount of time this year enjoying familiar places in the old republic of letters, re-reading just about every major novel that is important to me, revisiting old intimates. I hatched no plan to do this; it just happened.

Of course, I re-read Ninety Eighty-Four, twice. The second time through (this year), I wrote some detailed notes about the first two chapters, analyzing Orwell’s thoughts on privacy and moral decency line-by-line. I live for that sort of thing. Reading Orwell as an adult is  what reading the Bible was for me as a child.

The background reading for my re-look at Nineteen Eighty-Four was Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society, a philosophical consideration of collective moral responsibility. The whole point of having the institutions that form society, Margalit argues, is to prevent us humiliating our fellow man. In the present moment of assertive stupidity and coarseness and hostility toward the weak, I cannot recommend The Decent Society highly enough.

A great novel reveals the large-scale forms of life that have crept over humanity without our noticing them–the million and one little decisions we humans have made which could have gone this way or that and which in the end add up to unassailable systems. The most important novel to me in the world is The Castle, by Franz Kafka, because it shows how the office has in this manner become a predominant form of social organization. The implements and principles of bureaucracy dictate our routines and tyrannize our lives. I re-read The Castle for about the tenth time, because I am always wondering if we humans are doing the right thing. We should choose the things that tyrannize us carefully, I think.

I also re-read Don Delillo’s Underworld. I consider it the best American novel of the 20th century. Published in 1998, it plots the subconscious trendline of our country as we groped in the dark toward Y2K and the strange future that globalization brought. If you believe, as I do, that 9/11 rather than “changing everything” about America actually caused us to become more who we already were, Delillo’s masterpiece will speak to you. It showed what our anxieties consisted in just before 9/11 pushed us over the edge.

Probably because I regard Underworld as the American Magic Mountain, I also went back and re-read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It is certainly one of the best novels of the 20th century, possibly the best. If Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov is a novel about the existence of God, as is often said, The Magic Mountain is a novel about the existence of philosophical dualisms upon which European intellectual culture is built–mind-body, war-peace, sickness-health, east-west, action-contemplation, and the one that anchored them all for Mann–space-time. Mann writes from a Kantian tradition that says the mind imputes basic dualisms (including space-time) to reality as a necessary entry point to sense-making. Whether the dualisms really exist we may never know. Mann takes you down the rabbit hole of this unknowing, if you care to go.

I re-read much of Nietzsche, prompted by the very stimulating biography of him, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux. Although there is no good way to simplify Nietzsche’s ideas, Prideaux does a wonderful job of humanizing him as a writer and making the evolution of his thought accessible to almost anyone. It is the book for getting at Nietzsche if you have ever thought of trying but put it off.

I doubt many Americans know of The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek, which is a pity. Set as World War One opens, Schweik is a drunken, simpleminded wag who subverts every aspect of Europe’s war fever by volunteering vociferously to fight for God and empire. He is too good a soldier. A comic antihero, Schweik is what would happen if Sancho Panza were the main character instead of Don Quixote.

Actually, the eve of World War One was kind of a theme for me this year. I also read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. Musil’s novel is a long (1,000 pages!) meditation on how the elites of Central Europe sleepwalked into the catastrophe of total war. Your grasp of Vienna’s special place in Europe’s intellectual history, from Freud to Klimmt to Wittgenstein, can only be improved if you take in Musil’s slow-moving masterpiece.

The Proud Tower was a revelation, easily one of the best books I read this year. Tuchman has an amazing gift for historical narrative. Exhibit One: she manages to make a 50-page chapter on Richard Strauss un-put-downable, a completely engrossing story of European elites not so much sleepwalking toward war as giddily clamoring for it–fiddling as they prepared to burn Rome, so to speak.

Enticed by what he believed was Nietzsche’s overthrow of conventional morality, in the 1910s Strauss writes operas that lead the Germans first on a “roaming of the gutter,” luxuriating in vices dark and decadent ranging from plain sexual scandal to depictions of sadistic murder and dismemberment. From these lower depths, Strauss rises up and goads das Volk toward a peak of cultural resentment. Strauss composed one over-the-top masterpiece after another at the pinnacle of a century of German cultural achievement, marked by Kant, Beethoven, and Goethe. “What they lacked and hungered for,” Tuchman writes of the Germans, “was the world’s acknowledgment of their mastery.” (This dynamic itself embodied a Hegelian idea, which Tuchman curiously fails to note.) At the lead of this national longing for recognition, Strauss helped drive his countrymen to war, anthemizing their grievances in “an atmosphere of uproar; everything was larger, noisier, more violent than life.” Well, we all know what came next. While Germany certainly did not embody everything that was wrong with the world in 1914, its ills remain a useful focal point for understanding the history of so many of our man-made catastrophes.

Randomly accessed quote on this theme: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history . . . . [S]ome vast shaking of the soul, [the crowd] brings with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day . . . .” (Don Delillo, Underworld)

It was not all Sturm und Drang in 2019, of course. The year had its lighter moments too.

I ended up–I can’t recall how–re-reading The Code of the Woosters, which is certainly the masterpiece of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves novels. But of course, you cannot simply read The Code of the Woosters alone, forming as it does, the middle of a trilogy that is the best run of all the Wooster and Jeeves books. So, of course, I went back and re-read Right Ho, Jeeves and Joy in the Morning. It’s amazing to me how Wodehouse’s comedic writing has held up for more than a century. In a way, it’s sad to think that his humor might pass away, but I suppose it will. I know, for example, that certain lines in Shakespeare are said to be funny, but I have never actually laughed at any of them. Does the same fate await Wodehouse? Do yourself an immensely pleasurable favor and read him while he is till fall-down funny.

Even the new books I read this year had something old about them. Reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, I was reminded why I enjoyed his standout 2001 book The Corrections so much. Franzen is an unreconstructed throwback of a novelist. With hardly any “theory” or attack on literary convention to guide him, Franzen simply delivers thick, savory stories about his contemporary countrymen using plot, theme, and characterization. Dickens would be proud.

The best “new” novel I read this year was A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. It was a delight from start to finish. Lighter than the only other Naipaul novel I’ve read, A Bend in the River, Biswas somehow also manages to be more deeply satisfying than that grim story. It is about a poor man seeking enough money to buy his own house so he can have something like a life. Don’t we all want something like that? I often wonder why the political right has such a paucity of literary forces behind it. Naipaul is a rare literary standard bearer of the right.

Reading Tom Wolfe’s final (2012) novel Back to Blood also felt like a comfortable reminiscence. I came late to Wolfe. The first novel I read by him was his buzzy and engaging A Man in Full, which came out in 1998. Ostensibly about stoicism, wealth, and the new American economy (it really could float on air!), A Man in Full was really about the place where Wolfe set his story–Atlanta. It’s a wonderful portrait; take it in if you have time. A magnificent chronicler of America, Wolfe has always told us exactly where things are happening.

Back to Blood continues this theme, and although Wolfe’s plot is a little formulaic this time, his sociologist’s antennae are still finely tuned. America is fracturing, he observes. Vanishing is the idea that wealth, splashed plentifully and haphazardly across the land would unite us, and, sated, we would become one people under money or God or democracy–or whatever it was we thought we were getting out of this grand experiment. And so, moving the epicenter of the American Dream southward from A Man In Full‘s Atlanta to Miami, Wolfe reports on a great American climbdown. From a people defined by ideals, we are reverting to to a patchwork of tribal identities. Miami’s confection of Cubans, African Americans, Jewish retirees, and Russian nouveau riche occupies center stage in this menagerie. Want to know why every white mayor of a major American city hires a black chief of police if he can? You already know, but read Wolfe anyway. Read him for his final report on America.

I read two rewarding books by famous American malcontents–Pornography, by Andrea Dworkin, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. One word that inevitably comes up when you mention either of these figures is radical. Strictly speaking, this is a fair and appropriate use of the word. Both writers are trying to get at the root (Latin: radix) of a troubling issue.

But of course, radical usually has negative connotations, often meant to disparage someone as extreme, wild-eyed, overwrought or infirm. But when you read Dworkin and Malcolm X, two sharply countervailing qualities come into view. First, it is clear that both writers acquired their “radical” antipathies honestly, not through any liberal act of re-imagining. Dworkin was brutally abused by her husband, who pushed her to be more exhibitionist in her sexuality. She also met many women who had been monstrously coerced into becoming porn “performers.” Dworkin knew whereof she spoke when she unmasked pornography as a not-quite-victimless crime. If the claim strikes you as “radical” (in the scurrilous sense) that pornography is an industry set up and monetized by men for men, to advance a view of men as physically dominant over women and deserving of complacent, adulatory attention, you should probably try to work out what you think pornography really is.

As for the case of Malcolm X, the opening paragraph of his autobiography paints picture of definitive racial violence in, well, primary colors. It is imperishable among American letters for its cold clarity:

When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for my father’s “spreading trouble” among the “good” Negroes of Omaha . . . .

Malcolm X’s father had a troublesome turn of mind, it emerges, because he had never felt quite welcome in white America. Three of his five brothers had been killed by white men, one by lynching. He and a fourth brother would eventually die at the hands of whites too. Born into this world, was it “radical” for Malcolm X to conclude that America had a white problem rather than a black one?

Second, far from sounding undisciplined, the voices of Dworkin and Malcolm X both strike notes of steady erudition and reasonableness. Their prose reflects a calm command of facts and arguments not to be found in a firebrand. Dworkin is extremely well read and would have become an insightful, highly readable writer in whatever field she ended up in had she not become a “radical, militant feminist.” Malcolm X, for his part, literally read his way up from street hustler to Muslim Nation revolutionary, to cold-eyed social critic. His life is a project in learning.

I also read a good many topical books this year, some of which I already reviewed here. Educated, by Tara Westover, was phenomenal, as was Dopesick, a profile of the opioid crisis, by Beth Macy. I thoroughly enjoyed Spying on the South:An Odyssey Across the American Divide. In it, Tony Horwitz (who died tragically just months after finishing the book) retraces the route of Edward Olmsted through the antebellum South, getting to know the people behind populism.

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media and War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century were both excellent analyses of the ever-blurrier distinction between online and offline war. Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation was a frightening reminder that this new war is happening in the hearts and minds of our own people. Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States made the worthy point that jackassery as a political style did not emerge fully formed in 2016–it has a history, much of which played out over the airwaves in the 1980s and -90s.

This seems as good a place as any to mention Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, which was so good I read it twice. In it, Lynskey reminds us that Orwell believed radio was an inherently authoritarian medium, enabling as it did, a single voice to present itself as the consensus of masses. (Orwell had conflicted feelings about working as a broadcaster at the BBC.)

Finally, I read several books about artificial intelligence, anchored by Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom. I read about AI because I want to know what kind of world our machines will create for our children. Technological change is approaching at an inhuman pace, which is precisely what the computer scientists shaping our future are aiming for. They are designing algorithms that will be better at designing algorithms than humans. When this tipping point happens, all of life will change irrevocably. Algorithms, we know not which, will lead us to our destinies.

My immediate response to this prospect is immense sadness. When my father died, he could have possessed (and probably did possess) a roughly accurate picture of how life would unfold for his kids, even decades in the future. In our 70s we might be boarding a new model of Boeing jet or interacting with a new kind of communication device, but the shape and elements of our future lives would still resemble those of his own. He could entrust us to the future because it was tractable.


The AI-driven future that awaits my children, though, defies imagination, and I don’t mean the way a sci-fi movie defies imagination, with photon torpedoes and intergalactic visitors. What I mean is, AI could destroy the supervening forms of social organization we have created here on Earth which have made our lives recognizably human for millennia.

Take work. I will do my best to help my kids prepare for work, possibly even careers or professions. But will there be such things as jobs or professions in a future where AIs will outperform humans in almost all kinds of knowledge work? Machines will be our entrepreneurs; they will set the pace of change and design the technologies that determine our modes of social organization. Name an institution that anchors your imagination in a recognizable past–school, family, clinic, church, sports team. Its existence will soon be up for grabs. We are giving machines the power to re-wire society right now.

Don’t believe me? Do you have a smart home assistant? Does it influence the behavior of your family? If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have purchased it. The Alexa of 2050 will likely anticipate, tailor and deliver whatever neural correlates of essential human acts you and yours used to get from the real world, including sex, exercise, doctors’ visits and so forth.

Call me a wild-eyed radical if you wish, but there is no denying that the transfer of innovative power to machines is precisely what AI specialists are trying to do, and this makes it a real threat. If I went about saying the sky was falling you would be right to call me a nut. But if it turned out there were an entire global industry of physicists doing their damnedest night and day to figure out how to make the sky fall, would you still call me a nut? Their task might sound like madness, but that does not stop them from pursuing it. And pursuing it they are.

But back to work and its place in the future. How many “professions” will my children have to have in such a fast-changing world? I had two, and some people considered that excessive. My kids might go through four or five before they just decide there is no point. Let the machines cope. It’s their world, after all.

The historian Juval Noah Harari looks ahead to this future (in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which I also re-read this year) and says the best things we can teach our children are flexibility and resilience. They will probably live longer than us and certainly will have to adapt to technological change that outpaces anything we have known. It will also reshape the institutions that held our lives in place.

The old republic of letters might prove useful to our children too. As I said, you can feel at home in it no matter where your feet are planted on Earth and–I suppose–no matter how much the Earth is changing around you. Will our children’s ideas of human destiny be at all like ours, which have seemed familiar to us since the Greeks? I hope that they will, but maybe that’s just an old superstitious attachment. Whatever they do, they should write about themselves, the only thing that has kept us sane so far.


What If We Stopped Lying to Ourselves About Everything? A Modest Proposal by Nietzsche


It’s tricky having Friederich Nietzsche as one of your heroes. His reputation as an unreliable guide precedes him.

Even if you’ve never read the first paragraph of Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, you’ve probably heard enough of the standard innuendo about him to draw your own conclusions and keep your distance.

Among other things, Nietzsche allegedly (or actually):

  • Developed the concept of the Übermensch, or Superman, which Hitler would use as a justification of the Holocaust;
  • Wrote that women were inferior beings who deserved to be whipped;
  • Regarded himself as a prophet whose job was to tell everyone they were mistaken in their most basic beliefs about right and wrong;
  • Went insane on the streets of Turin after watching a horse being abused;
  • Wrote a book attacking Christianity, which he called The Antichrist.

Now here’s something we are always being told about intellectuals: You have to understand their nuances and hidden intentions. You can’t take them at face value.


Well, we might protest in the case of Nietzsche, if the man so abused the tactics of irony and misdirection that the Nazis could pick up his ideas and run with them, didn’t he sort of overdo it? Wouldn’t we be justified in refusing to entertain his wild and dangerous ideas?

No. At least if you have an intellectually honest bone in your body: no.

Consider this question as an appetizer to a Nietzschean main course: How did the most Christian nation on Earth come to possess and wield the most lethal of all mass-killing weapons and to feel justified in subjugating all the world’s people under the threat of nuclear war? Did we not in this policy become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds? Not much charity, meekness or any other Christian virtue to be espied in that way of going about things.

It is precisely the unmasking power of Nietzsche’s ideas that call for a fair defense. What Nietzsche tried to do in his lifetime was to upend the hypocrisies of religion, morality, and mass culture that commanded the loyalty of the ruling and middle classes. Many of these hypocrisies are, if anything, even more entrenched today than they were in 1888, when Nietzsche wrote his last book.

Nietzsche’s fundamental (and deeply discomfiting) insight about humanity is that, almost anytime we make a claim of metaphysical importance about human nature, it turns out to be a preposterous lie.

Here’s one. Man is endowed by his divine creator with a sense of right and wrong, and it is man’s moral duty to do what is right. Some form of ultimate, cosmic punishment is reserved for wrongdoing–hell, or something like it.

Every civilized society in history has evolved a belief like this one. The details may differ, but the basic outline remains the same. Divine morality forms the cornerstone of an all-prevalent belief system such as an established religion. There are established religions everywhere you look on Earth, always based on a story that is obviously trumped up out of picturesque, childish nonsense.

The resulting idea of divine morality, though, is a serious one. It is a highly useful lie. It has the power to remove us from the state of nature.

In reality, man is an animal, born to gorge, kill and rut. If we manage to rise above this beastly existence–and we sometimes do–it is because we evolve adaptations for cooperation and solidarity that enable what Thomas Hobbes called the more “commodious” life of community. We learn to get along and even thrive, by not murdering, not coveting our neighbor’s ass, and that kind of thing.

Zeus, Yahweh or Krishna had nothing to do with our evolution of the moral code that underwrites social solidarity. We thick-headed Homo Sapiens got there on our own–to our parking lots with painted delineations, our legal contracts, courts of law, and the various deliberative bodies that give rise to such miracles. It’s all far from perfect, but it’s ours.

These pillars of civilization are so important, we have found it useful, possibly even necessary, to invent mythical stories about their divine origin.

Nietzsche had two important thoughts about this situation. One, he believed that by the late 19th century, literate folk were ready to acknowledge the ubiquity of the human hand in all this myth-making. God was dead, as he put it. And two, acknowledging our aloneness in the universe brought with it an enormous burden. We realized we were the unsupervised authors of all of our rules. Laws didn’t fall fully formed from the sky, and they never had.

Stylistically, Nietzsche sometimes didn’t do himself any favors. Instead of writing logical chains of arguments, with overarching ideas and supporting evidence, he often wrote in aphorisms, an invitation to be taken out of context.

Here he is describing a “naturalistic” outlook on human nature in The Genealogy of Morals:

The sick are the great danger of man, not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey.’ They who are from the outset botched, oppressed, broken those are they, the weakest are they, who most undermine the life beneath the feet of man, who instill the most dangerous venom and skepticism into our trust in life, in man, in ourselves…Here teem the worms of revenge and vindictiveness; here the air reeks of things secret and unmentionable; here is ever spun the net of the most malignant conspiracy – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the sound and the victorious; here is the sight of the victorious hated.

It’s not exactly the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus instructed his followers to care first and foremost for life’s losers. The succor of the poor, the protection of children, and the care of the sick were supposed to be our special missions. Plus, we were obliged to forgive our aggressors seventy times seven times. All very saintly.

Like all philosophers, Nietzsche asks us to take a step back and look at the big picture. If our saintly professions of Christianity, or any other morally serious doctrine, were sincere, they would be evident in our habits, institutions, and attitudes. The structure of our society and the character of our inner lives would be recognizably Christian.

But, despite the prevalence of churches and steeples on our landscape, the claim that we are a Christian nation, or indeed a morally serious one, is a farcical lie.

Our most cherished right is our recourse to use deadly force against all comers. (That’s exactly zero acts of forgiveness for our aggressors.) Try challenging the Second Amendment and the Stand-Your-Ground laws in any of our most Christian states, and you will see the fangs of our meekest and mildest countrymen come out.

Or, consider the fastest growing sport in our fair land, bare-knuckles mixed martial arts. It is almost literally a resurrection of gladiator fights. Millions of us tune in to watch this spectacle, conceived and designed for maximal brutality.

Why do we cleave to our guns? Why do we enjoy spectacles of gore and hostility? They may not be pretty, we admit, but they reflect, in their own ways, a stark belief that is fundamental to our national self-image. Life is a contest, we say. It has real winners and losers. The free market is the unsentimental judge of which side you end up on, and the playing field is utterly fair. If you fight hard, you just might succeed. If you end up, say, not quite able to pay for a medical therapy that would have saved your life, or your child’s life, we say it’s a pity, but in the end you just didn’t make the right “life choices” or extend the necessary effort. It was a fair fight.

If there is anyone we despise in America, it’s the person who thinks they should be protected from this fair fight, who believe an authority should intervene on their behalf, or that special measures should be taken to redress or alleviate the cause of their suffering. Mention “entitlements” to a politician or most people above the poverty line, and you will see this attitude come out in spades. The weak, the lame, the sick, the poor–they are in the first instance the objects of our suspicion. If we give them a dollar today, they’ll be back at our doorstep tomorrow for five. We are such romantics in America! We want the struggle of life to go on in all its terrible beauty, without its rules being bent.

In other words, when we look at the way our society is actually set up–the way in which we have set it up–its is obvious that we believe the words of Nietzsche above about life’s winners and losers. Officially, those words are supposed to horrify us, deeply unchristian as they are. But they are actually true for us, not the mercies and charities of the Bible’s New Testament. The way we live shows us what we believe.

Nietzsche said the horrifying things he said because me meant us to come to grips with the fact that we authored those things. Despite our pretenses of Christianity, we despise the poor, and we fear they will take our money. We trample on the weak and expect them to stay trampled.

We are all alone. Neither gods nor stars dictate our moral laws or the meaning of our lives. But just because no one is watching doesn’t mean we have to be assholes or nihilists. Joan Didion once said, “In order to maintain a semblance of purposeful behavior on this earth you have to believe that things are right or wrong.”

That’s what Nietzsche said too, even if it’s not on the surface of what he wrote. Once you cut away the outlandish myths that used to tell us who we were but which today not even a child can believe in–once you stop lying about everything–you still have to believe in something. You are the author of that something. It had better be good.


Life’s a Beach


I do not dislike the rich.

I dislike the many layers of fraud by which they avoid hard questions about where their wealth comes from.

Here’s one.

How might you come by enough money in America to buy a beautiful beach house? If you are in fact the owner of such a home, you likely believe it is because you competed and won a prize in our economic meritocracy. You hustled, took smart risks, and made more money than the next guy. The marketplace rewarded your performance with the means to buy a house that looks like this:

Beach House

It’s lovely. I’d like one.

The usual story about how to get one of these is a free-market capitalist story. Work hard enough, and you can own one, too.

But that’s not the true story, or at least it leaves out all the crucial details. Like almost every other aspect of being rich in America, the system that advances and safeguards the privileges of the wealthy is not free-market capitalism. The accumulation of ostentatious wealth relies on massive, continuous government intervention in the free market–precisely the kind of thing that heroic capitalists are supposed to despise.

In his short 1945 review of Jack London’s The Iron Heel, George Orwell notes how remarkable it was that in 1907 London correctly prophesied this aspect of capitalist society: contrary to Marx, capitalism would not “collapse of its own contradictions.” Rather, as Orwell read London, “the possessing class would be able to form itself into a vast corporation and even evolve a perverted Socialism . . . to preserve its superior status.”

This is what we have in America, a perverted form of socialism that looks out for the rich. The rich and powerful routinely petition the government (using their “vast corporation” of lobbyists and other influence buyers) to intervene massively in free markets to create conditions favorable to them. And every time this happens (which is basically all the time), all of us, rich, poor and middle class, pick up the bill.

This is the main moral of the story of the 2017 federal tax cut, for example. If you are a billionaire in America, your corporation of influence buyers has succeeded in getting the working class to pay parts of your tax bill that you formerly paid. So praise be to God for that.

But back to that beach house. The thing about it is, it’s not just a pristine prize waiting out there in a free market wilderness for an adventurer to find and claim. It took massive government intervention to prepare the way to it, and it takes continuous government intervention to protect its value.

First, no developer in the world is going to undertake a beach community project based on a rational evaluation of the risks alone. It takes someone with a lot of money to volunteer up front to back such an enterprise. This is where the government comes in. By zoning beach areas for residential construction, governments are signalling they will do whatever it takes to turn houses built in hurricane zones into viable investments. (The Bible, if you’re into it, famously has this to say about such choices.)

Well, wait a minute. Don’t heroic capitalists just spend some of their own money on insurance rates that are calibrated for the risk? No. In 1968 the federal government established the National Flood Insurance Program, funded by loans from the U.S. Treasury. The reason the feds had to get involved is because there were no private capitalists heroic enough to stay in the flood insurance game after several devastating coastal floods in the 1950s and 60s. Insurers simply could not devise a profitable business model that charged homeowners a high enough premium.

The NFIP has never been solvent, and today it is in a tailspin of ever deepening debt. There is no plan to get the NFIP out of the red. So know this: If you buy that beach house, chances are high that your flood insurance will be financed mostly by working people, half of whom cannot afford houses anywhere, let alone on our country’s beautiful beaches. And at least for now, with the present tax scheme in effect, the poor are paying a higher proportion of their “wealth” to do this than you are. The icing on the cake?–They’re paying into a “business” that no capitalist would touch with a 10-foot pole.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to look into this matter if I hadn’t heard an interview with Gilbert Gaul, the author of The Geography of Risk a couple weeks ago. Gaul basically tells the story of the vast system of government interventions that have evolved to make it possible for our owning class to buy the choicest residential real estate in the country despite the obvious downside that their homes are constantly at risk of being flooded or blown down. Someone’s gotta pay for all that risk.

Much of the government intervention that favors the rich has been devised behind the scenes, so that it appears to be part of an objective, impersonal landscape. This is the first layer of fraud that I believe enables the rich to think of themselves as deserving champions. They say, and possibly even believe, we’re all competing on a level playing field. But this is nowhere close to the truth.

The rich person gazing out over a construction lot on the beach is not coldly taking in objective reality, consisting of risks that must be delicately weighed. He’s basking in a Shangri-La of rules, budgets and institutions that have been trumped up to benefit him and to make his life even easier than his money should make it.

Not all beach-house-friendly government interventions are this insidious, though. They do not all induce moral blindness. Amazingly, some just come knocking at your door in broad daylight and announce their intentions to help.

One of the most scenic places to build beach houses is on what’s called a barrier island, a thin strip of land that is set off the main coast anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles. The best known barrier islands in America are probably the Outer Banks, stretching 200 miles from the coast of Virginia to North Carolina. They are beautiful and gloriously remote, a national treasure.

Problem is, if you want to build on barrier islands, they’re disappearing. Eventually the Outer Banks (and other barrier islands) will be overtopped by rising sea levels. In the meantime, they’re facing a nearer-term threat, beach erosion. Every year, rain and wind eats away a little more beach. The more this happens, the closer your beach house or hotel comes to extinction.

So here’s an amazing thing. The federal government routinely comes swooping in, bursting with money, to protect you from this natural process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regularly pops up in beach communities to do billions of dollars worth of beach reclamation. Often, they must coach the local mayors through the process of taking the federal money they are offering. I am not making this up. It’s in Gaul’s book, The Geography of Risk. Until I heard the interview with him and then read his book I had no idea voluntary beach reclamation was happening. But it’s actually happening all the time.

Because the Corps of Engineers has private contractors perform the reclamation work, an uninformed observer could be forgiven for not knowing the whole thing is a massive welfare program planned, initiated and funded by the federal government. Yes, of course, the home owners’ taxes help pay for the Corp’s good deeds, but so do the taxes paid by the rest of us, taxi drivers, family farmers, failed literary critics, what have you. Is this fair?

So what am I saying–should we eat the rich? Burn down their beach houses? Of course not. At the end of the day, my philosophy comes more from Ecclesiastes than Marx. I have no idea who actually deserves their wealth, and on what grounds. Anyway, I believe these question pale beside deeper ones about our ultimate extinction, a fate shared by rich and poor alike.

But, such weightier questions aside, I know in the here and now that I despise intellectual fraud. I think the owning class should be much more honest about the gaudily generous ways that the government constantly comes to their aid, and they should stop trying to distract us by pointing out the paltry handouts the poor get and calling them unsustainable. Paying the flood insurance policies for the rich out of an endless pile of Treasury debt is sustainable?

Imagine if the U.S. Corps of Engineers showed up in an inner city with a plan and funds in hand to revitalize its infrastructure–help out the poor for a change? Is that laughable? Yes it is. All I’m asking is that the rich recognize how ridiculous their myth is that they’re winning the game of life on their own merits. Their pretend game of capitalism is in reality what Orwell called a perverted form of socialism.

But the biggest outrage perpetrated by the rich is that they get us to amplify their frauds. They condition us to train our critical instincts on the very same categories of government expenditure they dislike, such as basic services, infrastructure, and welfare for the poor. So check out Gaul’s book. The rich also receive welfare, but they have trained us to call it something else.



Four Novels by Jesse Ball: Let Us Rebel


I’m at the age now where all my doctors are younger than I am. I take it with equanimity.

Less so my novelists.

I’m not sure why this is the case. I’ll never be a novelist, so why should it rankle that the professional memorializers of life are younger than I am? I suppose because a good novel is always a meditation on the meaning of life, and I’ve always thought that the more you have to meditate on the better writer you would be. How can the young be better at looking back on something they have less of than I do? It doesn’t seem fair.

But it happens.

Jesse Ball is only 41. He started collecting the experience of life in 1978, when I was already 12. He has, his book flaps say, already written 14 books, many of them to critical acclaim. Until three weeks ago, I had no idea who he was.

Then I read a review of his latest novel, The Divers’ Game. It suggested a drawing together of two themes that have taken up much of my reflection over the last 30 years–moral imagination and chaos.

At its root, my idea of moral imagination is Kantian. I believe that being able to imagine yourself as someone else, or as occupying different circumstances than your present ones (even circumstances that might so far be novel to the human experience), is crucial for moral deliberation. Lack of moral imagination limits your ability to think or act with empathy.

Sometimes moral imagination hits you smack in the face. When three-year old Aylan Kurdi drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, I wondered what it was like to be the Turkish border guard who gathered up the boy’s body. How long did it take him to turn off the images he saw, the feeling he felt of the boy’s weight in his arms? Had it struck him that the boy was dressed for an ordinary day of preschool, or possibly vacation? Tragedies and injustices of this depth make acts of moral imagination relatively easy, or at least accessible.

But our apprehension of moral facts is rarely that cut-and-dried. I also believe the world is radically contingent, which means that things go willy-nilly, turning out any which way, the odd scientific or mathematical law not withstanding. I am no plain Kantian. Our lives are underdetermined by our choices, moral or otherwise. The universe in which I am my present self is as plausible as a universe in which I had millions of dollars, or a wasting disease that cut me down in my youth, or a personality unidentifiable with my “actual” one.

This much contingency potentially upsets the idea that we can make coherent moral choices. If there are no fixed paths for being human, or for leading your individual life, how much value can you invest in moral decision-making? The consequences of your choices are always at risk of being overtaken by events.

Genetic mutations happen randomly, changing us in our physical being. The rich and powerful seize control of “democracies” meant to reflect our will. The Lord causeth the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. That sort of thing. Are we not routinely overpowered by circumstances?

This idea finds its most outlandish expression in Kafka. If you’ve ever wondered what the point of Gregor Samsa waking up one day as a giant beetle in “Metamorphosis” was, it must have had something to do with shock value. Kafka was trying to shock us with the sudden, unnatural occurrence of a process that we consider “natural” because it is happening gradually and insensibly all the time–the changing of the human body from one thing to another. The fact that our bodies have the form they have is, in part, the random outcome of a chaotic interplay of natural processes. Any part of the process could have gone differently–and therefore could go differently in the future.

If our successor species, through some miracle, survives to witness the death of the sun in 5-billion odd years, its members will not resemble us. I repeat: no humans will witness the last sunset. “They” will be something radically different from what we are today. It is extremely doubtful that they will even exhibit a human legacy. We are on that path of metamorphosis right now, changing from one thing over which he had no control, to another, over which we can expect to have just as little control in the end.

The chance that this species will fit the design parameters of our environment is, of course, much, much smaller than the chance that it will die the same death as millions of species before it, of course.

C’est la vie.

The review I read of Jesse Ball three weeks ago was tantalizing because it seemed to draw together these Kantian and Kafkan views of life–the idea that we must, for moral reasons, be able to imagine ourselves and circumstances differently (in order to take others’s perspectives seriously) but that there is no practical limit on how different our selves or our circumstances can be imagined. In other words, to become more moral persons, we must acquire a skill that points ultimately toward moral disorientation.

I ended up reading four of Ball’s novels, all of which explore this interplay of moral imperative and metaphysical chaos.

In The Diver’s Game, Ball asks us to imagine being members of an advanced society that has expressly given up the fiction of human equality. An upper caste subjugates and kills a lower caste. Politics proceeds on the deliberate forgetting of the violence and injustices it took to establish the superiority of the upper caste. And so on.

Divers Game

As a reviewer, there is no way I can put this theme without making it sound too on-the-nose. Is it inspired by the recent decisions of America’s Christian leaders to institutionalize cruelty so that migrants learn to stay away from our borders? It must be. But Ball handles it at greater depth than that. The book is no mere battering of the philistine’s moral outlook. It is an expression of despair at the systematic cruelty we are born into. “We are maintained by a violence so complete, it is like air,” Ball concludes. How can you stop breathing air?

Census is about the outsized power of love in a tragic world. A doctor discovers he has a terminal disease and fears that his grown son, who has Down Syndrome, will have to live on uncared for. He volunteers to spend his last months on the road as a census taker, and takes his son with him. (Ball’s real-life brother, who died at 24, had Down Syndrome.) Father and son travel, Kafka-like, northward through an alphabetized string of villages named only by initials.

Census is an elegiac meditation on the incommensurate power of parental love. Adults bring children into the world–we learn after the fact–to have something large enough to blot out the meaning of our own existence, so that we can say an acceptable goodbye in the end. Ball reminds us that nothing happens on schedule, and we die with things undone, debts unpaid. You can hedge against such randomness, though, by keeping love at the center of your life.

I rarely give direct advice about reading books, but I will make an exception here. If you haven’t read anything by Ball yet, don’t start with How to Set a Fire and Why. As an edgy character study in the precariousness of Millennial life, you might get the impression from Fire that Ball is just an exceptionally good YA writer, ready to break out into grownup novels. Ball’s inhabitation of the teenage heroine, Lucia, is so complete that it sometimes marginalizes the book’s message.

Lucia is a gifted high school student, emotionally scarred by orphanhood. She has a keen enough sense of decency to recognize that it is missing from the very design of the institutions set up to care for her. She seeks to join a secret arson club comprising other disaffected young people who see their plight in anarchist terms only slightly updated from Kropotkin. Lucia writes in a pamphlet:

The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well then, we shall have to try and make some sense of it. . . . Wealth squeezes us. The wealthy squeeze us and squeeze us, until we cannot even help one another, as we would naturally do, as it is in our hearts already to do.

A committed arsonist, Lucia gives a desperate response to this bind we are in. I believe Ball means for us to learn from her example, not that the system must be burned down in reality, but that it deserves no better. Society has been rendered hostile for individual acts of decency.

Of the four novels I read by Ball, Samedi the Deafness was the only one that required any effort to grasp. It is a sort of postmodern detective story, in which you are prepared at any point for a magical device to reveal the whole thing as a dream or illusion.

James Sim witnesses what appears to be a horrific murder in a park one Sunday morning. When he is kidnapped by thugs apparently connected to the murder, he is sure he will be killed too or at least blackmailed. Instead he finds himself kept in a surreal hospital-cum-hotel. The owner, who ordered the murder in the park, is conducting a grand experiment in letting his subjects live out elaborate lies. He also has a plan for the end of the world.

One of the Escher paths out of the maze of Samedi the Deafness leads to the conclusion that the choices people make in the real world are as shabby and deluded as those made by the systematic liars who populate the story. It is an epistemological substrate to Ball’s other critiques of morality: our moral choices are not just indecent in their substance; they issue from a basis of willful delusion. No one, or hardly anyone, is morally serious in Ball’s view.

As bleak as his novels tend to be, they all cast a ray of hope on the hedging power of individual compassion. There is always some way to stay true to the human instinct not to kill or subjugate one’s conspecifics. Our merciful side, though, is the smaller part of our nature, so if we are to stay true to it, we will have to live our lives in rebellion. So be it, then. This is the message I get from Ball’s novels. If decency requires a rebellion against the larger part of our nature, let us rebel.