This is likely to be very dangerous territory, as how one looks at current events inevitably exposes all manner of beliefs and biases. In the past I did not read so much about current events, other than in newspapers and magazines. But the 21st century has had such an extraordinary beginning that I have inevitably added books about it to my piles of things to read. I’ll comment here on what I find interesting, and why.
Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. New York: Crown, 2017.
This is an early, but likely far from the last, attempt at trying to explain what happened in the 2016 election. The authors of this volume covered Hillary Clinton’s campaign throughout the primaries and the ensuing general election. They describe in great detail what they perceived to be the many dysfunctional problems with the Clinton campaign organization — the disagreements among key figures, the incomplete communication and awareness, and the difficulties of combating Bernie Sanders in the primaries and Donald Trump in the general election. Both turned out to be formidable opponents, and the Clinton campaign never figured out how to reach the sectors of the population that both Sanders and Trump appealed to. Ironically, these were sectors that Clinton played to very effectively in her attempt earlier to run against Barrack Obama in 2008. Both Sanders and Trump had simple messages, while Hillary’s was much more complex, sophisticated, and nuanced, but difficult to convey to voters. And of course, many voters had great distrust of Hillary based on her past actions. And of course the campaign was plagued by the ongoing suspicions about her use of a private e-mail server while she was Secretary of State, including the very negative behavior of FBI Director Comey, the emerging Russian influence on the campaign, and her health issues that played into the accusation that she did not have the stamina to be President. While she clearly won all three of the televised debates with Trump, this was not sufficient to overcome the many problems that, as the authors claimed, doomed her campaign. This is an especially negative account of the 2016 election, and we’ll see how it plays out as more analyses are published. But it is a detailed accounting of many things that went wrong.
Lawrence Lessig. Republic Lost: The Corruption of Equality and the Steps to End It. Rev. Ed. New York: Twelve, 2015.
This is an extremely important book. Everyone should read it, no matter your political stripe. It’s about how we have lost our government to the rich, and how this is opposed to the intentions of our founders, who wanted the government to represent the people, all people. That’s what Lessig means by the corruption of equality. It’s not that individuals in our government are corrupt, at least most of them. It’s that the system by which we select those who will govern has been corrupted by the role that money plays in even being qualified to run for office. Lessig traces the origins of this, the details of how it works, and why it is corrupting in the sense of denying the equality of representation that the founders intended. The details are striking and the arguments that Lessig lays out about the origins and effects are convincing. As he is at great pains to point out, this is neither a Democrat or Republican failing, it is a failing of the system that has evolved, and it works to the disadvantage of both parties. One outcome is the vetocracy that we currently endure, a Congress that can no longer get much of anything done. In the later chapters he lays out his ideas of what we can do about it, stressing all along the urgency of actually doing something. As he points out, the real victims of this situation are our children, who will inherit the results of the mess we have created. But he argues that even we older, well-taken-care-of citizens need to help to energize the young to act. He is optimistic. I wonder what he’s thinking today in the era of Trump.
While the present age is definitely not the first time that “fake news” has circulated, as the authors point out with an amusing initial story about xxxx, it has gained considerable prominence in our current era of undisciplined social media and other sketchy information sources. It certainly plagued the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump administration. But was the authors show, there is a long history of such matters, and they develop some interesting conceptual tools for understanding how it can happen. Their first three chapters focus mostly on examples from science, including the ozone hole that led to the banishment of fluorocarbons, the linking of tobacco to lung cancer, and global warming. In all of these cases, there were active campaigns to denigrate the mostly sound scientific findings. These various stories are described in detail, and their conceptual schemas brought to bear in trying to understand them. The fourth and final chapter focuses on the “fake news” phenomena of the very recent past, again using their conceptual tools to try to make sense of how these things can happen. Overall, it’s a compelling analysis, and they make an effort to make it widely understandable, even if their style is closer to academic than mainstream media. But it’s well worth the read.
David Wallace-Wells. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.
This is about as grim a book as you could imagine about the prospects for the earth. It reviews across twelve amazing chapters all the kinds of things that will happen if we fail to take action to defuse the steady increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The paradox is that it’s been the fossil fuels of coal and oil that have driven the enormous economic expansion brought about by industrialization and capitalism. But the wealth that has been created comes at a huge cost, and in the coming decades, the bill will come due. Wallace-Wells reviews the evidence in sober detail. As he points out, climate scientists have not found glee in what they have uncovered through their extensive analyses. Yet in the US in particular, climate deniers and greedy fossil fuel barons have held back even a shred of progress toward mitigating the incredible range of future disasters. And the clock is ticking, and it’s not long before nothing can be done. The ultimate sadness is those of us in the wealthy West fail to think about those who will be most impacted by all of this: our future descendants, and the poor of the world. The developing world will pay the highest price for our carbon-based wealth. In later chapters he reviews how at least some people are reacting. The mega wealthy are looking into escape. The spiritual are looking at painful acceptance. And the Silicon Valley idealists are looking for some kind of techno miracle. But as he points out, all the elements of a solution are known and here. All that is lacking is the political will to do what’s necessary. And he is not optimistic about how the politics will play out.