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George Packer drives a stake into America’s heart in “The Unwinding”. American anger, fear, and frustration build in the minds of all—whether Republican, Democrat, Tea Partyer, or Libertarian.
Whether an accolade of private enterprise or government, Packer offers stories of Americans that show American’ belief makes no difference because America is no longer a land of opportunity but a land of greed; not of the free but of the shackled—a risk noted by Thomas Hobbes in the “Leviathan”. The shackles come from society’s failure to protect individuals from the tyranny of special interests. One side argues that it is because of ineffective government–the other side argues it is because of too much government.
The unwinding of the financial crises reflected in the dot-com bubble of 2000-2001 and the 2007-08 sub-prime mortgage crises unfolds in stories told by Packer in this disturbing narrative. America has become a nation of extremes with each extreme using whatever means necessary to deny success of either “tea party”, “libertarian” or “occupy wall street” followers. The consequence is a “do-nothing” congress, an ineffectual President, and a politicized Supreme Court. One is left with fear, anger, and frustration after completing Packer’s diatribe. The only consolation is in history.
America has been in crises before–in 1776, 1789, 1865, 1929, 1941, 1951, 1967-68, 2001. Americans survived before; Americans will survive again but how angry Americans are, and how frustrating it is to watch America muddle along while Congress fails to act.
It is past time for Americans to re-read Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”. Though his primary purpose is to refute Edmund Burke’s condemnation of the 1789 French revolution, his observations on British Aristocracy are the essence of today’s American “Money-ocracy”.
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are an amorphous scream of disgust by an educated population that resents American “Money-ocracy’s” control of the economy, elected representatives, the election system, and the “Rights of Man”. “Money-ocracy” is an inheritable line of an American aristocracy.
Stockholders in American companies need to fight employee compensation inflation that is disconnected from human productivity. Entrepreneurs that create productive enterprises should be rewarded by as much money, power, and prestige as their contribution warrants but not by ridiculous salaries that make a mockery of human productivity.
“Occupy Wall Street” is an unlikely precursor of another American Revolution; however, it may be a symptom of an American cancer that debilitates productive life without killing the patient. “Occupying Wall Street” is not a hippie “sit in” but a plea for reform of American “Money-cracy” just as Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” was a plea for reform of Aristocratic inheritance.
History of the Lusitania is only vaguely, if at all, remembered by young Americans in 2015. Erik Larson spectacularly revivified WWI by chronicling the sinking of the Lusitania by a German’ submarine in 1915. In Larson’s detailed exposition, a reader/listener learns about early submarine warfare and its role in indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in war.
In the beginning chapters of “Dead Wake”, the choice of Scott Brick as narrator seems inept. However, as the brutality of the story rises, Brick’s somber delivery fits the tone of Larson’s sharpened history of the Lusitania. After leaving New York, the Lusitania slipped beneath the sea in 18 minutes on May 1, 1915, only 11 miles off the Irish’ coast; on that date, 1,193 men, women, and children became victims of a torpedo attack by a German’ submarine. The submarine, christened the U20, sinks the Lusitania at sea between Ireland and England.
Listeners will draw their own conclusion from Larson’s history of the sinking of the Lusitania. John F. Kennedy said, “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind”. Kennedy may have been referring to nuclear war but the story of the Lusitania suggests weapons are only a part of a slippery slope destined to end civilization.
After World War I, “the number of people killed today” became a measure of success in war. Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman reinforce belief in bombing civilian targets as a way of ending war. (Joseph Stalin is in the same group, but not so much as a bomber but as an amoral mass murderer.) The fundamental argument is that civilian deaths demoralize the enemy. Once war is declared, morality disappears. In war, there are no “good guys”. There are only victims.
This is a panegyric for Beethoven and musical artists; i.e. a tribute to what makes Beethoven great and musicians talented.
In this two-hour narration, one begins to understand why Beethoven’s music is important; what makes the difference between a good musician’s performance, and a great musician’s performance.
Jonathan Bliss began taking Beethoven seriously at the age of ten. Bliss’s introduction to music became an obsession that began with emotion felt in listening to Beethoven’s Sonatas. He began practicing Beethoven’s most difficult pieces to develop muscle memory to exercise his technical talent but left an “in the moment” appreciation of Beethoven’s genius to future maturation. Bliss debuted at the New York Philharmonic in 2001 at the age of 21. He is the winner of the 2005 Leonard Bernstein Award and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award which suggests high qualification for his insight to musical quality and musicianship.
There is an element of salesmanship in this vignette because Bliss is planning to produce recordings of all 32 Beethoven’ Sonatas. One is tempted to buy his first two albums to see how he escapes recording studio mediocrity.
On balance, “Beethoven’s Shadow” offers insight to how far Beethoven’s shadow extends into the music world, what “real talent” is in composers and musicians, and what is gained and lost in studio recording of great music.
“Being Mortal” is about life’s last chapter. Atul Gawande is an American surgeon and experienced author who is well qualified to write about human mortality; i.e. Gawande’s exceptional qualification is from a Stanford and Harvard education, and personal family’ experience. As a doctor, he understands the medical profession. As a son of a father that dies from complications of cancer and old age, Gawande experiences firsthand the complex nature of decision-making when one’s life is nearing its end.
Gawande explains that doctors are principally trained to treat symptoms and causes of disease. “Being Mortal” suggests a medical customer’s desire at the end of life is as important as medical treatment. Gawande suggests modern medicine, by training, education, and experience, is frequently biased toward treatment rather than quality-of-life issues. Quality-of-life is a big part of the conscious and subconscious concern of terminal patients. Gawande argues that medical treatment for terminal patient’s is often too narrowly focused. If medical treatment only offers misery and pain from disease or old age, continuation of life should be a collaborative decision between doctor, patient, and family.
Gawande suggests medical treatment should be customized to increase the number of moment to moment enjoyments that make life worth living for the elderly and terminally ill. There is no cure for death.
George Orwell published “1984” in 1949. Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism, technology, and thought control match fears and failures of nations from the time of Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech to the present day. Orwell’s relevance seems as spot-on today as it was in 1949.
Totalitarianism continues to reign in many parts of the world; particularly in the Middle East, parts of Asia, and Africa. Technology then and now is a threat to everyone’s privacy and self-determination. Advances in social media through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, with the help of Google, Yahoo, and Bing, are encroaching on everyone’s right to privacy and personal thought.
A striking parallel between Orwell’s “1984” and today is the inchoate and confused revolutionary zeal of Orwell’s hero/victim and the 21st century “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has little focus with protesters that cannot formulate an action plan to actualize their revolution. Today’s Moneyocracy is the Upper Class Comradeship in “1984” and the “Occupy Wall Street” protester is Orwell’s revolutionary hero/victim.
Orwell is as prescient today as he was in 1949. However, a monumental difference lays in the rise of non-state terrorism. The statelessness of AL Qaeda like movements add a different dimension to Orwell’s “1984”. Invasion of privacy by nation-states, with a status qua objective, become more acceptable, even to democratically inclined nations. Drawing the line between freedom of choice and government control becomes more difficult.
In the Great Courses’ lecture series, Dr. Michael Roberto, characterizes leadership in “The Art of Critical Decision Making”. Roberto’s primary methodology is examination of case studies that range from the Cuban missile crises, to the Daimler/Chrysler merger, to the 9/11/01 Trade Center bombing. He offers perspective on how good decisions can be made when complexity exceeds average to superior individual human capability.
Roberto’s argument is that a structured participatory process is the most consistently productive form of critical decision-making. Roberto infers, as the world becomes more complex, individual comprehension and patterning of facts becomes less reliable as a form of critical decision-making. His argument relies on leadership structure that insists on communication transparency and qualified freedom. Roberto suggests leaders elicit ideas from engaged people, rather than only experts, in making critical decisions meant to identify problems, proffer solutions, and accomplish goals.
Leaders need to engage employees whose ideas will be listened to, used, and appreciated rather than abjectly dismissed. Executives, who are more concerned about position than organizational effectiveness, are not leaders. They are cowards.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” is a story about seven generations of one fictional family. The hope, fear, and experience of this family elicits feelings and opinions about life. History of the Buendia family focuses attention on social and economic evolution and revolution in Latin America. The story offers insight to all nations seeking independence and individual self-determination.
The author, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, writes a complex story, melding the mythology and history of Latin America while tweaking the nose of imperialists; and savaging the lives of nationalists, idealists, and revolutionaries. Márquez creates a patriarch named José Arcadio Buendia that is a visionary with a perception of reality that mixes magical thinking with scientific reasoning to found a Colombian’ town called Macondo. The history of Macondo is the journey of all nations seeking independence and individual self-determination. However, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” infers the journey is foreordained rather than elicited by free choice.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” is widely acclaimed, written in many languages, and considered a classic. However, the story is too densely populated with characters to be appreciated in a first listen. John Lee offers a great narration of the story but patience and fortitude are required for the listener to complete the audio book.
Elaine Pagels is a Professor of Religion at Princeton University. One can draw different conclusions from Pagels’ history of religion but end times holds a high place in Pagels’ research and opinion about “Revelations”.
“Revelations” is the second Elaine Pagels’ book reviewed in this blog. From her chosen profession and the previous quote, one presumes Ms. Pagels is a spiritual person but a review of her work seems to challenge bed-rock Catholic beliefs. The first review in this blog, “The Gnostic Gospels”, shows Catholic religion and its hierarchical organization as more man-made than divinely inspired. That sentiment is equally drawn from her history of “Revelations”; which is not to diminish Pagels’ spirituality but to infer that her scholarly histories of religion are interpretations of mankind’s divine belief rather than manifestations of a supreme being.
Are Pagels’ books an endorsement of humanism or religion? One draws their own conclusion; however, her scholarly pursuit of religious’ history is, at the very least, fascinating and informative.
“America’s Bitter Pill” is a policy wonk’s dream and an American citizen’s nightmare. It reveals the role of money and politics in American government. Steven Brill indicts a political process that seems freighted with more venal self-interest than good will. Brill overwhelms readers, which are not policy wonks, with disgusting political backroom deals and entrenched private and non-profit interests that affect the federal legislative process. The disgust comes from the distortion of the most important legislation passed by the American’ Federal Government since the New Deal.
What Brill shows is that the value of high profits to private and non-profit insurance and medical facilities is more important than offering reasonably priced health care to the general public. What every special interest lobbied for in the Affordable Care Act depended on improving or maintaining profit. “America’s Bitter Pill”, the Affordable Care Act, is laced with greed. The Affordable Care Act has extended insurance to more people in the United States than ever before, but it continues to rankle knowledgeable Americans because it is based on the false belief that it will cure an incurable disease, human greed.
An optimist chooses to believe America’s flawed legislative system will, in the long run, serve its public better than any other known form of government. The optimist believes the Affordable Care Act will be improved over time and will mitigate increased health care costs. The pessimist believes the Affordable Care Act is a boondoggle. The pessimist believes American government is accelerating its move toward tyranny. A realist suggests the Affordable Care Act is Democracy in action.
Walter Isaacson offers a whirlwind history of the digital revolution in “The Innovators”. Isaacson raises the question of whether revolutions come from extraordinary leadership of geniuses or societal imperatives. Tolstoy suggests the former while many biographers infer the latter. In the end, Isaacson’s history of “The Innovators” places one squarely on the fence. (Fence-sitting is not Isaacson’s intent, but his argument for collaborative invention discounts geniuses like Isaac Newton and Paul Dirac, who were notorious loners.) At times, one concludes geniuses are the prime movers of the digital revolution but listening to Isaacson’s explanation of the contributions of an Ada Lovelace, William Shockley, or Andy Grove (among others), suggests genius is subordinate to societal imperatives.
Isaacson may be wrong in his assessment of “The Innovators” in the history of digitization but quite right about its revolutionary categorization. This is an enjoyable and informative audio book, well worth listening to, or reading.
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