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Peter Schaeffer

Sugar Land, Texas
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The Blank Slate audiobook cover art

Facinating and Genuinely Important Book

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-03-14

Where does The Blank Slate rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

The Blank Slate ranks very high. I learned more from this book than any other I have listened to.

Who was your favorite character and why?

My favorite character would be the human mind itself, for this book is an exploration of the nature of the mind and hence the nature of being

What about Victor Bevine’s performance did you like?

The book was well narrated

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

The Ignoble Savage - The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Any additional comments?

This is a good book, and better yet an important book. It's important because it shows that American intellectual and political life is based on ideas that have no basis in fact. Like it or not, the holy trinity of the "Blank Slate", the "Noble Savage", and the "Ghost in the Machine" dominate (usually without question) public life in America. The fact that they are fictions, inevitably means that politicians (typically, but not always Democrats) promote policies that will inevitably fail. Of course, the failures will be ignored because no one ever dares to ask why the policies failed.

The first two ideas (the "Blank Slate" and the "Noble Savage") are mainly the follies of the left. Indeed, any attack on them is treated as religious apostasy (and punished without mercy). The third idea (the "Ghost in the Machine") is perhaps more the passion of the right.

Before I read this book, I expected a detailed review of the data supporting the influence of genes vs. the environment. Of course, Steven Pinker provides a great wealth of data demolishing the ideological fantasies of the left (and to some extent the right). However, that's not the main emphasis of the book. The book is mostly devoted to a very detailed exploration of moral philosophy. That's not a critique, just quite unexpected.

Rather than delving into the factual data demolishing the holy trinity in great(er) detail, the author expends most of his effort into examining the moral and philosophical implications of human nature. Pinker is always plausible, but not always convincing, at least to this reader.

Steven Pinker is clearly a conventional liberal, at least in moral, philosophical, and policy terms. However, his book is deeply subversive of conventional liberalism (at point Pinker is clearly well aware of). At some level that makes Pinker's interpretation of the world conservative. Pinker (to his credit) examines the deep historical origins of liberalism and conservatism. To simplify, liberals believe in the infinite perfectibility of man and conservatives believe that man in constrained by his tragic nature.

Having reviewed the voluminous evidence, Pinker explicitly says that the conservative vision of human nature is correct and liberals are wrong. He even quotes E.O. Wilson

“Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species”

That said, Pinker is no Republican and there is no reason to think he has ever voted for one. However, to his enduring credit he has demolished the supposed logical foundations of much of contemporary liberalism.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

Civilization audiobook cover art

Mandatory for Anyone Who Cares About Civilization

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-14-14

What did you love best about Civilization?

The forthright willingness of Niall Ferguson to argue all sorts of non-PC ideas is refreshingly in era of pervasive ideological censorship. In our time, you are not allowed to claim the Western Civilization has led the world for the last 5 centuries (even though it is obviously true), that Christianity (notably Protestantism) was and is a vest blessing for mankind, that colonialism and imperialism brought benefits along with harm to the people of the world, etc. Niall Ferguson says all of this and a lot more.

Who was your favorite character and why?

This really isn't a book about characters. Plenty show up of course (hundreds to thousands are individually named). However, that's exactly the point. No one character stands out or is meant to. This is a book about the broad forces of history that have created our world.

Have you listened to any of Niall Ferguson’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

Niall Ferguson's narration of Niall Ferguson is excellent (he reads his own book). However, the somewhat contrived accents given to other characters are not always a plus.

Any additional comments?

This is a big book, full of well argued big ideas. It is a necessary book because the author dares to say all sorts of things that need to be said, but rarely are, because of dominant PC (Politically Correct) censorship. The list of big ideas is long and include.

1. The history of mankind for the last five centuries has been dominated by Western Civilization. Europe and later America (North America) have been the driving forces of essentially all progress in science, technology, medicine, commerce, war, politics, art, culture, clothing (Niall Ferguson is obsessed with clothing), etc. since 1500. This is obviously true, not virtually no one dares to say it.

2. Colonialism and Imperialism weren't all bad. Niall Ferguson doesn't trouble himself to deny the downsides, but does show that there were many positive effects as well. The colonial powers could be (and frequently were) brutal. But they also brought public health, education, political stability, infrastructure, etc (in some cases).

3. Christianity was and remains (partially) a powerful force in creating and sustaining Western Civilization. According to Niall Ferguson, Christianity helped to create the moral and intellectual basis of our society. That would be a contentious point these days. However, Ferguson goes further in arguing that Protestant Christianity played a major role in unleashing the productive powers of Europe and later America (North America). This was a commonplace idea 100 years ago (See Max Weber and "The Protestant Ethic") but not mentioned in polite company these days.

4. That North America (Anglo America) was and remains more successful than South America (Latin America) because North America was settled by Europeans whereas South America was conquered by Europeans (who then enslaved the natives and/or imported slaves). Ferguson presents DNA analysis to substantiate this point. According to Ferguson, this difference in origins gave rise to very different systems of land ownership with decisive long term consequences. Ferguson plays down the geographic advantages of North America (big rivers, fertile soil, coal reserves, etc.) that appear to have been material as well (in my opinion) along with the culture differences between the Americas.

5. Ferguson shows that government debt has been a decisive factor in weakening and ultimately destroying nations for a very, very long time. The history of public debt shows that it has been a destroyer and/or crippler of nations across a sufficient ranges of geographies and centuries to make it a general theme. For political reasons, today's liberals don't want to hear this. However, many conservatives (notably "supply siders") have adopted a "debt doesn't matter" ideology. Of course, economic elites have resisted taxation for as long as civilization has existed.

6. That the era of Western Civilization is over. Ferguson chronicles in great deal the relative decline of the West and the rise of East. Ferguson provides a wealth of statistics showing how Asia has overtaken the West to become the core of the global economy (if not global politics so far). Ferguson shows that China is the inevitable dominant power of the 21st century, sure to overtake (soon) and supplant the U.S. as the dominant economy of the world. Anyone who has spent 20 minutes looking at the statistics knows this to be true. However, policy and political elites in Europe and the United States are in almost complete denial on this point.

Overall, this is a good book. Perhaps a very good book. However, it does have its flaws. Ferguson needs a fact checker (19 people did not die for each ton of steel produced under Stalin). The converse is that the "bad facts" don't materially undermine his overall arguments. The broader point is that this book is history in support of an ideology. Ferguson is a liberal cosmopolitan with a typical embrace of free trade, open borders, capitalism, democracy, tolerance, etc. Anything he can extract from history is exploited to advance his agenda. Things that don't fit his worldview are played down at best.

For example, Ferguson goes to some lengths to claim the German eugenic ideology (before Hitler) was responsible for German colonial atrocities. The vastly larger genocide perpetuated by the liberal, cosmopolitan Belgians is barely mentioned. Of course, the fact that Keynes was the head of the British Eugenic society for 7 years (1937-1944) doesn't show up either.

As I have stated before, Ferguson deserves considerable credit for accurately observing the rise of Asia as the economic center of gravity for the global economy. However, he never quite admits that Asia has risen by rejecting much (but not all) of the liberal, cosmopolitan worldview he espouses. Singapore is not notably tolerant and is stunningly successful in spite of (because of) it. China is crassly mercantilist and is stunningly successful in spite of (because of) it. Japan rejected foreign investment during its post-war high growth period and was... The divergence of Asia from Ferguson's policy ideals and its success should be a key theme of a book like this, but is not.

The Arabian Nights audiobook cover art

Good, But Not Burton

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-14-14

What did you love best about The Arabian Nights?

The length and breadth of the stories is amazing. The combination of real and imaginary places, people, animals, and supernatural beings is dazzling. These stories are works of imagination of a high order. They also provide a great many insights into the Islamic world of the Middle Ages that created them.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Harun al-Rashid of course. He was the fifth Arab Abbasid Caliph. He ruled from 786 to 809. His reign make well have been the apogee of the Islamic Golden Age. He promoted Islamic art and music along with science and commerce.

Which scene was your favorite?

So many come to mind, it is hard to choose. The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor stand out. However, the tale of the Christian, Jew, and Muslim who all plead guilty to a murder they did not commit (to save someone else) is noteworthy as well.

Any additional comments?

This is both a good to great, and limited narration of the Arabian Nights. The single best feature of this narration is its length (11 hours and 35 minutes). The Arabian Nights is very large collection of stories of varying quality. However, even the very best stories still take many, many hours to narrate. Some of the other audiobooks narrating the Arabian Nights are just too short. This one is not.

Initially I was somewhat wary of a female narration. The stories are generally written from a male perspective and implied storyteller is almost always male. However, after listening to this audiobook, I can strongly recommend Suehyla El Attar's narration.

Others have suggested that this narration is not based on the Burton translations of the Arabian Nights (Lang is suggested as the source). This may or may not be true. However, the language does not appear to be Burton's. Most of the sex and violence has been authentically retained from the original stories. However, the Islamic character and context has been largely deleted. These are (mostly) stories from the Islamic Middle Ages and the Burton translation retained the pervasive Islamic environment of the stories. This version does not.

19 of 20 people found this review helpful

The Arabian Nights audiobook cover art

Excellent, But Too Short

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-14-14

What does Philip Madoc bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

Mr. Madoc's narration is quite good with a very well delivered combination of cadence, intonation, emotion, etc.

If you could take any character from The Arabian Nights out to dinner, who would it be and why?

Harun al-Rashid of course. He was the fifth Arab Abbasid Caliph. He ruled from 786 to 809. His reign make well have been the apogee of the Islamic Golden Age. He promoted Islamic art and music along with science and commerce.

Any additional comments?

This audio book is an excellent narration of a small part of Burton's famous translation. It is very true to Burton and to the original tales that Burton translated. Burton retained the substantial sexual content of the stories along with the violence and bloodshed. He was much condemned for this at the time (Victorian England) but he chose authenticity over censorship. Burton also translated the pervasive Islamic character of all (almost all) of the characters and places in the stories.

The key problem with this audiobook is length. It is only 3 hours and 42 minutes long. A narration of this quality, covering more of the tales would be highly desirable.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful