A Recent Reading Recap

The thing about my current semester is that it barely left time to think, let alone do anything, but I did manage to crawl my way through a few books. Now that my semester is winding down and I finally have a moment to breathe, I have a chance to jot down notes.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed – My least favorite of the books I read this fall, The Possessed is a memoir about graduate school and Russian literature in which long sections read as though she was workshopping ideas for the book that eventually became her novel The Idiot. Batuman is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the discussions of Russian literature, but those often went beyond the authors I was familiar with and I was generally underwhelmed by her presentation of graduate school.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War – One of my aspirational goals for teaching is to read one new book about each class I teach in a given semester, beyond whatever other prep I have done. This was my choice for my Modern Americna history class. In Winter War, Rauchway examines the months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration to show the radical start of Roosevelt’s New Deal and how Hoover sought to undermine his successor. This was a really excellent book that deftly leads the reader through the political maneuverings at the height of the Great Depression.

Josh Gondelman, Nice Try – The final non-fiction book I read this fall was Gondelman’s Nice Try. I attended Brandeis at the same time as Gondelman and we have a number of mutual friends, but I know him primarily as a writer for TV and on Twitter as the world’s nicest comedian. This collection is a delightful, light-hearted stroll through the serious topic of trying to be both a nice and good person in the world.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu – The fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is one of the best. Like Tombs of Atuan, this novel picks up the story of Tenar, now living on Gont as a middle-aged woman named Goha, her children grown. The inciting event comes when two people come into her life. First, an emotionally and physically damaged child she names Therru and then Sparrowhawk, no longer a mage, but a broken old man. The result is a heart-wrenching fantasy story of sorrow and loss that, like the rest of the series, undermines the typical heroic tropes including, this time, the notion that a single heroic victory would in fact set the world at rights.

Myke Cole, The Armored Saint – I started following Cole on Twitter because of his interest in ancient Greek history, but I also appreciate a good fantasy novel and he recommended people start with this one. The Armored Saint is a coming of age story about Heloise Factor, the daughter of the town’s scribe. What impressed me about this book is how Cole creates the sense of history, with adults having fought in past wars and an Order that prevents demons from entering the world by making sure that no wizard survives, while nevertheless focalizing this story that takes place in one small valley through the point of view of this young woman who, rightfully, is angry at members of the Order who abuse their power.

Jose Saramago, Blindness – The only capital-L literature book I read this semester was by Portuguese Nobel-winner José Saramago. Blindness is a harrowing story of a city that descends to anarchy when its citizens begin going blind. The government responds to the initial cases by quarantining the afflicted in an asylum, in the hopes that it will stop its spread. But the asylum fills up, and one of the wings organizes a ring to control the spread of supplies, extorting money and sex from the other wings. Then the supplies stop coming in and the inmates escape into a world abandoned when every one went blind. Overall Blindness struck me as a much more sophisticated and satisfying take on the themes of Lord of the Flies. My one lingering question was about the character of the doctor’s wife, who accompanies her husband into the asylum and is the only character in the entire book who never goes blind. I couldn’t decide what to make of her character, eventually deciding that she is saved by her selfless sacrifices at every turn, but also finding that this level of metaphor didn’t quite fit with the rest of characters in the novel. I quite liked Blindness in sum, but the fact that I came away wishing that I read it at a time when I could give it more attention means I might need to re-read this one.

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I am now reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the conclusion of her Liveship Traders Series. By the time I’m done, I hope to have enough time to write full review posts again.

The Invisible Gorilla

The first viral video I remember in college is the eponymous video from this study, the invisible Gorilla. It came from a psych study of the same name where the researchers showed their subjects a video of people passing basketballs back and forth, some wearing white shirts and some black. They asked the viewers to count the number of times the people wearing white shirts passed their basketball. Then they asked them if they noticed a person in a gorilla suit. About half of the participants missed the gorilla, who walks through the middle of the game, turns to the camera, and beats its chest.

The experiment tested selective attention, showing how when the mind is focused on a particular task, particularly when that task involves tracking unfamiliar patterns, people are much more likely to miss what they are not explicitly tracking. When I watch the video I see the gorilla, but sometimes miss at least one of the passes.

In Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other experiments, supplemented with real world examples, to give an engaging explanation for how the mind works, covering issues from attention to confidence to the potential for growth.

If I had to put a thesis to Invisible Gorillas it is that the human mind is extraordinarily well adapted for pattern recognition and focusing on individual tasks, but is easily overwhelmed.

Invisible Gorillas offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of (relatively) recent developments in the science of memory and intuition. Some sections of the book dated themselves. While talking about the illusion of patterns and predictive behavior, for instance, they praise John Roberts’ explanation in the Shelby County supreme court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act, which has aged poorly in ways that were entirely predictable for reasons cultural, historical, and political. If these case studies can be misguided, I can only imagine that the science has developed since the original publication in 2010.

In general, though, I have little negative to say, and found that it offers a few practical lessons. Given the title of the book, the top-line takeaway is the dangers of divided attention. Chabris and Simons spend a significant amount of space talking about driving and other activities that people can do while distracted under ideal circumstances, but explain that distraction primarily interferes with the ability to adapt to the unexpected.

Secondarily, they explain, people overestimate their ability to multitask. I have noticed this when it comes to my writing. I often multitask when writing blog posts, with something on a second screen that I can passively absorb but don’t care if I miss anything. By contrast, when I’m working on projects I hope to publish, I have to eliminate distractions by closing down social media, turning off podcasts or anything visual, and often turn up music on my headphones.

(Chabris and Simons debunk the urban myth that listening to classical music makes one smarter in the illusion of potential; the music I listen to while writing varies, and I find the beat matters more than the genre because I usually tune the songs out.)

But as much I already knew and/or had discovered the issues with illusions of attention, the two studies I found particularly valuable were the illusion of confidence and false beliefs about memory.

On the former, people trust those who express confidence more than those willing to express doubt. In 2019, this is more important than ever. It would be easy to tie this illusion to any number of political and media issues, but I saw a relevance here for academia, too. I have long believed that one of the greatest disservices the US educational system does to students, particularly through standardized tests, is to make them believe that they need to have all of the answers. In turn, this means I try to model for my students how to not-know the answers; that is, to teach them to place confidence in being able to find explanations rather than in feigning them through confident bluster even though, as Chabris and Simons explain, society generally values the latter.

The latter caught my attention because I have been working with memory as a historical construct. I introduced this post with a memory of watching the invisible gorilla video in college, which I thought was a viral video, perhaps on Youtube. The facts line up: I was in college around the time the video made news and Youtube and Facebook both existed. In truth, though, I don’t actually know that this was when or how I saw the video, only that I have been aware of the video for a long time. This inconsistency is exactly the point of Chabris and Simons’ section on memory: memory is malleable and flawed, connected to our emotions and experiences, and highly impressionable. My reading of historical memory is that the same holds true, except with more intentionality behind the shaping of memory.

There is also more to Invisible Gorillas that is worth consideration, including discussion of why we believe so strongly in the potential to improve ourselves quickly and the way in which people tend to misunderstand probabilities. In short, this is a worthwhile read on a number of levels, from simple curiosity to practical applications in a range of settings.

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I just started Toni Morrison’s Beloved because her passing reminded me that I had never read any of her books even though I’ve been trying to read more African and African-American authors. I am only a few chapters in, but am so far finding it viscerally affecting and awkwardly voyeuristic in a way that is making me particularly conscious of my whiteness. The last part is heightened by having seen clips of Morrison commenting on tone deaf critiques of her literature as not addressing white audiences.

The First Crusade: The Call from the East

I first encountered Peter Frankopan’s work a few years ago when I read his global history The Silk Roads, which aimed to understand the world along an axis unfamiliar to most people: the pathways of exchange that linked Europe and East Asia known collectively as the Silk Road. While reading that book I came across a reference to this one, Frankopan’s first, and made a note to read it at some point. Preparing to teach a survey of world history before 1500, it seemed like an appropriate time to pick it up.

The First Crusade hinges on a simple conceit: historians of the crusades get swept away by the stirring oratory of Urban II at Claremont and the remarkable victories of the western knights that established crusader kingdoms and so miss the forest for the trees.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (r.1081–1118) sits at the center of Frankopan’s retelling. When Pope Urban II issued his call for crusade and began preaching across most of Europe, he fired up his audiences with stories about the collapse of the Byzantine frontier and the horrors that the Turks visited upon their Christian brethren. Byzantium, the great Christian empire and one-time protector of Jerusalem, he said, was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a Seljuk army under the command of Alp Arslan had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV in 1071. The empire had suffered additional setbacks in the two succeeding decades, including invasions by Norman knights who would go on to be Crusaders, and by the early 1090s a sudden turn for the worse in Anatolia that included the loss of Nicaea, a strategically-located and heavily-fortified city, prompted Alexios to make his appeal to Urban.

But neither was the Byzantine Empire decaying anachronism. Frankopan contextualizes Alexios’ actions in the institutional and diplomatic traditions of the Byzantine Empire. In this light, the beleaguered empire of the 1070s had recovered under Alexios’ careful hand in the 1080s, thwarting repeated invasions of the Balkans from both Norman knights and nomads from the north, while also choosing careful marriage alliances at Constantinople and stabilizing the situation in Anatolia through careful diplomacy that brought the Turkish leader Malik Shah into the imperial orbit. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 unravelled Alexios’ hard work and ultimately led to a attempted coup in the capitol.

These conditions, Frankopan argues, prompted Alexios to again turn to Byzantine diplomacy for a solution: the call from the east. In Urban II, he found an ally quarreling with the German Emperor Henry IV, who had installed his own Pope, Clement III, in Rome. Alexios’ appeal presented Urban an opportunity to claim legitimacy as the true pope. Urban’s call to arms promised knights wealth and the forgiveness of sin, thereby completing the necessary conditions for the crusade. In short order, thousands of soldiers gathered for war.

Compared to explanation of these machinations, Frankopan’s account of the campaign itself is almost perfunctory. He mentions the preparations in passing, offers explanations for the near-defeats turned spectacular victories won by the Crusaders, and duly mentions the thousands of crusaders who died along the way, but only briefly mentions People’s Crusade and does not explore the social or cultural sides of the campaign.

Instead, Frankopan keeps the focus on the Crusader leadership because that allows him to keep focus on their relationship with Alexios, who had hoped to regain Byzantine possessions in the East. All of the Crusader leaders swore oaths of fealty to the Emperor throwing their support behind his cause, but as the campaign surged forward they began to feel betrayed––because Alexios continued to negotiate with the Turks and, particularly, because they believed he was deliberately late with supplies––which ultimately led to the creation of independent Crusader States in the Levant. That is, with the exception of Baldwin, who spent two years ruling Edessa as Alexios’ delegate.

The First Crusade is a slim monograph, coming in at just over 200 pages before notes, meaning that it is not a new synthesis or a magnum opus. It is a relatively narrow thesis that achieves its aim, showing that the Byzantine context is the key to understanding the crusade. This diplomatic focus means that it is at times dry and the fact that the prose is rife with passive voice made certain chapters read like running into a stiff wind, but these are both superficial concerns. I already understood the legacies of the crusades (both the traditionally-numbered ones, as well as the Northern and Spanish crusades) in a global context in terms of trade, diplomacy, culture and religion, and I went into The First Crusade looking for a way to understand the start of the Crusades in the same light. Frankopan offers just that.

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I have since finished The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and begun Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla, a pop-science bestseller about how intuition and memory can deceive us.

Teaching College

Through the heat-scorched landscape of late July, it is almost possible to feel the first winds of autumn, which means that it is time to be thinking about the courses for the fall semester. In preparation for teaching I have once again gone back to the well of teaching books and done another thread for the #PhDSkills tag on Twitter, this time reading Norman Eng’s lauded book, Teaching College.

This post follows the model I used for my previous threads, on John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write and Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, as well as the posts I wrote after reading Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom, James Lang’s Small Teaching, and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire. A longer list of resources can be found here, in a post with collected suggestions for guides on how to teach in the humanities that I solicited a year or so ago. I have added to the original posts as I find new resources.

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Norman Eng’s Teaching College often comes up on lists of books for college instructors to read. It promises to be a practical guide to teaching and learning, with lessons from the worlds of marketing and K–12 teaching, fields Eng worked in before getting his ED.D.

You can find my sprawling reading notes in this Twitter thread.

Eng tries to do everything in Teaching College, and the result is a lot of useful tips. Even with the book by his own admission being less useful for humanities classes, I do not disagree with most of what Eng writes. For instance, he stresses reflective practice, both on the part of the teacher and for the students, and the importance of creating a safe learning environment. I think both of these are central to good pedagogy, as is making sure that you are finding ways to keep the class engaged through active learning exercises and discussions. This can be easier said than done, but Eng advocates a “less is more” approach in getting students to learn rather than to simply commit facts to short-term memory––which Kevin Gannon, among others, have suggested is the best way to improve even the bloated survey courses.

( I think we teach history backward, but I also teach in the system we have.)

For as useful as Teaching College was at points, though, I was often frustrated with it. This frustration came in several different forms, but they started early on with an unrelated book. One of the media groups in Columbia, MO has been running the same set of radio ads for the past few years promoting the book The Wizard of Ads with a series of tips on marketing strategies. The Wizard of Ads promises to teach the reader simple rules to ensure marketing success. Teaching College came across like an educational version of that book. This is not to say that either book is necessarily wrong, just that there is something about the tone promising quick fixes that rubbed me the wrong way.

But my issues went beyond the superficial.

First, Eng’s approach to class structure struck me as overly formulaic, even when he offered variations. In his defense, he added the caveat that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to teaching, but in the body of the text he blows right past that advice. I will be taking his advice that I need to make sure that I am being aware of how much interaction I plan because when I get overwhelmed I tend to just talk, but I am unlikely to entirely jettison things that are working in my classes.

Second, while Eng offers some additional reading (or Ted talks to watch) and some citations, it often came across like a Ted talk where one person with a particular expertise tells the audience how to improve––ironically unlike his advice for how to teach. He is persuasive, I thought, in showing how college professors could learn from marketers and K–12 teachers, though we have all had our share of poor teachers there, too, but the fact that it is generally heavy on personal stories and light on relating scholarship about best practices in teaching and learning made Teaching College seem insubstantial.

Third, Eng tries to cover too much, offering panaceas for everything from classroom management to syllabus design to readings. On the one hand, this means that he is arguing for a comprehensive overhaul with prescribed changes, but, on the other, there is also limited space dedicated to explaining the purpose of any of the changes. Compare this to James Lang’s Small Teaching, which similarly covers a lot, but with the explicit purpose of making small tweaks to improve a class rather than a full overhaul.

Fourth and finally, perhaps my biggest frustration is that other than a critique of using a single midterm to assess student performance, there was almost no discussion of assessment. My issue here is that reflection on how we are assessing students is about as important as reflecting on why students are not doing the reading. You can’t have one without the other, and I find that particularly in history and civ surveys the course aims and course assessment are wildly mismatched. Eng boils this problem down to thinking about your client profile (the students, with their big-picture goals) and aligning your course goals accordingly, but identifying these and adjusting the class procedure only does so much good if the assessment remains out of alignment with what you want the students to take from the course.

In sum, I wonder if I would have found more utility in Teaching College if I hadn’t read Small Teaching and Discussion in the College Classroom first. This is a useful little book that gave me a few ideas, but much of what it offers can be found in more detail in other resources.

Fast Food Nation

“There is nothing inevitable about the fast food nation that surrounds us –– about its marketing strategies, labor policies, and agricultural techniques, about its relentless drive for conformity and cheapness. The triumph of McDonald’s and its imitators was by no means preordained.”

“Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies” – the former president of Archer Daniels Midland

The most recognizable symbols of Americana are brand names such as McDonalds, Subway, Coca Cola, and now Starbucks. Fast Food Nation is Eric Schlosser’s classic work of investigative reportage that looks at the food and labor systems that led to the first major wave of these corporations.

Schlosser traces the fast food phenomenon to California in the 1940s and 50s where drive-in hotdog and burger joints began to pop up, catering to the newfound car culture. At the heart of these restaurants was the “Speedee” system that applied the principles of the assembly line to food service, simultaneously ensuring a consistent product across locations and reducing the need for skilled staff.

Allowing for some variation––Ray Kroc, for instance, expanded McDonalds by purchasing land for new franchisees and becoming their landlord––the model is simple: offer large quantities of tasty food to consumers at the lowest possible price point, while making a profit through a) volume and b) reducing the cost of both labor and supply. The superficially-attractive combination of taste, quantity, and cost feeds into the first, while the second is accomplished through increased efficiency, industrial supply chains, and anti-union activity.

From the point of sale, which takes up the entirety of part one, in part two, Schlosser works backward through the supply chain, profiling the conditions in the potato and meat industry in a reprise of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The common thread in Schlosser’s account is the overwhelming priority on corporate profit that pushes the speed in slaughterhouses past the point of safety for either workers or consumers.

Fast Food Nation is dated. Schlosser does not predict, for instance, the meteoric rise of pizza chains and Starbucks (admittedly, the story of coffee supply chains follows a different form of exploitation) or the local and slow food movement, and his cautionary tale about mad cow disease is more at home in the 1990s than in the 2010s. Public discussion of the industry also continued after 2001 when this was published. In 2004, the documentary Super Size Me set out to demonstrate the catastrophic health consequences of eating a McDonalds-based diet, in 2012 there was outrage surrounding “Pink Slime,” a finely processed meat product added to hamburger meat, and in 2016, The Founder dramatized Ray Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s franchise.

And yet, while non-historical details have changed, the broad strokes of Fast Food Nation remain relevant.

Fast food, both of the sort Schlosser profiles and of the so-called fast-casual variety, remains ubiquitous in the American foodscape. Reading about the corporate systems gave me flashbacks to the years 2009 through 2012 when I worked in Quiznos restaurants. Everything about the menu, from the recipes to prep to the script with customers was finely choreographed. The production line had four stations even though by the time I worked there we almost never had even four people working at the same time. Every station assembled food from prepared ingredients according to recipes on easy-to-follow job aids. Drinks were the largest profit item on the menu, at the time a $1.99 drink cost $.27 in paper and syrup––the credit card transaction fee was higher––and most skilled job (other than customer service) was handling the bladed tools for slicing meat, cheese, and tomatoes.

Quiznos marketed itself as a cut above fast food, with quality recipes, ingredients, and sauces, putting it in a class with the likes of Panera. In some ways this is true, but its primary competition was Subway, a fact immediately apparent in the handful of regional corporate meetings I attended. Most notably, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash (the year I graduated college, which, in part, led to this employment), Quiznos was trying to stay competitive with Subway at a time when it worried that a premium price point was driving customers away. Their solution introduced 5-dollar large sandwiches: basic subs without fancy sauces to match the Subway 5-dollar footlong.

Quiznos had already peaked by the time I worked there, beginning a decline that saw it lose more than 90% of its locations in about ten years. Cutting corners on supply and labor couldn’t compensate for discounted prices and the restaurant was no longer profitable for franchisees. Nevertheless, the fingerprints of the fast food revolution were all over the Quiznos experience, from the shiny but sterile veneer designed to draw people in while being easy to clean to the Taylorization that had inspectors time how long it took employees to make a sandwich at each station. The only things lacking were cars and the overt marketing to children.

As Fast Food Nation approaches its 20-year anniversary, I am left reflecting on how the financial crisis of 2008 might have contributed to its continuing relevance. There has been a renaissance in food culture in the past decade, with food competitions and explorations splashed across the television landscape and waves of excellent food––high class, diverse, local, ethical food–– have sprung up across the country. We don’t yet have a taco truck on every corner, but we’re inching in that direction.

Yet, it seems that the only thing that millennials are not killing is fast food, with the possible exception of McDonalds (depending on who you believe). Fast food continues to dominate the restaurant marketshare, with particular growth in pizza restaurants.

(A few years back I read an investigative feature on fast food pizza that looked at cheese consumption and how the industry’s demand for cheap tomatoes was warping the Nigerian economy, but I can’t remember which outlet had it and can’t find a link. Sorry.)

The war for which company can offer the greatest combination of taste and quantity at the lowest price…while paying workers as little as possible, rages on. Schlosser’s story details how entrepreneurial innovation can metastasize into runaway greed and remains relevant at time when fast food workers have been protesting for a living wage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there is also a larger point. The ubiquitous fast food restaurants that dot American highways, cities and malls are just one manifestation of the larger systems that lie behind the American diet. These corporations might have started a seismic shift in US food systems, but these same systems lie behind the American diet from readily available processed foods in stores to innumerable restaurants that all purchase from the same suppliers. In short, the US remains a fast food nation.

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I have since finished another of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunthor novels, 2017’s Trace, and have begun reading A Long Day’s Evening, a Turkish novel by Bilge Karasu. Largely set in 8th century Byzantium, the novel offers a meditation on the obligations between the individual and authority.

The Greek War of Independence

I have studied and taught students about ancient Greece for years now, but have only been able to spend a small amount of time there and my awareness of the recent history of the nation is woefully inadequate. It was with this in mind that I picked up David Brewer’s The Greek War of Independence after stumbling across a copy in my local library.

Brewer’s book is a straightforward narrative history that covers the events between about 1820 when the war of independence broke out and 1831 when the Bavarian prince Otto became king of Greece. Overall, I found the book a somewhat dry account of the conflict in the Peloponnese and Roumeli, with one notable exception to discuss the massacre on Chios. Rather than a recap, for which there is a Wikipedia entry, I will be focusing on a few broader impressions.

In Brewer’s account, the impetus for the revolution did not start in Greece itself, but among a community of ex-patriot merchants and phil-hellenic Europeans influenced by the Enlightenment. In 1820 a group of these exiles created the Filiki Eteria, a fraternal organization led by Alexander Ypsilantis dedicated to liberating Greece from the Ottomans. Despite dreams of securing Russian support and raising Balkan Christians in rebellion, though, the Filiki Eteria’s main expedition was an expedition across the Danube that failed to elicit significant Russian aid and was denounced by the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

This failure did not spell failure for the revolution altogether, but pointed to a significant weakness, particularly in its early years. Again following Brewer’s account, most of the early successes came in the Peloponnese, but the rebellion was hindered by disunion. At one point Brewer quips:

“Greek society was criss-crossed by a large number of fault lines, and was so divided that perhaps it should not be called a society at all.”

He does not follow up, but it is possible to read between the lines. Most of the Greek soldiers were erstwhile bandits loyal to individual captains whose interest was in plunder and would variously serve Greek or Turkish forces. (Even later in the war, the Greek forces often consisted of foreign mercenaries.) Moreover, there was conflict between representatives from the different regions of Greece. But the biggest threat to the cause was tension between the First National Assembly and the military leadership (most notably with Theodoros Kolokotronis, who had won the most significant Greek victory to that point) over who ought to be in control of the conflict––tension that broke out into two civil wars in 1824–1825.

These obstacles, as well as the chronic lack of money, made the eventual Greek victory all the more remarkable.

Perhaps my greatest frustration with The Greek War of Independence was with Brewer’s narrow focus on the war. He places the conflict in a bit of a broader context with a few words about the Enlightenment ideas that influenced some of the instigators and about the external pressures facing the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, though, the only wider context Brewer is interested in is how the UK, France, and Russia entered the war––support that brought about the Battle of Navarino in 1827 where their combined fleet destroyed the Ottoman forces and effectively ended the war.

Between this battle, British loans, and the installation of a German king, Brewer is undoubtedly correct that getting European support was a crucial factor in the Greek independence movement, but this is also illustrative of my frustration. The Ottoman Empire, except for Mehmed Ali the ruler of Egypt, generally appears as a singular enemy, not unlike how many histories of the American Revolution present the British. This left me with questions about the relationship between the Ottoman state and its Greek provinces––including the wider war on islands like Crete and Cyprus. Presenting the war in a strictly Greek context did a disservice to both the complexity of the situation and gave only a partial explanation for the Greek success.

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter while reading The Greek War of Independence, with one of the lines of discussion being David Brewer as a historian. My correspondent was critical on the grounds that Brewer came up as a scholar of Classical Greece and admits to his limits with more recent Greek sources. I don’t have the background with early modern Greek history to render judgement about his use of sources, but am inclined to believe the criticism. Brewer leans heavily on contemporary British and French sources in his account, which I also suspect informed his choice of narrative arc.

As someone currently trying to write his first history book I can appreciate the challenges involved in this project, particularly in its complexity and unfamiliarity to a general anglophone audience, but, overall, I found The Greek War of Independence frustrating. The narrow, largely political scope meant a barrage of names and a twisty narrative, without either doing enough to contextualize the conflict or to analyze it. I was particularly left with questions about Ottoman “oppression,” the war’s aftermath and how it was remembered (not exclusively about the massacre of Chios), and how the non-political and military actors received their independence. At the same, Brewer’s aim to give an authoritative account largely takes the life out of a series of what seem to be flamboyant characters. I am glad to know a bit more about the war that created the modern Greek nation, but I can’t rightly recommend this book.

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I am now reading Eric Schlosser’s classic Fast Food Nation. Published in 2001, some of the reportage is out of date, including the price of potatoes and food, salaries, and the total number of stores in operation, but the underlying features remain true.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

The evolution, or, as some would call it, the metastatic mutation, of the Republican party is one of the most unescapable facts of US politics in recent memory. The normalization of over-the-top spending in political elections has gone hand-in-hand with the changes, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. In fact, thanks to the reporting of Jane Mayer, among others, acknowledging PACs and other forms of Dark Money in the political discourse has become accepted practically to the point of banality.

But, as Mayer makes clear, the explosion of Dark Money after Citizens United was the culmination of a process, not a new innovation. Published in 2016, Dark Money examines the deep roots that sprouted the present political environment.

Mayer identifies the earliest ferment of “the second gilded age” during a time when there was relative economic equality. The first signs, as she identifies them, took place during the 1930s when some wealthy families took umbrage at being accused of causing the financial panic and conservative groups chanted against the Roosevelts in an eerie foreshadow of the 2016 election rallies.

Men such as Fred Koch made fortunes in this period on government contracts (Koch also made money building building oil refineries for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) and, at the same time, were adamant that the government never get any of it back in taxes.

The solution lay in a provision of US tax code that encouraged philanthropy. Ordinarily the government taxed generational wealth through the estate tax, but trusts that dedicated their returns to charitable endeavors for a period of years passed virtually tax-free, while other donations were tax-deductible. Fred Koch, like many others, took to philanthropy as an inheritance scheme.

It was Koch’s sons––Charles, most notoriously––who realized the potential in weaponizing the donations to advance their libertarian political agenda. David Koch made an abortive bid for the Vice Presidency on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, funding it with his estate, but already by that time they had a history of backing conservative groups such as the John Birch Society.

In the years to come, they founded a network of ultra-wealthy conservative donors that funneled enormous amounts money into educational institutes and activist non-profit organizations. As Mayer describes it, the this network took the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as an ominous portent and redoubled their political spending in each successive election.

Dark Money has entered into the public conversation around American politics, but Mayer makes what is now a simple thesis into an illuminating and infuriating piece of reportage. Time and again she paints a portrait of greed and corruption, from the cutthroat fraternal Koch wars to workplace fatalities of the Cignas corporation, to the extreme control over the workers in the Menard corporation, to the heir to the Gore (of Goretex) fortune who attempted to adopt her ex-husband for a larger cut of the inheritance.

Despite the fact that this story has become ubiquitous, there are two outstanding features of Dark Money. One, as laid out in brief above, is the long genesis of this movement. The other speaks to the current political moment.

Mayer explains at length the processes by which Dark Money reshaped the electoral maps after the 2010 census, swinging state and local elections that oversaw redistricting where every dollar went further. But for me the most enlightening passages were where she examined the methods that the non-profit organizations used to shape political discourse, including “astroturf” campaigns (i.e. artificial grassroots movements) that give the appearance of popular support and using the speed of media to set the terms of debate by issuing reports and studies based on false information, only to offer retractions after the fact. In Mayer’s view, these attacks on everything from climate change proposals to the ACA caught the Obama administration off guard and effectively thwarted his presidency.

Although Dark Money predates the 2016 election, it remains relevant for the Trump presidency. In part this is because a number of prominent individuals in the current administration, most notably Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, appear in the book. But it is also because the techniques of the Trump administration parallel the ongoing efforts of the various non-profits, albeit from an institutional platform. In other words, 2016 was a triumph for Dark Money, but, far from declaring victory and going home, it opened up new avenues of attack.

A few weeks ago I read Winners Take All, a look at philanthropic help-you-help-me do-gooderism and said that it marked a more generous look at similar processes. In retrospect, I would have liked to read Dark Money first. Mayer does a better job of examining the origins of the philanthropy, but these are two sides of the same coin. In one, what is good for the donor is good for the country; in the other, what is good for the country could also be good for the donor. Both Dark Money and a Winners Take All identify a core flaw at the center of the Second Gilded Age, while simultaneously examining all the ways in which these monied interests short-circuit the political will to institute effective change.

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I have since finished Archer Mayor’s Presumption of Guilt, which I will be writing up with his Three Can Keep a Secret, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. This morning I began a history of the Greek War of Independence.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

“Walker had broken what in his circles were important taboos: Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem.”

Just under one year ago international news was covering a crisis in Thailand involving a boys soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave by rising waters. For eighteen days the boys remained in the cave before rescue divers managed to get them out. One diver died in the operation. At the height of the coverage, Elon Musk stepped in, proposing that a Space-X mini-sub could aid the efforts, with much praise and no small amount of mockery from the workers on the ground. Musk responded by calling one of the rescue divers a “pedo.”

One the one hand, this story of a remarkable rescue ended successfully and Musk’s sideshow did not figure in to the result, but, on the other, it offers a microcosm of the phenomenon examined in Anand Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All. By most accounts, Musk wanted to do a good thing by saving the boys, but he wanted to do it from within his own niche and in a way that brought potential benefit for him in the form of publicity, influence, and potential profit down the line. When challenged to address a fundamental structural issue like the water crisis in Flint, Musk, predictably, fell silent.

Giridharadas argues that Musk and his fellow citizens of MarketWorld, that is, the global business and financial elite, want to effect positive change, but have reshaped the mechanisms for doing so to their own benefit. The result in this time of growing inequality is a pay-to-play circuit of philanthropy where undemocratic decisions are made by the wealthiest strata of society promoting a win-win, venture-capital ethos of making a profit while giving people what they “need,” usually in the form of entrepreneurship. In return for their generosity, these philanthropists sincerely believe that they deserve an outsized voice in public policy debates.

But this win-win mentality perpetuates and in fact exacerbates the problems that the new philanthropic agendas address, whether it is the lack of government funding (avoiding taxes), poverty (not paying workers), or climate change (e.g. unregulated industry). Hence the taboos of MarketWorld, standards of behavior for Thought Leaders that short-circuit any possibility of systemic change.

Winners Take All, as Giridharadas notes in his sources, is a work of reportage that profiles members of this global elite, including prominent speakers on the circuit that includes Ted Talks, leaders of philanthropic organizations, disillusioned financial insiders, and one former US president whose post-White House career has pivoted to canoodling with business elites.

Giridharadas does not question the overarching dedication to social justice in its broadest, most generic sense on the part of anyone he profiles.

(Conspicuously, there are people not named in the book, like the DeVos’ when it comes to education, who throw their money around in much the same way who he would not ascribe such virtuous intentions. For this, and for a better understanding of how charitable giving facilitates generational wealth transfer under the US tax code, I wish I had read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money before this one. Giridharadas does note, however, that this MarketWorld generally plays into Republican goals of limiting government.)

The problem as identified here is the system that exists in a positive-reinforcement echo-chamber. This system facilitates growing income inequality while acting like it doesn’t exist. This system pushes motivational talks by “Thought Leaders” and industries that insist every person should be their own business while ignoring both barriers and consequences of failure. This system updates Andrew Carnegie’s Wealth for a new century while pretending that the problems of the Gilded Age are gone…at the same time that an all-consuming focus on profit replicates many of the same crises.

The result, Giridharadas argues, is global resentment of the financial elite by millions of people left distrustful of a government that doesn’t appear to do anything, but clearly left out of vision of a techno-utopia created by the citizens of MarketWorld. I found this final conclusion that this system is the driving factor behind the rising tide of authoritarian nationalism somewhat overstated. It offers a neat explanation for the somewhat overblown narrative of the white working class propelling Donald Trump to the presidency, but whitewashes racism, dark money (See: Jane Mayer’s book), and the various avenues of attack on democracy.

But neither is he wrong. The developments covered in Winners Take All clearly contribute to the breakdown of social systems designed to protect civil society, though I was ultimately unconvinced that the do-gooders covered here constitute the majority of the global MarketWorld elite. The stronger insight here is that despite the wealth of those who do want to fix the world, MarketWorld thinking prevents them from addressing the underlying problems. This realization is more worrisome than identifying malicious actors, because if the systems designed to help the poorest citizens and organize a response to climate change are under attack even from the people who ostensibly want to help, what chance do they have?

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Next up, I spent most of the weekend reading. I finished James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, being just blown away by the prose, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, part of a Vermont-based mystery series that is one of my comfort reads. I then started Jane Mayor’s Dark Money.

The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

How Europe came to dominate the world since 1500 is one a central question in world history. Typical answers point to the rapid pace of European technological innovation that far outpaced the far east and allowed small numbers of Europeans to conquer much larger kingdoms. The problem, as Andrade aptly demonstrates, is that these traditional narratives suggest a simple teleology that is not backed up by the historical chronology. Rather than innovative Europeans meeting and quickly toppling East Asian foes whose conservative and tradition-bound cultures rendered them unable to adapt, not only were Ming and Qing Chinese forces able to adapt, but they also defeated early European attempts to dominate them. By the middle of the 19th century, though, European forces, and even newly reformed Japanese armies, crushed the Chinese. Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age is a global history that spans a thousand years over two continents looking for a new explanation for this radical divergence.

In Andrade’s analysis, the divergence occurred because Qing China was a victim of its own success. His core model is that conflict drives military innovation; by the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty had secured such dominance over east Asia that it effectively stopped innovating, while, simultaneously, Europe was going through a period of constant warfare where the countries fought for their very existence. By the time of the Opium Wars (1830s and 1850s), the Qing had fallen so far behind that their attempts to catch up were too little, too late.

Gunpowder weapons first appeared in China in the tenth century, mostly in the form of fire weapons used against wooden structures. Guns took several centuries to develop before they skipped to Europe, probably spread by the Mongol conquests. Europeans made the guns bigger and more powerful, creating cannons used to attack fortifications, an innovation that Andrade chalks up to a difference in construction techniques that made Medieval European fortifications vulnerable to early cannons in a way that Chinese fortifications were not.

(Chinese fortifications were much thicker than contemporary European designs, with packed-earth cores and angled walls that distributed and absorbed the shock of cannonballs. The fortifications of renaissance Europe reached many of the same conclusions, but only after cannons rendered comparatively thin Medieval fortifications, made with straight stone walls and with loose fill, obsolete.)

Andrade’s biggest contribution is what he terms an age of parity from roughly 1525 until roughly 1700, during which time Chinese forces successfully resisted European colonialism by adopting and indeed innovating on European technology. He demonstrates how, for instance, Chinese engineers adopted technology for mounting cannons on their warships and improved casting techniques for cannons, making them lighter, cheaper, and more durable (in large part by allowing them to cool faster), by encasing the central iron bore in bronze. Further, where other military historians have seen a decided European advantage in drilling that allowed for their soldiers to keep up a constant hail of fire through volley techniques, Andrade argues that these had been standard Chinese practice for centuries first for crossbows and later for guns. In fact, Chinese armies used significant numbers of gunners in their armies centuries before Europeans did.

So what changed? Noted above, Andrade’s thesis is that the existential warfare in Europe drove military innovation at a time when complacency born of hegemony allowed Qing power to atrophy. This meant that when European forces arrived with steam powered ships and high-powered weapons, the Qing were unable adapt fast enough. Compounding their problems was that the European innovations were not merely technical, but scientific, meaning that advances in the understanding of trajectories and aerodynamics allowed ordinance to fly further and with greater accuracy than even equivalent Chinese weapons.

The Gunpowder Age is an ambitious and well-argued book. As someone who is not an expert on Chinese history, but has taught European global expansion, his explanations about military power are largely satisfactory, and I will likely use it in future classes, even if I sometimes thought that his solipsistic focus on gunpowder didn’t entirely substantiate the broader claims regarding the global dominance of Europe. Similarly, I was sometimes frustrated with the way that he collapsed the world into China on the one hand and “Europe” on the other, with only slight nods to Korea, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, but this frame fit his explanation for how European came to dominate China. There are only so many pages in a book, after all.

My biggest frustration with The Gunpowder Age had nothing to do with its content. Rather, despite that the argument is laid out in a clear and cogent manner, the actual writing, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph drove me up the wall. I’ll readily admit that I have numerous flaws as a prose stylist, but this book that received praise for its writing was almost unbearably repetitive at times, with almost every page containing a sentence I wanted to rewrite for elegance, and several word-choice ticks (prevalent, for instance) that struck a dissonant note. Writing is hard and it often takes a village to polish prose to the utmost shine, but this was something that frustrated me all the more because the content was so outstanding. Then again, this may be a sign that I’m ready to return in earnest to my research projects

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I am now reading Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a dark comedy in the mode of Catch-22 about the death of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq in 1988.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Among the many injustices committed against Native Americans in the 1800s was forced removal. By government mandate, tribes from across the eastern United States moved from their homelands to Oklahoma, which was then considered unproductive land. Among these tribes were the Osage, whose land after the relocation and a series of additional thefts was unproductive even by the standards of Indian territory. At least until their land became the center of Oklahoma’s first major oil rush.

Almost overnight the Osage became, per capita, the wealthiest people in the world. But in the eyes of the federal government, the Osage were incapable of managing their money without the approval of white guardians.

In the 1920s, crisis struck Osage county. Members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. One was shot, others appeared to have been poisoned. Several white citizens of Osage County tried to help the tribe members, even at the risk of their own lives, but white law enforcement officials, under the guidance of William Hale, a white man dubbed King of the Osage Hills, chalked the deaths up to coincidence and closed the case.

But the official story did not sit well with family members of the deceased and the deaths began to make national news.

At a time when law enforcement was intensely local and often deeply corrupt, this case, with its notoriety and Native American connections, came before J. Edgar Hoover and the nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover passed the case to Tom White, an old-style agent, former Texas Ranger, and the antithesis of Hoover’s dream of an agency filled with college-educated bureaucrats. Nevertheless, White was exactly what Hoover needed in Oklahoma.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann reconstructs White’s investigation, showing how he broke through a conspiracy among the local white community members to kill off the Osage and funnel their financial claims toward Mollie Burkhart and her children with Ernest Burkhart––William Hale’s nephew.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a pop-history that reads like detective novel, and with good reason. It is at its heart true crime, sitting at the intersection of unrestrained capitalism, the wild west, and the difficult relationship between the United States and Native American tribes. As befits his status as a New Yorker staff writer, Grann is most successful at bringing both the conspiracy and the investigation to life. The story imbues names and details to a long history of exploitation and violence, here with private citizens using local institutions to exploit the situation.

However chilling the story was, though, it does not substantially change my opinion about either the treatment of Native Americans or the unchecked capitalism of the early twentieth century. Grann only sketches the backdrop of genocide (and attempted genocide) against Native Americans during this period and otherwise allows the specific case to stand in for much more widespread wrongs.

(Contrast this decision with The Real All-Americans, which is equally easy to read, but its focus on the development of Carlisle Indian School football gives Sally Jenkins a platform to talk more about cultural erasure.)

Something similar happens in the final section of the book where Grann pulls back from sketching the future lives of the principal actors, pivoting to a journalistic narrative of his research and the lingering memory of the case in Osage County. It feels like an epilogue, but falls flat in terms of lasting significance. The meaty issues that prompted and enabled the conspiracy disappear back into the scenery, leaving only the sad, but ultimately insubstantial, memory of an explosive event.

Killers of the Flower Moon was the 2018 Columbia (Mo.) One-Read, and for good reason. Grann gives the reader a lot to chew on and the tone and topic both create a perfect entry-point for students, reading groups, or anyone else who wants to learn a little something about the brutal history of the treatment of Native Americans. Just don’t stop here.

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Next up, I finished Tana French’s The Trespasser, an utterly engaging installment of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and have since begun Robin Hobb’s Mad Ship.