Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

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I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

The Anatomy of Fascism

The cover of Robert. O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism

In the introduction The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton notes that most scholarship on fascism remains narrowly focused on individual fascist movements. But where these studies offer excellent insight into Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, they don’t offer a better understanding of fascism as a particularly 20th century political phenomenon. This book, he says, is an attempt to bring those insights together in one comprehensive examination of fascism — the movements headed by Mussolini and Hitler, yes, since those were the two most successful examples, but also those in Hungary, Spain, and, yes, the United States.

So what is fascism? Paxton organizes the book roughly following the life-cycle of a fascist movement from how they begin and take root to exercising power and collapsing, but defers a succinct definition until the final chapter.

It is not the particular themes of Nazism or Italian Fascism that define the nature of the fascist phenomenon, but their function. Fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity, direct against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.

“Fascism” has its roots in Italian “fascio” (bundle or sheaf) and can be traced to the latin “fasces,” an axe bound by a bundle of rods carried by Roman lictors (guards who accompanied magistrates) that represented both the violence and restrained violence of the Roman republic. In fact, Paxton notes, the republicanism was so important to the symbolism that leftists movements who wanted to restrain the oppression of the aristocracy and the church, in which context “fascio” was used to refer to militant bands. However, in 1919, a new movement in Milan led (at least in part) by a journalist and former soldier named Benito Mussolini adopted the name “Fasci di Combattimento” and declared war on socialists on whom they blamed the problems of the country. Thus was born first named fascist movement in the modern sense.

Paxton frequently reminds his readers that each fascist movement conforms to its native conditions, but there are nevertheless repeated characteristics and preconditions. In each case, fascist organizations were right-wing movements born at times when the country was (or was a thought to be) in decline. These movements, like the two most famous in Germany and Italy, took advantage of the apparent crisis to stoke popular outrage with appeals to nationalism and former glory, thereby further destabilizing the country and presenting themselves as the only path to stability and prosperity.

Where they succeeded, it was because mainstream conservative elites bestowed political legitimacy on them in the name of thwarting their socialist and leftist opponents during times of economic crisis. Thus, Mussolini’s fabled march on Rome might have been a fatal mistake except that the King Victor Emmanuel III refused to empower the Prime Minister to stop him. (Victor Emmanuel would ultimately also depose Mussolini toward the end of World War 2.) The German example is somewhat more commonly known, where Hitler won just enough political support that he had leverage in his negotiations with the Weimar elite, ultimately getting appointed Chancellor with Franz von Papen, a prominent Weimar politician, as vice-Chancellor—only for the combination of President Paul von Hindenburg’s death and the crisis of the Reichstag Fire removing the restrictors from Hitler’s authority.

Although fascist states often get a reputation for being efficient systems — Mussolini made the trains run on time; Thomas the Tank Engine is a fascist utopia, etc — Paxton shows that this is a mirage. In fact, fascist states amounted to an amalgam of power struggles, between the leader whose personal charisma was essential for the party’s rise to power and the rest of the party, between the party and the civil service (which they largely defused by giving civil services autonomy to continue their work), and between the goals of their non-fascist allies.

Other than the varied origins of the fascist movements, the most interesting part of The Anatomy of Fascism to me was its end-point. Paxton identifies two possible outcomes for a fascist movement: radicalization or dissolution into generic authoritarianism. The extreme promises made during the rise to power preclude “comfortable enjoyment of power.” In one scenario, the fascist movement runs out of steam, but members of the party are able to keep hold of the levers of power as run of the mill authoritarians, the difference being that the fascist movement specifically appeals to the emotions of a broad segment of the population in order to fuel its rise to power. On the other extreme, the movement becomes ever more extreme in pursuit of its promises until the situation dramatically changes, as in the Holocaust and World War 2.

Reading The Anatomy of Fascism in the United States 2021, the obvious question is what it might say about modern political developments and, in particular, the presidency of Donald Trump. Paxton is absolutely clear that the United States has had fascist movements in the past, and not just America First and the other Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. However, he confidently states that, as of 2004, the United States had resisted making them mainstream:

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally…Of course the United states would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream. I half expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and “degenerate” artists…Fortunately I was wrong (so far).

I am still mulling over a lot of these questions in light of what Paxton wrote, but I have four broad thoughts at this point:

1. I was not wholly convinced by Paxton’s treatment of Fascist and pseudo-Fascist movements in the United States. He gestures to a long tradition of nativist agitation, including the 1850s Know-Nothing Party and iterations of the KKK as evidence for its presence, but concludes that these groups never truly went mainstream. Setting aside that the KKK went through several discrete iterations, Paxton doesn’t account for the fact that these ideas did go mainstream, even without direct fascist agitation. Perhaps the widespread support of these ideas in the form of Jim Crow legislation and immigration controls disarmed them as fascist talking points, but that’s worse.

2. The idea that the United States can succumb to a fascist dictatorship has been the premise of novels since at least 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here. More recently, Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, which David Simon turned into an HBO series, which I wrote about favorably here. Though my current thinking about The Plot Against America isn’t as positive now as it was in that write-up, I do think Lewis and Roth are correct about one thing in particular. My fear is that the American two-party system makes it, if anything, more vulnerable to Fascism than a decentralized European parliamentary system. In the latter, it required various alliances to bring fascists into the mainstream while the former offers one of the two parties not merely as an ally, but a vehicle.

3. When talking about fascism and American politics there is a problem with labels. Calling an opponent a fascist is a way to discredit them and shut down debate, and rarely has anything to do with historical debate. Paxton several times invokes Orwell’s dictum that American fascism is not going to look like Hitler because it is going to wear authentically American clothes. This gets at the root of the issue. Knowingly or not, Trump’s campaigns ran plays from the fascist playbook: the rallies, the obsession with national decline, the appeals to family values, the framing of the world entirely in terms of allies and enemies. Historical reductivism is not a useful exercise and a lot of those traits have deep roots in American society without the presence of self-identified fascists, though we certainly have those, too. The Republican Party also reoriented itself to accommodate Trump who became their charismatic leader, but too narrow a focus on Trump also misses the evolution of the Republican party that has sought to sow mistrust in government since the 1970s. Was Reagan a fascist, then? Most people would say no. Was Trump a fascist? That’s a question without a productive answer.

4. For as much as I believe there is coordination in talking points between Republican party leaders and at least some of the right-wing media in the United States, it is striking the extent to which driving force of nationalist rhetoric in this country comes from media personalities rather than from the party. Trump was a little bit different before his ban from social media, but even in that case there was a feedback loop between the two. While Paxton might point out that the party unity in the fascist movements was mostly a creation of propaganda, they were nevertheless able to control that message. In the United States context, much of the nationalist fervor has been stoked by…television executives funded by billionaires? …talking heads? …agitators whose primary business is selling supplements? This is not to say that Republican politicians don’t make these statements, but, other than Trump, they seem better able to capitalize on the effects of the rhetoric than to actually fan the flames themselves. Offloading the rhetoric onto a third party also makes it easier to manipulate the system behind closed doors through voter restrictions and stacking the judiciary.

In sum, The Anatomy of Fascism is a good book to think with. Paxton might not be able to offer answers to every question, but this book provides exactly what he promises: a wealth of historical context that transcends a narrow focus on Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

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I recently reread Kitchen Confidential in advance of seeing the new documentary about Anthony Bourdain. I love this book, even if it isn’t quite as magical as on my first read. I also finished Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I picked up because I have read how her books are beloved of critics. This book, told from the point of view of a bisexual college girl Frances who is close friends with her ex Bonni and strikes up an affair with Nick, the husband of the writer Melissa who profiles Frances and Bonni for their poetry performances, traces the intimate web of relationships between these four individuals. It is an intimate and revealing portrait written in a way that makes me understand why Rooney appeals to critics, but I thought that it was a little too assured that its close examination of banal details could lead to profound observations about human relationships.

Empire of Pain

A picture of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain.

Empire of Pain is a story of many grey areas and a bright line in the shape of a little pill. At its heart sits a single family that profited from the pain of millions of Americans.

Anyone familiar with the art world or higher education has heard of the Sacklers. The Sackler Library at Oxford, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arther M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute, the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum. But, in recent years, the Sackler name has come to be associated with something much more negative: their company Purdue Pharma, its product OxyContin, and the opioid epidemic it helped jumpstart.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s latest book, Empire of Pain, an extension of a New Yorker article on the same topic, documents both sides of the Sackler legacy, examining how this family, the children of Jewish immigrants, made an enormous fortune that was designed to burnish their good names, but then helped create one of the worst public health crises in US history.

Empire of Pain is divided into three parts.

The first part focuses on the first generation of the Sackler dynasty. Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer were the sons of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. All three attended Erasmus Hall High School and became doctors in an era when medical schools put in place severe quotas to exclude Jewish applicants. The oldest, Arthur, had already begun a career in marketing while in high school and paid his way through medical school with a job as a copywriter at the advertising firm William Douglas McAdams, a double career that would come to define his career. After graduating, Arthur pursued a residency at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center where, joined by his brothers, they helped pioneer pharmaceutical approaches to treating mental illness.

However, Arthur also kept up his second career as a medical ad-man, first working at and then coming to own William Douglas McAdams. As if that were not enough, Sackler became a silent partner in L.W. Frohlich, McAdams’ competitor agency founded by his childhood friend, as well as joining his brothers and Frohlich in founding IMS, a medical information company, and the Medical Tribune, a direct-to-physician newsletter that, unsurprisingly, featured numerous advertisements for products repped by McAdams and Frohlich.

In Keefe’s telling, Arthur Sackler was a powerful personality, a tireless font of energy, and a man with numerous and varied tastes that led him to take art classes at Cooper Union. But he also thrived in the grey areas. He made his fortune playing a shell game with advertising, always disguising how involved he was in any given company, to the point that he transferred a large portion of his stake in one to his then-ex wife Else, but continued to freely use “her” funds as he pleased. It was in this context that he purchased for his brothers an old pharmaceutical firm, Purdue Frederick, the maker of small number of staple products like earwax removers and laxatives.

Charitable giving was always part of the plan. The brothers and Frohlich initially agreed that their heirs would receive some money, but once all four died their companies would pass into a charitable trust that would burnish their names. In practice, the charitable giving was more of the same shades of grey. Keefe points out that Arthur Sackler liked having his name on things (so much so that he encouraged his third wife to take his name years before they married), but he always drove a hard bargain. For instance, he persuaded the Met to store his collection of Asian art on his behalf and often managed to defer the actual donations so as to extend the tax benefits of his gifts. In one case, he negotiated that he would purchase the collection of a gallery to at the original price from the 1920s and donate it back to the museum as a way of infusing a little more money to the institution—only to turn around and claim the present value of the gift as a tax write off in a maneuver that might as well be out of Winners Take All. Keefe suggests that Arthur Sackler made money on the transaction.

Arthur and his brothers rode these grey areas into the upper-crust of American society, but as early as the 1960s there were questions about their methods. In 1962, Arthur Sackler testified before a congressional committee chaired by Eses Kefauver that was then looking into the pharmaceutical industry, with particular questions about the ethics of advertising drugs and the process by which companies got their drugs approved. Arthur escaped unscathed, but these two questions remained unresolved.

The second part of Empire of Pain turns to the development of OxyContin in the 1990s (years after Arthur had passed away). The proprietary technology of OxyContin is the time-release coating that allows a powerful dose of opioids to be slowly released into the body. Purdue Pharma, now headed by Raymond’s son Richard, claimed that the slow release of the medication diminished the risks of addiction and thus that this was the perfect drug to address all sorts of chronic pain issues. With this marketing in hand, Purdue dispatched armies of sales reps across the country with a simple mandate: sell as much OxyContin as possible. After all, the clock was ticking until generic competitors would undermine profits. These were the same sales methods that Arthur had pioneered decades earlier, now turned toward a drug made by the family’s company.

Where the first two parts of the story are filled with domineering people who rode problematic practices to wealth, part three turns dark. Keefe uses court documents to show that the Purdue (and the Sacklers’ other company, IMS) were aware of doctors over-prescribing pain medication and all of the ways that the drug could be abused. And yet, Keefe shows, the family to this day denies responsibility—for its false advertising, for its sales-tactics, and for its role in inventing problems to be solved with an addictive substance. Instead, Richard and other company representatives blamed overdoses on the victims, claiming that criminals were the problem, not the company. They thus used an army of lawyers to quash lawsuits, all while refusing to heed calls from within to diversify their portfolio and voting themselves billions of dollars in payouts, leaving the company itself effectively broke.

Empire of Pain is an infuriating book. The standard defense of Arthur Sackler is that he had passed away before the invention of OxyContin and thus it is the responsibility of Raymond, Mortimer, and particularly Richard, who was then in charge of the company. This is the same claim made by the younger generation who insist that they be judged by their movies or actions without consideration of the family firm. Keefe’s argument though is that this was a family firm. Arthur’s methods of interacting with the FDA and marketing bled into Purdue pharma, and the money then came out of Purdue pharma and into the wallets of the younger Sacklers. There are some differences between the generations, sure, but Keefe suggests that this is built on wishful thinking—Arthur was in the analgesic business before his brothers were.

But the question of blame is only one facet of why I found this story infuriating. This is in fact the third book in the last two decades to make this connection, on top of the mountain of court filings. Rather, it is the sum total that makes it so frustrating: he grift, the marketing, the failures of oversight, the pain it wrought, and the lengths they went through (to say nothing of the millions of dollars they spent) to deny responsibility. The Sackler family is correct that they are not the only ones profiting from the sale of opioids and that the opioid epidemic goes far beyond Purdue pharma, but it is also hard to deny Keefe’s conclusion that the drugs and methods they pioneered have had profoundly toxic consequences.

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My reading continues practically without interruption. I have also finished Andrea Stewart’s excellent debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, which I plan to write about, and Yishai Sarid’s The Memory Monster, which I might not. The latter is a parable about an Israeli tour guide to Holocaust sites in Poland who becomes consumed by the memories of the Holocaust. This novel had a number of barbs, including children on tours saying that they needed to model themselves after the Nazis and do this to the arabs and the narrator’s frustration with how the Holocaust has become symbolic even to the point where people were associating it with Poland rather than Germany and thus forgetting the humans at the camps in all of their complexity, but I found the story itself a little shallow.

I am now reading Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning.

A World Without Email

Have you not received emails flow chart, from PhD Comics.
Original Comic

Email is a brilliant tool. It takes virtually no effort or time to send an email that conveys a bit of information to one or more recipients almost anywhere in the world. They can then respond at their own pace, creating a thread that records how the conversation unfolded.

But email is also awful, a never-ending stream of small bits of information that can cause important tasks to get lost in the deluge.

I receive a relatively small amount of email compared to a lot of people, but I realized a few months ago that one of the great hidden costs of adjunct teaching at several different schools is that it dramatically increases the amount of necessary email management. For the past year or so, I managed three or four professional accounts on top of my personal one that I use for work unrelated to my academic employment. This work only requires reviewing an email, determining if it demands a response, and then deleting it, but now repeat the process for multiple accounts several times a day.

Then there are the email conventions. Email should allow for intermittent correspondence, but it has become practically an extension of instant messenger and group-think of lengthy email threads encourages people to engage in lengthier and lengthier responses that often defer the responsibility for actually making decisions. When the chair of a committee I am serving on needed to finalize a proposal, she skipped the email threads and asked several people who had responded to a pre-circulated draft to just sit down on a Zoom meeting and iron out our submission. In an hour, the three of us finished what could have dragged on indefinitely across email.

These are exactly the problems that Cal Newport tackles in his A World Without Email. His basic argument, which is an extended version of his “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?” from 2019 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is that email and other “hive-mind” technologies like Slack are sapping the productivity of knowledge workers in nearly every sector.

The argument goes as follows: these hive-mind technologies were designed with the premise that more, easier communication is always better. You can better stay in touch with clients and customers; managers can better keep tabs on what is happening; workers can quickly get answers to questions. The technologies succeeded. They revolutionized the workplace and offices became increasingly streamlined. And then something happened. Email started to interfere with the smooth functioning of an office. Workers started spending less time doing what Newport terms “deep” work and more time handling managerial tasks like responding to emails and writing lengthy memos. Email allowed more immediate responses to clients, so clients began demanding more access, transparency, and immediate responses. Workers now able to check with a manager before making any decision did so, further bogging down processes and anxiety increased.

According to Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, the problem is that these hive-mind technologies are actually too efficient. It is too easy to fire off an email, passing off responsibility for a decision or keeping everyone in the know. But that ease comes with an asynchronous cost. It usually costs little for the sender to send an email, but a lot for the recipient to wade through dozens of low-effort emails.

(In cases where there is a wide power differential and the sender is unsure of how their missive will be received are, of course, an exception.)

The Average time Spent Composing One E-Mail. Professor: 1.3 seconds; Grad students 1.3 days.
Original Comic

The flood of emails or other messages is likewise as distracting as the never-ending stream of updates from social media, taking our eminently distractible minds away from whatever it is we are working on.

Newport’s solution for these woes is not quite a world without email — that is a utopian impossibility — but to get as close to that as possible by putting in place systems that allow for asynchronous collaboration and communication without requiring an immediate response. Email will continue to exist and serves some important services, but it should be dramatically cut back in both volume and length.

A lot of Newport’s ideas come from and are tailored to the startup world, but they have a lot of crossover applicability to higher education (which is still my field).

For instance, Newport gives examples of employers who shortened the workweek contingent on the employees being able to dedicate their entire time on the clock actually working or structuring schedules where some or all employees are not responsible for email until after lunch. They key, he argues, is about setting and holding to expectations. If a project manager is the contact person for an entire project, there simply is no way to contact them by email. Better yet would be a centralized project board where anyone who needed an update on what was happening could simply look. If the system uses short daily (or weekly) in-person meetings to give updates, then the query can wait until that meeting. Any such system, Newport argues, would require empowering workers to make decisions within their purview, but will create better outcomes long-term.

I don’t do most of my work in a collaborative workspace like the ones Newport describes here, but many of these same principles apply. Take my daily writing time. I can have minimal distractions (animals, the bustle of a café, music), but nothing narrative, no discussions, and certainly not the digital updates. For those blocks of time, usually an hour but sometimes longer, I turn off my social media, close my email, and tune out the world. Anything that arrives while I’m writing can wait.

Other suggestions in A World Without Email are more directly applicable.

One example: the “scrum” status meeting . These meetings happen several times per week and are held standing up to encourage brevity. At each meeting, the team members answer three questions: (1) what did you do since the last scrum?; (2) do you have any obstacles; (3) what will you do before the next scrum. If a team member needed a longer meeting, it could be set at this time. Newport describes the scrum as an ideal way to manage an ongoing project in a company, but I could see using a modified version (maybe twice a week instead of daily) with students working on theses and independent projects. These projects are usually developed with long regular one-on-one meetings, but the result is siloing the educational process and adding significant time commitments to a weekly schedule. By contrast, a scrum might show the students that they are not working on these things in isolation, the regular contact builds low-stakes accountability, and making these standing meetings cuts down on scheduling emails.

Newport also argues for automating and outsources as many processes as possible in order to save time that could be better spent doing deep work — or no work. Sometimes this requires money, such as how he describes hiring a scheduler or administrative assistant to handle tasks that might not be in your wheelhouse. I appreciated this suggestion, even if it struck me as analogous to how many basic necessities in life are cheaper if you’re able to afford to spend a larger total amount up front by buying in bulk.

More relevant to my position was the suggestion to automate as many tasks as possible.

At the end of the most recent semester I floated an idea to use flex due-dates for major assignments in my classes, but had been thinking about how to actually administer the policy without a flood of emails. The answer, I think, is creating automated systems. My current thought is to create a Google Form for every major assignment, with link embedded on the assignment guide and on the course website. To receive an extension on that assignment, all you have to do is fill out the form before the due date, answering just a couple of questions: name, assignment, multiple choice for how long an extension you want, and maybe a brief explanation for if you selected “other.” Rather than collect however many emails to respond to, I will have all of the information for each assignment in one place. Likewise, even if I return to grading physical papers, I will request two submissions, an online back-up that counts for completion, but then physical copy that can be turned in the following day for grading. Each of these policies requires a small additional step at set-up, but could streamline the actual process, and I hope to find other processes to similarly automate in my day-to-day job and also should I find myself leading a committee.

My only major of the book is mostly a function of the intended audience. My issue was with how Newport framed productivity as an abstract but ultimate ideal. This led to consequences in the text that run crosswise to what he is actually arguing. At one point Newport talks glowingly about an obsolete office setup where secretaries handled mundane tasks like scheduling meetings, transcribing memos, and handling routine communications. His point is that removing these tasks frees the knowledge worker to do deep work (that they are being paid for), but the value to that worker is given significantly more space than are the mechanics of hiring at a fair wage to do the job. He believes the latter (or says so in the text), but mentions it only in passing. Likewise, the value of deep work, Newport argues, is that you can reject the pressure to work exceedingly long hours, but the focus is on how to produce more. I understand why he wrote the book this way, but given the long-term trends that show how productivity has vastly outpaced wages, I’m not convinced that productivity out to the be the primary objective and thus found the evidence for improved workplace satisfaction to be a much more compelling case for cutting back on email use.

A World Without Email is a manifesto, but a timely one that has given me a lot to think about going into my new position since a new beginning is a great time to implement the new processes and protocols that he suggests.

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This post flitted between one where I think about academia and where I write about books, so I might as well continue here. I just finished Andrea Stewart’s excellent debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, and am looking forward to starting Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain next, an investigation into the Sackler family and the opioid crisis.

The Lost

A Palestinian boy sits at the rubble of his family home destroyed after an Israeli strike in Gaza City, 13 May 2021.
EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER (Photo on Al Jazeera).

But there are certain aspects of this letter, concrete things, things the letter actually says and which, therefore, I do not have to surmise, that force me to think about family quarrels, about proximity and distance and “closeness” that are not temporal or spatial but emotional.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up in a Jewish family surrounded by stories. His Judaism was, by his own admission, both inalienable and indifferent such that his love of stories led him to the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks rather than to the Torah of his heritage. Nevertheless, he remained captivated by a particular absence in the stories of his family. That is, the stories of his six family members, his grandfather’s brother, sister-in-law, and their four daughters, who had remained in the small Galician town of Bolechow until the arrival of the Germans. Their names — Shmiel (Sam) Jäger, Ester née Schneelicht, Lorca, Frydka, Ruchele, Bronia — were only ever whispered.

Mendelsohn resolves to recover their stories, setting in motion an epic journey that takes him to Bolechow (now Bolekhiv), Australia, Israel, Sweden and Denmark armed only with a few names and photographs to interview anyone who might have known his relatives or know what happened to them.

What he discovers is more complex than he could have imagined. Some of his interview subjects don’t remember much — they were too young, or were then too old — while others don’t want to talk for one reason or another. But none of them were actually there, so everything they told him was little more than hearsay. They agreed on the broad strokes: Shmiel was a good man, a little deaf, and a butcher with two trucks, a pretty wife, and vibrant daughters. But some remembered two daughters. Others three. (There were four.) Some heard that Frydka was pregnant when she was caught. Some heard that Ciszko Szymanski, the Polish boy who loved Frydka and insisted that they kill him, too, when the Germans found her hidden in the house of an art teacher, was the father.

What is memory? What is memory? Memory is what you remember. No, you change the story, you “remember.” A story is not a fact. Where are the facts? There is the memory, there is the truth—you don’t know, never.

The Lost is a memoir about the search for life amidst death.

Of the roughly three thousand Jews living in Bolechow in 1939, only a few dozen survived the German occupation. The rest were killed: at the hands of a Ukrainian mob, in the German Aktionen that combined humiliation and death, in the gas chambers of a death camp, and in the casual and systematic violence that characterized the Holocaust. Between the occupation and the final Aktion, the Jews of Bolechow did what they could to survive. A few ran or hid, some collaborated as the Jewish police, most worked in labor camps.

Death is inevitable in this investigation, but it is also striking for its account of life. The Lost is filled with memorable small details, such as how Cisko Szymanski’s father, a butcher, had a special room where the Jews of Bolechow could taste forbidden meats in secret, or how Itzak Jäger (another of Shmiel’s brothers), also a butcher, had to leave town under a cloud of scandal. We learn that Frydka and her friends used to attend movies at the Catholic center in town and that Shmiel would bring strawberries back from Lviv.

In prose that echoes the rhythms of Homeric poetry, Mendelsohn weaves the story of his years-long investigation with biblical exegesis about the book of Genesis, the stories of his interview subjects, and incisive observations about monuments and memory.

…graves, gravesites, memorials, and monuments are of no use to the dead but mean a great deal to the living.

And yet, I was repeatedly drawn back to the present moment while reading The Lost. In the time that it took me to read this memoir that reconstructs in excruciating detail the extermination of a Jewish community in eastern Europe, Israel cracked down on protesters and then dramatically escalated an ongoing crisis. The grim irony of reading about descriptions of pitchfork-wielding Ukrainians attacking Jews while watching mobs of Israelis attacking anyone they suspected of being Palestinian was not lost on me. Likewise for the Israeli airstrikes destroying media outlets while following Mendelsohn’s challenges in uncovering anything like direct evidence of the crimes against humanity at Bolechow.

The Lost is not a book about Zionism. It comes up from time to time, as does Israel, but it is not the central focus. Instead, the people in this book dream about Bolechow where Jews and Poles and Ukrainians lived in peace side by side until they didn’t.

It is that sort of detail that stood out to me this week.

Anti-semitism remains a serious problem in many corners, but that is not the same thing as opposing Israeli actions — like the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem at one of the holiest times of year and during pandemic, no less — that seem taken from the Nazi Lebensraum playbook. A number of years ago at a talk, a scholar of the Holocaust and its legacy asked rhetorically of the West Bank settlements: “where do you think they learned it?”

But even before the German racial programs spilled beyond the borders of Germany, critics of Zionism foresaw the problems. In 1938, Henryck Erlich, a leader of the Polish Bund, the General Jewish Workers Union, declared (in Yiddish):

When Zionists speak to the non-Jewish world, they are outstanding democrats, and they present the conditions in today’s and future Palestine as exemplary of liberty and progress. But if a Jewish state is to be founded in Palestine, its spiritual climate will be: an eternal fear of the external enemy (Arabs), unending fighting for every little piece of land, for every scrap of work, against the internal enemy (Arabs), and a tireless struggle for the eradication of the language and culture of the non-Hebraized Jews of Palestine. Is this the kind of climate, in which freedom, democracy, and progress can flourish? Is this not the climate, in which reactionism and chauvinism typically germinate?

Translation found here.

All people have a right to safety and security. What is happening right now in Gaza and East Jerusalem isn’t about Israeli safety or security. It is about politics. I don’t have any love for Hamas, but blaming both sides is a false equivalence. The ghettoization of Gaza is an ongoing policy and Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions have only further stoked ethnic hatred. Israelis have and will die in rocket attacks, but they have the Iron Dome system and bunkers. The Palestinians don’t. To focus on Hamas is to forget that they aren’t primarily the ones losing water, losing medical infrastructure, and dying because of these airstrikes. Palestinian children are.

If The Lost is about recovering life in a Bolechow from a time before the mobs, before the Aktionen, from a time when Shmiel Jäger wanted to live in a town where he was a big deal rather than coming to America and could go by Samuel, and from a time when Polish citizens of Bolechow sacrificed their lives to protect their neighbors, then, this week, that Bolechow seemed further away than ever.

An Israeli airstrike hits a building with apartments, offices, and international media agencies. Mahmud Hams.

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I plowed through Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand earlier today and am on the fence as to whether to write about it. On the one hand, Cohen had a number of interesting case studies in his discussion of the science of streaks. On the other, I found it much less coherent as a book than, for instance, David Epstein’s Range. It wasn’t even so much that Cohen was wrong about anything he wrote so much as that he had several different things he was working with — the math behind streaks, the psychology of how we perceive randomness, various uses of big data, and the titular “hot hand” — but a lot of the connections struck me as a stretch, such as characterizing groupings of people’s production, which tended to come in spurts, as a the product of being “hot” in the same way as a basketball player. In short, hot streaks do exist, but they’re usually misunderstood and much easier to identify after the fact than in the moment.

I haven’t decided what to read next, but am leaning toward Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman in some order.

How to Hide an Empire

I remember playing a pool game when I was young where one person chose a category and then called out options until the specific example one of the other players had secretly chosen came up. If I recall the game correctly, you then had to race that person across the pool. On this day, I chose the category “empires,” which left the other players wracking their brains trying to come up with enough empires for each to have one. There was the Roman Empire, sure, and the British Empire. Were the Aztec an empire? Maybe? Being a know-it-all at that age, I rattled off a bunch more (Inca, Mongol, Persian-Achaemenid, Parthian, etc, etc) before choosing another category.

I would not have included the United States in my list of empires. My understanding of the United States and its possessions at that time was what Daniel Immerwahr calls “the logo map.” That is, the lower 48 states with little corner cutouts for Alaska and Hawaii. I knew of other possessions at that time, including both bases and territories, but they did not register as parts of the United States. For Immerwahr, that gloss is part of the problem. From there, it is just a short hop to a sitting US congressperson referring to Guam, a US territory for longer than she has been alive, as a foreign country.

Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire is an intensely sophisticated, yet immensely readable history of the United States beyond the logo map. To do this, he offers two interlocking investigations.

First, how did the United States get colonial possessions and how were those possessions treated? Here, Immerwahr starts with the very early days of the American Republic, using Daniel Boone and the Indian removal acts to explore the imperialism that created the logo map and how those borders quickly became treated as eternal. Starting in the third chapter, though, Immerwahr sets sail beyond those territorial borders, first landing on the guano islands (literally islands buried under tons of bird droppings) that fueled 19th century industrial agriculture and later landing on Spanish territorial possessions around the world.

Suddenly, the United States had territorial possessions, just like the countries of Europe. Welcome to the club, wrote Kipling, with a heap of racism:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

However, for the United States, these possessions marked a turning point. Most of the states had begun their existence as territories that later applied for statehood. Would these new territories have the same privilege? The Philippines had millions of residents and a city in Manila nearly as large as any in the country. Just putting the territories to scale against the logo map was revealing (naturally, cartographers made a point of not doing this).

Of course the answer would be “no.” Even if the civilizing mission took, as they saw it, the people of the Philippines weren’t Americans. Some, and far more than most Americans thought, spoke English, but they weren’t white, which was itself disqualifying. But neither would the United States give up the territorial claim, which led to the brutal repression of the archipelago, including extensive use of “water torture,” a forerunner of modern water-boarding.

With this empire gained, Immerwahr sets out to tackle the second part of the book: why don’t people consider this an empire? After the second world war, the United States began to divest itself of imperial holdings. Alaska and Hawaii did indeed become states, while The Philippines became independent. The US kept most of the small islands, which it still uses to house military bases, but during this period it also expanded the global network of military bases that had developed for the purpose of fighting the war. Thus, Immerwahr argues, the United States went from being a territorial empire to being a “pointillist” one, capable of extending military power almost anywhere in the world. But the change in form only serves to hide the imperial structures of the United States.

How to Hide an Empire is not a celebration empire, and Immerwahr does not shy away from the atrocities committed in the name of civilization, but neither is it simply anti-imperial. Rather, Immerwahr aims to understand the consequences of this empire, identifying any number of social and cultural developments from birth control pills (developed in tests on Puerto Ricans) to the Beatles (coming of age in the shadow of a US military base) that are the consequences of American imperialism.

I have been meaning to read How to Hide an Empire since hearing Immerwahr talk about this research a few years ago. It does not disappoint. This is a meticulously researched book that offers a timely reconsideration of what the borders of the United States look like — so much so that I am seriously considering this as one of the book I assign when I get a chance to teach US history next year.

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I am still plugging away at writing about books I’ve read, and will at least be writing about Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire. Since the last books post went up, I have finished Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, a seven deadly sins novel that brilliantly evokes the Greek Islands. I just started C. Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.

Caste

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 might have been heralded as a the final triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, and with some reason. Millions of Americans voted for a well-spoken African American man whose middle name was Hussein, which prompted speculation that the United States had finally put to rest the ghosts of history and begun a post-racial society.

But the ghosts of history are not so neatly exorcised. President Obama was repeated lynched in effigy while white critics — including a future president of the United States — openly questioned the legality of the election on the charge that he was not an American citizen. President Obama himself charted a moderate, technocratic approach to governance that won a second term, again with historic numbers of people voting for him, even as some white people who voted for him the first time began to grumble that that he was playing the race card. Discontent has only grown in the years since President Obama left office. Celebrations of diversity and conversations about appropriation have prompted bitter accusations of bias and deep-seated identity politics being weaponized against marginalized people.

For my part, I have spent the last few years working to educate myself, particularly by reading scholarship by African Americans, including Carol Anderson’s White Rage and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. These books peel back the curtain on the painful history of race in America in ways that clearly demonstrate the historical roots of structural issues, often while providing a vocabulary to talk about race. However, they also tend to cover similar ground. What Isabel Wilkerson brings to the table in Caste, a beautiful book layered with history, reportage, and metaphor, is a big picture assessment of how structural racism works and why everyone ought to care.

The second chapter of Caste captures each of these elements. This chapter, “An Old House and an Infrared Light” begins with an extended metaphor of a housing inspector evaluating a bowing of a ceiling. “With an old house,” Wilkerson writes, “the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.” When the storm comes, your basement floods, but you can’t just ignore it because “whatever you are ignoring will never go away…ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.” The United States is this house. Whether one was there when it was built does not matter. If you live here now, it is your responsibility to deal with it.

Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but, rather, will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put up buckets under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase. The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.

At this point one might be forgiven for asking what, exactly, caste is and what it has to do with the function of race in the United States. If you have heard of caste, you probably know it as an archaism of Indian society where certain Hindu texts established a four- or five-fold social hierarchy. Brahmin (priests and teachers) were the highest caste, Kshatrya (warriors and rulers) were the second, Vaishya (farmers, traders, merchants) the third, and Shudra (labourers) the lowest formal caste. Beneath these were the Dalit (untouchables), regarded as impure. The history of the caste system is somewhat more complex in that it developed in the modern sense through the canonization of certain Brahmin texts in 19th century British India that hardened the lines of social categories. Nevertheless, the caste system in India came to be accepted as an eternal truth about social hierarchy.

Wilkerson juxtaposes this social model against the systems of the United States and Nazi Germany. The fact that Nazi Germany looked to the Jim Crow south as a model for its legal restrictions is at this point well-documented, but Wilkerson’s inclusion of India allows her to go beyond those two explicitly racial ideologies and their legal restrictions. All three developed a caste system designed to eternally reshape the social hierarchies of their populations, and thus allow her to offer a concise definition of the phenomenon:

A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis on ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.

Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race is the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.

The problem in the US, Wilkerson suggests, is that while the worst of the Jim Crow legal restrictions are gone, the caste structures remain in place. Some problems come from out and out racism, but she also offers anecdotes where the way someone treated her changed once he stopped seeing her as a black woman and started seeing her as Isabel Wilkerson — that is, as a person. This, she says, is the problem of caste. It conditions people to assume that she (as a woman, as a black person) is someone who can and should be ignored, thereby priming the environment for micro-aggressions and causing constant stress that leads to negative health consequences, to say nothing of reproducing the caste system.

Oddly enough, the instinctive desire to reject the very idea of current discrimination on the basis of a chemical compound in the skin is an unconscious admission of the absurdity of race as a concept.

I found Caste to be entirely compelling. Wilkerson simultaneously avoids pointing fingers at any one person while pointing fingers at everyone: “A caste system persists in part because we, each and everyone one of us, allow it to exist” She acknowledges in her epilogue (“A World Without Caste”) that the United States is heading toward a caste-induced identity criss that is already leading to “anticipatory fear” about the changing demographics. I often think about these fears and the ways in which they have been stoked for monetary and political gain over the past few years. Wilkerson elegantly points out that a rejection of caste will set everyone free, but when she (correctly) argues out that the only way to destroy the caste system is for everyone to reject its authority, I worry that there are too many people invested in seeing the old house come down around them for no other reason than that they believe the house is theirs and theirs alone.

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I have again reached a point of the semester where my reading of books has outstripped writing them. I still have hopes of writing about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy in some form — I liked it, but also wanted to unpack a few things in the series about belief that I found interesting — and have firm plans to write about Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, both of which are excellent. By contrast, I didn’t have nearly as much to say about Alexandros Papadiamantis’ The Murderess, a 19th century Greek novella that offers a grim commentary about the value of women…by following a bitter old woman who kills little girls. I also recently finished Boris Akunin’s The Coronation, a novel about his detective hero Fandorin who I was told was a Russian Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but who just wasn’t, and Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters, a Korean mystery centered on an assassin-for-hire who who doesn’t always follow the plots. The Plotters had several clever ideas and scenes — receiving hospitality and words of wisdom from a target, commentary about business capitalism taking over the assassin business, and perpetually under-estimated women — but it never really came together for me enough to want to write about it.

Generous Thinking

A few years ago I had a student who asked me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. She was a shoe-in. Two of the people writing letters for her were the professors she intended to work with, so I was just there to fulfill the requirement. She had taken several classes with me and done well, so I was flattered to be asked and happy to help. When orientation rolled around the next summer, my former student sent me an email to again thank me for the letter I wrote and expressed how nervous she was about the coming semester. I thanked her and gave her my best pieces of advice about graduate school.

It will seem, I said, like your peers know everything. They strut around like peacocks, name dropping scholars and theories and schools of scholarship. But this doesn’t mean that they are smarter or more prepared for graduate school than you are. Maybe they have a deep background in that topic. Maybe they restrict their comments to their particular field of research. Maybe they know just enough to name drop Foucault trusting that you won’t know enough to challenge them.

When I came to graduate school, I was the second-youngest person in my cohort. Where many of my peers had already earned MA degrees or spent years teaching, I had spent my year after graduation managing a Quiznos restaurant and desperately trying to keep my Greek fresh. I was also the only person in my cohort who studied ancient history in a program that was overwhelmingly made up of American historians. This meant that in most conversations I was on their turf.

The best thing you can do, I told my former student, is to resist the temptation to treat graduate school as a competition. Instead, approach the books you read, the classes you take, and the conversations you have with an open mind. Grad school seminars train students to strip books down to their foundations in order to critique the scholarship on everything from the framing to the evidence. These are important skills for a scholar to have, of course, but a more important skill is to understand what the author is doing. Anyone who goes to graduate school can recall an example where a person holding forth on the myriad flaws of a particular book was doing so based on a relatively minor point at best or without having read the whole book at worst.

I have seen both. At least twice I tried to discredit a book based on minor errors—the small issues might be indicative of larger problems, but it was a mistake to not first start with the bigger picture. Another time I watched as someone went on at length about how a book was invalid because it didn’t cover a particular topic…that the author covered in the section of the book that she had not read. Either way, not a good look.

Advice like what I gave to my former student lies at the heart of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. Her core thesis is that the culture of critique and obsession with prestige hierarchies has created an environment where knowledge production is treated like a competition and where tearing down others is as valuable as producing anything. The very structures of the American university system (as distinct from, for instance, community colleges) encourages this behavior:

The entire academic enterprise serves to cultivate individualism, in fact. Beginning with college applications, extending through graduate school admissions, fellowship applications, the job market, publication submissions, and, seemingly, finally tenure and promotion review, those of us on campus are subject to selection. These processes present themselves as meritocratic…in actual practice, however, those metrics are never neutral, and what we are measured against is far more often than not one another—sometimes literally.

The pressures that Fitzpatrick identifies are all exacerbated in the Age of Austerity currently because austerity means even more competition for fewer resources. However, as Fitzpatrick rightly points out, falling back on prestige hierarchies and competition is a self-defeating proposal that undermines the very project we are ostensibly setting out to pursue.

Her solution is to double down on “generosity as an enduring habit of mind, a conversational practice” (56). This means a host of things for Fitzpatrick, from developing a vocabulary of shared values to working in public to realigning the university toward community and public service, to simply learning how to listen.

In principle, I agree with everything Fitzpatrick wrote in Generous Thinking and seek to embody most of the practices.

In practice, I found Generous Thinking frustrating. The subtitle of this book promises “A Radical Approach to Saving the University.” Certainly there is a radicalism in the form of the books optimism and some of the proposals to change university policies away from those that put scholars in competition with one another, but there were times where I also found it to be missing the forest for the trees—by her own admission. Fitzpatrick admits in the preface that this is a book informed by her position at a large land-grant institution. This means a secondary focus on institutions like community colleges, but I found the blindspots to be greater than she admits.

In particular, I found framing a book as a way to save the university but then giving almost no thought to how this would affect contingent faculty shocking. That is, I endorse everything she wrote as a matter of praxis, but I wanted more acknowledgement that many people are not in a position to carry out these proposals. There is absolutely something here that contingent faculty can learn from, but I couldn’t help but feel that in her effort to work toward an academic community built on generosity Fitzpatrick had managed to largely disregard the second-class academic citizen. It isn’t that she us unaware of these problems—indeed, she mentions the jobs crisis on at least one occasion (18) — but other than (rightly, in my opinion) showing how public engagement can help catalyze stakeholders into investing in institutions, I found little meaningful consideration of either how generous thinking would change the underlying structural realities or how this would play out with overworked and underpaid contingent faculty who often already teach more classes than their full-time colleagues while also hunting for their next gig. I hope Fitzpatrick’s suggestions would make a difference and the core ideas absolutely ought to be embraced, but I nevertheless came away with the impression that this was not so much generous, as wishful thinking.

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I have a rather lot going on right now. Not only have I hit the point in the semester where I have a never-ending stream of assignments to grade, but I am also working on finishing the manuscript for my first book and keeping up with a few other research and editing projects. This means I am back to often choosing whether to spend my spare time reading or writing about the books I read. For the most part, reading wins out, though I do intend still to write about what I’ve read if at a delay (I finished Generous Thinking almost a month ago). I still intend to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire series and have since finished Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, both of which made it onto my soon-to-be-published 2021 list of favorite novels, as well as making my way through Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, which I will likely write about once I have finished the series. I am now reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an incisive look at the issue of race in America by threading together the US, India, and Nazi Germany.

Eat a Peach

David Chang’s Eat a Peach cover

David Chang is probably best known for his culinary empire Momofuku, which Wikipedia tells me includes at this point dozens of restaurants. I have only eaten at one, the dessert-themed Milk Bar in Washington DC. In Eat a Peach Chang readily admits that everything else that he does—this memoir, his cookbook, Ugly Delicious, and a dozen other endeavors—are designed to put butts in those seats. At least under normal circumstances since, like so many food establishments, Momofuku’s business has been entirely upended by COVID-19.

Eat a Peach, written with Gabe Ulla, is thus an advertisement for Momofuku that puts Chang and his theories of deliciousness front and center. Obviously, food is everywhere—Chang is a chef and his public persona on shows like Ugly Delicious filters the world through food-colored glasses as an heir to the late Tony Bourdain.

But what particularly stood out to me about this memoir is how it is a study in binaries.

Eat a Peach is divided into two parts. Its first half is a roughly linear narrative of his upbringing in a Korean-American household, his successes with golf that helped get him into Georgetown Prep and subsequent flameout of the sport, and his brief period working in finance, before finally getting to his entry into the restaurant industry. Chang readily admits that he was not good at being a chef, which makes his decision to found Momofuku in 2004 and his chance partnership with Quino Baca—the first and only employee at the Noodle Bar when it opened—even more of a radical gamble.

Chang writes about Momofuku like it is a revolutionary movement. There was a vision behind the original Noodle Bar, yes, but there was also a willingness to overhaul the entire menu when things weren’t working. The employees worked in cadres that participated in a company-wide email list with one objective: how to make their product more delicious. As the company grew and expanded, they formed new cells that oversaw Momofuku Ssām Bar and the Milk Bar.

Woven through this narrative is reflection on mental illness and depression (Chang is bipolar) that manifested in self-destructive tendencies such as drug use and overwork.

These themes come more thoroughly to the fore in the second half of Eat a Peach where Chang tells stories from a time after Momofuku and his public persona had become fixtures of the food world. Food and the restaurants still feature, but in more complicated ways.

For instance, in part one, Chang wraps the reader up in the energy and chaos of starting a restaurants—fights with critics and inspectors, problems of staffing, and the thrill of designing the most delicious menu—that captures difficulties, but also sees the enterprise with rose-colored glasses.

By contrast, Chang takes an introspective turn in part two. His ideals remain the same, but now he interrogates where his instinctive “fuck-you” attitude came from, who it is directed toward, and its relationship to his mental health. He talks about his experience with an executive coach who helped him see both how special the thing he created was and how his behavior caused those around him, including customers and staff, to live in fear of his anger. Far from leading a food revolution to bring high-end food to the masses, Chang realized that he was leading a cult. Followers were expected to give up their personal lives and commit their entire beings to the restaurant.

Ultimately, Eat a Peach is a reflection on growth—of the Momofuku empire, yes, but also personal growth in a way that I found particularly satisfying. There were times that Chang’s story resonated a bit too much (my anxiety manifests in a tendency toward overwork as well), but what elevates this memoir for me was how Chang works to de-center himself. He talks lovingly about his wife Grace, his son, and how they learned of her pregnancy the day after his close friend Tony Bourdain died. He lavishly distributes praise for Momofuku’s success. He talks endlessly about his long-standing relationship with his therapist. But more than all of that, I appreciated how Chang talks openly about his mistakes and blindspots, whether in cavalierly dismissing the chefs of California or contributing to a kitchen culture that was hostile to women, and that he acknowledges that talk only goes so far. Proof comes in the form of actions, and it is no coincidence that the cover art is meant to evoke Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.

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I’m still making my way through a backlog of books I want to write about, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Planet Taco

In the fall of 2016, a co-founder of Latinos for Trump went on MSNBC and warned:

My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The comment came in the midst of a contentious election and was meant to conjure images of a flood of immigrants from Latin America that would scare the sorts of people for whom Ron Swanson’s skepticism about ethnic food was no joke:

Ron Swanson: "I don't much go for ethnic food."
Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec 3.2, “Flu Season”

For most of the people I know, this sounded like a promise and we’re still waiting.

Jeffrey Pilcher’s book Planet Taco unfortunately predates this political context. Instead, it tackles a different, but no less contentious, issue: what even is Mexican food?

Pilcher’s argument, at its most basic, is that authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist. Or rather, that any claim to authenticity is fundamentally a political statement.

The book opens with an introduction, “A Tale of Two Tacos.” The one of those is a Mexican street taco made fresh on the spot off the beaten path in a small Sonoran city, served with beer and with some lawn chairs as a dining room. The second is a Taco Bell taco, served off a production line into pastel-colored dining facilities at about the same price point.

To ask which of these two is more authentic, Pilcher argues, is to miss the point. As much as authenticity is meant to appeal to a particular sort of identity, it also creates that identity and, ultimately, serves as a marketing buzzword. Pilcher’s core contention, therefore, is that “Mexican food” is actually a range of regional cuisines in and around the modern nation-state of Mexico. These regional dishes might have overlapping flavor profiles and some common ingredients, but they are the product of distinct historical, environmental and technological processes (including immigration) that gave rise to distinct traditions that are each as authentic as the next.

This is the sort of history that I eat up (pun intended). Pilcher punctuates each chapter with contemporary recipe cards for the recipes that he’s talking about, and covering topics as diverse as nixtamalization, the process designed to counteract the nutritional deficits of maize, to the invention of the hardshell taco and the spread of Mexican restaurants in the United States and around the world.

I will admit that I am geared to be sympathetic to Pilcher’s core arguments. While I cannot speak necessarily to the specific details of how these regional cuisines came into existence, the appreciation of the regionality of individual cuisines and lending to each of those an authenticity of their own was a welcome pushback against the impulse that identifies and canonizes a single original, using that to discredit all other comers. As Pilcher rightly points out, this impulse becomes particularly toxic when it becomes bound up with a particular national project that normalizes the group in power and is used to further marginalize everyone who dose not conform.

Naturally, things become even more complex in a country like the United States that both has “-mex” traditions and where there is a long history of people from one tradition cooking and owning restaurants that purport to serve cuisines that are not their own.

All of this to say, I really liked Planet Taco. It is an academic history book so its tone might be a little esoteric for some readers, but it also gave me a lot of food for thought, as well as a new appreciation for one of my favorite restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of years.

Two summers ago my partner and I had just finished an exceedingly hot day at the Kansas City Zoo and just wanted some food before crashing into our air-conditioned hotel room and be ready for a flight the next morning. We settled on going to Ixtapa, a restaurant in a strip mall on the north side of the city (it now has a second location in Overland Park). We drove around the parking lot a couple of times to get a spot and then had to wait as they finished up an early dinner rush, but soon enough were seated and handed menus. We had barely started to look when a man—the owner, it turned out—came over to ask us if we knew what we wanted.

Guacamole, we said, as an appetizer while we looked at the menu.

I don’t know what he saw in us or what was going on in the kitchen, but he immediately responded, “No, no, no. You don’t want guacamole.”

We stole a glance at each other, but he continued “our guacamole is great, but you can get guacamole anywhere in this country. I’ll serve you.” He grabbed the menus, making some more jokes about generic Mexican food and asking what we wanted to drink.

At this point I stopped him with some dietary restrictions and preferences, which he received with perfect calm and began bringing us food. First he brought quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom quesadillas), followed by mains of enchiladas nopales (cactus) and a pork special with a raspberry chipotle sauce.

After a while we got to chatting with him and it turned out that this was his restaurant and he was immensely proud of the recipe that he put on the menu. We had managed to avoid some of his favorite dishes, I think, because I’m not wild about seafood, which was something of his speciality, or at least composes the largest single section of the menu. Sure, there the menu has basic Mexican fare, including cheese nachos, but such is the restaurant business. What made Ixtapa special were all of the dishes you can’t find at every taco joint and the clear pride he had in the cuisine of his specific region.

I love generic tacos, too, and have fond memories of finding a fabulous hole in the wall in south Houston for exactly that purpose, and one of my favorite spots in Columbia, Missouri is a Korean taco fusion joint, but each of these examples speaks exactly to the point that Pilcher makes in Planet Taco. Food is an expression of culture that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the people who are making and consuming it. Rather than indulging in the authenticity wars that use it as a cudgel, let’s celebrate the wide range of possibilities and indulge in the deliciousness of them all.

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Book reviews had been a staple of my content here for a few years because it made for an easy writing prompt and gave me a chance to collect my thoughts on each book. One of the consequences of trying to teach during a pandemic is that I entirely got away from writing those reviews such that I wrote about fewer than a third of the books I read between September and the end of the year and none of the books I have plowed through so far in 2021. I doubt that I will get back to where I write about every book I read—I have too much other writing I need to do, not to mention teaching, and only have so much brain power these days—but in fits and starts and modified ways, I intend to get back to writing about books.

On my list to write about in the near future include: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; Yoon Ha Lee’s series The Machineries of Empire, and John Le Carré’s Absolute Friends, and David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach. I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Generous Thinking.