Psychology, polarization and an unusual amount of fiction
Against Empathy, Paul Bloom
Unsurprisingly, the title is pure marketing, and the actual content rather tame by comparison. Some of his quibbles are definitional, but I read him mostly as saying that empathy is a rather specialized device from our emotional toolbox, rather than a versatile multi-tool. Here’s why he thinks overreliance on it is dangerous:
Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased […] shortsighted, […] innumerate, […] corrosive.
The rest of the book props this up with psychological studies and evidence from neuroimaging studies, and does so in a very solid way that I find hard to argue with. So while maybe not pathbreaking, I appreciate the clear exposition and no-nonsense attribute (“an obsessive concern with unintended consequences is just an excuse for selfishness and apathy”). The thing that actually surprised me most from his descriptions was to realize how little I tend to emphasize on a day-to-day level. I don’t think of myself as a particularly cold or uncaring person, but very rarely do I literally try to put myself in somebody else’s shoes and try to see things their way. And yet, the positive connotations that the concept of empathy carries run so deep that I used to think of myself as emphatic. Is this unusual?
L’Arabe Du Futur 5, Riad Sattouf
This is latest volume in the series, with number 6 (apparently the final one?) due to appear in late 2022. Honestly I feel it’s on a downward spiral: Volumes 1 and 2 were excellent, 3 and 4 already less so and now it seems to be just more of the same, to the point where I’d be happy to skip any sequel still in the making.
Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.
Written in the aftermath of the killing of Eric Garner by NYPD officers, Coates’ personal reflections describe an America in which, many years after slavery was abolished and segregation ended, racial animosity is still so deeply baked into society that Blacks have to constantly fear for their very lives, which could be eradicated by a simple mistake, and stipulates that this is the way things will always remain. Coates is a fine stylist, and many of his stories got me thinking if I’m not too dismissive of that attitude, lacking the lived experience. His very Foucauldian way of constantly talking about black bodies instead of persons has the odd effect of making the referred seems less like individuals and more like objects, which I felt was a strange choice? And while I applaud his attempts to apply the median voter theorem to society at large, as exemplified by the above quote, I think many of his arguments are overstated, if not factually wrong, and his insistence that Blacks give up on the American dream (“a dangerous illusion”, but that criticism is by now even more cliché than the original idea) are disappointing.
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
Heller’s admirable(?) achievement is that of having written a book which became much more famous than its author. (Its English Wikipedia page is more than twice as long as Heller’s at the time of this writing, and hardly anyone knows, much less has read, any of his subsequent novels.) Overall, I didn’t like it too much, especially his reliance on paradoxes as elements of style — the idea got repetitive quickly, and most of them, I fear, are just silly. A case in point would be the syndicate created and nourished by the squadron’s mess officer, whose unusual methods of profit-seeking includes such acts as supplying the Germans with materials to bomb the his very own encampment. This may be just my personal preference, but I tend to find satire more powerful and subversive when it’s subtle, whereas Heller’s rendering of the military-industrial complex is unlikely to shake anyone’s worldview.
And of course the idea of a catch-22 much predates Heller! Among the most famous ones, Carl Zuckmayer’s Hauptmann von Koepenick, published in 1931, offers one of many variations on the same theme.
From Bacteria To Bach And Back, Daniel Dennett
I couldn’t get myself to finish this one, and I wonder how others manage to. Dennett is really unpleasant to read: annoyingly pedagogical (not to say condescending), meandering instead of getting to the point, all interspersed with personal anecdotes that seem to add little to nothing to his narrative. (Another reviewer called it “infuriating […], too long, repetitive, indulgently digressive and self-referential”, and I don’t think that’s exactly unfair.) After about one-fourth through, I was still unable to say what precisely Dennett intended to do with this book, besides the very general aim of trying to provide a naturalistic explanation for the emergence of minds.
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s stories are known for their complexity and their tendency to fall apart, two reasons why they tend to be bought much more often than actually read. GR is no doubt the most famous of them, and quite a tour de force, impressing in both width and breadth. But as with virtuoso musicians, one can admire their craftsmanship, technical skills, even their creativity, without being much enthralled by the art they produce. How does Pynchon fare?
I hasten to given a definite reply. Personally and because I unreasonably opted for the audiobook version, a major challenge was just keeping track of the characters, their roles and relations to each other. You may want to consult this study guide, as I did, to catch up or refresh your memory. Second, the less you try to “make sense of it”, the more you’re likely to enjoy it — many of the novel’s vignettes shine even in isolation. Third, it seems to be just that kind of book that grows upon rereading, which for now I’m not intending to do. I’m glad I didn’t let myself discourage by the many reverential reviews, as the universe Pynchon constructs is a rather unique one. But recommend it? Tough call.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks
So I’m of course not a neurologist, and maybe I should be more careful in my judgement, but seriously — this book is seriously outdated, and feels like it already was back in 1985, when it was published. It contains an inexcusable amount of psychoanalysis, levels of adulation that may be acceptable in a festschrift, but would seems bizarre even there (such as when by now largely forgotten practitioners are described as “endlessly thoughtful and ingenious”). He also tries to sell seemingly trivial insights (that neurological impairment may arise from deficits as well as hyperfunction) as somehow revelatory. Overall I fail to understand why the book was met with such widespread acclaim.
The Infidel And The Professor, Dennis Rasmussen
A fun read from the “history of thought” genre that I find entertaining, even though I ultimately fail to understand how invested some people become in the exegesis of the ancients. The two central characters are the the 18th century’s most famous Scots, David Hume and Adam Smith, and the plot is mostly concerned with their unusually deep friendship. The bottom line is that their mutual influence is often overlooked, and that Hume’s contribution to economics, as well as Smith’s forays into philosophy, tend to be underestimated.
Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
Of course this is a popular teen book, or at least widely regarded as such, although less and less so because kids would pick it up by themselves. In any case I somehow managed not to read it during my high school days, and so — keeping in mind that Golding is actually a Nobel laureate! — decided to give it a try. Maybe I’m already too old for it now, but even conditional on that I found it rather disappointing. If the setup is already oddly unrealistic — how would these boys have gotten to their island in the first place, randomly flying to the other side of the globe? Why was none of them injured, while there were no adult survivors? and so on — it doesn’t become more credible later on. At times it reads like a supercharged version of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, without any of its plausibility. When it comes to moralizing, the book does not have to fear comparison to Victorian classics, and on top of that there’s also a veritable deus ex machina ending…
Le Petit Nicolas, René Goscinny
I loved the book and re-read it multiple times as a kid (in German back then), and so when I came across a copy in the original language by chance, I was curious to see how well it would hold up. It was rather amazing to see how many stories I still remembered! Nicolas was written between 1956 and 1965 and would fail a diversity screening with flying colors (the most exotic character is a British kid who, predictably, picks up much faster on the insults than anything else during his only day in class) but apart from that, it has aged rather well and still has me laughing out loud at times.
The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck, Mark Manson
Okay, nothing too subtle in here, except perhaps that Mr Manson seems to give enough of a fuck about the sensibilities of readers and publishers to have the title half-assedly censored on the cover. Oh well.
In terms of content… Manson is riding the Tim Ferriss wave, offering “brutally honest” advice how to live a better life. Some of it is sound but trite — pick your battles carefully — , some is outright silly, and everything is stated without a shred of doubt. I am not sure the author is fully aware of the hidden irony (there’s a chapter on how you’re almost always wrong), and for someone writing about how accepting that you’re not as important as you may think, he is comically self-centered. How does something like this sell 8 million copies, and counting? (I didn’t buy mine.) Do we need these obnoxious reminders from time to time, to avoid getting stuck in our settled ways?
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
A few unhinged white supremacists aside, we fortunately live in an era where we no longer need public awareness campaigns to convince people of the inhumanity of slavery. If anything, the topic has been belabored so extensively that one may wonder what more there remains to be said of it. Even so, it has been more than 150 years that this horrendous institution was formally abolished in the US, and with the passage of time there’s a risk of romanticism creeping in —sugar-coated versions of history casting slaves happily singing songs in the fields while picking cotton. There is, then, a case to be made not just in favor of refreshing the facts in our collective memory, but also to re-imagine the reality behind the gruesome statistics. And at that, The Underground Railroad succeeds terrifically.
Whitehead’s book takes its name from a clandestine coalition of abolitionists and former slaves with the explicit goal of freeing Blacks from their plantations in the South. Contrary to what the moniker suggests, this was not so much a system of trains operating in secret tunnels as a network of safe houses and conductors that mainly worked its way above the ground. A gripping read no doubt, even more because of the constantly looming threat of disaster than the actual violence — on every page, there’s a feeling that whatever little freedom or piece of mind the protagonists have managed to secure may be taken away the very next moment.
White Noise, Don DeLillo
A strange novel. Often described as a witty attack on consumerism, it is so consistently over the top that it’s hard to say whether something is intended as satirizing a real event or behavior, or it’s just elements of absurdity thrown in for good measure. It was fun to read but certainly not among my top ten.
Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein
There’s something intriguing about Klein, of all people, writing a book on polarization. True to his ways, it is extremely measured, reasonable to a fault, and of course heavily centered around the US. Someone on the internet suggests that he views people who disagree with him as “misinformed or misguided in ways that are generally trivial to him but hardly cognizable to them”, and it’s difficult not to feel the same way about his first book.
The main thesis (which I’m not sure holds up well when looking at the phenomenon in a global context) is that Americans used to be more united because Southern Democrats had to pander to predominantly racist views of their electorate, and thus unity was achieved at the price of injustice. Over time, following the (relative) demographic decline of whites everywhere, such a strategy lost much of its appeal, and both parties became increasingly better sorted along ideological lines. As an example, consider that there are almost twice as many independents today compared to 60 years ago, but these independent tend to vote more reliably for on of the two parties than the partisans two generations ago.
Of course Klein makes some good points, and the research that went into the book looks more than solid. Even so, I think there are two major shortcomings that ultimately outweigh the many rational counterpoints to the hysterical culture war narrative. The first — and this seems to be a common thread in all his work — is the attempt to convey the impression of being an impartial, objective observer, when both the angle from which events are presented, and the potential solutions he outlines, lean heavily left of center. [In one almost comical passage, he suggests automatic increases in government spending in times of high employment as a possible cure for increasing partisanship.] The second is his rhetorical sleight of hand when discussing identity politics: While it is true that attributing this tactic only to the extremist fringes is too narrow-minded, he seems, in essence, to be saying, that “all politics is identity politics”, because politics is fundamentally about trying to enforce the goals of some interest group. It would take too much space to attempt to refute this point here, so let me just highlight that the tendency to think of politics as a savage battle for control fought by ever more rigid coalitions, rather than a continuous process to ensure peacefully coexistence in an imperfect world inhabited by people with at time diametrically opposed worldviews, is a very dangerous trend.