Happy Sunday, dear friends! Here are my reading recommendations for this weekend and the up-coming weeks on
1. When demagogues, populists, and authoritarians lead many countries we need voices who remind us of the importance of tolerance, compromise, and moderation – like the late Isaiah Berlin whose birthday we celebrated last week. His masterful 1994 NY Review of Books essay "A message to the 21st century" is well worth a read 24 years after its publication:
"We must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals...The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking..."
2. The current American president is not the first political leader of a country with a hot temper, a disregard for facts, and a lack of humility. Germany’s last Kaiser, Willhelm II, who ruled from 1888 to 1918, is another point in case. Miranda Carter provides a fascinating portrait and a chilling analysis in the New Yorker:
"Wilhelm’s touchiness, his unpredictability, his need to be acknowledged: these things struck a chord with elements in Germany, which was in a kind of adolescent spasm—quick to perceive slights, excited by the idea of flexing its muscles, filled with a sense of entitlement. At the same time, Wilhelm’s posturing raised tensions in Europe. His clumsy personal diplomacy created suspicion. His alliance with the vitriolic right and his slavish admiration for the Army inched the country closer and closer to war."
3. The Economist points a dark picture of the future of surveillance and points out the potential for big data and artificial Intelligence to be misused by both authoritarian and democratic governments:
"Between freedom and oppression stands a system to seek the consent of citizens, maintain checks and balances on governments and, when it comes to surveillance, set rules to restrain those who collect and process information. But with data so plentiful and easy to gather, these protections are being eroded. Privacy rules designed for the landline phone, postbox and filing cabinet urgently need to be strengthened for the age of the smartphone, e-mail and cloud computing."
4. Robinson Meyer (the Atlantic) reports on a potential breakthrough in the fight against climate change: sucking CO2 right out of the atmosphere. Exciting!
"A team of scientists ... announced ... that they have found a method to cheaply and directly pull carbon-dioxide pollution out of the atmosphere... Their research ... suggests that people will soon be able to produce gasoline and jet fuel from little more than limestone, hydrogen, and air. It hints at the eventual construction of a vast, industrial-scale network of carbon scrubbers, capable of removing greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere."
5. This is an essay for all of us. Why is reading important and more than just a pastime? Ceridwen Dowey provides a thoughtful analysis in the New Yorker:
"In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book 'splits us into two parts as we read,' for 'the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,' while promising 'perpetual union' with another mind."
6. Gabriel Winant (New Republic) reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, in which she criticises the futile attempt of the baby-boomer generation to master our bodies and ultimately fend-off death:
"As the boomers have aged, denial of death, [Ehrenreich] argues, has moved to the center of American culture, and a vast industrial ecosystem has bloomed to capitalize on it. [She] finds a fixation on controlling the body, encouraged by cynical and self-interested professionals in the name of 'wellness.' Without opposing reasonable, routine maintenance, Ehrenreich observes that the care of the self has become a coercive and exploitative obligation: a string of endless medical tests, drugs, wellness practices, and exercise fads that threaten to become the point of life rather than its sustenance."
7. Two weeks ago, novelist Philip Roth passed away. Vox’s Ezra Klein reflects on the sad relevance of Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel "Plot Against America"m in which Roth conjured up a scary parallel trajectory of US history culminating in a fascist take-over of the US in the late 1930s:
"The great power of The Plot Against America is its restraint. Roth’s Lindbergh is a far more credible candidate than our Trump. He is calm and convincing, eloquent and careful... He builds a world we can imagine inhabiting, a demagogue we can imagine electing. Then he watches it all unfold through the eyes of a Jewish child — a child whose nightmares return, whose family turns on itself, whose sense of safety is shattered; a child whose alarm manifests in ways instantly familiar to anyone reading the stories of immigrant children today."