Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
As we go into the month of December, the winds start to blow, the snow starts to fall, and the cold begins to set in, it’s no better a time during the year to crack open a book to catch up on some reading. The three books I’ve read at this time and am highlighting in this ‘Book Recommendations’ post focus on current events. I tend to stay away from politics but these books do a good job of reflecting upon the political moment we are living in here in the United States.
All three of these books come from authors who have a wealth of life experiences and are considered to be experts in what they do. If you’re not into non-fiction books, you may want to skip these ones but if you want to understand more about the United States in 2017, you should give each of these books a honest read.
1. The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward G. Luce is an excellent take on the current state of liberal democracy in Western countries. Due to growing income inequality, the failure of institutions to handle complex issues involving immigration, health care, infrastructure, etc. causes more and more citizens to doubt the benefits of the current democratic system. Luce pulls no punches and does a good job summarizing the pressing problems that ail the United States and Western Europe.
While not the cause of these problems that have been building up for decades, Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties throughout Europe are symptoms of a virus that is weakening the fundamentals of liberalism. For every action, there is a reaction and the negligence shown by political and economic elites in the Western world has caused there to be a backlash against our system of governance. Luce believes that there has been a lot of doing away with the principles that made democracy work for the past couple of centuries. In the 21st century, the current political system has not adapted to technological, economic, and social changes that have occurred at a quickening pace. Unless more attention is paid to those men and women not succeeding in today’s globalized economy, there will continue to be political dysfunction within the democratic system.
Unless the Western countries can guarantee that political liberties and freedoms can go hand in hand with an economic system that works for the many and not the few, the status quo will not last. Mr. Luce is not hesitant in using the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines to draw a distinct parallel as to an alternative form of government that is becoming more prominent. The Western system used to be an example of good governance to the rest of the world but is that still the case today?
2. Tribe by Sebastian Junger deals more with modern psychology than modern politics but you can gain a lot of insight into what drives us as human beings from reading this book. Mr. Junger is a war correspondent that has covered the front lines for over a decade in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From his experiences, he was able to form the hypothesis that there are certain living conditions that bring out the best of us. When a person is surrounded by the members of the same ‘tribe’, usually about 20-30 people, who he or she has something in common with and for whom survival is not guaranteed but fought for every day, that goes back to our early days on the planet as hunter-gatherers.
Mr. Junger makes excellent points throughout the book that we started out thousands of years ago as a communal society moving from place to place and relying on each other to survive against the elements and against other creatures. He argues consistently that we may do best when we work with each other instead of against each other for a common goal or purpose. The alienation, individualism, and me-first culture in modern Western societies is out of line with our evolutionary history and may be the cause of the mental illnesses and anxieties that have been shown to be on the rise. Combat veterans who come home from war often miss the bonds of brotherhood that were formed from fighting for the guy or girl on the left or the right of you. They often miss the bonds created during battle that are impossible to recreate after re-entry into modern society.
The author uses an example from early American history when some English settlers would leave the colonial towns to join the Indian society, which was exactly like the tribal lifestyle, and the reverse would never be the same. There were no Indians who would leave their tribe to join the English settlers in their more modern colony set-up. In tribal communities where everybody has a say and where everybody has a role to play, it’s easy to make the argument that there would be less stress, less anxiety, and more purpose for those apart of it. Mr. Junger also brings up the example of Great Britain’s citizens during World War II and how only adversity would bring that modern society together.
A lot of Britons felt more patriotic and more cooperative each other during the war than compared to before and after the war. Adversity, struggle, and the fight for survival can be more meaningful to people than the safe and sanitized existences that make up the modern West. The time spent living through natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can stir up people’s memories more than the average vacation or wedding. Tribe is an excellent, must-read book that pulls different elements of history, anthropology, and sociology to make a compelling argument that the average person should think deeply about.
3. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen is not your average American history book. Mr. Andersen spends about 500 pages summing up 500 years of American history through the lens of what’s fantasy and what’s real. Fantastical thinking, Andersen argues, has been apart of American culture since the first pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In order to understand what’s going on in the America of 2017, he does a good job of bringing out examples from past centuries to explain how we got to this unique point in our history.
The ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and other fantastical phrases that have become part of the national dialect are not outlandish in the sense that they have always been apart of the national character. Citing examples such as the extremes of Puritan beliefs, the Salem witch trials, P.T. Barnum and show business, the anything-goes ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960’s, the spread of Hollywood and celebrity culture, etc., each century in America has brought about new fantasies to become part of the national fabric.
The individualistic nature of American culture has led to dreamers, believers, and magical thinkers being indulged rather than the other way around as done in other countries. The idea that you can be whom you want and believe what you want in America has become a national rallying cry, especially in recent decades. Our belief in the stuff of fantasy (ghosts, extraterrestrials, is the Earth flat?) has made America an international outlier among the industrialized nations.
Mr. Andersen argues that with the rise of Donald Trump and the excessive polarization along cultural and political fault lines that we may have hit a point of no return. The lines of fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred whereas in our past, fantasy and reality were competing ideas in American society but never overtook each other to reign supreme. An amazing and timely non-fiction book that is an easy page-turner, Fantasyland is a must-read in 2017 and will help you understand how we Americans ended up here over the span of centuries.
Camera: iPhone 6
Location: Massachusetts State House; Boston, Massachusetts
One of the great classic American films of the 20th century, The Godfather, directed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola and based off of the novel of the same title by Mario Puzo is often considered to be the most influential film that created the ‘organized crime’ or mafia/gangster genre in cinemas.
Since its’ release in theaters in 1972, it has garnered a cult following among fans who led to ‘The Godfather’ becoming a trilogy with Parts Two and Three both released in following years. Because of its significance culturally and historically, the Library of Congress preserved it in the United States National Film Registry in 1990. Because of its success at the box office and with film critics alike, ‘The Godfather’ garnered many Academy Award nominations and won four Academy Awards including ‘Best Actor’ for Marlon Brando and ‘Best Picture’.
In addition to adding to the legendary career of Brando, ‘The Godfather’ also introduced to Hollywood a young Al Pacino and a very talented Robert Duvall. Both men would have extremely successful careers in American film but I believe that it was ‘The Godfather’ which helped catapult their early careers into noteworthy stardom.
Drawing parallels to the real life ‘Five Families’ of New York that dominated the Italian mafia during the 20th century, the fictional Corleone family, led by Don Vito Corleone, is highlighted as being the ‘pariah’ and at odds with the other crime families throughout the film. Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, acts like the quintessential mob boss whose cunning and intellect has made him to this day a very quotable character that has become apart of American popular culture.
In The Godfather, we see Vito nearing the end of his reign as boss of the family and looking for his eventual successor. Vito has three sons: Sonny, the oldest whose lack of foresight and hotheaded temper makes him a liability albeit is the favorite initially to replace Vito as Don of the Corleone family. Fredo is the middle child and is a consistent womanizer. Considered neither to be reliable nor intelligent, Fredo is kept to the side often and is not a suitable person to lead the family due to his lack of cunning and intellect. Michael, a U.S. Army Veteran and the youngest child of Vito Corleone is portrayed as being very innocent and often has requested to be kept out of the family business if he can avoid it.
However, as the viewers of the film can understand and interpret, a mafia family reels everyone in to its business whether or not it’s intentional. One of the best aspects of The Godfather is watching the changes in Michael’s behavior and demeanor as extenuating circumstances involving the family forces his hand and he is forced to take on more responsibilities and duties as a Corleone and the son of Vito. His loss of innocence and the transformation that occurs with Michael from dignified U.S. Army Veteran to cunning, ruthless Mafia boss is a great strength of this timeless film.
For those critics who are against violent Mafia films and choose not to watch them, that is fine but it should be considered that there is more to this movie than meets the eye. Above all else, it is the story of a father trying to repent for the sins of the past and trying to keep his sons from avoiding the same mistakes that he has made.
The relationship between Vito and his son, Michael in particular is memorable for how Vito expects so much from Michael considering he is the most levelheaded and intelligent of the Corleone brothers. There is one great scene in the film where Vito and Michael are discussing the ongoing drama of the war between “The Five Families.” Vito laments to Michael on how he is sorry that he was thrust into the mafia business when he expected his son instead to become “Governor Corleone” or “Mayor Corleone.” Michael simply looks at his father lovingly, and says: “We’ll get there, pop. We’ll get there.”
Other classic scenes that I enjoyed involve the courtship between Michael and a beautiful Sicilian woman named Apollonia. What I liked most was highlighting the very old-school dating process of asking Apollonia’s father for permission to date and then later marry his daughter with all respect given. It’s a touching moment in the film, which reveals that Michael’s humanity has not been totally wiped out because of the mafia. It was also great of Director Coppola to show the traditional procession of the Sicilian wedding and how all of the townspeople were involved in wishing Michael and Apollonia well.
Without trying to spoil the rest of the film for those of you readers who haven’t watched The Godfather yet, I can’t recommend it enough to avid movie fans. The directing by Francis Ford Coppola, the cinematography, the acting performances by Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, etc. are phenomenal and they deserved every heap of credit that was bestowed upon them at the Oscars and elsewhere.
The Godfather is simply more than just a mafia film in my opinion. It is a story about a complex family, fathers and sons, human nature, and the thirst for power and respect. Have an open mind and see this film if you get the chance. I promise that you won’t regret it even if the running time is three hours in total. You can always tell your friends and family that I wrote a blog post that you couldn’t refuse to read.
If you are a young American thinking about what to do next with your life after finishing high school or college, and you’re interested in serving greater causes than your own personal goals and pursuits, you should seriously consider becoming a volunteer. You may have your own preferences when it comes to serving but what matters is that you choose to do something to give back to those in your country and those around the world who are less fortunate than yourself. Your career goals, your family, and even your friends will understand if you choose to put things on hold for a few years, especially if you’re in your 20s still. You may like your volunteer service so much that you choose to make a career out of it too.
Currently, in the United States, a country which continues to be divided more and more along political and economic fault lines, I think it is vital that young Americans choose to put their differences aside and contribute to bettering their country or the wider world in some measurable way. Volunteering or serving a community can help you to become a better person and a better citizen. There are many options out there if you decide to take the leap and apply for some programs. Not only will you be doing good for a school, a community, a city, etc., you will be helping your own future out with the experience, knowledge, and skills that you will gain from the type of service you commit to.
Contrary to popular belief, joining the Military, while a very noble and brave pursuit, is not the only way to serve one’s country or community. There are many other options for those of us in the United States. The most popular volunteer programs include AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, CommunityHealth Corps, Teach for America, City Year, FEMA Corps, etc. Those are some of the most well-known and reputable organizations and agencies that have successfully made in a difference in the lives of thousands of people both in the United States and around the world. Besides these national programs, there is also thousands of other more local and community-based volunteer service organizations located in different towns and cities across America. While the options to serve are out there in global, national, and local settings, most young people do not commit to any type of service after college and choose instead to go into the private sector and begin their careers right away.
While the number of applications number in the thousands and continue to grow for service programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps, there are not nearly enough spots available for all the young people who would like to serve but can’t due to a lack of funding or not enough spaces for them. Demand is not the overall issue when it comes to the issue of national service but rather the supply. Less than 1% of the American population currently serves in the Military and while other national service programs enroll tens of thousands of volunteers and the competition to get accepted is intense, only 25% of adult Americans are known have served in some capacity, which is quite a low number when you think about it.
Senator John McCain of Arizona and U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal recently wrote an excellent Op-Ed article for CNN where they also argued for an expansion of choices and options when it comes to national service for young Americans. They both believe that this issue is non-partisan and should be heartily agreed upon by both political parties and the American public as well. They go on to discuss the idea of a year or more of mandatory national service in order to foster a greater sense of citizenship, mutual investment, and commitment among young people for the country and the world. I agree with their sentiment wholeheartedly.
While there are a great amount of people my age who commit a few years in their 20’s to public and national service, many of my fellow citizens do not have the chance to or do not want to. Mandating a year or two of national service for all American citizens after college or high school would be an excellent policy idea and would be a great benefit to institutions like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, etc. Creating the opportunity for every young American to give back to their community and country is a noble endeavor and can only help the future rather than hinder it.
Overall trust in the American government, national institutions, and even other citizens are at all-time lows. Expanding opportunities for young Americans to serve would be a great way to begin to restore that faith and confidence in our civil society, and to rebuild that national fabric that holds us together as one people. Recent legislative efforts like the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps have been great in expanding national service in certain ways by increasing AmeriCorps membership by 250,000 volunteers per year and focusing on putting more resources towards improving our national parks and forests respectively.
However, none of the legislation thus far has gone far enough to make at least one year of national service mandatory for every citizen and to provide enough opportunities and programs available to make it a feasible commitment. I would hope that the next President and Congress will strive to involve more young people in building a better America and a better world. One or more years of national service from millions of young Americans would make such a positive and sizable impact on the country as a whole. It would be definitely worth the money it would take to make this public policy idea a reality.
As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”
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