Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

The Why of Standards

How do we define standards? What exactly do they mean to our society and the world as a whole? See, the thing about standards is that if they are not observed by everyone to some degree than what would be the point of having them in the first place. Having standards when it comes to behavior, dress, professionalism, ethics, etc. helps society to function and for people to live productive and healthy lives. Without having standards or not being beholden to anyone else will create a society of winner-take-all or every man or every woman for themselves, which is not only counterproductive but also self-destructive in the long run.

As defined by Dictionary.com, A ‘standard’ is defined as “something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; or an approved model.” It’s a general definition but you can see that creating a standard requires the consent of the society at large. Standards can be difficult or easy to enforce depending on how popular they are but the total absence of standards in different areas of life should be fought against as much as possible. Everybody has different standards but the key to keep in mind is whether a lack of standards or a complete abandonment of standards is making the local community or overall society worse off as a result.

We don’t think about it but basic standards helps create laws, rules, and regulations that keep society running well. When there are no standards in anything whether its’ with business, politics, dress, the environment, etc. then every individual man, woman, and child will suffer in some regard as a result. Another thing to keep in mind is that a lack of standards or standards that are burdensome and counterproductive also cause harm to us as well.

Standards change over time but there are certain ideals and beliefs that I think should stand the test of time. By this I mean that basic manners and politeness should always be observed, presenting yourself well in your outer dress and appearance depending on the setting is crucial, and that you add with basic integrity, decency, and honesty when doing business or leading as a member of your community. Standards over time for these particular areas should not change and should even become stronger so that the next generations do not forget how to act, behave, and be good.

Standards can be relaxed in a number of areas or they can be hardened in other areas depending upon the mood and whims of the larger society but those areas I listed above should be consistent and not be trifled with. When basic manners, integrity, and matters of presenting become optional rather than mandatory, it’s likely that the entire society will feel the ill effects of such an absence of standards rather quickly. Fundamentally, systemic societal issues such as corruption, violence, and poverty, which while they have a wide range of causes are still related to an absence of moral and behavioral standards.

In a free society, standards can most definitely change and be adapted to fit to the times but it has to be with the approval of the majority of those people in that society. Leaving standards to the whims of a few leaders can be cumbersome and even negligent especially if they themselves due not match the standards for which they should follow based on their leadership roles. Standards are best when they are created, managed, and enforced in a democratic fashion and where the majority of people in that society are able to follow those standards.

While we are all individuals, we are all still apart of a collective society and we have to sometimes sacrifice our personal standards when we come up against those standards of the larger society even when we may fundamentally disagree with them. No standard is perfect but if the society has collectively agreed upon those standards, then all of the people must abide by them to the best of their ability. If the standards are to be changed, that should be done over time with the consent of the majority. Even if we don’t like the standards, if no one agrees to them, then they are not standards anymore and society could suffer as a result.

If you don’t like the absence of certain standards or believe that they are too burdensome on you or people that you know, then you need to make the effort and put in the work to change these standards. If you don’t like with how someone is behaving, then you need to make an informed argument as to how that person should behave in a more polite and decent manner. If you see some form of corruption and certain political leaders are letting it slide, then you need to take some responsibility in holding yourself first to a higher standard and then calling out that corruption to get others behind you so that the corruption may end in the future.

Individuals have power in a society with standards but they will fundamentally have less power in a society where there are weak standards or none at all. That is also the case where one sole individual can set standards for everyone else without so much as a protest from others, which is also dangerous and detrimental to society as a whole.

While standards such as for behavior, dress, professionalism, ethics, etc. may not always be popular to uphold, these standards form the backbone of the collective society. With the absence of any sort of standards comes at the behest of laws, rules, regulations, and principles as well. Standards form the base for a civilized society and in their absence; there is no way that a society of individuals can function at all.

When you read this article, think about your own standards and how they came to be in your thinking. Also, think about how important they are to you. Lastly, think about the current standards of your society and how long it took for them to be formed and implemented as well as how important they also are regardless if you agree with their being in existence or not. Standards are not meant to be popular all the time but they are meant to ensure codes of conduct in various manners of life.

The sheer absence of standards leads to an anarchy of sorts that would render polite society meaningless and turn individuals against each other in a collective free-for-all. Understanding the why of standards will make you more likely to improve and better your own existing ones.

Book Recommendations – Volume VI

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.

edwardluce

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?

tribe

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.

fantasyland

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.