Four articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem accompanied by some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

One of the regular criticisms in Pope Francis' challenge to the world is of what he calls a "throwaway culture." Today, I'd like to ask us to take another look at those who are so easily thrown away and how we might challenge that.
  1. Halawa Correctional Facility Makahiki Ceremony 2015. Kai Markell photographed the inmates at the Halawa Correctional Facility who participated in Makahiki on Tuesday. The Makahiki season is the ancient Hawaiian New Year festival, in honor of the god Lono of the Hawaiian religion. The Makahiki is something they are passionate about and do annually. When I looked at the photos, I did not see "prison." I saw these men in a new light.
  2. Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S. Amid fears of terrorism, our nation seeks to turn its back to the vulnerable of Syria. I am grateful that the media seek to tell the story in surprising ways that may turn our hearts anew. One of those books with enduring impact has been The Diary of Anne Frank. Her life might have been very different had the U.S. and others not turned away. Elahe Izadi tells us how in this article from The Washington Post.
  3. "How Can I Not Denounce the Injustices You Suffer?" – In Nairobi Slum, Pope Defends the "Neighbors." While Pope Francis visits Africa, Rocco Palmo assesses the hallmarks of papal visits. Francis especially prioritizes "Matthew 25" moments, the corporal works of mercy, in his sojourns abroad. His message of solidarity and his answer to "who is my neighbor?" is important in a world of slowly closing circles of care and concern. Pope Francis broadens the circle, widens those who are of concern to us.
  4. My Giving Story: Melinda Gates.Duke Forward gives us this reflective piece on Melinda Gates. A telling line from the early portion of the article: "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates on one simple belief: All lives have equal value." While some have criticized this generation's iteration of philanthropy, those with firsthand experience of the foundation and, especially, Melinda Gates have spoken glowingly. No doubt, living the ideal that all lives have equal value undercuts the disposable nature of our modern society.
Finally, let us look at some short verse from Wendell Berry. A Kentucky farmer who hates to see anything thrown away, he gives us a revolutionary way of looking at life. This work, while brief, brings a good conclusion to today's meanderings. May we rest in the grace of the world.

"The Peace of Wild Things"
By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem accompanied by some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

Thank you for reading this post. Today, we will take up the issue of languages and, more specifically, the death of languages. Next, we will take a look at the aftermath of the attack in Paris and some suggestions on how not to overreact to the terrorist threat. Then, we will see through Twitter and an experience of conversion. In the world of photography, I share with you the feed for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, that we might see the face of those who so many wish to ignore. In poetry, we turn to William Blake.
  1. Media (R)evolutions: The internet and the death of languages. For many years, I have had interest in the fate of the world's languages. Languages convey structures of thought that are shaped by the language. I believe that speaking a second language allows one to access different ways of thinking. Each language offers unique elements, and the world is impoverished when a language disappears. We are impoverished, as well, by a growing sense of sameness, the way that a street with box stores and chain restaurants could be anywhere in the U.S. and, just as easily, anywhere in the world. On the World Bank's blog, Roxanne Bauer, a consultant to the World Bank's External and Corporate Relations, Operational Communications department (ECROC), writes about a diminishing use of languages not widely found on the internet. Note: when the young no longer learn their parents' language, the language is not imperiled or endangered; the language is virtually extinct if the young do not learn it.
  2. How not to overreact to ISIS. Jeremy Shapiro of Brookings offers three suggestions to frame an apropriate response to terrorism. An older piece from Yuval Noah Harari offers more depth: "The Theatre of Terror." Sadly, I am disappointed by the replies of many presidential candidates.
  3. How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs. Three years ago, a member of the Phelps family deserted the Westboro Baptist Church with her sister. The New Yorker published a lengthy piece on how and why she left. The article mixes social media with quotations, rendering a living portrait of this young woman and her relationship with her family, their church, and the hate that the church advocates.
  4. Photo gallery from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N. Refugee Agency. It is important to see the faces of those to whom so many cowardly elected officials and candidates wish to close the door. A number of commentators and web memes have pointed out the incongruity between turning out backs on the refugees and our national ideals as well as the tenets of those who profess the Christian faith. Stephen Colbert offered a brilliant conclusion here regarding the Christian faith, and former U.S. Marine Phil Klay offered a strong rebuttal regarding our national identity on twitter gathered here.
Now, in poetry, William Blake, a leading figure in the Romantic Period, was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. The poem "A Poison Tree" is rather direct and moralizing, although we could do well, given our national political discourse, to think about the seeds we sow. I pray that we find a better way ahead.

"A Poison Tree"
by William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Mons. Jack Egan and Chicago

This fine book, An Alley in Chicago: The Life and Legacy of Monsignor John Egan, tells an important story of the Church in Chicago before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council through the life and experience of one of the city's more notable inhabitants, Jack Egan. (An earlier, 1991 edition is available for free here.)

Simply put, I loved this bittersweet book. Jack Egan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, led a life that is difficult to summarize: priest, pastor, community organizer, and activist are but a few words. A teacher once told me, "To tell me who you are, tell me who your friends are." This book, populated by Egan's many friends, tells us a lot about who he was. Many of the names were known to me, certain names were people whom I had met, and a select number of them are people that I have known well, and a few are still with us. The story is bittersweet for three reasons: first, for those recalled in the book who have gone on to their eternal reward; second, for the beauty of a church that in many ways no longer exists; and third, most personally, for the beauty of the life of this admirable priest and the challenges of imitating his life today.

An Alley in Chicago rubs elbows with many of "the greats" from that period around the Council. A Catholic historian seeking to write a dissertation on laity in the American Church in the Conciliar era would find many worthy leads in this book starting with Pat and Patty Crowley. Egan was in the vanguard, at the forefront, always. He was among the first Catholics to march at Selma, and his witness signaled support to many that followed. Egan worked with Saul Alinsky during legendary days in Chicago. Many who I have read and admired make appearances: Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and labor priests like Monsignor George Higgins.

In the index, I counted 23 people that I have met personally, several of whom I have known a bit more closely, especially those from Egan's days at Notre Dame. Naturally, the names of Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., Jim Burtchaell, C.S.C., Louis Putz, C.S.C., and his recollection of days at Moreau Seminary stir deep feelings in me, as well as Fr. Richard McBrien and Jim and Evelyn Whitehead. The book also recalls Fr. Joe Fichter, S.J., who resided with us at Moreau during my senior year. We had some lovely conversations, and, at the time, I had only faint notions of his extraordinary role in working for racial justice. 

Personally, as my notion of priesthood evolved, I yearned to be a priest in the mold of Egan and the labor priests. I feel so keenly that this witness is essential to the Church today. I also feel that some of Egan's method and priorities are reflected in Pope Francis. Part of what stirs me in Pope Francis' example are the same things that stir me in Egan's witness. Sadly, for a whole host of reasons, I came to know that I could not continue in this path. I do pray that others will take up their mantle, but I believe that there are structural challenges that impede the emergence of this next generation of priest like Egan, especially in the declining number of priests relative the burgeoning number of laity. Amid the demands for sacramental care, a priest free to act as Egan did is rare. Secondly, we remain too cautious in spite of Pope Francis' vision:
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. (Evangelii Gaudium, 49)
I pray that we may incarnate this vision of the Church.

Egan was a fine priest. His story is an important one within American Catholicism. May his example inspire American Catholics to build the church that his preaching and witness hailed.

The Bully Pulpit: A Jolly Good Book!

Doris Kearns Goodwin writes big books. I have an intimidating pair of them. Her 2005 book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals, stretches 917 pages, 121 of those pages are notes. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, a "brief" 892 pages, has but 96 pages of notes. I worked my way through The Bully Pulpit first. Intending to sound like one of the work's principal subjects, Theodore Roosevelt, it was "a jolly good read!"
In The Bully Pulpit, Kearns Goodwin paints vivid, attractive portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft through their lives as young men, colleagues and friends, president and cabinet-member, fierce adversaries, and reconciled old friends. Alongside these principal characters, we meet their wives, their families, and the journalists who covered them.

We meet Archibald Butt, who loved and served both presidents as a military aide and confidant. Kearns Goodwin tells of his death in a manner that thoroughly surprised me, even though I studied the historical event which captivated me as a child.

We encounter Jacob Riis, whose life deserves greater recognition. (I recommend heartily this book.) Kearns Goodwin makes S.S. McClure come alive in full dimension. We encounter Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, Lincoln Stephens, Upton Sinclair, and Kansas' William Allen White.
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Credit: LBJ Foundation)
The Bully Pulpit, while intimidating in size, is elegantly written. Perhaps the book incarnates the Roosevelt adage: "Speak softly, but carry a big stick." The stories, well-told, are magnificent. Take your time; this book is worth it.

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem accompanied by some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

Amid the grief of terror striking Paris yesterday, France will weigh invoking Article 5 of the NATO. I invite us to pray for the victims, but also to envision a new way forward. We will look at the place of restorative justice in the community, some research about incorporating migrants into society, religious perspectives toward religious violence and extremism, and how cinema (and the stories it tells) can shape opinions.
  1. The fallout from crime affects more than just victims. As discussion of sentencing reform, especially around non-violent offenses, enters the presidential primaries as a major topic, this article about a conference at the Catholic University of America is powerful.  When crime happens, relationships within a community are broken, trust decays. Healing, in the midst of crime, demands restoration of relationship. As people of faith we have unique resources to bring to this conversation. This article tells some touching, powerful stories, and be sure to visit the conference website as it has some links to slides about the theological basis for restorative justice as well as on how we might reform incarceration.
  2. Migration: A Global Issue in Need of a Global Solution. While some will blame the Paris violence of refugees, we need to remember that the refugees are fleeing the very perpetrators of this violence.Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, offers clear principles for attending to migration.
  3. Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Again and again, it bears repeating to debunk the myth that religion inspires violence. In a recent lecture at the Brookings Institute, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares from a recent book that he authored and examines the recent phenomenon of violent extremism by exploring the origins of violence and its relationship to religion. Rabbi Sacks challenges the assertion that religion is an intrinsic source of violence and describes how theology can curb religious violence and extremism. 
  4. 8 movies that changed the world. Stéphanie Thomson of the World Economic Forum writes about eight movies that have shifted opinion on important social issues.To be honest, I have only seen (and even heard of) a few of the films. I might have included others that seem to have had greater impact, in my opinion, but the stories we tell, in photographs, or in movies, shape us powerfully. It is good to be aware of and thoughtful how we are shaped by the stories we tell.
For poetry, we turn to a classic from the First World War, as we recently observed Veteran's Day and today remember so many newly dead in France. Wilfred Owen was an English soldier and poet, killed in action in France in 1918. Most of his poetry was published posthumously. 

"Dulce et Decorum Est"
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

"Trust, but verify"

We've heard elected officials and candidates speak routinely of "trust, but verify." The adage, invoked by many, including Ronald Reagan, recommends that while a source of information might be considered reliable, one should perform additional research to verify that such information is accurate, or trustworthy.

Amid concerns about the impact of big money in political campaigns, at the heart of democracy is a trust in the veracity of elections. We need to trust that the published outcomes are legitimate, accurate, and fair. We also know that democracy will not survive if the electorate is not vigilant.
Dr. Beth Clarkson
Hence, Dr. Beth Clarkson raises some troubling issues. I should preface by noting that Dr. Clarkson is a statistician, a professional mathematician. She is Chief Statistician at the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR); Senior Research Engineer and Chief Statistician for the National Center for Advanced Materials Performance (NCAMP); and Co-Chair of the Statistics Working Group and founding board member of the Composite Materials Handbook (CMH-17). Also, now an independent, Dr. Clarkson has been a registered Republican, until the 2013 government shutdown. Dr. Clarkson tells her story of the numbers not in a partisan outlet but via the United Kingdom's Royal Statistical Society in an article entitled: How trustworthy are electronic voting systems in the US? 

Yesterday, Dr. Clarkson shared her findings and concerns with a little over 100 people in Salina at Kansas State Polytechnic (link to Salina Journal article covering the event). She began with the chart below, a chart which repeats itself in numerous elections.
I am not a statistician. I am not great at helping numbers tell a story, but Dr. Clarkson is very curious about the story behind the numbers in the graph. The green line is what is expected. The green line shows manual inspection of paper ballots. The gradual trend-lines upwards in the other colors are befuddling. There is no ready explanation in mathematics or statistics for why they should differ from the green line.

Dr. Clarkson said, "I feel like a crazy nerd who can't let this go."
The problem is this: the upward tick of those lines suggests election fraud. It suggests that machine counting in larger precincts provides outcomes that favor certain candidates. Dr. Clarkson has found that these upward ticks occur in Red states as well as Blue. Perhaps it is machine error. Perhaps it is something more nefarious. She is clear: the data suggests that there may be election fraud happening in voting machines, but only an audit of those machines can prove it and restore trust in the fairness of elections.

So, Dr. Clarkson has tried to get the data to audit. Barriers have been thrown up. She has had to sue to seek access to the data. Her website, showmethevotes.org, tells the story of her work. The numbers tell an alarming story, and the election data, for the good of democracy and public trust, needs to be made available to the public for analysis.

I would summarize her main recommendations in the following way:
  1. Voting machine results must be audited. Apparently, Kansas has never cracked open the box to examine if the digital results correspond to the paper recording of the votes within one particular type of machine.
  2. All voting machines must provide a record for recounts. Ideally, the scanning machines that read a paper ballot are preferred. Thus, an audit or a recount is possible.
  3. The voting machines must use open source software. Currently, all the machines use proprietary software that independent persons cannot evaluate.
Thank goodness that Dr. Clarkson "can't let this go." She does a great service on behalf of citizens in raising these questions. This is not partisan. This is about the trustworthiness of democracy in the United States. Hopefully, it is a question that that will stir the hearts of voters such that elected officials must take the necessary steps to assure us that our elections results are transparent, trustworthy, and fair.

Dr. Clarkson receives no remuneration for her work. She does this work in her "free time." Out of her own pocket, she has funded her legal challenge to get access to the data. If the legal challenge is successful, she will be charged to examine the data. All of this incurs expense. Dr. Clarkson has a Go Fund Me campaign, and I highly recommend donating to her efforts.

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem accompanied by some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

Thank you, again, for reading this post. I am grateful to those readers who find my weekly reading suggestions interesting or even helpful. I also appreciate your feedback. If you want to include a comment below about the article that most strikes you or how it touches you, I would find that helpful.

This week, we look to the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., Michael Curry, we recall the scholarship of the late René Girard, we examine parental leave, and we take a look at Lima, Peru through a novel photography project. Finally, we savor the poetry of theologian Gerald Schlabach.
  1. Video: Curry’s sermon at installation of the 27th Presiding Bishop. On All Saints’ Day, Bishop Michael B. Curry was installed as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul (the National Cathedral) in Washington, D.C. Bishop Curry's homily is considerably longer than a Catholic homily, clocking in at over 37 minutes, but watch the video and read the text. He is a great preacher. I particularly enjoyed his twist on the Good Samaritan: "But imagine the same parable with slightly different characters. A Christian was walking the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and she fell among thieves. Another Christian came by, but passed on by. Another did the same. And still another follower of Jesus passed on by. A brother or sister who is Muslim came by and stopped and saw her in need and helped her. Imagine. Who is the neighbor? It could be a young black or Hispanic youth who is hurt, and a police officer who helps. Or the police officer hurting and the youth who helps. Imagine. Do you see where Jesus is going? He’s talking about turning this world upside down." In the third section he also suggests a form of evangelization that echoes Pope Francis.
  2. History is a test. Mankind is failing it. This week, on Wednesday, we lost a great scholar, René Girard. A member of the prestigious Académie Française, Girard was called "the new Darwin of the human sciences." His many works provide a wealth of material for discussion in many fields, offering a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny. He died Nov. 4 at 91. Girard's concept of "mimetic desire" has been particularly important and insightful in my eyes.
  3. Pope Urges Maternity Leave and Job Security for Women. Pope Francis recently urged nations to provide maternity leave for women. I am dumbfounded that the U.S. is the only OECD country without a right to maternity leave. Often enough, we can hear politicians talk about being pro-family, and this is a simple litmus test. In fact, it is really just a test of consistency. When the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, insists: “I cannot and I will not give up my family time,” I applaud him for his commitment to his family and beg the same for other families in this country. Elizabeth Bruenig connects the dots in her article: "What Paul Ryan Could Learn From Pope Francis About Family Leave." Sorry to give you a three-for-the-price-of-one, but each one adds onto the other.
  4. Lima's Life Stories, Through Photo-Portraits. Shannon Sims writes in Ozyof an intriguing photography project in Lima, Peru. Peruvian photographers, Jaime Travezan and Morgana Vargas Llosa (daughter of the Peruvian Nobel Laureate in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa), and an art director, David Tortor, collaborated to create "Mírame, Lima" (Look at me, Lima). 
For our poem this week, I'd like to direct you to the website of Gerald Schlabach, a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Schlabach published on his website a poem entitled "Sed contra (a poem)." The title, derived from St. Thomas Aquinas' formula of argumentation, is ordinarily rendered as "On the contrary." As per the title, the poem speaks to the challenge of discerning the truth in love today. I believe that it articulates the aspirations of the recent Synod as much as it articulates the perspective of its author.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week!

Why Nations Fail: A Theory to Explain World Inequality

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I recalled seeing Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in footnotes or the content of some book. After concluding Why Nations Fail, I embarked on a fruitless search to find the reference. I thought maybe Moises Naím included it in The End of Power. Or Hank Paulson, given the lengthy examination of China by Acemoglu and Robinson, might have referred to it in Dealing with China. Finding no reference to it, I even turned to Steven Plinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, but such a discovery would have been anachronistic as Plinker wrote before Acemoglu and Robinson. While I cannot recall where I first heard reference to this book, I was pleased to embark on this book when Zuckerberg announced its selection.

I delighted in the breadth of the work. Acemoglu and Robinson assess contemporary political and economic institutions as well as reaching back to the archaeological record of the Natufian people and everything in between. They draw examples from every inhabited continent and from different eras. The authors use the breadth of their examples to underscore the utility across time and geography of their theory. Throughout the past couple of centuries, many have theorized about the rise and fall of nations. In high school, Mr. Charles Budke, an inductee into the Kansas Teachers' Hall of Fame, would often challenge us to understand the reasons for the fall of Rome and what they might indicate for us today. In a similar way, Acemoglu and Robinson avail themselves of the sweep of history, including Roman history, to debunk certain conclusions and propose a new theory.
Daron Acemoglu
The authors reject theories that claim nations are poor for reasons of geography, culture, or ignorance. Against the first and second, citing the differences between Nogales in Arizona and in Sonora, Mexico, the differences between North Korea and South Korea, where one sees marked economic and political difference amid similar geographies and cultures. Citing the historical record, they argue that ignorance does not explain the failure of impoverished nations to improve their status. The book seeks to understand the causes of the differences between apparently similar contexts.
James A. Robinson
Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, and Robinson, an economist and political scientist transitioning from Harvard to the University of Chicago, build a theory for world inequality based upon the interplay of political and economic institutions. Their basic thesis is that inclusive political institutions tend to create and strengthen inclusive economic institutions and, at the same time, inclusive economic institutions tend to build inclusive political institutions, a "virtuous circle." In contrast, extractive political institutions tend to create and strengthen extractive economic institutions and, at the same time, extractive economic institutions tend to create and strengthen extractive political institutions, a "vicious circle." Their argument provides a better description for the behavior of nations, especially those that fail, than the arguments for geography, culture, or ignorance.

When I read, I like to underline and write notes in the margin. Key points and graceful turns-of-phrase, both in abundance int his book, meant a lot of underlining. There is a lot that I like about this book, but I am nagged by a margin note that I made: "a Whiggish interpretation of history." Historians criticize those works that demonstrate an inevitable march toward progress as a "Whig interpretation of history." Acemoglu and Robinson go to great lengths to assure us that there is nothing inevitable about "critical junctures" in history, all is contingent, and it feels like they are trying to avoid the "Whig argument." Nonetheless, another criteria that I find helpful for sniffing out a "Whig interpretation" is the search for historical "goodies" and "baddies." England's Glorious Revolution is lifted up as inclusive, economically and politically, but England through the Colonial period could only be seen as "extractive" in its relationships with the American colonies, with Africa, and with India. The U.S. is lifted up, while Mexico is criticized, but Mexico liberated slavery at its inception (inclusive politics), while the U.S. fights a Civil War to en end slavery (1865), replaced by segregation and Jim Crow, and, now, mass incarceration. The theory proposed by Acemoglu and Robinson seems simplified between inclusive and extractive, when institutions have contradictory impulses toward each.

My reading of Why Nations Fail was interrupted briefly by the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. (which I earnestly watched on television) and the Land Institute's annual Prairie Festival. Pope Francis, in his address to Congress, pointed toward what Acemoglu and Robinson would characterize as inclusive institutions:

If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.

At the Land Institute, they address issues of how, since the Anthropocene epoch and human farming, humanity has dedicated itself to an extractive relationship with the earth. The growing devastation from climate change and the Sixth Extinction urge us to find more inclusive institutions and processes, broadly understood. Both the Land Institute and Pope Francis urge us to care for our common home, a boldly inclusive view.

Why Nations Fail is a good, readable book. I recommend it. It advances an argument that, while I remain unconvinced based on their evidence, I want to succeed. In the end, I find the argument of Why Nations Fail to be an assertion of hope as well as warning. In the U.S. today, we have growing evidence of political exclusion (e.g., declining rates of voter participation) and economic exclusion (growing economic inequality). Our relationship with the Earth is much more extractive than inclusive. The contrast in language between extractive and inclusive provide some guidance. I earnestly hope that Acemoglu and Robinson are correct and that their vision persuades some to tack for a different course. The alternative is to see more economies and states crash against the rocks, as well as to see our home, Earth, further degraded.

Delighting in "The Three-Body Problem"

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

As an undergraduate, I studied in the Program of Liberal Studies, a "Great Books" curriculum that led my classmates and I to encounter the finest works of Western Civilization. Only a portion of one semester included a brief traipse through Eastern writers, specifically Confucius’s Analects, The Way of Lao Tzu, and the Bhagavad Gita. As well, I have read little by way of science fiction in recent years. So, it was an interesting offering to read Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem as the latest selection by Mark Zuckerberg.

Reading any work, especially in translation, from another culture poses special challenges. A work of Chinese science fiction, then, has particular cultural references that are obscure to a U.S. reader. Further, any such work illustrates something of the different way that stories are told in different languages and cultures. Careful attention to cross-cultural works of literature yields insight into the culture from which it was born. Hence, Cixin Liu's work is a window to better understand Chinese culture.

Even the author's name, Cixin Liu, reveals, for the uninitiated, the difficulties of translation. I have opted to render his name, following the book's cover, with what we, in the West, understand as "first name" first and "last name" last, but Chinese culture places the family name prior to the first name, then rendered as "Liu Cixin."
Cixin Liu (courtesy of Anne Peterson)
I'd rather not spoil the content. I'll simply say that it was a great read. This novel is the first of a trilogy titled Remembrance of Earth’s Past, but Chinese readers generally refer to the series by the title of the first novel. The title refers to the three-body problem in orbital mechanics. Ken Liu's English translation won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel, a first for an Asian writer.

I also really enjoyed the author's thoughtful and thought-provoking postscript.

Simply put, this is an important book, worth a reader's time. If you do not want to read it, I imagine that a film version is not too far off.