America In The World: A History Of U.S. Diplomacy And Foreign Policy


I can’t quite figure out what to make of Zoellick, the author. I live in Washington, DC and I’ve worked in government, so understand what it means for someone to be part of the foreign policy establishment, as Zoellick is, but beyond being a generic example of that, I don’t know what else to say, based on reading this book.

Did I like it all? Of course! It was fascinating. He gives Teddy Roosevelt a lot of credit for being a canny foreign relations player (he also, in a chapter covering Wilson, refer to him at ‘TR’ without giving me any notice that he was going to do that, which caused some initial, pointless confusion); provides a nuanced look at Japanese policy positions and motivations; gives space to previously unknown to me figures like Charles Evans Hughes, who, before becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, played key roles for several presidents in the first quarter of the twentieth century; and did you know that Dean Acheson had ties to Alger Hiss?

Of course, as seemingly every one in the foreign policy establishment does, he gives kudos to James Baker, who I mostly remember as Dubya’s consigliere during the 2000 recount/debacle. I’m trying to be broadminded about him, but it’s not easy. However, President Trump made it easier to look at previous, failed Republican presidents and say to one’s self, well, at least he never instigated the sacking of our nation’s temple of democracy. He also compares Dubya’s vision to Kennedy’s and… I guess I don’t know enough to criticize, but the partisan in me rankles.

And a reminder, in case any reader forgot: the Vietnam-American War was a sad, embarrassing time in U.S. history. Also, not related to this book, but I saw a writer note this, but take a moment and think about your favorite Vietnam movie.

Is it Platoon or Born on the 4th of July or maybe Full Metal Jacket?

I ask because, that writer (whose name I sadly forget) noted that the answer to the question about Vietnam movies or books are invariably media about Americans… not about a Vietnamese person at all. Like a narcissist, it’s all about us.

He writes about, as he must, the famed Sovietologist (is that a real word, or did Foggy Bottom make it up?) George Kennan. I must confess that I have never read his ‘Long Telegram,’ but the description given of it makes it seem like Russia hasn’t changed since it was chief among Soviet republics.

On Not Getting Into Arguments


If a fact be misstated, it is probable he is gratified by the belief of it, and I have no right to deprive him of the gratification. If he wants information, he will ask it, and then I will give it in measured terms; but if he still believes in his own story, and shows a desire to dispute a fact with me, I hear him and say nothing. It is his affair, not mine, if he prefers error. -Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 24, 1808

We Are Safe


But not well. If you have been complaining that November’s election was illegitimate, you may not care, but you have been an integral part of a massive, collective feedback that has caused my child emotional harm. It has also resulted in deaths, but I am not ashamed to say that my child is my first priority.

I am a Democrat. I do not actually fall easily into categories beyond that, being progressive in many ways, but also centrist on many issues.

I did not vote for Trump. Going further than that, I did not vote for Bush. I did not like how shenanigans meant the latter won the election nor how the Electoral College meant that the choice of most Americans was not the man inaugurated in 2000 and 2016.

But I did not say they were illegitimate. I believed that the proper response was to organize to win during the next election, in other words, to use our small “d” democratic process to make change.

That is the difference.

Ornamentalism


‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well, Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.

Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.

I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).

The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.

Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.

Black Mountain Poems: An Anthology


My father knew one of the figures associated with Black Mountain College. He and his older brother had been friends with Fielding Dawson, a writer. While Dawson’s poetry is not in this anthology, he is name checked in the introduction, though perhaps it would have been better for everybody had they chosen to include something by him instead of whatever Buckminster Fuller was writing that he mistakenly believed to be poetry.

Rightly, the poet who gets the most space is Robert Creeley (though none of the included poems featured the off kilter pastoralism that I associate with him). Charles Olson, featured early, was the best surprise. Of course, I know who he is, but I really haven’t read him, and the long poems with their swaybacked stanzas and shifting thoughts really are amazing and clearly, I need to read more.

Jefferson’s Religion


I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. – letter to Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803

Which, of course, is to say he was not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian.

Tek Kill


Do I really need to write anymore about the plots, characters, and pros and cons of (sort of) William Shatner’s Tek novels? Do I? Do I really?

No, I probably don’t.

It’s not clear why a drug cartel is going after the hero’s boss or why the hero is calm about his teenage son consistently getting involved in the machinations of drug cartels but… meh. It’s decent, untaxing fun.

And I will admit to a strange sadness at reading the intro to the next book, which announces that this (the next one, not this one) will be the last Tek novel.

Aristotle And Other Platonists


An interesting work, though perhaps not more interesting than just going back and pulling some Plato and Aristotle off the shelves. Despite the author’s explicit claim that this is not a book about Neoplatonism… it kinda feels like a book about Neoplatonism. At the very least, a key argument for why we should not view Aristotle as being so much in conflict with his erstwhile teacher, Plato, is that, well, a lot of ancient and late ancient philosopher who wrote after Aristotle, viewed Aristotle as being part of Platonism. Especially the Neoplatonists. And no, calling them ‘harmonists’ (those who believe that Aristotle is, in some ultimate sense, in harmony with Plato, as opposed to the antiharmonists [no hyphen]) does not help and, in fact, that term needs to not become a ‘thing’ and should not be used in that context ever again, because it’s cloying.

His best argument for this actually came very early in the book and was the bit that my mind kept coming back to: he referenced a philosopher named Pierre Hadot (who I had never heard of before) who (he says) proposed that the philosophers of the ancient world and their schools should be viewed primarily as positing a way of life and only secondarily as positing philosophical doctrine. Under this rubric, it does become easier (for me, at least), to see the author’s point.

But Gerson rarely seems to speak for himself. Every time I think that he is offering his own interpretation, I read that sentence more carefully and see that he’s actually paraphrasing what he believes Porphyry or Plotinus or Simplicius or Iamblichus has said. But basically, the thesis is that Aristotle’s ontologies (and epistemology, especially and his and Plato’s are deeply informed by their onologies) are not so different from Plato’s after all.

To briefly give one example, Gerson both recognizes (yet also avoids, in many ways) what is usually taught as the basic and most important distinction between the teacher and his student: Plato’s theory of forms. Plato believed in their reality and Aristotle did not (though yeoman’s work is done to suggest that Aristotle’s theory of the intellect (I am being vague here, because there are several kinds of intellect and much back and forth over what in the name of all that is holy it all means and if you’d like to learn more, I recommend learning Medieval Latin, because a lot mainly, but not exclusively British monks spent several centuries arguing about this and you’re welcome to read it all, I’m sure) could be considered as being compatible with the forms). Plato, through the mouthpiece of Socrates, argues for knowledge as recollection Aristotle makes statements that support that epistemology. Since Plato’s theory knowledge as recollection emerges from the forms and Aristotle can be seen to accept Plato’s theory of knowledge, therefore he implicitly accepts, at least in part, the forms, if not in a so explicitly realist fashion.

My first impression after reading this is that I should brush up on my Plato and Aristotle. More so, Aristotle. I’ve been reading a bit of Plato recently (though no amount of references to it by Neoplatonic philosophers will convince me to read the Timeaus again), but have a copy of Aristotle’s Categories that I started but never finished.

A Memory Called Empire


I had some back and forth via email with a friend about this book. We both agreed it was amazing in so many ways, however, I felt that it was just a little short of the sum of its parts (he disagreed strongly).

My biggest issue was that, to me, Checkhov’s gun was taken out, placed on the table, and then the book ended without it even having been picked up again, much less fired. My friend pushed back on this and believed it handled well an ambiguity about a sequel that might fire the gun, while allowing for a smaller, self-contained story.

The good parts is a fascinatingly built world (the titular empire) which draws from both Pre-Columbian (especially Aztec) and Asian (especially Chinese) historical traditions. There are also fascinating depictions of different conceptions of identity and memory. There is one culture which prizes memory and the ability to memorize long passages of poetry and one which made perfect recall of past experiences so vital that it created technology to preserve memory and implant it in another, along with something resembling the deceased’s personality (which also brings up interesting questions about who one is when another person’s memories are in your head and also the question of whether those memories are sufficient to identity, i.e., are we just the sum of those experiences, versus identity being tied to being embodied or to a ‘soul’).

‘Vostok’ Is Even Worse


I don’t know even know why I really did, but I read the sequel to The Loch. It’s about another lake: Vostok, which is a real place in Russia.

But does the real lake have an alien outpost with telepathic extra-terrestrials who provide a pseudo-scientific argument for the existence of God and who planted information about atomic theory in the Bible and in Kabbalistic texts? Who knows really? I mean, probably right?

And is that real lake being investigated by a cabal of super rich companies who believe in aliens and are part of Majestic 12 (which, should you google, will lead you down a supremely stupid rabbit hole, so I recommend that you do not, but I did enjoy a particularly erratic character explaining that they stopped Obama from revealing the truth by exploding a missile nearby when he was in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peach Prize)?

In addition to his weird religious beliefs, Mr. Steve Alten (I keep on wanting to write ‘Steve Allen’) is a big fan of the idea of weird natural effects creating preserved ecosystems from prehistory. He showed a hitherto unknown to me lack of talent when it comes to writing science fiction about multiple and alternate timelines. Let’s call this Steve Alten (not Allen) ‘really terrible Philip K. Dick.’

Vostok is superior to The Loch in one key way, I will say. It is much shorter. While I haven’t read his most famous novels, the ones about giant sharks, he does gamely tie those novels to this one, creating, let’s call it, the Megverse. Actually, let’s not.

But it wasn’t all bad. I did learn something, like that there are multiple plains of existence. I would have thought that if such a thing existed, it would be multiple ‘planes,’ but apparently on page 308, the author launched a novel theory about alternate… grasslands? All very cutting edge stuff.

As one final note, let me just point out that the cover is a photo an alligator badly photoshopped into some generic snowy mountain lake. And while a giant, prehistoric crocodilian does appear, it is supposed to be closer to a caiman than an alligator. This is a pet peeve of mine. John Grisham wrote a book about a man who travels down the Amazon River and sees many, many alligators. Alligators only live in North American and China. There are no alligators in the Amazon. This felt like some super lazy research and an even lazier copy editor.