Books, books and more books.
Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar
Here is a book that is right up my alley as New Yorker columnist Larissa MacFarquhar tackles the ethics of altruism and the relativistic minefield of utilitarian ethics. What does it mean to devote yourself to helping others even above and beyond yourself?
Toward the beginning of the book, MacFarquhar throws out an ethical dilemma. If your mother was drowning in a lake and at the same time two strangers were drowning, who would you save and why? This assumes you would only have time to save one set. The emotional response would be, of course, to save your mom. This is what I would do. However, if mom is saved, two lives end up being lost rather than one. There are other complexities to consider with this question: what is someone’s relationship to their mom? Was their mom abusive toward them? In some cases, people may save the two strangers. How are principles of altruism applied in a case like this?
MacFarquhar relies heavily on the ethical paradigms of Australian philosopher Peter Singer who, as mentioned above, is an ethical utilitarian. I have my serious issues with Mr. Singer which are especially prevalent in “Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics“. MacFarquhar doesn’t delve much into that specific work of Singer’s but is more broadly focused on his utilitarian principle of doing good to the most amount of people possible.
Jesus is quoted with his commandments “taking up your cross and following Him” and “denying ourselves” but to what extreme do we take those teachings of Christ? That is the question that MacFarquhar, a secular writer, is asking.
The book is full of real life profiles of “do-gooders”. The author highlights people who make a certain amount of money but cut their own living expenses down to $17,000 or $18,000 a year to give more money away to those in need. A Methodist minister opens her dwelling up to the homeless, a man in India turns his back on his own privilege and founds a leper colony, a woman braves credible threats of rape to start a women’s health clinic in Nicaragua, a couple who adopts 20 something children and more accounts.
The great thing about “Strangers Drowning” is the book is never preachy. MacFarquhar is not exhorting anyone to necessarily be exactly like anyone that she profiles but she is asking us to think. There is actually some detachment from the author herself because I don’t recall even MacFarquhar injecting her own personal thoughts (at least directly) regarding the actions of her subjects.
We are also taken through the philosophies of Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin and Maximilien Robespierre. MacFarquhar especially quotes Immanuel Kant: “It was fortunate that so few men acted according to moral principle, because it was so easy to get principles wrong, and a determined person acting on mistaken principles could really do some damage.”
This is a compelling and extremely haunting book. One of the more thought-provoking reads I have read in awhile. My primary ethical system, as a Christian, is not centered around utilitarianism but there are some profound things here to contemplate.
Lester Lauding Level: 4.5 (out of 5)
“Giving up alcohol is an asceticism for the modern do-gooder, drinking being, like sex, a pleasure that humans have always indulged in, involving a loss of self-control, the renunciation of which marks the renouncer as different and separate from other people. To drink, to get drunk, is to lower yourself on purpose for the sake of good fellowship. You abandon yourself, for a time, to life and fate. You allow yourself to become stupider and less distinct. Your boundaries become blurry: you open your self and feel connected to people around you. You throw off your moral scruples, and suspect it was only those scruples that prevented the feeling of connection before. You feel more empathy for your fellow, but at the same time, because you are drunk, you render yourself unable to help him; so, to drink is to say, I am a sinner, I have chosen not to help.”
“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals…It is too readily assumed…that the ordinary man only rejects [saintliness] because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”
“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”
“An extreme sense of duty seems to many people to be a kind of disease – a masochistic need for self-punishment, perhaps, or a kind of depression that makes its sufferer feel unworthy of pleasure…In fact, some do-gooders are happy, some are not. The happy ones are happy for the same reasons anyone is happy – love, work, purpose. It is do-gooders’ unhappiness that is different – a reaction not only to humiliation and lack of love and the other usual stuff, but also to knowing that the world is filled with misery, and that most people do not really notice or care, and that, try as they might, they cannot do much about either of those things. What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”
“The life of a zealous do-gooder is a kind of human sublime — by which I mean that, although there is a hard beauty in it, the word “beautiful” doesn’t capture the ambivalence it stirs up. A beautiful object — a flower, a stream — is pleasing in a gentle way, inspiring a feeling that is like love. A sublime object, such as a mountain or a rough sea, inspires awe, but also dread. Confronting it, you see its formidable nobility, and at the same time you sense uncomfortably that you would not survive in it for long. It is this sense of sublime that I mean to apply to do-gooders: to confront such a life is to feel awe mixed with unease — a sense that you wouldn’t survive in that life for long, and might not want to.”
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
When the marketing press for this book came out, I became curious about reading “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” because of the excerpts I had seen of comedian/author/Senator Al Franken taking down Ted Cruz in hilarious fashion. And that part of the book is good if only a chapter or so. Franken’s latest book though is a memoir that was released before the revelations that he had groped and harassed women. Those accusations and subsequent evidence chased him from his Senate seat in early 2018. Rightfully so.
The narrative follows the beginning of Franken’s career as a comedian and a founding writer on Saturday Night Live. He has chapters devoted to SNL without drugs and SNL with the drugs. More interestingly, he talks of his friendships with other legendary comedians including John Belushi and Chris Farley.
As a satire writer, he also penned opinion books where it is hard to tell what his political perspective is (sarcasm) including his first: “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations” and the other famous work: “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
In 2007, he quit his radio show on Air America Radio and announced his candidacy for United States Senate against incumbent Norm Coleman. This led to a razor thin win for Franken of 312 votes. There were recounts and cases taken to the Supreme Court but Franken was declared the winner after a long grueling process.
A fascinating part of the book is hearing Franken discuss how Republicans used his past humor against him. Political opponents would bring up lines he said in a stand-up routine and pull them from a comedy context.
After offering his origin story, the rest of the book finds Franken talking about life in the Senate including how often they have to dial for dollars. Providing basic glimpses of what it takes to pass major legislation, he provides a basic window into the issues that he personally supports. The episode where he rolled his eyes during a Senate speech by Mitch McConnell is discussed as well as their strange friendship. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Sessions also come up as colleagues that Franken joked around with to one degree or another. All of that to say on the inside baseball stuff, the chapter on Ted Cruz is, by far, the funniest and most entertaining.
Taking us right through the election of Donald Trump, a weakness of the book is Franken’s reliance on falling back on all too familiar liberal talking points. When this happens, there isn’t much elaboration or specific defenses of his policy positions. I understand this is not a policy book by any stretch but a little more discussion on why Franken believes what he believes would have helped some of the writing from sounding so trite.
In summary, an interesting life and probably one of the funnier books one will read that is written by a Senator.
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
“I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz…The problem with Ted isn’t that he’s humorless. It isn’t even his truly reprehensible far-right politics. No, the problem with Ted—and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted—is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He’s the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.”
“Virtually everyone in the world believes that climate change is real and is caused by human beings, except Republicans in the United States. Especially the people who would know best: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by human activity, and I suspect the other 3 percent are being paid by the fossil fuel industry.”
“But I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.”
“But now we seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults the intelligence of both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have all lost their power to damage a politician. In fact, the ‘Trump Effect’ yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them.”
“Former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank once said, ‘I only voted once for someone who believes in 100 percent of what I believe. And that’s when I voted for myself—the first time.’”
“Today’s Congress is a polarized, dysfunctional body, rendered helpless by partisanship, more focused on scoring short-term political points than on solving our nation’s urgent problems. In short, the Washington of the past decade has been awash in nincompoopery.”
“Politics is not just about power and money games, politics can be about the improvement of people’s lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice. -Paul Wellstone (Minnesota Senator, Al Franken predecessor).”
Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
Usually, I’m not a big fan of personality-type books. Supposedly, they are a general unveiling into what motivates a specific person or how that person likes to communicate. I operate on the assumption that human beings are complicated and not only may their personality, giftings, or style of communication change over time, it may change depending on what group they are hanging out in.
Admittedly though, “Strengthsfinder” has an interesting concept. The author, Tom Rath, spends the beginning of the book ripping the movie “Rudy” (of all things). His problem with the film is obviously not an artistic critique but the thematic message. Rath argues persuasively that Rudy given his size and talents should not have been a football player. The whole climax leading up to the sack at the end was built on someone performing a task that they were not good at. While Rudy’s strength was not football, his talents lay elsewhere and he was missing out on an opportunity to connect with what he would be truly great at doing and further developing those skills. Hence, Strengthsfinder.
This is a fascinating concept. Our culture highly values a liberal arts education. We expose students to a lot of different fields with the goal in mind of making someone “well-rounded” with knowledge. Rath is not necessarily saying to get rid of that but he would argue that we should spend more time honing in on the specific gifts and talents that individuals have. Once we find those talents, that individual (rather then learning a bunch of other general information) should focus on refining and shaping those particular gifts.
Personally, I like the spirit of what he is saying but I’m not sure I’m fully onboard. Even if I have gifts in certain areas, I actually may be able to refine and strength those gifts by learning about other fields or disciplines.
With that being said, I would still rank this as one of the more compelling personality books that comes with an internal test that I have read.
Lester Lauding Level: 3 (out of 5)
“From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to our shortcomings than to our strengths.”
“When we’re able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists. So, a revision to the “You-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be” maxim might be more accurate: You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”
“Talent (a natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving) × Investment (time spent practicing, developing your skills, and building your knowledge base) = Strength (the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance)”
“We were tired of living in a world that revolved around fixing our weaknesses. Society’s relentless focus on people’s shortcomings had turned into a global obsession. What’s more, we had discovered that people have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies.”
The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Friedman
For our times, I decided to pick up New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” which is the bible for globalism. Friedman is an unapologetic “radical free trader” and his metaphor for a flat world applies to economic commerce around the globe. Friedman argues that the internet especially has made a more level playing field wherein competitors have a roughly equal opportunity to jump into the global market and compete.
He also highlights corporations who have sent jobs to other countries as having an impact of lifting the living conditions of people in those countries. Embedded in those moving jobs overseas is how companies have adjusted as well (for instance, Walmart’s delivery chain that helps them keep stores stocked based on a sophisticated computer model which they invented).
Friedman introduces ten “flatteners” that he believes are radically reshaping the world, rapidly changing global capitalism and causing market upheavals. They are: the collapse of the Berlin Wall (11/9/1989), Netscape (1995 mass introduction to the internet), workflow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply chaining, insourcing (using UPS as a prime example here), informing (Google, Wikipedia, etc), and the steroids (voice over internet protocol, file sharing, etc).
The book is exhaustively researched and is packed with information but my main criticism of the book is I don’t think Friedman dealt thoroughly with the negative aspects of the world flattening or globalization. An example would be what some commentators have spoken about with the election of Donald Trump in the US. One of the arguments for why Trump was elected is the disappearance of jobs in the heartland USA (Midwest) as they have gone overseas for cheaper costs for the business owners. Job displacement has been a huge cost of globalization and I don’t think is fully or properly dealt with by Friedman.
Also, there are certainly parts of the world that have become more economically developed as a result of the world flattening however, there is still exploitation of labor and has been a lot of reporting on that end. China is one of the biggest human rights abusers related to labor and large, multi-national corporations take advantage of the cheaper costs. Friedman’s excuses or arguments against these things that have happened are not at all convincing.
I would agree generally with Friedman that a greater economic cooperation across the world is a good thing for the world. Future generations will have to address the matters of a staggering inequality and exploitation but I will, again, generally agree with him bringing up the Dell theory of conflict prevention. That is if businesses and countries are making money off each other or are economically interdependent, this lowers the odds of a war. “The Dell Theory stipulates: No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”
I would recommend the read for those interested in the subject matter and the political and economic implications of globalism. I just think Friedman’s counter arguments to the fallout were not convincing.
Lester Lauding Level: 3 (out of 5)
“It has always been my view that terrorism is not spawned by the poverty of money; it is spawned by the poverty of dignity. Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations. It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence.”
“One of the newest figures to emerge on the world stage in recent years is the social entrepreneur. This is usually someone who burns with desire to make a positive social impact on the world, but believes that the best way of doing it is, as the saying goes, not by giving poor people a fish and feeding them for a day, but by teaching them to fish, in hopes of feeding them for a lifetime. I have come to know several social entrepreneurs in recent years, and most combine a business school brain with a social worker’s heart. The triple convergence and the flattening of the world have been a godsend for them. Those who get it and are adapting to it have begun launching some very innovative projects.”
“I once heard Jerry Yang, the cofounder of Yahoo!, quote a senior Chinese government official as saying, ‘Where people have hope, you have a middle class.’ I think this is a very useful insight. The existence of large, stable middle classes around the world is crucial to geopolitical stability, but middle class is a state of mind, not a state of income. That’s why a majority of Americans always describe themselves as ‘middle class,’ even though by income statistics some of them wouldn’t be considered as such. “Middle class” is another way of describing people who believe that they have a pathway out of poverty or lower-income status toward a higher standard of living and a better future for their kids.”
“Communism was a great system for making people equally poor – in fact, there was no better system in the world for that than communism. Capitalism made people unequally rich.”
“No matter what your profession – doctor, lawyer, architect, accountant – if you are an American, you better be good at the touchy-feely service stuff, because anything that can be digitized can be outsourced to either the smartest or the cheapest producer.”
“When Muslim radicals and fundamentalists look at the West, they see only the openness that makes us, in their eyes, decadent and promiscuous. They see only the openness that has produced Britney Spears and Janet Jackson. They do not see, and do not want to see, the openness – the freedom of thought and inquiry – that has made us powerful, the openness that has produced Bill Gates and Sally Ride. They deliberately define it all as decadence. Because if openness, women’s empowerment, and freedom of thought and inquiry are the real sources of the West’s economic strength, then the Arab-Muslim world would have to change. And the fundamentalists and extremists do not want to change.”
“Culture is nested in context, not genes.”
“To learn how to learn, you have to love learning—or you have to at least enjoy it—because so much learning is about being motivated to teach yourself.”
“No low-trust society will ever produce sustained innovation.”
2 Corinthians by Colin Kruse
Located within the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series, “2 Corinthians” by Colin Kruse is informative while not being an overwhelming read. At 224 pages, it is brisk as commentaries usually go but still packed with quality information relating to interpreting the Pauline epistle. A real strength of the book is Kruse’s historical set up of 2 Corinthians. He not only describes the history and culture of the area as well as going into Greece’s philosophical ideas at the time, he delves fairly in depth to the textual critiques of 2 Corinthians. For instance, our 1 Corinthians is probably actually the second letter to the church (the true 1 Corinthians being lost to history). Our 2 Corinthians is more than likely the fourth letter to the church as Paul references a “severe letter” (as the potential third) that he regretted sending. As Kruse explains in his vital setup, many scholars believe that the severe letter (3rd Corinthians) is perhaps an appendix to the 2 Corinthian letter (perhaps chapters 10-13 and maybe mixed in elsewhere). Chapters 10-13 of the letter represent a tonal shift in Paul’s narrative in comparison with the rest of the book. Anyways, for anyone studying this famous epistle, I highly recommend Kruse’s commentary on the historical and textual background.
Kruse walks through the epistle verse by verse bringing out the meaning of the words as well as the contextual and historical backdrop. This isn’t a technical commentary and bridges the gap between a more inspiration based commentary and a technical (must- know-Koine-Greek in order to understand) commentary. He is not afraid to bring out Greek words and discuss the scholarship but all of this is easy to understand for the reader.
The minor thing that annoyed me while reading the commentary (while studying for multiple sermon messages in 2 Corinthians) is that Kruse doesn’t always quote the verse before launching into his explanation. Sometimes he just lists the verse number. I suppose that Tyndale probably did this because they realize that people studying this commentary would be using multiple translations. I still would have liked to seen the whole verse quoted out every time.
For me, this is pretty close to the epitome of what a commentary should be. The reader isn’t lost in trying to parse Greek words and sentence structures but is being informed about the cultural climate and the use of the words as it is important to understanding the epistle.
Lester Lauding Level: 4.5 (out of 5)