« Scott Nonnenberg


Six books for greater context

With all the election-related turmoil this year, I thought I would share a collection of books I found useful for helping me make sense of things. The last set of books I shared were about more general understanding, but these are about understanding American politics and history.

Politics

If you’re anything like me, you were dumbfounded when certain things Trump said on the campaign trail didn’t immediately tank his approval ratings. That trend continued as Trump ended up with results better than Romney in 2012. Here in Seattle, I struggled to make sense of it, turning to books…

1. The Authoritarians (2006)

I read this book in December 2015, after Trump’s surprising early steps toward the official campaign trail. It has even more importance now, as those of us who did not vote for him are starting to pivot towards activism.

The author of this free book was a Professor of Psychology who focused the majority of his career on the group of people he calls ‘the authoritarians.’ He uses this shorthand to signal their frightening willingness to give up freedoms in service to a larger cause. While not a distinct group of people, they can be identified by a test he developed.

Much of the book discusses the test itself and the larger conclusions he could make about what kinds of experiences led people to score higher or lower on the test. In a few words, reducing your score largely seems to come from experiences with different types of people and a higher overall education level. So that informs our long-term approaches.

In the near term, he recommends against arguing with people like this based on logic, instead working on building relationships. Also, ensuring our protests are non-violent, because “most people are spring-loaded to become more authoritarian when violence increases in society.”

2. Strangers in their Own Land (2016)

I started reading this book in late October as the election loomed and the polls weren’t looking decisive, since it is explicitly about understanding ‘the other side.’ The author, from Berkeley, gets to know several families in rural Louisiana.

The ‘keyhole’ issue covered in the book is pollution. Previously unbeknownst to me, Louisiana has a big pollution problem outside of the trouble in the gulf itself. Aside from fishing, the largest industry in Louisiana is the oil and gas industry. And, though this pollution is happening in these families’ literal back yards, they continually support politicians who largely turn a blind eye to the pollution, in fact running on a platform of reducing regulation.

On its face it doesn’t make sense. Though it could probably help if they petitioned it, the Environmental Protection Agency is vilified, as is the rest of the federal government. Why? The reason I could relate to the most was that individuals seem to be disproportionately targeted for little things, like a leaking motorboat engine: “I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.”

What didn’t resonate with me was the thought that any kind of governmental assistance was ‘dishonorable,’ in contrast to a hard day’s work, which is something to be proud of. But this is why they supported politicians who would cut key public services in favor of oil and gas industry incentives. They were happy to trade in dishonorable uses of that tax money to try to create more honorable ways to make a living.

Any attempts to reverse recent cuts to education and social support systems in Louisiana will need to take these attitudes into account.

3. The View from Flyover Country (2014)

I first learned of Sarah Kendzior after the election, as I obsessively trawled social media for anything of significance. Her chilling forecast and recommendations and general perspective were both a relief and a shock. She was confirming for us that this election really was different, and she would know the signs, as an anthropology PhD who focused on former Soviet authoritarian states.

Wanting both to support her and to learn more about perspective, I picked up her book, a collection of essays. It paints a less focused picture than that of the Lousianans above, but no less important. It named the systemic reasons for the frustration feeding into the successes of both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns.

Her essays dissect the state of our economy and society since the recession. She describes salary and labor force cutbacks due to permanent ‘hard times’ since then. She talks about the rise of employees with no rights and minimal or nonexistent pay in our modern economy: adjunct professors, uber drivers, freelance writers, and other independent contractors. She talks about the rise of credentialism as a way to entrench privilege - you can’t get the good jobs if you can’t afford the degree!

If nothing else, this book is a good way to understand your own privilege. There were reasons for concern long before the election results rolled in.

History

I had a better understanding of the current context, but I wanted a little bit more context. How did we get here? Why are some of these problems so hard solve?

4. Corruption in America (2014)

This book came across my radar when Bernie Sanders started sending out the names of candidates he supported down-ticket. Zephyr Teachout was running to become a United States Senator for New York, attempting to oust a longtime Republican incumbent. Whenever mentioned she was described as an activist against corruption. Given that it’s such a hot topic lately, I decided to wade in.

The topic was surprisingly fascinating, and much more distressing than I expected. I discovered that many things we consider absolutely normal parts of politics were illegal until relatively recently. Moreover, things which were normal in other countries at the time of the Constitutional Convention were disallowed. For example, gifts from a country to an outgoing ambassador, like Benjamin Franklin’s diamond-encrusted snuff box from the Louis XVI of France, had to be approved by Congress. All gifts were disallowed in fear of their corrupting influence.

From there, the book shows how the country wrestled over the very definition of corruption. How would you prosecute someone for it? What proof do you need? What adequately enforceable ‘bright line’ rules are worth the sacrifice? Via a succession of very interesting court cases over the years, it was easy to see our country’s gradually increasing laxity in these matters.

Once it got to the current era, the book delved into Citizens United vs. FEC. Before reading the book I didn’t know much about the case, other than its drastic effect on political spending. But now I know that it continues a long trend in this country: too much focus on freedom of speech and too much worry about the difficulty of nailing down a crisp definition of corruption.

Teachout laments the loss of experienced politicians from the Supreme Court in favor of elite law school academics as a key cause of recent trends. Maybe with the right people in our courts we can return to ‘bright line’ laws of deep principle.

5. The Warmth of Other Suns (2010)

I first heard about this book at this year’s Open Source and Feelings conference, and again in the wake of the election. What better to understand a little bit more about the context behind #BlackLivesMatter and our continued difficulty with race in this country? It talks about the Great Migration of six million black people from the south to the rest of the country from 1915 to 1975. Why did they leave? Because Jim Crow laws made things unbearable for them.

This book was a shock in so many ways. First, the very clear message that slavery essentially continued past its official end via sharecropping. The book included the story of a black sharecropper needing to leave town to avoid a lynching after questioning the books kept by their planter. It broke through one of my incorrect perceptions about the time - that most violence came from the worst of society, irrational, passionate, and in the moment. But this was a businessman with his employee, in a business context.

Second, black people in the south were explicitly kept from doing better, improving themselves. I had known that they were kept from the community pool, and were segregated on the train, at the movies, etc. But I didn’t know that black people were barred from the library. And their high school could only use the white high school’s often-damaged old books.

Third, the riots. Again, I thought lynchings were usually small affairs, involving only a few really disturbed people. But the book talks about many situations where hundreds or even thousands would gather for a lynching. Riots even happened in the north, to try to prevent black people from moving into a white neighborhood, like this one in Chicago in 1951, involving 4000 white rioters. Even in California! The book tells the story of a black family moving into their Californian home only to have one of their trees set on fire on the first night, followed by a parade of departures from the neighborhood.

Finally, I didn’t know things were so bad in areas outside the south. Things did get better faster in the north, however, because there weren’t such rigid cultural rules. Regarding New York’s Harlem neighborhood, which was turning from white to black:

“The South, totalitarian and unyielding, was at that very moment succeeding at what white Harlem leaders were so desperately trying to do, that is, controlling the movements of blacks by controlling the minds of whites.”

A good reminder that those of us with privilege must use it responsibly.

6. Lies My Teacher Told Me (1996)

I didn’t read this book recently, but the previous two books reminded me of it. It picks apart the way history is taught in American schools by looking deeply at the textbooks used. By covering a number of historical topics, he makes very obvious his key points from the conclusion of the book:

“textbooks supply irrelevant and even erroneous details”

“textbooks offer students no practice in applying their understanding of the past to present concerns, hence no basis for thinking rationally about anything in the future.”

“textbooks rarely present the various sides of historical controversies and almost never reveal to students the evidence on which each side bases its position.”

One of its most powerful quotes is itself a quotation, and an important reminder for any teacher:

“Children, like most adults, do not readily retain isolated, incoherent, and meaningless data” (Teaching Canada for the '80s)

But its most important passage for the climate of today reminds us that things don’t always get better. Backlash strikes after what seem like big victories, and we must remain vigilant. After the north’s “victory against slavery” in the Civil War in 1865, newfound freedom didn’t last:

“Between 1890 and 1907 every Southern and border state ‘legally’ disenfranchised the vast majority of its African American voters. Lynchings rose to an all-time high. In 1896 the Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson.”

Conclusion

The progressive mindset expects things to be getting better all the time. But they don’t, not always. History tells us to expect backlash, and to prepare for ongoing struggle. We can’t just sit back and expect things to happen.

It’s time for deeper understanding and focused action.


A couple key articles to help you decide how to take action in the coming months and years:

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Hi, I'm Scott. I've been in software a long time, and during most of that time I have worked to bridge the people/tech divide. Contact me if your company needs training, coding, or just an experienced outside perspective!

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