Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Tag: books (Page 1 of 6)

Why Liberty: Your Life, Your Choices, Your Future

This is an anthology of essays about why Liberty is important and what it means to be a libertarian (liberal in Europe). The essays, which can be read individually, are written by young people, almost all of them are active in Students For Liberty, a dynamic libertarian international movement, and Tom G. Palmer, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and also the editor. In general, it explores the idea of libertarianism in a context of a general sense; it does not go into great depth, but covers enough to give a basic understanding of the concepts involved.

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ΖΗΤΟΥΝΤΑΙ αλχημιστές

Ξαναδιάβασα πρόσφατα το βιβλίο του Μίμη Ανδρουλάκη ‘Ζητούνται αλχημιστές’. Το είχα διαβάσει για πρώτη φορά όταν εκδόθηκε το 2005, στην ακόμη αθώα κι ανέμελη, προ κρίσης, εποχή. Ένα χρόνο πριν η Ελλάδα είχε οργανώσει τους Ολυμπιακούς Αγώνες. Η οικονομική κρίση ήταν ακόμη μακριά; η κοινή γνώμη συνταρασσόταν από το σκάνδαλο των τηλεφωνικών υποκλοπών, των συνομιλιών του τότε πρωθυπουργού Κώστα Καραμανλή και κορυφαίων στελεχών της ελληνικής κυβέρνησης. Υπουργός Οικονομικών ήταν ο Γιώργος Αλογοσκούφης. Βρισκόμασταν στην αυγή του του 21ου αιώνα, κι ένα ερώτημα πλανιόταν σε ποίκιλες παραλλαγές, σε διάφορα έντυπα. “Where have all the leaders gone?”

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Crucible of Resistance

The Crucible of Resistance, by Christos Laskos, a lecturer of economics and member of SYRIZA and Euclid Tsakalotos, an economist and Greece’s new finance minister, replacing outgoing Yanis Varoufakis in July 2015, provides some interesting clues which help us understand what drove the political behaviour and method of the SYRIZA establishment through an analysis and description of the impact of austerity on Greece since 2008.

The book was written in 2013 and its general argument is that

“for first time in many generations the Left has a convincing interpretation of the present crisis, and this can become a materialistic force breaking old social alliances and forming new ones in favour of a strategy that begins the transcendence of capitalism itself.” (12)

It further makes “four interrelated arguments” ,

  • Non-Exceptionality. – It is a world crisis, Greece is not a special case;
  • It is a Crisis of Neoliberalism and Capitalism. – Rather than locating the causes of the crisis within Greece itself, Laskos and Tsakalotos identify problems in the global economy and the unevenness within the European Union. They highlight a number of “proximate causes of the crisis  – the financial system, social inequalities and macroeconomic imbalances  –  all”, they argue, “integrally connected to the neoliberal settlement”;
  • The Lack of Plasticity in the Post-2008 Political Order. – Austerity has not solved the economic crisis in Greece. Instead, a vicious circle of austerity-recession-more austerity commenced, undermining further Greece’s productive capacities. 

The question is, “why did the crisis of 2008 not present itself as an opportunity for social democracy to reassess its commitment to neoliberalism?” “Cognitive locking was clearly a factor” they claim: “after so many years of neoliberal hegemony they were unable to step out of the groove and see the world from a different perspective.”

The authors’ premise that “Thirty years of neoliberal economics [in Greece] seems to have dimmed peoples’ memories about how large recessions play out”, is questionable, as later in the book they claim “…. that Greece is in fact a small closed, and not open economy ……” (108)

  • No Turning Back. – “… to the period of neoliberalism as experienced in the period before 2008.” That suggests “that the most likely resolution to the crisis will be either in the direction of a far more authoritarian capitalist settlement, or moves to transcendent capitalism, in some important dimensions.” (1-10)

This is a book about ideas and alternatives. The ideas matter and they are “particularly important in moments of uncertainty when established institutions do not seem to be working”, the authors claim. In the Acknowledgements’ page they say that the ideas presented in the book

“have been tested over the five years” [over the consolidation of SYRIZA] in “countless meetings, conferences, student gatherings and other fora where literally thousands of people have expressed a remarkable interest in discussing the causes of current crisis and the nature of left wing alternatives or what Erik Olin Wright has labelled Real Utopias.”

If that means that the idea was to use the crisis and the struggle to shape the pathways of social empowerment, test the limits of possibilities and try to create new institutions that would neutralise some of the most harmful effects of capitalism, is not very clear.

The SYRIZA – ANEL government was elected in January based on its promise to try to bargain a better deal than the “severe neoliberal austerity” imposed through the memoranda signed by previous governments.  In its first five months of governance, the SYRIZA-led coalition has continually tested the limits of the country and the European Union.  After months of ferocious “negotiations” the SYRIZA-led coalition realised that they weren’t really negotiating. Faced with the country’s economic and financial disaster, the government was forced to make very serious concessions, testing the limits of SYRIZA’s own identity. Perhaps things would have been different if other persons have been placed in critical positions.  I guess, we will never know, we can only speculate.

Jonathan Franzen’s Discomfort Zone

I like Jonathan Franzen’s writing. I like his storytelling ability, the power, the elegance and the clarity in his writing.

But, I have mixed feelings about “The Discomfort Zone”. That four of the six chapters of the books have previously appeared, as separate pieces in the New Yorker, makes you think that Franzen used these pre-existing essays to produce a personal history-narrative. Perhaps this is the reason that the book lacks the continuity and the linearity of a memoir and, it also a good reason not to buy this book; I have borrowed mine from the library.

Centrally Located” is the less successful chapter of the book. Despite the abundance of characters, and dialogue (a high school chess team, form a group of teen pranksters called DIOTI— an anagram of Idiot), the story lacks purpose and destination. Perhaps the reader would benefit from skipping a few pages.

Despite the structural problems and the redundancies that make the book good but not great, is worth reading. The “House for Sale” and “My Bird Problem,” are truly wonderful essays. Franzen’s writing is strong, humorous and engaging. Dominant is his disregard for political-correctness, too.

[..... I was enraged about the aftermath of Katrina, too. For a while, that September, I couldn’t go online, open a newspaper, or even take cash from an ATM without encountering entreaties to aid the hurricane’s homeless victims. The fund-raising apparatus was so far-reaching and well orchestrated it seemed quasi-official, like the “Support Our Troops” ribbons that had shown up on half the country’s cars overnight. But it seemed to me that helping Katrina’s homeless victims ought to be the  government’s job, not mine. I’d always voted for candidates who wanted to raise my taxes, because I thought paying taxes was patriotic and because my idea of how to be left alone—my libertarian ideal!—was a well-funded, well-managed central government that spared me from having to make a hundred different spending decisions every week. Like, was Katrina as bad as the Pakistan earthquake? As bad as breast cancer? As bad as AIDS in Africa? Not as bad? How much less bad? I wanted my government to figure these things out.
It was true that the Bush tax cuts had put some extra money in my pocket, and even those of us who hadn’t voted for a privatised America still obliged to be good citizens. But with government abandoning so many of its former responsibilities, there were now hundreds of new causes to contribute to. Bush hadn’t just neglected emergency management and flood control; aside from Iraq, there wasn’t much he hadn’t neglected. Why should I pony up for this particular disaster? And why give political succor to people I believed were ruining the country? If the Republicans were so opposed to big government, let them ask their own donors to pony up! ……]

Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

Is your brain male or female?

That was the title of BBC documentary in 2014.  In one of the documentary interviews,  Michael Mosley, a British physician claimed that “studies” have found that women are better at “empathizing and communicating”, while men are better at “systematising”  which means  understanding and building systems-not just computers and machinery, but abstract systems such as politics and music. Michael Mosley has been strongly influenced by the work of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University who argued that the differences between male and female brains occur because of the higher testosterone levels in the womb.  No need to say who have the highest levels.

Simon Baron-Cohen  is so confident that there is a link between foetal testosterone and  mathematical ability that

….’he expresses concern that a future, hypothetical prenatal treatment for autism that blocks the action of foetal testosterone might reduce ‘that baby’s future ability to attend to details and to understand systemic information like maths’.

In Delusions of Gender the psychologist Cordelia Fine spends a lot of time discussing the topic of foetal testosterone, exposes the bad science and reveals how unconscious gender bias influences people’s behaviour. Her initial motivation, she says in an interview in the American Scientist,  was “simply to alert people to the fact that old-fashioned stereotypes are being dressed up in neuroscientific finery, and to remind people not to be so enthralled with brain imaging that they forget the importance of social factors.”

She discusses research into hormonally-driven “hard-wiring” of gendered interests, behaviours and aptitudes,  aka neurosexism. She is also funny!

brains….  [W]hen I decided to follow up [Louann] Brizendine’s claim  (Louann Brizendine is an American neuropsychiatrist) that the female brain is wired to empathize, it nonetheless proved to be an exercise that turned up surprise after surprise. I tracked down every neuroscience study cited by Brizendine as evidence for feminine superiority in mind reading. (No, really, no need to thank me. I do this sort of thing for pleasure). There were many such references, over just a few pages of text, creating the impression that it is no mere opinion, but scientifically established fact, that the female brain is wired for empathy in a way that the male brain is not. Yet fact-checking revealed the deployment of some rather misleading practices. For example, let’s work our way through the middle of page 162 to the top of page 164 in her book (The female brain, 2007). We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, All of the therapists who showed these responses happened to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.

There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, says Cordelia Fine, but the wiring is soft. Thinking, learning, sensing can all change neural structure directly. As Bruce Wexler has argued, one important implication of this neuroplasticity is that we are not locked into the absolute hardware of our ancestors. We are not prisoners of our genders or our genes.

“ In addition to having the longest period during which brain growth is shaped by the environment, human beings alter the environment that shapes their brains to a degree without precedent among animals ….. It is this ability to shape the environment that in turn shapes our brains that has allowed human adaptability and capability to develop at a much faster rate than is possible through alternation of the genetic code itself. This transgenerational shaping of brain function through culture also means that processes that govern the evolution of societies and cultures have a great influence on how our individual brains and minds work.”

In the epilogue of her book, Fine writes:

“The fluidity of the self and the mind is impressive and is in continual cahoots with the environment. When social psychologists discover, for example, that mere words (like competition), everyday objects (like briefcases and boardroom tables), people, or even scenery can trigger particular motives in us, or that similar role models can seep into our most private ambitions, it makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality. We are justified in wondering whether, as gender scholar Michael Kimmel suggests, “gender difference is a product of gender inequality, and not the other way around.”

As for hormones that act on the brain, if you cuddle a baby, get a promotion, see billboard after billboard of near-naked women, or hear a gender stereotype that places one sex at a higher status than the other, don’t expect your hormonal state to remain impervious. It won’t. “Even how we behave or what we think about can affect the levels of our sex hormones,” point out Gene Worship authors Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers.

Our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable, and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.

V.S. Naipaul – The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage (1962) is V.S. Naipaul’s first work of travel writing. It is an account of his returning journey to five Caribbean “post-colonial” societies, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica.

The Middle Passage, Naipaul takes the title of his book from the name for the route travelled by the slaves as they were transported from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies, is a highly personal book. Naipaul is continuously confronted with his feelings, the fear of returning to tropical Trinidad, the fear of remembering. Not surprisingly, emotions make him unconsciously biased toward the people of his native country and the other post colonial Caribbean countries. He lucks that kind of stimuli, the rigour and the emotional curiosity of a traveller.

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