Malcom X – The Autobiography of Malcom X

Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D’s? He said something like, ‘I believe that I happen not to be aware of that’ – you know, one of these ultra-proper talking Negroes. and I laid the word down on him loud: Nigger!”

Malcom Little grew up in rural Michigan. His grandmother was likely raped by a White man, resulting in fair skin and Malcom’s red hair. His father was murdered by racists and his mother was shortchanged on his life insurance, reduced to extreme poverty and ultimately institutionalized when she went insane, with Malcom and his many siblings dispersed to foster care. When young Malcom said that he wanted to be a lawyer his teacher told him to pursue something realistic for a black person, like a trade. It wasn’t unusual for a teacher, in the 1930’s, to openly call him a ni**er or a coon.

As Malcom now X states: “why, when all of my ancestors are snake-bitten, and I’m snake bitten, and I warn my children to avoid snakes, what does that snake sound like accusing me of hate teaching? No sane black man really believes that the white man will ever give the black man anything more than token integration.”

Fifty years later a black man has been elected President, but was Malcom X wrong? Was integration a hopeless idea? Does the USA remain a place where “a thousand ways every day the white man is telling you ‘you can’t live here, you can’t enter here, you can’t eat here, drink here, walk here, work here, you can’t ride here, you can’t play here, you can’t study here.”

The current President started his foray into politics with a campaign to prove that the first black President was not an actual American, as if a black man could only achieve the Presidency through lies or trickery. This wasn’t a hindrance, a black mark on his candidacy, it was his candidacy. Blacks and whites today don’t usually live together, study together and remain, in many ways, segregated.  One group is five times more likely to be in prison.   They don’t appear to be separate, as the Nation of Islam wanted, but segregated, the difference explained as “when your life and liberty are controlled, regulated, by some-one else.”

Was integration hopelessly stupid?  What would life look like for black Americans if, as Muhammad demanded, they were given a separate territory, true reparations and allowed to lift themselves out of poverty by sticking with their own kind? What if black America had its own country, factories, fields and businesses, left “free to find out what we can really do“?

Ultimately the question is whether 270 million people will ever be truly willing to unite with the other 30 million.  Undeniably there’s been progress, but that question remains as unanswered as in 1962. That means going to school together, living next door, dating and marrying one another.  Is there some defect whereby your average white person has “deep in his pysche, absolute conviction that he is superior”?

Malcom X was a born extremist. When he was a hustler in Harlem, he was the loudest, wildest, most outrageous criminal in New York. In prison he took to educating himself through books, reading for 18 hours a day for years on end. As a Black Muslim he was the most pious, dedicated and outspoken member. It isn’t surprising then that his life ended prematurely, not that this was in any way deserved.

All told this book transplants the reader into the mind of someone that suffered immense pain as a result of racism and it’s impossible not to come away with sympathy and understanding for his anger. As he states it’s a miracle that more people aren’t as angry as he is. The saddest thing in the entire book is that young Malcom wanted to be a lawyer, but was discouraged from it due to his race and never even finished high school. If anyone on this planet, past or present, was a perfect fit for being a lawyer it was probably Malcom X, but he never became one. Nothing speaks more to the tragedy of racism than the incompatibility of those two simple facts.




Daniel Smith: Monkey Mind

Recently I’ve become more interested in psychology due to chronic illness and my own challenges dealing with it. Buddha’s Brain was a fantastic read and purchased at the same wonderful bookshop (Buxton NC, great shop!) as Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith’s memoir to  anxiety.

Anxiety is a state of hyper-arousal and vigilance disproportionate to the threat posed, a “cognitive appraisal of imminent threat or danger.” We all have anxiety. If I’m in the woods on a hike and I start feeling like I’m a bit lost, I immediately start to get anxious. Being lost is not safe and the senses start kicking into overdrive. I’m highly attuned to everything around me, both for danger (a bear, a hole where I might break my ankle, signs that support the thought that I have no clue where I am) and to solving this problem. I check the map or my compass every two seconds. Each hill is compared to a possible contour line on the map. The mind wanders to worst case scenarios: is my compass broken? Did I walk straight over a trail and not notice? Subconsciously I’m thinking of dying of thirst or the humiliation of a mass search and rescue team bailing me out.  The fear guides me to safety and eventually I’m on a trail or clearly know where I am on my map. Game Over for anxiety.  Anxiety is my friend – it led me to safety.  I might feel intense relief or jubilation, a better feeling than if I hadn’t been temporarily stuck in that anxious state at all. I get a little high from extinguishing it.

But what if every mole hill is a mountain in your brain? Not just mortal threats, like a bus running you over, but the complex social interactions we rely on that involve subtle cues with loads of room for interpretation.  What if you’re highly attuned to making a horrible error at work, or alienating a friend, even when these things are entirely improbable? At this point of mental illness your brain is lost in the woods and everything is a bear attack or a slow death wandering in circles. There’s no relief, jubilation or high, because the attentive vigilance never stops. Not only do you never find your way back to safety, but the over-anxiousness is acknowledged as a problem in and of itself. The hyper vigilance turns its guns on itself, producing anxiety about anxiety.

Feeling stressed out yet? Me too. This book was a deep dive into one person’s unrelenting neurosis. It’s an awful place for Smith to have to live. He tries to lighten up his dungeon with accent pillows and a fresh paint job in the form of humour and with, but it’s still clearly a dungeon.

Smith is a gifted writer, though the style is effete and overwrought, in my humble opinion. The humour is 50-50 at hitting the mark.  The book is not a comprehensive review of anxiety as mental illness, it’s an exposition of Smith’s anxious life. As a memoir Smith’s life story is profoundly boring at any point where anxiety isn’t playing a lead role. I can’t imagine a highly anxious person taking many (if any) risks, so the most dramatic moment is Smith smoking some weed at a phish concert and losing his virginity to an older ugly woman.

Still, as with Confessions of a Sociopath, the weakest point of this book (in that case her endless bragging and lack of insight) is also a weird kind of strength.  The fact that a bumbling teenage sexual experience is the apex of Smith’s life, his weirdest and wildest Girls Gone Wild moment, an internal obsession, is annoying to the reader. It’s also a telling insight into his own mental illness. We might not like it as a conventional reader since it’s kinda dull, but how can you complain when you signed up for a trip into the mind of someone with crippling anxiety? It’s genuinely annoying, but that’s Smith’s life and he’s annoyed at it too. At least most of us get to put the book down or find our way out of the aforementioned woods. Smith doesn’t.

Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

The quote on the cover is apt: “a staggeringly good book.” This is a cutting political dissection of Rwanda from before it was even conceived of to modern times, with the horrific genocide of 1994 the unfortunate climax in this story.  The salient point is that Rwanda and by extension Africa isn’t a hapless mess, but a complex web of competing interests. In the case of Rwanda the country didn’t succumb to barbarism, there is a clear party at fault which is the Hutu supremacists, the perpetrators of the genocide.

There’s a tendency to write off the continent altogether since it seems blighted by war, poverty, dictators and dysfunction. There’s truth in that, but the reality is that the people aren’t amoral savages destined to Hobbesian brutality; they just happen to live in places with a web of competing and conflicting groups and interests, not unlike a Europe of  500 years ago (or even 25 years ago in Yugoslavia). Even an insane situation like genocide can’t be attributed strictly to homicidal barbarism. There is a logic to it and a brutal pursuit of self-interest at play.  Rwanda is decipherable if you pay close attention and anything decipherable is also workable, which is the good news.

The unfortunate truth is that no country and even no individual person can rely on others to save them when in need. To quote The Streets:

“No-one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.  You are the one who’s got your back ’til the last deed’s done.”

When staggering evil is unleashed and you assume that surely someone will realize this and do something, that something might not happen. In the case of Rwanda there was an assumption, or at least a hope, that individual Hutu’s might restrain themselves from killing, that other African nations, the United Nations or the USA would intervene.

Unfortunately it was not in the interest of anyone to risk anything to prevent the Tutsi from being slaughtered, aside from themselves. Individual Hutu found it safer to follow orders, even when it meant hacking your in-laws to death with a machete. The United Nations did not have members willing to fight for the Tutsi, nor did the USA, which was still reeling from the killing of 18 marines in Somalia. The French even sent in troops to aid the butchers as it was somehow calculated that it was in their self-interest. The only salvation for Tutsi’s were other Tutsi’s, as those exiled in Uganda were able to mount a successful invasion of Rwanda and come to their rescue.

The conundrum for Rwandans today is that they must cooperate and identify first as Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi, if the country is to function and anyone is to prosper.  This requires an enormous level of trust, especially when you know the other side has the potential to obliterate you and has tried to recently. If you can’t trust anyone else, how do you then build trust? The good news for Rwandans in all of this is that they at least know they can’t count on the USA, the United Nations or anyone else for guidance or salvation. If they want the country to work and to prosper, only they can truly figure it out.

Currently the country is a dictatorship run mostly by Tutsi’s, who form only about 15% of the population. The human rights record is poor, as opposition and free speech are not tolerated. However, the life expectancy rate has doubled, the economy is doing well and child deaths are much lower. It isn’t an ideal situation as people should be able to speak freely or run for office.

At the same time it’s a logical arrangement as it’d be asking a lot of Tutsi’s to cede power to Hutu’s, akin to Jews handing the reins to Germans in 1955, as would be the case if a free election were held. The objective is to create and instill a Rwandan national identity that supersedes an ethnic identity. When this project is complete and a level of trust is established, there’d be minimized risk that more freedom would lead to violence. In the meantime a Tutsi government ensures the Hutu, if tempted, can’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past.  As with Europe post-WWII the solution to unbearable violence is to expand the concept of who “us” is and hopefully there will be a realization that violence is in nobody’s interest. It isn’t perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems like a Rwandan solution from those who know best the realities of their own country.

I can’t rate this book highly enough if this is a subject that remotely interests you.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

The two previous books were intentionally easy reads as I was prepping to tackle this big boy and stick to my 1/week average. It is after all a summation of all important scientific knowledge known to mankind. Tectonic plates, astronomy, evolution, bacteria, the atom. All that and more.

I admit that when it comes to science I am an ignoramus. I consume a ton of politics, history and even psychology, but scientifically I’m the equivalent of the 11% of Americans that can’t even place their own country on the map.

Why don’t I care about science? I find people interesting, for one. I also don’t much care how scientists came to know something to be true, which is to say all of the computations required to arrive at a conclusion. I don’t know enough to value this work or have an opinion, so it is basically gibberish. Whether it is carbon dating or the theory of relativity, the end result is fascinating, the process less so. The other reason is pure vanity – thinking about the natural world makes me feel small.  I am but one organism among trillions that have existed on Earth over 4 billion years and our planet is potentially just one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in the universe. My body is an assemblage of atoms that will disperse and take other forms. The light I view from a star is actually 800 years old and my most important star, the sun, will eventually burn out entirely.  It’s enough to make anyone feel insignificant, which is probably why most religions imagine a world centered around the Earth and humans.

Still, when learning more it appears we are extraordinarily lucky. It is totally possible the big bang might not have produced matter or that gravity could have collapsed the universe. The Earth could be a few degrees further from the Sun, rendering it a frozen wasteland. The atmosphere might not have arisen and cosmic rays would enter Earth, burning my flesh (or whatever little bit of algae or mollusk that might become me). Bacteria, asteroids, cooling or heating of the Earth, massive volcanic eruptions, neanderthals bashing homo sapiens to death with clubs. All would mean no me.  If a piece of Earth hadn’t chunked off and reassembled as the moon the sun would be setting on me as I type this as a day would only be about 8 hours long.  It isn’t fate that I’m here, just luck. I’m extremely fortunate for that and I’m grateful. That extreme fortuity makes me feel less small in the scheme of things.

This book is fantastic if you mostly want a history of scientific thought, with just a bare bones explanation as to how scientists arrived at their conclusions. Bryson sprinkles in the stories of the scientists themselves, which are often hilarious, bizarre, sad (those who pursued theories for their entire life that were wrong or those who were never recognized in their time) and often inspiring. Nearly every new discovery was viciously opposed as status quo scientists dug their heels into existing paradigms for reasons of inertia, power, money or lack of imagination. This book is great as it is as much a story of the humans who have uncovered some of the universe’s secrets as it is a list of what they found. We owe them all, even those who failed, a tremendous debt.




Robert Sutton: The No Asshole Rule

I’ve been buying used books lately and because they are cheap I often buy books I wouldn’t shell out $20 for. If they stink, no big loss. Also helps when they are short. Enter The No Asshole Rule.

This book is focused on the business world, but the same rules apply in any area of life. This management guru takes a Buddhist approach, arguing that not only does treating people well produce better results (for a business), but is also just the right thing to do since it makes people happier and improves the lives of them and those around them.

I think the biggest misconception that this book dispels is that being an asshole is necessary to produce results. It will often benefit someone short-term in moving up the corporate ladder, but it produces negative results for the organization. Employees quit, spend more time protecting themselves then doing a good job (they don’t report mistakes that can help improve efficiency), become disengaged (steal more, do poor work), it becomes harder to hire people or a “premium” is required (i.e. you have to pay people more) and managers and human resources spend time resolving conflict or even lawsuits.

The supposed superstar, who is a raging jerk, when you tally up the costs of them being an asshole is actually incompetent. A single salesperson, who was good at sales, was shown to have cost his company $160,000/year through being an asshole. His success was also inflated since he stole easy sales from other employees.

The other example is a surgical team. The surgical team led by a tyrant has no reported errors. Was everything done perfectly? No, the errors just weren’t reported by underlings out of fear. The mistakes persisted. The surgical team lead by a non-asshole reported ten times as many surgical errors because no one feared the boss, allowing the team to fix the problems and becoming more efficient. The bottom line is that ruling through fear, on the whole, doesn’t work, especially in larger organizations.

The New Zealand All Blacks were the most talented rugby team in the early 2000s, but the results didn’t show it. They failed to win the rugby world cup repeatedly, despite having the best players. An assessment of the culture found that the players were talented, but were arrogant, self-absorbed and partied too much. A major culture change was instituted, culminating in the No Dickheads rule. The team requires an attitudinal change and they back this up with action. No matter how good you are they won’t select you if you have a poor attitude. I’m sure a few NFL coaches would have been happier with a no T.O. rule.

The result for the All Blacks has been unparalleled success, winning world cups and setting records for most wins. On the field they never bicker, argue with the ref and rarely have off field drama.  A star player recently got caught having sex in an airport, landing him on the bench for an extended period despite his talents.

The disturbing part of this book were studies showing that power causes most people to treat others beneath them poorly, the “kiss up, kick down” effect. This isn’t surprising to anyone that has worked in an office. I had a boss that was a disgusting sycophant with higher ups to the point where he literally would never disagree with them, even on a minor insignificant point. He’d agree to incorrect facts knowingly, which might have helped him, but caused great harm to the organization. Sadly he was promoted, but I recently heard he is now engaged in constant conflict. Not surprising.

The other point made in the book is that the jerks themselves inevitably suffer for their own arrogance. Michael Eisner of Disney was fired for being an asshole. Others accrue enemies who pounce when a moment of weakness is detected. Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, governed like a dickhead. When he was weakened people didn’t hesitate to turn on him and he was trounced in the last election. In the extreme case of Steve Jobs he was so arrogant that he believed an all juice diet would defeat cancer. Many assholes think this trait gives them success, but that is usually just confirmation bias. They typically have the skills needed to succeed without acting that way. In the end they suffer for their behaviour.

My old rugby team had a few players that were self-declared assholes. They were rude to new players, insulted or ignored others and blamed everyone else. They managed to be key leaders, deciding things like who gets playing time. As a result of being dicks they had to spend a miserable season losing badly and playing a full 80 minutes every game. Other players had quit, new players didn’t join and nobody played hard.  Two don’t play anymore though they’d like to and one guy plays for another team where he has no status whatsoever. They tried to put together a team to play in a tournament, but found they didn’t have enough friends to field a decent side. Being an asshole may have been fun, but they didn’t benefit from it in the end.

Highly recommend for a short read, especially if you work in an office setting. Also, take the asshole test yourself to make sure you aren’t part of the problem:

Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed

In this book the author descends from the upper class to play class tourist for a few months. She waits tables, cleans hotel room and arranges clothing at a Wal-Mart. Kind of like The Simple Life for the Sex and the City gals.  Couldn’t help but hum the peppy Pulp song Common People while reading this, as it’s about a woman wants to live like a commoner because it seems “cool”….and of course to have sex with Jarvis Cocker.

Unsurprisingly the working poor in the United States have it terribly. They don’t earn enough to cover the basic necessities of life, even if they work like animals. They are treated with disdain in the culture (“trailer trash”) and face daily humiliations in the form of drug testing and supervisors bent on degrading them.

The author herself was depressing as she does care about the poor, but is so obliviously classist that she demeans and classifies the poor as the “other” constantly. She points out a million times that she has a PHD, as though this implies some kind of superpower. When she shares a laugh with a co-worker, she is quick to point out that she laughs from a “feminist” perspective while the co-worker laughs from a “Christian” perspective. She mentions that an African American friend is an “educated feminist,” as though she wouldn’t befriend your average African American, only special ones.

The sad part is that even on the supposed left these are all euphemisms meant to denote a higher standing of class, when the emphasis should be that we are all humans. When working at Wal-Mart she mocks the distinction between brands on offer (Jordache – eww) and wonders why her co-workers show respect to their equally dim-witted bosses. She’s totally oblivious to the fact that, for the actual poor, their jobs matter and they have to submit to their superiors, the same as Ehrenreich would probably submit to her editor at the NY Times. I’m sure Jordache and Wrangler are every bit as different and make as much sense as Prada and Gucci.

It gets worse and Ehrenreich begins to imagine during her time at Wal-Mart that she is far too intelligent to simply do her job, so she starts directing her energy towards whipping up pro-union sentiments. She acts as though any average Wal-Mart employee is too stupid to think of this as opposed to the reality, which is that they are too exhausted and probably worry rightfully about being fired or punished. It perpetuates the myth that the poor are stupid and lazy, which the book is supposedly trying to eliminate.

I suppose if you are entirely oblivious to the poor or can only understand their plight if Samatha Bradshaw goes to live with them then this book accomplishes something.

I’ll let Jarvis provide the last word:

” ‘Cause everybody hates a tourist,
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh,
Yeah and the chip stain’s grease,
Will come out in the bath.

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright,
Whilst you can only wonder why.”

Rick Hanson : Buddha’s Brain

In a great podcast by Philosophize This the host Stephen West describes Buddhism as less a religion than the greatest self-help book ever written. Siddhartha Gautama left a pampered rich life for poverty as he realized that, even when you have everything most people aspire to, you are still unhappy.  If money or adoration don’t bring happiness, what does? The OG Buddha left wealth to try to find an answer. He sat alone under a tree where he could observe how his own mind works while also using that same mind to reshape his thinking to generate inner happiness. This was in about 500 BC.

Fast forward to 2017 and in the richest nation in the history of the planet, 1 in 10 people are on anti-depressants. A few days ago the lead singer of Linkin Park, a celebrity who is supposed to be the apex of our culture, took his own life, as did his friend Chris Cornell a few months earlier. South Korea, one of the world’s top 50 nations in wealth, has the 10th highest suicide rate, while Somalia, the absolute worst, is not even in the top 100.

So what gives? If wealth, success or adoration don’t make you happy, what does? The Buddha arguably deduced this in 500 BC and came up with a cure.  Remarkably, as Buddha’s Brain outlines, modern neuroscience is allowing us to see how the brain works and it matches the Buddha.  To use a car analogy it’s like driving a car, thinking very hard about it, and then drawing up a perfect diagram of what’s under the hood. Crazy.

The main point made in the book is that our brain was not developed to create happiness – it was developed for survival. We are naturally fearful and anxious. The brain remembers negative events, but not positive ones. If we gave 100 great presentations and a single poor one, the bad one is remembered.  Our brain also plays out mini simulations almost constantly, some conscious, some not, even when we are asleep. These simulations are usually negative, imagining what others think about us or bad things that could occur but are unlikely. The phrase “bad dream” is common, but there’s no “good dream” equivalent. We do have nice dreams, but not as often and when we do, we tend to forget them quickly.

From an evolutionary standpoint all of the above makes sense. It stopped us from being eaten by lions or drinking from a toxic watering hole. It paid to be neurotic, anxious and afraid. Unlike animals though, who also possess a fearful “monkey mind,” we are also able to reflect on pain that we’ve suffered and have secondary reactions to it.

For example, if someone cuts off of in traffic the actual impact is insignificant. It delays you a few seconds. If they gave you the finger you’d probably be more angry, but that has no actual tangible impact whatsoever. It’s only our secondary reactions that cause us to stew and to suffer: anger, self-doubt, fear, worthlessness etc. The author refers to these as secondary darts and most of us are a tangled mess of pain from the accumulation of all these darts. Animals don’t have these. A dog doesn’t stew over the fact that the other dog cut him off. No wonder they always seem so happy.

The Buddha and this book offer a way out from evolutionary impulses that cause so much suffering. If we use that same brain and other evolutionary traits (empathy, for example, as our brains are wired to be empathetic since our children take very long to reach adulthood) we can rewire ourselves to relax, focus attention on what’s important and reduce the simulations and secondary ruminations that cause us pain.

When people think of Buddhism they think of meditation. Meditation is, in part, the method to achieving this. Meditation involves intense focus on (basically) nothing, which eliminates the simulations and the secondary darts from our minds. Without these we become mindful, which is just to say that our attention is free from anxiety and can be concentrated on what we find to be truly important.

The book explains all of this in scientific terms (i.e. brain scans, chemicals etc.) and through modern psychology. The great news is that this works! I’ve attended the local Buddhist center and meditated regularly for a period of time. It produced a calm feeling and a sense of purpose and concentration I’d never had. I was doing things that would actually make me happy in the long-term, like eating a carrot instead of a cookie, or going to bed on time instead of watching a TV show that could wait, and this didn’t require restraining myself from impulse. It was legitimately what I wanted to do. The bad news is that rolling back thousands of years of evolution is extremely hard work, requiring regular meditation (which is HARD) and constant attention to your own thoughts and actions.

I don’t have any big insights except to say that I hope I can become more mindful and get back to meditating regularly. It would benefit both myself and others around me. This type of Buddhist philosophy or practice is becoming more accepted in the West, particularly in medicine. It’s my hope that it gains more and more traction and others can benefit. Over time hopefully society sees a value in meditation, which is at odds with our consumerist culture as it produces no tangible result and doesn’t make for an interesting Instagram update.

When I think of the ideal end-state it’s Roger Federer. He always seems relaxed, entirely focused, doesn’t react angrily and is quick to praise others and be empathetic.  Watch this video of his acceptance speech at Wimbledon. If that’s not zen he’s doing a great imitation!

I’d highly recommend this book even if you have no intention of meditating or practicing mindfulness as it will at least allow you to understand how your brain works and what might make you happier over the long-term.