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‘The Vaccine Race’ by Meredith Wadman

We stand at a moment of tremendous importance in the history of human medicine. biotechnology companies shattered records last November when they finally submitted results to the CDC and FDA for the approval of multiple novel coronavirus vaccines, and the United States is about to roll out the largest and most aggressive mass vaccination campaign in its history. Furthermore, the current nucleic acid and viral vector COVID19 vaccine platforms are truly cutting edge science and seem likely to dominate vaccine production and development going forward.

Still, the world of public health has recently been hitting major milestones beyond these new COVID vaccines. In December 2019 (just before SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in China), the FDA approved Ervebo (a recombinant, replication-competent Ebola vaccine utilizing a vesicular stomatitis viral vector). Then, in August of 2020, the WHO officially certified Africa as a wild poliovirus-free region (a 24-year campaign kicked off by a call to action from Nelson Mandella).

Still, the only way to truly understand these achievements is to understand the history that brought us here. Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race takes us back to a time when these massive medical achievements may have sounded like a pipe dream and slowly walks us up to the moments when vaccinology made its biggest early leaps. If you’re the kind of person who wishes to truly understand the moment we’re in, this is the book for you.

Wadman may have written this book in the far-off, pre-COVID, days of 2017, but it is truly a book for this moment. I came into this pandemic already passionate about history and biotechnology, but reading this book during COVID made it so much more important to me.


The Basics

In a practical sense, I should warn you that this is no light read. In total, the book is 361 pages split into 3 multi-chapter parts, a prologue, and an epilogue. Despite the intimidating title and size, however, this book is often fairly approachable.

I know my penchant for seemingly mundane nonfiction isn’t average, but in between Wadman’s plain-english explanations of vaccine science, the heart of this book lies in its characters. Even the seemly “small” characters are given proper recognition for the vital roles they played. In fact, this focus on the “hidden figures” may be one of the most endearing aspects of The Vaccine Race altogether.


What’s it About?

This book NEVER shies away from the science behind these vaccines and the VERY compelling drama between researchers and regulators. However, The Vaccine Race‘s biggest features are its focus on the social and political context surrounding early vaccines and the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from this era’s medical research practices.

To help understand the book’s tone, and the perspective it takes on vaccine history, I’ve included an excerpt from the prologue:

The men who conducted unethical human experiments in this era were not medical outliers. They were top physicians and research operating with the full backing of the U.S. government, private funders, and esteemed medical schools and hospitals.

To remove the history of human exploitation from vaccines and medicines that were developed in the postwar era is impossible. The knowledge that allowed their development is woven into them.

Should we, therefore, shun them? Definitely not.

Take rubella as a case in point. As I write this in the summer of 2016, 1,700 babied in a dozen countries have been born with abnormally small heads or other brain malformations; their mothers were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant.

Zika’s emergence is a vivid reminder of what life was like in the United States in 1964. Then, there was no Rubella vaccine and tens of thousands of American babies were born gravely damaged by the rubella virus, which selectively harms fetuses in the womb.

Like Zika, rubella homes in on the brains of fetuses; it also ravages their eyes, ears, and hearts. But today, thanks to the vaccine that was perfected in experiments on institutionalized orphans and intellectually disabled children, indigenous rubella has been wiped out in the Western Hemisphere. Cases occur only when they are imported from other countries.

We can’t turn the clock back. The only way we can partially make it up to these children and untold others is to honor their contributions by making them meaningful – by continuing to vaccinate against rubella and the other diseases that made childhood a perilous journey before vaccines against them existed.

We also need to strive constantly to enforce and improve the regulations and laws that protect research subjects so that in the future such abuses never happen again. We might also remember, when judging the men who took advantage of vulnerable human beings in order to advance both human health and their own careers, that they were creatures of their time, just as we are of ours.

Rather than training our criticism on them, it might be more useful to ask ourselves this: what are we doing or accepting or averting our eyes from today that will cause our grandchildren to look at us and ask, How could you have let that happen?

The Vaccine Race, Meredith Wadman

Getting Specific

Cutting through all of my previous generalities, this book focuses primarily on vaccines produced recently after the Salk dead poliovirus vaccine (including several ‘live’ polio vaccines, rabies vaccines, and rubella vaccines), and a heavy portion of our attention is spent on Leonard Hayflick and his ‘WI-38 cells’.

What are WI-38 cells?

Put as simply as I can, WI-38 cells are a line of human fibroblasts derived from fetal lung tissue collected after an elective Swedish abortion performed in 1962.

What do they have to do with vaccines?

These cells were a watershed moment in modern science and launched the study of cellular aging, but more importantly to us, they also revolutionized vaccine production. Before Leonard Hayflick, vaccines were mostly produced by utilizing harvested monkey kidney cells… a process that was far more expensive and far less safe than using human cell lines like WI-38.

The utilization of live monkeys in this process was so dangerous that it even caused the nightmarish first recorded outbreak of Marburg virus (a close relative to Ebola) in a group of German scientists handling vaccine monkeys. Still, the move away from harvested monkey kidney cell production did NOT happen overnight (especially in the United States). Many powerful people fought against the approval of WI-38 cells in vaccine production, launching the central drama of this book.


Wrapping it Up

The Vaccine Race doesn’t approach vaccines as some hard to understand bottle of liquid that only doctors and nerds like me need to worry about. It takes a proactive role in understanding these miraculous inventions and makes an argument for why everyone should care about them. This book may not be for everyone, but I think we’d be better as a country if more people gave it a read.

This spirit is best summed up by a quote Wadman includes from her conversation with an Ebola vaccine research volunteer in the United States:

Grant, a twenty-six-year-old apartment manager says that he began volunteering for vaccine trials as a way to earn some extra cash but has come to consider it something of a civic duty.

“It’s not this weird, cold, archaic process anymore,” he says when prompted to compare the trial with experiments on prisoners and orphans fifty and sixty years ago. “Why not donate my body and my time?”

The Vaccine Race, Meredith Wadman

Unfortunately, the threat of pandemic diseases such as Sars-COV-19 won’t go away after this particular virus is dealt with. New, rapid to produce platforms like the mRNA Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are going to be a huge help, but these are only one piece of the puzzle and there is always room for improvement.

An increased civic focus on vaccine technology and public health more broadly may help prepare our nation for future pandemics and encourage proactive investment in public health, but changes like this often come in small steps. For now, reading The Vaccine Race was the least I could do.


Additional Resources for Exploring COVID19 Vaccines:

Non-Specific Resources Regarding Vaccines:

Featured

We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Anti-racism protests have swept the globe, and the response has been unlike anything we’ve seen before. Many of the quarantined residents of the United States have taken the opportunity to reflect on the history and present realities of racism in our country. It’s too early to know where this will take us, but a critical mass of white Americans are in a moment of reckoning.

The issues are deep and complex, but one small way people have approached the moment is by reading books focused on racism. So, I thought I would do my small part by sharing books which can help us all to understand racism just a little more. Two weeks ago I wrote about The Cross and The Lynching Tree by Dr. James Cone. Today, I chose We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Coates has devoted much of his creative work to the topic of racism in the United States, so reading anything by him would be a great start. He has many thought-provoking articles in The Atlantic (only some of which are featured in We Were Eight Years In Power) and his 2015 book Between the World and Me is what launched Coates into the notoriety he holds today, but We Were Eight Years In Power brings something special to this moment.


If there is one unifying focus throughout We Were Eight Years In Power it is to understand and reflect upon the 8 years of Obama’s presidency, but there is more to this book. Coates does not stop at the surface. Truly understanding those 8 years of American history requires diving into the larger context of Michelle, Barack, and the worlds they operated in – leaving the reader with a better understanding of who we are as a country and the interwoven cultural and historical forces that are still at play today.

The basic structure of the book is simple. Beyond the intro and epilogue, there are 8 sections – representing each of Obama’s 8 years as president. Then, for each year Coates includes an original essay titled “Notes From the _th Year” followed by a selected essay Coates published in The Atlantic that same year. So, even if you don’t have the opportunity to buy this book, I’ve included links to all of his previously published essays in The Atlantic that also make their way into We Were Eight Years In Power.


When I bought this book, I was expecting a cerebral, distanced, look at the United States and the policies of Obama. To be sure, the book does give some of that, but We Were Eight Years In Power is as much about Coates’s own personal and professional development during the age of Obama as it is on his intellectual insight and critique.

One part that I loved (and did not expect) is Coates’s focus on his own creative development throughout each of the 8 years. Coates speaks openly about the influence of Hip-Hop on his writing and his struggle to bring the “music” in his head onto the page is touched on throughout. In addition, Coates regularly explores his struggle to find his place in the larger Black American literary tradition. At the outset, he sees himself connected to previous writers who “screamed into the waves” – defiantly writing truth in a racist America, but never achieving popularity or changing many minds because of that commitment to truth. However, Obama’s election opened up a wide range of unseen opportunities for black writers and Coates becomes incredibly popular.

Coates’s intellectual observations are the primary reason why I recommend reading it, but these moments of personal narrative give the book its heart. Furthermore, connecting each section through this chronological arc provides an opportunity to reflect on Coates’s ideological growth.

From the start, Coates is inherently skeptical of the relatively conservative Obama, but without being “converted” over to some pro-Obama camp, Coates comes out of this book seeming to appreciate Barack for his strengths and weaknesses at a nuanced level.


To understand this book, however, it’s worth remembering that it was published in the fall of 2017. Many of the messages in this book are inseparable from the national psyche surrounding Trump’s election and early presidency. Everyone was trying to understand “How?!”

There was (and still is) a cottage industry designated to help us “understand Trump”. To give you one example, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? was published only 1 month before We Were Eight Years In Power. In many ways, We Were Eight Years In Power is also an “understand Trump” book, but Coates responded with one glaring critique to all the other writers and pundits: Before anything else, Trump’s political career began – and continues to be – a racist response to the first black president.

To quote Coates’s final essay, “The First White President”,

It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man – no matter how fallen – can be president.”

“The First White President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

The tagline of Coates’s Atlantic article reads, “The foundation of Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.” The two of them are far more connected than we often admit, and understanding their relationship is a first step in understanding our country and our legacy.

In a post-Charolette, post-George Floyd United States we may finally be turning around to understanding the importance of racism to Trump, but Coates’s message to remember racism is needed more than ever.


In summary, We Were Eight Years in Power is thoughtful, deep, incredibly personal, and it embodies the “how the hell did this happen?” energies of the early Trump years, but it also challenges us to think historically about racism and approach aspects of Black culture and history such as Malcolm X, the Obamas, and the South Side of Chicago in ways that most white Americans don’t sufficiently understand.

You should read it if you get the chance.


A Break Down of Each Section

Introduction

Coates begins his book with an intro essay titled, “Regarding Good Negro Government”, setting the stage for the parallel observation of Obama’s presidency and Trump with post-Civil War Reconstruction and the emergence of “Southern Redemption” that followed.

After the Civil War, many majority black and multi-racial coalitions took power in the South and made significant progress in leading their states forward from the devastation of war. But however good those black and multi-racial governments may have been, they eventually fell to white supremacy. The success of black and multiracial coalitions spits in the face of white supremacy and its dominant assumptions. To paraphrase Coates, “the only thing that scared people more than bad negro government was good negro government”.

In this way, “Regarding Good Negro Government” sets the stage for We Were Eight Years In Power and is key to Coates’s understanding of both Obama and Trump. However, in addition to providing the rich historical parallel, the introduction prepares us to spend much of the book looking back throughout American history.


The 1st Year

After Coates’s “Notes From the 1st Year” he chooses to include his Atlantic article, “‘This is How We Lost to the White Man’: The Audacity fo Bill Cosby’s Black Conservatism”.

At first glance, this first selection seems far off from the Obama’s or Reconstruction, but this dive into Cosby takes us into a very important conservative cultural dynamic which proves key to Coates’s later analysis of Obama. Believe it or not, set next to the other essays in this book, “This Is How We Lost to the White Man” can help the reader to understand figures like Malcolm X and larger aspects of the black cultural environment in which Obama has come out of.

Ultimately, Coates sees a lot of positive attributes in Malcolm and eventually Obama, but If you can’t tell by the word “Audacity”, Coates frequently finds himself on the other side of arguments with such “Black Conservatism” and he doesn’t hold back in this first essay.

The 2nd Year

After Coates’s “Notes From the 2nd Year,” he includes a bio he wrote for Michelle Obama during the early stages of the first presidential campaign, “American Girl”. However, this essay lays the groundwork for another important lens Coates uses to understand Barack, the South Side of Chicago.

Although this essay looks particularly at Michelle’s roots in the South Side, the traditions and uniqueness of this community play another key role in Coates’s understanding of Barack’s rise to the presidency and he references the South Side throughout the book. To Coates, Obama’s rise to become “the first black president” was as much about the South Side community he rooted himself in as it was about his own personal achievement and unique multi-racial background.

The first black congressmen elected in the twentieth century were South Siders Oscar De Priest and his successor Arthur Mitchell. For years, they were the only black congressmen.

The only two serious African American presidential campaigns – those of Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama – came out of the South Side.

Indeed, Barack Obama, Louis Farrakhan, and Jesse Jackson all lived or worked within a ten-minute drive of each other.

American Girl, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

The 3rd Year

After “Notes From The 3rd Year,” Coates selects “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War” for that year’s essay. In addition to taking a deep and serious look at our history and shining more light on the context of reconstruction, this one is emotionally POWERFUL.

I grew up in a world that may have considered the confederacy “bad,” but shied away from the grand Tolkien-esque narratives of “Good vs. Evil” that we ascribe to WWII. Coates delivers that narrative in “Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War” and it stirred my soul.

The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that would avoid what professional historians now know to be true:

that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stropped them.

“Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

But despite the “Good vs. Evil” sentiments, Coates doesn’t shy away from criticizing the North as well.

… For the blameless North, it throws up the failed legacy of appeasement of slaveholders, the craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people, and the unwillingness, in the Reconstruction years, to finish what the war started.

“Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

By the end of this essay, Coates paints a picture of the American Civil War that mirrors popular perceptions of the American Revolutionary War, and he includes quotes by Frederick Douglas to give it that weight of importance.

It was a great thing to achieve American independence when we numbered three millions. But it was a greater thing to save this country from dismemberment and ruin when it numbered thirty millions.

Frederick Douglas

In our contemporary context, this essay contributes a lot to the conversation on confederate flags and statues, but it also offers a historical perspective on the current protests and the more violent aspects that have attracted headlines.

For realists, the true story of the Civil War illuminates the problem of ostensibly sober-minded compromise with powerful, and intractable, evil.

For radicals, the wave of white terrorism that followed the war offers lessons on the price of revolutionary change.

(and)

White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.

“Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

The 4th Year

After “Notes From The 4th Year,” Coates chooses “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives on In Barack Obama” as that year’s essay. It is easy to reduce Malcolm into a caricature in perpetual debate with another caricature of MLK, but there is more under the surface.

I’ve studied Malcolm X before, but “The Legacy of Malcolm X” may still be the essay I learned the most from in We Were Eight Years In Power. It helped me to build a bigger picture of Malcolm, Obama, black conservatism, and even the concept of black excellence.

Coates’s view of Barack still has another 4 years to develop, but this essay is a crucial “starting point” to that understanding. Coates will never ignore the policy failures that he saw in Obama, but the biggest success Coates saw in the first family was their accomplishment for black excellence and culture.

The 5th Year

After “Notes From The 5th Year” Coates chooses “Fear of a Black President”, and the spirit of this essay can be found in one quote:

(The Obama-era) A time marked by a revolution that must never announce itself, by a democracy that must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped by it.

Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.

“Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

Here is where I think Coates’s critiques of Obama’s conservatism and policy first become most nuanced. To a liberal looking back, it is easy to point at moments when Obama shied away from using his bully pulpit to address racism. However, It seems that on every occasion Obama said something to remind us of his blackness, all hell broke loose – and attention turned away from his policy agenda.

During one such controversy, Obama said this to Coates,

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed… but nobody’s been paying much attention to health care”

“Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

The truth is, Obama did a lot to try and hide his blackness because of the “problems” it would create for his work. I’ve talked in another post about Obama’s affinity toward the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and this is a place where it really shines through.

To give you a sense of Niebuhr, here is a quote of Obama referring to his work in a New York Times Article.

“I take away… the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.

I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Obama, Gospel and Verse“, Opinion Piece by David Brooks, The New York Times

Obama strived for that perfect balance between naïve idealism and bitter realism, and this tight rope was extended to how he addressed race as president.

Obama fully understood the restraints of racism in the United States. Yet, within those restraints, Obama was most concerned with affecting as much practical change as was possible; he chose to make sacrifices. At times, Obama avoided race in hopes of holding together a winning political coalition in a majority white country.

But to Coates, this tightrope walk of avoiding blackness finally sees its glaring limitations at the levels of the presidency. Obama may have been the best at it, but that tactic was never enough.

Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed.

This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.

“Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

The 6th Year

The 6th year is an important year. This year marks the moment when things begin coming together for Coates and his art. In earlier years, he blogs and reads to challenge himself and master his craft, and up until this point, Coates critiques the execution of each selected essay. He was always in the process of better translating the music in his head to words on a page, but his 6th year essay, “A Case for Reparations” marks the first moment he feels he did it right.

“A Case for Reparations” is a powerful essay. I read it a few years ago as part of a poli-sci class and it’s changed my thinking ever since. If you get the chance, definitely read it at The Atlantic. But for now, I’d like to take this section to focus on the important personal dynamics that Coates explores in Year 6.

Creatively, all the pieces come together when he writes “A Case for Reparations”, and the article accelerates his career to what it is now. In addition, his newfound popularity puts Coates’s career on Obama’s radar like never before – setting up a new stage in their relationship.

Coates had always publicly disagreed with Obama, but now, Coates was notable enough that Obama (the former law professor that he was) began inviting Coates to the Oval Office for private face-to-face debates. In many ways, “The Case for Reparations” is a response to the politics of evasion and Obama’s tightrope tactics laid out in “Fear of a Black President”. So, it makes sense that Obama felt a need to challenge him.

The 7th Year

After “Notes from the 7th Year” Coates includes “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. Of all the essays in We Were Eight Years In Power, this one may be the most relevant to the ongoing dialogue regarding policing and criminal justice reform. As the title would suggest, this essay is laser-focused on the impact of our “carceral state” and the war on drugs. However, this essay can also serve as the basis for a well deserve liberal response toward the importance of families.

It’s far too often that the influence of healthy and unhealthy families becomes a talking point exclusively touted by conservative voices blaming the black community for their own problems. However, Coates takes a dive into the roll history and government policy actually play in the destruction of black families, causing a negative ripple effect to cripple those communities.

The 8th Year

Finally, Coates finishes the Obama-era with “Notes From the 8th Year” and his essay “My President Was Black”. After eight years of criticizing and seeking to understand Barack Obama, Coates comes out with an appreciative view of the man. Coates never throws on rose-colored glasses and “converts” over to Obama’s world view or politics, but (with Trump’s election looming) Coates takes the time to appreciate just how important Obama was to him and to the country.

Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols.

The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.

“My President Was Black”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

To top it off, this is the first chapter Coates really dives into the heart of Obama’s biography. Of all the essays, “My President Was Black” taught me the most about Obama’s life and upbringing. It was a heck of a way to close things out.


Epilogue, “The First White President”

Then, you have the epilogue: “The First White President”. Apparently it upset some people when he first published it… I loved it.

At the surface level, “The First White President” zeros in on the unavoidably racist core of Trump as a backlash movement in response to Obama. However, the essay also pushes us to understand often ignored aspects of racism in our country.

Much of the conversation around Trump’s victory focuses on “the white working class” and “elites” ignoring the “common folks” living in the rust belt. But Trump won white people across the board, and other members of the “working class” didn’t turn to him in a similar fashion.

… any empirical evaluation of the relationship between Trump and the white working class would reveal that one adjective in that phrase was doing more work than the other…

Indeed, the plurality of all voters making under $100,000 and the majority making under $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate.

So when Packer (a previously mentioned essayist) laments the fact that “Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people – not white ones, anyway,” he commits a kind of category error.

The real problem is that Democrats aren’t the party of white people – working or otherwise.

White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.

“The First White President”, Ta Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)

It’s More Than Content Though, Coates’s Writing is Beautiful.

Simply put, his writing is magnetic.

If there is one thing I love most about reading We Were Eight Years In Power, it comes back to something Coates said about the writing of James Baldwin. During Coates’s “Notes On The 7th Year,” he talks about rereading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

To Coates, Baldwin’s writing had a beauty to it that worked on multiple layers. Baldwin could pull from detailed memoir, provide stunning analysis, and even pull the reader into concrete reportage.

Coates openly decided Baldwin’s blend of style would be his creative north star as he wrote Between the World and Me, but that same style also permeates throughout We Were Eight Years In Power. This is what sucked me in as I read We Were Eight Years In Power.

Detailed Memoir

For the most part, this is where Coates’s “Notes From The _th Year” essays shine. I’m always a big fan of heady essays on politics and history, but Coates’s elements of memoir give the book its soul. Even the heady essays feel personal when they’re woven together with memoir.

Stunning Analysis

Of the three “types” of writing, I’ll admit I’m biased toward the “Stunning Analysis”. I’m the type of guy who likes to read with the primary purpose of learning. For these reasons alone, We Were Eight Years In Power blew me away.

Reportage

“Stunning Analysis” and “Detailed Memoir” are easy to appreciate, but “Reportage” also plays a crucial role in Coates’s tapestry of words. At the heart of all the big intellectual claims, Coates supports his analysis with specific, concrete, examples of it playing out in individual people’s lives.

Each of these styles (memoir, reportage, and analysis) would be great on their own, or even better place neatly one after the other, but Coates goes beyond this. If Coates hadn’t pointed out these three “styles” in Baldwin’s writing I never would have known to apply them to his. We Were Eight Years In Power wove each element so seamlessly that distinctions blurred and I was left in awe.


Moving Forward and Diving Deeper

It goes without saying that I think y’all should give this book a read, but if you’re looking for something more immediate (or if books aren’t totally your style), I’ve also included a great 34min interview of Coates diving deeper into some themes from We Were Eight Years In Power. Enjoy!


If you’d like to take a deeper dive into other formative books on American Racism, I’ve written similar posts on Dr. James Cone’s ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’ and James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’. In addition, I recommend you check out a Medium article I wrote on Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989).


(This post has since been edited and re-published on both Medium and LinkedIn).

‘Trees in Trouble’ by Daniel Mathews

When people think of climate change, one of the first things brought to mind is often the growing frequency of high severity wildfires. These fires cause destroy communities, pollute the air, and often decimate our already struggling ecosystems. As a Californian myself, I’ve grown up knowing fires well. However, 2020 was completely unlike any fire season I’ve experienced before.

It’s easy to forget amidst all the other chaotic bombarding us last year, but I woke up so many times to the smell of wildfire smoke in my room that I just got numb to it. I still vividly remember running errands while surrounded by the constant multi-day orange glow from the blade-runner like wildfire smoke.

Days before the smoke hit, the weather was scorching, but it all changed on a dime when the smoke blocked out the sun and significantly dropped the temperature. It was otherworldly.

Later in the season, there was a rapid succession when nearby neighborhoods evacuated their residents. The sense of security from fires has long since shattered. Now, it often feels as though we have no choice but to wait anxiously as the next fire season looms several months away.


However, people like me believe we actually can improve the health of our forests, reducing the frequency of high severity wildfires, and protecting ecological health and the safety of our communities in the process. We will never be able to prevent fires altogether (Nor should we. Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem), but we can take concrete steps to reduce the kind of high-severity burns that devastate communities and cause massive ecological devastation in their path.

I read Daniel Mathews’s Trees in Trouble because I wanted to better understand these issues and the kinds of solutions we need. If you’re looking for a book to do the same for you, I can’t recommend it enough.


The Basics

Trees in Trouble is 246 pages split into an introduction, 12 chapters, and an afterward that is definitely worth sticking around for. Like most books I write about, it is a fairly dense piece of non-fiction. You know… not for everyone. But despite the occasionally dull chunk of pages, I am extremely happy that I sat down and gave this book a read.

At parts, I’ll admit I lost focus. Mathews would occasionally wander about – telling stories that seemed a bit off topic – but in his own style, Mathews always brought it to a point that made all the wandering make sense.

This wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read. To be fair, I’m coming at Trees in Trouble fresh off of a fantastic streak of books like The Vaccine Race, Power to Save the World, and Drinking Water: A History. So… I’m probably being a bit too critical. Still, my over all impression is that it’s good. Not necessarily great… But! None the less, I’m very glad I read it.

Trees in Trouble taught me a lot about topics I had only briefly heard of before, solidified beliefs I had previously leaned toward, and always included devil’s advocates to push back against preconceived notions and popular opinion.Trees in Trouble taught me things about trees I may have otherwise never come across, and Mathews approached each topic with a balanced perspective, always veering away from the blinders any strict ideology.


What’s it About?

In a very straightforward sense, the book is about “trees that are in trouble”, but the author sums up the main thesis behind this book with one quote in the introduction.

Climate change, in concert with pests, pathogens, and decades of misconceived fire suppression, is causing these sweeping changes.

But there are actions we can take to limit the damage. This is a book for everyone who cares what happens to these trees, groves, and landscapes.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

However, before you pick up this book, it’s worth knowing that Mathews narrows the frame of this book from “all trees” and focuses specifically on pine dominant forests in western North America. If you’re a Californian like I am, then these are probably the forest you were worrying about anyways, but keep this in mind if you were looking for something with a greater focus on other regions.

12 Chapters Quickly Explained:

  1. ‘A Loaded Atmosphere’ – Setting up the book and the role climate change plays in the health of our forests.
  2. ‘Inferno’ – Diving into the history of fires in North American pine forests, the root causes behind the sudden increase of high severity fires, and the dangers they pose.
  3. ‘Outbreak’ – Understanding bark beetles and the root causes behind our most recent endemics.
  4. ‘Cookie Cutters’ – Learning about the world of tree ring researchers and all the knowledge they have to offer.
  5. ‘The Bleeding Edge’ – Exploring trees caught on the front lines of climate change.
  6. ‘Thin and Burn’ – Explaining and evaluating various techniques we have to cultivate more fire-resistant forests.
  7. ‘North and Up’ – Diving into the habitat shifts due to climate change and exploring Assisted Migration as a means to help forests adapt.
  8. ‘Ghosts’ – Understanding the symbiotic relationship between Whitebark Pines and Clark’s Nutcrackers and how (if not for blister rust) they would be a great tree for reforestation.
  9. ‘Fading White’ – Understanding blister rust and the danger it poses.
  10. ‘Resistance’ – Envisioning all the things we can do to help forests evolve to resist future blister rust endemics.
  11. ‘The Enduring’ – Looking with hope at Bristlecone Pines, some of the stubbornest, most resistant pines, and overall oldest trees the American West has to offer.
  12. ‘Future Forests’ – Wrapping up the book and casting a vision for what our future forest might (realistically) look like.

My 3 Favorite Chapters

Chapters 3, 4, and 8 (‘Outbreak’, ‘Cookie Cutters’, and ‘Ghosts’) gave me some memorable deep dives into the worlds of bark beetles, tree ring researchers, and the symbiotic relationship between Clark’s Nutcrackers and Whitebark Pines. For that, I’ll categorize them as honorable mentions. However, my 3 favorite chapters are definitely 6, 7, and 12 (‘Thin and Burn’, ‘North and Up’, and ‘Future Forests’).

Chapter 6: ‘Thin and Burn’

‘Thin and Burn’ might be my most memorable highlight of the book. Specifically, I loved the sections devoted to exploring different techniques of thin and burn as well as the actual practice of organizing one. The logistics being juggled by burn managers really marveled me, and it really helps explain just how expensive these can be.

Mathews humbly admits how much we don’t know about the efficacy and precision of various thin and burn techniques, but matter what, we’re doing too little of it if this is the technique we want to use for preventing high severity burns.

We’ve dug ourselves in a big hole, and it’s hard to get out of it with precision.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

Chapter 7: ‘North and Up’

The first 8 pages of this chapter really got my focus drifting, but ‘North and Up’ probably holds second place among my favorite chapters in this section. 9 pages in, everything clicked and I found the chapter VERY interesting.

The premise is simple: As temperatures warm, climate change is driving trees’ natural habitable ranges north and to higher elevations. However, trees can’t keep up with this kind of fast migration on their own.

The natural science parts of it were incredibly interesting, I liked the history, and I really appreciated how he talked about the ‘migrations of genes’ as the primary goal -introducing far more complexity than simply treating each plant species homogeneous, interchangeable parts.

I also happen to have a soft spot for genetics, so this was right up my alley.

Furthermore, I thought this chapter did a great job at explaining the tensions in the scientific community surrounding Assisted Migration (the process of moving populations outside of their historical range to facilitate quicker adaption to rapid climate change) in a way that doesn’t vilify the other side or call them stupid. Yet, it is clear at the end of the day that this guy does support AM, and because of my own leanings, I also resonate with that strategy.

Chapter 12: ‘Future Forests’

‘Future Forests’ is the final chapter of Trees in Trouble, and it really goes out on a high note. He strikes a great tone here and does a great job of summing up the ethos behind the book as a whole. Mathews has optimism for the future of forest management, but he is never naive about the many challenges and limitations facing us. The question is not whether we can revert forests to what they were like a couple of generations ago. Instead, our best-case scenarios typically come down to damage control. It’s a sober kind of optimism.

The climate is not shifting to a new normal that we’ll reach this year or next year. It’ll keep warming beyond 2025 even if we get off fossil fuels tomorrow.

All the tools in the forest management toolshed may prove useless beyond a few decades if society continues with business as usual, increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

In some places sustaining forest is a lost cause. We have to do the best job we can of figuring out which places those are, and optimizing their transition to a non-forest state.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

Wrapping it Up

In case you didn’t realize it yet, the trees are in fact in trouble. If we take action now, we won’t be able to preserve the forests of our childhood, but we may be able to help our forests adjust to the changing climate and grow back healthier and more resilient in the face of coming challenges.

However, we must always keep in mind that none of these steps are a replacement for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and we shouldn’t expect trees to do all the carbon sequestering for us. Ironically, plans to put all of our carbon sequester eggs into the “trees” basket would probably backfire. As Mathews puts it,

Plans to increase planting densities to sequester more carbon will likely result in elevated bark beetle – and wildfire – related carbon losses, rather than gains.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

Additional Resources for Exploring Ecology:

Relevant Posts to Keep the Conversation Going:

Meeting Climate Change with Art: Video Games

It’s been a long time coming, but video games are finally reaching popular recognition as an art form with unique possibilities to positively influence the larger cultural landscape. To be sure, there will always be a market for mindless video games just as much as there is a market for mindless tv and film, but gone are the days when people can dismiss video games as only mindless entertainment.

As I said, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Candy Crush has the power to change our world, but no one can deny that there is a well-established place for thought-provoking video games coming from an ever-expanding community of both independent and mainstream developers. This space, filled with unmistakably artistic video games, gives us a unique opportunity to take on climate change in ways that traditionally recognized art forms cannot.

(Warning: There will be a few game spoilers throughout this post.)


Proving It’s an Art Form

There are plenty of truly wonderful people arguing for the status of video games as an art form, but for this post, I hope we can mostly skip that debate and move forward with the assumption that video games are in fact an art form.

However, if you’re still hesitant about granting video games “Art Form” status, I’ve decided to include 2 quick examples representing the medium at its most overtly “artistic”. Each of these games could warrant its own 2,000-word blog posts, but I’ll try to keep this quick. So, if you want to dive further into the plot and meaning of these two games, I’ve included additional resources to point you in the right direction.


Spec Ops: The Line (2012)

Amid modern military shooters like the Call of Duty franchise, Spec Ops: The Line stands wildly apart. At first glance, Spec Ops: The Line packaged itself as just another one of the cookie-cutter, testosterone-fueled, military games that saturate the market.

However, this is NOT that kind of game. Instead, the developers gave us a challenging narrative so thought-provoking that people like me are STILL talking about it 8 years after the original release.

In the vein of Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the message of Spec Ops: The Line is as old as time: Despite what we may believe about ourselves, each of us is capable of tremendous evil.

To top it all off, this game gets very surreal very fast. By its final chapters, hallucinations become a rule of thumb, 4th wall breaking load screens taunt you, and conflicting scenarios will have you wondering whether your character had been dead the whole time.

Further Explanation and Analysis:

NieR: Automata (2017)

The ending of Spec Ops: The Line can be a mind trip, but NieR Automata takes it to a whole other level. The game starts on a futuristic Earth where we find androids and robots fighting on the front lines of an endless proxy war – each faithfully serving their creators. Androids fight on behalf of humans and robots on behalf of a group of aliens who invaded Earth, starting the war with humans a long time ago.

Yet, despite their religious fervor in support of these creators, we later find out that humans and aliens both died a long time ago. As a result, our characters often find themselves in positions of existential dread and desperate attempts to create meaning in a world that just pulled the rug out from under them.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the “Death of God” theme saturating NeiR: Automata, and if that wasn’t explicit enough, the resulting challenges of this game take the player on a wild ride filled with extremely clear references to foundational European philosophers.

NieR: Automata is so full of thought-provoking scenarios that video essays have been made exclusively about its “END CREDITS“. Yet, these deep questions never come off like a dry intro-to-philosophy textbook. Instead, every existential insight and plea for resilience fits seamlessly into the grand sci-fi narrative.

Further Explanation and Analysis:


Connecting It to Climate Change

Finally. If video games can provoke deep philosophical questions, it stands to reason that we can use that same medium to provoke exploration into climate change. I’m not saying that climate change narratives have to be simple, but they can definitely get away with less intensity than a hallucinating military game or a saga of robots searching for meaning after the death of their gods.

Some games have already begun introducing climate change in important ways.


Earth Games

Earth Games (a University of Washington lab) was created in 2015 and has developed several educationally focused video games incorporating ideas relating to climate change and environmental stewardship.

Of their wide catalog, my favorite is Infrared Escape.

The premise is simple: you are a ray of infrared light and your goal is the escape into space. However, you must do this by avoiding particles of CO2 that crowd the atmosphere. If you hit too many, you lose.

Infrared Escape uniquely and effectively communicates one of climate change’s central concepts – atmospheric CO2 and the Greenhouse effect. Of all its features, the difficulty selection process may be my favorite. Instead of your standard ‘Easy, Medium, Hard”, Infrared Escape has you to choose a year and corresponding CO2 PPM. Then, you can unlock an “international agreement”, reducing each year’s CO2 PPM and making levels like “2100” actually beatable.

But… the appeal of educational video games can only go so far. Beyond Infrared Escape, I’ve never felt a desire to play any of Earth Games’ titles more than once or twice. I love them, but educational games just aren’t quite as engaging as other video games.

I commend the pioneering work of Earth Games, but there’s just so much more we can do here to address climate change.


Civilization VI: Gathering Storm (2019)

One game that takes a step beyond the “educational” genre, is Sid Meyer’s Civilization VI and its downloadable expansion, Gathering Storm.

The Civilization games have had a long and interesting history of including (or not including) climate change, but Gathering Storm goes farther than any of Sid Meyer’s previous titles. It may have its drawbacks, but no other popular strategy game includes climate change with the kind of nuance and precision as Gathering Storm.


Eco (2018)

Still, as far as Civ VI goes, Eco takes things a bit farther by incorporating a first-person experience and commitment to detail like nothing I’ve ever seen. This Minecraft styled survival sandbox game creates an incredibly detailed world that will force you to carefully weigh the balance of industrialization and ecological preservation.

Furthermore, Eco promises to be “a forever-game, growing in depth and breadth… a system of unlimited possibilities that goes beyond entertainment”. One look at their interactive “Eco Tree” will show you Eco’s incredibly complex features that “exist, are being worked on, and are yet to come”.

The object is simple: there’s a floating meteor slowly approaching earth and you must develop the tools and technology to launch the meteor off its path and save the planet.

However: this goal is only achievable through the development of an industrialized society, and if this push for rapid industrialization isn’t handled properly your planet will be destroyed by its own ecological collapse.


Pushing the Boundaries

Games like Infrared Escape, Civ VI, and Eco are only the beginning. Now that we comprehend video games as an art form and we know they can address climate change, the next step is understanding the unique abilities of this medium so that we can best apply it toward climate change.


What Makes a Video Game Unique?

Time. Some games, like Fire Watch, are closer to the standard length of a feature film, but most popular games give developers far more time to build an expansive story or LARGE open world.

Even when games pull from movies stylistically, they just have much more time to play around with the story. The newest God of War uses cut scene graphics that simulate the “one-shot” editing style in award-winning films like Bird Man and 1917, and Ghost of Tsushima is filled with clear visual nods to classic samurai movies (including its black and white “Kurosawa mode”), but neither of these games is limited by a 2 1/3 hour run time.

Because of this, Ghost of Tsushima delivers a robust main storyline with a character arc of growth and redemption AND several side missions with noteworthy character arcs of their own.


Shared Experience. Going to see a play and inviting friends to your apartment to binge a TV series are both significant communal experiences, but nothing comes close to the shared experiences and virtual communities that are created in video games.

The huge online servers of World of Warcraft are a classic example of this ability at its most extreme, but the aforementioned Eco or even a simple split-screen game can get people together in unique ways.


Exploration. No medium provides the ability to explore at your own pace and strategy as video games. Popular titles like the Fallout or Elder Scrolls series are prominent examples of exploration in massive open worlds, but smaller games like Gone Home push boundaries by allowing us to piece together the game’s story ourselves through the exploration of our main character’s childhood home.


Adjustable Storylines. Choose Your Own Adventure books and digital equivalents like You vs. Wild or Black Mirror: Bandersnatch replicate this experience to varying degrees of success, but no medium masters the adjustable storyline approach like video games. This agency to affect the outcome of your game increases the immersive experience and can force players to think through decisions on multiple levels.

My favorite example of this is Paper’s Please. On the surface, the game looks like a rather boring simulator for a customs and border agent trying to support his family by quickly sorting through paperwork, earning money, and paying for food and other essentials. Yet, despite its simple premise, Paper’s Please proves itself to be a challenging game with a lot to offer. The game has received so much popular praise that it even inspired a short film based on a few of its most iconic moments.

Paper’s Please is about fast-paced decision making, balancing responsibilities, and the moral dilemma’s that arise. Despite operating within a system of strict rules and conflicting social pressures, you are the one that ultimately has to balance potential outcomes and make your player’s decisions.


Mechanics. In every video game, there’s a way in which the player influences their actions in the games. We pull the right trigger to shoot, use the left joystick to move, and depending on your controller setting you might hit “B” to crouch. It’s all often rather basic stuff, but the true artistry happens when developers intentionally design their mechanics to contribute to the game’s emotional arc.

In the game Celeste, your mechanics adjust as the story develops. During the lowest part of your character’s story arc, you fall to the bottom of the mountain and are forced to face an evil version of yourself that you had previously been running away from. However, once you do confront this so-called “part of you”, you join forces with her.

In a very tangible sense, joining forces with this “evil” version of yourself gives you the ability to double jump, and because this feature finally allows you to beat the game, it also contributes to our character’s emotional arc of self-acceptance.

In a completely different direction, That Dragon Cancer utilizes its mechanics to subvert the video game experience in an interesting way. Where other games bring you in by giving you agency over the narrative that unfolds, That Dragon Cancer communicates the emotional challenge of two parents living through the cancer treatment of their infant son by making a game where we often don’t have much control at all.


Finally. Video games are masters of empathy. If there is only one thing that you remember from this post, I hope it will be this final section dedicated to empathy.

Empathy!

More than any other medium, video games have an uncanny ability to strategically elicit empathy. In books and movies, the idea is to build empathy by having you understand a character, but in video games, the strongest form of empathy is built by having us become the character or work intimately with them to achieve our goals

Papa y Yo (2013)

Papa y Yo is not a game you use to unwind and escape from the stress and anxiety of life. Instead, the developer decided to give us a game symbolically expressing his experience growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father.

In the game, his father is replicated through the main character’s best friend, “Monster”. However, Monster has one big problem. Whenever he sees a poisonous frog, he cannot resist eating it, and when he does, Monster is set on fire with rage and becomes dangerous.

With this big problem in mind, we set out searching for a shaman with the power to heal Monster’s problem. We are always reminded of how dangerous Monster can be, but we also must work with Monster to solve puzzles and move the plot forward. During this time, we almost have no choice but to become closer and closer to Monster, seeing him through the same empathetic eyes as our main character.

In the absolute tear-jerker ending, however, we find out that there is no shaman and there is no cure for Monster. After spending the entire game building an empathetic relationship with Monster – reflective of the developer’s own relationship with his father – we have to let him go.

The Last of Us (2013)

In The Last of Us, we begin our gameplay several years before the main storyline in a mission culminating in the death of our main character’s daughter. Fast forward a few years, and we begin the game’s primary mission, escorting another young girl (Ellie) across the country in a long-shot bid to save humanity from the fungal zombies that have taken over.

In a story that is old as time, we see our main character (Joel) struggling about whether to let Ellie into his life and risk losing his “daughter” a second time. However, this dilemma is felt with far more weight as we the player began the game briefly playing as Joel’s daughter and experiencing her death through Joel’s POV.

The Last of Us Part II (2020)

In Part II, we return to the main characters of 2013’s The Last of Us. However, the developers make a concerted effort to push the boundaries of how empathy is utilized in video game storytelling.

The Last of Us Part II challenges us to empathize with both sides of a destructive revenge cycle, but rather than simply tell us about each character, it has us play as them, slowly building up our emotional connection to each side.

Despite winning the Game Award’s 2020 Game of the Year, The Last of Us: Part II is an INCREDIBLY divisive game. However, one thing is abundantly clear. This game pushed several boundaries within the medium and has a lot to offer us when thinking of how video games can strategically elicit empathy. Some even go so far as to say that the game’s strategic use of empathy is what made it so divisive in the first place.


In Conclusion

Not all of us are “gamers”, and even fewer of us are game developers, but this medium is here to stay, and our cultural dialogue around climate change will only become richer when we start utilizing video games.

If a game like The Last of Us Part II can challenge us to empathize with two sides of a revenge cycle, nothing is stopping us from using video games to communicate the complexities of the climate crisis and build empathy toward overlooked victims of climate change like refugees or poor farmers fighting drought.


(This post has since been edited and republished on Medium as ‘Using Video Games to Take on Climate Change’).

“Power to Save the World: the truth about nuclear energy” by Gwyneth Cravens

As you are probably well aware, climate change is an existential threat to the future of human civilization. Yet, we shoot ourselves in the foot every day that we try and ignore the importance of nuclear energy to curb this disaster. The science and technology of nuclear fission has developed significantly since the days of the cold war, but misinformation and bad PR continues to hold back the full utilization of nuclear power in our clean energy portfolios.

Maybe this is all news to you, or maybe you watched the Bill Gates documentary and have a positive but surface-level understanding of the technology. Either way, Gwyneth Cravens’s book Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy should launch right to the top of your environmentally conscious reading list.

The book was written in 2007. So, there are times when characters talk about technologies that have seen noteworthy development since the original publication (particularly renewables, hydrogen fuel cells, and electric batteries to an extent). BUT, Power to Save the World is definitely still 99% relevant and 100% worth your time.

A Breakdown of the Book

Power to Save the World is split up into 6 parts with 21 chapters spread between each section. I’ll spend the rest of this blog post briefly exploring the individual focus of each part, but it’s just as important to understand how they work together – and nothing sums up the overall approach of this book like the very very small Marcus Aurelius quote included underneath the title of Part 1.

Look always at the whole.

Marcus Aurelius

Cravens set out to write a comprehensive book on nuclear energy, and she did not disappoint. Living up to the aforementioned quote, Cravens approaches “the whole” of nuclear energy in 2 important ways:

  1. The practical context in which we are talking about nuclear energy (think: climate change, technological advancement, politics, the economy, etc.).
  2. The ENTIRE life cycle of nuclear energy and the uranium we use to power it.

Every single thing that remotely has to do with nuclear power gets dedicated focus in this book. The book starts with Uranium mines, and it ends with nuclear waste recycling and disposal.


Introduction: “Gwyneth’s Pilgrimage” by Richard Rhodes

It can be easy to ignore introductions like this and jump straight into “the actual book”, but Rhodes makes an interesting point that should frame your expectations if you’re considering buying this book.

Gwyneth Cravens Evokes an old tradition in this very modern book: seeking understanding by going on a journey…

She accumulates knowledge as she goes on, guided by her own Virgil, a steadfast scientist named Dr. Rip Anderson.

She achieves greater understanding of the deep things of the world, as her predecessors did, and as they also did, she shares it generously.

Richard Rhodes

Before you get scared off by the idea of a book on nuclear energy, Power to Save the World is not some ridiculously dense collection of scientific essays for 1% of readers to enjoy. Instead, think of this as a modern environmentalist’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress or Dante’s Inferno (only this one is based on the real factual world of American energy).

Every time the book runs into dense scientific information, it gets presented in an easy to read dialogue mixed in between sections of Cravens’s own journalistic research and commentary.


Part 1: Origins

Survival/ Always Look at the Whole/ Ambrosia Lake

Like any good “Part 1”, this is where Cravens sets the stage for the rest of the book. Here, we are introduced to Rip (Cravens’s nuclear “Virgil”) and begin their journey touring around the country in a quest to understand nuclear energy (starting with step 1, mining uranium). However, Cravens makes sure to remind us of the big “Why?” behind nuclear energy. In the case of this book, it almost always comes back to climate change.

My Favorite Quote From This Section:

(Citing a quote from the American physicist, Alvin Weinberg)

‘Carbon dioxide poses a dilemma for the radical environmentalists. Since nuclear reactors emit almost no carbon dioxide, how can one be against nuclear energy if one is concerned about carbon dioxide?

To my utter dismay, indeed disgust, this is exactly the position of some of the environmentalists. Their argument is that extreme conservation, and a shift to renewables – that is, solar energy – is the only environmentally correct approach to reducing carbon dioxide.

When I point out to them that conservation might be feasible in industrialized countries, but that it is hardly a choice for India and China, they seem to ignore the point.

Or when I argue that solar energy is hardly a choice at this time (2007), or even for the next century, my environmental critics simply disagree:

spend on solar energy what has been spent on nuclear energy, and solar energy will be cheap. But we have yet to discover a technical breakthrough – the solar equivalent of fission – and unless we do, rejection of fission energy condemns the world to a future of very expensive energy.

… And when I point out that France has reduced its carbon dioxide emission by a good 20% in the past decade by aggressive deployment of fission reactors, I am greeted by silence.’

Chapter Title: Survival

Part 2: The Invisible Storm

Mother Nature and Fencepost Man/ Undark/ Into the Strange City

If the earlier chapters set the stage and kick off Gwyneth and Rip’s nuclear tour, Part 2 takes a step back and focuses on the basics. Primarily, “What, specifically, is radiation?”.

It starts with a detailed look at the phenomenons we call radiation (as well as their variable types), but this section also takes a dive into our historical relationship with radioactive elements and our constant natural exposure to them. Of all the lessons in this book, I actually found the conversations around radiation to be the most interesting.

My Favorite Quotes From This Chapter:

‘People make extrapolations about risk,’ Key said, ‘and if the risk had been as high as those extrapolations had it, all of those exposed would have died.’ …

‘I would treat radiation with a great deal of respect, but I think you need to be realistic. Compared to tobacco, gasoline, drunk drivers, or being a couch potato, radiation is of very little risk to most to the public.’

Chapter Title: Undark

Threshold proponents (those who believe radiation is only dangerous about a certain threshold) say that applying LNT (The idea that ALL radiation is dangerous on a linear scale) is analogous to saying that if you put your hand in water heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit you’ll get a very bad burn and that if you put your hand in water 36 degrees Fahrenheit you’ll also get “burned”, but less so.

‘Worse yet’, said one health physicist I met, ‘LNT is used to ‘prove’ that if a million people put their hands in 36-degree-Fahrenheit water, at least five hundred will get third-degree burns’

Chapter Title: Into the Strange City

Radiation protection standards based on hard data rather than on the present pessimistic – and inconsistent – estimates regarding low-dose radiation could potentially save billions of dollars now being spent for cleanup and shielding that may turn out to be unnecessary…

‘Even though there are tons of data suggesting that there is a practical ‘threshold’ dose, below which radiation damage is either zero, or is repaired, or is handled in some other way, old perspectives die hard’

Chapter Title: Into the Strange City

Part 3: The Hidden World

Risk and Consequence/ Going to Extremes/ Tiny Beads

Part 3 covers a wide range of topics (think: Chernobyl, international politics, and terrorism), but it’s all connected by an exploration of risk. Specifically, this section is focused on parsing out the difference between perceived risk, real risk, and the models scientists use to more accurately predict the probability of dangerous situations.

My Favorite Quote From This Section:

(Speaking about the messaging after 3-Mile Island)

… misinformation and ongoing communications problems continued to feed a growing crisis. Assumptions flew around like fast neutrons.

Reticent plant engineers addressed the public in jargon, and their rather wooden affect made for poor interactions with the press…

Plant representatives made assumptions, and local officials made assumptions, and state and federal agencies made assumptions, and the media made assumptions, and some of those assumptions were heated up by the irresistible hook of, The China Syndrome, which had come out two weeks earlier:

‘Would a meltdown to bedrock cause deadly radioactive gases to come pouring out of cracks in the Pennsylvania earth?’ …

… evacuation was completely unnecessary. But by some estimates, two hundred thousand scared people hurried to escape. A Roman Catholic priest offered them the sacrament given to those about to die.

After a few days, news anchors began to announce that the accident was under control. Still, assumptions that were wrong and dire predictions of devastation that did not occur have lodged in the public mind.

Chapter Title: Tiny Beads

Part 4: The Kingdom of Electricity

Man’s Smudge/ From Arrowheads to Atoms/ Barriers/ Unobtanium

Part 4 starts off with a trip to a “clean” coal plant that really wasn’t all that clean, and an in-person look at just how abundantly secure nuclear power plants are from any kind of attack or sabotage. However, my favorite point here comes in the section’s last chapter “Unobtanium”:

Unobtanium, magic dust, handwavium – these are the terms used by scientists, engineers, and science fiction fans to describe that mysterious energy source or substance that’s supposed to drive a space ship faster than the speed of light,

or bridge a gap in an invention in progress, or fill in the blanks of a scheme that looks great on paper or sounds good when touted by an alternative-energy oracle.

Chapter Title: Unobtanium

One of the biggest arguments for the utilization of nuclear power is simple; We already have the technology to get clean baseload energy with nuclear fission, why wait for “Unobtanium” to give us some kind of magically perfect alternative?

My Favorite Quotes From This Section:

‘Fatal steam explosions happen in coal-fired plants,’ he said. ‘If that sucker blew, we could have been killed, scalded to death.

People pay no attention if someone dies in a coal-plant explosion. But if you have a steam accident at a nuclear plant – man! Big headlines.’

Chapter Title: Barriers

‘The saying is, Fusion (meaning nuclear fusion) is fifty years out no matter what date you make this statement’…

…we’ve come to imagine we have choices that really we do not.

‘It’s good to have renewables and we need to grow them… I completely support them. But to make clean baseload energy, to make hydrogen efficiently, to stop the carbon cycle, we have no choice but to rely on the nuclear fuel cycle.

Chapter Title: Unobtanium

Part 5: Closing the Circle

Ten Thousand Years/ The Huge Factory/ 32N164W/ Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done/ The Gigantic Crystal

As the name suggests, part 5 is focused on finally “closing” the nuclear life cycle (waste recycling and disposal), but as with any potentially dangerous waste, it’s also time to revisit the risk assessment techniques first introduced in Part 3.

The big stories here are mostly how political dynamics far too often veto the science supporting projects like yucca mountain, WIPP, and the Sub-Seabed geological repository (32N164W).

However, one of the most important points here may be the advancement of nuclear waste recycling technology. Because of Uranium’s density, nuclear energy already produces very little waste per kilowatt-hour, but most of that high-grade nuclear plant waste isn’t really “waste” in the traditional sense. The same goes for highly enriched nuclear warheads. It’s just more fuel for another advanced reactor.

My Favorite Quotes From This Section:

… I can’t imagine why anyone would be opposed to using up the plutonium (military) stockpile to make electricity.

It only takes about eighteen pounds of plutonium to make an atomic bomb. If you put that plutonium instead into low-enriched nuclear fuel, then it becomes useless for making weapons.

Chapter Title: Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done

When we decide that (climate change) is important enough, we’ll do what’s necessary – at an acceptable cost and at an acceptable risk.

Chapter Title: Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done

Protestors said that leaving the waste where it was in Los Alamos threatened the population and they said that transporting waste to WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) threatened the population.

And these people said that once the waste was stored at WIPP, radioactive material would contaminate the water table. It can’t.

And they said that the government should spend its money inventing some other way to get rid of the problem. As if we had not looked into hundreds of different ways already.

Chapter Title: The Gigantic Crystal.

Part 6: Borrowing From Our Children

The Iron Chamber/ “Water Them Anyway”/ The Power Within

Just like your standard persuasive essay, this conclusion section ends with the same ideas from Cravens’s introduction – the imminent dangers of climate change. However, in a hero’s-journey narrative fashion, Cravens takes this time to reflect on how she’s learned and grown throughout her nuclear “pilgrimage”.

My Favorite Quotes From This Section:

Over 80 percent of scientists polled think that below an exposure of 100 millirem per year, radiation is unlikely to cause negative health effects.

Should we spend a projected $60 billion to fortify Yucca Mountain with many redundant barriers on the assumption that they’ll protect a hypothetical human in the very remote future from less radiation than Mother Nature showers upon people living today in northeastern Washington State?

Chapter Title: The Iron Chamber

Rip shrugged. “One day God could say to us: I gave you the brainiest men and women in human history to come up with an understanding of the atom and its nucleus. I gave you enough uranium and thorium to last for thousands of years…

You didn’t need to invent anything else. You had everything you needed to provide energy for yourselves and your descendants without harming the environment. What else did you want?

Chapter Title: “Water Them Anyway”

Wrapping It Up

This blog’s sudden burst of nuclear energy facts might be a bit much for you (I apologize), but If you’re interested in this content, I can’t recommend this book enough.

I learned A LOT reading this book, and I stand by its quality. But… I also have enough self-awareness to realize my taste in reading material isn’t for everyone. So, if you’re interested in nuclear energy, but looking for something with a smaller time commitment, I’ve decided to include a couple of educational youtube videos below.

Enjoy!


(This post has since been edited and re-published on both Medium and LinkedIn).

“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin

James Baldwin and, of course, The Fire Next Time have held prominent positions on my reading list for a long time, but I was finally spurred on to buy the book and dive into it after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about Baldwin in We Were Eight Years In Power.

When I reread The Fire Next Time in this seventh year, it seemed clear to me that no one was writing like him. More, I felt that no one was trying. beauty, I felt, had been handed over to poets and novelists, to essays that never escape the living room.

I wanted it back. I called my agent, Gloria Loomis, to tell her about this feeling. “Well Jimmy, he was one of a kind,” she said. “No one could ever write like Jimmy.”

I cut her off. “Gloria, I think I want to try.” …

I talked about how I’d read the book in one sitting and the challenge I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion, meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years…

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

At this point, I had only read one short narrative piece of Baldwin’s in an anthology, but Coates painted an almost magical quality to Baldwin’s essay writing that I couldn’t resist.

Baldwin’s beauty – like all real beauty – is not style apart from substance but indivisible from it. It is not icing on the cake but the eggs within it, giving it texture, color, and shape.

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Needless to say, I picked up a copy of The Fire Next Time as soon as I finished We Were Eight Years in Power and I was not disappointed.


The book is a short 106 pages even after wide margins and a comfortably sized font. So, if you want to go the route of Ta-Nehisi Coates, it’s a very doable read for one sitting, but you can also easily split the book up over just a few days.

As for structure, The Fire Next Time is split up into two rather independent sections (and the subtitles do a rather good job at setting them up).

  1. “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”
  2. “Down At The Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind”

At first glance, it can be tempting to assume “My Dungeon Shook” would contain more personal stories with “Down At The Cross” providing the bulk of Baldwin’s intellectual observations, but this is far from the truth.

Each contains a gorgeous blend of all the elements that make Baldwin’s writing so compelling. The entire book reads like a personal and thoughtful conversation meandering through all things important to both Baldwin and our larger community.

However, I could never communicate these ideas as eloquently as Baldwin. So, instead of walking through a point by point exploration coupled with my own commentary, I’ll try to stay out of the way as much as I can here.

The body of this post will consist of little more than a semi-organized, non-linear compilation of extended quotes from The Fire Next Time. Maybe if I narrowed my lens I could write a decent essay about one or a couple of these themes, but there is just so much more here than can easily articulate.

I hope you can take the time to read through these quotes, and I hope this spurs you on to buy or borrow your own copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.


“My Dungeon Shook”

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago.

(I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!” – but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for the most of them do not yet really know that you exist. ..

pg 6

Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations

… and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality.

But these men are your brothers – your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means:

that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friends, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.

God bless you James, and Godspeed.

Your Uncle, James

pg 9-10

“Down at the Cross”

Psychological Analysis of White America:

…Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyways, mothers – know about their children…

pg 101

… White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

pg 22

… They (white people) are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs.

I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it.

And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.

It is the individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the foundation of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum – that is, any reality – so supremely difficult.

The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality – for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes.

And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate the present any more than they relate to the person.

Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

pg 43

Malcolm, Elijah, and the Nation of Islam:

In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks, and the only way to defeat Malcolm’s point is to concede it and then ask oneself why this is so.

Malcolm’s statement is not answered by references to the triumphs of the NAACP, more particularly since very few liberals have any notion of how long, how costly, and how heartbreaking a task it is to gather the evidence that one can carry into court, or how long such court battles take.

Neither is it answered by references to the student sit-in-movement, if only because not all Negroes are students and not all of them live in the South.

I, in any case, certainly refuse to be put in the position of denying the truth of Malcolm’s statements simply because I disagree with his conclusions, or in order to pacify the liberal conscience.

Things are as bad as the Muslims say they are – in fact, they are worse, and the Muslims do not help matters – but there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary.

pg 58-60

(talking about Elijah’s understanding of “White Devils”)

There is nothing new in this merciless formulation except the explicitness of its symbols and the candor of its hatred. Its emotional tone is as familiar to me as my own skin; it is but another way of saying that sinners shall be bound in Hell a thousand years.

That sinners have always, for American Negroes, been white is a truth we need’t labor, and every American Negro, therefore, risks having the gates of paranoia close on him.

In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down – that has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day – it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury.

One can very quickly cease to attempt this distinction, and, what is worse, one usually ceases to attempt it without realizing that one has done so.

All doormen, for example, and all policemen have by now, for me, become exactly the same, and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms.

Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst.

pg 68

(While at dinner with Elijah)

In the eeriest way possible, I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people must go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman.

I had almost said, after all, “Well, take my friend Mary,” and very nearly descended to a catalog of those virtues that gave Mary the right to be alive. And in what Hope? That Elijah and the others would nod their heads solemnly and say, at least, “Well, she’s all right – but the others!

pg 73

(Talking about Elijah after dinner)

I felt that I knew something of his pain and his furry, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets – because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine – we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies

pg 79

The Future of the United States:

A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay…

… it is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be reexamined…

I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand – and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and the American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.

pg 103-104

… but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels…

pg 89

But in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is: in the present case, to accept the fact, whatever one does with it thereafter, that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other – not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam…

pg 81

… What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.

The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the American Negro… he is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his.

pg 90-94

The final and most famous quote of the book:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

105-106

Wrapping it Up

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into other formative books on American Racism, I’ve since written similar posts on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ and Dr. James Cone’s ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’. In addition, I recommend you check out a Medium article I wrote on Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989).

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction” by Flannery O’Connor

I decided this post is going to be a little different from the other ones I’ve published. Instead of writing on a whole book, I’ll be focused on a single lecture of Flannery O’Connor’s included in a larger collection of her writing, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. You may have guessed it from my title, but that lecture is called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”.

There’s a meandering quality to the lecture’s overall flow, and as such, she covers a lot of ground. Normally I can’t help but rationally dissect the main points and sections of a written piece and lay it all out for you, but to give this lecture justice I decided I’ll try keeping this post short, loose, and rely much more on extended direct quotes.

As such, this post is going to be a bit of an experiment for me, but why have your own blog if you’re not trying new things every once in a while?


O’Connor’s Big Points:

She originally gave the lecture to an audience of university students pursuing professional fiction writing, but the lessons here can be extended to all shades and stripes of creative work.

Hopefully, these quotes get your gears turning in an interesting kind of way.

The Difference Between Writing and “Being a Writer”

I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a “killing.”

They are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor

The Nuanced Relationship Between Financial Success and Good Writing

It is true, I think, that these are times when the financial rewards for sorry writing are much greater than those for good writing. There are certain cases in which, if you can only learn to write poorly enough, you can make a great deal of money.

But it is not true that if you write well, you won’t get published at all.

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor

Finding Art’s Value

Art is a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand. But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself…

Now you’ll see that this kind of approach eliminates many things from the discussion. It eliminates any concern with the motivation of the writer except as this finds its place inside the work.

It also eliminates any concern with the reader in his market sense. It also eliminates the tedious controversy that always rages between people who declare that they write to express themselves and those who declare that they write to fill their pocketbooks, if possible.

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor

The Counterintuitive Requirement for Writing Fiction

But there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.

The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it.

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor

The Risk of “Competence”

In the last twenty years, the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story.

In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor’s BIGGEST Point:

I like all the previous quotes, and they’re worth including, but this next extended quote comes closest to encapsulate all the things that made me want to write about this lecture. This is where she really hits her stride. You don’t even need to be an artist to appreciate this one.

The Counter-Cultural Nature and Aim of Fiction

I think we have to begin thinking about stories at a much more fundamental level, so I want to talk about one quality of fiction which I think is its least common denominator – the fact that it is concrete

The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see.

But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion.

They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.

The Manichaeans separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write because fiction is so very much an incarnational art.

One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone.

This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not grand enough a job for you.

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor

Bridging the Gap to “Meeting Climate Change with Art”

Up until this point, I’ve written two distinct types of blog posts for this website. On one side I have posts for “Meeting Climate Change with Art”, and on the other side I’ve written posts dubbed “Diving into Books”. To be sure, I’ve occasionally referenced each of the projects within different posts, but both categories have essentially existed in separate worlds.

I’d like to mix that up today.

I originally began writing this post within the boundary of “Diving into Books”, but I couldn’t help but apply this lecture’s content for a reflection on the “Meeting Climate Change with Art” project. As this section heading suggests, this post will be a bridge between those worlds.

O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” provides a necessary counterpoint that should always be remembered as you read by “Climate Change and Art” posts.

… Any abstractly expressed compassion or piety or morality in a piece of fiction is only a statement added to it.

It means that you can’t make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement of meaning on the end of it or in the middle of it or at the beginning of it.

It means that when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action.

“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor

I write a lot of essays about how I think we ought to express climate change when we’re making art, and although there is a place for that, essays are a very different thing than fiction. Our fiction, written or otherwise, must be grounded in good storytelling. No amount of ‘sociological smack’ can make up for a bad story.


(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium as ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’ by Flannery O’Connor).

The Cross and The Lynching Tree by Dr. James Cone

James Cone’s The Cross and The Lynching Tree is far and away one of the single most influential books I have read. It gave form to general ideas that had been floating and grounded my understanding in a rich tradition. Y’all should definitely give it a read if you get the chance.

I’ve been planning to write about this book for a long time now, but I decided to push this one up and publish it now in the spirit of the recent spike in dialogue regarding race relations in the United States.


The Tradition of Black Liberation Theology

To understand The Cross and the Lynching Tree it’s important to first understand the tradition of Black Liberation Theology. Cone is credited as being one of the first people to pen the term Black Liberation Theology (or Black Theology), which finds its home within the larger umbrella of Liberation Theology spearheaded by international figures such as Gustavo Gutierrez, but the roots of this specifically Black American tradition are deep.

I had to let the suffering of black people speak in and through my theology. My theology came out of the black experience of slavery, segregation, and lynchings, and not from white American and European theologies that I studied in graduate school.

Black liberation theology emerged out of the civil rights and black power movements, symbolized in the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Dr. Cone at Union Theological Seminary in 2016

All strains of Liberation Theology share a focus on aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition such as Jesus’s suffering, the socio-political context of Israel and the Roman Empire, visions of justice cast by the ancient prophets, and a particular focus on the liberation of Exodus as the central story cast over all the scriptures. In Liberation Theology, God is first and foremost defined by his devotion to the oppressed, “the one who set us free from Egypt”.

However, unlike other strands of Liberation Theology, Black Theology holds particular significance on one contemporary American symbol – the lynching tree. To Black Theology, there is no greater example of “America’s Cross” as the lynching tree.


If you’re interested, I’ve included a helpful video by Democracy Now on the legacy of Dr. James Cone and his influence in shaping Black Liberation Theology.

In addition, the video explores Dr. Cone’s influence on the formation of other traditions under the family of Liberation Theology such as Womanist Theology. If you choose not to watch the video, I’ve also included a quote from Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas articulating the broad influence of Dr. Cone on opening the space for other theological traditions.

I think that his legacy is very hard to really quantify because it will be a very long legacy that will cross generations because Dr. Cone said that he didn’t want disciples.

He didn’t want students that would come and simply imitate his work…

He urged us always to find our own voice. He wanted us to bring our own perspective….

He opened the space for the emergence of new theologies, new theological voices, hence Womanist Theology… There weren’t many places for black women to do work in the early ’70s when I went to Union Seminary. He provided us that opportunity.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas on Dr. James Cone

Back to the Book

I encountered The Cross and the Lynching Tree during an honors college course called “Global Christianity”. The class introduced me to a wide variety of extremely influential Christian thinkers outside of the White American context, and I was amazed by the depth and diversity of voices I encountered.

I’ve already referenced one of that class’s books, Beads and Strands by Mercy Amba Oduyoye, in an earlier post on Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, but definitely expect to see more posts of these books in days to come.


Now, with the background set up, I’d like to spend the rest of this blog diving into four of the important takeaways I found running throughout The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

  • A Deeper Understanding of Lynching
  • The Gospel According to Mary Brown
  • Hope Beyond Tragedy
  • A Message to White Christianity

A Deeper Understanding of Lynching

Much of The Cross and the Lynching Tree is spent connecting the symbols of Christianity with the contemporary ills of Black America, but I don’t want to ignore that this book also did a great deal to teach me the history lynching like I hadn’t encountered it before. This is where I may have learned and grown the most.

It’s hard for a kid to grow up in our country without some degree of familiarity with the extrajudicial killings that terrorized black Americans during the Jim Crowe era, but familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. The depth of brutality and humiliation involved in Jim Crowe lynching is far deeper than many of us often imagine.

Reading this book is when I first heard the stories of mobs burning black men alive and cutting off his body parts as souvenirs for young children and ‘notable people’ in the crowd.

Before this book I assumed that lynchings were so blatantly horrific they must have been done in the shadows. I was wrong. Instead, people took pictures of themselves smiling at the sight of the lynching. Some people even sold postcards. Lynchings were horrifyingly public events.

Cone includes a quote from an AME Bishop speaking on the common euphemism “At the hands of persons unknown” which was used to shield lynch mobs from legal retribution.

Warning: this quote is as graphic as one might expect when dealing with lynching.

Strange… That the men who constitute these [mobs] can never be identified by… governors or the law officers, but the newspapers know all about them – can advance what they are going to do, how and when it was done,

how the rope broke, how many balls entered the Negro’s body, how loud he prayed, how piteously he begged, what he said, how long he was left hanging,

how many composed the mob, the number that were masked, whether they were prominent citizens or not, how the fire was built that burnt the ‘raper’, how the Negro was tied, how he was thrown into the fire, and the whole transaction;

but still the fiendish work was done by a set of “unknown men”.

Bishop Henry M. Turner

The Gospel According to Mary Brown

Building off the knowledge of the specific brutality of lynching I was then able to more deeply appreciate the spiritual connections to Christianity. At the core of this book (and the larger traditions of Liberation Theology) is the image of the Recrucified Christ. At the beginning of Chapter 4, Cone quotes a poem by County Cullen articulating this concept.

The South is crucifying Christ again …

… Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue,

The sin for which no blamelessness atones;

But lest the sameness of the cross should tire

They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,

And while he burns, good men, and women, too,

Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.

“Christ Recrucified,” Countee Cullen, 1922

Cullen’s poem is powerful and to the point. Yet, there is no clearer and complete image of the Recrucified Christ in the Black American context as W.E.B. Du Bois’s short story, “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”.

In “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”, Du Bois takes the conventional Jesus story and brings it to his contemporary era – Jim Crowe South. He replaces the Jesus character with Joshua, a young black boy born to a single mother (Mary) share-cropping in the rural South.

By the end of the story, a northern judge mirrors Pontius Pilate and turns a blind eye to the mob of white southern men who lynch the young Joshua. The damning political and religious commentary of “The Gospel According to Mary Brown” leaves no part of White America unscathed and Mary is crushed just as so many black mothers were crushed in Jim Crowe.

After the death of Joshua, Mary cries out to God,

“God, you ain’t fair! – You ain’t fair, God! You didn’t ought to it – if you didn’t want him black, you didn’t have to make him black; if you didn’t want him unhappy, why did you let him think?

And then you let them mock him, and hurt him, and lynch him! Why, why did you do it, God?”

W.E.B Du Bois, “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”, published in The Crisis

but mirroring the Jesus story, Du Bois chooses to end with hope.

… suddenly a flying sweat-swathed figure rushed to her, crying: “Mary – Mary – he is not dead: He is risen!”

W.E.B Du Bois, “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”, published in The Crisis

All this begs the question, “If you were to bring the Jesus story to our contemporary America, who would Jesus be, and what would his cross look like?”


If you would like to read W.E.B Du Bois’s whole story, I’ve included a PDF of the original magazine it was published in.


Hope Beyond Tragedy

I’ve written before about the concept of a hope that comes after tragedy and my first of these “book review” blog posts was on Telling the Truth by Frederik Buechner (which has invaluably influenced my understanding of the concept), but no source articulates this kind of hope with the depth and seriousness as Dr. Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Central to his understanding of this hope is his vision of the cross understood through the lynching tree. Because of this, his vision pushes against the focus of atonement which White America often sees in the cross.

I grew up saturated in that kind of White Christianity that Cone speaks out against. We understood the cross as a kind of hope that skips over the tragedy. We didn’t fully understand the suffering and oppression of the cross. We didn’t see Jesus’s life as a story of God’s continued love and commitment to the oppressed. Instead, the cross was sanitized and warped into a transaction that happened a long time ago. To us, Jesus came down with the intent of “dying for humanity”, and because of that, all debts were now considered paid if you responded to an altar call and sat in church on Sundays.

I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself.

The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross.

What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.

‘Weep no more, Marta,

Weep no more, Mary,

Jesus rise from de dead,

Happy Morning.’

Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

I’ll end this section with another quote Cone includes from Womanist Theologian M. Shawn Copeland on the tradition of Black American spirituals,

If the makers of the spirituals gloried in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, the enslaved Africans sang because they saw on the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion.

The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. the enslaved Africans sang because they saw the results of the cross – triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world.

M. Shawn Copeland, ‘Wading Through Many Sorrows: Toward a Theology of Suffering in Womanist Perspective

A Message to White Christianity

One of the most damning parts of this book is Cone’s critique of white “progressive” figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr in Chapter 2. In many regards, Neibuhr has gone down in history as one of the “good guys”. Hell, Barrack Obama has even called Reinhold Niebuhr his favorite theologian.

Here’s a quote from a New York Times article when Obama was still a senator. Obama doesn’t refer to Niebuhr as his ‘favorite’ in this article, but you get a sense of his excitement.

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?” Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” So I asked, “What do you take away from him?”

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Obama, Gospel and Verse“, Opinion Piece by David Brooks, The New York Times

To give you some background, Neibuhr was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., and in many regards Neibuhr preached a similar social gospel focused on God’s vision to help the underserved. MLK even wrote letters back and forth with Neibuhr while King was completing his doctoral thesis. At one point during the civil rights movement, Neibuhr supported the “Delta Ministry” which fought for poor black and white farmers in Mississippi, and on occasion, Neibuhr even wrote about the suffering of black Americans in the North.

But to Dr. Cone,

Neibuhr had “eyes to see” black suffering, but I believed he lacked the “heart to feel” it as his own.

Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

During Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights, Cone says that Neibuhr took the console of southern moderates over MLK. Neibuhr wanted gradual change. On one instance, MLK asked Neibuhr to sign a petition “appealing Eisenhower to protect children involved in integrating”. Neibuhr declined, believing such pressure would “do more harm than good”.

Neibuhr was by no means a person who prominent the racial oppression of black Americans, but according to Cone,

He seemed only marginally concerned about justice for black people…

Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Neibuhr was cerebral and detached in his commentary.

The fact that it is not very appealing to the victims of a current injustice does not make it any less the course of wisdom in overcoming historic injustices.

Reinhold Neibuhr

If we can defend Neibuhr anywhere, it’s worth nothing that he’s known for his “Christian Realism” which sought to push back against the “Moral Optimism” which saw progress as inevitable. MLK, however, rebutted such calls for ‘gradualism’.

It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure

Martin Luther King Jr.

Neibuhr may be the particular theologian in question, but Cone is striking a deeper question, “How can arguably ‘good’ christians be so blind to the connection between the cross and the lynching tree?” The spirit of that question reminds me of a famous MLK quote on white moderates,

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice;

who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…

Martin Luther King Junior, in a letter from Birmingham jail

Neibuhr, however, is not the only white theologian that Cone talks about in this book. Cone makes it clear,

It has always been difficult for white people to empathize fully with the experience of black people. But it has never been impossible.

Dr. James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Where Neibuhr and other “progressives” could not see or feel, Cone shows us German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer is now famous as a theologian and priest who resisted Nazi rule back in Germany, but he found his depth and fire for christian religion after spending time engaged with the black community in Harlem while attending Union Seminary.

… Bonhoeffer, during his year of study at Union, showed an existential interest in blacks, befriending a black student names Franklin Fisher, attending an teaching Bible study and Sunday School, and even preaching at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Bonhoeffer also read widely in African American history and literature, including Walter White’s Rope and Faggot on the history of lynching, read about the burning of Raymond Gunn in Maryville, Missouri, in the Literary Digest, “the first lynching in 1931,” and expressed outrage over the “infamous Scottsboro trial.”

He also wrote about the “Negro Church”, the “black Christ” and “white Christ” in the writings of the poet Countee Cullen, read Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, and regarded the “spirituals” as the “most influential contribution made by the negro to American Christianity.”

Some of Bonhoeffer’s white friends wondered whether he was becoming too involved in the Negro community.

Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

When I think of Bonhoeffer I’m drawn to another quote from Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas in the earlier video.

God’s story was the black story. Again, the black story was God’s story. And if you’re gonna be Christian in American you need to know the black story, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to know God’s story.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

Cone ends his critique of Neibuhr with a bit of nuance and insight,

Just as Martin Luther King Jr. learned much from Reinhold Niebuhr, Niebuhr could have deepened his understanding of the cross by being a student of King and the black freedom movement he led.

King could have opened Niebuhr’s eyes to see the lynching tree as Jesus’ cross in America.

White theologians do not normally turn to the black experience to learn about theology. But if the lynching tree is America’s cross and if the cross is the heart of the Christian gospel,

perhaps Martin Luther King Jr., who endeavored to “take up his cross, and follow [Jesus]” as did no other theologian in American history, has something to teach America about Jesus’ cross.

Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Wrapping it Up

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into other formative books on American Racism, I’ve since written similar posts on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ and James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’. In addition, I recommend you check out a Medium article I wrote on Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989).


(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium as American Christians Should Read ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’ by Dr. James Cone).

‘Leading Lives that Matter’ edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass

This isn’t like any of the other books I’ve written about on this blog. Today I’m talking about Leading Lives that Matter, an anthology edited together with written commentary by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass.

This book is a behemoth. I’ve been reading it on and off for almost a year and a half now, but I finally finished and it was well worth the time it takes. Plus, it’s split up in digestible chunks, so I was easily able to set down for months at a time and come back to it when I wasn’t so busy.


Leading Lives that Matter is a detailed exploration into the big questions of living our best lives. Per usual, the anthology’s subtitle says it all, “What We Should Do and Who We Should Be”.

The use of an anthology brings together a collection of some of the most brilliant thinkers from around the world and throughout history (with a noticeable focus on the European, American, and Judeo-Christian traditions designed to capture arguments frequently shaping the dialogue in the US American context specifically).

Selected authors include:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Homer, Dorothy Day, C. S. Lewis, Robert Frost, Abraham Joshua Heschel, William Wordsworth, Annie Dillard, Martha Nussbaum, James Baldwin, Thomas Merton, John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoy, Malcolm X, and many others.

What makes this approach so uniquely brilliant is that we aren’t simply handed one answer to each question on how we should live. This book is not a prescription for exactly how you ought to be living. Instead, the editors challenge readers to understand a diverse range of beliefs that often contradict each other so we may come to our own articulate understanding of our beliefs in relation to these thinkers.


Basic Structure

This book is organized in a way where you might not need to read it linearly, but it also provides some benefits for those who chose to read it linearly from Prologue to Epilogue. I chose to read it linearly, so I’ll be laying out its structure in the same linear format.

First, the anthology kicks off with a prologue focusing on two autobiographical readings – William Jame’s “What Makes a Life Significant” and Albert Schweitzer’s “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor”. These whole-bodied stories comprise many of the specific questions that will be addressed later in the anthology and set the stage for the big overarching questions, “What Should We Do? and Who Should We Be?”.

After this, the anthology separates itself into two lop-sided sections – Section 1: Vocabularies and Section 2: Questions. The introduction-like Section 1 comes in just under 80 pages while Section 2 comprises the main body of this book – a whopping 368 pages.

After this, Leading Live that Matter closes with a 50 page epilogue consisting mostly of Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilych. It could be that I read it with all the previous questions fresh in my mind, but this was by far my favorite part of the book.

The Death of Ivan Ilych contains a nuanced subtext that spurs thought on many of the questions addressed in earlier sections of the anthology, it takes a very effective deep dive into the family and culture that surrounded Ivan Ilych, and In a very poetic sense, the final words of the final reading in Leading Lives that Matter is of a man dying.

All this to say, DON’T SKIP THE EPILOGUE.


Section 1: Vocabularies

Starting with a section on “Vocabularies” is unlike anything I’ve read before, but it is definitely a simple and well executed idea. Before going into any specific questions the editors take a step back in order to define key terms and expressed the “Vocabularies” that they believe animate much of the critical thinking of our lives. In addition, these vocabularies will help us to frame the relationships between authors that pop up later in the book.

They split this section into 3 subsections – the vocabularies of “Authenticity”, “Virtue”, and “Vocation”.

At their surface, these are words that many of us more or less understand. However, the Vocabularies section forces us to take a deep dive into these topics and truly understand what many of their pivotal thinkers actually believe.


Authenticity

Selected Readings: Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Solitude of Self.

At the risk of oversimplification, Authenticity is often expressed through ideas such as listening to your inner voice or being true to yourself, but the selected readings force us to think more deeply about things we’re used to hearing in short 2-dimensional quotes.

Virtue

Selected Readings: Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Theodore Roosevelt’s An Autobiography.

Virtue is also an idea that many of us feel we understand, but that can often allude us. I came into this reading fresh off of a lot of classes featuring Aristotle and Plato in a way that primed me to broadly challenge Aristotle’s idea of Virtues and Roosevelt’s hyper-masculine sense of individuality. Yet, even I was able to come out of these readings with some positive views on the contributions made by the vocabulary of Virtues.

Vocation

Selected Readings: Mathew 20:20-28, Lee Hardy’s The Fabric of This World, Gary Badcock’s A Way of Life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking, and Will Campbell’s “Vocation as Grace”.

Vocation (sharing its root with voice and vocal) concerns itself with who we are “called to be” both individually and collectively. Grammatically, being called to something infers some kind of calling force (whether that be “God” or “the universe”). So, Vocation understandably has the strongest sense of spirituality and often pops up during readings from theologians, rabbi’s, and religious scriptures.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the vocabulary of Vocation has some of the largest diversity of thought compared to the other vocabularies. This is evidenced by the editors’ choice to include such a large number of selected authors compared to Authenticity and Virtue.


Section 2: Questions

After setting the groundwork with detailed definitions of the vocabularies the editors send us into the main body of the anthology, Questions. In total, they choose 7 such questions as subsections.

If you chose to go non-linear, this is where it might be most appropriate. Each of these “questions” can easily be read independently of each other in whatever order you like. However, the questions are edited in such a way where later sections often reference readings in previous questions and ideas can build on one another. As I said, I chose to read these in order and I recommend it if you are able to, but it won’t change too much if you decide to jump around.


Question #1 – Are Some Lives More Significant Than Others?

This question is an important one because it pushes against possible simplifications and assumptions in the anthology’s title. Leading Lives that Matter, understandably, holds an assumption that there are lives that “Matter”… but this walks dangerously close to assuming other lives don’t matter, or that some matter less than others.

This is where the concept of significance becomes important. It’s very easy (and in my opinion just) to wave off the question “Do some lives matter more than others?” with a resounding “NO!”, but Aristotle’s concept of significance provides a more unique challenge which forces us to more accurately articulate our beliefs.

In addition, it’s worth repeating that in this question and in all future questions, the selected readings challenge us from EVERY direction. So, don’t think we’re only gonna get people that repeat and repackage Aristotle.

Selected Readings:

C.S. Lewis’s lecture, “Learning in War-Time”

An excerpt from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics

An excerpt from Homer’s The Iliad

The Martyrdom of Perpetua

An excerpt from Dorothy Day’s Therese

Three biographical sketches: Ray Kroc, Iris Change, Joseph S. (“Smiley”) Landrum

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Question #2 – Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity?

This is a question with some serious cultural baggage and the readings have definitely left me thinking differently about careers, hobbies, friends, family, and identity. The truth is that we have really wrapped up our identities into our jobs/ careers.

When you introduce yourself, one of the first questions is always “What do you do for a living?” and for those of us that remember childhood well, it’s littered with the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”… but for better or for worse, we all know it means “What job do you want to have?”

By and far, this section is the one that has left me with the biggest lasting impact. I first read it more than a year ago and I am constantly thinking of it and giving people advice based on the nuance presented here.

Selected Readings:

An excerpt from Russell Muirhead’s Just Work,

Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Why Work?”,

Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in the Mud Time”,

Margaret Piercy’s “To be of use”,

H. G. Wells’s “The Door in the Wall”,

An excerpt from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath,

William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us” and “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”,

Gilbert Meilander’s “Friendship and Vocation”,

Question #3 – Is a Balanced Life Possible and Preferable to a Life Focused Primarily on Work?

I find balance to be a very interesting concept. At its surface lie questions of the generalist verse specialist debate, but there’s a lot more depth here. Do we even have the option to “focus” our lives primarily in one direction? Perhaps the idea of focusing “primarily on work” is just ignorant of the unavoidable interdependent relationships we have with one another.

But this question also launches another question, “What does balance even look like?”. I recently wrote about Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and I can’t help but connect this to concepts of a balanced life between civilization and wilderness. Most importantly, people vehemently disagree on what balance between wilderness and civilization actually means. Some consider the rural as the perfect spot between the two, but Henry David Thoreau also launched a tradition of those who saw the balanced life as straddling the extremes of both wilderness and civilization.

Now, you probably won’t read these selections and think of wilderness or ecology, but the general question remains, “What does balanced even mean?”

Selected Readings:

Robert Wuthnow’s “The Changing Nature of Work in the United States: Implications for Vocation, Ethics, and Faith”

Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s “Generativity Crises of My Own”

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “There’s No Place Like Work”

Abigail Zuger, M.D. “Defining a Doctor”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith”

Wendell Berry’s “An Invisible Web”

Two Eulogies for Yitzhak Rabin by King Hussein and Noa Ben Artzi-Pelossof

Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels”

William Butler Yeats’s “The Choice”

Jane Addams’s “Filial Relations”

Martha Nussbaum’s interview by Bill Moyers

Question #4 – Should I Follow My Talents as I Decide What to Do to Earn a Living?

I landed on this section right in the middle of my longest break away from the book, but when I came back it was like I didn’t lose a beat. This question lies at the intersection of many ideas like responsibility and free will. I even found it brushes up against Question #2 “Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity.”

This section extremely thought provoking and I know it’s a concept that I often think about. In addition, this section gave me the opportunity to read James Baldwin for the first time. Frankly, this book is filled with authors I had heard of and always wished to read. One of the side benefits of this book is the sheer number of famous writers I finally got to read first hand.

Selected Readings:

Mathew 25:14-30 (The Parable of the Talents)

John Milton’s “On His Blindness”

An excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

An excerpt from Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte

An excerpt from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s screenplay of Good Will Hunting

And James Baldwin’s “Sonny Blues”

Question #5 – To Whom Should I Listen?

Per usual, this section comes at the question from a range of directions. However, one of the most memorable parts of this reading was how they flipped the question at the end to also mean, “How could we best give advice to others?”.

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in both situations. I ask a lot of advice from people (and need to decide “to whom I should listen?”) and I also am frequently asked to give advice myself. Both sides of this relationship are incredibly important and I’m glad the editors included it in this book.

Selected Readings:

Will Weaver’s “The Undeclared Major”,

Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”,

An excerpt of The Autobiography of Malcolm X co-written Malcolm X and Alex Haley,

An excerpt from Lois Lowry’s The Giver,

Vincent Harding’s “I Hear Them… Calling”,

Willa Cather’s “The Ancient People”,

And an excerpt from Garret Keizer’s A Dresser of Sycamore Trees

Question #6 – Can I Control What I Shall Do and Become?

Free will and individual agency are often hot topics of discussion. I know the free will debate popped up many times in my high school English classes. It’s easy to lock oneself into one camp or the other, but this section opens things up with some very specific and nuanced challenges.

In truth, there is definitely some paradox at play here, and frankly, the positions of these readings are often more subtle than people assume. For instance, William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” is a widely popular poem among the individualistic self-mastery class of Ayn Rand enthusiasts, but we seldom ask ourselves, “What does it actually mean to be ‘master of your fate’ and ‘captain of your soul’?”

Selected Readings:

William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”,

Thomas Lynch’s “Passed On”,

Stephen Dunn’s “The Last Hours”,

The Book of Jonah,

Sullivan Ballou’s Letter to His Wife, 1861,

Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Weddings”,

And an excerpt from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts from Solitude.

Question #7 – How Shall I Tell the Story of My Life?

This one came to me as a very pleasant surprise. I love stories and I know they are important, but I’ve never considered the question “How Shall I Tell the Story of My Life?” Of all the questions this one challenged me with a completely new idea, “the way you talk about your life might matter.”

If I had to guess at the outset, this would be the last question I would have expected in this anthology – which makes it all the more important. I have a feeling that I’ll be leaning more and more towards this question as I get older.

Selected Readings:

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”,

Mary Catherine Bateson’s “Composing Life Story”,

An excerpt from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow,

An excerpt from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden,

Dan McAcdams’s “An American Life Story”,

and Michael T. Kaufman’s “Robert McG. Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives”.


Wrapping it Up

If all of those authors and questions sound intimidating to you, I get it. This book is probably not for everyone. I fully recognize that I’m a unique individual to choose a 539 page anthology for my pleasure reading, but if Leading Lives that Matter sparks your interest, I can’t recommend it to you enough.

It’s big, it’s long, and it is frequently dense, but I am incredibly grateful that I read this book as early as I did in life and I get the feeling that I’ll be turning back to these readings time and time again for wisdom and perspective.


(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium).

Meeting Climate Change with Art: Turning up the Heat

Heat has been used in many stories for many different reasons. When it comes to films, a beating sun and sweaty costume design aren’t always as simple as staging some setting in a desert or showing some survivor getting beaten down by the sun on a life raft.

Hot weather – and the many ways we’ve learned to communicate it – has come to play many important roles in our stories. We often use Heat to build a juxtaposition of worlds, communicate a character’s disorientation, or symbolize an unavoidable reality demanding our attention.

Understanding these uses can certainly expand an artist’s toolbox for speaking to climate change, but I also believe that taking a deeper look at these uses of Heat can provide us with informative metaphors for climate change itself. They used to call it Global Warming after all.

Here are a couple of rapid-fire examples of the 3 common uses I mentioned above:

Juxtaposition

Florida Project gives us an example of Heat’s visual juxtaposition turned towards the film’s larger class critique. In Florida Project, we spend the whole movie focused on a motel community caked in constant Florida-style sweat, all while living next to the dream-like Disney World.

The one time I distinctly remember characters without such apparent sweat is when a couple accidentally ends up at the motel during their honeymoon to Disney World. The couple was truly of some other world than our main characters, and it’s self-evident that ending up in this motel is a big problem for them. So, as quickly as they enter the film they get the heck out of that motel.

However, no one does class critique better than Parasite, and Heat plays an important role in communicating the juxtaposition of Parasite’s upper and lower class worlds. The rich are well dressed and picturesque with AC shielding them from sweat, but the poor do not have such luxuries. Instead, they wear noticeably old sweat-stained clothes as they huddle next to loud ineffective fans, using pizza boxes to fan themselves off.


Disorientation

I tend to focus heavily on movies (It’s a blessing and a curse), but Heat has also been used in written stories. One of my first and most memorable experiences thinking of Heat in a story comes from reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger in a high school English class.

Heat (and the baking sun) builds on the book’s larger existential themes as it displays a disorienting reality for The Stranger’s main character Meursault.

The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows.

It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations—especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin.


Unavoidable Reality

One of the most compelling uses of Heat I’ve seen recently is to symbolize an unavoidable reality. In this way, the Heat runs parallel to something else in the narrative which demands the characters’ attention.

In a very physical sense, Heat is often a hard thing to avoid. I’ve experienced my fair share of scorching hot days, and if you don’t have AC, there’s just no avoiding the fact that you are going to be HOT when the planet says so. In this way, Heat serves as a very effective symbol to run parallel to all those other things our characters can’t escape either.

Sydney Lumet’s film 12 Angry Men is a prime example of this. The story follows 12 jurors stuck in a deliberation room as they come to a unanimous decision regarding the guilt or innocence of a young kid charged with the murder of his father. All the while, each character becomes caked in more and more sweat as New York City sees a truly scorching day.

Occasionally their debate pauses as the characters are exhausted by the tension. Some jurors turn to small open windows for some breeze or go to the bathroom to wash off their face, but any attempt to find relief from the heat and tension of the deliberation room can only last for a short second.

There’s no escaping the deliberation room and its oppressive Heat until every member faces the conflicting facts of their case and comes to a unanimous decision.


Connecting to Climate Change

In truth, all of these interpretations for Heat can be used in meaningful ways as we create art that addresses climate change. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that climate change will hit people on the lower ends of class and racial divides much harder than others. As the Heat turns up, some people won’t have the metaphorical AC as in Parasite to shield themselves from the effects of climate change.

Heat as disorientation works as well. Like Camus’s The Stranger, the social and political climate around climate change can truly be existentially disorienting. I mean, God knows how many elected officials consider climate science to be non-conclusive.

And for obvious reasons, Heat as a symbol for unavoidable reality can also speak truth into our experience of climate change. Just like in 12 Angry Men, we’re all stuck here on this planet as climate change begins to worsen and worsen. This isn’t something that will just disappear on its own and we can’t just get up and leave. Ditching our planet for another might work in Interstellar or a tech billionaire’s daydream, but there’s no running away from how much we need Earth and how big of a threat climate change poses towards us.


Making it Specific

The last few sections were pretty quick and kept things relatively general, but that’s not what I want the bulk of this post to focus on. Now that we got a bird’s eye view of the breadth of uses for Heat, I’d like to really dive deep into one film specifically.

You may have guessed it if your eyes snuck past and read the next section’s title. I’d like to talk about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

The entire narrative follows one small multi-racial, multi-generational community over the course of New York City’s hottest day of the year.

To be clear, Do the Right Thing is NOT a film about climate change nor should it be, but it may have accidentally gone the farthest to provide us a comprehensive climate change metaphor, and Heat takes center stage.

Do the Right Thing is most famous for its handling of race relations in the United States and its almost prophetic predictions of moments like the Rodney King riots animated out of reaction to police brutality. In a broader sense, however, Do the Right Thing is about community.

Specifically, it’s about a community pushed to the breaking point by escalating race relations – and no matter what they do today – it’s a community that has to wake up tomorrow, face those same racial tensions, and live with every action they took the day before.

The title spurs a lot of questions to think about after the end credits roll, “Who did the right thing? Did anyone do the right thing? Who did the wrong thing? What would have been the ‘right’ thing?“, but Spike Lee doesn’t hand us any easy answers. Instead, our characters are complicated, subtle, and often sympathetic.

A lot of oversimplified films address racial divides with a neat and pedantic bow tied at the end. Do the Right Thing is no such film.


The Story

The film takes a particular focus on following Mookie (played by Spike Lee), but it would be hard to consider Mookie the “main” character. Instead, we follow him meander through the community on his pizza delivery routes in a motion that introduces us to most other characters and drives the similarly meandering narrative forward.

If we can sum up the narrative with any structure it’s Do the Right Thing’s rhythm from moments when tension builds and moments when characters walk away, try to cool things down, or just laugh it all off.

The best example of this build-up and cool-down structure is when an argument between Mookie and Pino (played by John Turturro) erupts into a montage of characters hurling racial slurs at the camera – ending with Samuel Jackson sliding towards the camera as “Mister Señor Love Daddy” with this truly fantastic line:

Yo! Hold up! Time out! TIME OUT! Y’all take a chill! Ya need to cool that shit out!

And that’s the double truth, Ruth!

In the context of the film, this scene is even more tense as it builds on Pino’s antagonism towards Mookie. Spike Lee doesn’t pull any punches with this scene. So, don’t watch it if you aren’t comfortable hearing truly horrible racial slurs.

I also included a clip of just Samuel L. Jackson’s line for good measure. The clip is truly universal in its applications and it skips the racial slurs if that’s a problem for you.

Let’s be real. We all have moments when we need Samuel L. Jackson to yell at us like this.


Back to the Heat

Heat plays a central role throughout this film and I’ll go more into the meanings below, but Do the Right Thing also provides us with a great case study for actually communicating Heat.

Spike Lee can be given a lot of credit here, but we can’t forget the film’s cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.

Despite shooting during 8 often-rainy weeks, Ernest Dickerson still found a way to create Heat on camera. Most notably, he utilized an almost exclusively bright warm color palette and even went as far as to set heat lamps below the lens to give the sense of one blistering hot day.

In addition, one of the most effective ways to communicate Heat seems to be showing people trying to avoid that Heat. Spike Lee constantly incorporates moments of refuge from the Heat. 3 old men spend most of the film under an umbrella, young people in the neighborhood play around after opening up a fire hydrant, and cold showers provide a truly satisfying shelter from the oppression outside.


The Usual Intepretation

The most popular interpretation of Heat’s role in Do the Right Thing aligns with uses similar to Sydney Lumet’s earlier mentioned 12 Angry Men. In this case, Heat is interpreted to represents an unavoidability reality that needs to be addressed.

In the case of Do the Right Thing, this unavoidable reality is racial tensions in the United States. The sweltering New York City Heat lays Spike Lee’s characters bare and provides them no shelter from things we might prefer to kick down the road for someone else or some other time.

As much as we might like to beat racism in one day and wake up with it gone, or save dealing with it for another time, racism has a long persistent history and those types of things don’t go away easily.

Sal’s last interaction with Mookie nails in this fact:

Well, they say it’s even gonna get hotter today?

What’re you gonna do with yourself?

– Sal to Mookie

When Mookie woke up the scene before this you start with a sense of calm that didn’t exist the day before, but Spike Lee quickly reminds of everything that happened the day before. Waiting for a cooler tomorrow provides no relief. There are some things that we can’t avoid.


Another Interpretation

If we take the story at its surface, however, there is another meaningful way that we can interpret the role of Heat in Do the Right Thing. I like to call this frame of interpretation “Turning up the Heat”.

This interpretation shies away from symbolism and treats Heat in a very physical way. The Heat isn’t some analogy running parallel to something deeper. Instead, we’re watching people who are just surrounded by Heat and reacting to that fact in the context of their pre-existing world.

In this interpretation (and in real life), Heat can bring out the worst in people. Heat pushes previous tensions and inequalities to the max. These tensions then build and build until they finally erupt.

Those tensions were all there when the weather was good. The Heat itself never creates the conflict. Racism and inequality didn’t just pop up on one hot day in Do the Right Thing, but previous rifts and community tensions skyrocket when the community gets enveloped with that oppressive heat.

People are just much less patient when they’re covered in sweat, and as someone once described Do the Right Thing, “It’s about complicated people who lose the will to forgive each other” (link).

The prime example is Danny Aiello’s character, Sal. He can be a compassionate person who confronts the overt anger and racism in his son, but at the end of a long HOT day peppered with conflict, Sal reacts on a hair-trigger, and the subtle racism inside of him bolts to the surface, overflowing into slurs, threats, and violence.

Eruptions like these have to come from somewhere. So, we can’t say that Sal “isn’t a racist” by judging him at his best. We need to be critical of how people react at their worst too. Heat can never be the primary reason Sal erupts, but Heat accelerates this movement and we need to be cognizant of that.


Connecting it Back to Climate Change.

Climate change literally and metaphorically “Turns up the Heat”. Race relations, classism, food security, food deserts, and drought are already massive problems and as climate change continues to build we’ll see even more famine, disease, and natural disasters get thrown on top of it all.

Much like a brutal day of sweat can reduce people’s capacity for forgiveness, famine would make it a lot harder for us to navigate race relations. Climate change has the power to amplify every historical issue of inequality that we already live with.

For instance, most places, if not all, will be hit by natural disasters, but not everyone can recover equally. Many places simply don’t have the cash, debt ceiling, or generational wealth to quickly rebuild after major or minor natural disasters… and that inequality will be compounded if those same disasters become frequent.

Furthermore, this metaphorical “Turning up the Heat” can be associated with things not necessarily associated with literal heat. Parasite offers us another great visual to this. When the rain in Parasite sets in, the poor family must flee downhill as their below-ground apartment is flooded and they frantically try to save their home.

We wake up with the family huddled in a sort of convention center with other displaced people. After this, we see the rich enjoying the clear and sunny post-rain atmosphere, set to kick off a very pleasant birthday party.

In this sense, Heat is an exacerbating force that touches all aspects of life. Racism and classism are already bad enough. Now imagine we start throwing some food insecurity on top of it? If you look hard enough you may even see that climate change is already starting to hit those people on the far lower ends of class and racial divides.


Wrapping it Up?

I know this post takes on a lot of different ideas, but I hope it spurs some thought and discussion. As I said in the beginning, exploring these examples of Heat’s symbolic meaning can definitely expand an artist’s toolbox. There are many ways those symbolic uses for Heat may be applied to climate change, but there’s always room for new uses as well.

However, there are few things as powerful as a good metaphor. We should work to take up multiple metaphors that give us tools to make sense in this often chaotic world, but I think Do the Right Thing and the metaphor of climate change as “Turning up the Heat” push us in a really good direction.

When we see climate change through a lens of “Turning up the Heat” we can tell that it isn’t just a problem for the “Environmentalist” bubble. Climate change is a problem that touches all other problems.

Connecting it to the Moment:

Ok, I know “wrapping it up” is supposed to come last, but there are some things that just ought to be added to the end of this post.

I started planning this a long time ago, but I know that I’m now publishing it in the middle of global protests against police violence and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

As I read back over what I wrote about Do the Right Thing I can’t ignore that it speaks a lot to our present moment. I may be pulling on it for inspiration regarding climate change, but the fact is that Do the Right Thing is a film about race in the United States – and it’s a damn good one at that.

Some people have been responding to the protests by watching movies with friends and families to spur conversation on race and criminal justice reform. Popular titles are often examples like Netflix’s 13th or the recent film adaptation of Just Mercy. All of those are great, but there are few films I would recommend more for this moment than Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

The moment I saw the first video of the Minneapolis police precinct burning I thought about Do the Right Thing. Watch this film if you get the change, and better yet, watch it with other people.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that there is one scene with some brief nudity and the entire film is saturated in racial slurs (so it might not be a perfect family flick if you got young kids… that’s your call), but if you want to start a mature conversation around race and what we should do about it, this is your film.

I rented it recently from Youtube for $3.99 but it’s also available for rent on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Prime (all for $3.99).


(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium as ‘Turning up the Heat’ A Story Device for Addressing Climate Change and serves as the basis for Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’: An always relevant portrait of racism in America).