Be Very Afraid – Robert Wuthnow
“For more than six decades, humankind has lived with the knowledge that it could be the agent of its own annihilation. We are constantly reminded of crises, large and small, present, and anticipated. What effect has this awareness had on us? How have we responded?” begins the book by Robert Wuthnow, one of the most celebrated Sociologists of Religion alive.
He goes on to answer his question that we have responded rather aggressively to many of these threats. The covid-19 pandemic stands as an aberration in terms of how the US Federal government has responded, but other than this, if we look at the various threats that we have tried to manage, the record has been one of alarm and preparation.
His insight that “Living with the prospect of devastation, even annihilation, as we have for more than two generations, has shaped our entire culture,” seems partially true, especially if one look at how we changed in a post 9/11 world. He points out that the sort of lessons we learn and apply to the next calamity should be different from the one preceding it should be ‘sorted out,’ as each crisis is different.
Americans live in a world where such philosophical discussions are hard to have, he argues. Such public deliberation and learning is hard to have, given the pace of life that we have built for ourselves. This book takes you through the various big calamities and how Americans have responded to them. A must read, given the context we are living in and the lessons we can learn from each of them. Though the book is slightly dated, the insights and wisdom contained in it is not!
The book can be bought here.
Seeing like a state – James C Scott
I started reading James C Scott during my doctoral education and his books are like a slow-acting drug, they take some time to have their effect. But once they do, your mind is not the same after you’ve had it.
Scott’s various books have the cumulative effect of challenging some of the basic assumptions we have about our world. Seeing like a State challenges some of the basic assumptions around the role of the state (used as a metaphor for all forms of formal, planned projects or efforts) by governments or societies. His chapter on the High-modernist city is particularly engaging, and he points out the absurdity of planning grand cities and projects with a vision to shape the inhabitants in a certain way, while the residents of those cities may have very different ideas of how they should live, walk, enjoy the city. Using the example of Brasilia in Brazil, he points out how the city center is almost empty, which is a testament to the failed city planning efforts.
Having come of age in Bangalore, India, a metropolitan city that has its own unique challenges of ‘planning,’ I have come to appreciate the absurdity of megacity planning. I once heard a French planner (who was working with the city planning division) who said that he came to this city 30 years late, meaning that all manner of planning was impossible and that they are only doing ‘disaster management.’ Such thinking is endemic to all state-led projects, that are in some respects absolutist, Scott would point out.
Scott’s argument seems to be to reinvigorate the metis/practical knowledge embedded in systems of governance. This has been destroyed by large scale planning and projects that want to ‘rationalize’ everything. He says “The destruction of metis and its replacement by standardized formulas legible only from the center is virtually inscribed in the activities of both the state and large-scale bureaucratic capitalism. (p.335).” This need for control and regulation is part of the obsession with authority and efficiency.
A recording of Scott’s talk about his book is here.
The Entrepreneurial State – Mariana Mazzucato
This is a great book if you want to learn about some facts about the government’s role in innovation and change. Most Americans know that the internet came out of DARPA. What they would perhaps not know that the wonderful iPhone that you hold in your hand would not have been possible without the U.S. government’s subsidies and loans.
Mazzucato’s argument is simple: It is the state (government) that invests heavily in most basic research and technology developments, subsidizes the creative work by offering loans to many of the well-known ‘innovative’ firms that we know, but does not get enough credit for it. While Steve Jobs is considered a genius – and rightly so – his innovation would have come to naught without the massive government investments in GPS technologies, touch-screen technologies, and related components that make the iPhone.
The image of the pharma industry as innovative is also made up, as much of the work done by NIH and other government agencies is crucial to their success. The government took up the risks that are humungous, she argues.
This is a provocative book that I am enjoying, and you will too. In the meanwhile, if you want a taste of some of these arguments, check out this TED talk that Mazzucato gave, a while ago.
Now, go get this book! You won’t regret it.
I came across the title quite accidentally, when reading an article about the criminal justice system in the U.S. This is a haunting book that shows you why the rich and powerful get away with what they do. It is depressing, demoralizing but also ultimately illuminating, in pointing out how liberals like Eric Holder and his ‘Holder Memo’ have contributed to much of the mess around corporate litigation. As a non-lawyer, I found this book to be engrossing and a must-read.
Well written, with a lot of detail for the lay-person. Add this to your reading list.