Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Policitcs / Christopher Childers -- Lawrence, Kan.: Univeristy Press of Kansas, 2012

It is often said the American Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery, but over the right of states to secede.  The assertion is initially appealing in that significant majorities in the northern states felt no need to go to war over the presence of slavery in the South, but a northern army was quickly mobilized when southern states seceded.  This analysis, however, overlooks the decades-long debate over slavery, particularly the debate over its extension into the U.S. territories, which was the core disagreement that finally led to secession.  Imagine two farmers who begin arguing about the ownership of a plot of land and find themselves coming to blows when they cannot agree on a subtle point in contract law.  We would not say that they were fighting over a legal principle, but that they were fighting over the land.  So too was the Civil War a struggle over slavery, not state sovereignty.  Christopher Childers's masterly book The Failure of Popular Sovereignty traces the long argument that finally led to the Civil War.  In the course of the account, the importance of slavery is revealed by the changing justifications offered by southern slaveholders in particular.

The central concern in both the North and the South was the extension of slavery into the territories.  In time, four positions surfaced:  (1) the federal government had authority to regulate and even outlaw slavery in the territories, (2) the government of a territory could regulate or outlaw slavery, (3) the citizens of a territory could regulate and even outlaw slavery, but only when applying for statehood, and (4) the federal government had an obligation actively to protect slavery in the territories until the territory became a state.  Other positions also surfaced, but they tended to be opportunistic modifications of one of these four.

Strong precedents existed for the first of the four positions, even since before the ratification of the Constitution.  The Northwest Ordinance (1787) prohibited slavery in the the territories north of the Ohio River and Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Ordinance of 1784 regulating territories contained a stipulation that slavery in the territories would be prohibited after 1800.  The stipulation was stripped from the ordinance, but only due the the sickness and absence of a single voter in the Confederation Congress.  In 1820, the federal government passed the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery in the Louisiana territory north of 36' 30".  It is noteworthy that during the discussion of the Missouri Compromise, John C. Calhoun, who later became the leading defender of the extension of slavery, endorsed the power of the federal government to prohibit it.

The Slave Power's early lack of concern over the federal power to restrict slavery changed as political sentiment against slavery grew in the country.  Proslavery officials came to adopt a version of popular sovereignty that excluded federal authority over slavery in the territories.  This headed off the extension of the Northwest Ordinance to the Orleans territory (Louisiana) and allowed the Arkansas territory to draft a slave code and be admitted as a slave state.  The proslavery arguments held that the federal government should not dictate legislation to the citizens of the territories.  To do so would be to treat them as colonies.  This view was not based on any specific language in the Constitution.  Indeed, Article Four, Section Three permitted the federal government to pass "needful rules and regulations" for the territories.  Instead, the proslavery endorsement of popular sovereignty was based on a basic principle of American government that the people are capable of self-governance and that local authority should trump federal authority.

With the conquest of the Mexican territories, the proslavery position changed.  The citizens of the territory of New Mexico were disposed to pass legislation prohibiting slavery, but to protect slavery, the Slave Power argued that the citizens of the territories were not politically mature enough for self-governance and that they could only prohibit slavery at the time they submitted an application for statehood.  The Slave Power derided their own earlier position that allowed the territorial government authority over slavery, calling it "squatter sovereignty."  It was thought by many that by insisting on "state sovereignty" instead, slaveholders would have time to emigrate to New Mexico and ensure that it would be admitted as a slave state.

By this time, Calhoun had recognized that even while the territorial governments might not be permitted to prohibit slavery, their slave codes (and social conditions) might effectively prohibit the emigration of slaves and slaveholders to the territories.  What was necessary, according to Calhoun was the active protection of slave property by the federal government in the territories.  Many southerners accepted Calhoun's analysis, but others, especially those in the upper South and border states, continued to adhere to "state sovereignty."  Calhoun's position was effectively endorsed years after his death by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).  More explicitly, Dred Scott rejected the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise and held that the federal government had no authority to outlaw slavery in the territories, but by this time all four main positions regarding the extension of slavery were advanced by important political factions and various splinter positions were offered in an effort to reach a compromise over slavery.

Perhaps the most consistent position was held by the antislavery forces who argued that the federal government, empowered by the Constitution's Article Four, Section Three, could establish "needful rules and regulations" for the territories, that this included the prohibition of slavery, and that the frequent exercise of this power had established it in practice. 

Among Childers's most interesting observations are the fine legal distinctions that were made by proponents of various versions of popular sovereignty.  Proslavery radicals appeared to completely alter their views on popular sovereignty, moving through each of the four main positions to fit their interests in the extension of slavery.  Steven A. Douglas, a more moderate politicians, retained his view that territorial governments could pass legislation regarding slavery (squatter sovereignty, if you will).  Douglas argued that slavery could not exist where laws did not provide for its aid and protection.  Douglas, consistent with his previous support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, continued to argue for territorial sovereignty and against federal intervention in the territories.  Douglas remained true to his commitment to the principle of self-determination of local communities.  He also seemed to hope that this position would satisfy both southern and northern Democrats and maintain his party's political dominance.

Other politicians, particularly Lewis Cass attempted to satisfy both wings of the Democratic Party by issuing ambiguous statements on precisely when a territory was empowered to regulate slavery.  His cagey approach nearly won him the presidency in 1848, but he was defeated by the Mexican War hero Zachery Taylor, who simply remained silent about the practicalities of popular sovereignty.

In general, The Failure of Popular Sovereignty is the story of a decades-long struggle over the extension of slavery.  It provides an illuminating account of cross-cutting political considerations and evolving views about the constitutional protections afforded to slavery.  Specific political figures involved in the formulation of the doctrine of popular sovereignty are vividly drawn, and the rising stakes in the debate lend growing excitement to the story.  If there is a weakness to the history, it is the scant descriptions of the antislavery movement.  A better understanding the internal debates within the Democratic Party over popular sovereignty would be achieved by placing the debate within a more vivid description of the larger political context.  This would, of course, add a number of pages to the work, but the topic certainly deserves additional treatment.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mr. Lincoln Goes to War / William Marvel -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006

In Mr. Lincoln Goes to War William Marvel makes a strenuous case against Lincoln's actions in the first year of the war.  Marvel's Lincoln appears to be eager for war and quite unconcerned about basic civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution.  Among the earliest and most famous violations of civil liberties came in the case of John Merryman, a prominent Maryland resident.  Well-know for his sympathies for secession, Merryman was arrested in May 1861and held without access to the courts until he was released in July.  Merryman's arrest occurred during the most systematic violations of the right to habeas corpus which continued through the first year of the war.  During that time, Lincoln authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the region between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and later extended the region to New York City. 

While the right of habeas corpus is fundamental to a free society, Lincoln faced uncertain circumstances that threatened the federal government and potentially the rule of law throughout the country.  In the early days of secession, it was not clear what path Maryland would take.  Furthermore, rumors were rife within Washington D.C. that the Confederates were amassing an army to capture the city.  Indeed, in early March 1861, the Confederate Congress called for 100,000 soldiers to volunteer for a one-year tour of duty.   Given significant support for the southern cause within the city and in the state of Maryland, one could make a case for unprecedented police actions.  As the threat to the capital subsided, Lincoln released all political prisoners (with some exceptions) on Feb. 14, 1862; however, following the imposition of a draft in the summer of 1863, Lincoln again suspended the writ of habeas corpus.  It appears that Lincoln exercised this power for specific purposes at specific times.  

Clearly, the Lincoln administration's record regarding civil liberties is at very least questionable, but Marvel's description of it as "arbitrary" seems too harsh under the circumstance.  Marvel does little to credit these circumstances.  In the case of civil war, one's mortal enemies are fellow citizens and so the protections of citizenship obviously will be strained. Indeed, the gravity of the conflict is illustrated by the violations of civil liberties on both sides, but Marvel makes no mention of the violations perpetrated by the Confederate government.  The Confederate Congress authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1862, passed the Alien Enemies Act which authorized the arrest of anyone in the Confederate states who did not acknowledge Confederate citizenship, and passed the Sequestration Act which authorized the permanent confiscation of the property of Union sympathizers.  These actions, along with formation of a hostile army demonstrate the gravity of the threat posed to federal authority and the government itself.  

Marvel makes much of the fact that many Union soldiers joined the army not out of a moral or nationalist impulse, but because of economic need.  He furthermore notes that a draft was required to sustain the Union war effort.  The conclusion Marvel is leading us to is that the war was -- from the beginning -- foisted upon the people of the country by an aggressive president.  It should come as no surprise that those signing up to military service would be disproportionately poor and unemployed, but some degree of allegiance to the cause is likely to part of the decision to enlist, particularly as the horror of the war became better known.  It is noteworthy that less than 20% of the Union forces were enlisted due to the draft.  Marvel does not mention that southerners also joined the Confederate army for economic reasons and that a Confederate draft was required a year prior to the Union draft.  Soft popular support for the Confederate cause lends credence to the view that the secession of southern states was in fact a rebellion by a privileged southern elite, not an act of northern aggression.  

Marvel also describes the suppression of the press in the North, but again, the exigencies of civil war are not recognized and little mention is made of the state of the press in the South.  Marvel does acknowledge that pro-union presses were closed by the Confederacy, but writes that presses in the South practiced "voluntary restraint" and that the infrequency of attacks on the press could be explained by the fact that in the South "the dominant slave culture had long repressed divergent opinion."  Time and time again, Marvel provides excuses for Confederate violations of basic liberties, but excoriates the Lincoln administration for similar violations.  

Lincoln is not the only object of Marvel's criticism.  In a chapter entitled, "The Crimson Corse of Lyon," Marvel describes the Union campaign to control Missouri.  For Marvel it is a rebellion against the authorized government of the state of Missouri.  Lyon is called "an insubordinate, self-righteous psychopath" who "would not hear of peace when he saw so rare and opportunity to fulfill his apocalyptic personal destiny."  It is remarkable that Marvel could diagnosis a personality disorder in Lyon one hundred and fifty years after Lyon's death, when it is difficult for qualified psychiatrists to make such diagnoses for their contemporary patients.  It says more about Marvel's polemical intent than Lyon's personality.  Marvel writes that Lyon's "unstable temperament" is revealed by his providing intelligence to McClellan that turned out to be incorrect.  The connection is so unclear that it borders on being a non sequitur, and in fact, in one case, the "incorrect intelligence" was not really off the mark at all.  Confederate forces really were assembling in Arkansas in preparation for an invasion of Missouri. 

For a revealing portrait of Lyon, Marvel credits Christopher Phillips's harsh 1990 biography of Lyon, entitled Damned Yankee.  I have not read Damned Yankee, but its initial paragraphs read less like history and more like an historical novel.  Phillips describes dramatic details that he could not possible know took place.  He does so clearly for literary effect.  "Pulling pensively at his unruly red beard, forty-three-year-old Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon watched the commotion in the street....His features hardened, the wrinkles at the top of his hooked nose deepened, and his small mouth clenched his cigar as tightly as his false teeth would allow."  Prose of this sort hardly engenders confidence in the accuracy of Phillips's accounts.  

This is not to say that Marvel's work is credulous.  His bibliography reveals the serious research that lies behind his work, but it is not exceptional by professional standards.  Marvel makes good use of primary sources, particularly letters and newspaper accounts.  He also makes heavy use of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, but any number of historians have done as well and have not drawn the starkly critical conclusions that Marvel draws.  The scrupulous detail tends, however, to ocur in the passages which provide rather tedious accounts of troop movements.  Such passages make up a substantial portion of Marvel's work.

At times Marvel's polemics clearly get the best of historical accuracy.  At one point he writes of "Lincoln's expedition against Ft. Sumter."  Here he is referring to a flotilla of ships that Lincoln ordered to deliver food and water to the besieged Union garrison.  Marvel has turned a defensive, holding action into aggression.  This may be a simple editorial oversight, but it reveals the lens through which Marvel views history and the extent to which it distorts his vision.  The actions "against" Ft. Sumter in 1861 were all perpetrated by the Confederacy -- first a siege and then a potentially murderous bombardment.  

Lying behind Marvel's work is the view that Lincoln's defense of federal property and willingness to engage in war was illegal, immoral, and unnecessary.  The best defense of this view that I have read is in Democracy in the United States by Ransom H. Gillet, published in 1868.  Prior to the war, Gillet was a member of the Democratic Party and a U.S. Representative from New York.  His book attempts to resurrect the much-tarnished reputation of the Democratic Party.  It is a scathing, partisan attack on the Lincoln administration.  Were Marvel to comment on Gillet's work, I suspect he would find Gillet the most accurate and astute observer of the times.  

We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 / William J. Cooper -- N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

The American Civil War was long in coming.  As early as the founding of the country, pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces struggled over slavery.  At various times in the first half of the 18th century, the political conflict threatened to lead to secession, and of course secession and war finally did come following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.

The main questions at issue were whether or not slavery would be permitted in the U.S. territories and in the states to be created out of those territories.  The Republican platform ratified at the 1860 convention in Chicago called for the complete prohibition of slavery in the territories.  The Democratic Party was, however, divided.  Under the banner of "popular sovereignty," the northern faction supported the right of territorial governments to prohibit slavery.  The southern faction held that only state constitutions could establish such prohibitions.  Unable to resolve their differences, the Democratic Party split and ran two candidates:  Steven A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge. 

Lincoln's election is often thought of as being a result of the split in the Democratic Party.  He certainly failed to receive a majority of the popular vote nation-wide and he received virtually no votes in the southern states. His victories in the northern states, however, gave him the electoral votes necessary to win the election, but even if Democratic Party voters had not split their votes, Lincoln's majorities in the northern states would have put him in the White House.  State by state popular vote totals demonstrate just how divided the country was on the issue of slavery, particularly the extension of slavery into the territories.

In the weeks following Lincoln's election, seven states seceded from the Union (South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas).  These states established the Confederate States of America.  Its constitution guaranteed slavery in all its states and territories.  The movement toward secession was unable to reach beyond the the deep south, though, until after the fall of Ft. Sumter on April 13 and Lincoln's subsequent call for 75,000 troops to defend the Union.  The prospect that federal troops would be used to occupy and "reconstruct" the seceded states led to the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.  The Kentucky legislature declared Kentucky neutral in the conflict, while the federal occupation of Maryland and Missouri precluded secession in those states.

William Cooper's We Have the War Upon Us provides a close account of events between the election of Lincoln and the fall of Ft. Sumter.  He especially examines the negotiations between Republicans and conditional unionists who sought to avoid the secession of the upper southern and border states.  His treatment is careful and generally even-handed, relying on both primary and secondary sources.  The actions (and non-actions) of William Seward and Abraham Lincoln play a central role in Cooper's account -- Seward working hard to accommodate the interests of the conditional unionists and Lincoln remaining largely silent on what his approach to the crisis would be upon his inauguration.  The out-going president James Buchanan also played an important role in the unfolding events.  Buchanan's view was that while states did not have the legal authority to leave the Union, the federal government did not have the authority to defend its sovereignty over the seceded states.  One might argue that his inactivity to address secession forcefully at an early stage left the new Republican administration with a irremediable problem.

The greatest weakness in Cooper's account of the events leading to war is his short treatment of the actions of southern "fire-eaters," i.e., southerners dedicated to secession and the defense of slavery without compromise.  By emphasizing the negotiations between the hard line Republicans and the conditional unionists, one is left with the impression that the intransigence of the hard line Republicans was more responsible for the coming of war than is justified.  Cooper does not, for example, give much time to discussing the call by the Confederate Congress for 100,000 troops to serve for one year.  This call was made more than a month before Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops to serve for 90 days.  To keep these numbers in perspective, the federal army was composed of only 16,000 troops prior to 1861, most of whom were stationed in the South and in the territories.  Many of these soldiers -- and most of the officers -- resigned from the federal army and joined the Confederate forces.  Under these circumstances, the rumors of threats to Washington D.C. could not be ignored and the vulnerability of the territories to Confederate annexation was significant.  In the end, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Lincoln followed the least belligerent course possible that still adhered to his responsibility to defend federal property.

Reviewing the efforts to negotiate an agreement that would prevent secession and war, leads the reader to conclude that Seward was correct in his assessment that the war was "irrepressible."  Efforts by Congress as a whole, the House of Representative's Committee of Thirty-three, the Senate's Committee of Thirteen, the non-governmental Peace Convention, and the Confederate commissioners who came to Washington to negotiate a peaceful separation all appeared to be futile exercises in the face of long entrenched, partisan commitments to an uncompromising resolution to the nation's problem.  In that sense, Cooper's title, We Have the War Upon Us is most certainly apt.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Madhyamakalankara / Shantarakshita with commentary by Jamgon Mipham -- Boston: Shambhala, 2005

In the history of Buddhism two important philosophers developed competing perspectives on the teachings of the Buddha.  The first, Nagarjuna, advanced the view that all speculative theories of reality were false and that the ultimate truth was only knowable through a direct intuition attained during meditation.  Reality as we normally think of it was "empty."  His philosophy came to be known as Madhyamaka or "the Middle Way" as he rejected what he considered the extremes of speculative theories of reality.  The second, Asanga, advanced the "Mind Only" school of Buddhism which rejected the materialism of early Buddhism and asserted a form of idealism.  Ultimate reality was constituted only by the mind.  Everything else was its product or projection.  The school came to be known as Yogachara Buddhism.  Madhyamaka and Yogachara Buddhism constitute the two largest currents of Indian Mahayana Buddhism.

In the eighth century, a third philosopher, Shantarakshita, attempted to resolve the disagreement between these two traditions.  Perhaps his most important work was the Madhyamakalankara, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group as The Adornment of the Middle Way. In it, Shantarakshita argued that there are two forms of truth:  conventional and ultimate.  By recognizing this distinction, the Madhyamaka and Yogachara tendencies can be brought together into a single, combined theory of reality in which ultimate truth is approximated by the accounts found in the Madhyamaka tradition and conventional truth is captured by the Yogachara tradition.

The Madhyamakalankara is composed of 97 stanzas of four lines each.  The great bulk of the work (66 stanzas) explains the doctrine of "the two truths," i.e., that we can distinguish conventional truth from ultimate truth.  Conventional truth is adequately described in language and adequately understood through observation and reason.  It is what post-Kantian Western philosophers might describe as truth about the phenomenal world.  Ultimate truth reaches beyond the phenomenal world and characterizes reality as it is in itself, unclouded by the limitations and delusions of human experience and cognition.  Much of these first 66 stanzas employ the Madhyamaka method of refuting speculative theories about ultimate truth.  Shantarkshita systematically refutes the views of all of the main schools of Buddhism of his day along with a number of non-Buddhist schools of thought.  According to the Madhyamika, these views completely exhaust all possible views of ultimate reality, and so one can draw the conclusion that no discursive account of ultimate reality is correct.  This conclusion is described by the Madhyamika as asserting the "emptiness" of all things.

In the later (nearly last) stanzas of the work, Shantarakshika asserts that the preceding stanza establish that things described by conventional truth have no ultimate existence, and that they are most adequately explained by the Yogachara view.  This view holds that phenomenal things are not material.  Phenomenal reality is "consciousness only."

Shantarakshita's view is designed, as most Buddhist philosophy is, to assist the student toward salvation from suffering.  Simply adopting the Madhyamaka view that all things are empty requires the student to accept a deep and difficult concept.  It requires one to reject common sense and the evidence of one's senses.  On one view, meditation and reflection are adequate to reach this conclusion, but an enormous effort is required.  Alternatively, and following Shantarakshita, the student might first entertain the Yogachara view.  One might first recognize that the distinction between subject and object is an illusion, that all phenomenal objects exist only in relation to all other phenomenal objects, and that phenomenal experience is the product of consciousness creating experience.  Having arrived at this understanding, the student is better positioned to take the Madhyamaka critique to its final conclusion about conventional truth.  One can recognize that the consciousness only explanation of experience is itself a discursive account that remains within the boundaries of human experience and reason.  It's object, consciousness, is just as vulnerable to the same critique that showed material objects to be illusory.  Consciousness must also be empty.  When one is able to do this, one is prepared to have a direct, transcendental "experience" of the ultimate through meditation.

The volume under review includes not only Shantarakshita's work, but also a commentary on the work by Jamgon Mipham, entitled A Teaching to Delight My Master Manjughosha.  Mipham composed his commentary in 1877 amid a movement to establish a more open-minded approach to the various schools of Buddhism.    His commentary is said to rank among the most important explanations of the Shantarakshita's masterpiece.  Despite its reputation, the explanations of the Madhyamaka critiques of various speculative metaphysics are labored; however, once Mipham begins to describe the "benefits" of Shantarakshita's synthesis, the work becomes quite enjoyable and enlightening.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Demian / Hermann Hesse -- W.J. Strachan, trans. -- London: Panther, 1971.

Nearly 40 years ago, I read Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf.  It was a profound experience.  I immediately ranked it as one of the most intriguing and insightful books I had ever read. It is curious, then, that I read nothing else by him until just this month.  Part of the explanation certainly must be the ocassional disparaging comments that friends have made  about Hesse's novels.  "Adolescent" is a frequent epithet.  Still, I was curious enough about what might have attracted me to his work lo, those many years ago that I picked up Demian and read it on a transcontinental flight home. 

No doubt, there is something adolescent about Demian and appropriately so as it mostly chronicles the coming of age of a young boy.  Hesse masterfully depicts the anxiety of childhood moral dilemmas and the adventure of learning about the world beyond one's nuclear family.  If there is a weakness in Demian it is that it seems to take its metaphysics and metaethics a little too seriously.  The main character in the novel slowly enters a subculture of people who believe themselves to be the early adherents of a new religion, worshiping the god "Abraxas," who encompasses both the good of the Christian god and the evil of the Devil.  Along the way, the reader is treated to a spread of vaguely Jungian psychology and Nietzschean philosophy. 

For anyone sympathetic to these views, Demian must be a literary treat, but without such sympathies, it is notably dated.  Setting aside what seems to be the author's own sympathies for the psychological and philosophical backdrop, the description of the protagonist's excitement over his induction into an esoteric world is brilliant.  Anyone thoughtful enough to question the worldview of one's childhood and to seek a deeper understand of reality in the course of growing up will recognize the enchanting allure of entertaining and exploring mysterious, new philosophical ideas.  I suspect it is exactly this that attracted me to Hesse's work so long ago.

Perhaps the most grounding aspect of the novel is the sudden intrusion of war into the lives of its characters.  It is as if Hesse acknowledges that the religious and philosophical preoccupations of his characters are a small and private matter in comparison to the enormous currents at work in the world.  At the same time, one is left with the impression that the great currents of history are merely unavoidable interruptions in the spiritual and progress of the individual characters.  It is well worth reflecting on the contradiction.

The Bodhicaryavatara / Santideva -- Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, trans. -- Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995

Santideva's Bodhicaryavatara is among the most important works in the Mahayana Buddhist canon.  The title translates as the Way of the Bodhisattva.  As such, it provides a concise presentation of the six perfections that are characteristic of the bodhisattva: generosity, morality, forebearance, vigor, concentration, and wisdom. 

The work is composed of 912 verses divide into ten chapters.  Composed in the 8th century, the Bodhicaryavatara played an important role in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet and has remained important to Tibetan Buddhism.  The Dalai Lama is among its admirers and Mahayana monks continue to memorize it today. 

Its verses are generally clear and direct; however, chapter nine -- it's most celebrated chapter -- is quite difficult.  Chapter nine address the perfection of wisdom as it is understood in the Madhyamaka tradition.  Briefly, wisdom is coming to know that ultimate reality is "empty."  This is the conclusion that is reached when all other metaphysical views about reality are refuted.  For the Madhyamika, ultimate reality is neither one nor many, neither static nor changing, neither conscious nor unconscious.  No analytic, discursive description of it is true.  Language is only able to articulate conventional truth and at most can point in the direction of the approximate ultimate truth. 

Chapter nine and the work in general owe much to the most important work in the Mahayana/Madhyamaka tradition, the Prajnaparamita.  While the Prajnaparamita is far longer (100,000 verses in its longest form), it communicates the difficult concept of emptiness much more effectively.  The Bodhicaryavatara is certainly worth reading, but other secondary material will make understanding its central ideas much easier.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend with Commentary by Kangyur Rinpoche / Nagarjuna and Kangyur Rinpoche -- Padmakara Translation Group, trans. -- Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Pulblications, 2005

Around the beginning of the second century of the common era, Arya Nagarjuna, a brilliant Indian philosopher, wrote a short treatise entitled Suhrillekha in Sanskrit or Letter to a Friend in English.  It has become one of the most important texts in Buddhism's Mahayana tradition.  Composed of just 123 verses, each of four lines, Letter to a Friend provides a lucid exposition of the "six perfections" or paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.  These are the virtues of the bodhisattva, i.e., the Mahayana saint.  A fuller treatment of these virtues and their significance can be found in another work, The Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Verses or the Prajnaparamita.  Nagarjuna is said to have retrieved the Perfection of Wisdom from the realm of the nagas -- serpent-like beings-- and brought it to the world.

The most significant aspect of both Letter to a Friend and The Perfection of Wisdom is its treatment of wisdom.  Perfecting wisdom amounts to coming to understand the "emptiness" of all things.  This is the most important contribution made by the Madhyamaka tradition of Buddhism to Buddhism's philosophical development.  Earlier Buddhist held that there was no self or subject.  Instead, all things were composed of a multiplicity of dharmas, essentially infinitesimal atoms of reality that were in constant flux.  In contrast, the Upanishadic tradition in India held that the fundamental reality was a universal self or, understood from another perspective, the unitary divine ground of being that had a permanent existence.  The Madhyamaka tradition advanced arguments against both of these views.  The argumentative technique was essentially critical:  reality was not one, it was not many, it was not neither one nor many, and it was not both one and many.  Furthermore, what did exist, existed conditionally or only in relation to all other things.  Reality is "emptiness."  This should not be confused with nothingess.  The Madhyamaka view is not nihilistic.  Reflecting on these metaphysical views establishes, for the Madhyamika, a frame of mind that leads one to be able to develop the other five perfections and thereby achieve enlightenment.  Madhyamaka metaphysics is perhaps the highest development of metaphysics within the Buddhist tradition.

Letter to a Friend is short enough that it often has been memorized by the Buddhist faithful.  At the same time, it does an excellent job of bringing to mind the full scope of the path of the bodhisattva.  Its brevity, however, make a commentary useful.  In the edition under review here, Kangyur Rinpoche provides an admirable but not terribly extensive or detailed commentary.  Too often Kangyur Rinpoche merely  re-expressed the concise poetic formulations of Nagarjuna in a wordier prose form, but in other instances, Kangyur Rinpoche makes illuminating comments. 

Reading the edition cover to cover amounts, essentially, to reading the Letter three times.  First, it is presented in its translated form without commentary.  Second, it is presented, verse by verse, in the commentary, which -- as noted -- often provides a re-phrasing of the verses.  This is by no means a drawback.  The Letter is well worth multiple readings.  Finally, there is a useful introduction by the translators, a glossary of terms, notes on the commentary, and the entire text in Sanskrit and Tibetan.  It is an edition well worth owning.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media / Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld, illustrator -- N.Y.: Norton, 2012

Since 1993, the University of Maryland has annually selected a "First Year Book," which is made freely available to the campus community. Faculty members are encouraged to include a discussion of the book into their syllabi. Given all the books from which to choose, one would expect that the First Year Book would be something quite special, and it usually is. This year's book is The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone. It is a "graphic nonfiction" work, illustrated by Josh Neufeld. This alone is certainly not a reason to dismiss the work. There are many graphic nonfiction works that are well worth reading; see particularly many excellent monographs in the "For Beginners" series published by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. What makes these books worthwhile is the ability to provide more than a superficial treatment of their subjects in a readable and entertaining style. Cleverly chosen or executed illustrations can be a significant asset. Unfortunately, The Influencing Machine provides neither depth nor entertainment.

The work is certainly readable, but this has less to do with the writing style than with the superficiality of the ideas it expresses. It is a fast paced tour across the surface of the history of journalism, free expression, government control, and the influence of audiences on media content. Gladstone seems to have assimilated too many of the self-validating assumptions current among mainstream journalists regarding the above issues. Most of all, she concludes that the media and its contents are a product of the demands of news consumers. "We get the media we deserve" is her final word. For a more insightful analysis of the U.S. media, one would do well to read the works of Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Michael Parenti, or Herbert Schiller to name just a few more thoughtful authors.

Gladstone says virtually nothing about the systemic biases that appear in the privately controlled U.S. media, except to note that "the American media are not afraid of the government. They are afraid of their audiences and advertisers. The media do not control you. They pander to you." While there may be a modicum of truth here, Gladstone provides no serious examination of the political economy of the media. In Gladstone's view, media consumers appear all to be equal. This would imply that the consequences for media content would be democratic and would reflect the impulses of ordinary people (for good or ill); however, media consumers are not all equal. Different potential audiences have different purchasing power. This means that the media content will be skewed to attract an audience with the greatest aggregate wealth, and in this formula, the rich have a much greater say over what appears in the media than the poor. We don't get the media we deserve, we get the media that money prefers. This is reinforced especially in the national media by the cost of advertising. Only large corporations are able to purchase advertising on national broadcasts, and so media content reflects the interests of (1) large media corporations, (2) well-to-do audiences, and (3) large corporations seeking to advertise their products.

There are a number of other features of the U.S. media as significant as its political economy. They make no appearance in The Influencing Machine. What does appear is a superficial and choppy presentation of mostly trite observations and journalistic mythologies. One would hope that the artistry in the work would be a saving grace, but it is mostly unimpressive.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Being and Time / Martin Heidegger -- John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, trans., N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1962

Once again, I am faced with the humbling task of reviewing one of the most significant works in the history of Western philosophy. Any reader would do well to search the literature for commentary by philosophers with far greater expertise than my meager credentials, particularly regarding Heidegger's Being and Time. I will content myself, however, with recording my reactions to and impressions of this amazing work. I'm astonished that it has taken me nearly four decades of studying philosophy to read it.

Heidegger claimed to be making a radical break from everything that had preceded him in the history of philosophy, and while his work is certainly novel and quite original, one can usefully connect him to previous philosophical currents. Roughly speaking, Heidegger seems to stand to Husserl as Kant stands to Descartes. Descartes project was to establish how and what we can know about ourselves, God, and especially the external world. Through a process of introspection and rational examination of our ideas, one can be sure both that God exists and that we can have knowledge of an external world if we simply employ a careful epistemological method. Kant was dissatisfied with these conclusions and with all of the conclusions of the speculative philosophy of his time and inaugurated what he called a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. This involved recognizing that our understanding of the world is constrained or structured by our own cognitive nature. The world as we experience it is as we must experience it, because we intuit it in the forms space and time. We furthermore, understand it according to specific "categories of understanding" which establish the form of our experience.

Fast forwarding to the twentieth century, Husserl picked up the Cartesian project. Husserl sought to establish a foundation for all human knowledge. His approach to this changed over time, but an important period of his work involved advocating for the method of the "transcendental-phenomenological reduction" by which one reflects on the world in a manner that goes beyond our ordinary apprehension of it. Through a processes or faculty he calls "eidetic intuition," one comes to understand the world as it truly is.

Heidegger dedicated Being and Time "in friendship and admiration" to Husserl, so we should think seriously about how this work compares with Husserl's philosophy. This is where the analogy between Descartes and Kant on the one hand and Husserl and Heidegger on the other is illuminating. As Kant recognizes that philosophical speculation about a transcendent reality must be limited by our capacities for experience, Heidegger recognizes that penetrating to the essences of things in the world steps beyond our experience. The central idea in Heidegger's thought is "Dasein" or human existence. It is the object and constraint of Heidegger's phenomenological investigations in Being and Time. Directly translated into English, "Dasein" might be understood as "being-there." Dasein involves being thrown into a world of experience which is in large part constituted by our capacity to care. Our world is one of our particular projects and goals. The things in this world are "ready-to-hand" as tools are to workers. In this respect, Heidegger is truly a philosopher for the industrial age. Human experience largely is fashioned out of our interaction with our technology. At the same time, Heidegger explores "being-with-others," "being-towards-the-end," and "being-towards-death."

Along the way, Heidegger discusses a variety of psychological states as modes of experience, including fear, anxiety, and curiosity. These reveal the nature of our being in the world. He is most interested in discovering the fundamental nature of being. This is not revealed in language nor in everyday being, though they are not irrelevant to a full understanding of being, but through attention to the ontic structure being. The ontic structure of being must be distinguished from the ontological structure of being in that the latter pertains to entities, while the former pertains to being itself. To plumb these depths, Heidegger emphasizes the role of care in our being and its foundation in temporality. Ultimately, understanding temporality plays the most significant role in understanding the nature of Dasein.

A humble warning: I doubt my own understanding of Heidegger. In any case, Heidegger is a notoriously difficult philosopher to understand; largely, because of how ambitious his project is, but also because of his desire to explain what he believes cannot be explained by the language as it had thus far been developed. Consequently, he employs a unique jargon which is an obstacle to understanding. Many philosophers have suggested that he is intentionally obscure to hide a paucity of arguments. I suspect this is too cynical. Instead, Heidegger seems to me to be making a conscientious attempt to describe a vision of being that goes well beyond the analytical approach that Kant employed in his metaphysics of human experience. Heidegger not only describes the basic structure of appearances, but he attempts to set human experience in motion and describe it in much richer detail than what we see in Kant's critical philosophy. Whether or not Heidegger is successful does not detract from his success in prompting many philosophers, myself included, to think about human existence in a deeper way -- in a way that connects psychology and ontology. His reputation as possibly the greatest twentieth century philosophy is not undeserved.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Consolations of Philosophy / Alain De Botton -- N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 2000

The Consolations of Philosophy is a curious introduction to philosophy, if that is what it is intended to be. The subject matter is at least ostensibly philosophy and the writing style is certainly introductory, but it is certainly not a good choice for an introductory philosophy course, unless one would like to assign a chapter or two as "recommended reading" left on reserve at the library.

The title is, of course, derived from Boethius's great work The Consolation of Philosophy. The Consolation of Philosophy was written while Boethius was in prison, waiting to be executed. It remains perhaps the greatest piece of death row literature of all time. Its literary form is a dialog between Boethius and a lady figure personifying philosophy. Philosophy makes the case that Boethius's condition does not justify complaint and that nothing has been taken from him that is the basis for true happiness. It is through the thoughtful examination of one's circumstances (through philosophy) that one can come to this realization and be consoled in the face of misfortune.

De Botton's Consolations of Philosophy, broadly speaking, attempts to make roughly this case, but it does so through the examination of the thought and works of six philosophers: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. De Botton attempts to show how the thought of these philosophers can help us overcome (respectively) unpopularity, poverty, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and difficulties in general. The structure of the work and the selection of the philosophers has some reason behind it, but at times it appears that de Botton has cobbled together a string of mostly lesser philosophers and mined their works for passages that fit his purposes. This is not to say that he has misread these philosophers, but that his project was mostly to write a book -- not to explore an important theme or thesis among philosophical debates. By the end of the book one is left wondering, "so what?" Certainly there were a number of interesting anecdotes (along with some clever illustrations), but was it really worth the time?

The Consolations of Philosophy is less an examination of the philosophy of six (mostly minor) philosophers and more a curio cabinet of objects collected from their biographies.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist's View of the Crisis We Face / Peter F. Sale -- Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 2011

When one reads the title of Peter Sale's book -- Our Dying Planet -- one immediately thinks of the paramount environmental problem of the day: global warming, but the subject is much broader than this. Sale admirably connects a host of environmental problems to provide a stark picture of the planet's peril. The title is, in all likelihood, an overstatement. Our Declining Planet might be a better title, but given the gravity of our situation, Sale's hyperbole is excusable.

Sale is first of all a marine biologist, specializing in coral reefs. So global warming certainly plays an important part in his analysis of our environmental plight; but more than anything, Sale emphasizes the striking loss of biodiversity that is being caused by more than just climate change. His first chapter is an account of the collapse of fisheries, due mainly to overfishing. Much of this is rather well known, but the extent of the collapse would, perhaps, surprise many. Industrial fishing techniques used in the Northwest Atlantic have decimated the cod population there. In 1968, 1.9 million metric tons of cod were caught, but just 22 years later, in 1990, only 80,000 metric tons of cod were caught. This led the Canadian government to close the northern cod fishery in 1992.

One might expect that with a ban on fishing, the cod population would recover, but it has not. This is perhaps the most sobering message that Sale delivers. During the first 100 years of research into ecosystems, the paradigm of a "balance of nature" was dominant. Populations were seen to be regulated naturally by homeostatic mechanisms. When a population declined, its predators declined and its food sources thrived, creating the conditions for recovery; however, by the later half of the twentieth century, ecologists began to recognize the "patchiness" of nature. Species inhabit a constantly changing patchwork of habitats that are tenuously connected to create metapopulations. Inside these patches, the success of individual organisms in surviving and reproducing is more significant than was previously appreciated. The result is that populations are not "resilient" due to homeostatic mechanisms, but instead, exhibit a kind of "inertia." Large populations will continue until a powerful external force depletes them and once depleted, they will tend to remain in their depleted state. The consequence of this dynamic is that the numerous assaults that we have committed against populations are causing damages that are not repairing themselves, leading to an unprecedented rate of species extinctions. The North Atlantic cod, while not extinct, is but one of many examples of the loss of biodiversity that is occurring around the planet; hence, the "dying planet."

As dire as our circumstances are, Sale provides a few chapters that hold out hope or at least suggest ways to confront the problem. The two primary responses he recommends are to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to slow the growth of the human population. Though his chapter on slowing the growth of the human population is brief, it is clearly his most important concern. Sale writes, "Unchecked population growth presents substantial (I am tempted to say insurmountable) impediments to our need to achieve sustainable use of the earth's goods and services. If those of us who understand this do not speak up concerning our population problem, who else will? I fear we have been complacent for far too long." Given that we are already pressing up against the limits of the world's resources, it is hard to believe that we will be able to support the 9.2 billion people expected to be inhabiting the planet by 2050 and so, it is hard to disagree with Sale.

At a time when climate change is the focus of so much attention, it is useful to look at other ecological problems that we face, though certainly a changing climate will exacerbate whatever harms we are doing to the world's biodiversity. The obvious conclusion is that all of these concerns are interrelated and that we must address them all at once. There is no single policy or approach that will mitigate the coming disasters.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Spice: The History of a Temptation / Jack Turner-- N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

In the penultimate paragraph of Spice: A History of a Temptation, author Jack Turner describes his work as a "long ramble" through the history of spices. There could be no more apt description of the work, though it might be better titled A History of Europe's Encounters with and Responses to South Asian Spices, as the work is more limited than its actual title suggests.

In general, the work begins with a chapter covering the Age of Discovery and the efforts of European seafaring powers to acquire Asian spices. Following this are two chapters on spices as used in cooking, a chapter on spices used for health and funerary practices, a chapter on spices as aphrodisiacs, and a chapter on spices used for religious and spiritual rituals. Two concluding chapters describe the reaction against spices and the decline of their importance in international trade and European culture from the twelfth century to the eighteenth century.

To its credit, the work is a scholarly tour de force. Turner uncovered numerous references to spices in wide variety of European literary and historical sources and in practically every major European language. Unfortunately, Turner's organization of his material is blunt and his conclusions are limited. One is left with the sense that in the course of his research he collected every reference to spices he could find, drafted brief descriptions of their import, and filed them into a few categories: food, health, sex, and religion, etc. Then within these categories, he linked his references with whatever connective discussion he could devise. The result is a long ramble indeed.

Perhaps the most valuable element of the work is the 24 pages describing his sources and bibliography. These pages will give a serious scholar an excellent starting point for doing more in depth and hopefully more consequential work in one or another of Turner's subjects. Unfortunately, many of Turner's sources will be hard to acquire outside of the extraordinary libraries that served Turner's research.

One particular avenue of research the begs examination is the relationship between class, economics, and spices. Turner make frequent mention of how expensive spices have been through out history and how this affected their popularity or desirability, but he does not take this up in much detail. One is left wondering just how the purchase of spices was supported and how it affect the European economy and social structure. One gets only an inkling of a sense about how Asian spices competed with European spices and who were their main markets. Much of the work covers the period of the Middle Ages, and while there is a relatively fine chapter on the reactions of the Christian Church to spices, one does not get a clear picture of role that spices played in the interrelations of the Church, the European nobility, commercial enterprises, and the great mass of people who composed European peasantry.

There are occasional sections in which a more extended story is told, e.g., Colombus's voyages, Magellan's voyages, Bernard of Clairvaux's criticism of spices, and Pierre Poivre's efforts to steal clove and nutmeg plants from the Dutch monopoly for the benefit of France. There is also a fascinating description of the mythical medieval "land of Cockayne" where "the only virtues were gluttony, leisure, and pleasure, the only vices exertion and care." The churches in Cockayne "were made of pastry, fish, and meat and buttressed with puddings. There were rivers 'great and fine,' flowing not with water -- a rarity in Cockayne -- but with 'oile, milk, hony and wine,'" and of course spices were a pervasive.

One must admire Turner's scholarship. His mastery of classical, medieval, and modern sources on spices is genuinely delicious, but in the end, one wishes the meal he serves was little more nutritious.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants / Douglas W. Tallamy -- Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2007

I've known more than a few wags who have remarked slyly that a weed is simply a plant that you don't want, and while that initially seems generous and open minded with respect to the natural world, it misses the critical role that some plants play in their ecosystem and the role that others don't play. From the perspective of a healthy, diverse, and functioning ecosystem, some plants (weeds) simply don't pull their weight, while others are citizens in good standing. In the first half of Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy brilliantly argues that plants in good standing are, generally speaking, native to the region, while non-natives tend in almost every case to be either unhelpful or positive threats to the diversity of life. What Tallamy hopes the reader will take home from this is that converting your garden to a native plant preserve is one of the easiest ways a gardener can help recover the ecosystem that is most beneficial to his or her locale.

The key element in the overall picture is the insect population. Gardeners often treat insects as the enemy and in some cases they can be; however, in a well-functioning ecosystem herbivorous insects are a critical link in the food chain linking plants to larger, more charismatic animals, like birds, frogs, rabbits, and turtles. Non-native plants have become best-sellers in nurseries all over the country in large part because they are "insect resistant," meaning, they aren't food for anything in the ecosystem. Planting such species is comparable to laying down astroturf, planting plastic flowers, and erecting artificial trees. They may look nice and be generally whole and intact, but they serve no other purpose but to decorate one's garden. Worse, they have a tendency to spread out of control and take up an enormous amount of space, crowding out ecologically valuable species. Of course, the loss of habitat for insects results in a loss of habitat for larger animals. After reading Tallamy's arguments, one comes to appreciate the beauty of the ragged shape of an insect-eaten leaf. One's heart goes out to noble native plants that has given up some portion of their foliage for the greater good of the ecosystem.

One of the most significant environmental problems we face today is the loss of habitat. Urban sprawl and mono-cultural fence-to-fence agribusiness farming has left less and less room for inhabitants of the natural world and is drastically reducing the size of numerous species' populations. Tallamy argues that urban and suburban gardeners can do quite a lot to mitigate this problem simply by choosing to plant natives in their gardens. One small suburban lot may not seem like a significant contribution to the solution, but if gardening with natives becomes as popular as gardening with non-natives, the problem will be cut in half.

A yet stronger response to the urban-suburban desert-scape that we have created would be to organize whole neighborhood or cities to plant native plants. Recent ecological research shows that the size of a contiguous ecosystem is important to maintaining a native wildlife population. This runs counter to the belief that many small fragments of an ecosystem can effectively support the population. Obviously, fragments suitably close and with no significant barriers can be helpful, but organizing large swaths of natural habitat is preferable. Still, to get to this stage, pioneer native gardeners are critical. Happily, Tallamy provides tips on "making it happen."

The second half of Bringing Nature Home is essentially a reference guide to useful native plants and insects, a.k.a., "bird food." Tallamy also provides a valuable chapter entitled "Answers to Tough Questions," like "If birds eat the berries of alien plants..., why shouldn't I plant those species?" (The short answer is that those berries do not provide adequate nutrients required to make eggs, to feed the parent birds while they are feeding the young, and to feed the young themselves. Too many such plants means there will be fewer insects to provide the nutrition needed for reproduction.)

Finally, there are three excellent indexes listing native plants across the U.S., host plants for specific butterflies, and results from experiments comparing the value of native and non-native plants. Also there are numerous beautiful color photographs and a superb bibliography.

No gardener interested in native plants should be without this book!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Green Washed: Why We Can't Buy Our Way to a Green Planet / Kendra Pierre-Louis -- N.Y.: Ig Publishing, 2012

There are plenty of books still to be published in 2012, but for now, I would rate Green Washed as the book of the year. This is not to say it does not have some unfortunate weaknesses. Broadly put, the book's thesis is that all of the highly publicized "green" products that have been coming out in recent years do little to address the serious environmental challenges we face. Even were we all to substitute green products for the conventional products we currently buy, we would still be facing environmental contamination, depleted resources, degraded and vanishing habitats, and of course, climate catastrophe. According to Kendra Pierre-Louis, the author of Green Washed, our only way out is to consume less.

My own views on this are in complete accord with Pierre-Louis's and because of the urgency of the environmental problems we face, I dearly hope that her book receives a wide audience. Unfortunately, the case she makes for her thesis is merely good -- not great. I suspect that anyone in the developed world who is moderately attached to his or her current lifestyle will find ways to dismiss Pierre-Louis's arguments, but hopefully Green Washed will be the starting point for a more serious examination of the futility of green consumerism and the need for reduced consumption and that it will not serve as a vaccine that inoculates consumers against calls for reduced consumption.

Most of the book is taken up exposing the environmental damage that is done by many "green" products: organic cotton, local food, cleansers and cosmetics, hybrid and electric cars, aluminum water bottles, and LEED certified buildings. Perhaps the strongest case can be made against hybrid and electric cars. Pierre-Louis points out that the advantages that hybrid and electric cars have over gas-powered cars are that they are marginally more efficient, that tail pipe pollution is not concentrated in city centers, and that the electricity on which they run can be produced from renewable sources.

What is left out in the enthusiasm for hybrid and electric cars are the resources necessary to make a car in the first place. The embodied energy in a hybrid or electric car is comparable to that in a gas-powered car; consequently, the improved gas mileage of a hybrid represents a fraction of a fraction of the energy consumed by the cars.

Even more telling is the environmental cost of building and maintaining the system of roads and parking facilities, without which our cars would be useless. The amount of concrete and asphalt that goes into our road system is staggering and it needs to be virtually rebuilt every decade or so. Roads themselves constitute a significant portion of the impermeable surfaces that are destroying our watersheds and heating our urban areas. Roads quickly transport tire fragments and motor oil into our sewers, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, regardless of whether they are accommodating gas or electric powered vehicles. Roads encourage the urban sprawl that is responsible for the destruction of vital natural habitats. Pierre-Louis is completely correct in observing that the "green" car is little more than a device that will perpetuate a system of transportation that is destroying the planet.

A more sensible response to the crisis brought on by gas-powered cars is to stop driving cars, or at least drastically reduce the amount that we drive. Imagine if all auto and truck traffic was reduced by a mere 50%. Auto production would decline significantly and the number of lanes we would need to maintain would diminish. Plant and animal life would rebound and our air and water would become significantly cleaner. Rational bicycle-oriented city planning and improved public transportation could make our cities completely car-free. This is far greener approach than converting our gasoline-powered car culture to an electric-powered car culture.

Pierre-Louis employs a similar style of critique to the other topics she addresses. Her criticism of the LEED building standards and organic cotton clothing are strong. She points out that the greenest building is the one that's already built and that wearing clothes to the end of their useful life is a far better way to green our wardrobe than buying organic cottons if we replace those clothes as rapidly as we do.

Her critique of the local food movement is not quite so persuasive as she focuses primarily on the slight benefits of reducing "food miles" and ignores a number of other environmental benefits of local food production. Oddly, in that chapter, she describes the rapid depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, upon which the production of food in the American Midwest depends. It would seem that local food production would need to make use of the water that is available nearer to population centers on the East and West Coasts, thereby forcing agriculture to rely once again on surface water and not as much on non-renewable ground water.

As her general approach is to point out how our social and economic institutions are at the root of our environmental crises, it is curious that she does not mention the significant environmental damage that is done by our meat-eating culture. This is particularly true in that her recommended way forward is to consume less, reduce waste, and develop alternative institutions that are more environmentally friendly. Meat production requires a significantly greater input of energy and a significantly greater use of land than plant food production for the same nutritional value. Furthermore, a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report estimated that the ranching and slaughter of cows and other animals for meat is responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gases and, of course, concentrated animal feeding operations (a.k.a. factory farms) have a profound impact on their environs due to the enormous and concentrated mass of manure they produce. There is likely nothing easier and more effective for reducing the negative impact one is having on the planet than simply becoming a vegetarian, or better yet, a vegan.

Pierre-Louis devotes three chapters to alternative, or "green" energy. Clean coal is an easy target, but Pierre-Louis's critique of biomass is a more valuable contribution to the discussion. Her examination of solar power is somewhat ambiguous. She criticizes impacts of constructing photovoltaic panels and their poor positioning by consumers, but solar power does not receive scathing criticism. The worst that is said of it is that it is likely to simply facilitate continued consumption of other resources and degradation of the land and water.

The last three chapters address "the way forward," which is, again, to reduce consumption. Pierre-Louis recognizes that our economic system is dependent upon ever increasing consumption and so the way forward will involve an entirely new economic model. Here, she recommends the "steady state economy" advanced by Herman Daly and others.

Among the more disappointing aspects of the book are its numerous typographical errors. The work appears not to have been proofread and instead, seems to have been prepared for publication by a spell check program. (Amory Lovins is, for example, noted as "Armory" Lovins.) The errors are -- in the big picture -- trivial, but it leads one to wonder how carefully done was the research that went into the work. As the research is based on a variety of kinds of sources (peer-reviewed scientific articles, government publications, N.G.O. reports, and popular news sources), one needs to look carefully at the support for the claims being made. Obvious errors in the bibliographic citations do not instill confidence.

Despite these criticisms of this particular work and its presentation, the thesis is eminently plausible and supremely important. Kendra Pierre-Louis has given us an honest attempt to make the case for adopting institutions that will support sustainable lifestyles. Very much of what she has given us makes perfect sense and she provides much material to raise questions about the effectiveness of green products. My hope is that she or someone like her will continue to publish works along the lines of Green Washed.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Nepal / Tessa Feller -- London: Kuperard; N.Y.: Distibuted by Random House Distributing Services, 2008

Nepal is a volume in the series Culture Smart!, "the essential guide to customs and culture." Most travel guide books tell you where to stay, where to eat, where to shop, what to see, and what to do. This one gives you some valuable tips on how to navigate the strange social world that you'll encounter: how to greet someone, when to stand, when to sit, what to wear, how to eat, how to address people, whom to tip, which hand to use, what to touch, what not to touch, etc. Most of all, it tells you what you might expect of native Nepalis.

If the volume on Nepal is at all representative of the series, anyone traveling to a destination covered by the series should pick up a relevant copy. It certainly won't prevent you from making a fool of yourself in every instance, but it is likely to head off more than one embarrassing incident.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Illustrated Atlas of the Himalaya / David Zurick and Julsun Pacheco -- Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2006

The Illustrated Atlas of the Himalaya is a beautiful introduction to the Himalaya. Geographically, it covers everything between the Indus River and the Karakorum Mountains in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east and from Tibetan plateau in the north to the Terai lowland in the south. It is divided into five chapters: the regional setting, the natural environment, society, resources and conservation, and exploration and travel. It contains maps, tables and charts, photographs, and text.

The pages are ten inches by thirteen inches and oriented in a landscape format. This allows large panoramic images of mountain vistas and other subjects. While the photographs are the work's strongest feature, it is not simply a coffee table picture book. The other features are also of high quality.

The maps are detailed and usually precisely drawn, though often smaller than they could be. In several cases, details are lost in the small scale. At the same time, there is also a great deal of white space on the pages. While this makes reading the work a pleasure, the white space could have been used to include more detail or at very least to enlarge some of the graphics.

The text generally is well-written and informative, but the authors have an unfortunate habit of making reference to places not shown on any of their maps. This is curious, since much information appears on the maps that is not referenced in the text. It is almost as though the text and maps are for two separate works. The atlas does contain a place index, listing longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates; so it is possible to look up a place, find its coordinates, and then refer to one of more of the maps to locate the place. This usually is more work than is desirable. I found myself skipping the effort or seeking out other maps and atlases to supplement the work. Greater coordination between the maps and the text would have greatly improved the usefulness of the atlas.

The geology of the region is complicated, making the section on the natural environment difficult, but a careful reading is rewarding. The section on society provides much typical demographic information, along with information about the transportation and communication systems, development issues, and governance. It is, however, a somewhat elementary treatment of the society. Importantly, the section on governance is now quite obsolete with the success of the Maoist insurgency. The section on resources and conservation describes the flora, fauna, minerals, and water resources. Curiously, nothing is said about the effects of climate change in the region. One would think that a work published in 2006 would take this into account, since by that time it was well understood that the Himalaya will be profoundly affected by a warming climate. (Just recently, Appa Sherpa, the man who has made it to the top of Mt. Everest more often than anyone, asserted that climbing Everest would soon be too dangerous due to melting ice and snow.) The final section on exploration and travel is a concise history of the expeditions into the mountains by outsiders. It provides enough information for an interested reader to seek out more detail in other works.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works / Jonah Lehrer -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is an entertaining, though, rudimentary introduction to the psychological and sociological dimensions of creativity. It leaves one with more questions than answers. Furthermore, the answers it provides are not especially Earth shaking and the questions it raises are largely due to a superficial treatment of the topic.

The most significant shortcoming is Lehrer's failure to give a clear definition of creativity. While he occasionally writes about artistic creativity, most of the book focuses on problem solving in the high-tech industry. This is perhaps unsurprising in that Lehrer is first of all a contributing editor at Wired magazine. Not only are his central cases of creativity peculiar, Lehrer gives us no sense of the scope of problem solving. Some problems stand out for us and require significant time and energy to solve. Others are routine and mundane. For example, how to open an unfamiliar cabinet door might count as a problem to be solved, but the solution might also reveal itself after only a moment's examination. To be fair, one could distinguish degrees of creativity that map to the difficulty of the problem, but complex problems could be broken down into numerous smaller problems. Any of these problems might also be more or less obvious depending upon the background knowledge of the person solving the problem. The point here, is that the concept of problem solving is not as simple as it appears in Lehrer's book. To make problem solving the central case of creativity without exploring these complexities provides us with only a superficial insight into creativity.

The specific claims about problem solving that Lehrer does make are few and sometimes contradictory. Certainly, Lehrer is not unaware of these contradictions, but he provides us with little help in understanding how we can resolve them. For example, his first substantive claim is that creativity (in solving a problem) often comes after one has focused on a problem long enough to conclude that it is unsolvable. Then, after taking one's mind off of the problem and relaxing, one is able to see the problem from a broader perspective and possibly connect seemingly unrelated facts or concepts in manner that provides the necessary insight.

In contrast to this, Lehrer also observes that problems are often solved by sheer, dogged concentration. Instead of a relaxing walk in the woods or taking a warm shower, the problem is solved by taking enough Benzedrine to keep one's mind fixed on the problem. All that a reader can conclude from this is that problems get solved in lots of different ways. This is by no means a surprising revelation.

The more interesting portion of his work comes when he discusses the social context of problem solving. Lehrer observes that many problems are solved by "outsiders," i.e., people who are not steeped in the paradigms of the field that contains the problem. They are sometimes capable of pursuing solutions that an insider would discount as implausible from the start. He also observes that difficult problems are more likely to be solved when numerous people with different backgrounds collaborate in seeking a solution. One is reminded of the commonplace maxim, "two heads are better than one."

Again, Lehrer's observations about society and creativity are not terribly enlightening; however, the final chapter begins to make a bit more of the social elements of creativity. Lehrer points out that different times in history, social circumstances have fostered creativity. His chief example is Elizabethan England. According to Lehrer, the liberal attitude toward theatre productions and the availability of written material in 16th and 17th century England made possible a flowering of excellent dramatic productions, including the work of William Shakespeare. According to Lehrer, Shakespeare's success was in large part due to favorable social conditions, though his genius certainly made him stand out from the numerous other talented playwrights of his time.

This emphasis on the social climate for creativity does not, however, reach far enough. Lehrer overlooks (or at least understates) the role that resources play in problem solving. According to Lehrer, venture capital funding "is widely regarded as one of the best measures of innovation; money chases good ideas." While it may be true that venture capitalists constantly are seeking to invest in good ideas, a more likely relationship is that venture capital, along with a lot of unanticipated and coincidental factors make an idea successful. Without these external circumstances, good ideas are apt to come to nothing. We have no way of tracking all those extremely creative, but unlucky ideas. While so many other factors are involved in the success of an idea, one cannot use success alone as a defining characteristic of a good idea. Because Lehrer overlooks these factors, his book tends to reinforce the cult of the entrepreneur.

Among the best aspects of the Imagine is Lehrer's effort to ground his claims about creativity and problem solving on scientific research. Unfortunately, he does not always provide complete citations for these references. While one could track down some of the original research, it would be difficult to get to all of it. This forces the reader to simply accept Lehrer's judgements about the quality and representativeness of much of the research on which he draws.

All in all Imagine is an easy and often entertaining work, aimed at a popular audience, but for anyone genuinely interested in creativity, it's not a good use of time.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Butterflies Worth Knowing / Clarence M. Weed -- Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1925

Not having any significant knowledge of butterflies, it is difficult for me to know how reliable Butterflies Worth Knowing is. First of all, much has changed since it was copyrighted in 1917 and published in 1925. Large swaths of butterfly habitat have been destroyed, migration routes are different, and climate conditions are changing. Nonetheless, much in the work is in all likelihood quite reliable.

The introduction to Butterflies Worth Knowing describes the behaviors, life histories, and attributes common to most all butterflies and provides a little advice on photographing and collecting butterflies. It then provides entries for scores of butterfly families, tribes, and individual species found in North America. Accounts of the discernable features of the butterflies are likely still reliable. The descriptions of their life histories, though, may be less so. The author, Clarence Weed, frequently acknowledges that there are gaps in the current understanding of one or another species. Indeed, he ocassionally suggests a fertile research topic for young entomologists. His very caution makes one wonder if there also might not be mistakes in his settled understanding, particularly as the growth of our knowledge of the natural world has changed significantly since Butterflies Worth Knowing was written.

Regardless of these doubts, reading the work cover to cover (as opposed to using it as a reference book) likely leaves the lay reader with a better impression of North American butterflies generally. Unfortunately, reading it cover to cover subjects the reader to a repetition of details describing slightly varying species, making it a bit mind numbing. The best use of Butterflies Worth Knowing would be to consult it in conjuction with a recently published reference work on butterflies to see just how our understanding has changed.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Planning for Uncertainty: Living Wills and Other Advance Directives... / David John Doukas and William Reichel -- Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2007

Medical science has reached a stage of development in which the ability to keep a person's body alive well outstrips its ability to maintain worthwhile cognitive functions. Consequently, irreversible comas, persistent vegetative states, and extended periods of unconsciousness during the final stages of an illness are increasingly common. This raises troubling questions for families and doctors regarding what sort of treatment is appropriate in such cases. In response, living wills, durable powers of attorney, and other advance directives have become increasingly popular. Still only a small percent of people draw up such instruments. Planning for Uncertainty: Living Wills and Other Advance Directives\ by Doukas and Riechel provides a useful guide to thinking about these critical situations and offers practical advice on drawing up an advance directive.

The work provides some background for the legal development of advance medical directives, but it's real strength is providing the reader with the opportunity to think carefully and systematically about issues that they might otherwise consider in a jumbled and confused way. However, when all is said and done, it seems that the purpose of most advance directives is to provide assurance to the doctors and family members of an unconscious patient that withholding or withdrawing treatment is a morally acceptable path. In some cases, it can also bind a family to withhold or withdraw treatment or establish obstacles to such a course.

There are numerous books of this sort in print. One may be as good as another. Anyone seeking to draw up an advance directive would be well advised to investigate the state laws that regulate such documents.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Happiness Project / Gretchen Rubin -- N.Y.: Harper, 2009

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is the sort of light reading that you'll find in popular, daily blogs. It fits into the gimmicky genera of "The Year of... books" (the year of eating locally, the year of living Biblically, the year of cooking Julia Child recipes, etc...). Rubin's year consisted in making a "project" of being happier. Rubin chose this project on the belief that being happy is often thought to be the most important goal in life and while she felt she already was happy, becoming happier would not be a bad goal.

Her project divided into committing herself to twelve resolutions, one of which she concentrated on each month of the year. Actually, her twelfth resolution was to fulfill all her previous eleven resolution at once. My initial reaction to the project was somewhat negative: turning being happy into a project seemed rather artificial to me, but there were enough thoughtful passages early in the book to make me think that the book would eventually offer something worthwhile. Furthermore, Rubin anticipated nearly every facile criticism of the book that crossed my mind. She dispensed with them in a rather charming and disarming way, writing something along lines of, "O.K., but if I'm going to be happy, I've got to be myself, so I'm going to do this anyway." Fair enough.

The most serious objection to her work is the superficiality of her concept of happiness. Despite claiming to have read Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and the Dalai Lama (or some other treatment(s) of Buddhism), her notion of happiness is by and large the temporary psychological state that has its epitome in euphoria. Contrast this with, in particular, Aristotle's concept of happiness (or eudaimonia) which goes well beyond euphoria to involve living a good life. If Rubin truly wants to follow the path recommended by philosophers through the ages, then the happiness that she ought to seek should reach beyond her first-person perceptions of her own emotional state. Certainly, pleasant experiences are likely to be a component of happiness, or a good life, but Rubin seems to think that the highest good is built on these experiences. To be fair, she occasionally recognizes that happiness contains components that are other than euphoria, but the bulk of her book is a compendium of tips on on boosting one's mood. One wonders if Prozac, Paxil, or Ecstacy might be an easier and more effective approach.

Despite this criticism, her mood-enhancing tips are frequently worthwhile and given the success of her blog, they appear to resonate with many blog-readers; some of whom claim to be following her explicit advice and engaging in "happiness projects" of their own. One should not diminish the importance of maintaining a happy state of mind nor deny that it can be cultivated. Rubin reports that her project was successful, and if it leads others to enhance their own happiness, it is all to the good. The danger is that it will feed narcissistic and ego-centric tendencies that are a significant obstacle to the general happiness.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System / T.R.V. Murti -- London: George Allen and Unwin, 1955

The Four Noble Truths often stand out as the central ideas of Buddhism among Western Buddhists and perhaps rightly so. The recognition of the fact of suffering, the cause of suffering, the elimination of suffering, and the practical method for doing so is critical to any understanding of Buddhism. All schools of Buddhism accept these truths. After the Four Noble Truths, the concept of the bodhisattva is perhaps the second most significant Buddhist concept. It is among the advances over primitive Buddhism that the Mahayana school generated. Embracing these ideas is likely to place one squarely on the path of the Buddha, refine one's spirituality, and enhance the quality of one's life. The history of Buddhism, however, offers more subtle concepts than these which can lead one still deeper into the enlightenment that Buddhism offers. Chief among these, according to T.R.V. Murti, is the concept of sunyata, or what some have translated as "emptiness," which he admirably explicates in his masterful work, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.

The work is divided into three parts: the origin and development of the Madhyamaka philosophy, an exposition of the philosophy itself, and a comparison of it to other systems, especially Western philosophical systems. This is not a book for beginners. To appreciate the work, one should already have a good background in the Madhyamaka tradition, but also the Theravada, Sarvastivada, and Yogacara Buddhist traditions and the Hindu Advaita Vedanta.

The "central philosophy" that Murti identifies is a philosophical "dialectic" advanced by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna which results in the recognition that absolute reality is sunyata or emptiness. The Madhyamika first of all accepts that there is a division between the world of ordinary experience and absolute reality. This sets it apart from the early Buddhism of the Theravada and Sarvastivada schools, which asserted the reality of the dharmas, i.e., elemental or atomic units of existence which were infinitesimally extended in time and space. Early Buddhism rejected the ultimate reality of composite objects, including the self. Indeed, on this view all things lack substance or permanent identical reality. Consequently, early Buddhism did not maintain an absolutist metaphysic.

In contrast, the Madhyamaka view accepts that there is an absolute reality beyond the ordinary empirical realm composed of the early Buddhist dharmas, but it rejects any suggestion that our reason can bring us to understand this reality. This sets Madhyamaka Buddhism apart from two other absolutist philosophies, the Yogacara's Vijnanavada or Consciousness Only philosophy, and the Upanishadic Advaita Vedanta philosophy which posits the absolute as Brahman and equates it with Atman, making the absolute a kind of universal soul.

According to Murti, all three of these non-Madhyamaka philosophies are speculative metaphysics which the Madhyamaka school rejected through its dialectical critique.  Madhyamaka Buddhsim exposed contradictions within each of systems and furthermore claimed that any metaphysical doctrine would fall apart under similar careful examination. However, instead of becoming nihilistic, the Madhyamaka philosophers merely concluded that reason was simply incapable of grasping the absolute and that instead, it must be immediately intuited in a non-discursive way.

One of the most informative observations in Murti's work is his comparison of the Madhyamaka philosophy to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The contradictions uncovered in the Madhyamaka dialectic function much in the way the Kant's antinomies function in the Critique of Pure Reason. For Kant, the antinomies show that reason cannot reveal the true nature of the noumenal world (the absolute). Instead, we can merely know that our understanding of the world is shaped by the nature of our reason -- by the forms of intuition and the categories of understanding that are the standard operating equipment for how we construct the empirical world. According to Murti, the Madhyamika and Kant differ in that "Kant's Transcendental dialectic is directed against speculative metaphysics...not because he did not believe in the reality of God, Freedom and Immortality of the Soul, but because he wanted to make them safe from the unwarranted ascriptions of pure Reason. The difference between the that Kant seeks to realise these noumenal realities in a non-intellectual mode -- Faith and practical Reason; the Madhyamika does it in Intellectual Intuition -- Prajnaparamita."

As profound as Murti's work is, I am left wondering whether the dialectic of the Madhyamaka philosophy, insofar as it is based on The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, is not more like Kant's critical philosophy than he suggests. Where Kant resorts to practical reason to arrive at his absolute (the three transcendental ideas: God, freedom, and the immortal soul), The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom employs "skill in means" to perfect wisdom and reach the "Intellectual Intuition" of the absolute. Skill in means seems nothing if not practical reason unconsciously performed.

Regardless of this criticism, Murti's work is among the finest treatments of Buddhist epistemology and metaphysics ever written. Anyone seeking a good understanding of Buddhism would be well-advised to procure a copy and, while reading it, search out whatever other works might fill in the gaps of one's understanding.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Battle of Pea Ridge: The Civil War Fight for the Ozarks / James R. Knight -- Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2012

There is probably no conflict that has been written about more than the U.S. Civil War. This is both due to the large audience for such works and the large number of amateur historians who are able to find publishers for their research. Such research usually focuses narrowly on a subject that is glossed over or even completely ignored by more general, popular works. The best of this work is based on local historical archives and other primary sources and casts the war or events in the war in a new and valuable light. The worst of it is highly derivative and contributes little to what is already known about the war. Often, these works detail events that provide no help in gaining a deeper understanding of the significance of the war. Sadly, James Knight's short book The Battle of Pea Ridge falls more in the latter category than the former.

The Battle of Pea Ridge is precisely what the title suggests: a blow by blow (or movement by movement) account of the battle between Earl Van Dorn's Confederate army and Samuel R. Curtis's Union army. It is mostly workman-like recounting of the events of the battle, though the presentation is sometimes disjointed and the writing is at best journalistic. It will be of interest to amateur military historians, but more expert historians might be disappointed. Its end notes indicate that it owes a great deal to William Shea and Earl Hess's book Pea Ridge (Chapel Hill, N.C.: UNC Press, 1992) and The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 8 (Washington D.C.: GPO, 1880-1901).

Knight rightly recognizes that the battle is of much greater significance than it is commonly accorded, but it is a shame that he did not do more to place the battle in its broader social and political context.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption / Clay A. Johnson -- Sebastopol, Cal.: O'Reilly Media, Inc., 2012

Quite a number of books have been published in response to the explosion of digital information and the technology that delivers it. Many of the works are breathless panegyrics. Others are panicky jeremiads. This should come as no surprise. Digital and internet technology has transformed our lives in unexpected ways and promises to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Consequently, assessing the opportunities and dangers is no easy task, making it easy to predict both best case and worst case scenarios for the future.

Clay Johnson's The Information Diet is neither a best nor worst case assessment of our information future. His general disposition is that our social problems can often be addressed by technical solutions and as the founder of Blue State Digital and a former director of the Sunlight Foundation. So one might expect his leanings would be toward panegyrics. Nonetheless, the overall tone of his book is cautionary. Johnson has become concerned that far from solving our social problems, current information and internet technology is filling our information diets with the equivalent of junk food and poses a significant threat to the rational formation of public policy. Johnson is not only concerned about the individual's epistemic health, he is concerned about the effects that widespread "information obesity" is having and will have on society as a whole.

Much of Johnson's work is not particularly ground breaking. His analogy between information and food diets is perhaps the most novel feature of the work. The two critiques that most inform Johnson are by Nicholas Carr and Eli Pariser. Carr argues that the internet has come to be a complex distraction machine, designed to maximize the number of pages that we view. This has grave psychological consequences for our ability to concentrate, engage in deep, thoughtful reading, and remember what it is that we have read. Eli Pariser argues that the personalization of search results on the internet results in your receiving only information with which you agree, doing nothing more than confirming your previously held views. For politics, this means that people of with differing views are becoming more deeply convinced that their views are well-substantiated. Consequently, our ability to carry on reasonable dialogs with those who hold different views from us is declining.

Johnson is clearly sympathetic to Pariser's concerns. His attitudes toward Carr's thesis is, however, more complicated. Johnson writes, "the Internet is not some kind of meta bogey man that's sneaking into Mr. Carr's room while he sleeps and rewiring his brain." He also suggests that there is a "subtext" to Carr's thesis that "there may be some sort of corporate conspiracy to try to...'dumb us down.'" Having read Carr's recent book The Shallows, I am amazed that Johnson would find a conspiracy subtext in it. Furthermore, suggesting that Carr sees the Internet as a "meta bogey man" (whatever that might be) trivializes his arguments.

Johnson's critique of Carr appears to be founded on the power a person's will. He writes, "Blaming a medium or its creators for changing our minds and habits is like blaming food for making us fat." Such a view, "wrongly take[s] free will and choice out of the equation." For Johnson, the problem arises because we choose specific friends in an online social network, we choose to follow specific links, and we choose to spend a specific amount of time "consuming" specific information. Apparently for Johnson, only we are to blame for the changes we experience as we live our lives, more and more, in front of computer screens.

It is strange, though, that the great bulk of Johnson's book describes the powerful influences that the internet has on shaping all of these behaviors. One is left with the sense that Johnson has internalized Carr's criticism, but is unwilling to acknowledge it. To avoid doing so, he constructs a straw argument to attack and appeals to a dubious metaphysical dogma about free will.

His metaphysics does, however, underwrite the practical point of his book: to encourage us to take responsibility for the information we acquire. He writes, "This book's agenda is to help people make more sense of the world around them by encouraging them to tune into things that matter most and to tune out things that make them sick." This is unquestionably a worthy agenda. The amount of trivia that pours out of the internet when you dare to expose yourself to it is breathtaking.

Johnson's recommendations for tuning into the stuff that matters and tuning out the trivia is technological. For example, he recommends various filters and email preference settings that will reduce unwanted information. He recommends software that will show you the amount of time you spend at various kinds of Web sites and techniques for developing your ability to concentrate. All of his suggestions are fine as far as they go, but are hardly likely to achieve great success. The internet is insidious and seductive. Most of all, it is constructed to serve a profit motive which will not succeed unless most people participate in what it is doing to us. When information becomes the lure for commerce, widespread information obesity will naturally follow.

In general, Johnson's The Information Diet underestimates the power of the structural forces driving the internet and overestimates the power of individuals to resist its damaging force. Realistically, we may have only two choices: to embrace the brave new world of the digital information or to create a nearly internet-free counterculture that values face-to-face social interactions over virtual ones and makes limited forays into the virtual world for only specific and limited purposes.