Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians, and Other Persons of Interest – Curtis Wilkie

“In the Klan structure, where Code One called for a crossburning, Code Two a whipping, and Code Three an arson attack, the extreme penalty was Code Four — death.”

In 1963, the civil rights activist Medgar Evans was killed by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council. De La Beckwith was tried twice in 1964 by all-white juries, both of which result in hung juries; not until 1994 was he found guilty, less than two decades ago. In Bill Clinton’s run for office, coming as he did from Alabama, he placed an overt emphasis on racial reconciliation, and his decisions affect politics today. In a way that many of us not from the American South may struggle to appreciate, taking civil rights for granted, the strife of the 1960s continues to leave scars on the region.

Assassins opens with the story of De La Beckwith’s third trial. Curtis Wilkie was one of the original Boys on the Bus, the group of journalists following the 1972 election between Nixon and McGovern. Since then, he has become known as one of the best journalists covering the American South, particularly his home state of Mississippi. In Assassins, he takes a selection of his articles from various years and subjects and uses them to paint a broader picture: of the American South, of Israel/Palestine (where he lived for a time), of Carter and (Bill) Clinton, both of whom he knew personally, and even of a gubernatorial race between a playboy and a Ku Klux Klan leader in Lousiana and a lesbian colony in Mississippi.

Wilkie has spent his life covering these issues, and it shows. The book is insightful and entertaining. For those of us who didn’t grow up in the American South, it’s also enlightening. Readers may know about Freedom Summer, when college students from across the US came to Mississippi to help register African-Americans to vote, but reading of the multiple murders of activists and the trials paints a striking picture of the South that seems almost unthinkable now, only two generations later. For readers with little knowledge of the subject, but an interest in understanding what the South was like at the time, well worth a read.

Disclosure: I read Assassins as an advance reader copy.

The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley

“PISA revealed what should have been obvious but was not: that spending on education did not make kids smarter. Everything — everything — depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments.”

In Korea, one big test at the end of school decides everything: an extreme meritocracy in school creates what is almost a caste system for adults with your entire future decided by how you did on the exam. In Finland, the stress is lower for students but higher for teachers, with only 8 universities giving degrees in teaching, and all of them as competitive as MIT to get into. Both countries, however, are top performers on the international PISA tests, a method of comparing educational achievement across countries, dramatically outscoring the US and others.

The Smartest Kids in the World takes the PISA test as a way of finding out which countries are doing well, and then tries to understand what has led to their success. It’s a whirlwind tour of the high school experience in Korea, Finland, and Poland, three top achievers, and the reforms that got them that way.

Ripley’s bottom line, though she doesn’t say it quite this way, is that reforming education isn’t magic or even surprising. It means agreeing on common goals for the system, training teachers well, making the subject matter rigorous and not being afraid to fail students if they don’t learn it, and above all keeping expectations for students and teachers high. Not rocket science, but it’s amazing how hard the special interest groups in the US can make it.

Lots of things go into a great educational system, but Ripley makes some profound criticisms of the American model. It’s harder to retain varsity athlete status in the US, for example, than to get into teacher’s college, and the average SAT score of teachers is lower than the national average. Somehow, she argues, America has convinced itself that teachers don’t need to be smart, comfortable with their subject, or even have studied their subject. Based on international comparisons, that isn’t true.

It’s a great book. It’s well written, it’s engaging, it strikes a nice balance between storytelling and analysis that makes it an easy read, and it says something important. It’s a little short on data or real evidence, but because tests making international comparisons possible are relatively new, and so that’s not really a surprise. For anyone wanting to think about education and how the system should work, it’s a quick and interesting read.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

“Human life – that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating. Compared to it there was nothing else of any value.”

“The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town now I never tell my people where I am going.”

As a third steam age science fiction, we turn to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Dorian Gray is a young man with everything going for him; he is young, handsome, charismatic, in the flower of manhood. He is also convinced that beauty and pleasure are the highest goods, that “the true nature of the senses had never been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality.”

As is pointed out early in the novel, however, all that will fade with time: as he ages he will lose his beauty, and with it his social prestige and his status. So Dorian makes a Faustian bargain: his portrait will age and wither while he remains fresh and young, unblemished by a life of sordid activities.

The book is in some ways a classic tale of a deal with the devil, in which the protagonist goes from bad to worse. It is different, however, in the way that many of Wilde’s tales are different: it is not always obvious what Wilde himself believes. Unlike in Faust, where we can generally assume that Goethe is anti-devil though sympathetic to Faust, Wilde sounds at times actively supportive of Dorian’s ideas, giving the tale a very different slant.

At root, the story itself is perhaps not the most compelling: it can feel long where it should have been short. It is saved though by Wilde’s ability to turn a phrase: it is full of memorable quotes and lines, many of which persist today in comments like the world knowing ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’ or that ‘it is the feet of clay that make the gold of the image precious.’


“All sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, are sins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.”

“There was romance in every place. But Venice, like Oxford, had kept the background for romance, and, to the true romantic, background was everything, or almost everything.”

Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne

“What had he brought back from this long and weary journey? Nothing, say you? Perhaps so; nothing but a charming woman, who, strange as it may appear, made him the happiest of men! Truly, would you not for less than that make the tour around the world?”

Now, despite suggesting in my last post that I was doing steam age science fiction, it must be admitted that Around the World in 80 Days isn’t actually science fiction: the whole point was that it was a journey that was at least theoretically possible at the time. If anything, it is a study of the British Empire at the time, with memorable comments on all the colonies and areas they pass through as well as on British attitudes about each. My favourite, I think, occurs when they are about to be attacked by bandits while on the train across America, where the comment is made that ‘it may be taken for granted that, rash as the Americans usually are, when they are prudent there is a good reason for it.’

Science fiction is often portrayed as boys’ novels, targeted to those who don’t read real fiction. This, I think, is unfair. Science fiction often neglects the sort of character development found in Dickens, true. But in return it allows for a clear focus on a single aspect of society, distilled by its removal from impurities and complicating elements that pervade our own societies. As a result, it often has profound things to say about the world we live in, as well as the worlds we might aspire to see happen, whether that’s about the future of robotics and by extension lesser beings in Asimov, or the nature of globalization in Verne. They can also inspire, as 80 Days does, by evoking a passion for adventure and a desire to see new things.

The classic picture of Phineas Fogg in a balloon is, unfortunately, false: they don’t use a balloon at all in the story. Often ignored is also the fact that he finds love on the adventure: rather than being a celebration of the modern world and consumption, in the end, Fogg is left with the classic reward of all such tales: true love, and happiness ever after.

PS – Interesting fact for West Wing (and Nellie Bly) fans: Nellie Bly did the trip herself as a homage for her newspaper, meeting up with Verne in Amiens after 72 days. Michael Palin of Monty Python fame refused to use aircraft, and managed it in 79 days and 7 hours, slightly longer than Fogg.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

As the summer ends, I thought I’d brush up on some steam-age science fiction: Jekyll and Hyde, Around the World in 80 Days, and Picture of Dorian Gray. First up: man and beast!

“It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation of my faults, that made me what I was, and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature.”

Jekyll and Hyde is of course well known to most of us, even if that’s from watching the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The original text though has some interesting differences. Modern characterization tend to show Hyde as large and brutal, almost an ogre of a man: he has served as inspiration for Batman’s Two-Face and the Hulk. In the original, though, he is significantly smaller than Jekyll, representing the fact that Jekyll’s life had been mostly good, not evil. Instead of intimidating size, all who see him report that he gives ‘an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation.’

Perhaps more profoundly, the original text focuses on the psychology of a clash between good and evil within a person. In many ways, it is the story of the fall: a man’s descent into evil, as he gradually loses control of his darker side until his only escape is suicide. Jekyll himself notes though that there are many sides to a man, and good and evil represents only two: indeed, Hyde may be evil, but Jekyll is by no means good, suggesting a duality may be overly simplistic.

The need to bite back comments or restrain ourselves from impulsive action is hardly a stranger to any of us, I suspect. Though satisfying in the short run, such decisions are rarely desirable in the long. For Jekyll, though, the problem is more acute: Hyde himself has no such restraints, but a single lapse for Jekyll in succumbing to the transformation leads to many transgressions. Though less obvious for the rest of us, we often face a similar problem: once we have succumbed once, we develop an attachment to the behaviour, and may never be free of it. Abstention, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, may be superior to moderation.

The End of Normal – James K. Galbraith

“The 1970s were not an interlude brought on by shocks, bad management, and policy mistakes – but instead, in certain respects, a harbinger of the world conditions that we now face and from which we will not, on this occasion, so easily escape.”

“There remains one alternative. It is to engineer the economy to grow at a low, stable, positive rate for a long time, and to adjust ourselves materially and psychologically to that prospect. It is to pursue slow growth: a rate above zero but below what cheap energy and climate indifference once made possible.”

For all the books on the financial crisis, I think most people struggle to understand what happened, or even differentiate it from the European sovereign debt crisis or related issues. James Galbraith, as befits the son of one of the best known economic historians of earlier in the century, John Kenneth Galbraith (a Canadian!), takes a long view of it, looking at broad trends of demography, world finance, and technology.

Galbraith emphasizes the oft-ignored role of resource prices in driving – and slowing – economic growth. At root, he argues, we rely on resources to fuel our economies and our bodies. When they become scarce or expensive, we must give up our resource-intensive activities and accept a lower intensity of civilization, or face destruction. When the meteor hit, and sunlight became scarce, the dinosaurs gave up space to smaller mammals that were less resource intensive: he suggests we should think of our society from a similar frame, and choose a level of resource intensity appropriate to resource availability. The financial crisis isn’t a deviation from the mean, but rather a signal of things to come.

The book addresses an important issue, and from a relatively novel perspective. Predicting the future is always hard, and Galbraith wisely spends more time on first principles than on trying to predict future conditions, other than saying they won’t be great. The book’s weakness is in structure: non-economists may find it difficult to follow. Galbraith leaps around from idea to idea and engages with things he disagrees with rather than advancing his own ideas, so some ideas can be hard to keep track of unless you already know the literature. In his attempts to make it accessible, it also feels a bit superficial at points: criticizing economists for finding their models beautiful seems a bit irrelevant. Not the last word on the subject, but definitely a start, and very much an underdiscussed issue.

Excellent Sheep – William Deresiewicz

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but are also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose…great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

“Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to.”

“People go to monasteries to find out why they have come, and college ought to be the same.”

Elite colleges tell their students how special they are, how they were picked from an enormous pool of possible applicants and showed themselves better than all the rest. In 1957, the Dean of Yale took a rather different view: welcoming the new students, he told them how large a pool of applicants they’d had that year, and pointed out that had they rejected every student in the room, they could still have had a great incoming class. Each student, he argued, was responsible for showing why they deserved to be accepted. The modern version has rather a different emphasis.

In recent years, between a third and a half of graduates of elite US colleges with a job head to finance or consulting. In contrast to the popularity of those fields, whole areas have disappeared: clergy, military, teaching, electoral politics, even academia to a lesser extent. Excellent Sheep worries that this stems from the warped perspective promoted by these colleges, that in telling the students endlessly that they are the elite and the special, they rule out whole worlds of possibility by implying they are a waste of a fancy education. Schools, Deresiewicz argues, are complicit in this because they like the fat donations they receive from graduates in consulting or finance, far more than they receive from a happier but poorer graduate who ends up as a minister or teacher.

Where the book suffers is when it turns to broader societal implications. The author’s background is in English, and though that should never be a bar to writing anything, in this case it betrays him a little when he attempts to look at issues of policy, society, and statistics. He also doesn’t really have any insight into structural solutions: his advice to students to go to a second tier school is all very well, but hardly scalable.

The value of such books though is what they make the reader think, rather than just what the author says. Reflecting on my own experience, I’ve largely been spared the lost or aimless feeling Excellent Sheep describes, despite being lucky enough to attend an elite college. My advantage, I think, is no surprise to readers of the blog: that I read widely. Any student seeking to find a sense of self and wisdom through their education needs to get beyond the bubble of their friends and professors, and reading is a great way to do that, to engage in debate with some of the foremost minds of our species, living and dead. Exposure to such great ideas and new perspectives can ground you, and provide a frame of reference very different from your own.

Deresiewicz also suffers from some of the same blind spots he criticizes elite schools for: he makes no effort to find out what students from top state schools do, for example, appearing to forget that schools other than the Ivy Leagues even exist as anything other than an abstraction. Nevertheless, Excellent Sheep’s opening sections are interesting, persuasive, and well-written. For those alone, the book is worth reading, and I recommend it. If the second half falls a bit short, that’s not the end of the world. As a book that makes you consider your own education – or lack thereof – it’s well worth it.

Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan – Klassen and Albo

“The Hindi kid would soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians would eventually learn by the late 1980’s: that Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish customs but abhor rules. And so it was with kite fighting. The rules were simple: No rules. Fly your kite. Cut the opponents. Good luck.” – Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Afghanistan is the 42nd most populous country in the world and was a major stop on the Silk Road linking China and Europe. As a result of its central location, it has also been the site of multiple military campaigns, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, and more recently by the British, Soviets, and NATO. Before the Taliban destroyed them, it had some unbelievably important ancient sites and relics.

The war in Afghanistan is an enduring source of controversy; not as widely condemned as Iraq, perhaps, but still much debated. Both wars tend to be seen as American wars, since the US contribution in blood and treasure has dominated the total effort. At a per capita level, however, many countries have contributed far more: the Netherlands and Canada in particular are known both for large contributions and for being willing to take on relatively large tasks, in contrast to the Germans, for example, who heavily restricted the possible roles their troops could take.

Since the start of the war, Afghanistan has seen marked progress on some indicators, like women’s education or schools, but the violence has persisted and to many it is not clear it can be satisfactorily ended. Klassen and Albo’s collection of essays on the topic is one of those: a selection of Marxist essays taking a critical perspective on the war and trying to understand Canada’s involvement through a broader lens of analysis, including the history of Afghanistan, the motivations for the intervention, and the anti-war movements.

Such analyses are often worthwhile, but unfortunately the book suffers two challenges. First, the last 6 months have seen significant events in the Middle East, and so many essays already feel out of date. Unavoidable but unfortunate. Still, some essays maintain their relevance, perhaps particularly John Warnock’s history of the country. More disappointing for the non-specialist, however, is the lack of solutions. For all the analysis, in the end the book offers little that hasn’t already been suggested by left and right; cooperate more with surrounding countries, convince the Taliban to give rights to minority groups, etc. For a specialist seeking to review some articles about Canada and Afghanistan that’s fine, but for a layperson I suspect it will be frustrating.

Disclosure: I read Empire’s Ally as an advance reader copy – it is available August 26th.

Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher: How Government Decides and Why – Donald J. Savoie

“It is exceedingly difficult for front-line workers and their managers to have a sense of responsibility in their place of work. It is true that their work was once guided by fairly rigid administrative rules, but it is also true that a number of these administrative rules have been done away with. In their stead, the work of front-line managers and workers is subject to many voices, many hands, and many oversight bodies.”

The public service is a classic whipping boy in the press and in the living rooms of the people. It is, the story goes, bloated, corrupt, inept, overstaffed, overpaid, underworked, and takes too many holidays. Statistics seem to support this impression to some extent: between 1995 and 2006, the Canadian public service ended up with 51% more executives, 46% more financial managers, 98% economists, and 40% fewer general service staff, including music teachers. While the private sector was in crisis between 2007 and 2010, the number of public servants paid over $100,000 a year doubled.

Savoie, a respected academic with a long history of work with the public service, proposes an explanation for why. The past few decades have seen, with the best of intentions, a push to use lessons from the private sector in the public service: extensive performance audits, centralizing final authority, making sure that things are cost effective.

These are doomed to failure, says Savoie. Cost-benefit analysis requires a bottom line, and that’s something the public sector, by definition, does not have. These attempts to create a private sector culture have sacrificed public service ideals like frugality and service without gaining commensurate benefits. The result has been steadily decreasing emphasis on front line workers like music teachers, and steadily increasing centralized control powers that have little to contribute to the overall public service mandate, leading to a reputation for bloat, overpay and underwork.

The book can sometimes be a bit heavy into political theory, but the bottom line message is interesting. Savoie is also sometimes a bit overeager to interpret things in a way that supports his theory, when it could as easily go the other way. Still, it takes on an interesting question, and if you flip through the political theory bits, it does so in an interesting way. If this is something you’re interested in, I suspect it’s one of the best books in the field. Well worth the read.

Clinton’s Favourite Books

A favourite blog of mine, Farnamstreet, just shared Bill Clinton’s 21 favourite books. Keep in mind this is from 93, and so says about as much as the regions and groups whose support he wanted as much as books he likes. For all that, interesting!

Original list here, and Farnam Street discussion of each book here.


•  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou.

•  Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.

• The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker.

• Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, Taylor Branch.

• Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

• Lincoln, David Herbert Donald.

• The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.

• Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.

•  The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-First Century, David Fromkin.

• One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

• The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Seamus Heaney.

• King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild.

• The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis.

• Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell.

• The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis, Carroll Quigley.

• Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, Reinhold Niebuhr.

• The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron.

• Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber.

• You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe.

• Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright.

• The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, William Butler Yeats.