Summer Reading List Challenge 2020: The also-rans

(I never did write this, even though I promised it two months ago. Here goes.)

Through the summer, I challenged myself to read three new books, including at least one in a genre I don’t normally read or write. You can see in my earlier posts (part one and part two) that I did complete this challenge. Humble Pi, Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, and even Verity were all interesting works. I learned from all three, whether it was how to avoid common math errors, the history of a very interesting place to which I have a very slight ancestral connection, or just how to be a better author.

These were not, however, the only books I tried to read. As I stated in “Politics and the escape”, I attempted to read two others during the summer. These books I found interesting to start, but I was quickly turned off by the nuisance of politics—particularly politics I strongly oppose—shoved into otherwise decent works of nonfiction.

So here are my thoughts on those abandoned entries in the challenge.

A hopeless history

Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Author: Rutger Bregman
Genre: Sociology
Year: 2020

Bregman is, from what I gather, a bit of a media darling. He’s one of those random Euros who doesn’t really do much, but gets invited to TED talks and things like that because he says what some people like to hear. And the description of Humankind does sound inspiring. It’s supposed to be all about how humans have evolved to be fundamentally good and social, which is true.

What isn’t true, however, is the dichotomy the author paints. It’s a rotten foundation for a book that could have otherwise been great for everyone. But Bregman sets up the argument that society must choose between Rousseau’s “return to nature” and Hobbes’ Leviathan. Your choices are green socialism or authoritarian socialism.

This is a common theme in European politics, and it’s one of the fundamental disconnects between that entire continent and the United States. In the European view, individual liberties are always subservient to the nebulous idea of the public good. That’s why they have things like GDPR, burqa bans, and “hate speech” laws, while we in America have barred such measures in one of our founding documents.

But in Bregman’s world, there’s no room for libertarianism, or indeed liberty at all. In his view, people can only progress by working together under the strictures of a state. Because we’re too dumb to care for ourselves. No, really. He spends an entire chapter claiming evidence that humans have evolved to become stupid as well as social. We’ve “domesticated” ourselves, and mentally we’re no better than puppies. This, of course, ignores the individuals who have, because they were individuals, changed the world. Tell Einstein or Newton that they could have done more if they’d only made more friends.

I didn’t finish Humankind, as I was so disgusted with this unending statist screed that I had to put it aside. Supposedly, the last part of the book sketches a new vision for the future, centered around things like basic income and open borders. A restatement of another of the author’s books, and one I obviously can’t endorse. Not because I’m against such notions—I think a universal basic income system could work, for example, but only if done properly—but his version of utopia strikes me as very dystopian. In the great social future, there’s no room for individuality or personal growth or opportunity. It’s the extreme opposite end of Franklin’s famous quote: those who sign on to this vision are giving up all liberty in exchange for the safety of never having to make their own decisions.

Huh. I guess those people are like puppies.

Treason of thought

Title: The Contact Paradox
Author: Keith Cooper
Genre: Science/Astronomy
Year: 2019

This is another one I went in really wanting to like. I’m a space enthusiast, to put it mildly, and SETI has always fascinated me. So when I saw a book that claimed to challenge “our assumptions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” I had to check it out.

Indeed, there’s a lot of good science in this text. It shows how our current SETI approaches ignore a vast search space. The reasons we do that, of course, are all financial, not from a lack of technology, knowledge, or will. And The Contact Paradox doesn’t really address that.

In fact, one section places the author squarely against increasing SETI spending. And, indeed, spending on any kind of science. A section on environmental matters, beyond preaching the usual global warming dogma, insults those of who choose to look at the evidence themselves, calling skeptics “traitors of humanity” whose opinions aren’t even worth arguing against.

I’ve had emotional reactions to books before. A few novels have made me cry. Some left me feeling a sense of enlightenment and inner peace. Nonfiction doesn’t normally inspire the same emotions, but it can; anybody who saw the 50+ pages of notes I took for my CBT workbook could detect the gamut of emotional responses. Never before, though, have I felt such a visceral anger at an author for the words he wrote. I immediately closed my reader app, and the only reason I didn’t delete the file was because I wanted to remember the name of it, in case I ran into it again and thought about reading it.

We skeptics are not the traitors. Far from it. We are the ones following the scientific method. The alarmists who claim the Earth will become uninhabitable within the decade unless we stop driving, stop using plastic, stop eating red meat, and essentially stop doing anything productive at all, those are the true traitors. They are the ones standing in the way of humanity’s progress. Without them and their cult-like mentality, their constant denigration of those they consider heretics and apostates, we could solve the actual problems facing us today.

It’s the opposite problem to what Bregman runs into, if you think about it. In Humankind, the stated assumption was that humans have become lesser. We’re not as smart, on the whole, as we should be. And his thesis is that this stunting of our mental growth means we need a strong state supporting us, because we’re just too dumb to be left alone.

Cooper, on the other hand, echoes the alarmists’ claims that we need to become lesser. That progress needs to come to a screeching halt, if not a total reversal to the nasty, brutish, and short lives of agrarian societies before the Industrial Revolution.

What both authors share is the anti-individual mentality that has seeped into every part of our modern culture. In this view of humanity, no man is an island, as the saying goes. Instead, we must all be chained to the mainland, never allowed to ask the question, “What’s beyond the horizon?” It’s a limiting view, but I posit that this is by design. By keeping us small and scared, these people believe they can keep us controlled.

No dreams of becoming better than we are. Those can’t be allowed. Creativity and imagination must only follow prescribed lines, as well. It’s cultural thought control on a level even Orwell couldn’t imagine. And authors such as Bregman and Cooper are supporting it. They’re enabling it.

When I write a novel, I do it to escape. I do it to imagine a world that isn’t necessarily better than ours, but one which is different enough to be interesting. Some of them include my vision of utopia, yes. Every author does that. What I don’t do is claim my vision is the only one allowed, that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but heretical. That’s not the point. I’m not writing a persuasive essay or political tract. I’m telling a story.

And in my stories, the people who try to control others are rightly considered the villains.

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