Reviews by Eloquence

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
5 stars
How to burn hundreds of millions of dollars, hurt thousands of people, and not get away with it

At its peak, blood testing company Theranos was valued at US$10B, a staggering amount for a privately held start-up. It had raised $700M in investments by venture capitalists and private investors. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was featured on the covers of business magazines sporting a black turtleneck, echoing Steve Jobs’ trademark style. Holmes hobnobbed with the powerful and was celebrated as a brilliant entrepreneur who would revolutionize health-care.

As John Carreyrou recounts in Bad Blood, there was only one problem: Theranos didn’t help people—it hurt them. The company had not created a working product and had systematically deceived the public and investors about this fact, running most tests on recklessly modified commercial analyzers. Worse, Holmes and company president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani (who was also Holmes’ boyfriend during their time at Theranos) had pushed the company’s flaky blood tests into Walgreens stores.

To minimize regulatory risks, much of this experimentation on human beings took place in the “pro-business” city of Phoenix, Arizona. It had the predictable results: many patients received utterly nonsensical reports that endangered their health and caused them to incur medical debt to pay for expensive follow-up tests.

Climate of Fear

Carreyrou, a Pulitzer-winning investigative writer for the Wall Street Journal whose reporting was instrumental to bringing about the fall of Theranos, tries to explain what happened. Was Theranos a scam from the start? How did things get off the rails?

Holmes, a Stanford dropout, did not understand how the product she wanted could be built—she only knew what she wanted: a slick, compact device that could produce a vast number of different types of blood tests from a tiny sample of blood. Unsurprisingly, her team was not able to deliver what leading scientists and engineers said was an incredibly challenging problem, perhaps unsolvable with today’s technology.

When a normal company fails to achieve an over-ambitious vision, it pivots to a less ambitious one: a larger device, fewer tests, larger quantities of blood. But Theranos was not a normal company. Instead of reasoning through the problem, it fired its internal dissenters, fudged and misrepresented data for investors, and pushed towards the real-world use of extremely flawed, extremely flaky prototype devices.

According to Carreyrou, through much of its existence, Theranos experienced extremely high turnover with frequent and vindictive firings—and resignations in response to dysfunction, intimidation, and ethical transgressions. Employees were first and foremost seen as a threat that had to be monitored (emails and even social media use were heavily policed) and controlled.

An Ineffective, Infatuated Board

The Theranos board included former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State and war criminal Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis. It included no members with substantial relevant expertise and lacked any ability to evaluate the merits of Theranos’ work.

Indeed, the board was infatuated with the Theranos founder and neither able nor willing to hold her to account. Employees who tried to warn the board were ignored or threatened.

George Shultz’s grandson Tyler was exposed to some of the company’s egregious and unethical practices through his own work there. He ultimately blew the whistle on Theranos. However, his attempts to persuade his grandfather that all was not well with the company fell on deaf ears.

The desire to believe that Holmes really was the brilliant and world-changing inventor she presented herself as was all too powerful—and a lot of money was on the line. And it wasn’t just the board that was infatuated; media and investors were all too ready to embrace the Theranos hype without asking too many questions.

Irrational Self-Interest

It took the Wall Street Journal to finally bring down the house of cards. That’s not without its irony; it was the Journal that had granted Elizabeth Holmes an op-ed to promote its company only months earlier, and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, invested $121M in the company just before its downfall. (To his credit, Murdoch never attempted to shut down the Journal’s investigation.)

Problems like the ones Theranos sought to solve—and indeed all problems of similar ambition and scope—require collaboration, transparency, openness. Instead, they were dealt with paranoia and secrecy, under cult-like, authoritarian leadership. According to Carreyrou, Elizabeth Holmes told her employees that she was creating a religion.

There is some redemption in Theranos’ ultimate failure, but it’s not the Invisible Hand of the free market that is redeemed, but the role of regulatory bodies (which forced Theranos to discontinue its dangerous tests), of investigative journalists like Carreyrou, of courageous whistleblowers like Tyler Shultz. How much longer could Theranos have survived under slightly different circumstances? How many more people would have been hurt?

The Verdict

Bad Blood does not examine the systemic questions the Theranos case raises, but it is one hell of a story, told by the man who broke it. Carreyrou’s book is based on countless interviews with former employees, partners, consultants, acquaintances; on documents revealed in lawsuits or by whistleblowers; on the scientific papers the company cited, and the opinions of experts.

It reads, for the most part, as if the author had been a fly on the wall during every dramatic turn of the Theranos saga. There is a little bit of repetition as we hear one particular story over and over again—new employee is excited by Holmes’ vision, new employee experiences insane levels of dysfunction, new employee quits or gets fired. There is also a bit more gossip than is necessary to tell the story (Did Elizabeth Holmes fake her deep voice? One former employee thinks so!).

Those are minor criticisms, however. As a story of a fall from grace, of self-delusion, sociopathic behavior and blind ambition, this book is about as good as it gets. Don’t turn here to find out what to learn from the Theranos story. But to begin asking the right questions, it’s a must-read. 4.5 of 5 stars, rounded up.


5 stars
A gut-wrenching investigation into prisons and profits

I’ve long believed in the importance of undercover journalism. As a German, I’m familiar with the work of Günter Wallraff whose riveting report from the inside of Germany’s best-selling tabloid beats Manufacturing Consent any day when it comes to showcasing viscerally how propaganda works under capitalism. But America has had its share of undercover reporting icons, too — from Nellie Bly to Barbara Ehrenreich.

Shane Bauer continues this tradition with American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment. Bauer (a Mother Jones reporter and former prisoner of the Iranian regime) spent 4 months as a guard at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, a for-profit prison. His book is a re-telling of this experience, interwoven with brief chapters about the history of incarceration and forced labour in the United States.


An imprisoned black boy punished at a Georgia convict camp, 1932. (Credit: John L. Spivak. Fair use.)

After the US Civil War, former slaveholders hijacked criminal law to continue “slavery by another name” as Douglas Blackmon put it, with the same profit motives and the same racist ideology serving as pretext. African-Americans were rounded up, often on false pretenses like “vagrancy” or made-up charges, and put to work under the most horrific conditions imaginable.

Bauer explains that the death rates in this late 19th century prison-industrial complex rivaled and exceeded those of Soviet gulags during their worst years. For many of the predominantly African-American convicts, the emancipation of slaves had turned out to be pure fiction—instead, now the corporations “leasing” them didn’t even have any purely financial incentive to keep them alive.

It would take cases of white people like Martin Tabert to force modest reforms. Tabert was arrested on a trivial charge and leased to a lumber company. There, he was brutalized and killed by an overseer. The sheriff who had arrested him was paid a reward for every able body delivered into the hands of the company.

With the rise of mass incarceration in the late 20th century—the new Jim Crow—corporations once again began to see opportunities to derive profit from the caging and exploitation of human beings.

The Winn Report

Bauer’s experience as a Correctional Officer at Winn offers a window into a very different prison system. Here, the goal is not so much to force prisoners to build railroads or harvest timber. It’s to warehouse prisoners at the lowest possible cost, with the greatest possible profit.

The system Bauer describes is one of a chronically under-staffed facility with chronically under-paid and chronically under-qualified staff, where prisoners (when they’re not in segregation) live in open dormitories that house dozens of men. The guards barely manage to keep order.

Literally dozens of shanks—improvised weapons—are discovered routinely; stabbings are frequent and far more common than in publicly run facilities. A thriving underground economy of drugs, phones and sex involves both guards and inmates. The only thing that keeps the whole place from completely falling apart are irregular interventions by “Special Operations” teams from other locations, who attempt pacification by way of pepper spray.

Bauer describes the psychological toll this system takes on him. He (uncritically, which is disappointing) cites the Stanford Prison Experiment, and notes his own changes in behavior—from attempting to form relationships with some inmates, to taking pleasure in acts of revenge against others.

Ultimately, he performs well by the standard of the prison, and is put on the path towards a promotion before he resigns.

The Verdict

American Prison can be difficult to read, given that the entire book is about violence and coercion. There is nothing cathartic here: things haven’t gotten better since the book was published, and the private prison industry is thriving on efforts to cage men, women and children for attempting to seek shelter from brutality and destitution in their home countries.

But it is precisely this kind of reporting that is needed to show—beyond the power of an argument—why the idea of entrusting profit-driven corporations with incarceration is batshit insane.

As a chronicler of this insanity and its historical precursors, Bauer is meticulous. He distinguishes quotes that he was able to capture on audio from those he had to recollect. He provides extensive citations. He identifies the people who gave him permission to use his name. He includes the voices of those who disagree with him. He received appreciation from many of his former colleagues for his reporting.

And that’s precisely the standard that undercover journalism must live up to—especially in a country where garbage-spewing flimflam artists like James O’Keefe have given the genre a bad name.

Bauer is not first and foremost a scholar but a storyteller, and the historical review is relevant and accurate but patchy. Nonetheless, American Prison is a compelling and necessary book. 4.5 points, rounded up.


3 stars
An entertaining whirlwind tour of unusual minds

In Unthinkable: What the World’s Most Extraordinary Brains Can Teach Us About Our Own, science journalist Helen Thomson chronicles her meetings and interactions with a set of people whose minds have unusual qualities, e.g.:

  • one subject hyper-empathizes with the emotions he sees in others, experiencing touch and pain almost physically;

  • another, for some time, was utterly convinced that he was dead;

  • one remembers nearly every day of her life in vivid detail;

  • another sees auras around people, reflecting his own feelings about them.

Thomson interweaves these stories with neurological research and short “here’s a thing you can try at home right now” experiments, some more practical than others. From each episode, she tries to draw conclusions that can apply to many of us—about how our memory really works, or how to manage our own empathy.

The science here is light reading, and sometimes too light; for example, while Thomson spends a couple of paragraphs debunking popular misconceptions about “left brains” and “right brains”, she quickly embraces “top brain / bottom brain” theory as an alternative explanatory model, without applying similar skepticism.

Overall, though, Unthinkable is a quick and entertaining read that personalizes a complex subject through a necessarily arbitrary but interesting cast of characters. 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded down because each of these stories would have deserved a bit more depth than Thomson gives them.


4 stars
A fine collection of lefty essays about politics & culture

Current Affairs is a left-wing magazine (review) and podcast, and they publish some of their essays in book form as well. I received one such collection, “The Current Affairs Mindset”, as a Patreon gift for supporting the podcast. Since I’ve only subscribed to the magazine since 2018, this was a welcome gift; the book was published in 2017 and includes essays from the 2016-2017 time period.

The cover is adorned with an illustration of a middle-aged, mildly obese white man admiring himself in the mirror, pretending that he is a gorilla with a Trump-like head of blond hair. The title and illustration poke fun at far-right demagogue slash self-help guru Mike Cernovich’s “Gorilla Mindset” cult, which is dissected in one of the book’s better essays.

The cover and the brevity of most essays also make the book a decent bathroom reader for any lefty household. Because Current Affairs doesn’t paywall its content, you’ll find all of the included essays online, as well, in case you want to sample the content on a screen before buying a print version.

Complete table of contents with links

They range from left-wing critiques of liberal obsessions (like the musical Hamilton) to very cogent analysis of the resurgence of the far-right, and of the realities of poverty and oppression in the United States.

While parts of the book feel a bit echo-chambery (“here’s what good lefties think about X”), Current Affairs deserves credit for publishing nuanced essays on topics like free speech or identity politics, instead of embracing received wisdom of any particular political persuasion.


4 stars
A cautious introduction to America's imperialist history

How much do you know about the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, about the Philippine-American War, about America’s efforts to depose José Zelaya in Nicaragua, Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam? If the answer is “very little”, Stephen Kinzer’s 2006 book Overthrow remains a reasonable introduction to these and other “regime change” efforts.

Kinzer, a journalist and writer who was the New York Times correspondent for Central America in the 1980s, weaves a narrative of some of America’s military and intelligence interventions in other countries from the late 19th century to the early 21st. He connects the political events with the stories of some of the key figures involved, like Henry Cabot Lodge and his grandson, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Dulles brothers—John and Allen, subject of another book by Kinzer.

Throughout his analysis, Kinzer points at the clear commercial interests at the root of foreign policy interventions: taking control of Hawaii at the request of American-born plantation owners, preserving United Fruit’s corporate stranglehold over Guatemala, punishing Iran’s Mossadegh for attempting to end foreign exploitation of the country’s oil reserves.


After a directive from Richard Nixon to “make the economy scream” through sabotage, the CIA used the subsequent instability to help install Augusto Pinochet, replacing Chile’s democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s regime was responsible for the death of thousands, and for the arrest and torture of tens of thousands. (Credit: Chas Gerretsen. Fair use.)

The typical pattern of each chapter is “storytelling → larger political events → analysis”. As a storyteller, Kinzer is not quite at the level of Erik Larson—there are some slightly jarring repetitions, for example—but the book is certainly engaging.

The book’s value is ultimately limited by its narrow scope, and by its unwillingness to stray too far outside the Overton window of American political discourse. For example, America’s many efforts to influence democratic elections in other countries help to understand why democracy and political independence are often difficult to reconcile for smaller countries.

But these efforts, far more numerous than direct intervention, are largely out of scope, as are many of the other methods America’s military and intelligence apparatus have employed (and continue to employ) to bolster friendly regimes, however brutal, and to undermine perceived unfriendly ones.

When Kinzer imagines “what-ifs” for countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, he theorizes that America stunted the emergence of independent capitalist democracies. In full cognition of the historical facts, it should not take much daring to speculate whether democracy and capitalism are in fact compatible at all.

The book’s narrative ends with the near-term effects of George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kinzer’s 2006 prognosis for both countries was not optimistic; today, one would have to connect the dots between these interventions, subsequent American and European actions in the region, and the terror, wars and instability that continue to this day.

I recommend Kinzer’s book with the above reservations as a starting point to explore America’s imperialist history. It may also serve as a cautious introduction for readers wary of more radical authors like Chomsky (who eloquently critiqued Kinzer’s New York Times reports from Central America in the 1980s). 3.5 of 5 stars, rounded up because of the importance of the subject and the quality of the writing.


3 stars
Scratching the surface of antiquity

Ancient statues and buildings were frequently painted in vivid colors. The modern image of austere white marble is largely an invention, based on misunderstanding the weathered appearance of ancient works as intentional. That invention became the preferred view of antiquity from the Renaissance to today.

Ancient polychromy is not, however, a recent discovery. After all, statues often still had pigments on them when they were discovered (many still do so today). Historians like Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) acknowledged that many ancient statues were colored, but claimed that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is.”

The true colors of the ancient world reflect the diversity of the people that inhabited it. They also make the ancient West look a lot more like the ancient East, offering a glimpse at the thread that connects all humanity; sharpening the contrast between the polytheistic, messy culture of ancient Rome and the darkening age that followed it.

Since Winckelmann, historians have rarely embraced, sometimes rejected and mostly ignored the true colors of antiquity. In recent decades, a small number of archaeologists and historians have tried to change that, culminating in an exhibition of painted statues called Gods in Color which first opened 2003 and has been continuously updated since then. The book Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World is a catalog of the exhibition with some additional essays on the subject.


Reconstruction of the Peplos Kore as featured in the book. (Credit: Gods in Color. Fair use.)

The introductory essays are short but interesting, shedding light on the discovery and perception of ancient polychromy, and giving examples of early drawings and reconstructions.

The new reconstructions, however, may offend modern sensibilities. This is less because they’re colorful and more because they just are not very well done. As Margaret Talbot writes in the excellent New Yorker article “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”:

In the nineteen-nineties, [Vincent] Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who is an art historian and an archeologist, began re-creating Greek and Roman sculptures in plaster, painted with an approximation of their original colors. Palettes were determined by identifying specks of remaining pigment, and by studying “shadows”—minute surface variations that betray the type of paint applied to the stone. The result of this effort was a touring exhibition called “Gods in Color”.

(…)

But [Mark] Abbe, like many scholars I talked to, wasn’t crazy about the reconstructions in “Gods in Color.” He found the hues too flat and opaque, and noted that plaster, which most of the replicas are made from, absorbs paint in a way that marble does not. He was also bothered by the fact that the statues “all look fundamentally the same, whereas styles would have differed enormously.”

All of this is true. Moreover, many of the depicted reconstructions are incomplete, with partially colored eyes or limbs creating a truly garish appearance. Where the original is damaged, so is the replica, with a white broken nose at the center of a flatly painted plaster reconstruction.

The pigments recovered from each original are carefully documented, but the artistic execution of most of the reconstructions is accordingly mechanistic, constrained by evidence that remains between us and the ancient world.

The result is a presentation of antiquity in painted plaster that resembles the uncanny valley of bad computer graphics. The Brinkmanns and their collaborators deserve the world’s credit for forcing us to take a more realistic view of the ancient world in its full color—but a lot of work remains to do so in style.


5 stars
An antidote to cynicism

In November 2015, Nathan Robinson and Oren Nimni launched a Kickstarter to fund the creation of Current Affairs, a print magazine of “political analysis, satire, and entertainment” promising to “make life joyful again”. The campaign exceeded its goal of $10,000. Three years later, Current Affairs has become of the most reliably interesting and, indeed, enjoyable political publications on the left.

Print editions are issued every two months; each is carefully designed and, in addition to articles on diverse topics, every issue contains the creative works of many contributing artists. While many illustrations simply support a given article, in other cases it’s the illustrations that tell the story—see, for example, the “City of Dreams” illustration and accompanying article.


Recent Current Affairs covers. (Credit: Current Affairs. Fair use.)

Chances are that you’ve come across Current Affairs articles before through some of Nathan Robinson’s in-depth “takedown” articles about prominent American and Canadian political writers — especially those spreading reactionary ideas, e.g., Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Mike Cernovich, and Dinesh D’Souza.

Instead of simply dismissing them outright, Robinson takes these figures to account on the basis of their own words, dissecting the ugly mess of hateful nonsense beneath whatever persona they’ve created for themselves.

Current Affairs is a decidedly leftist publication; it routinely condemns capitalist excess, corporate misconduct, “bipartisan” alliances with murderous regimes, the convenient political amnesia concerning America’s history of horrific military interventions, the dark legacy of racism at the root of deep social and economic inequalities.

While it writes of socialism as a political and economic alternative, the magazine has been equally critical of authoritarian socialism. Robinson’s own essay, “How To Be A Socialist Without Being An Apologist For The Atrocities Of Communist Regimes“, puts it quite plainly:

The dominant “communist” tendencies of the 20th century aimed to liberate people, but they offered no actual ethical limits on what you could do in the name of “liberation.” That doesn’t mean liberation is bad, it means ethics are indispensable and that the Marxist disdain for “moralizing” is scary and ominous.

Current Affairs instead leans towards libertarian socialism, an ideology seeking to balance a high commitment to individual freedom with a concern for the welfare of societies. It speaks of “humanistic” values and holds all ideologies to account for living up to those values.

The magazine publishes essays about diverse topics from the changing politics of Star Trek to the Mardi Gras holiday in New Orleans. You’re in for a visual treat the moment you open the table of contents, each of which is an artistic exploration of the topics covered in the current edition.


Current Affairs table of contents examples. (Credit: Current Affairs. Fair use.)

Alongside its playfulness and occasional silliness, the magazine features articles such as a gut-wrenching and unflinching look back at the Vietnam War (“What We Did”) or an insightful report on disillusioned African-American Rust Belt voters (“The Color of Economic Anxiety”).

Recently, the magazine also launched a podcast; as of this writing, it is already generating more than $6,000/month in Patreon support (supporters get access to bonus episodes). The podcast features conversations between the magazine’s contributors on a wide variety of topics, featuring segments like “Lefty Shark-Tank” (tongue-in-cheek criticism of left-wing policy ideas), interviews, answers to listeners, parody ads, and more.

Legally, Current Affairs is not a nonprofit; Nathan Robinson told me by email that the team “debated it and then decided against it as it creates all kinds of logistical headaches”.

However, he emphasized that Current Affairs will never operate as a for-profit company. Over the course of each magazine’s two-month run, all articles are published online without any kind of paywall, and the website and magazine are entirely free of third party ads. Regrettably, articles are under conventional copyright, as opposed to a permissive Creative Commons license.


Article example from the latest issue. (Credit: Current Affairs. Fair use.)

The Verdict

After reading their online edition for a while, I subscribed to Current Affairs earlier this year, and have not regretted it yet. At $60 for 6 issues, you get good value for your money; the magazine is a pleasure to look at, and I generally read it all the way through before the next one arrives.

A few typos usually slip through, and some articles would benefit from more rigor (data, citations) or additional editing. But these are the kinds of problems you would expect from a small, independent magazine.

In many ways, I prefer the Current Affairs model to the heavily grant-funded nonprofit publications I’ve reviewed (e.g., The Marshall Project, ProPublica). It will likely never be able to muster the resources to engage in a similar scale of reporting projects, but its writing is fearless and independent, funded entirely by readers. While its humor can be snarky, underneath it there’s an earnestness that’s disarming and likable. I highly recommend checking it out.

Would you enjoy reading it? Fortunately, that’s easy to find out by browsing the archives of the website. Regardless of its legal status, I’ve also added it to the Twitter feed of quality nonprofit media, which is a convenient way to sample the content of many nonprofit outlets if you happen to use Twitter.


5 stars
War from the inside of the American empire

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to 19 newspapers. Comprising 7,000 pages, they are an internal history of the Vietnam War compiled by the US government. By doing so, Ellsberg made himself a target of the Nixon administration. The first operation of Nixon’s infamous “White House Plumbers” was the burglary of the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to find materials that could be used to discredit him. Later, members of the group would break into the Watergate hotel, bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

Secrets, first published in 2002, is Ellsberg’s memoir. It focuses on his work for the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon, including the time Ellsberg spent in South Vietnam, and the influences on his thinking that ultimately moved him to become a whistleblower.

A Harvard-educated intellectual, Ellsberg was quickly drawn into the upper echelon of US policymaking. In the early part of his memoir, he describes how, at the Pentagon, secrecy was used not just to conceal information from the public, but also to wage turf wars between departments, with new classifications being invented just to prevent rivals from seeing a certain memo or document.

He is not shy to admit the seductive and addictive nature of access to secrets, and how it breeds contempt from political insiders for the outside world. The public, after all, never knows the true reasons why a political decision was made, so how could the judgment of any member of the public be trusted? Lying to the public in official statements is so common that when lies are used to justify war — as was the case after the Gulf of Tonkin incident — it hardly seems notable to those on the inside.

From skeptic to cynic, from cynic to activist

Yet, Ellsberg was not a critic of this system at the time; he was a willing participant. When he was offered his role at the Pentagon with a specific focus on Vietnam policy, he was at first reluctant not because he questioned US motives in the war — as a Cold Warrior, he shared a desire to limit the spread of communist influence — but because he was skeptical that the war was winnable.

During his two years in South Vietnam, Ellsberg’s skepticism turned into cynicism, as he observed how, with all the unspeakable brutality of the war, there was no strategy or tactic that promised real gains against North Vietnam, short of the total destruction of the country. Moreover, forces on the ground even fabricated entire operations to pretend that “pacification” was around the corner at any moment.

Upon his return to the US, Ellsberg struggled to understand how successive presidencies could push forward a war that was going nowhere and costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Had these presidents simply been victims of their own propaganda? To find out, he participated in the creation of the report known as the Pentagon Papers. And it was his inside knowledge of the report, combined with his exposure to the peace movement, that ultimately caused him to become a whistleblower.

The Pentagon Papers showed that, far from cluelessly bumbling into war, the United States had recklessly escalated a war of aggression against a country that, to begin with, had sought independence from a colonial power, much as America had once done. But here, America had chosen the side of the colonizers.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had willingly signed off on escalation after escalation, even as advisers were telling them that far greater efforts were needed to “win” the war. And it was the Nixon administration that would take the war to levels that can only be described as state terrorism, as Nixon himself promised privately: “We are not going to let this country be defeated by this little shit-ass country.” And he made it clear to Henry Kissinger: “You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians—and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.”

While Ellsberg would only learn about these statements when the Nixon White House tapes became public, he did know from insiders that Nixon was lying about pursuing peace in Vietnam, and that he was instead prepared to again escalate the war’s brutality in hopes of forcing North Vietnam to “negotiate” with the United States.

This threat of escalation motivated Ellsberg to try various venues to get the Pentagon Papers out, ultimately releasing them to many newspapers as a dramatic man-hunt against him got underway. The Pentagon Papers didn’t cover the Nixon period, and they mostly reflected poorly on previous Democratic administrations. Nevertheless, Ellsberg felt that making visible how administration after administration had made the same mistakes in Vietnam — and lied about it to the public — would at least help hold Nixon to account.

Nixon, for his part, privately welcomed the leak. It was only when he feared that Ellsberg had more material pertinent to his administration that he fully escalated an effort to silence Ellsberg. Aside from the break-in at his psychiatrist’s office, the Plumbers planned a physical attack against Ellsberg at a rally. In his own autobiography, Gordon Liddy confessed that the Plumbers even considered lacing Ellsberg’s soup with LSD before a public speech, to make him appear like a nutjob.

This criminal campaign failed, and as it was exposed, so did the indictment against Daniel Ellsberg. To this day, Ellsberg remains an outspoken activist against war and secrecy, and in defense of whistleblowers like himself.

The verdict

Secrets is an essential account of how secrecy can turn a republic into an empire, at least where foreign policy and “national security” are concerned. As a book about the Vietnam War, it cannot begin to scratch the surface of the horrors inflicted upon the Vietnamese. But to understand how we can prevent history from repeating itself — how we can undermine the secrecy machine by supporting whistleblowers, and how we must demand transparency whenever our government kills on our behalf — Secrets is as timely and necessary as ever.

Disclosure: I work for Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Ellsberg is a Board member.


Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
4 stars
Provocative inquiry into the nature of human progress

As of this writing, James C. Scott is 81 years old. Best known for Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (reviews), he is an accomplished scholar of non-state societies. Near the end of his career, Scott is not pulling any punches. Against the Grain seeks to dismantle the standard civilizational narrative — that early state-based agricultural societies were part of a linear progression towards civilization as we understand it today.

Scott demonstrates that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that preceded sedentary agriculture was egalitarian, relatively peaceful, and allowed for significant leisure time, and that early human cultures combined a variety of approaches to survive. Beyond hunting and gathering, these included shifting agriculture, pastoralism (raising livestock and moving the herd in search of new pastures), and even sedentary agriculture, well before the emergence of states.

Our ancestors were opportunistic and looked for the quickest way to make a living. Agriculture wasn’t necessarily a response to population pressure — depending on the environment, it just offered a more reliable return than hunting and gathering.

In Scott’s narrative, the creation of what he calls “late-Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps” — settlements where humans, livestock, other domesticated animals like dogs, and domesticated plants lived together for extended periods of time — caused never before seen levels of drudgery and misery. The high population concentration led to disease and crop failures, and agricultural cultivation created tedium and reduced cultural complexity.

But it also created opportunities for those who accumulated power to attempt to preserve it. The settlements could be strengthened by abducting and enslaving nomads or members of other communities. By standardizing on cereal grains — “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’” — early states were able to sustain their bureaucracies (and increase elite wealth) through taxation.

A polemic against civilization

War and slavery were not inventions of the state, Scott acknowledges, but it is only through the concentrated power of early states that they could they be brought to a previously unseen scale. When state societies collapsed, many of the enslaved or coerced members (if they survived—a big “if” Scott glosses over a bit too readily) were better off. And state collapse occurred frequently, due to disease, war, starvation, rebellion, and other causes.

Meanwhile, the “barbarians” who did not join state-based societies (and who could not easily be captured because of where they lived) became more sophisticated, extracting tribute from the state — but also selling each other out to serve as mercenaries for hire.

Where Scott’s writing turns into polemic is when he dismisses the idea of “dark ages” (such as the Greek Dark Age or, though he barely writes about it, the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire). The fact that we don’t find monumental buildings, wall paintings, or a strong written tradition, he reminds us, doesn’t mean nothing of interest happened — after all (a point Scott repeats), Homer’s great epic was composed during a “dark age” and transmitted orally.

Scott persuasively marshals the evidence that concentration caused many new hardships, and led to societies which were frequently (if not always) deeply unjust. But he does not attempt to examine the arguments against dispersal, or for large numbers of humans living with each other in close proximity, sharing ideas and beliefs at a pace previously unimagined.

He dismisses “elite displays” such as monuments and temples, but does not write about roads, aqueducts, libraries, poverty relief such as the Cura Annonae, or any legitimate effort to better the life of a community’s members, if such life was organized partially through a state.

Indeed, the word “science” does not appear in the book’s index. Human progression that is the result of better understanding our world and applying that knowledge is too readily dismissed in an effort to keep the book true to its title.

Here, Scott’s book — so critical of ideological views of “civilization” — is itself ideologically committed to rejecting an evidence-based view. “But what of the slaves?” one can imagine Scott saying. “But what of the elites, enriching themselves?” Yes, but what of Euclid, Democritus, Ovid? What of the Library of Alexandria, or the Antikythera mechanism, or the art of Pompeii? What of the religious extremism that followed Rome’s collapse, and probably followed earlier collapses as well?

The verdict

Scott uses language not to obfuscate, but occasionally in ways I would describe as performative. Against the Grain makes frequent use of technical terms from agriculture and anthropology; the writing is dry (though suffused with a dark academic humor) and sometimes repetitive. What keeps the book interesting is its challenge to orthodoxies and its willingness to put things plainly when required, e.g., when writing about slavery.

Against the Grain does re-cast our understanding of history. Scott is correct to critique those who want to see linear progression in human history; a rise from savagery. Deep history that looks at the distant past of our species is crucial to get a clear picture of how we became who we are. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were far from stupid, and their minds were far from simplistic compared to our own, nor were their lives especially brutal or difficult.

History cannot be understood without examining the accumulation of power and resources, all too often including slaves and other coerced labor. If we want to build morally just societies, we must understand how this accumulation of power is at odds with moral progress, even as it has often enabled scientific or technological progress.

But here ends the usefulness of Scott’s book. The fact that his work celebrates the dispersed life beyond the reach of the state is perhaps precisely why his colleagues can celebrate him as an anarchist academic. His writing poses no threat to real systems of power, because it offers no alternative. It is an important read, but only as a starting point for developing a more nuanced understanding of the human story, correcting misconceptions in the common narrative still taught in schools. In the final analysis, Scott is a rebel without a cause.


4 stars
Facts and factoids about nature, elegantly illustrated

Julia Rothman is an illustrator from New York; in Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts & Pieces of the Natural World she expresses her love of nature through 223 pages filled with colorful sketches, brief explanations and descriptions.

The art is simple but elegant, conveying the most recognizable characteristics of a leaf, a mushroom or a butterfly in just a few strokes. The organization varies from page to page:

  • annotated illustrations (“anatomy of a flower”) with brief explanations;

  • illustrations without any text or explanation other than a species name;

  • illustrations with brief facts about a species (“Woodchuck: Woodchucks can climb trees if they need to escape”)

  • recipes and other offbeat material, e.g., instructions for printing plant patterns.


This kind of presentation is fairly typical for the book: elegant illustrations accompanied by one or two facts. (Credit: Julia Rothman. Fair use.)

Of course, the book can only sample the natural world (and it does so with a North American bias), but it does attempt to provide some broader explanations as well, e.g., about moon phases or the layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

Some of the text is in cursive, giving the book the feel of an intimate journal. That’s clearly the idea: making the complexity of nature less intimidating by focusing on its beauty and by conveying descriptions and explanations in a casual manner.

At the same time, this approach can no more than whet the appetite for more detailed explanations why nature is the way it is (for which speaking about evolution, which this book hardly does, is essential).

Is this approach suitable for getting young people excited about the natural world? I’m no longer a young reader, but if I was, I bet I would have been in equal parts frustrated and pulled in by this book; pulled in by its art, and frustrated by its failure to go beyond enumerating names and facts. I would give the book 5 stars for art and 3 stars for the text—a good purchase for extending one’s appreciation of the patterns of nature, if not necessarily for understanding them.

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