Matt’s Essential Reading List #2

Here is my second installment of what will eventually be 50 essential books I believe people should read.

One additional note first.  I realized that there is one other aspect of my criteria beyond what I mentioned last month. I am also using to choose these books: perspective.  It is kind of related to “subject matter” which I listed in my original post, but this is a little more specific towards trying to broaden worldview in order to see things differently than one normally might.  With that in mind, here is my next list of five books, and this month’s list will focus on perspective.

Reminder: a * denotes a book that is also on Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime list.


7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Self-Improvement/Philosophical

This book goes beyond the usual clichés and quick-fix approach to “self-improvement”.  The main premise of this book is an actual paradigm shift, a change in perspective, specifically changing our focus from “the personality ethic” to “the character ethic”, putting intrinsic values ahead of the superficial.  For example, not focusing on body posture and facial expressions to demonstrate paying attention to people in a conversation, but rather, actively trying to change our perspective in our relationships so that we really ARE paying attention to and trying to understand others.

Early on in the book, Covey discusses people having different perspectives in relationships and when facing similar situations, giving a great example of an image that changes depending on your perspective which is based on how you may have been visually “primed” before seeing the image.  Also, in our current highly charged partisan environment, it would be great for all of us to heed the advice of trying to change our worldview and seek “win-win” compromise solutions rather than the prevalent “win-lose” paradigm.

Overall, this book is simply a great resource for improving both your professional and personal lives.


*Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Fiction

For February, and Black History Month, I wanted to include a book from an African-American perspective.  Invisible Man has been named one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century.  What I personally appreciate about the book regarding the racial component, is how complex and nuanced it is about the topic.  As a white man, I expect books on racial issues to be rather simple and straightforward.  But this book delves into complexities of racial issues in academia, economics, political movements, and personal relationships, as well as the competing forces within the African-American community in the early 20th Century, before the Civil Rights Movement.

A few parts of the book can be a little abstract and difficult to follow, mostly the prologue and epilogue, but overall it has an excellent story that is easy to get into and compelling throughout.  While I obviously could never truly understand what it would be like to be a young black man in that time of history, Ellison’s story-telling provides an incredible feeling of empathy with the unnamed protagonist. It was to the point that I almost felt as though I was going through his struggles and frustrations alongside him; even though in reality, I could only just begin to imagine it.


The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics by Salena Zito and W. Brad Todd

Academic/Expository/Analysis

It was a struggle to find a non-biased book discussing the appeal and popularity of President Donald Trump to his supporters. The vast majority of books on the topic seem to be either blind adoration of Trump or condescending dismissal of his supporters as uneducated bigots.  This book was the only one I could find that seemed to thread the needle.  It has received positive reviews from Trump himself, as well as both his critics and his supporters in the media.

To be honest, the authors did not seem to be incredibly insightful, mostly just simply conveying the sentiments of different types of Trump supporters across the country, especially in the Rust Belt.  However, for the most part, they did provide general context and some decent guidance in understanding supporters’ perspectives in different groupings that the authors sorted.

Overall, in an era when far too many on the left dismiss Trump supporters out of hand, this is the best book for Trump critics to learn about his supporters as real people who feel they have been ignored, marginalized, and looked down upon for the past couple of decades.

*Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Biography/Memoir

An interesting tale of a young girl coming of age during the early days of the Iranian Revolution.  Her story, while with its own perspective and biases, gives a great overview and insider’s look at Iran’s history over about 60 years: from the Pahlavi House (the last Shah’s family) taking over the monarchy to their own downfall and the rise and early years of the Islamic Republic.  She speaks of her family’s role throughout this tumultuous history and the human suffering that they witnessed.

Persepolis is a graphic novel, and I wasn’t sure if I would include this style of literature at first, but I realized there are some great perspectives and stories in this medium and I will also include others in my list over time.


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Open (Fiction)Frankenstein (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Shelley, Mary]

(Side note: most of our popular conception of Frankenstein and his monster is not from the book.  It is mostly from the films of early Hollywood.  In the book, there is no Igor; no thunder storm bringing the monster to life while the mad scientist maniacally laughs; no pitchfork wielding villagers storming the castle, etc. So adjust your expectations.)

This book is a prime example of the importance of “perspective”.  While reading the book, I was not really a fan.  One writing style problem I had with the book, just to warn readers, was the pacing of the prose.  For example, Shelley would go into detail describing the landscape of a journey, sometimes a page or more, while more substantive action would be just briefly discussed, such as the actual moment the monster is brought to life only getting about two paragraphs. To be fair, that style of writing seems to be common from the time period. But that wasn’t my biggest issue with the book while reading it. However, after I finished, I read about the book itself and its reception, and I realized that when I looked at the story from a different perspective, the other major problem I originally had with it was maybe, in fact, the most impressive aspect of it.

Dr. Frankenstein is the de facto protagonist as the book, but he is an extremely weak and unsympathetic one.  However, if you take the point of view that the reader is supposed to actually empathize more with the monster, the book suddenly becomes pure genius.  It also helps if you know the backstory that Mary Shelley started writing it when she was 18 years old and had already had a difficult life (mother died when she was a baby, bad relationship with her step-mother, affair with a married man, loss of her premature infant daughter).  For me, Frankenstein then becomes the story of someone being enraged at their uncaring and selfish creator.  What is even more amazing: an 18 year old woman wrote this Gothic novel, that is also considered the first true science fiction story, 150 years before the concept of the angst ridden teenager was even a thing!

Socialist America, Courtesy of the GOP

Why is socialism suddenly in fashion? The Economist recently did a cover story on Millennial Socialism.   And Generation Z might even be more liberal. What explains the rise of Bernie and AOC popularity, especially among the young?  Most of my fellow Republicans would likely blame this on youthful ignorance or indoctrination by the media and education system.  However, if we Republicans claim to be the party of self-responsibility, why don’t we look at ourselves? Is it possible that instead of any nefarious forces “pulling” youth towards socialism, perhaps Republican actions have been steadily “pushing” them in that direction?

This may be a new folk tale: “The Party That Cried ‘Venezuela’”, because much like when the wolf finally showed up and nobody believed the boy who had been falsely crying “wolf” for so long, now that socialism is on the horizon, a new generation is ignoring the warnings because of the Republican party’s actions for the past few decades.

My personal prediction is that unless the Republican party changes course soon, the USA will be a socialist country by 2050.  Make no mistake, I am a free-market loving Republican, and I am in no way advocating socialist principles.  However, I recognize that the Republican alarmist rhetoric about socialism while ignoring real problems the nation is facing has led a new generation, that came of age after the Cold War, to think socialism may not be such a bad thing after all.

To be fair, I am not a political scientist, sociologist, an economist, so take my opinion for what its worth.  Most of this is based on my experience following politics and being a high school government teacher during the final years of the Millennial generation’s education.  I believe that Republican responses and efforts in four major areas have pushed Millennials towards the Democrats and Socialism: the Great Recession, Income Inequality, Health Care, and Climate Change.

First of all, it is important to remember that Millennials entered the job market during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  They then saw the financial system that caused the mess get bailed out while the new workforce entrants suffered.  Basically, they saw a major failure of the Capitalist system.  Then, this reflects poorly on Republicans due to who has been in power.  George W. Bush was president at the time of the collapse, and Republicans had been president for 20 of the previous 28 years.  And as much as Republicans love to blame Clinton for a variety of things, and often called him a Socialist (a common theme), in reality, if you compared Clinton to every other previous Democratic president since FDR, he was the least Socialist of them all, especially after the 1994 midterm elections.  Obviously, this way oversimplifies the reality and nuance of the political and economic situation, but it is important to recognize the perception.

As the economy slowly recovered from the Great Recession, it became obvious that there were two different recoveries.  While the rich were soon back to pre-recession levels, the rest of society was not faring so well.  Most likely, Republicans will quickly blame Obama for such a poor recovery.  While Obama’s effectiveness in the recovery can be debated, Republicans cannot fairly blame him for income equality if every time he tried to address it, Republicans would cry “Socialism” or “Class Warfare” and refuse to work with him.  We can’t have it both ways.

This discussion of Obama obviously leads to health care.  There is no denying that health care is an extremely complicated issue.  But unfortunately, it seems to be one that Republicans offer few comprehensive solutions for and have basically ceded the high ground to the Democrats.  Back in 2009-2010 when the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was being debated, the Republicans made it clear that they were going to completely oppose Obama’s efforts to reform the health care system, rather than work with him to find a compromise.  They did not want to give the ACA a “bipartisan” label.  Unsurprisingly, the common refrain was “Socialism.”  Here is where the problem really shows itself.  The Obamacare system is still the least “socialist” healthcare system in the developed world.  Instead of ensuring the program works, the Republicans have tried to undermine it, with varying levels of success.  The problem is that since the system is not working as well as hoped, it needs to be fixed.  Yet there isn’t a strong movement to go back to the way it was before Obamacare, now the big movement is towards “Medicare for All”.  Thanks to Republicans crying “socialism” and not working to find an effective compromise market-based health care solution 10 years ago, now a very real “Socialist” style health care system has a majority support here in the US.

These three examples have all followed the same storyline.  There is an issue facing the United States, the Democrats make proposals that are more government centered, possibly patterned on European programs, and then instead of trying to find compromise or discussing why such a program that works in Denmark may not work in the US and then offer specific market-based solutions, the Republicans take the easy path, cry “Socialism” and “Venezuela”.  The Millennial generation looks at social programs in Europe and say “We want that” and Republicans say “You want Venezuela”.  This has worked politically for the Republicans in the short term, but in the long-term, I believe it will prove to have been counter-productive in protecting a market-based society.

The other big issue is the Republican response to climate change.  Instead of promoting market-based solutions to climate change, Republicans have decided to deny it even in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus.  Every year that has some of the hottest global temperatures on record, and every winter that Republicans use snow to deny it, we lose more and more credibility.  The Green New Deal is over-the-top and naïve; that should not even be debatable.  But the problem is that compared to Trump’s winter global warming tweets in direct contradiction to climate science, the Green New Deal actually turns out to be the less ignorant choice between the two.  The Millennials and following generations are the ones that will deal with the results of environmental issues.  Why would we be surprised if they decide to support drastic Democratic government overreach to solve a problem when the Republican approach is to pretend the problem doesn’t even exist?

Admittedly, I have over simplified much of this for brevity.  There is a lot of nuance that would be difficult to cover in only a few paragraphs.  However, the general idea is that if Republicans truly want to prevent this country from becoming Socialist, we need to recognize the problems we are facing and offer strong market-based solutions to fix them, and then work with moderate Democrats to gain consensus.  We can no longer be the party that constantly cries “Socialism” for every Democratic proposal.  Because now that the actual wolf of Socialism is coming close, when it actually attacks, the American villagers may no longer believe us when we try to warn them.

Proud to be a RINO

I’m a Catholic.  I’m a farm kid.  I’m an athlete. I’m an engineer.  I’m a teacher.  I’m a traveler.  I’m a son, grandson, brother, uncle, and godfather.  And, most importantly (within the context of this blog post), I’m an American.

I’m also a Republican.  But that is different than those other identities I listed.  More specifically, I am a RINO: Republican In Name Only.  The difference is that every one of those labels I mentioned earlier is more important than the label of Republican.

All of those other aspects of my life help to define me, because they have shaped and molded me.  Because of the totality of their influences on me and my worldview, I find myself more closely aligned with the philosophy espoused by the Republican Party.  But being a Republican does not define or shape me.  I chose to be Republican based on my values.  I didn’t choose my values based on my being a Republican.  That is why my Republican identity is subservient to all those other identities.  It is why I put country (and family and faith and many other things) ahead of party.  It is why I am proud to call myself a RINO.

However, RINO has become a pejorative.  It is an insult hurled at Republicans who do not adhere strongly enough to party orthodoxy and leaders, as judged by those who believe themselves to be correct on all things with absolute certainty.  And the most egregious offense, worse than any small difference in economic or social policy, that we RINOs can commit is to consider Democrats as fellow Americans.  God forbid we listen to the other political party with respect or (gasp) try to find common ground with them.

The concept of a RINO, and what it means to be a “True Republican”, has been around for generations, ever since the intraparty fight between William Taft and Teddy Roosevelt.  But the vitriol has greatly increased over the past 25 years as hyper-partisanship has taken hold of our national discourse.

This kind of intraparty ideological fight is not unique to the Republicans, as can be seen now in the Democratic party, between the traditional wing and the “Democratic-Socialist” wing.  And such debate about the ideological direction of a party is both healthy and necessary. However, the false choice fallacy of “you are either with us or against us” is ludicrous and only serves to tear people apart.  Honestly, does that mindset work in any other functioning part of society? Why do we reward it in politics?

A Stanford study showed that Americans now identify with their party more strongly than other social groupings such as race and religion.  There is an understandable reason for this in that we more actively choose our political party than other identities according to the study.  By itself, this strong party identification is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, when you allow your party identification to define your values rather than the other way around, and when you ostracize and demonize those that don’t agree with you or don’t agree strongly enough, that is when it becomes dangerous.

To be fair, there are plenty of craven politicians and others who continuously change their positions and party identification depending on what will work best for their career.  Their “beliefs” go whichever way the political winds are blowing.  They have no moral conviction other than a lust for power.  They will sell out their supporters and “principles” for whatever is in their own self-interest.  These hypocrites should rightly be held to account.

That said, my being a RINO doesn’t mean that I lack convictions.  Just the opposite in fact, it means that I take ownership of my political beliefs and stand by them.  I am not going to sign over my conscience to whoever happens to be leading the Republican Party at the time out of blind loyalty.  My convictions and integrity mean more to me than my political label.

According to Gallop, currently, 25% of Americans consider themselves Republican, 34% Democrat, and 39% Independent.  That means that no matter what your personal political leaning, THE MAJORITY OF THE POPULATION DOES NOT COMPLETELY AGREE WITH YOU!

There are two ways to deal with that reality.  One way is to recognize that there is a variety of opinions and then try to work across those differences while still staying true to your deepest convictions; and on those points of deep differences in conviction, you work to respectfully persuade others, and hope for a breakthrough; all so we can continue to function as a free society. The other way is to hold fast to the belief that your way is the only way, and that others must either agree with you or be ground into submission; establishing a tyranny of your minority.

Obviously, I chose the former.  If you choose the latter, even if I happen to agree with you on most specific policies, I will oppose you on principle.  Because while I consider myself a Republican, that is just a political label, a name.  I am a Republican in Name Only; my true identify is American.

One Winter Night

Last week, the polar vortex came upon the Midwest, and temperatures plunged to their lowest levels in a generation.  While I was safe and warm at home, I began to think about those not as fortunate.  Those without their own shelter from the freezing cold.  I began looking online for opportunities to volunteer and help those homeless souls as they faced such dangerous conditions over the next few days, with temperatures around -10°F and wind chills down below -40°F.

Fortunately, there are many people much more forward looking than me and were already helping.  When I reached out to the local men’s shelter, they told me they were already set for the next few days.  However, as luck would have it, I learned that soon there would be a major fundraising and awareness event to support the local homeless services.  Even though it was only a few days away, I was able to get signed up as a volunteer for CU at Home’s One Winter Night.

The concept of One Winter Night is that participants pledge to each raise $1000 and spend one night sleeping in boxes on the streets of downtown Champaign.  Since I only found out about the event a couple of days in advance of it, I knew that as much as I would like to, I would not be able to participate as a box-dweller since I would not have time to find others as well as try and raise the money.  Instead, I volunteered to help set up the afternoon of the event and then to work security patrol that night.

That afternoon I set out chairs for box sites and helped put up banners around the area.  I was able to chat with some of the local community members that were volunteering and learn a little about them and their desire to help.  It was also a nice surprise to learn that among the volunteer organizers were the parents of one of my best childhood friends.  I spent many afternoons and evenings at their house in my youth but hadn’t seen them in probably 15 years, so it was nice to briefly catch up.

After finishing with the banners, I went home to eat and sleep for a few hours, as I would be doing the security patrol from 3AM to 6AM, the last shift of the night.  Unfortunately, because I was working that shift and needed to sleep, I missed out on the higher profile activities, such as the box-dwellers arriving, setting up, and collecting donations from passers-by; and the numerous speakers that gave presentations on different aspects of homelessness in the community.

The security shift was quiet.  Most of the action, as would be expected, was during the 12AM-3AM shift when the bars began to let out.  That was when there was a larger number of security volunteers to quell any disturbances which, from what I heard, were fortunately few and far between.   My shift, on the other hand, was simply myself and two other gentleman patrolling the streets to make sure all was calm while chatting amongst ourselves and occasionally going into the event headquarters to warm up, then finally waking everyone up at about 5:30 AM to begin packing up and go to the soup kitchen for breakfast if they wanted to.

The most significant aspect of the night for me, though, were two conversations I was able to be a part of.  Both were started by a co-volunteer on the security team that I just happened to join later.  Regardless of how they began, they were eye-opening first-hand accounts of the struggles of homelessness.

During one of our little warming breaks, after I had filled up a cup of hot chocolate, I walked towards the door where my colleague was chatting with a gentleman who was telling his story.  He had spent 30 years struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.  He wasn’t often “shelter homeless” as he put it; instead, bouncing around other people’s homes and spending more than a few nights in jail. When asked what the low point was to finally turn things around, he said there wasn’t a specific one, but rather a bunch of little ones, including stealing thousands of dollars from his mother to support his crack habit.  Around that time, he had come to believe that God hated him and he hated God in return.  Eventually, after one of his many arrests, he met with a social worker who helped him on the slow road to recovery.  He is just now coming up on four years of sobriety and helps to run one of the local shelters.

Upon finishing the wakeups, we walked over to the local soup kitchen for a hot breakfast after the cold night.  One of the security volunteers had begun speaking with an older gentleman by the event headquarters, and then I saw them sitting at one of the tables and joined them.  As it turned out, this gentleman himself was currently homeless.  I missed the beginning of his story, so I may have missed context and background.  However, what I did hear was a struggle of having lost his job and then trying to survive on part-time minimum wage jobs while paying child support.  He spent some nights in the shelters, but tried to stay with friend and family when he could.  I asked where he had spent the previous nights during the dangerous conditions.  He told us that he had stayed with his ex-wife.  He informed us of the humiliation of such a situation.  Not only is he unable to pay the child support, but he needed to depend on her for shelter.  “It makes you feel like less of a man,” he admitted.  We spent the breakfast generally trying to be supportive and encouraging.  And I wished him luck with his coming job interviews when I left that morning.  But I most remember the early moments when I had first joined them at the table.  The gentleman had already been talking with my co-volunteer for a bit, and was talking about seeing 300 people spend the night in the cold to raise oney.  His eyes watered as he fought the tears.

“I don’t think I’ve cried in 10 years, but it’s just so great what you all are doing to help people like us.”

-Photos are from CU at Home One Winter Night gallery and courtesy of Lisa Shreffler Photography and Holly Birch Photography

More Information:

Event website for One Winter Night.  (YOU CAN STILL DONATE!)   https://www.cuathome.us/one-winter-night/

Images from the event:   https://www.facebook.com/pg/cuathome.us/photos/?tab=album&album_id=2224058217655489

Local soup kitchen in Champaign  https://dailybreadsoupkitchen.com/

Below are national organizations that are dedicating to serving the homeless population in the United States

National Coalition for the Homeless  https://nationalhomeless.org/

National Alliance to End Homelessness  https://endhomelessness.org/

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth   https://naehcy.org/

National Health Care for the Homeless Council  https://www.nhchc.org/

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty  https://www.nlchp.org/