Smart and provocative—essential reading for political activists and policy wonks of any stripe.

THE POLITICAL MIND

WHY YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND 21ST-CENTURY POLITICS WITH AN 18TH-CENTURY BRAIN

Of neural modeling, X-schemas, neurotransmitters and Dubya—signposts on the culture war whose “main battlefield is the brain.”

Reality, Stephen Colbert famously remarked, has a liberal bias. Yet liberal think-tanker Lakoff (Cognitive Science and Linguistics/Univ. of California, Berkeley; Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, 2006, etc.) sets out to prove that we are a great deal less rational than we believe ourselves to be. Sure, reality has a liberal bias, and “American values are fundamentally progressive,” but the radical right has been winning that culture war at least in part because its tacticians have had a better grasp of our reptilian, fear-driven, emotional inner demons and played to them. “Cut and run,” the author notes by way of example. “Can you not think cowardice?” Borrowing a page from the late sociologist Erving Goffman, Lakoff examines a series of “framing issues,” the ways in which stories are told and political objectives laid out such that the outcome cannot help but favor the framer. Consider Iraq, for instance: All it would take would be for a skillful narrator to rejigger the frame, and suddenly our occupying army has need to stay for decades, the measure of victory being the guarantee of the safe flow of oil to America. “If the country broke up into three distinct states or autonomous governments,” Lakoff adds, “that too might be ‘victory’ as long as oil profits were guaranteed and Americans in the oil industry protected.” The frame is everything: By one frame Anna Nicole Smith is a gold-digger, by another a rags-to-riches success story; by one frame George Bush is a white-knuckle alcoholic, by another a redeemed sinner. The task for progressives, Lakoff asserts, is to start framing the stories better, outside of the narrative confines of the “Old Enlightenment,” lest the right continue its work of dismantling democracy without the left making a peep. The task is also to find an identity—as, Lakoff notes, Barry Goldwater so successfully did as a “biconceptual” conservative—and live up to it.

Smart and provocative—essential reading for political activists and policy wonks of any stripe.

Pub Date: June 2, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-670-01927-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2008

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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