Blue Gargantua (bluegargantua) wrote,
Blue Gargantua

The Underground Handbook Review


So the ad-hoc bookclub is reaching the end and people are beginning to talk about stuff so let's get some reviews out of the way.

We start with the ad hoc book club book for January, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It was quite the best-seller in 2016 (and Oprah really liked it), so we decided to give it a whirl.

In the 1820's, Cora is a slave in Georgia. She's a bit of an outcast because her mother ran to freedom and Cora violently defends her only inheritance, a small garden plot, from another slave. Cora doesn't mind too much and lives in a shelter with other women deemed "not right". For the most part, Cora keeps her head down and when newcomer Caesar asks her to come with him in his own flight to freedom, she initially turns him down. When life on the plantation takes a decided turn for the worse, she changes her mind.

The book isn't strictly historical (I suspect that some of the events she encounters weren't from 1820 although they easily could be), but it only really stands out when you discover that the underground railroad is, in fact, an actual underground railroad that ferries people through the dark to new places. Cora and Caesar travel from Georgia to South Carolina and it seems to be a much better place, but the chains are simply gilded. Cora is forced to move on when Ridgeway, a professional slave catcher, shows up. Ridgeway failed to capture Cora's mother and so has a personal interest in returning her to her owner.

There follows a series of events as Cora moves from place to place, but the underlying theme is that there really isn't any safe place in America for black people. In fact, the ending is a tad ambiguous in that we never really find out Cora's fate, unlike many of the other less-fortunate characters in the book who often get their own small chapter explaining their fate or background.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book, although I'm much more fond of Lovecraft Country in terms of talking about America's racial problems. In part, because it covers a lot of interesting (to me) issues like how do we enjoy the creative products of racist assholes and in part because the protagonists of Lovecraft Country exhibit a lot of agency. Cora is mostly buffeted about by the winds of fate. Obviously, she makes the decision to run and she does take drastic actions at times to keep running, but it's always a snap decision and it's clear there are times where if she hadn't caught a lucky break, she would've been dragged back to the plantation or succumbed to her own misery.

All of this isn't the best for a strict narrative (we want our heroes to take decisive action and rally from setbacks), but it probably says something more truthful about slavery and those subjected to it. Maybe it should feel unsatisfactory and a little unfinished, since that's where racial issues are right now.

I will say that I was reminded that Colson Whitehead also wrote The Intuitionist about a black elevator inspector and that is a terribly misleading description for what was an amazing book. If you were in ad hoc and thought Underground Railroad was good, you'll definitely want to read The Intuitionist.

Next, a youtube video brought The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. The two political scientist distill their research into how and why leaders make the decisions they do. Like many of these books, the answer is one that took them 18 years to work out and most of us would simply cynically spout off -- leaders want to gain power and then stay in power and everything else they do arises out of that.

In particular, leaders have essential supporters who must be kept happy or they won't support the leader and then the leader won't be leader any more. In non-democratic societies, this is usually a small circle of nobility, family or tribal members, economic or military leaders, or some other small but important group. The upshot is that the leader will only do what it takes to make them happy and no one else (since the members of his small circle can crack down on any dissent). Conversely, in democracies, a politician has a large number of essential supporters (i.e. voters) and to keep them happy, a leader has to support a lot of public goods (police and fire, clean water, good schools, etc.). If he can't keep enough voters happy, he gets kicked out.

This is all well and good, but like a lot of soft sciences, they provide some simple theoretical examples and then proceed to apply the concepts to everything without accounting for the complexities of the real world. In particular, they claim that leader's can't really pursue any policies that don't keep them in power (i.e. that don't cater to their core supporters). However, a leader can use their power to convince their supporters that a pet project of the leader (a war, a change in taxes, an environmental policy, etc.) is something good for their supporters and then they can do what they want because they've convinced their supporters it's what they want too.

They advocate democracies because having a large group of essential supporters forces leaders to help out as many people as they can, but they also acknowledge that leaders want to reduce that group of essential supporters. In fact, the very first real-world case study they open the book with is about how a democratically elected group of town directors reduced their essential supporters to a small block of voters and proceeded to write themselves huge, fat, legal checks. When they talk about ways to increase essential supporter sizes, they don't really talk about how to incentivize leaders to keep increasing that group of essential supporters. Though they do talk about gerrymandering and abolishing the Electoral Collage -- there's not a lot of discussion on how to convince the people who got where they are thanks to those things to give up their winning ticket.

Likewise, they discuss how corporate governance could be improved by using the internet to connect small shareholders and organize them in to a large voting block. The problem is that many corporations are set up so that the essential supporters hold a majority share. The other problem is that most people don't own stocks to run a business, they own it as an asset they hope to see grow over time. There are activist investors who rail against overpaid CEOs and bad business practices and the like, but can they reach and organize every small investor to build a commanding block? I'm not saying they can't, but again, it doesn't seem likely. Mostly it just seems like they're short on answers.

The book is, however, an intriguing lens in which to view the recent elections. Sanders didn't rely on big donors and Trump self-funded a fair chunk (and wasn't terribly beholden to traditional political backers in the first place). Both platforms also directly told voters to ask establishment politicians "what have you done for me lately?" and if they didn't like the answers....

I hope someone else reads this book so I can discuss/argue about it with them. I seem to have a lot of criticisms, but I think that just means they present an interesting case that deserves reading and discussion.

Tags: book review
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