The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer is a beautiful and powerful piece of writing. It’s a Pulitzer-Prize winning debut from Viet Thanh Nguyen. Given the amount of critical support it’s received (The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Guardian), I won’t say too much.

Just that Nguyen does brilliantly creating a world that explores the inner dimensions of personalities and relationships, but is fundamentally linked to the broader world and its conflicts (in this case, the Vietnam war). This is particularly evident in how he paints a complex character, split between two worlds (Vietnamese and American).

That skill and writing ability has led to a number of comparisons to Grahame Greene. Nguyen himself seems very aware of those echoes – he has the protagonist complete a senior thesis on ‘Myth and Symbol in the Literature of Graham Greene.’

It’s a good book, and worth reading.




Neill Blomkamp’s first movie, District 9, was a cracker. A taut, beautifully crafted movie that did exciting things people hadn’t even thought of, and it deserved its critical applause.

Elysium is Blomkamp’s subsequent movie. It again centres on questions of power relationships between and within different groups. In Blomkamp’s beautifully rendered imagination, a future Elysium parallels the Greek conception of a place separate from mortal existence: an off-planet habitat where the wealthy live in luxury, and can access unmatched health technology. On the home planet, people live in squalor and suffer under an unjust system. The cinematography is stunning – it captures a chaotic world of dirt and dust and poverty, and it takes good work to capture that effectively.

Some reviews argue that the political message is too strong, or the structure too crude. It is in a sense no less political than Blomkamp’s earlier work, but here the focus is less on different species and races, than on differences between groups of people who control resources, and those who do not. The final action sequences felt slightly unnecessary to me, and perhaps the conclusion a little easy. But overall, this is still an excellent movie, and I recommend it.

I’m looking forward to seeing Chappie.

Ready Player One and Star Trek (2009)

Ready Player One is mildly entertaining, if you want something that’ll draw a part of your attention but not demand much. The writing is sloppy in the extreme, with none of the tautness or focus you’d expect from a polished piece of work. That style, which involves so much (unnecessary) telling rather than skillful showing, was reminiscent of some of the worse piece I read in a creative writing class I took.

The nostalgia porn is unnecessary and painful. As one reviewer over at Goodreads asks, why would you spend the 2040s obsessed with the 1980s? What a waste.

Star Trek has been around, in one form or another, since 1966. As someone who’d only ever seen half an episode of one of the TV shows, I came to the 2009 movie cold. It didn’t do much for me. Critics liked it, but to me it just felt like a sequence of improbable and unnecessary scenes, strung together along an awkward story line.

Fukuyama’s ‘The origins of political order’

I enjoyed The origins of political order quite a bit. Having said that, I’ll note two caveats. The first is that I came to the book as a reader without a background in political science or sociology. So it may be that the debate has moved on entirely, or someone has written a devastating critique of Fukayama’s approach.

The second is that I read The origins of political order over several months, with gaps between putting down and picking up again. So for various reasons, it was a disjointed read.

That said, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s an impressive, detailed piece of work, tackling an important and interesting question. In trying to understand how political systems develop, Fukuyama does the work that the question deserves.

He grounds it in a biological theory of humans (see some of the notes and quotes below), which I think is a useful starting point, clearly setting out some of his assumptions. Without having read them too critically, they seem reasonable.

From there he moves through an extensive set of historical analyses, focussing on multiple comparisons internally. This is laudable. It’s far too easy to tell a ‘just so’ story, simply starting from Greece or London, to get to modern democracy. Much harder to work comprehensively across multiple empires, and try to think logically about how different systems have emerged in such different ways. This is a fascinating and enjoyable part of the book, and well worth it for the insightful sections on different kingdoms (China, India, Persia, Ottoman Turkey, and many more).

Fukuyama rejects the Marxist idea that physical conditions determine the social order – instead he argues that ideas can be close to free floating, and significantly influence society. It’s good to see that assumption clearly stated. I haven’t thought through the question well enough to have a well thought through position, but it seems a defensible starting point.

He’s been criticised extensively for his ideas about ‘the end of history‘. But those critiques needn’t detract from this book, which stands on its own. It’s a voluminous read, and not a light one, but it’s well worth it.

Notes and quotes

Political institutions develop, often slowly and painfully, over time, as human societies strive to organize themselves to master their environments. But political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances. There is something like a law of the conservation of institutions. Human beings are rule-following animals by nature; they are born to conform to the social norms they see around them, and they entrench those rules with often transcendent meaning and value. When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise, there is often a disjunction between existing institutions and present needs. Those institutions are supported by legions of entrenched stakeholders who oppose any fundamental change … There is unfortunately no institutional guarantee that the system as designed will always check tyrannical power yet allow exercises of state authority when the need arises. The latter depends in the first instance on the existence of a social consensus on political ends, and this has been lacking in American political life in recent years. (p. 7). 

Over time, elites are able to protect their positions by gaming the political system, moving their money offshore to avoid taxation, and transmitting these advantages to their children through favored access to elite institutions … There is no automatic mechanism by which political systems adjust to changing circumstances. (p. 9). 

The purpose of this book is less to present a history of political development than to analyze some of the factors that led to the emergence of certain key political institutions. A lot of historical writing has been characterized as ODTAA–“one damn thing after another”–without an effort to to extract general rules or causal theories that can be applied in other circumstances. The same can be said of the ethnographies written by anthropologists, which are highly detailed but deliberately shy away from broad generalization … The overall framework for understanding political development presented here bears many resemblances to biological evolution. Darwinian evolution is built around the two principles of variance and selection: organisms experience random genetic mutation, and those best adapted to their environments survive and multiply. So too in political development: there is variation in political institutions, and those best suited to the physical and social environment survive and proliferate. But there are also many important differences between biological and political evolution: human institutions are subject to deliberate design and choice, unlike genes; they are transmitted across time culturally rather than genetically; and they are invested with intrinsic value through a variety of psychological and social mechanisms, which makes them hard to change. The inherent conservatism of human institutions then explains why political development is frequently reversed by political decay, since there is often substantial lag between changes in the external environment that should trigger institutional change, and the actual willingness of societies to make those changes … In the end, however, this general framework amounts to something less than a predictive theory of political development. A parsimonious theory of political change, comparable to the theories of economic growth posited by economists, is in my view simply not possible. The factors driving development of any given political institutions are multiple, complex, and often dependent on accidental or contingent events. Any causal factors one adduces for a given development are themselves caused by prior conditions that extend backward in time in an endless regression (pp. 22-23). 

What I am aiming for in this book is a middle-range theory that avoids the pitfalls of excessive abstraction (the vice of economists) and excessive particularism (the problem of many historians and anthropologists). I am hoping to recover some of the lost tradition of nineteenth century historical sociology or comparative anthropology (p. 24). 

Human beings are rational, self-interested creatures, and will learn to cooperate out of pure self-interest as economists assert. But beyond this, human nature provides certain structured paths toward sociability that give human politics its particular character. These include: 

  • Inclusive fitness, kin selection and reciprocal altruism are default modes of sociability. All human beings gravitate toward the favoring of kin and friends with whom they have exchanged favors unless strongly incentivized to do otherwise. 
  • Human beings have a capacity for abstraction and theory that generates mental models of causality, and a further tendency to posit causation based on invisible or transcendent forces. This is the basis of religious beliefs, which acts as a critical source for social cohesion. 
  • Humans also have a proclivity for norm following that is grounded in the emotions rather than in reason, and consequently a tendency to invest mental models and the rules that follow from them with intrinsic worth. 
  • Human beings desire intersubjective recognition, either of their own worth, or of the worth of their gods, laws, customs, and ways of life. Recognition when granted becomes the basis of legitimacy, and legitimacy then permits the exercise of political authority (p. 43). 

Popular assemblies originated in the need to adjudicate tribal disputes. The Illiad’s account of the shield of Achilles describes a dispute over the blood price for a slain man, argued before a crowd in a marketplace, and a final verdict being read out by the tribe’s elders. (p. 71). 

If we define tribe more broadly to include not just kin claiming common descent but also patrons and clients linked through reciprocity and personal ties, then tribalism remains one of the great constants of political development … Tribalism in this expanded sense remains a fact of life. India, for example, has been a remarkably successful democracy since the country’s founding in 1947. Yet Indian politicians are still heavily dependent on personalistic patron-client ties to get elected to parliament. Sometimes these ties are tribal in a strict sense, since tribalism still exists in some of the poorer and less-developed parts of the country. At other times, support is based on caste or sectarian grounds. But in each case, the underlying social relationship between the politician and his or her supporters is the same as in a kinship group: it is based on reciprocal exchange of favours between leader and follower, where leadership is won rather than inherited, based on the leader’s ability to advance the interests of the group. The same is true of patronage politics in American cities, where political machines are built up on the basis of who scratches whose back and not some “modern” motivation like ideology or public policy. So the struggle to replace “tribal” politics with a more impersonal form of political relationships continues in the twenty-first century (pp. 78-79). 

Fukuyama argues that the Catholic church deliberately promoted practices that helped it accrue property, and in the process elevated the status of women:

Whatever the case, the church systematically cut off all available avenues that families had for passing down property to descendants. At the same time, it strongly promoted voluntary donations of land and property to itself. The church thus stood to benefit materially from an increasing pool of property-owning Christians who died without heirs. The relatively high status of women in Western Europe was an accidental by-product of the church’s self-interest. (p. 238).

Other quotes I made a note to mark down were:

The rule of law rests on the law itself and on the visible institutions that administer it – judges, lawyers, courts and the like. It also rests on the formal procedures by which those institutions operate. But the proper functioning of a rule of law is is as much a normative as an institutional or a procedural matter. The vast majority of people in any peaceful society obey the law not so much because they are making a rational calculation about the costs and benefits, and fear punishment. They obey because they believe that the law is fundamentally fair, and they are morally habituated to follow it. They are much less inclined to obey the law if they believe that it is unjust …

… how can a mere institution constrain the rich and powerful if they don’t at some level believe in the need for self-constraint, or at least in the need to constrain others like themselves?  … Religion was essential to the establishment of a normative legal order that was accepted by kings as well as by ordinary people (pp. 260-261). 

The rule of law in its deepest sense means that there is a social consensus within a society that its laws are just and that they preexist and should constrain the behavior of whoever happens to be the ruler at a given time (p. 263). 

The separation of powers between an executive and a judiciary is only metaphorical. The executive has real coercive powers and can call up armies and police to enforce his (or her) will. The power of a judicial branch, or of religious authorities who are the custodians of the law, lies only in the legitimacy that they can confer on rulers and in the popular support they receive as protectors of a broad social consensus (p. 282). 

The very lateness of the European state-building project was the source of the political liberty that Europeans would later enjoy. For precocious state building in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannize their populations more effectively. Every advance in material well-being and technology implies, in the hands of an unchecked state, a greater ability to control society and to use it for the state’s own purposes. (p. 323). 

The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the state’s subordination to the rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the end of the eighteenth century … The specific routes by which they [individual countries] got to this outcome differed substantially from that of Britain, but it is sufficient to recognize that once this package had been put together the first time, it produced a state so powerful, so legitimate, and friendly to economic growth that it became a model to be applied throughout the world. How the application of that model has fared in countries lacking the specific historical and social conditions of Britain will be the subject of the second volume of this work (pp. 420-421). 

Notes on the final chapters

Fukuyama summarises the foundation for his theoretical approach in the final chapters.

The biological foundation of politics:

  • Human beings never existed in a presocial state
  • Natural human sociability is built around two principles, kin selection and reciprocal altruism.
  • Human beings have an innate propensity for creating and following norms or rules.
  • Human beings have a natural propensity for violence.
  • Human beings by nature desire not just material resources but also recognition.

Ideas as cause:

It is impossible to develop any meaningful theory of political development without treating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and follow distinct development paths. In social science terms, they are independent variables … 

The general mechanism of political development:

  • Political systems evolve in a manner roughly comparable to biological evolution … the forms of political organization employed by different groups of human beings have varied, and those forms that were more successful – meaning those that could generate greater military and economic power – displaced those that were less successful. 
  • … in political evolution, the units of selection are rules and their embodiments as institutions, rather than genes as biological evolution … variation among institutions can be planned and deliberate, as opposed to random. 
  • The third way political development differs from biological evolution is that the selected characteristics-institutions in one case, genes in the other-are transmitted culturally rather than genetically. 

He focuses in on institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”. “The disjunction in rates of change between institutions and the external environment then accounts for political decay or deinstitutionalization.” Failures of institutions to adapt can occur because of a failure to correctly identify the problem, or because of ‘repatrimonialization’ – a return to a system based on kinship, or patrimony.

He notes the problem that’s been set out by Mancur Olson – societies can fail to adapt to new challenges, by making changes that would be a net benefit to society, because powerful groups will lose out and therefore fight the change, or prevent.

Fukuyama argues that in a Malthusian world, gains through increased productivity are effectively zero. Gains for groups therefore come primarily from predation – he includes both conflict and taxation under this heading. In modern contexts, he argues, intensive economic growth through productivity gains is possible.

The key pieces to a modern political system, he argues, are a strong state, rule of law, and accountability. These can emerge independently, and aren’t necessarily entirely co-dependent.

Popstar and Zootopia

Popstar – because sometimes you need humour that pitches to a seventh grade level, and does it reasonably well. Not stretching, but has its moments.

Zootopia – is an interesting one. Is a very contemporary reflection on the distinction between what’s inherent, and what is part of our choice to define ourselves. ‘Anyone can be anything’. Judith Butler would be proud.

In that sense, the story feels a little easy. It doesn’t meaningfully engage with the idea that identity is entirely a choice. The most mildly interesting structuring is how a vulnerable group uses perceptions of power to attack a powerful group. There is no connection to real, underlying power structures here – or a discussion of why if predators only number 10 per cent of the population, they seem to hold the key positions of power. Instead we’re left with the triteness of these concluding lines:

I thought Zootopia was this perfect place.
Where everyone got along,
and anyone could be anything.
Turns out, real life is a little bit more
complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker.
Real life is messy.
We all have limitations.
We all make mistakes.
Which means, hey, glass half full,
we all have a lot in common.
And the more we try to
understand one another.
The more exceptional each of us will be.

How underwhelming.

Between the world and me

I’ve been a fan of TNC for a while, and I finally got a chance to read Between the world and me on a recent plane trip. I told myself early on that I wouldn’t highlight powerful passages, because the prose is so taut. There are no wasted words, and every sentence packs a punch.

I’ve put some of the sections I highlighted below. Suffice to say that this is a powerful book, and one that’s very much worth reading. I’d put it at the top of every list.

Oh, and it was a Pulitzer finalist and TNC’s received a MacArthur grant.


Perhaps being named “black” had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named “black” was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah. 

Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance – no matter how improved – as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope. 

A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered in the singular action of exceptional individuals. “It only takes one person to make a change”, you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen. 

And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life. 

At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. 

The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream. 

Her disposition toward life was that of an elite athlete who knows the opponent is dirty and the refs are on the take, but also knows the championship is one game away.