An anti-despair reading list

The world, it seems reasonable to assume, is fucked. Between climate change, the revocation of nuclear arms deals left and right, and the fact that an increasing number of the world’s most powerful governments are being run by greedy cryptofascist dullards, it seems like we’re moving in a dark direction as a species. It would be easy to fall into despair, to grow helpless.

This, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is unnecessary. But perky web articles and cute, “Hang in there buddy!” memes aren’t really going to keep you going. To stay clear-eyed and full-hearted over the next few decades of your life, you’re going to need to build a coherent worldview, and you can’t cobble that sort of thing together with short-form pick-me-ups. To do that, you need books, and you need art.


I do not claim to be an expert, but I have managed to pull myself out of a depression over the past couple of years, and I have started viewing the world a bit differently as a result of it. This, in large part, has been because of key books I’ve read. So here is one man’s reading list for fighting despair in dark times.


British writer John Higgs’ 2015 masterpiece is billed as “an alternative history of the 20th century.” Britain, at the beginning of the 20th century, could reasonably have been considered the center of the world. To a Brit in 1901, the world made sense.

Then relativity and quantum mechanics changed everything we thought we knew about science. Modernism, surrealism, and dada pulled the rug out from under art. Totalitarianism rose, wars became potentially world-ending, we started launching men into space, our economy grew so fast it threatened to consume the earth, and we became so interconnected that we could see what was happening on other continents in real time. In the midst of all of this, Britain stopped being the center of the world. Its Empire was gone a mere half century after its peak.

This unmooring of everything in the 20th century that had been real and certain before 1901 was (and is) baffling and traumatic for many people. But Higgs offers a new way of thinking about it, a way that may help us start to understand where we now are. America, the most powerful nation in the world in 2001, and now a mere 18 years later indisputably in decline, could learn a thing or two from Higgs and the Brits.

This is a beautifully written book detailing 25 lessons we can learn from the history of nonviolence. It explains how “turn the other cheek” was actually a statement of civil disobedience in biblical times, it explains how Gandhi believed that, if you must choose between violence and doing nothing to change things, you must choose violence, it goes into Martin Luther King’s perceived radicalism in the United States in the 60’s (and why people claiming MLK would have “done things differently” from activists now is complete and utter garbage), and it goes into how the Cold War was ended not by Ronald Reagan shaking his fist at the Berlin Wall, but by thousands of dissidents working tirelessly over the course of decades.

Politics can seem impenetrable to common people a lot of the time, but Kurlansky’s book shows that creative nonviolent efforts undertaken by ordinary people have changed things for the better again and again over the course of history. Violence may be inescapable in this world, but we can choose to reject it.

This is the best possible follow-up reading to Kurlansky’s Nonviolence. In it, Chenoweth and Stephan detail why it is nonviolence is so effective. They went through every major resistance campaign of the 20th century, and found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as effective as violent campaigns.

There are a few reasons for this: First, if you run a nonviolent campaign, you are likely to get more people to join than a violent campaign. Second, it is easier for a regime to oppose a violent campaign than it is a nonviolent one: armed rebels can be fought and executed, peacefully protesting civilians are much harder to shoot on (not impossible to shoot on, as history sadly shows us, but the blowback from murdering innocent people is pretty steep). And finally, when nonviolent campaigns win, they tend to transition to more peaceful and less authoritarian forms of government.

This book is packed with practical lessons for dissidents, and with justifications for changing things peacefully. As it turns out, you don’t need guns to change things. You just need to make it so things staying the same is more expensive for the rich and powerful than it is for them to change.

Rebecca Solnit’s 2004 book was written in response to the invasion of Iraq and the reelection of George W. Bush, a pretty bleak time in American politics. Now, 15 years later, it is essential reading. Solnit, like Kurlansky, is excellent at providing an alternative view of history and offers a glimpse of the path forward. In it, she quotes Czech poet and dissident Vaclav Havel, who, when he wrote this in 1985, was in prison.

“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Four years after writing this, Havel was no longer in jail. He was, in fact, the President of Czechoslovakia. Things change.

Science books are essential for staying curious in dark times, because they remind us how fucking weird the universe is. Rovelli’s 2017 book The Order of Time explains what quantum physicists now know to be the case about time: basically, everything we think about it is wrong. It is not the linear, machine-like thing we imagine it to be as we watch the hands of the clock tick through the day. In fact, only a single equation in physics references its existence. The way we see it moving has more to do with our perception than it has to do with the nature of time itself.

Rovelli is a brilliant science writer, on the same level as Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and this book is essential for fighting despair because it’s hard to feel hopeless at the state of the world when you realize you don’t understand a fucking thing about it. Nothing beats fear like curiosity, and nothing pulls you out of despair quicker than wonder.



Kurt Vonnegut is the all-time master of compassionate humanism. Slaughterhouse-Five is an extremely dark book (it’s about World War II and the firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut was present for as a Prisoner of War), but it manages to also be an incredibly humane story that will, if nothing else, make you feel a little bit gentler towards other humans.

Like The Order of Time and Jerusalem (also on this list), it will have you thinking about how time works, and if we maybe don’t really understand any of this at all.

If that’s the case, then we’re all mucking about down here. None of us really know what we’re doing, the universe is a mystery, and death comes to us all. So it goes.

This remains the most rewarding thing I’ve ever read, but I don’t recommend it to many people, because it is nearly 1200 pages long. Alan Moore is best known for his comics V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and From Hell, but this 2016 book is his magnum opus.

It takes place in Northampton, England, Moore’s hometown, and it jumps around in history, from the 19th century to the end of the universe. Chapters are written from the perspective of Moore’s family members, the daughter of James Joyce, Charlie Chaplin, and the Archangel Michael, among others. Some chapters are written as poems, others as plays, others as pulp fiction. About 400 pages of the book take place over the 10 minutes it takes for a 2-year-old boy to choke on a cough drop (and they are a staggeringly good 400 pages).

The book makes this list in particular because of its sprawling, original vision of life and the afterlife. If you, like me, have abandoned the idea of a heaven and hell, if you do not see any paradise beyond your death or human extinction, then Moore offers a wild, surreal alternative that will make you rethink the world and your place in it. It is a spectacular piece of writing, and incredibly fun to read, if you don’t mind taking a couple of months to get through it.


Daytripper is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, and you can finish it in an afternoon. It is a comic book written by twin brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, and it covers the life of Bras de Oliva Domingos, a Brazilian obituary writer. Each day covered in the book is an important day in his life, and at the end of each of these days, he dies. 

It is a beautiful meditation on life and death. It is one of those books where you finish it and just sit quietly with it for a few minutes.

We tend to organize our lives around these big moments, but it is the small ones that end up defining us.


The Cold War inevitably gave rise to a lot of excellent post-apocalyptic literature, but A Canticle for Liebowitz stands out as one of the most striking and one of the most hopeful for a society on the brink of a different type of cataclysm. The plot is simple: After a nuclear war between Russia and the US, the survivors go around burning all books and murdering intellectuals and academics, claiming (perhaps not unreasonably) that it was knowledge that brought us to this point. 

A Jewish Engineer named Liebowitz working at an army base begins smuggling books containing the entirety of man’s scientific knowledge out to a nearby Catholic abbey in the desert. They are entrusted with keeping this information quietly, to return it back into mankind’s hands when we’ve finally learned our lessons. The book follows the abbey over the course of the next 1700 years.

The book is a thrilling one for us to read now because it imagines life beyond a disaster, and it depicts morality as something that must always be grappled with, regardless of the technology at our disposal.


Steinbeck’s magnum opus isn’t The Grapes of Wrath — it’s East of Eden. It is in one sense a retelling of the book of Genesis, but set in Steinbeck’s home, the Salinas Valley. The question at the core of the book is an eternal one: are we fated to be good or evil? Or do we have a choice?

It’s a staggeringly good book, with one of the greatest villains in literature, and with central characters who were actual family members of Steinbeck’s.

The conversation at the core of the book came from Steinbeck’s mistranslation of a Hebrew Bible, but it won’t matter, you’ll want to tattoo “Timshel” onto your wrist at the end anyway.

Set aside the 12 years that have passed since the seventh book came out. Set aside J.K. Rowling’s need to constantly modify her books to make them more “woke” after the fact, set aside that she can be kinda shitty on Twitter, set aside that every new movie feels increasingly like a cynical cash grab, and just take the first seven books on their face.

They are amazing guidebooks for people (especially young people) going through tough times. I re-read all seven after Trump’s election, and they worked incredibly well as a pick-me-up.

Separating the art from the artist is probably a fool’s errand, but a flawed person can certainly write some brilliant stories.

Something missing that helped you through dark times? Should I have done His Dark Materials instead of Harry Potter? I totally should have, right? Well this is a living document. Let me know your favorite with a sentence or two explaining why and I’ll add it to the list. I’ll also take poetry and music.

What's wrong with "we probably live in a simulation"

In 2003, 30-year-old Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper in Philosophical Quarterly titled “Are you living in a computer simulation?” The paper came out the same year as The Matrix sequels, and it caused a stir. 

In 2018, the idea is primarily known through its most prominent proponent, eccentric billionaire Elon Musk. When Musk talks about it, he bases his point on the improvement of video games over time — we had Pong in the 70s, we have incredibly realistic 3-D games now. What if we keep improving in that direction? "If you assume any rate of improvement at all,” he said in an interview with Joe Rogan, "then games will be indistinguishable from reality, or civilization will end. One of those two things will occur. Therefore, we are most likely in a simulation, because we exist.”

Elsewhere, he has been quoted as saying, "There's a billion to one chance we're living in base reality."

Americans in particular eat this shit up. We love eccentric billionaires. You must be an outside-the-box thinker to get rich, we assume, and Musk is a billionaire, so this weird shit must by why. On top of this, Elon Musk, much like Donald Trump or Beyonce, is an internet click-getter, so clickbait articles have repeated this over and over again, and if you spend enough time starting fires on the internet, you’ll bump into a Musk bro who’ll shout at you about how we’re living in The Matrix.

The problem, of course, is that the picture Musk paints is a pretty massive misreading of the simulation hypothesis, and a total misinterpretation of Bostrom’s argument. What Bostrom really said is far more interesting (and far more troubling) than what the clickbait headlines have suggested.

What if we’re all, like, pawns, in some giant alien’s game?

Nick Bostrom. Photo courtesy of the Future of Humanity Institute.  Creative Commons  license.

Nick Bostrom. Photo courtesy of the Future of Humanity Institute. Creative Commons license.

First, Bostrom's paper did not say that we almost certainly live in a simulation. He said that there are three possibilities, and that at least one of them is very likely true. They are:

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage (which is to say a stage where we could run high-fidelity simulations);

  2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);

  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Bostrom has suggested elsewhere that he thinks each is probably equally likely, but that’s not something he fixates on in the paper, as it’s not something you can really prove.

The third possibility gets the most play, and it goes like this: If it’s possible to run simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, then a human within the simulation wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s even possible humans within those simulated realities are also running simulations, and humans in those are running simulations, and so on. 

Given how many simulations might be running within simulations (it could get to a near-infinite number), then most sentient humans would actually be simulations, and not living breathing organic beings.

There’s a sort of dizzying but coherent logic to this thought. It’s an idea that has an almost religious feel to it: there’s especially comfort in the idea that we are currently living in an alternate history where Donald Trump was elected president because some jackass future human thought, “Let’s see what happens if we make this bullshit happen." In a world where a supernatural interventionist god is becoming less and less believable to a lot of people, a computer simulation feels like a rational, understandable alternative to a sentient Creator who’s crashing stars together and lighting bushes on fire.

The thing is, you have to get over one very controversial hurdle to even get to the first two points, and then you have to get through possibilities one and two, which is no small task. In fact, to my thinking, point one and point two are far more interesting than the third. So let’s go through it.

A big assumption: Do our brains not matter at all?

At the very beginning of his paper, Bostrom makes an admission: he’s assuming what philosophers call “substrate independence.” This is why everyone hates philosophy. It’s an overly academic way of saying that consciousness can be simulated without actual, physical brains; that our software doesn’t require our hardware. 

This is not a given. No one has really figured out what consciousness is yet. It’s one of the core mysteries of philosophy: what the hell are we? What is our experience of the world? And can it be replicated? If we build an artificial intelligence that can do all of the mental processes that we can do, it may behave as if it’s conscious, but is it?

This is what Descartes meant when he was saying, “I think, therefore I am.” When it comes down to it, the only thing you can know for certain is that you exist. You can trust other humans when they say that they have thoughts, feelings, and deep internal lives, but when it comes down to it, you can never know. You can only trust. Would you be able to trust the same coming from an intelligent computer?

Say you’re running a simulation of a human life, and you have that simulation walk out into the rain. Does the simulation feel that raindrops hitting its face? Does it feel its clothes getting wet? Or does the program running it just say, “I feel the rain on my face”?


If you believe in a soul or some sort of ghost in the machine, this is an impossible hurdle to overcome. But even if you don’t, it’s still not a done deal. There may be some hitherto undiscovered feature of the brain that gives rise to what we experience as consciousness. It may be a feature that a computer program could not replicate. For you to be a simulation, you who are experiencing actual human consciousness as you read this article, software must be able to replicate consciousness without the actual presence of a human brain. 

It’s not crazy to think that this is possible. But the issue is not settled, and, if we’re being totally honest and are taking a fairly rational skeptical viewpoint, it never will be, just as you can’t be totally sure right now that anyone else besides yourself experiences consciousness. And they have the same bodies and brains as you. It’s much less of a leap, but even then, it’s not a puddle you’re jumping over, it’s a chasm.

You need to make this assumption, this leap of faith, before you even start looking at the rest of the thought experiment. So let’s just make it and move on. We already got this far, so Jehovah starts with an “I,” middle finger to the gods, let’s ride eternal shiny and chrome. We’re doing this.

Point One: Humans might never have the ability to simulate the universe in this much detail

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.

The first part of Bostrom’s trilemma has a few parts to it: first, it might just not be possible to simulate the universe to the degree of detail in which we currently see it. There is an absolutely immense amount of information in our universe, and simulating it would require an unfathomably large amount of computational power.

Our technological advancement over the past few centuries has been impressive, but a study out of Oxford found that, even using quantum computing, you'd basically need a computer bigger than the universe to simulate the universe. And that's just the size, it says nothing about the amount of energy you'd need to power that computer. Even if you tossed away most of the universe and just looked at what we've observed as individuals, the computer required to simulate our experiences would be infeasibly enormous. 

There could be some future innovation or workaround that would solve this problem, but there's no guarantee that there will be. It may just be impossible. Bostrom himself admits that we’re not currently there technologically, and proposes a few workarounds, but they’re all a bit… distant. He suggests we could totally redefine physics with a theory of everything, or that a few thousand years of technological discovery "will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers.”

Those fatal errors are rough, man.

Those fatal errors are rough, man.

That is a big ask. I am as turned on by the idea of a star computer as the rest of you, but that is not coming soon. Which raises the point — can we survive for that long? Even setting aside possible manmade calamities like climate change, nuclear war, superviruses, robot takeovers, nanobot “gray goo” scenarios, or particle accelerators accidentally creating a black hole, we still face the external threats of meteor strikes, the Yellowstone caldera exploding, or, you know, aliens.

We might just not make it to star computers.

The Fermi Paradox

Possibility #1 is, I think, the most likely option in the trilemma. The reason I think this is something called the Fermi Paradox.

Enrico Fermi was an Italian-American physicist, and he noticed that, if you look at the sheer size of the Milky Way Galaxy, it is extremely likely that there is not only a lot of life out there, but that there are a lot of human-level civilizations out there, and potentially a lot of human-level civilizations that have developed the ability to travel in interstellar space (this high probability is based on something called the Drake equation, which I don't have time to get into here, but which you should Google, because it is fascinating.).

Even given the enormous distances from one end of the galaxy to another and the relatively slow pace of interstellar travel, Fermi reasoned, enough time has passed that we should have been contacted by extraterrestrials by this point. He found no convincing evidence that we had, so, he said, "Where is everyone?"

From  xkcd .

From xkcd.

One possible explanation is that intelligent life tends to destroy itself shortly after it acquires the ability to travel outside its own solar system. Technological innovation occurs in conjunction with all other human events, and it may be that the type of society that can master the ability to split atoms and launch itself into space must also be an inherently unstable one.

It may be that the technology those civilizations need, like nuclear power, can be weaponized and that this tends to destroy those civilizations before it can fling them out safely and sustainably into space. Or it may be that these civilizations rely, as we do, on an economy based on exponential growth, which inevitably pushes the civilization up against its environmental limits, causing it to collapse.

It would seem that the universe’s silence is speaking volumes.

Bostrom himself is most concerned with superintelligence and how it might destroy us to preserve itself. He literally wrote the book on it. Naturally, as soon as the book came out, Elon Musk started talking about how superintelligence is potentially more dangerous than nuclear war, which is like saying the hungry tiger five feet in front of you is less dangerous than the aliens from Independence Day which, while technically true, is contextually stupid. Whatever. We don’t have time for it. Moving on.

Putting "should" before "can."

2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).

This possibility is, to me, the most interesting -- why, we might wonder, would a civilization not choose to use this power? I know for sure that if I had this power, I would play with it in all sorts of ways — I’d want to see what would happen if you made Africa the continent with guns, germs and steel, I’d want to see what would happen if you had Hitler hit by a horse and buggy when he was five, I’d want to see what would happen if Donald Trump had showed up at the third presidential debate with pinkeye. 

And that’s just me — history nerds everywhere would lose their shit by moving a bullet a few inches to the left at the Battle of Trafalgar, saving Admiral Nelson, or by keeping Salieri away from Mozart, or by making the smoke and mirrors a bit more conspicuous during Jesus’s miracles. Fantasy nerds would introduce dragons, horror nerds would introduce zombies. Thirsty housewives would create a world of only Colin Firths, bros would fill the world with pornstars, and 5-year-olds would push the meteor onto a different orbit and keep the dinos alive.

We, as a species, absolutely lack the restraint to not do this. So what future version of us wouldn’t? 

The first possibility is that it would take a lot of energy, and we wouldn’t want to spend it on dicking around with alternate timelines. We’d need it for our important jobs of crashing big stars into bigger stars, or for developing a test that determines who is a human and who is a Cylon. In Bostrom’s argument, the computers he’s proposing are the size of planets. Maybe if we can pull shit like that off, we’re not that interested in alternative histories anymore.

But the second possibility is the one I like the most: my suspicion is that, for a civilization to advance to such a point of having that power, it would need to learn to draw a thick line between "can" and "should."

Scientists over the past few centuries have made enormous strides, and many of these strides have noticeably improved our lives. But at the same time, a lot of these new technologies have put the human race at serious risk. We’ve already gone through most of these so far, so no need to rehash — but might a civilization that survives be a civilization that learns a bit more discretion? Might a sustainable, long-lasting civilization be one that learns how to do without certain luxuries, and to just take certain parts of life as they come?

Our civilization has very obviously not learned this lesson yet, and it seems increasingly unlikely that we are simply going to science our way out of our problems.

Thought experiments and reality

A final note to make here — throughout time, certainly long before the invention of computers, humans have played around with some form of this thought experiment. In a more superstitious era it took the form of, “Is all we see just a demon playing tricks on us?” In a more Frankensteinian era, it was “Are we just a brain dreaming in a mad scientists jar?”

No matter which version you choose, the results are always somewhat similar, but they are invariably fun to play around with. That is the point of thought experiments. They push you into corners and make you think your way out. But there is always a problem with mistaking a thought experiment for reality: thought experiments were usually conjured up by smartass philosophers to make some sort of broader point about the nature of reality and of being human. 

And that’s the issue: reality does not exist to prove your point. It is far more complex and weird than we are capable of grasping. To take a thought experiment that is basically saying, “Things may not be as they seem,” and to say, “Well, the thought experiment is how it really is, then,” is to miss the point entirely.

Billionaires will always have the need to make themselves sound edgy and cool, especially if their billions are contingent on getting Venture Capital and government money thrown at them constantly, but if something sounds implausibly weird (and, you know, a bit like something you’d talk about while stoned), it’s worth examining a bit more closely.

Yes. We could be living in a simulation. We could also be on the brink of extinction. We could be on the cusp of learning something important about responsibility and restraint. All three are possible futures laid out in front of us. The point of the trilemma is to ask: which do we want? And how do we get there?

If this topic is interesting to you, the science podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage did an excellent panel on it featuring Bostrom, neuroscientist Anil Seth, physicist Brian Cox, and the comedians Robin Ince and Phil Jupitus. You can find it here.

Featured photo by Steve Jurvetson.

What dick pics can teach us about human morality and climate change denial

When I was 25, I moved to London to study human rights. It was a very millennial decision. There was a recession going on, I was living on and off with my parents, and I couldn’t find a job in journalism because nearly every paper in the country was cutting staff or shutting down, so the only alternative to continuing to live with my parents was to go to grad school.

Human rights seemed like the most decent thing I could dedicate my life to fighting for (if not the most profitable) so I went into debt and moved to a different country.

The only honest approach to any academic field of study is to first take what you think you know and tear it down. This is one thing when you’re studying economics or chemistry. Most topics of study are abstracted enough from our daily lives that if a professor were to kick open the door to the classroom on the first day and say, “SIT BACK, MOTHERFUCKERS, AND FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT ROBOTICS!” most of us would be like, “Okay, sure, done.” It would not ruin our day.

It’s an entirely different thing when what you’re studying is your very moral bedrock, the thing that has influenced all of your decisions in life, including the very expensive one that brought you into this classroom in the first place. 

The problem with human rights is this: they are intended to be universal laws that protect human dignity. But in any real metaphysical sense, there are no such laws. They exist only as a social construct. You might not agree with me. If you, for example, believe that there’s a God who told us what is right and wrong centuries ago, or if you believe that morality can be determined through the use of logic, then you could reasonably reject what I just said.

But you can’t reject this: even if there are universal moral laws, we can’t agree on what they are. They may be “self-evident” to you, but to many other selves they are not evident. When confronted with what, to you, is the clearest, most common sense moral dictum, many people just say, “naaaaahhhh.”

The Golden Rule

Let’s take the least controversial moral law out there. The one that is subscribed to by Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, and atheists alike. 

Norman Rockwell’s famous 1961 painting, “The Golden Rule.”

Norman Rockwell’s famous 1961 painting, “The Golden Rule.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t that sound perfect and simple? This is a rule that has arisen independently in many cultures and many religions, both theistic and atheistic, and it is an excellent rule to live by. But it is not universal. 

There is a 21st century phenomenon that derails the logic of the Golden Rule. This phenomenon is the sending of unsolicited penis photos to women in dating apps, or, as they are colloquially known, dick pics. 

Dick pics, nearly everyone agrees, are repellent, but they follow the logic of the golden rule.

The dick pic sender is basically saying, “Hello, kind stranger, I would like to see naked pictures of you. Here, as a sign of good faith, is such a picture of me.”

Should you protest at the sudden “OH GOD, THAT’S A COCK” of it all, the dick pic sender could reasonably respond that they were simply treating you the way they’d like to be treated.

The loophole in the golden rule is a pretty glaring one, and it’s obvious enough when you take a second to look at it: not everyone wants to be treated in the same way. So while the Golden Rule is an excellent method for encouraging empathy and the ethical treatment of others, it is not a rule that can be applied in every situation. In certain situations (especially those of the sudden penis variety), the ethical thing to do with the Golden Rule is to abandon it.

Nothing is universal

You can find exceptions to pretty much all of our moral laws, and the task of studying human rights is essentially a job of demarcating the boundaries between good moral laws (i.e. free speech that allows marginalized people to find a voice without government interference) and bad ones (i.e. free speech that allows troglodytes to make anonymous online rape threats against feminists).

Human experience is so varied, so wildly diverse, that to expect one rule to be applicable to everyone in every situation is absurd. Such a law would have to be so vague as to be meaningless. Even something seemingly harmless, like “Honor thy father and mother,” breaks down, for instance, when you’re Eric Trump.


Most people, likewise, can find instances where murder is excusable — because you’re protecting your family, because you’re preventing someone else from getting killed, because you’re hungry and he’s not pulling his weight on the life raft, etc.

This view is usually called “moral relativism” by its detractors, but the opposing philosophy, moral absolutism, has done more damage by far. The absolutists count among their numbers Hitler and Stalin and Dick Cheney. To them, the world is divided into right and wrong and they always happen to be on the right side. This provides a pretty clean excuse for dropping bombs on and torturing your opponents. How many Americans blink twice at the knowledge that the bombs we’ve dropped in the “War on Terror” have regularly, even routinely, killed innocent children? Bring up the Atomic Bomb and Hiroshima, and see how many Americans reflexively say, “Well, it saved millions of American lives." They never just say lives. They say American lives.

A moral relativist is going to have a harder time being quite so sure that the mushroom cloud is justified, and might think twice about doing it. God, can you imagine if we dropped a single bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and our justifications weren’t sound?

This approach also allows what you consider to be moral to change over time and according to context. Circa 1791, it made sense to enshrine the right to bear arms in your country’s founding document because you just won a revolution and are afraid of backsliding into tyranny. 228 years later, when guns can fire bullets ten times faster, when those bullets are frequently piercing the bodies of children, the morality of this stance makes less sense. To everything there is a season.

This idea, that there is no such thing as top-down morality, is terrifying to a lot of people. But there is a better way of thinking about it.

A different type of morality

The primatologist and humanist Frans de Waal argues, in his excellent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, that if we look to our genetic cousins the chimps and bonobos, we will see that moral behavior exists in the natural world without reference to reason or rationality or towards any religious belief.

Which is not to say primates are not capable of reason and rationality, because they very much are. It’s just to say that their moral behavior comes from elsewhere. So any attempt to base human morality on “reason” is misguided.

de Waal writes:

“The confusion seems to stem from the illusion that all we need for a good society is more knowledge. Once we have figured out the central algorithm of morality, so the thinking goes, we can safely hand things over to science. Science will guarantee the best choices. This is a bit like thinking that a celebrated art critic must be a great painter or a food critic a great chef…

The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover ultimately comes from religion. It doesn’t really matter whether it is God, human reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that humans don’t know how to behave and someone must tell them. But what if morality is created in day-to-day social interaction, not at some abstract mental level? What if it is grounded in the emotions, which most of the time escape the neat categorizations that science is fond of?…

My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.”

If we accept this — and I think that we obviously should — we have to accept that we can’t just piece together morality sitting alone in our rooms and thinking about it, or analyzing a book that The Lord sent us, but that we have to get out into the streets and talk to other people about what we want to be as a community, as a people. 

This requires of us both the openness to be able to hear each other’s stories in good faith, and the vulnerability to be able to tell our own. It requires that we be honest with each other about who we are, and be brave enough to stand up against what we think is wrong. None of that is easy, but no one ever said it was. And when you start talking to people, when you get to their experiences and away from their political talking points or inherited ideology, you’ll usually find that they are less stupid, less stubborn, and less ignorant than you think.

When we talk to each other, we learn: Our morality is not up there in the ether. It is down here, in the spaces between us.

Moral curiosity in the face of a cold, unfeeling universe

When I finished my course in human rights, I felt winded. There seemed to be no moral footing for me anymore, nothing to keep me from sliding towards a terrified state of nihilism and despair. Over the next few years, I sunk into a pretty deep depression that I didn’t begin to escape until I was in my 30’s. The world was just so fucking complicated. How, I wondered, can one live when nothing is certain?

The answer ended up being that you do not need certainty to live, and that the alternative to certainty is not nihilism, it's curiosity. Curiosity is the only worthwhile way of confronting the universe, because seriously, in the words of comedian Pete Holmes, life doesn’t make any fucking sense. So we might as well have some fun with it. We might as well explore.

This is the solution, by the way, to all of your totally unproductive political arguments. You think you can beat ignorance with knowledge? Hell no. Ignorance doesn’t give a fuck about knowledge. Because ignorance isn’t an absence of knowledge, it’s a protective shell constructed against scary knowledge.

Think, for a moment, what your conservative elderly parents or grandparents would have to do to accept a) that climate change was coming, b) it could very well lead to the collapse of civilization in their children’s lifetimes, possibly resulting in their starvation or murder by Mad Max-style War Boys, and c) that everything they ever did or believed in contributed to this oncoming catastrophe.

What do you think their response to, “Well, if you look at the climate science and the weather patterns in recent years…” is going to be? Might it be “FAKE NEWS!”? Might it be “LIBERAL CONSPIRACY!”? Do you think it might be, “I’m just going to deny this until I die, because to accept it would actually kill me."

I am telling you right now, I have a 1-year-old, and when I stop and think about what climate change could do to her sweet little face, I want to put rocks in my pockets and walk into the sea. Your parents denial of your liberal or left-wing political views is not just ignorance, it is a deathly fear that if you are right, they have destroyed your life. You! The thing they love most in this world!

You’re not going to beat that with facts. You couldn’t beat that with A Clockwork Orange, Ludovico-technique-style brainwashing. 


You might beat it with curiosity. People can get to base-level curiosity pretty quickly, and from there, it’s possible to change minds. Curiosity is a backdoor to open-mindedness.

You’re going to die, you might as well accept that. Life, if you choose to look at it that way, is a goddamn meat-grinder. So while we’re here, we may as well be kind to one another, we may as well be curious. And that means asking questions, listening to other people, and believing each other. On that basis alone, life isn’t so bad, even if it doesn’t make any fucking sense.

John Steinbeck, Kate Tempest, Abraham Lincoln, and making sense of Donald Trump a year later

A few weeks before the election last year, I predicted that Donald Trump was going to lose, but that we'd still have to face the people we knew and loved who had voted for him. I wrote:

He’s so fundamentally terrible that, when friends or family members support him, I’ve started to think things I’ve never thought before: “Are they okay? Is voting for Trump a good litmus test for basic human decency?”

Because it’s hard to see a Trump supporter and not see a person who appears to be callously, casually lobbing grenades into the homes of the women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and democracy enthusiasts in their lives.

The morning after he won, someone who had read that article emailed me at 6 in the morning telling me to kill myself. Facebook had erupted. Friends who were trying to process what had just happened, who were shaken to their core with grief, were using social media as a support group, all while being sniped at by their Trump-supporting friends and relatives, whose rage had not seemed to dissipate with their victory. 

The overwhelming feeling was one of despair, and it was most electrically, most heartbreakingly expressed in a poem by British artist Kate Tempest, that started making the social media rounds post-inauguration, set to a deeply disturbing, deeply moving video. 

I am quiet, feeling the onset of riot
Riots are tiny though, systems are huge
The traffic keeps moving, proving there's nothing to do

'Cause it's big business baby and its smile is hideous
Top down violence, a structural viciousness
Your kids are doped up on medical sedatives
But don't worry 'bout that, man. Worry 'bout terrorists!

The water levels rising! The water levels rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!
Stop crying, start buying
But what about the oil spill?
Shh, no one likes a party pooping spoil sport.

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John Steinbeck on America's fundamental disconnect

I could not -- and cannot still -- fully grasp the decision to vote for Trump. I know the platitudes that the American left has come to parrot, that Trump voters were driven by anger and ignorance and fear, that Russia rigged the election, that it was a fluke brought on by James Comey, but none of these excuses have ever felt sufficient to me. See, I know Trump voters -- they sit with me at holiday dinners and treat me with kindness and decency. They buy me drinks, they take interest in my life, they give me hugs instead of handshakes. They are people I love.

The biggest challenge for me has been reconciling the people I love with the rage I feel towards their actions. Recently, we held a baby shower for our daughter, who is due to be born a few days before the one year mark of the Trump Inauguration. A room full of family and friends -- many of whom I know voted for Trump -- showered us with gifts and generosity that, frankly, we really needed. 

But seated in a pile of gifts, I found myself ungraciously wondering why, if so many of these people were so invested in my child's future, they'd voted for (and still supported!) a dangerously unstable man who was threatening the world with a nonsensical nuclear war that literally no one wants. Why they refused to accept the science of climate change, or at least were willing to ignore it for a modest tax cut that would only marginally improve their lives in the short-term while drastically worsening our daughter's in the long term. Why kindness, generosity, and compassion could be extended to us, but not to anyone outside our small little group. 

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Over the course of the past year, this disconnect, this chasm between belief and action started appearing in everything I looked at, on the right and the left, in my friends, in my family, and in myself. Our values, I came to suspect, were not something by which we lived, but something to which we merely gave lip-service; psychic lullabies which, through repetition, would help us get to sleep at night.

 This disconnect, it seems, is nothing new: In his 1945 book Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck wrote a passage that could now be applied explicitly to Trump:

“It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” 

The problem, it seems, is not that we have the wrong values, it's simply that we refuse to live by them, or failing that, to even examine what living by them would mean. We fail our values constantly. And when we fail our values, we open ourselves to claims of hypocrisy, claims which those of us on the left simply cannot shelter ourselves from.

To have integrity means to not be divided against oneself. How many of us can say we have integrity? How many of us can say that we live what we believe? If we are to truly believe in things like kindness, generosity, and honesty, we may have to radically reimagine what the world should -- and could -- look like. We may have to radically reimagine what we ourselves should -- and could -- look like.

Solzhenitsyn on the line separating good from evil, and Lincoln on the end of America

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet dissident and writer of The Gulag Archipelago, wrote:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil. 

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."

The work, it seems, must start at home -- in ourselves and in our communities. It is in this, a year on, that I have found a glimmer of hope -- where I live, here in New Jersey, a year after the election of maybe the worst person in America to its highest office, we elected we locally gave both of our town council seats to Democrats, we flipped our conservative district's State Senate seat away from a long-standing GOP incumbent, and we elected a governor who is in favor of public banking, treating immigrants like actual human beings, smart gun control, and marijuana legalization.

I have still not figured out how to handle the rage I feel at Donald Trump's election, but I have done a better job, over the course of the year, at figuring out how to spread the targets of my rage around more justly. His election does not fall exclusively on the people who voted for him. It falls on the people who, like myself, were complacent with an unjust system because it benefitted them. It falls on the people who, like myself, failed to fight racism and bigotry in their own homes and communities. It falls on the people who, like myself, chose to dismiss the suffering of others as inevitable, rather than choosing to do something about it.

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In Abraham Lincoln's 1838 Lyceum address, he discussed what could possibly bring down the United States.

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

We shall see which we end up choosing.

Featured photo by astoller.

5 books you should read for Earth Day

TOMORROW IS EARTH DAY. So why not pick up a good book, head outside, and find a nice tree to read under? Here are a few suggestions.

The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

James Lovelock is the inventor of the Gaia Theory, a scientific framework that sees the earth as a self-regulating system that's somewhat akin to an actual living being. For a long time, it was dismissed as a hokey, New Age-y theory, but it is slowly becoming more accepted.

His 2006 book about climate change is almost apocalyptically scary. It makes the argument that we may still be able to stop the worst of climate change, but that it will take immediate and decisive action. It's particularly frightening to read now, 11 years on, and to know that climate change denial is still a major problem. If you need a book to light a fire under your ass, this is it.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

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As a thought experiment in 2005, journalist Alan Weisman asked the question, "What would happen to our civilization if every human being disappeared all at once?" In 2007, he published this book, breaking it down in fascinating detail. Our pets would become feral, our homes would quickly become reclaimed by nature, and our cities would collapse in on our sewer systems. Some of it would happen blindingly fast -- some of it would last for eons.

It's easy to imagine that the world revolves around us. But life on this planet may well outlive humanity. And Weisman's beautifully written book gives us a glimpse into what that would look like.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

"Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The narrator of Daniel Quinn's 1992 book Ishmael answers the ad and finds that the teacher is, in fact, a telepathic gorilla. The gorilla takes him on as a student and forces him to answer the question: what if humans aren't the pinnacle of evolution? What if humans aren't "above" any other form of life?

What follows is one of the most intensely interesting philosophical books ever written. It will make you reexamine your entire relationship with the natural world, and question the very basis of modern civilization.

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore

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Alan Moore's breakthrough run as the writer of the Swamp Thing horror comic is truly spellbinding. In it, he tackles the problem of good and evil, plant morality, the dangers of industrialization, the fight against the apocalypse, and even the sex lives of swamp creatures. It is exciting and thoughtful and it has this incredible lesson which straight up blew my mind when I read it:

"If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bank, the roots, the worms of the Earth. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil… is aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil, in all the wood? ... perhaps evil is the humus formed by virtue’s decay and perhaps, perhaps it is from that dark, sinister loam that virtue grows strongest."

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey is the environmentalist movement's angry uncle. The anarchist and pacifist worked for a couple of years as a National Parks ranger at Arches in Utah. During this time, he wrote his masterpiece, Desert Solitaire, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about the natural world that you will ever read. If, on this Earth Day, all you really want is to get in touch with the world around you, this is the book to pick up.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo by Steven Guzzardi

Broaden your horizons: Read books by people who are nothing like you

A FEW YEARS AGO, I wrote an article for Matador about the best travel books to read while traveling. I was super proud of it, and then, of course, a friend commented: "Kind of a lot of white dudes on that list, huh?"

My initial reaction was to be supremely annoyed. "Oh, just… goddammit," I thought. "Can it not be about that just this once?" But I opened the piece back up and read through it -- every single one of my ten authors was a white male. I felt a little uncomfortable, so I went onto my Goodreads account, where I keep a categorized list of every book I've ever read, and I checked.

Nope. With zero exceptions, every single travel book I'd ever read was written by a white man. Which got me thinking -- why? I've read comparatively few books by women in my life, but there's no good reason for it. They certainly haven't been of lower quality. I don't think there's anything about white men that makes them inherently better at writing than women or people of color.

So why had I never picked up, for example, Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost? Or Cheryl Strayed's instant classic Wild? Hell, even Eat, Pray, Love would've broken my shameful no-ladies streak.

Your reading choices influence you in subconscious ways.

When it got down to it, my two favorite travel writers, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, were very much like me. Both were raised in the same general area as me (I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio, Thompson was born a short drive away in Louisville, and Hemingway's from Illinois), both trained as journalists like me, and both were wounded idealists.

In short, they didn't take me at all outside my comfort zone. Everything I read of theirs electrified me by how right it all felt. And that helped me gloss over some of their less likable features. Hemingway was a drunk and a misogynist and a bit of a brute. Thompson blew his talent by taking WAY too many drugs. Both were plagued by depression and eventually killed themselves. As I started to slide into a mild depression myself, I started to worry. I loved their writing and wanted to write like them, but I did not love their end.

What we choose to read affects the way we see the world. A recent study found that children who read Harry Potter were more likely to be empathetic and kind towards groups that they did not belong to. This shouldn't be too surprising: Potter writer J.K. Rowling used to work for Amnesty International, and is a tireless opponent of racism and classism. Indeed, anti-discrimination and kindess is the main theme of the entire seven-book series. The books we read shape us in often unseen ways.

Women, people of color, and foreigners

After the "no women" incident, I decided to make a concerted effort to get more women into the rotation. I still have a pretty dismal record -- of the books I've read, only 9.5% were written by women. That's up from around 6%, though.

Then, after the 2016 election, I realized that there was still a staggering lack of people of color on my list. Aside from a few obvious, big-name writers -- Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz, and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- the list was basically a string of pasty white.

Finally, just this week, my colleague Morgane Croissant told me something that shocked me: In the English-speaking world, about 2 to 3 percent of what publishers put out are translations. In France, the number is 27%. In Spain, it's 28%. We English speakers, it seems, just aren't that interested in reading books from other cultures.

There were more foreigners on my reading list than women or people of color. But I realized, as I read through them, that the foreigners were responsible for a disproportionate amount of my favorite books. Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's classic vampire story, Let the Right One In, Russian Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Chinese writer Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Danish writer Carsten Jensen's swashbuckling epic, We, the Drowned, Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges' unbelievable Labyrinths collection… the foreign-language books I'd read were almost uniformly amazing.

The reason why seemed obvious -- if you're reading a book in another language, it's probably one of the best books in the other language. It has to be, to be one of the miniscule number of books that are translated to English.

Studies suggest that, to your brain, reading a book can be more or less indistinguishable from transporting you into the body of another person. As George R.R. Martin put it, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one."

There are, no doubt, a lot of great white male writers. But why live a thousand lives entirely like your own? Why not live a thousand different lives?

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

4 banned books from around the world you should absolutely read

I WAS ABOUT 10 YEARS OLD, and I had discovered my Dad's tattered old copy of Stephen King's truly terrifying vampire book, 'Salem's Lot. I was hooked -- I wanted more spooky stuff. So I went into the library and found Carrie, and walked up to the counter.

"You can't check this out," the librarian said.

"Why?" I asked.

"You're too young."

My mom took it. "I'll check it out for you."

"I can't really do that," the librarian said, "I know it's for him."

Look -- it may have been a good idea to not give a 10-year-old a book about periods and mass slayings, but I remember seething as we drove home that day. "I'm definitely reading it now," I thought.

Governments ban books for any number of reasons: sexual content, religious blasphemy, racism, and violence, to name a few. There are such things as books that some people should not read (the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion comes to mind). But the act of banning a book is always a terrible idea. It not only crushes free speech, but it elevates the book and it's author to martyr status, which often is the exact opposite of what the banner wanted.

This week is Banned Books Week, so in honor of the written word, here are 4 books from around the world that you should totally read.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi -- Banned in the US

Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran, and grew up during the Iranian Revolution. In her classic autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, she tells the story of growing up as a feminist punk in deeply conservative country.

So you're thinking -- this would have been banned in Iran, right? Well, it was never actually published there, so in a way, yes -- but it was banned in Chicago. Administrators pulled it from public school libraries citing "graphic language and content inappropriate for children."

The backlash was swift, and Satrapi publicly objected to the censorship. School officials eventually pulled back, allowing some copies in the schools.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque -- Banned in Nazi Germany

Erich Maria Remarque's famous anti-war book about the grinding, brutal fighting in the WWI trenches was a bit too realistic for Hitler. The Nazis banned the book for allegedly denigrating the German war effort and for being a "degenerate book." Fascists tossed All Quiet on the Western Front into some of their earliest book bonfires.

Remarque, himself a veteran of WWI, had to flee Germany, but his sister stayed behind. In 1943, the Nazis arrested her and said, "Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach -- you, however, will not escape us." They beheaded her for "undermining morale."

Remarque lived to the age of 72. His book on the destructiveness and senselessness of war lives on still.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie -- Banned in Iran

Rushdie's 1988 book is perhaps the most famous banned book of the 20th century. Nominally, it was banned in many Muslim countries because it was blasphemous towards Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran even put a fatwa out calling for Rushdie's murder. But the Ayatollah was probably more upset about a chapter that mocked him specifically.

Rushdie had to spend years in hiding as a result of the fatwa. Today, the story around The Satanic Verses is now better known than the story within the pages of the book itself.

The book itself is a pretty incredible, bizarre, magical realist book in the vein as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's worth reading for its strange, almost indescribable story alone. But even if you don't love it, at least you're pissing off the Ayatollah's ghost.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak -- Banned in the USSR

The Soviets banned a lot of books. One of the most illustrative examples, though, was Boris Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak's book is a sprawling, epic novel taking place in early 20th century Russia. The central story is a love story, but the book is also critical of the Russian Revolution.

Pasternak had friends smuggle the book out of Russia in order to publish it. The next year, Pasternak was offered the Nobel Prize for Literature, but turned it down, worried about reprisals from the Communist Party. They threatened to both not allow him to return home if he went to collect the prize, and to send his mistress to the gulag. The book wasn't published until 1988 in the USSR.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

How "badass librarians" saved Timbuktu's priceless books from terrorists

THE WORLD'S CULTURE AND HERITAGE HAS always been protected by an unlikely group of people: librarians. Back before the internet, libraries were the place where knowledge was kept. And prior to the printing press, that knowledge had to be written directly onto paper. Because making copies would have been an infinitely more laborious process, fewer copies existed, meaning that it was much easier for knowledge to be totally lost if, say, the library was burnt down or if a document were misplaced. So the position of librarian was an incredibly important one.

Today, we think of librarians less as defenders of human culture, and more as a middle-aged woman shushing children. But their original function remains. Case in point: the badass librarians of Timbuktu who saved priceless manuscripts from marauding terrorists.

The story is covered in Joshua Hammer's new book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts, and it covers the events following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya in 2012.

After the Arab Spring, many jihadists were able to get their hands on Libyan weapons. They took the weapons and invaded Northern Mali, instituting a sharia regime in Timbuktu. Timbuktu is an ancient capital, and was once a great intellectual center in West Africa. It housed many ancient and priceless manuscripts that, for one reason or another, would have been targeted by Islamic fundamentalists, and likely would have been destroyed.

As the jihadists, acting under the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, started to destroy Sufi shrines and cultural artifacts that were deemed to be heretical, a Timbuktu librarian named Abdel Kader Haidara began smuggling the artifacts out of the city. Haidara was the perfect man for the job -- he had been given the task decades earlier of going out and finding as many of these manuscripts as possible. It had been a difficult job, as many were held in remote villages or by private families, but Haidara had eventually amassed 377,000 manuscripts.

The librarians smuggled all of those manuscripts out of the city, little by little, in donkey carts and cars, in boats and in taxis, 600 miles over the desert to Mali's capital of Bamako in the South. The books are still being held in Bamako, where Haidara says he'll keep them until things calm down in Timbuktu. In the meantime, he's digitizing them and preserving them so that, if Bamako were ever to fall to the jihadists, the knowledge preserved in those manuscripts would be safe.

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

6 documentaries you can stream online that will make you a better global citizen

I’M SURE THERE ARE A PLENTY of times that you, like me, don’t really have any interest in engaging with the world around you, and just want to hang out and binge-watch crappy shows on Netflix from time to time. It’s okay: no one else can judge. But if you want a half-baked justification for spending all your time in front of the TV, we’re here to help: as it happens, there are a huge number of documentaries and movies available on the major streaming services that are geared towards you, the worldly global citizen. Here are some for you to check out:


In 2012, Laura Dekker became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. The documentary that follows her is a deeply human portrait of a 15-year-old Dutch girl who goes through normal teenaged tribulations like homesickness, rebellion, wanderlust, and pirate avoidance. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s beautiful, it’s inspiring, and it will make you want to learn to sail, see the world, and challenge yourself.

Available on: Netflix

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy’s strange and hilarious 2010 quasi-documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is very possibly a hoax: the main character in it, Thierry Guetta, is a man who follows around his street artist friends with a camera only to become a famous street artist himself while producing insanely derivative versions of Banksy’s work. It’s bizarre and fun, but most importantly, it’s a look into the vibrant, anarchic world of graffitos and street artists which has spread rapidly across the world in the last few decades. It will, if nothing else, make you want to get out into the streets to explore and, you know, maybe make some mischief.

Available on: Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu+

Food, Inc.

Unlike another recent food documentary which veers into half-baked conspiracy theories and vegan propaganda (looking at you, Cowspiracy), Food, Inc. is a profound, balanced, well-researched look at how humans interact with their food. In a rapidly globalizing world where climate change is becoming a more pressing issue on a daily basis, every small thing we consume can have major impacts. Food, Inc. will help you rethink how you eat and what you eat.

Available on: Hulu+ and Netflix

The Search for General Tso

If you’re an American and have eaten Chinese food, you’ve probably had General Tso’s chicken at some point. But who was General Tso? And why does no one in China seem to have heard of the most popular Chinese dish in America? The Search for General Tso is an awesome (and relatively short) documentary on how a simple plate of chicken perfectly illustrates America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Available on: Netflix

This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein, the Canadian writer and activist, manages to buck the trend of depressing “Oh man, we’re totally screwed” global warming documentaries by offering a different way of thinking about the global crisis: it may be, she believes, that this is our best chance ever to turn our world into a better place.

Available on: Amazon Prime


When Edward Snowden leaked documents from the NSA to journalist Glenn Greenwald, he invited along documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to film the entire process from beginning to end. The resulting movie is absolutely electrifying: you get to watch Edward Snowden in real time as, over the course of a few days, he becomes the number one target of the world’s largest superpower. At the same time, the documentary manages to focus on the larger issues of NSA wiretapping and how privacy may not be a thing in a post-internet world.

Available on: HBO GO

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo: Mike Mozart

All your favorite holiday specials are anti-capitalist

A Christmas Carol

Scrooge is a capitalist. He is the type of person who would be called a "job creator" today. He makes a ton of money and he hoards it. He's basically a caricature of an Ayn Rand character (because Ayn Rand's characters totally aren't caricatures already), written 62 years before she was even born. He's so rapaciously capitalist that it was probably inevitable that Disney turned him into a hero.


After Scrooge has been haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Present, Past, and Future, what does he suddenly become concerned in? Higher workers wages. Healthcare for the families of his employees. Giving out free meals to the poor. In essence, Socialism*. God would bless us, every one, if God wasn't a creation of the bourgeoisie to keep the proletariat in check, Tiny Tim.

*You could, theoretically, make the argument that Scrooge is not so much a socialist as a sudden convert to trickle-down economics.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

This anarcho-Christian fable shows children acting like rapacious capitalists. Sally wants "tens and twenties" for Christmas. Lucy wants "real estate." As Charlie Brown and Linus leave the school play to shop for Christmas trees, everyone demands fake, gaudy aluminum trees. This line even gets busted out:


Linus, the story's left-wing hero, explains that "Christmas has not only gotten too commercial, it's gotten too dangerous." He then gives a speech about the true meaning of Christmas. This shouldn't be called A Charlie Brown Christmas. It should be called The Kingdom of God is Within You, Charlie Brown!

It's a Wonderful Life


I mean, the main villain is a capitalist banker who is trying to destroy the protagonist's dream of building a housing project. Next.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

We all know the Dr. Suess was a treehugging commie, right? The Lorax is an insidious attempt at subliminally turning all of our children into virulent anti-capitalists, and Yertle the Turtle was actually used as anti-fascist propaganda in the Second World War.


The Grinch has become the second most-cited Christmastime villain, along with that other great capitalist, Scrooge. The Grinch, a small-hearted furry who lives in a swanky mountain mansion above Whoville, despises their hand-holding, peacenik communitarianism, and looks to cure them of it by depriving them of material goods. But what the Grinch learns is that the heart of the revolution comes from its people, and that impoverishing them will only make them stronger. The revolution is coming. It cannot be stopped.

Home Alone & Home Alone 2


Far be it from me to suggest that these movies are one and the same in terms of structure or plot, but they both carry the same message: adults - i.e. "the man" or "the system" - are incompetent, dumb, or criminal, and children - i.e. anarchy and chaos - will inevitably win the day.

A Christmas Story

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One of the most chilling anti-capitalist fables is A Christmas Story, a cautionary tale in which a middle class family's constant grasping for material things - leg lamps, Zeppelins, Red Rider BB Guns - is disrupted by their lower class neighbors starving dogs. The allegories in this movie just keep coming: Santa - the capitalist symbol of Christmas - is portrayed as demonic and uncaring. The Father futilely grasps at a higher standing in life, not recognizing that his status symbol, the leg lamp, is gaudy and obnoxious, and was doomed from the beginning. Ralphie is conned into believing that his mindless radio entertainment was ever anything more than just a cynical attempt to sell him Ovaltine. A grim reminder if there ever was one that underneath the shiny facade of capitalist society lies a dangerous, violent world of bullying, greed, and shattered dreams.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer


A more lighthearted communist tale, Rudolph admits that sure, materialism is nice, but it deftly points out that those outside or beneath the capitalist system are callously cast aside to the so-called "Island of Misfit Toys." Those misfits (shall we call them a "vanguard"?) then save the day when a climate related disaster of excessive fog causes the fragile, materialistic holiday to collapse. Is it a coincidence that Rudolph's nose is red? You be the judge.