Documentary: Hearts and Minds

This morning I watched an old documentary about the Vietnam War called Hearts and Minds. Having been released in 1974, it might as well be a primary historical source for the time period. Throughout the entire documentary there are only one or two people interviewed who maintain their conviction that going into Vietnam was the right decision to make. With the war being in its later stages at that point, by the early-1970s public opinion had curdled into a gnawing sense that America’s involvement had made a mistake:

Hearts and Minds is shot in the Cinéma vérité style which is empty of narration and is more like a sound-and-visual mosaic than a linearly constructed narrative film. The style provokes questions in the viewer’s mind instead of stating explicit conclusions. Documentaries today tend to be more pointed in their ends, and while they can be profound artistic statements they typically require less critical thinking from their audience.

Hearts and Minds got me thinking about history and what the past means today. How do we examine and account for the actions of people who came before us? How do we constructively improve on and learn from their mistakes? Moreover, how should we feel about all this?

“I look at the world and I notice its turning
With every mistake we must surely be learning”

—’While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, The Beatles

Here are a few of the thoughts and questions on my mind after watching this movie. More generally, these inquiries are about warfare and the nature of conflict in the 21st century instead of the Vietnam War:

  • With the atomic bomb hanging over our heads is humanity doomed to endlessly fight regional wars? The Vietnam War, Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya, Catholics vs. Protestants in Ireland, Israel vs. Palestine, African genocide, Russia annexing Crimea, the Syrian Civil War—these are mostly ancient grievances avenged on a modern battlefield. Major powers might get involved to further their own ends but these conflicts primarily remain regional. They’re limited in that they’re contained within their borders even though they have dramatic international consequences (refugee crises emboldening far-right demagoguery, wasting endless tax dollars nation-building abroad while neglecting infrastructure back home, etc.) but unlimited in that there is no end in sight. Compared to a raging inferno like World War II, these brush fires are geographically contained but still potentially ruinous for people outside the demarcated war-zones.


  • Are the battle-lines in modern war drawn between chaos and order? In modern war, is the enemy invisible and internal? Chaos is not evenly distributed across the world. There are golf courses of absolute tranquility next to neighborhoods that exist in crushing poverty. You’d probably feel safer on the golf course so could those hollowed out streets be thought of as a sort of battlefield?


  • Is there a limit to how thoroughly American citizens can distrust it’s government? The ever-expanding Vietnam War and Nixon were bad enough but now we have some guy in charge who will say anything to make the headlines and will then turn around and say that the press is the enemy of the people. Trust in government and its supporting institutions have crumbled over the past 50 years:



  • How do we properly show respect to our veterans? I’m not sure that as a civilian I can truly understand their experience. The question for them is how to come back to America and make sense of their traumatic wartime experience. Sadly, the best I’m able to provide is empathy and a vague sense of appreciation for their sacrifice.


“We’ve all tried very hard to escape what we’ve learned in Vietnam. They don’t realize that people fighting for their own freedom are not going to be stopped.”

21st Century Babel

—Chaos Monkeys by Antonio García Martínez’

I took this quote to be a concise description of why Facebook has the world so shook up since the populist backlash that won elections in 2016. It’s not just the Russian troll scare or privacy concerns; it’s that social media is a fundamentally new way of consuming the news. And it’s putting the interpretation of the news into the hands of the consumer like never before.

But by empowering consumers to chase their individual whims are we neglecting the power of shared truth? Without shared truth, can a society maintain its focus on a shared vision?

Skepticism is a great power that requires great responsibility. Giving consumers the ability to congregate around specific ideas is an exciting idea on paper but it has backfired in a lot of ways because the idea that everyone is properly equipped to make sense of our ever-increasingly complicated world overlooks human bias towards group-think, paranoia, fear, and whatever other base desires I’m overlooking. To surround yourself so efficiently with the flavor of information that you find comforting and agreeable means that the interesting and surprising stuff gets edited out and you, the consumer who’s being served so well, remains ignorant.

Our culture has a plethora of many myths that seem to represent the apotheosis of what is happening online. If Google is the Library of Alexandria then Facebook is the Tower of Babel—the technology that scatters people to ‘s attention toward their most basic inclinations,

Almost imperceptibly, while we chase these specially curated mass diversions, all shared national experiences except maybe the Super Bowl slowly fade to the periphery. And these sideshows are re-interpreted in so many different ways that any common ground crumbles beneath our feet. That, not Russian cyber-troll harnessing impotent grievances with the status quo, is why Facebook is such a decisive a challenge to democratic order.

As Martínez puts it so well in the afterward to his book, “The post-Enlightment man living in a liberal democracy believes he has a right to an opinion; post-Facebook, he also believes he has a right to his own reality. An online reality that aims to validate his worldview and bends reality to flatter his prejudices.” There is no going back.


While the townsfolk all look on…

Quotes, July Pt.2

Here are some quotes I’ve read or heard this month that I found especially thought-provoking. July was a busy month for reading/quote-mining:


“Ideology, by which I mean a totalizing and closed system that discounts or dismisses whatever does not ‘fit’ within it, has very little use for accurate descriptions of what is going on.”—Jean Bethke Elshtain

“We’re all born geniuses, but something in the process of living de-geniuses us.”—Buckmister Fuller


“Ideas seldom jump into the mind from nowhere. If they do, like Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch for a helicopter, they remain science fictions until technological advance makes them seem prescient. Ideas are seeded in frameworks of previous growths and need those same frameworks to flourish.“—John Man


“To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”—Raymond Loewy


“Every time history repeats itself the price goes up.”—Bumper Sticker


“Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”—Richard Nixon


“Ideas never survive contact with the real world in their pure form.”—Ben Judah


Simplicity is unforgiving, and it does not lie. This is the reason it is meticulously avoided by the amateur who is more interested in the ideas of simplicity and mastery rather than the honest self-investigation required by their actual process.”—Mercai Macavei (


“Human nature is everywhere morally ambivalent, the better angels cooing into one ear, their demonic cousins crowing into the other.’—Benjamin Barber

The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction


The French Revolution is tough to understand. I was raised in Texas and at no time was the subject discussed in any way deeper than “The French saw how wonderful freedom was in America and wanted a revolution of their own. It went disastrously because the French are untrustworthy and incompetent.”

I’ve long suspected that the full story was more complicated than that.

This admittedly very short introduction lays out the confluence of economic, political, and social problems that riled France a decade. These were the growing pains of coming into the modern world; of casting off feudal lordship in favor of representative democracy. Or at least France’s version of that concept.

The author’s thesis is that the ‘revolution’ was not one single event but was a time period of extreme social unrest and suffering that lasted from 1789-1802 ending with the ascent of Napoleon. With the consolidation of power behind Bonaparte, “the nationwide sigh of relief was practically audible. Napoleonic rule would bring its own problems and contradictions, but it endured because it began by resolving others that had torn the country apart for more than a decade.”

This book didn’t give me a feeling of overwhelming competence on the subject but certainly drove home the complexity in any social upheaval. The revolution itself is a prism through which any number of ideas can be examined. Did it give birth to liberalism? The persistent wouldn’t-it-be-nice?-ism of communism? The modern world?

All of these thoughts and more can be re-examined through a careful study of the past.

Continue reading

Quotes, July Pt.1

When you go out looking for quotes you suddenly start finding them everywhere. I’m breaking this monthly post in two this month because I already have so many.


The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”―William Blake

I didn’t look further into this quote but it struck me as a poetic (albeit, slippery) way of conveying the truism that the act of destruction is easier than creation. It’s slippery because to be more ‘wise’, at least in the way we use the word today, does not mean more able. It means smarter, and that throws my whole interpretation off.

“Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desire among people.” — Steven Pinker

This quote reinforces my long-standing inkling that political opinions are nothing more than a belief in how other people should behave. As always, it’s simpler and more effective to mind your own behavior first, and that’s where wisdom comes from.

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”―Gabriel García Márquez

Sophisticated network computing dissolves the public, private, and the secret with each passing decade. In this post-privacy age, our three lives are blurring in such a haphazard manner that it’s tough to say we can ever take this idea for granted again. Our children may very well shrug at this notion and find it hopelessly simplistic.

“With social media extending your Radius of Envy out to every celebrity, and forcing even co-equal members of your cohort into self-promotional envy-production overdrive, comparisons to historical peasants or the advances of the Asian working class, will mean very little.”―Antonio García Martínez (

Careful what you pay attention to. It just might ruin your life. You’re not Kanye West but social media makes it easy to think that you could be, if only your Lotto ticket is scratched this week.

“A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”—Robert Frost

I’ve been guilty in being so caught up with sympathy for others that I neglect myself. This can be an admirable position but also untenable because if you don’t care for yourself then who is going to?

“To understand all may indeed be to forgive all, but no civilization can survive when the capacity for understanding is allowed to supersede the capacity for judgement. Otherwise, at the end of the line lies a pile of garbage: Hitler wasn’t evil, just insane.”—Stephen Carter

To be understanding while still knowing how and when to disagree with something or stand up for yourself. That middle ground is always so hard to find.

“You’re basically who you are from the start.”—David Lynch

Another vague inkling that I’ve had for a long time is bluntly clarified here: that personality is maddeningly consistent over time and so changing our bad habits and living up to our idealized self is tougher than we’d expect.

“With quitting anything, you have to have that gut feeling that turns into, you know, like a physical epiphany where you’re just like, ‘Oof, this is not good.’”―Dave Grohl

Personal change is always possible, but your emotions often have to lead the way. Rational decision making always sounds good but doesn’t necessarily stick without a deep visceral feeling to attach to it.

“Life teaches you really how to live it if you live long enough.”—Tony Bennett (reminiscing on what he wishes he had told Amy Winehouse)

This is from the documentary Amy, which is an inspiring but heartbreaking look at the life of Amy Winehouse. Her talent is obvious but no one in her day-to-day life treated her well. Only Tony Bennett comes out looking admirable—a man whom she admired greatly but unfortunately didn’t spend much time with—and his wise words close out the movie.

Awakening Progress

It’s strange to look back and think that for vast periods of human history little or no material progress was made for centuries at a time. We now take progress for granted and measure it in years and decades.

In what ways have we regressed over the years? How are we standing still? Can the gains we’ve seen over the past century continue? What technological advances we haven’t yet discovered will come to be as widely taken for granted as paper is now?

And as Seth Godin said, “There is no normal. Simply the relentless cycle of change.

Quotes, June 2018

Here are some quotes I’ve read or heard this month that I found especially thought-provoking, along with some additional commentary/context.


“Wars are a beacon to idealists and adventurers and thugs, but also to a kind of tourist, who is drawn to conflict for obscure personal reasons. Experienced reporters usually keep their distance from such people, because their naivete not only gets them in trouble; it can get others killed.”—Lawrence Wright

Amateur war reporters and vigilante humanitarians rarely consider the burden of stress they put on their family and the people who are responsible for saving them if they get captured by the enemy. Lawrence Wright’s long-read ‘Five Hostages’ brilliantly illustrated this.

“Stability breeds instability.”—Hyman Minsky

We get comfortable. Then we get lazy. Then the safety we’ve been taking for granted begins to crumble.

“Bitterness is really just amplified self-pity.” —Marc Maron

“The sun doesn’t measure it’s light by the shadows it casts.” —Aubrey Marcus

Our self-worth cannot purely be determined by the amount of influence that we carry.

“The purpose of thinking is so that our thoughts die instead of us.” —Alfred North Whitehead

Alone in the animal kingdom we are allowed to change our minds. Where would we be without the ability to formulate ideas and test them out?

“Human beings are very clever but they’re not wise.” —Dennis McKenna

“Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness.” —Theodore Dalrymple

If we cannot feel like we can voice our true thoughts anyplace then we will begin to self-censor. Censorship doesn’t have to be explicitly codified.

“Revenge is like politics: one thing always leads to another until bad has become worse, and worse has become the worst.” —Jonas Jonasson

You see this going on nationally today. I’ve heard that the Republican tax bill is punitive to blue territories and that Canada’s retaliatory tariffs target Trump-voting locales. The politics of resentment will only continue to get worse.

“Perhaps one reason revenge tends to run riot is that it is not framed by a recognition of some alternative. Revenge attaches to no scale of political concepts, values, or virtues.”—Jean Bethke Elshtain

Podcast Notes: Jason Zweig on The Knowledge Project

I enjoyed Shane Snow’s conversation with financial journalist Jason Zweig on his Knowledge Project Podcast. Here were a couple of his statements that I wanted to write down for my own edification:

“If you know that you have self-control problems you have to structure your life so that the things that tempt you into bad behavior don’t get surfaced in your stimuli.”

“Improve your mental hygiene. You can’t turn yourself into someone who’s unemotional but you can turn down the amplitude of your own emotions if you change what your exposures are.”

Just some words to live by, and I find that too many fascinating things go in one ear and out the other far too often when I’m listening to podcasts so I plan to start posting some of my favorite tidbits on here more often.