David Heinemeier Hansson

December 1, 2021

Books that bust bubbles

It's a disorientating time in America. So many societal seams are unraveling simultaneously. So few ideas for how to stitch those seams back together find common cause. No wonder despair and anger comes so easy to so many right now.

These dark emotions are then propelled by the particle accelerator that is Twitter into super-charged takes. All that energy has definitively nuked any previous utopian hope that "connecting the world" would lead to peace, love, and understanding.

That, ironically, is perhaps the one thing everyone does seem to agree on at the moment: social media is making everything political worse. But of course such a conclusion is only shared until the question of who to blame emerges or what to do about it is brought up, and then it's back to the tribal drums.

The best shelter I've found from this bombardment has been books. Especially books that bring insights from "the other side" of my natural political stance. After spending years reading Piketty, Hickel, Graeber, and other left-leaning writers carrying left-leaning messages – who all affirmed and expanded my understanding of taxation, international trade, ecologies, and social systems – I've gained tremendously from some divergent perspectives.

What's great about reading books instead of Twitter threads is how they allow the counter arguments room to complete. Over the course of a couple of hundred pages, you'll usually find enough common ground that your mind opens to fairly consider the turf where you might disagree.

Take climate change, for example. If you read The Uninhabitable Earth by Wallace-Wells or Hickel's Less Is More in isolation (two books I've highly recommended!), you'll almost certainly come away in both a state of panic and with a passion of #degrowth. They both build very persuasive narratives.

But your understanding will deepen immensely if you compliment such books with the likes of Apocalypse Never by Shellenberger. Not because you'll be convinced that climate change isn't a serious, urgent problem (it so very much is!), but because you'll be better prepared for a discussion of what to do about it. Like the critical examination of, say, whether closing all the nuclear plants in Germany in favor of almost exclusively focusing investments in wind and sun was a good idea (Shellenberger makes a very convincing argument that it was not).

And hearing out the arguments in long form is so much more satisfying and illuminating than what I could imagine a Shellenberger v Hickel screaming match on Twitter would be like. Because Twitter turns even the best minds into bile when pitted against each other inside the thunderdome.

This – reading two books on the same topic from opposing sides – is perhaps the best dialectic we can hope for at this moment. A discourse between two people holding divergent views, expressed on either side in long form, leaving the reader with a chance to derive if not The Truth, then at least better insights. Without the mud and emotion of social-media combat or cable TV stage fights.

As weird as it may sound, though, climate change is probably the least dangerous of the present-day hot topics in the US to illustrate this point. That's not because there isn't furious debate over how to tackle climate change, but because so many other contemporary topics in America are so much further inflamed.

This extreme tension makes it extremely precarious for civilians to venture beyond the tribal boundaries. Heads are chopped on the daily of people who inadvertently cross the often invisible and always shifting borders of ideological domains.

All the more reason exploring heretical ideas from books is the safer path, lest you should be tempted to like or retweet the wrong take to your social detriment.

In fact, that self-preserving hesitance against crossing the barbed wires dividing the big American political camps is why I didn't do a traditional recap of which books I had read in 2020. A tradition I'd otherwise kept for four years running. Was it really worth the risk recommending a provocative book right now, went the worry.

But as we close 2021, I've come to the conclusion that one of the best hopes for stitching those unraveled societal seams back together is to plant some divergent intellectual seeds on all sides. Grow some appreciation for the counter arguments, disarm some of the knee-jerk reactions that opposing views mean opposing humanities.

If my natural sphere of influence had been amongst those leaning to the right on the political spectrum, I would have done a reading list with the likes of Piketty, Hickel, and Graeber. But I suspect that there are more on the left-leaning side of spectrum, so here's a list of recommendations that'll challenge some dearly-held orthodoxies there.

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins Of Political Struggles
Like Facing Reality, which I'll get to in a moment, I was introduced to Thomas Sowell's signature work on The Glenn Show by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter in discussion with Sowell biographer Jason Riley.

(A quick digression: While this is a list of book recommendations, I'd also like to ever-so-strongly recommend The Glenn Show as a podcast. Loury is an incredible thinker on so many of these inflamed topics in America, and his biweekly discussions with McWorther in particular have taught me a lot.)

The book describes the centuries long history of two grand opposing visions: The Constrained versus The Unconstrained. Which pits the belief that humans are fundamentally constrained by faulty thinking, limited perspective, and imperfect foresight against the belief that there's no limit to the human potential to overcome these challenges.

It identifies in these core orientations many of the shared root causes behind most fierce political disagreements that have played out over the centuries. Like who is better equipped to make decisions? Individuals with their unarticulated senses of what's best for them and theirs, or an enlightened few on everyone's behalf?

Once Sowell introduces this fundamental dichotomy, it's hard not to identify issues after issues as fitting its analysis. It's a real OHHHH moment.

And while Sowell himself is clearly a man of the constrained vision, he does a remarkable job presenting the iron-man argument for the unconstrained side. And is generous with the examples of where the constrained vision has fallen short as well.

The book was originally published in 1987, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more decisive inquiry into what motivates political conflicts 35 years later.

The Coddling of the American Mind
As Sowell covered in Conflicting Visions, the fundamental dichotomy underpinning most political disputes is centuries old. Then why does it suddenly feel like things have gotten so much worse?

One argument that carried considered weight for plenty of Americans from 2016-2020 was Trump. That this unique, singular evil that was the primary source of division and animosity. While he definitely accelerated certain trends, the general thesis of Trump as the root cause has been mortally wounded by the year since he left office (and was kicked off Twitter!). This clearly wasn't all down to one man.

In this book, Haidt explores the how some of the change instead came from American universities, and the students that started behaving in novel ways around 2012-2013 to free speech, controversial ideas, and ideological thought crimes.

I first read Haidt in his excellent book The Righteous Mind from 2012, which presents his research into moral foundations theory. His new book seems in many ways as the applied form of that earlier work.

Take the exposition of the redefinition of "safety". How "harm" expanded from physical threats or altercations to include speech and ideas in general. Which then served as the ultimate cover to shutting down said speech and violently opposing said ideas.

The book offers a range of explanations as to why American universities saw such dramatic turns, including sheltered upbringing, the advent of mobile phones at the same time as social networks took off, and other factors.

The anecdotes from the university episodes he covers are wild. I had to look up a few of them just to feel confident he wasn't exaggerating. But if anything, things have gotten wilder still since this book was published in 2018.

The Courage To Be Disliked
Together with "harm", the other popular redefinition  of today is "trauma". And that's where this Japanese rendition of Alfred Adler's psychology insights slots in perfectly. It's presented as a series of discussions between a student and a master, and while the format is occasionally a bit straining, the ultimate lessons are incredibly timely. Even if Adler has been dead for over 80 years!

The basic premise is in some ways similar to Adler's contemporary, and much more well-known colleague, Sigmund Freud. That our conscious actions are driven by our subconscious goals. And that we have to undercover what those subconscious goals are, before we can make sense of and change our actions.

But unlike Freud, Adler does not focus on the excavation of past trauma. In fact, he flatly refuses to give the concept credit! He posits that we are indeed free to be happy, right now, if we change our mind for it.

To say those thoughts are provocative today would be an understatement.

Yet they merely highlight the lessons of the Stoics: That we are only harmed by slights, adversities, and tragedies if we let ourselves be. That two people suffering the same faith can walk away with entirely different perceptions of what happened.

And Adler foreshadowed the extentialists as well, like Sartre and Camus. The idea of radical freedom, and the at time insufferable weight of that freedom. We want to believe we HAVE to do or are FORCED to feel certain things. But we're not.

Adler's psychological insights presented in this book are such a reminder that the mental struggles we wrestle with today aren't novel at all. They might wax and wane across time, but much of trouble with the human condition is a timeless challenge. And we'd do well to listen to those who examined the problem of existence hundreds or even thousands of years before us.

Woke Racism
John McWhorter has catapulted himself to the limelight as of late. He recently got a regular column in The New York Times. He's been getting featured on shows like Real Time with Bill Maher. All for very good reason: he's brilliant.

In this, his latest book, McWorther presents one of the most eloquent and persuasive counters to what he deems The New Religion (i.e. Wokeness/The Elect). And in it summarizes a couple of years of opposition to this new religion, as developed in his public conversations with Glenn Loury, in his earlier substack, and elsewhere.

This book made several things click for me in a way they hadn't before. Like how the political goals of "wokeness" seem at such odds with the tactics of constant denunciation, shaming, inscrutable vocabulary, and utter contempt for anyone who aren't up on the latest advances in its theology. Because it is less of a political movement, intent on building a broad coalition, for specific social advances, and more of a religion seeking to elevate a small pious congregation towards a second coming of a "antiracist" humanity.

Great counter for anyone who've read White Fragility (paired well with Matt Taibi's review of that book). By an eminent black intellectual dissecting the arguments from a center-left stance that takes the outmost care not to vilify his opponents.

San Fransicko
The religious theme from Woke Racism can with great advantage be carried over to the debate about homelessness in America. Shellenberger (yes, the same author as wrote Apocalypse Never) pins this comparison by explaining the terrible spiral of degradation that's happening in the "open-air drug markets" in cities like San Francisco (Tenderloin), Los Angeles (Skid Row), and Seattle (Blade). He calls it the sacralization of victims.

This sacralization prevents any meaningful intervention that has proven itself to work elsewhere, like in The Netherlands and Portugal. Drug addicts can't be mandated treatment, because "they have to want to get clean", and seriously mentally-ill people can't be treated in suitable mental institutions, because involuntary commitment of dangerous people is a violation of their rights as victims.

Meanwhile, an unrealistic and long-failing Housing-First policy is pursued to the detriment of offering immediate shelter. So thousands sleep on the street in tent encampments and on the side walk. With all the human feces, trash, and needles that come with that. Partly because "homeless" is presented as one category, covering the majority of homeless people in the aforementioned cities that are either addicted to drugs or seriously mentally ill, together with people who've ended on the street solely for economic reasons.

The consequence is an ever-deteriorating set of progressively-controlled cities that keep throwing more and more money after solutions that have proven themselves not to work. And in the process rendered parts of those cities, but none more so than San Francisco, seriously uninhabitable.

While the book is predominately dedicated to the homelessness issue, it also addresses the general problem of escalating crime as a consequence of new progressive prosecutors who also "center" the "victims".

Shellenberger couldn't be more timely with this tome. San Francisco looks like a city under siege in several areas today. The progressive gaslighting that burglaries and car break-ins are "just things" and to be expected is reaching all time highs.

Again, like Taibbi, this critique of San Francisco is so piercing because it comes from a center-left perspective. This isn't some twirly-mustached cartoon of a Law & Order Capitalist.

Facing Reality
Where San Fransicko points to a decades-long history  of trying to solve a set of social problems in progressive cities without success, Charles Murray tackles an even broader set of questions around solving problems of race, education, achievement, and violence nationwide on at least as long of a timescale.

It's a short book, but perhaps the most explosive of all on the list. So I'd just invite you to checkout Murray's interviews with Glenn Loury or Coleman Hughes to see if that's something you'd want to dive into.

Hate Inc
But why is it actually that we have to seek shelter in books to get a proper exposition of two sides of an argument today? Isn't that supposed to be the meat of what the media delivers? Well, maybe it was at some point, in some idyllic age before this. A time when the stabilizing force of "having to appeal broadly for maximum distribution" was an economic necessity for ad-funded media.

That is not our reality today. Today much of popular media has found its respite from the relentless assault on revenues delivered by Google and Facebook in appealing to a single, ideological demographic. And that's what Taibbi's excellent book covers.

This tack might have been originally pioneered in modern American times by Fox News, but their success has quickly been adopted across the board. Most obvious on the other side in cable news by MSNBC and CNN, but even the newspaper of record has fallen prey to this dynamic (something like 95% of New York Times' subscribers self-identify as democrats!).

The consequence is that to get a complete picture of the news, you need to read across the divide. Rarely because the ideological coverage is directly wrong (although that happens enough too), but mostly because it's a filter on what is allowed to be covered.

Taibbi cites Chomsky's classic Manufacturing Consent with the modern twist that so much of the media is now in the business of Manufacturing Discontent. Because telling people what they want to hear is better business once you've given up on appealing broadly.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Especially because Taibbi isn't shy to implicate his own former work, but also because he comes at this as a long-term critic of right-wing media, so this critique of the left-wing media is all the more credible.

I can also strongly recommend a subscription to Taibbi's Substack for more timely media critique of the same variety.

So that's it. Seven books (or eight, if you count Apocalypse Never) that might broaden your horizon, if you come from a left-leaning worldview. You might not like all of them, but I think it's unlikely you won't find yourself more intellectually challenged by these than by reading yet another string of existing-beliefs-reaffirming Twitter threads.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.