No Filter

In this case, I feel voters would be better served to see exactly what was asked and exactly how I answered without going through the filter of a predetermined narrative.
Jane Kim

Political campaigns sometimes dump opposition research into the hands of journalists. Many times those journalists ask questions of the opponent. But sometimes those questions are biased, misleading, and argumentative.

When it’s 2018 and a news organization asks biased questions of a savvy candidate such as Jane Kim, it’s the news organization itself that ends up exposed. In a blog post titled No Filter she goes one-by-one through each question the San Francisco Chronicle asked her. Such a fantastic example of sources going direct.

Inventing the Individual

While I was in Singapore last month I spent the better part of an afternoon browsing the Kinokuniya bookstore. One of the books that stood out to me was Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual. It’s subtitle, The Origins of Western Liberalism, frames the focus on the book.

Part of what I find engaging about books like this is how they challenge things you presume to be first principles. It’s why I enjoyed so much of the reading, if not always the classes, in college. In this case Siedentop tells a history that stretches from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. Throughout he shows how the modern notion of an individual was built through centuries of change.

While much of the book focuses on Christianity and the Catholic church it does so in a historical, rather than religious, sense. A theology book it is, thankfully, not.

It’s helpful to understand that for ancient Greeks and Romans the starting point of identity was not the self. Individualism was not how society centered itself. Instead the center of power, prestige, and citizenship was the family. And prime amidst that was the father.

The ancient family was, in many ways, a church unto itself. The father represented all his ancestors and served a role that was one part priest and one part magistrate. Legislation tended to stop at the property of the family while the eldest son inherited the wealth, power, and of course ancestors of his father.

This started to shift during the later years of the BC era. It was centuries, though, before we got to the type of individualism that informed the political or artistic movements of the 1400s and onward.

There are three things that most stood out to me when reading back over my notes on the book. They’re ideological shifts that made sense as soon as I read them, but ones I’d never thought of in such a clear way as Siedentop puts it.

Inherited Power

As mentioned above, family and inheritance played a large role in ancient identity and power. That set a foundation in which leadership, wealth, and power were hereditary. The assumption for much of how society operated was that inequality was natural and people had natural roles to fill. Even something as basic to us as the exercise of reason was presumed to be only possessed by a few.

The early Christian church had a very different starting assumption. For them the focus was on equality. It was vital to the faith that all souls could have a relationship with God. So they needed to subvert the established, ancient societal order.

But Christian priests, particularly in later years, had a lot of local power. The church needed to ensure that didn’t become hereditary local power and wealth. Otherwise priests, and the inequality surrounding their position and family, would undercut the message of The Bible. By disallowing marriage and procreation among the clergy the church was also able to ensure power and authority remained in the hands of the church itself rather than in bloodlines. They preserved a fundamental assumption of equality and avoided the trappings of inherited power.

The Value of Work

When your society is built around inherited wealth and power work comes to take on an interesting meaning. When wealth is inherited work can become something that’s disregarded. It’s what those without strong families have to do. It’s not necessarily a value in itself.

Monasticism helped shift this narrative and rehabilitate work. It made work and labor less servile and gave it a renewed dignity. The early monks felt that personal salvation was a laborious, lifetime quest. And in many ways they laid the groundwork for later ideas like the Protestant work ethic.

Reason and Rationality

From 1000 to 1300 the papacy initiated a host of changes that were long underestimated but, at their core, were revolutionary. One of those that Siedentop emphasizes is the democratization of reason. For Greeks and Romans, Reason (often personified by the god Apollo) was something that used people; it was not evenly distributed in society nor was rationality thought to be available to all.

By the twelfth century reason began to lose this aristocratic heritage. It became seen as an attribute of any individual. And, notably for the church, it enabled people to build a personal relationship with a deity rather than an ancient and tribal one. The democratization served the church’s immediate need as it enabled individuals to investigate their inner relationship with God. Over time this shift and movement of equality had far-reaching impact.

There’s more that I took away from the book (I have around 2,500 words worth of notes). But those are the three historical shifts I hope to remember and that I wanted to share.

Next on my reading list is Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom, a book that also focuses on individuals. I’ll have reading notes for that posted shortly.

The problem with voting

Nadia Eghbal outlines many of the problems in voting-based governance models. She then covers a few ideas for shifting from a competitive mindset to a more cooperative governance structure.

I appreciate posts like this which work toward first principles. It’s also so helpful to remember that many models and institutions we take for granted, or presume to be a requirement, are relatively recent inventions.

Hat tip to Daniel for the link.

Reading List

I started a page to keep track of the books I read over the course of a year. Most, if not all, will get summaries and notes shared on this blog as well. For now, at least, a complete list of what I’ve read in 2018 is up.

I’ll backfill notes on some of the recent ones. In general I take notes alongside each chapter of a book. I plan to turn those into brief recaps.

A little less luck

Sean Blanda from Growth Lab interviews Shane Parrish, founder of the Farnam Street blog. Farnam Street is one of my favorite blogs on the web. Over the course of the interview Sean and Shane cover business models, events, social pressure, and audiences.

Part of what stood out in the interview was Shane’s framing of what to focus on:

I want to spend time doing things that are first order negative and second order positive because I know that not a lot of people are willing to do that.

Shane discusses this as a competitive advantage. Focusing on things that are difficult in the short-term makes your work less subject to copying. Fewer people will push through that initial difficulty to attain results.

The making of Rebel Girls

Books are social objects, by definition.
Elena Favilli

Craig Mod’s On Margins podcast is one of my favorites.1 In the most recent episode he talks with Elena Favilli, co-creator of Timbukutu Labs. They cover the company’s early days and then dive into the wildly successful release of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Over the course of the conversation they talk about traditional publishing and the tenuous connection between prestige and commercial success. It’s worth a listen (or a read, the full transcript is on the site).

  1. I like it for more than just the naming overlap![]

Small-Town American Dreams

The New Yorker dives deep into a rural community in Iowa. Orange City is a town of less than six thousand people. And its isolation from any river, railway, or four-lane highway led to quirks in development.

The article’s worth reading for its look at American politics (of whites living in their childhood hometown, 60% voted for Trump) as well as quirks of small towns (the college in Orange City greatly helps the town retain young adults). It closes with a more optimistic picture of the future than you might expect reading through the first half of the piece.

Hello World

Welcome to Margins.

Why the name? I’ve always loved the margins of a good book. As a kid I doodled in them. In college I started using them to annotate and highlight the sections I wanted to remember. Margins are a way for me to keep track of the best bits I find. This is harder to do with digital texts.

My plan is to use this blog to keep track. To put edges around what I listen to, read, and learn. From articles to podcasts to book notes, I’ll compile what I learn and share it here. If you look through the archives of my personal blog you’ll find I used to use it in this way. I’m looking forward to doing that in an expanded way here, with a fresh slate and a great domain.

The format will be a bit of an experiment. Most posts will likely be short and book notes will likely be longer. I’m looking forward to it.

For now, stay tuned for more updates. You can subscribe to the RSS feed or sign up for what will be an occasional “best of” newsletter.