‘The Death of Expertise’: Tom Nichols offers great read for understanding our slow-motion cultural implosion

Death of Expertise cover
A book called The Death of Expertise came out not too long ago. The best way to describe it for regular readers of this blog is as follows: It’s as if author Tom Nichols read my mind and then put all my disparate thoughts on Western civilization’s slow-motion car crash into a nice package. His understanding of how modern technology, social media, and left-wing academics exacerbate the problem is, unfortunately for future generations, on point.

I spend a lot of time on social media for work, and over the years I have seen a disturbing trend take place on the internet and college campuses. A toxic brew of left-wing “social justice” indoctrination on American campuses mixed with digital echo chambers, available to men and women of all political stripes, slowly boiled. (We’ve seen the effects of this during the U.S. presidential inauguration protests, the Berkeley riots, and the insanity at Evergreen State College in Washington state.)

Mr. Nichols, however, is one of the few people I’ve seen who has a firm grasp of the dangerous social dynamics at play beneath the surface. Like your friendly neighborhood blogger, he seems to think a miracle is needed to stave off an ugly future.

“I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

Attacks on established knowledge and the subsequent rash of poor information in the general public are sometimes amusing. Sometimes they’re even hilarious.  Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. […] When life and death are involved, however, it’s a lot less funny. […]

The overall trend is one of ideological segregation enabled by the ability to end a friendship with a click instead of a face-to-face discussion.

Underlying much of this ill temper is a false sense of equality and the illusion of egalitarianism created by the immediacy of social media. I have a Twitter account and a Facebook page, and so do you, so we’re peers, aren’t we? After all, if a top reporter at a major newspaper, a diplomat at the Kennedy School, a scientist at a research hospital, and your Aunt Rose from Reno all have an online presence, then all of their viewers are just so many messages speeding past your eyes. Every opinion is only as good as the last posting on a home page.

In the age of social media, people using the Internet assume that everyone is equally intelligent or informed merely by virtue of being online. — Tom Nichols,The Death of Expertise (Oxford University Press, 2017). Pages 3, 129.

Boom.

Across every personal and professional level of my life I have witnessed the proliferation of this mentality. Google gives people a false sense superiority. A five-second search that allows a man to throw out a random factoids convinces him that he’s an expert when, in reality, his depth of breadth of knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Social media offers a one-two punch of perniciousness: It encourages people to dehumanize the guy on the other side of the screen while simultaneously fostering false pride and moral superiority. That, dear reader, is a recipe for violence.

Mr. Nichols’ book is by no means perfect (he sometimes shows off his own ideological blind spots by unfairly framing certain political issues), but it is still highly worth your time. It’s the perfect book to sit down with for a few hours by the pool or at the beach. Check it out if you want to better understand our widening political divide, or if you just like slightly terrifying reading material.

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Red Platoon: Clinton Romesha’s combat memoir will floor you. Buy it — now

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One of the rarest things on earth is the perfect blending between a warrior and a scholar. To meet such a man or to read his wisdom on the written page is truly a blessing, which is why I search … and search … and search for those moments. It is safe to say that Clinton Romesha, Medal of Honor recipient and author of Red Platoon, unequivocally belongs in that elite group. His memoir is exquisitely written, which feels somewhat odd to say given the subject matter.

For those who are unfamiliar with Mr. Romesha’s story — or, rather, the story of the men deployed to Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009 — it is the stuff of legend. The former Staff Sergeant and his comrades were told to man an outpost that was in every way imaginable a death trap, and then when all their worst fears came true the majority of them found a way to survive.

Here is an excerpt that in many ways sums up what the book is about:

In 1958, a soldier named J. Glenn Gray wrote a book about soldiers in combat called The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. Gray, who was drafted into the army as a private in May 1941, was discharged as a second lieutenant in October 1945 after having seen fighting in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany. His book, which is both obscure and revered, touches on something that would later strike me as relevant to what was now unfolding at Keating as our counterassault came in danger of unraveling.

Gray wrote with elegance and precision about how the essence of combat basically boils down to an exchange of trust between two men — or two groups of men — each of whom are providing support by fire for the other. This simple agreement — you move while I shoot at the guys who are trying to kill you, then I will move while you shoot at the guys who are trying to kill me — depends on a willingness to place one’s life into the hands of someone else while in turn taking responsibility for that person’s life in your own hands. When this pact is executed well, it is not only extraordinarily effective but also tends to create a bond between men who enter into it that may stand as the most powerful connection they will ever experience to another human being.

There is, however, one thing that Gray doesn’t explore in his book, which is what can happen when one of the two parties who are supposed to be working in tandem fails — for whatever reason, legitimate or not — to keep his end of the deal. That was what appeared to be taking place right then with Hill’s machine-gun team.” — Clinton Romesha, Red Platoon (New York, Penguin Random House LLC, 2016), 243-244.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. It seems awkward to call a wartime memoir “flawless” (How does one give glowing reviews to true story where men died gruesome deaths without seeming inconsiderate or detached?), but that seems to be the best adjective to use.

Red Platoon is powerful, organized, thrilling, poignant, inspirational and educational all at the same time. It is intelligent, but relatable to a wide audience. It is honest, but respectful to all Americans involved — regardless of how they handled themselves on the battlefield.

In short, buy the book. It is awesome, and probably something I will come back to for many years to come.

RELATED: ‘Black Hawk Down’: Read the book because the movie can never do the men who died justice

Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’: Holocaust memoir a must-read along with Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’

Elie Wiesel Night

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 that the world must never forget what happened because “if we forget, we are all guilty, we are accomplices.” His memoir, Night, is a must-read for anyone who understands — as he did — that “we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Perhaps one of the most important take-aways from the book is just how averse humans are to acknowledging evil — real evil — when it is in their midst.

Mr. Wiesel’s account of how his hometown in Transylvania reacted to the Nazi threat is surreal. It is hard to imagine just how far men while go to deny the truth when the truth may require a call to arms.

The author wrote:

“The Germans were already in our town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out — and the Jews of Sighet were smiling.

‘The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal…’

(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?) …

Little by little life returned to ‘normal.’ The barbed wire that encircled us like a wall did not fill us with fear. In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; were were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic … A Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish police force, a welfare agency, a labor committee, a health agency — a whole government apparatus.

People thought this was a good thing.” (Elie Wiesel. Night. Hill and Wang. 10-12.)

The one man in town who tried to warn everyone was treated like a madman, which ironically took him to the edge of sanity. It was not long afterward that Mr. Wiesel would be shipped off to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald.

The horrors that Mr. Wiesel endured are too numerous to list in a single blog post, but it is imperative to note why Nazi torture was a special kind of evil: It took root in the souls of its victims, who then turned on one another.

“In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails.

A crowd of workmen and curious passersby had formed all along the train. They had undoubtedly never seen a train with this kind of cargo. Soon, pieces of bread were falling into the wagons from all sides. And the spectators observed these emaciated creatures ready to kill for a crust of bread.” (101.)

Night is a powerful book that understandably simmers with rage and anger, hate and sorrow. It is a book that everyone should read, but it should not be completed without also making time for Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Mr. Wiesel’s memoir shows his self-described “rebellion” against God, while Mr. Frankl chronicles how spiritual growth is possible — even in an Auschwitz death camp.

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying. …

We had realized [suffering’s] hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, ‘Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!’ (How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of ‘getting through’ suffering as others would talk of ‘getting through work.’ …

There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that.”  (Victor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, 2006. 77, 78.)

In short, both books are essential reading for the man or woman who loves freedom, abhors tyranny, and understands the importance of history. The memoirs can be purchased for $10 or less, which is an unbeatable bargain given the wisdom each contains.

‘Money: Master the Game’: Tony Robbins gives readers a sound blueprint for financial freedom

Money Master The Game Tony RobbinsWhenever I tell people that I’m a big fan of Tony Robbins, I get one of two reactions: Either the person I’m talking to agrees and a big smile comes to his face, or he squints his eyes and then says something about how Mr. Robbins must be a fake. Usually the people who find him suspect have never really listened to his presentations — perhaps they saw short clips of him firing up a crowd with his perpetual energetic delivery, or a brief appearance on the “Today” show — but little else. After reading “Money: Master the Game,” a monster at 616 pages, I will once again reiterate to anyone who will listen: Tony Robbins is the real deal.

There is really no way to break down the blueprint for financial freedom in a single blog post, and to try and do so would only do the book an injustice. However, my feelings on whether you should plunk down $28 for the book (probably $15 or less online) can be summed up from the following passage:

I was working as a janitor, and I needed extra money. A man my parents knew, and whom my father had called a “loser,” had become quite successful in a short period of time, at least in financial terms. He was buying, fixing, and flipping real estate in Southern California and needed a kid on the weekend to help him move furniture. That chance encounter, that fateful weekend of working my tail off, led to an opening that would change my life forever. His name was Jim Hannah. He took notice of my hustle and drive. When I had a moment, I asked, him, How did you turn your life around? How did you become successful?”

“I did it,” he said, “by going to a seminar by a man named Jim Rohn.”

“What’s a seminar?” I asked. “It a place where a man takes ten or twenty years of his life and all he’s learned and he condenses it  into a few hours so that you can compress years of learning into days,” he answered.Wow, that sounded pretty awesome. “How much does it cost?” “Thirty five dollars,” he told me. What!? I was making $40 a week as a part-time janitor while going to high school. “Can you get me in?” I asked. “Sure!” he said. “But I won’t — because you wouldn’t value it if you didn’t pay for it.” I stood there, disheartened.  “How could I ever afford $35 for three hours with this expert? “Well, if you don’t think you’re worth the investment, don’t make it,” he finally shrugged. I struggled and struggled with that one — but ultimately decided to go for it. It turned out to be one of the most important investments of my life. I took a week’s pay and went to a seminar where I met Jim Rohn — the man who became my life’s first mentor. — Tony Robbins, Money: Master The Plan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 260–261

Is your financial freedom worth at least $30? If so, and if you are generally in the dark about how to properly save and invest for your retirement, then you should read “Money: Master the Game.” The information inside it can literally translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps millions?) during the course of your life. It can be the difference between having to take a job as the Walmart greeter when you’re 70 years old, and sipping drinks on a beach in Florida.

I do not say this lightly: I am extremely grateful to Mr. Robbins for writing this book. It came around at a time in my life when I had to finally start getting serious about planning my family’s retirement, and before I was even half-way through with the book I was taking advantage of the knowledge imparted within. After finally getting my financial affairs in order I circled back with two close friends who are excellent with money, and they said I made the right moves.

If you’ve ever felt like money controls you — and you’d like to be the one controlling money — then I can’t suggest Mr. Robbins’ book enough. He (and some of the most brilliant financial minds alive) give advice that is essential to securing financial freedom. I do have a few issues with the book (which I’m happy to expand upon in the comments section), but in general it’s a fabulous tool to have at your disposal.

Buy “Money: Master the Game” today and we’ll talk about it on a beach in Florida in 25 years.

‘Unbroken’: Louie Zamperini’s story offers crucial lessons for improving mental, spiritual health

Louis Zamperini

Reviewing “Unbroken” is a difficult task. The story of famous Olympian and World War II hero Louie Zamperini’s life includes an endless list of lessons. Author Laura Hillenbrand, who also penned “Seabiscuit,” has churned out a product that is essential reading for anyone who seeks to improve their mental and spiritual health. Mr. Zamperini’s tale is a road map for greatness, and it is one that all Americans would be wise to study.

In short, the book can be divided into the following segments:

    • Louie’s defiant childhood and the moment he realized that his defiance could be channeled to bring him positive attention.
    • His time as an elite runner at USC and his 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
    • Louie’s training and missions as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
    • The crash of the B-24 named “Green Hornet,” and his survival in shark-infested waters for 47 days.
    • His time spent as a prisoner of war at multiple Japanese camps, including Kwajalein (“Execution Island”), Ofuna (a secret interrogation center), Omari and Naoetsu (where Mutsuhiro Watanabe made it his all-consuming mission to break Zamperini’s spirit).
    • The end of the war, Louie’s decent into darkness with PTSD, and his salvation through Christ.

Each chapter of Mr. Zamperini’s life could be turned into its own book, yet Ms. Hillenbrand found a way to seamlessly tie them all together into a thought-provoking read that lives up to its billing: “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”

How does a man survive in the middle of the ocean on a tiny raft for 47 days? How does a man endure the horrors of a POW camp, where every effort is made to strip him of his humanity (e.g., injecting him with experimental drugs, beating him daily, and making him regularly clean up a pig’s bowel movements with his bare hands in return for food)?

The answer comes down to realizing that how you think about things — the conscious decisions you make every day regarding what to focus on — play a crucial role in shaping the outcome of your life.

Ms. Hillenbrand writes:

“Exposure, dehydration, stress, and hunger had quickly driven many of [World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker’s] party insane, a common fate for raft-bound men. Louie was more concerned with sanity than he was about sustenance. He kept thinking of a college physiology class he had taken, in which the instructor taught them to think of the mind as a muscle that would atrophy if left idle. Louie was determine that no matter what happened to their bodies, their minds would stay under their control. …

Within a few days of the crash, Louie began peppering the other two with questions on every conceivable subject. Phil took up the challenge, and soon he and Louie turned the raft into a nonstop quiz show. …

For Louie and Phil, the conversations were healing, pulling them out of their suffering and setting the future before them as a concrete thing. As they imagined themselves back in the world again, they willed a happy ending onto their ordeal and made it their expectation. With these talks, they created something to live for. …

Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perception of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling,” (Lauren Hillenbrand. Unbroken. New York: Random House, 2010. 145-148).

While “Mac” would ultimately redeem himself for some of his early behavior on the raft (e.g., he ate the only source of food the men had while they slept the first night), his inability to change his focus from death to life appears to be a major reason for his failure to survive.

One way to explain what is going on is this: the unconscious mind never sleeps. Since the unconscious mind operates outside time and space (i.e., think of how time and space operate in your dreams), it is vitally important that you are aware of what you decide to add to the mix. During the day a person plants seeds of thought into his subconscious. Those seeds eventually take root, and the fruit they bear affects both the conscious and subconscious mind. When the mind is weighed down with negative thoughts, it in turn weighs down the spirit. The spirit is strong — stronger than we can ever imagine — but when it breaks, then the body and mind surely follow.

Louie Zamperini understood that just as it was important to exercise his body if he wanted to be a world-class runner, the real key to success is to exercise the muscles that can not be seen or measured on a scale. In order to excel in the physical world an individual must also concentrate on the metaphysical. For Mr. Zamperini, whose PTSD after the war led him to abuse alcohol as a way of dealing with flashbacks and nightmares, peace was finally found when he embraced Christianity.

“In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. Softly, he wept.” (376)

The night that Mr. Zamperini fully understood his own faith, his nightmares ended. He regained his life, saved his marriage and even found it within himself to forgive the men who tortured him during the war.

While “Unbroken” is scheduled to be released to the big screen this Christmas, I highly recommend buying the book and adding it to your reading list before then. I find it hard to imagine that by the time you turn the last page that you will not experience a “single, silent moment” that will change your life for the better.