Our received wisdom is that current civilization is the highest achievement of humanity, that we should feel lucky to be alive now, and that the future is going to be better. Along comes Christopher Ryan to debunk it all.

Progress, according to Ryan, is a lie. He makes the case in his book Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress.  In the book, we're asked to consider if we really gained all that much: we don't worry about being eaten by other animals, but we do have to worry about dying in car wrecks. 


The way we sometimes rail at one another, you'd think we lost sight of the fact that we're all human beings, all related. 

It often seems--particularly in political discussions--that people have suffered grievious harm from the words of another.  And sometimes they have. 

Sarah Schulman steps carefully into this minefield in the book Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair


Maybe it's not easy to be kind to people with whom you disagree, but it's possible.  Case in point: the former neo-Nazis who help their former comrades leave hate groups behind. 

That's just one example psychologist Jamil Zaki provides in his book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.  Building empathy?  Yes, Zaki points out that empathy is not fixed at birth, it's learned. 

Fibonacci Blue -

The 2016 election.  Police-community relations.  Views on climate change.  There are many more examples of issues where people find themselves at odds in society today. 

Where to go now?  Some answers are provided in the "Finding Our Way" conference this week in Ashland (April 26-28).  The goal: give people tools to discuss divisive issues and work with difficult people. 

The conference is the focus of this month's edition of The Keenest Observers. 

Fronteiras do Pensamento/Wikimedia

The "fake news" avalanche of our time may have surprised a lot of people.  But not the people who understand networks and how they work. 

Niall Ferguson is both historian and journalist, and he thinks the people who build networks--particularly today's social media networks--could stand to understand history a little better. 

Ferguson gives the lesson himself in his latest book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.  He points out how networks have repeatedly posed challenges to established hierarchies throughout history. 

The world may appear to be a scary place at the moment, but Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna see opportunity. 

They point to another period of history that featured both great discoveries and advancements AND wrenching social and political change: the Renaissance, which pulled the Western world out of the medieval period. 

Could this time of great knowledge and risk parallel that one? 

Goldin and Kutarna make the case in their book Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our Second Renaissance

Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia

Can you imagine spending a day in the White House, with all the important people and egos and pressing business? 

Yet it is from the White House, in a sense, that we get advice on Treating People Well in a new book by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard. 

They were social secretaries: Berman worked in the Bush White House, Bernard with the Obamas. 

And they learned a thing or two about maintaining civility in high-pressure situations. 

Public Domain

More than a few politicians have won elections by stoking the fears of the American people.  In the analysis of historian Elaine Tyler May, it has become increasingly easy to do. 

From the middle of the 20th century and onward, May tracks a rising obsession with security--one she says has actually made us LESS safe.  May lays out the case in her book  Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy

Look at prison populations, gun laws, and gated communities; the book references all these and more. 

Steven Larsen, CC BY 3.0,

Amy Alkon wants people to behave better, but she serves up the information with plenty of humor. 

Alkon provides advice through columns ("The Advice Goddess") and a weekly radio show. 

She is also the author of a couple of books, including Good Manners for Nice People (Who Sometimes Say F*ck)

Beatrice Murch/Wikimedia

A journalist and a comic actor walk into a bar. 

It's not the setup to a joke, it's the start of two men helping other people start conversations. 

Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, journalist and comic, respectively, teamed up for a book on getting a conversation off the ground: What to Talk About

How To Handle Rapid Change

Aug 23, 2017
Felix Burton, CC BY 2.0,

You've heard it before: the only thing certain in life is change.  But doesn't it seem sometimes like the world changes faster all the time? 

It can be daunting to keep up. 

But some people do it better than others, and those are the people Sharon Weil talked to for her book ChangeAbility: How Artists, Activists, and Awakeners Navigate Change

25 leading change-makers were interviewed for the book. 

Any effort to improve your life would probably not begin at the doorstep of an economist. 

But let's keep an open mind about this.  Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, is best known for writing about "the invisible hand" of the market. 

But he also wrote works about morality and encouraging good behavior.  Russ Roberts dug up this more heart-centered version of Smith for his own book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

Beatrice Murch/Wikimedia

Eden Collinsworth wrote a book for Chinese people on what to expect when interacting with Western business people. 

Now she feels compelled to understand the way Westerners act to each other (if that can, in fact, be understood). 

Collinsworth's new book is Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex and Business.  It examines what she charitably calls the "flexibility" in morals demonstrated in today's America. 

Sorry/Not Sorry In Today's World

Aug 2, 2016

"I'm sorry if anyone was offended by my statement." 

Have you ever heard that kind of apology and wondered about the sincerity of the apologist?  Notice, as you parse the phrase, that the person speaking is NOT apologizing for the statement, but for the reaction. 

Southern Oregon University Professor Edwin Battistella noticed the spate of half-apologies of recent years; he wrote a book about them: Sorry About That.  It's been released in paperback this year, not necessarily in time to coincide with election year and all the gaffes and apologies that brings. 

Individuality + Collectivism = America

Mar 15, 2016
Viking Press

Some days you just want people to stop yelling at each other. 

One end of the political spectrum says individual freedoms are the most important thing in the United States.  The other end says we all have to work together for the common good. 

Take heart that we are decidedly NOT having this argument for the first time.  In fact, we've been fighting about it since before the Constitution was even written, as Colin Woodard points out in his book American Character

Woodard blew our mind five years ago with American Nations, his book showing the very different regional cultures that made up the "united" states. 

A Memoir Of Avoidance: "Will Not Attend"

Jul 27, 2015
Plume Books

Adam Resnick may not actually like people (he tells us he does).

But he certainly knows how to make people laugh; he did so for years as a writer for David Letterman's TV show.  

Resnick gives us a memoir in essays in his book "Will Not Attend;" it turns out he's hated parties since an Easter egg hunt went awry in his childhood.

Most life events can come in multiples, but we each get one birth and one death.

And we prefer to focus on the first, not the second.  Which leads to all kinds of issues for people who really need to talk about death, accepting it, and even hastening it.  Katy Butler's experiences with her elderly parents led her to write Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.