Thursday, January 15, 2015

Week 5: The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin, Problems with Bad Writing

“The idea is cool, but this book is terrible.” Any serious reader has said that to themselves at some point during their reading career. That’s exactly the feeling you will get reading The Great Debate.
Think of a situation when you had to read a book for a college class. Some of you just hated all books from school, and that’s understandable, but others of you wanted to learn about some of the topics in your classes. You paid attention during lectures, and you even carved out some time to do that reading on the Battle of Gettysburg or the differences between Locke and Hobbes. Yet when you actually sat down to read, you could not get through more than three pages without becoming bleary-eyed and looking for the nearest Starbucks. Then you realize you do not just dislike the book, but you hate this entire class you thought you would love.

You probably felt bad about it and told yourself “don’t be a slacker, just power through it.” But once your friend texted you with “we’re going out tonight, you in?”, you were in, even if it was a Tuesday. Do not feel bad about abandoning a bad book to take part in some Dionysian revelry at your local bar or house party. This action was not your fault. You picked a class that should have been good. It was about the Civil War Era, or Microbiology, or whatever topic turned you on; it should have been fascinating. 

Don’t blame yourself. If the class is supposed to be interesting but ends up being boring, the teacher, not you, is doing something wrong. If the teacher is awesome, the topic should not matter. Your favorite topic will shine with a great teacher, but “20th Century European Intellectuals” or “History Workshop” with that same teacher will still inspire you. But if the topic is great and the professor is only mediocre, you are in for a painful semester.

The Great Debate is just like that bad class. The book covers two great scholars of the late 1700s, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke was a classical conservative who believed government evolves over time to promote the good of a civil society. Paine was a classical liberal who thought government arises only as a contract to protect a citizen’s natural rights. The book tells the biography of both men and then lays out how the two first united to support the American Revolution but later diverged around the bloodier and more controversial French Revolution. Levin hashes out how each scholar viewed government, history, human nature, and human reasoning. He argues these two men not only defined political thought in their era but laid the groundwork for the current political divisions between left (Paine) and right (Burke) in the Western world.

The Burke-Paine debate should be a fascinating subject, but Levin’s writing in TGB comes as a great disappointment. According to his bio, Levin is a journalist by trade who edits National Affairs and contributes to conservative publications National Review and Weekly Standard. He writes more like an economics professor or a lazy college sophomore pulling an all-nighter. His sentences are bloated and filled with unnecessary adverbs. No view is “central” but is instead “utterly central”, and Burke never “disagreed“ but always “disagreed sharply.” Levin also overuses the negative voice throughout the book. One egregious example is on page 20, where he writes, “But (Burke) nowhere contends with the radical views of politics laid out in Common Sense, and it seems unlikely that Burke would have failed to react badly to those views had he encountered them.” Once your head stops spinning and you realize Levin is trying to say, “Burke would have disagree with Paine,” you have completely forgotten what he is writing about in the first place. 

Every writer (the author of this blog post included) has been guilty of these writing crimes at some point, but for a professional writer and editor they are inexcusable. The book takes an otherwise interesting subject and makes it very dry by using clunky sentences and lazy language. The subjects the book covers are not simple, but the more complex a topic, the more care the writer must take. If a writer is not exact with his words and his arguments, then the reader misses his main points, and his book loses its relevance. And, as George Orwell points out in his essay on political writing, “language can corrupt thought.” Levin’s vague language misleads the reader to think the philosophies of Burke and Paine were also vague, but it also keeps the reader from understanding what made Burke and Paine so important.

Don’t read The Great Debate. If you want to learn more about Edmund Burke or Thomas Paine, look them up online and find their original writings. The best of both writers is available on Project Gutenberg. For Paine start with Common Sense, and for Burke start with a collection of his political writings. Decide for yourself what these two men thought, and form your own opinions on the nature of government (those opinions are sure to be more clear than what Levin writes in TGB). Just don’t choose a bad teacher for a great subject.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Week 4: The Closer, Mariano Rivera (with Wayne Coffey) - My All-Time Starting Lineup

Author’s Note: Baseball fans will enjoy this post. If you are not a baseball fan, I feel bad for you.

I read The Closer in spite of the fact that I am a Red Sox fan. Rivera’s book is simple and mostly honest. It is also without much excitement or controversy. Despite its lack of juice, I enjoyed taking a trip back through Rivera’s years in the Majors. I was a baseball fan before I was anything else, and many of the games and players Rivera talks about took place from ages 5 to 15 for me. He pitched during a time when I was baseball-crazy. His stories brought me back briskly to nights when I stayed up late to watch some of the best and most heartbreaking baseball games ever played. For all its flaws, I liked The Closer because it helped me travel back in time, and it will do the same for any baseball fan.

Rivera describes how he went from very humble origins in Panama to become one of the best pitchers in the past 20 years. A few things stick out from the story. First, Rivera was never a big league prospect until he turned 20, and he was not even a pitcher until just before the Yankees signed him. Rivera pitched in an emergency for his local team, and a scout just happened to see him and liked how Rivera looked. 

Once Rivera signed, he only had one pitch, a four-seam fastball, but he succeeded because he could control that pitch very well. It was not until his third year in the league that Mo developed a cut fastball, the pitch he became known for during his career. Think about this: in his second full year with the Yankees, 1996, Rivera finished third in the Cy Young Award voting while throwing only one pitch the whole season. This story shows how much command Rivera had as a pitcher, and it also shows how control is much more important for good pitching than speed or movement.

Finally, Rivera is extremely religious, and he is not shy about discussing his faith in God in the book. His faith gives him a very calm and focused mindset throughout his career. This attitude is something any great athlete needs.

The biggest thing that bothered me about Rivera’s book was his unwillingness to take a controversial stand on any subject. His “judge not lest you be judged” attitude is certainly fair, but he avoids conflict to distraction throughout the book. The steroid issue was a particular sticking point for me. It would be refreshing for a ballplayer, to find some middle ground between Rafael Palmiero saying “I have never taken steroids, period” and Jose Canseco accusing every baseball star of using. But Rivera takes the former path, saying he never saw any player take steroids and never heard about any player taking steroids. This statement is difficult to believe. Rivera played for the Yankees for 19 years, and he played with the likes of A-Rod, Clemens, Giambi, Pettite, Sheffield, Giambi, and many other players who are known performance-enhancing drug users. If Rivera never even heard about steroid usage when he was with the Yankees, he is one of three things: naive, aloof, or omitting information.

The only player Rivera did criticize in the book was Pedro Martinez. Rivera describes the bench-clearing brawl in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS. During the brawl, Martinez threw Zimmer to the ground after Zim charged him out of nowhere. Rivera asks, “how low can Pedro go?” He does not take on the steroid question, and he completely ignores the A-Rod interference play from Game 6 of following year’s ALCS (and the fan riot that ensued), but he does take the opportunity to call out Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez. This struck me as bizarre. It might be a personal issue with Pedro, or could be something he and co-author Wayne Coffey put in the book to play up the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Either way, it was the book’s weakest moment.

Still though, I could not shake the fact the book covered most of those games during my formative years. And I remember Rivera’s pitching well too. Until Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, when Rivera blew a save to set up four straight wins for the Sox, Mo was invincible. When he came into the game, it was all over. His cut fastball was unique, and nobody could hit it. Hitters, especially Red Sox hitters, just had to build up a big lead in the first seven innings so they would not have to face him. Nobody closed out a game like Rivera, who is the all-time career leader in saves, has an career ERA well south of three, and is a surefire first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. He is the greatest closer of all time. That got me thinking: who are the rest of players in my all-time starting lineup?

Here is the rest of my All-Time Starting Line-Up:

Right-Handed Pitcher: Greg Maddux, “The Professor”, Atlanta Braves
Rivera describes him as “a master craftsman, whittling here and whittling there, carving us up before we even know it.” He was the best pitcher in the 1990s, when he won four straight Cy Young Awards. The last of these came in 1995, when Maddux was a tidy 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA and only 0.81 walks and hits per inning pitched. The Professor finished his career with 355 wins, and he did it without hitting 90 miles per hour on the radar gun.

Left-Handed Pitcher: Sandy Koufax, “Left Arm of God”, Los Angeles Dodgers
For five years in the 1960s Koufax was the most dominant pitcher in baseball history. Koufax benefited from a higher mound and wider strike zone that inflated pitching stats in the 60s, but his record is impressive regardless. From 1962 to 1966, he was 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA, threw four no-hitters (including a perfect game), and won three Cy Youngs and two World Series MVPs. Koufax retired at age 30 after the best year of his career in 1966. See the Ken Burns segment on Koufax here.

Catcher: Yogi Berra, “Yogi”, New York Yankees
Longtime Yankee manager Casey Stengel said “I never play a game without my man.” His man was Berra, three-time MVP and 18-time all-star. He also won 10 World Series rings as a player, more than any ballplayer in history. Some catchers have better stats, but who would not trade a few home runs for 10 titles?

First Baseman: Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse”, New York Yankees
Gehrig was smart (he played for two years at Columbia), and a great hitter (he had a .447 career on-base percentage, and hit 493 home runs). He played 2,130 consecutive games before being diagnosed with ALS in 1939, a disease he died from two years later. Gehrig remained a hero even after he got sick, and this farewell speech made him a legend. ALS has since been known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and it still affects many good people to this day. If you are interested in helping someone who has ALS, check out

Second Baseman: Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers
Robinson is the only player on the list without a classic nickname, but he does not need one. Jackie Robinson was the first African American ever to play in the major leagues. Robinson played every position except pitcher and catcher, but he spent the most time at second base. In his groundbreaking rookie year of 1947, Robinson won the Rookie of the Year, and two years later he won the MVP. After becoming the first black man to play in the Big Leagues, Robinson wasn’t merely competent; he was the best player in the league. Robinson was 28 when he came into the league and only played 10 years, but he is the most important player in the history of baseball or any other sport.

Third Baseman: Brooks Robinson, “The Human Vacuum Cleaner”, Baltimore Orioles
Brooks did not have the hitting ability of others on this list, but he is likely the best defensive third baseman of all time. His nickname says a lot, and Pete Rose’s statement that Robinson should have been playing in “a higher league” says even more.

Shortstop: Derek Jeter, “The Captain”, New York Yankees

Oops, I thought this was the “most overrated” list. My bad.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Jr., “Iron Man”, Baltimore Orioles
Cal Ripken’s stats are very solid Hall-of-Famer numbers, particularly his combo of 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. But one number stands alone: 2,632. That is the number of consecutive games Ripken played between 1982 and 1998, all with the Baltimore Orioles. Ripken also got the third-highest percentage of Hall of Fame votes in history after pitchers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.

Leftfielder: Ted Williams, “The Splendid Splinter”, Boston Red Sox
He is the all-time career leader in on-base percentage. He is the last player to bat .400 in a single season, which he did in 1941 at age 22. He hit more than 500 career home runs despite missing nearly five full seasons for military service in the prime of his career. It’s a toss up between him and my rightfielder for the greatest hitter ever.

Centerfielder: Willie Mays, “The Say Hey Kid”, San Francisco Giants
He is the only player with 3,000 hits, 600 home runs, and 300 stolen bases. He was also a great fielder at a position where fielding is very valuable, winning ten gold gloves in a row and making the greatest catch ever.

Rightfielder: Babe Ruth, “The Sultan of Swat”, New York Yankees
What more can be said about the Babe? After Jackie Robinson, he is the most important player in baseball history. Also, if you ran out of arms, you could always bring him in to pitch in a pinch. And of course, when you think of Babe Ruth, you think of The Sandlot.

Designated Hitter: Nobody. Pitchers should hit for their position.

The team has four Yankees against one Red Sock. That’s my lesson for the week: respect the best, even if they are part of something you detest. Mariano Rivera could play on my team any day.