The Limits of Our Thoughts

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source : Possibilitator,  November 3, 2018

The reading pile keeps getting bigger. Each morning upon grabbing the coffee and nestling into a corner of the couch, I reach for one of the books in my reading pile. On the coffee table in front of the couch are the magazines that pile up – The SunThe AtlanticThe NationYes Magazine.

The Hell of Good Intention book cover

Today I grabbed a recent addition to the book pile, Stephen Walt’s new The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018).

It’s one of the best reads of 2018 if not the 2000s. I’ve got two chapters left, about 70 pages of the 360 ( 70 pages are notes, themselves worth reading). Anyone interested in foreign policy should read this critique of the “establishment” since WWII through early 2018 and why policy alternatives to what Walt, describes as “liberal hegemony” never seem to change whether Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump sits in the oval office. Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University.


Also in the pile and partially read are:

Noam Chomsky. Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire and Social Change (2017)

Richard Falk. The Costs of War: International Law, The UN, and World Order After Iraq (2008)

Shampa Biswas. NuclearDesire: Power and Post Colonial Nuclear Order (2014)

Richard Falk. Humanitarian Intervention and Legitimacy Wars: Seeking Peace and Justice in the 21st Century (2015)

Liam Young. Rise: How Jerey Corbyn Inspired the Young to Create a New Socialism (2018)

Christopher Bertram. Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants (2018)

Also in the pile but not yet started other than the introductions are

George Orwell. TheRoad to Wigan Pier (1937) which Ellen just read and highly recommended it for it’s pertinence.

Gretel Van Wieren. Food Farming and Religion: Emerging Ethical Perspectives (2018) Stumbled upon on the new book shelf and noted that author was an MSU professor (I have not met) but in the intro she highlights work of two other MSU profs I do know.

Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland. Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities(2018)

Noam Chomsky. Who Rules the World (2016)

I often wonder how the brain and impulse drive the selection of items for the pile and how it then integrates the ideas as I read them. Based on past experience I may not finish all of them, and certainly as the Walt book shows, some other title will get added to the pile and potentially take precedence over others. Usually when that happens,  like Walt’s book, the writing is excellent and ideas more compelling or perhaps fresh, innovative or at least new to me.

I admittedly don’t absorb anymore the full detail as I read the pages. I tend to carry forward the general intent of the book along with its tone. In some cases I note certain quotes and page references for possible future use. In many cases the references lead to other titles added to the pile or websites to investigate.

I recognize all this as a privilege that I have, or at least make the time, to delve into this playground of ideas. Of course, scholars like Walt or the others represented in the pile, dedicate even more of their time and energy into delving deeper into segments of the world of ideas than I do. But most of those are within a narrower band width of human thought than I can manage. So it intrigues me as I interact more and more with elected officials and their staff, to consider how much they read, how limited that time is and perhaps again how narrow the area of focus.

Mr. Trump, who appears to celebrate not reading, except teleprompters,  is at the abysmal end of this scale. But what of Senator X,  Representative Y, or foreign policy staffer Z.  How many books have any of them read in the past year? What is the longest policy report they have completely read from an academic journal, think tank, or government agency? It concerns me that the responses would be closer to Trump than to Walt, or even me. While Walt doesn’t discuss this information deficit directly thus far in his book, his notion of how the foreign policy elites constrain the limits of consideration helps me understand why new ideas, or even the reconsideration of failed policies, seem “foreign” to most elected officials.

Expanding our horizons and possibilities in our increasingly complex world through reading of serious, thoughtful, and sometimes lengthy writings might help all of us appreciate the limitations of our electoral system and those that represent us. Ignorance is not bliss.

The following two tabs change content below.
Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

Latest posts by Terry Link (see all)