TIMES AND TOWN: A good, decent person has read many books!

THURSDAY, MARCH 4, 2021

But do his assessments make sense?: Professor Ibram X. Kendi was featured in Sunday's New York Times. He was also featured in Sunday's Washington Post. 

Especially over here in Our Town—much less so in towns where Others reside—he has become a major figure in the effort to figure how to deal with our nation's brutal racial history and with its ongoing effects. We return today to the way he was featured in Sunday's New York Times.

Kendi was featured in the weekly "By The Book" interview in the great paper's Book Review section. As we noted yesterday, we became instant Kendi fans on the basis of something he said about the way he regards Sadiqa Kendi, his partner and his wife.

We like the values which Kendi expressed in that one short statement. We wish that boys and young men were exposed, on a regular basis, to instruction of the type.

("I get the joy of rediscovering you?" We always let the analysts cheer when they hear Journey singing that lyric. According to an extensive search, big giant male rock stars rarely make statements like that.)

We became instant Kendi fans on the basis of his remark in that area. We were also struck by his account of his life when he was a child and a teen

His life at that time didn't go by the book(s). This is what he said:

NEW YORK TIMES (2/28/21): What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

KENDI: I was not much of a reader as a child. In high school, I almost never read books. When teachers assigned books, I read their CliffsNotes. My little bookcase was full of little yellow CliffsNotes. It is embarrassing to talk about now. Then again, the books assigned to me were boring and irrelevant. No one was assigning me books by Walter Dean Myers. And unfortunately for me, there weren’t books available by Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Laurie Halse Anderson, Elizabeth Acevedo, Frederick Joseph, Ibi Zoboi, Tomi Adeyemi, Tiffany Jewell, Renee Watson, Kim Johnson, Nicola Yoon and Kwame Alexander. I did not become a reader until my English 101 class at Florida A&M University. That’s when a professor introduced me to James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and Charles W. Chesnutt.

For our money, that was a fascinating exchange—and it sent us drifting back.

Kendi didn't become a reader of books until he was in college. With regard to that exchange, we're only sorry that Kendi says he finds his high school behavior embarrassing.

By the way, all praise to the professor at A&M whose class triggered Kendi's interest. Ideally, that's one oif the things we'd most like professors to do.

For ourselves, we did read books as a child. It was what you did on Everell and Marshall Roads in the town where we lived through seventh grade. 

We're embarrassed to say that the books we seem to remember best were the million and one big-league sports novels by Joe Archibald. In Archibald's novels, the hero always made a leaping catch at the wall, but he also had a girl friend.  

We also read more classic texts—we read Little Women and Little Men—but the book we remember being inspired by was Lancelot Hogben's The Wonderful World of Mathematics. For some inexplicable reason, we were given the book as a Christmas present when we were in sixth grade.

It's a book you can buy in hardback today for as little as $920.99. We'd love to see what was in that book, but the price remains a bit steep.

(As an adult, our favorite literary genre is books which don't make sense on a very high level. We start with the "Einstein made easy" books, but the greatest example of a book which doesn't sense on a very high level is Rebecca Goldstein's Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (2006).

(We especially admire the parts in which she discusses Bertrand Russell's invention of the nonsensical and utterly silly pseudo-conundrum, Russell's Paradox. That book really doesn't make sense, on the highest levels!)

Back to the subject at hand:

We were struck by Kendi's description of his high school years. The books he was assigned to read struck him as boring, irrelevant. He defaulted to Cliff's famous Notes.

Our experience was the same, and yet different. We did read the famous books we were assigned at Aragon High. Along the way, we were being taught the ways to get 5's on that era's AP tests.

That said, we felt increasingly detached from the books we were being assigned. Why were we reading Huckleberry Finn (or The Heart of Darkness)? What did these books have to do with us?

Increasingly, we had no idea. 

It seems that Kendi, as a high school kid, felt a similar sort of detachment. We'll guess that millions of American teenagers do, not always for the same reasons. But in such ways, "education" fails.

Kendi's literary intellect came alive when he was assigned certain authors as a college student. At this point, we reach a possibly humorous aspect of his "By The Book" interview session:

As we noted yesterday, By The Book is a weekly feature in the Sunday Book Review. As we noted, the interviews sometimes seem perhaps a bit performative. Occasionally, performance may even seem to give way to something more like exhibitionism.

There's nothing evil about such behaviors, but we may tend to chuckle a bit at such entirely human times. We may have chuckled a bit during Kendi's interview, which started exactly like this:

NEW YORK TIMES: What’s the last great book you read?

KENDI: I can’t just name one. I want to highlight three great books I recently read on America’s political economy. The first, “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is an expertly told history of the post-civil rights emergence of what Taylor terms “predatory inclusion.” The second, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” by William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, is the best booklong case for reparations. The third, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” by Walter Johnson, adroitly examines a U.S. history of imperial racial capitalism with its crosswinds centered in St. Louis.

Kendi has recently read three great books, not just the one asked for. Beyond that, it's possible that he has recently read five classic novels for the first time, though the actual number could possibly be larger:

NEW YORK TIMES (continuing directly): Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

KENDI: I recently read “Passing,” by Nella Larsen, published in 1929. I’m working my way through a stack of the classic novels from the Harlem Renaissance. Shout out to Penguin Classics! I also recently finished two books from the Harlem Renaissance that address colorism: “The Blacker the Berry,” by Wallace Thurman, and “Black No More,” by George S. Schuyler. These two books moved me to grab two current page-turners on the subject of colorism: “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett and “We Cast a Shadow,” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin.

Are the five books he names all novels? In case they aren't, he also cites that other stack of classic novels, the ones from Penguin Classics. 

Already, many books have been named! And as the session continues, we see an exchange which is quite familiar within this New York Times format:

NEW YORK TIMES (continuing directly): Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

KENDI: At night, I like to wind down with a book in my hands. I don’t remember the last time the pages of a book were not the final thing I saw before departing off for sleep. Since moving to Boston, I’ve been reading in bed, with a night light, straining to see the sentences. Months ago, I purchased a comfortable chaise longue chair. Pandemic-slow, it finally arrived. I read for the first time on the chair the other night. The experience was ideal. And as expected, I stayed up later than normal with the book: learning, reflecting, thinking, calming my mind. I’m hoping this ideal experience helps me read 50 books this year.

If that's the way this (highly literate) person reads, there's no reason not to say so. As we noted yesterday, we tend to view this familiar type of exchange as an example of branding on the part of the New York Times, less so on the part of the individual "By The Book" subject.

Because we've cited Huckleberry Finn, the Times may have felt the need to mention that title as well. Our youthful analysts shrieked in response to what Kendi said:

NEW YORK TIMES: You’re at the forefront of a recent wave of authors combating racism through active, sustained antiracism. How do you advise readers to approach books like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” books with conflicted or hard-to-parse racial attitudes?

KENDI: I’d advise readers of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to ensure they are also reading books like “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” “White Rage,” by Carol Anderson, Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All,” Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s “The Condemnation of Blackness,” Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness,” Brittney Cooper’s “Eloquent Rage,” “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Thick,” “Fatal Invention,” by Dorothy Roberts, “Begin Again,” by Eddie Glaude Jr. and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy”—to name a few of the critically acclaimed nonfiction books that can nurture an antiracist critical eye. I’d advise readers to approach all books with an antiracist critical eye, even books on race. When we actively read with a critical eye, we protect ourselves from unknowingly consuming a book’s hard to parse racist ideas. But this isn’t just about books. How we read old and new books is no different from how we read society, past and present. We must read all characters—living and dead, fictional and real—with respect and not diminish them, or allow them to be diminished because of the color of their skin. At the same time, we cannot allow racism to be diminished and overlooked in literature, in policy, in power.

The anguished youngsters tore at their hair as they read Kendi's statement. 

"No one will ever read Huck Finn," one of these spirited youngsters cried, "if they have to read fifteen other books before they can even get started!" Indeed, she had named just "a few" of "the critically acclaimed nonfiction books that can nurture an antiracist critical eye!"

(A quick aside. For adult readers, is Huckleberry Finn really a book "with a conflicted or hard-to-parse racial attitude?" In most settings, it might be a difficult, painful book to "teach" to groups of children, or to classes of high school students. But do adults need to read fifteen books to help themselves find their way through the minefields of the book? We're willing to guess that some won't.)

By now, it was clear that Kendi hasn't been reading any sports/romance novels of late. As sometimes happens in By The Book sessions, he rattled an endless list of books, all of which seemed to be concerned with issues of racial justice.

Given the nature of national and global history, there's no reason why Professor Kendi shouldn't be reading such books. We did think he struggled with several trick questions—with such "trick questions" as this:

NEW YORK TIMES: Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

KENDI: I feel like this is a trick question! All the subjects I think more authors should write about I’m planning to write about (or I privately urge a more qualified author to do so). But that means writers should write the books we want to read. Write the books readers want written. Write the books you were nurtured to write.

Kendi seems like a genial person. (It's a very good way to be.) We'll guess that his instant response was offered tongue in cheek.

That said, Kendi seems to read books on one subject alone. Perhaps for that reason, this question about other desirable topics qualified as a trick.

Books stopped seeming boring to Kendi when he came upon his principal subject of interest. In our view, it's a very good thing when that happens—when a teacher or professor or friend helps someone make that discovery.

Today, it sounds like Kendi never stops reading books. It sounds like they're all on that one basic topic—and, it might be imagined, it sounds like they all adopt a roughly similar point of view:

("Writers should write the books we want to read," he somewhat dangerously said.)

We've been perhaps a bit snarky today, but only for an excellent reason. Especially in the streets of Our Town, Professor Kendi has become a very significant person.

His ideas about race—more specifically, his ideas about "antiracism"—play an important role in Our Town's flailing culture. It's obvious that he's a good decent person—we refer you to what he said about love and gender—but it's in this other highly important area that his influence has grown.

We've been a bit sardonic today because of some of his views in that sprawling realm. Tomorrow, we'll look at what he was quoted saying in the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post. 

Kendi was quoted by Matthews Yglesias on the front page of Outlook. His  statement might help explain the way the New York Times reports on the lives and the interests of the millions of good, decent kids who attend our nation's low-income schools. 

Does Professor Kendi's quoted statement make sense? We share a basic point of concern with what he said in the Washington Post, but we also think the New York Times' education reporting is extremely hard to defend.

Those schools are full of good, decent kids. How should the schools they attend be discussed?

Tomorrow: What Kendi said about public schools. Also, a puzzling prescription


24 comments:

  1. "It's a book you can buy in hardback today for as little as $920.99. We'd love to see what was in that book, but the price remains a bit steep."

    You can buy a non-collectible used copy for $32.18 on Amazon. Hard to impress people with your reading acument when you don't know how to buy a used book on Amazon.

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  2. Trying to read a math book in 6th grade that was over his head may have given Somerby habits of skimming, skipping the parts that don't make sense (instead of looking them up elsewhere) and shallow thinking that prevented him from understanding deep subjects later in life. With the most complex books, you need to read them line by line and take apart each sentence, often discussing with others or seeking help before moving on. Not something an unguided 6th grader would know how to do, and not appropriate for Somerby's presumed cognitive development.

    But, of course, Somerby blames the books, not his own limitations. Those modern books are supposed to be more accessible to an interested, somewhat prepared adult, but that doesn't mean you don't have to make an effort.

    I don't know what Hogben was like, but I do know what it is like to stop listening because everything being said is over your head. I also know what it is like to grab onto the parts you do understand while skipping the rest, a process that distorts overall understanding. This is pretty much what Somerby does with metaphors and song lyrics. It is interesting to find that he may have been doing this all his life, not just in old age.

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  3. You mean this Matt Yglesias?

    Over 300 Bangladeshis were crushed to death in the ruins of their high-rise factory and Slate’s Matt Yglesias is annoyed. He’s not annoyed that 300 people were crushed to death, he’s annoyed that seemingly ​“the entire Internet” is complaining about a post he wrote while bodies were still being pulled from the rubble, arguing that the status quo is just fine because Bangladeshis are making a rational economic calculus:

    >>>>Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh.

    Yglesias summed up the gist of his argument in a tweet, ​“Foreign factories should be more dangerous than American factories.” In a follow-up post, Yglesias issued an apology of sorts, but only after spending several lines grousing about how annoyed he was that meanies of the Internet made him correct his mistake.

    https://inthesetimes.com/article/no-matt-yglesias-bangladeshi-workers-didnt-choose-to-be-crushed-to-death

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  4. "Along the way, we were being taught the ways to get 5's on that era's AP tests."

    Those ratty teachers! Shame on them for preparing Somerby for later life.

    At some point, someone apparently taught Somerby the value of doing things he had little interest in doing (in school), unlike Kendi, who was permitted to skip the things he found uninteresting. Does anyone imagine that you get to skip the boring parts of a paid job in later life? Or you can be excused from doing taxes or registering your car because those activities don't appeal to you? Somerby was taught more than what appeared in those required reading books in school. A parent who lets a kid use Cliff Notes is teaching him to cheat and take shortcuts in later life. A child's school years are when kids learn the habits they will apply in jobs and other situations later in life.

    A teacher knows this. Why doesn't Somerby? Perhaps because his training came from Teach for America and thus skipped the part about the value of learning discipline and the problems with focusing only on inspiration or pleasure in learning.

    If schools had introduced Baldwin early in Kendi's schooling, he wouldn't have had as much interest in it as he did in college, where he was discovering his racial identity. Obama made the same discoveries (as described in his books) during college and formed his racial identity then, not in 6th grade or even 10th grade. Presenting material at the right time is part of teaching too. That's why there is a high school syllabus, and care is given to picking books that are helpful to kids and interesting to most of them. Somerby dismisses that, as if teachers put no care at all into book lists and classroom teaching.

    Anybody can read whatever they want at any age, but that doesn't mean they will understand it well. Kendi is suggesting those 15 other books to allow adults to understand and appreciate Huck Finn. Somerby considers those 15 other books to be a barrier, because he has no desire to understand race historically or in the present. He doesn't want to do the work of learning.

    For those who have learned the benefits of mental effort, the work is part of the pleasure. But it only comes with stretching and not with staying inside one's comfort zone. And Somerby won't stretch to understand Kendi, just as he doesn't stretch to understand Chanel Miller or anyone else his knee-jerk prejudices respond to, all the while lecturing liberals and his readers here about understanding The Others.

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  5. "That said, Kendi seems to read books on one subject alone."

    Kendi was given interview space to promote the subjects he most wanted people to know about. That doesn't mean it is the only thing he reads books about.

    This is a very unfair comment. Somerby has no idea what else Kendi might be reading.

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  6. "How we read old and new books is no different from how we read society, past and present. We must read all characters—living and dead, fictional and real—with respect and not diminish them, or allow them to be diminished because of the color of their skin. "

    Here, Kendi talks about how to read ALL books, not just books about race. He begs readers to think about how all characters in such books are presented, to be critical (I would call it using empathy and imagination). I would add that thinking about the author's context and the historical context are also important. That's what those 15 books on race might teach a reader to do. In a high school class, teachers try to broaden the way inexperienced readers react to what they have read. They are still teaching their students how to read.

    Somerby seems to think that race has nothing to do with sports or romance. He is so wrong, if he thinks such books have nothing to do with race, or vice versa. And Somerby seems entirely unaware of the absurdity of a white man trying to chide a black man for being too concerned about racial understanding in our society. Somerby makes himself a ridiculous figure today.

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  7. "As we noted, the interviews sometimes seem perhaps a bit performative. Occasionally, performance may even seem to give way to something more like exhibitionism."

    Yesterday, the lists were performative; today they are exhibitionist?

    Adam Grant's new book talks about the ways in which elitists condescend. It seems to me that Somerby's chuckles about what other people are reading seem a bit elitist and condescending, because he is very sure of his own attitudes toward culture, secure in his own beliefs about what is the right amount of reading. One could just as easily scoff at Somerby for his reviews of philosophy and physics made easy books, his endless re-reading of Wittgenstein and his unwillingness to read any other stories by Tolstoy beyond The Lady and the Lapdog. Who is he to judge others?

    People join reading groups all across the country in order to be on the same page with others, so that they can talk about what they have read. There are so many possible books available these days that some coordination is needed. On matchmaking sites, people list their current reading, so that they will have something to talk about with prospective dates. Is this evil? I imagine the reading interviews are intended to give others ideas about what they might enjoy, a source of inspiration for book clubs and reading circles, gift ideas, and a way to make conversation with friends. What is there to mock in this? It is social activity and it strikes me as entirely harmless, not performative and certainly not exhibitionist. Is Somerby perhaps unaware that the people who are being interviewed are generally already well-known, if not famous? Given Somerby's response, they have more to lose than gain by agreeing to be interviewed, but Somerby reverse snobbery is noted. Not everyone is so small about important activities like reading.

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  8. “Bertrand Russell's invention of the nonsensical and utterly silly pseudo-conundrum, Russell's Paradox.”

    So, Bob, you’re saying that Cantor’s original formulation of set theory was flawless? That Russell was wrong when he claimed to find (not invent) an inconsistency within it that Cantor acknowledged? Cause that’s what that paradox was all about.



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    1. Somerby's belief that reading is a way of showing off suggests that his own discussions of books are meant to make himself appear smart (to exhibit his own intelligence) not to actually discuss any topic in such books. Too bad he isn't smart enough to actually impress anyone with his criticisms of the books he skims.

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  9. Kendi is a professor and a scholar of American racism, but Somerby expects him to recommend books on other topics.

    If the person interviewed were a musician, wouldn't you expect them to be reading something related to music? Brad Taylor, a writer of thrillers, told us about the thrillers he was reading. Somerby didn't chastise him.

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  10. I don't think Somerby can be a "good, decent person" without caring about how beautiful black children in our schools are affected by racism. It is one thing to be ignorant, as Mark Twain was, but another thing entirely to be confronted by 15 books and refuse to read them, yet profess to care about children.

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    1. Mark Twain was ignorant? I am guessing that you are ignorant of Mark Twain.

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    2. Mark Twain was ignorant about a lot that we currently know about our own racial history. How do I know this? Because the historians on that subject weren't published until after Twain was dead.

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    3. Mark Twain was born on 1835. It is doubtful that later historians had much to say about our racial history would have cast him as ignorant about it. If we were all as ignorant about race as was this man, who lived through the civil war, this country would be a better place.

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    4. “...that would have cast him...”

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    5. If living through the civil war automatically made you unbigotted, we wouldn't be having civil rights and racial issues today. Mark Twain was embedded in his time. Important books on "our troubled racial history" include Gunnar Myrdahl's "An American Dilemma" published in 1944 (after Twain's death in 1910), Winthrop Jordan's "White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812" published in 1968, and a long list of books published by W.E.B. DuBois, all except "Souls of Black Folk" (1903) published after Twain's death, even James Baldwin was born in 1924, 10 years after Twain's death. Twain might have read the abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which framed anti-slavery in Christian terms (Twain was an atheist) but he did not have access to any historical or economic analysis of slavery because those hadn't been written yet.

      Kendi offers this survey:

      https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/diversity/sph-symposium/a-history-of-race-and-racism-in-america-in-24-chapters/

      I like Mark Twain as much as the next person but I don't regard Huckleberry Finn as an anti-racist statement. It is a snapshot of Twain's time period, during which some people saw black people as human beings and others did not. Twain never tied individual, personal racism back to institutions, laws and the economic foundation of our country, as historians do today.

      Somerby appears to be stuck in Mark Twain's view, in which racism is a character flaw not something built into our culture and institutions.

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    6. The remark “It is one thing to be ignorant, as Mark Twain was...” is being critiqued here, and if your argument is that he wasn’t aware of the content of books written after his death, well that is obvious. He was also ignorant of nuclear fission, the Viet Nam war and the Kardashians. We are all embedded in our time; that too goes without saying. You do not consider Huckleberry Finn an anti racist book. Others have; for example, Ralph Ellison praised the book for having made Jim its central figure and humanizing him and his struggle. I think I will side with Ellison(and other Black authors) in this debate. Viewing the book as a snapshot of anything is a remarkably shallow reading in my opinion. No one argued that living through the Civil War automatically made you unbigotted. Mark Twain wrote a piece called “A True Story” , giving the heart wrenching perspective of a Black woman who having had her child taken from her in slavery is reunited with him as a soldier in a Black brigade at the end of the war. Another snapshot? Or an attempt by Twain to convey the dehumanizing struggle of this woman to his readership? I would argue the latter. Would you likewise paint Lincoln as ignorant about race for not having read Ta- Nehisi Coates? That is in essence your argument here. Tying racism back to “institutions, laws and the economic foundations of this country” is the fit subject of Kendi’s reading list but using this literature as part of a criticism of Twain and his writing ironically seems the perspective of someone embedded in his or her time.

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  11. This is no longer the country I admired for 50 years. Something terrible has happened, something terrible has gone wrong. An intellectual like Ib Kendi focuses on reading, and on talking about, only those books that ad nauseam discuss race and race relations from single unchanging perspective. Slavery is referred as Americas Original Sin. That is not true. It is disconcerting to this one note narrative that is now put on a slippery slope, where mathematics is objective and reparations is the demand of the day, where law is applied selectively.

    Sad state of affair. Mr.Kendi offers a book list that mirrors his own one, single, axis view of the world.

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    1. And you say this without glancing at a single one of Kendi's books or those he recommended, I'll bet.

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  12. 4:37. The interview reads like a booklist for an undergraduate class in sociology. That said, the sentence reading “It is disconcerting to this one note narrative...” is very difficult to navigate. It is incoherent.

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