Book Review: After The Fall

Being American In the World We’ve Made, By Ben Rhodes


So we’re back for another review! Coincidentally, After the Fall was an excellent book to listen to right after Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. Like Caste, After the Fall explores the United States as exists today through the lens of history and offers some excellent insights about how and why the human condition exists as is does today. The two books dovetail nicely with one another by providing a sort of micro and macro exploration of authoritarianism. While Caste focuses on the US racial caste system since its origin, After the Fall focusses on authoritarianism and identity more broadly via the US’s post Cold War actions and consequences.

I admit again that while I have purchased a hard copy of the book from a LOCAL BOOK STORE, I ended up listening to the audiobook again due to my intermittent elbows. This time it was a bonus, because unlike his actual memoir, Ben Rhodes actually reads his own book this time. Given that my other interaction with him is through podcasts, it felt much more natural to hear the author’s own voice this go around. Ben’s performance is excellent and you can tell that he cares about his material. So don’t avoid the audiobook.

As for After the Fall itself. The book is written sort of as a continuation of Rhodes’ earlier memoir of his time in the Obama Administration, The World As It Is. Aside from inexplicably being read aloud by someone other than the author, that memoir is excellent and you should go listen to… errr… read it. That said, The World As It Is begins with Ben’s birth and ends right as he is saying goodbye to Obama while he exits what used to be Air Force One.

After the Fall seemingly picks right up as Ben is trying to figure out what the hell to do with all the time on his hands and a need to deescalate from being in the inner sanctum of US government. What he chooses to do is travel the world to interview people and report upon the state of authoritarianism in the United States and the World today. Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, and China are big stops in the book, and while there he gives us interviews of various journalists and activists as well as personal anecdotes and insight from his time in government.

A big theme of the book is that much of the rise of authoritarianism today can be traced to the end of the Cold War and how the US squandered its newfound global hegemony. Split into several parts, the book travels the world exploring the actions of authoritarian leaders and the aspirations of underdogs. My favorite insight from the book was when Rhodes labels Putin’s raison d’etre as counter revolution in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. I’d always seen the connection, but calling it counter revolutionary really added some important context into my understanding of post Cold-War History.

After the Fall also spends a lot of time analyzing China and how it’s rise is directly connected to the post Cold War boom years and the United State’s insatiable desire for cheap goods. It is rather alarming to see any logical connections made between my having too many t-shirts in the 90’s and Hong Kong protesters getting swept aside in 2019. As Caste illustrates how the Nazi’s took notes from the US racial apartheid and economic exploitation playbook, After the Fall shows how China has learned to use capitalism itself as a method of exploiting the US both morally and economically.

If I had to nitpick one criticism, it’s that the tone of the books sometimes feels a bit uneven. At times the book flows neatly as a continuation of the memoir, while at other times the book is much more direct journalism and analysis. This does not diminish the strength of the author’s augments, and there are plenty of relevant anecdotes. I just found that the sudden bouts of personal whimsy were out of place in some spaces. It wasn’t bad. It just felt odd.

Aside from that, I fully enjoyed my experience with this book. There are plenty of unique characters to keep you engaged and illustrate worlds and worldviews that are both different from our own, yet strangely familiar. I learned much about US and world history while also getting the view of a world that looks like it could, at any moment, spin off its axis. There is a vision of hope and beauty in struggle, but also a warning that without vigilance comes a rising darkness and uncertain future. It is an indictment of US complacency and hubris, but also a tome that can spark hope by highlighting the better path.


Book Review: Caste

Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson


This book is an exploration of human caste systems with the purpose of illustrating how society in the United States of America has utilized a caste system since before its founding. No matter how ‘woke’ you are, this book will challenge you to reorganize your thoughts about racism and class in the US, and you will likely have a different understanding of the country and our society when you are through. It’s case is powerful and strongly supported by comparisons to the ancient caste system of India and the machinations Nazi Germany, as well as personal stories of being a successful black woman in America.

I have actually spent some of my own time meditating on this concept over the years, and when I began to listen (bad elbows make audiobooks easier) to the book I did not expect to be so deeply affected. I understand that there is a limit to my wokeness as a straight cis white guy, but I’m also a huge history nerd and I thought I’d likely already heard everything this book was trying to say in some form. I was flatly wrong, and by the end of the book I found I was enriched with new and shocking historical facts as well as a markedly different understanding of a few key events in our nation’s history.

When Isabel decries all those after the 2016 election that whined “how could all those white people seemingly vote against their interest?”, I must admit I was one of those people. Her take on the 2016 election makes an excellent case that when you take the caste system into account, these people were voting in line with their long term interests. Or at least what they perceived to be those interests, and how those interests were likely formed in the first place.

Apart from a few specific moments, however, Wilkerson generally stays away from being overtly political. That isn’t to say the book isn’t filled with the political consequences of caste systems. I just personally feel she does an excellent job of trying to make her case as matter-of-factly as possible in an effort to keep the book from being easily labeled pro-democrat and anti-republican vs. pro-education and anti-caste. It is for this reason, that I also think this book has some staying power as poignant historical analysis.

My final comment is that this book is HEAVY. If you are a person with a heart, there is a lot that is going to hurt. Human history then and now is full of suffering and injustice, and this book gives you an eye (ear) full of it. Do not be a coward and stay away from this book, but instead prepare yourself for a harrowing experience through time and sociology. As the book makes clear, we must all deal with the uncomfortable truths before we can truly make them better.

If you are white, this is essential reading to gain a more full understanding our of society and its founding. If you are not white, you can still gain so much from the historical analysis and personal stories. We all gain from increasing our knowledge of human history, US society, and the struggles of this specific successful female black New York Times reporter. Of all the thoughts expressed in this book, however, one point that is made overwhelmingly clear; if Isabel Wilkerson is waiting behind you to exit a plane, kindly keep your ass out of her face.


I am A .09% er, And Damn Proud

<Character Rant>

You smelly rat booger snot coward! That’s right, I’m talking to you!

I see you standing in the corner with your Three Percenter tattoo thinking you’re just a right old baddass. Sitting in the glow of your righteous patriotism.


You are currently being berated by one of THE FEW, the truest of the true.

CAN that holier than thou, ‘WTF’ attitude mister. You’re nothin’ but bug vomit and I AM THE REAL DEAL. IF you ever want to be anything with your turd nugget existence, then you better listen to me, and then get to work.

See, you know the 3%ers, they’re the ones who ACTUALLY fought back against the English while everyone else cheerleeded from the sidelines. That’s you now. Good for you for doing the bare minimum.

ME! On the other hand, I’m part of the elite .09%. As a Point-O-Niner, as we like to call ourselves, I represent the 3% of the 3%, those of the fighting people that ACTUALLY GAVE A SHIT!

I’m not making ill of the dead, but some of them bums was fighting for their land, or their buddies, or because they wanted to see the world. The .09% hated the English so much, many of them went and fought for France and Napoleon after the revolution just so they could keep sticking it to the monarchy.

So, let me tell you sonny Bim Bam, thanks to several fortunate mishaps, my blood is literally red, white, and blue, and smells like maple syrup. I couldn’t be more of a 3%er if I tried. GOT IT!

But I’ve seen you out there, wanting more. IF you want it bad enough, you could join me in the elite of the elite. Abandon your wife and kids, and kiss your friends goodbye, because from here on in, it’s all about fighting the war until it’s won. YOU HEAR ME!

Now. When you’re ready, you come find ‘Ol Johnny Knickerpants and I’ll put in a good word with the .0027%. Trust me, you’ll need my help. Those guys are a bunch of fascists.


“Don’t Worry, She Only Bites Democrats”

“She bites the liberal Democrats Twice”


One of the best parts of my life is that by putting myself in interesting situations, interesting things happen more often. Such as simultaneously receiving a compliment and a threat of bodily harm. It is interesting, because the competing emotions are so opposite that you have to immediately start observing the whole situation from outside your body in order to properly process what is happening in real time. So instead of an unbearable blend of discomforts, it all becomes simply ‘interesting’.

Last night I did 10 minutes of stand-up at the Black Pond Brewery in Danielson, CT. By all accounts it went great! I had friends there and a I made all the strangers laugh. One of these strangers was a tall man with a Rottweiler dog. Apart from howling in sadness after being prevented from eating the bar’s resident cat, the dog was adorable and well behaved.

Cut to after the show. Our tall friend gets my attention and begins to chat with me. He asks if I’m a teacher for real and not just making it up for comedy. He then tells me he was a teacher in East Hartford back in the day, and thanks me generally for what I do. All in all a pleasant interaction.

As our banter is coming to a close, I get THAT URGE you get near adorable animals. The moment I begin to reach to pet the dog though, I pause realizing I now had THAT URGE to ask the owner if I’d have a hand left after trying to touch his personal comfort beast. The dog notices my pullback and understandably got a bit nervous. That’s when it got interesting.

In that thing that people do, this guy whipped out what he thought would be a cute phrase we could bond over. Something to excuse his dog’s nervousness.

“She only bites Democrats.”

I probably gave one of my trademark combination wince smiles, because he knew he’d made it weird. First, a wince smile is a completely uncontrollable spontaneous reaction to hearing something awful and/or terrifying when I am also trying to maintain eye contact and a polite grin. Essentially it’s like watching any movie where someone gets hit in the face and time is distorted. A sudden unhinged twist, violently brought under control to reform it’s previous happy go lucky disposition.

Second, I’m not sure any part of my comedy routine suggested I was anything less than liberal. I’m probably a 7 out of 10 on the radical liberal scale, which basically means I know a lot of communists who think I’m too conservative for my own good, but am otherwise firmly a lefty.

So when this guy said those words, was he threatening me? Surely it was just harmless utterance!

“She bites liberal democrats twice!”

Even the dog looked unimpressed at this point. My reaction had totally given away the internal workings of my mind. The tall man was now sort of stuck. He was a kind enough guy though, and despite the words and giant dog to back them up, I felt no malice. He was trying to be funny with the comedian. So I did what any decent comic would do. I threw it in his face as cleverly as possible.

“Guess I’ll offer up BOTH my arms then.”

I’d hoped this would table the political griping so I could continue to connect with the gentleman. He seemed like an alright guy after all, and everyone you meet knows something you don’t. But, that is not how things work these days. The tall man decided then to make his exit, and took his dog around the side of the bar and out of my life. Things had gotten too ‘interesting’.