Book Review: How Democracies Die


The thesis of How Democracies Die is simple and profound; democracies collapse when mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, none of which is found in the constitution, are neglected.

Two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern (102) … institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system (106).

The essence of these two norms is the effort to acknowledge one’s own biases and limits in understanding the entirety of an issue. We think as much (or little) as we experience. No matter how much I’ve studied an issue and whatever academic credential I have, I’m just one of the blind men touching an elephant and unable to imagine other parts. I can begin to fathom an issue only when I become curious about what I haven’t seen. What erodes democracy is the arrogant assumption that I know it all and best.

The same principle applies to people. Each individual has multiple identities and cannot be reduced to one. Someone on the other side of the aisle could still be a friend, just like me and one of my tennis partners, who is a Republican. On the way to a court and back home, we have talked about various political issues and had our differences, but our conversations never spiraled into fiery arguments. I would have ignored him if he was just a Republican, but he’s not; he’s also a kind friend, a serious learner, a mischievous brother, and a competitive but cheering tennis player. I’m willing to listen to him and even found some of his thoughts illuminating.

One more thing about the book. Notwithstanding its appearance, How Democracies Die doesn’t read like a political science book. It is extremely accessible and replete with world-wide, historical and contemporary examples. Some authors are gifted that way and I’m very jealous of them.

Some other quotes from the book:

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Book Review: The Perfect Nanny

IMG_3218Reading a novel—a good one—feels like holding a miniature world in my hands housed in a glass case. Peeking through the glass, I get to see the characters day and night, here and there; characters have no place to hide from me. Listening to the third-person omniscient narrator, I become aware of their past as well as their desires and realize that the present is not an independent segment in the timeline, but an overlap between the past and the future where both memories and desires influence numerous decisions made at the current moment.

On the surface, one main stream of events flows through a novel, but the players in it bring their own stories.

By the end of the first chapter of The Perfect Nanny, we know who committed a horrendous murder, when and where it happened and how. By the end of the book, we question whether Louise is in fact solely responsible for the murder or everyone has a share.

How presumptuous it is to say that I “know” someone. Everyone has a story to tell and nobody knows others’ full stories. How arrogant it is to judge someone based on shallow knowledge, snapshots of someone through my own lens. I dropped off The Perfect Nanny at the library, but these thoughts trailed me, becoming part of my past and already shaping my future.

Where to get honest answers


To a young poet who asked Rilke to evaluate his poems, Rilke responded:

“No one can advise or help you—no one… Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? … Keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disrupt it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer” (11).

Letters to a Young Poet written by Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by Stephen Mitchell

Solitude is not the absence of the crowd, but the presence of yourself filling in the space left by the crowd.


(Image: CC0, credit Carlyn1982)


북 리뷰: 잠실동 사람들

“소설은 현실을 반영하는 것이 아니라 현실을 먹는다. 이를테면 거울이 아니라 위장이다. 이 점을 간과할 때 오해가 발생한다. 어떤 음식을 먹었는지 충실히 보여주는 위장이 좋은 위장이 아닌 것처럼, 당대적 현실의 세목들을 충실히 반영하고 있는 소설이 꼭 좋은 소설인 것은 아니다… 좋은 소설은 늘 현실보다 더 과잉이거나 결핍이고 더 느리거나 빠르다. 좋은 소설에는 ‘현실 자체’가 있는 것이 아니라 ‘현실과의 긴장’이 있다. 그래서 현실을 설명하는 2차 담론으로 완전히 환원되어 탕진되지 않는다. 그것이 소설의 깊이고, 그것이 소설의 ‘현실성’을 구성한다” (p24, “몰락의 에티카,” 신형철저).

IMG_2615“현실과의 긴장”을 기다렸는데 끝까지 “현실 자체”를 고수한 책, 잠실동 사람들. 너무 많이 들어 이제는 특별할 것 하나 없는 과열된 사교육과 학벌주의가 이 소설의 중심에 있다. 소설 안에는 감정이 고조되는 소용돌이도, 소설을 관통하는 큰 이야기 줄기도 없다. 없는 것은 그 뿐만이 아니다. 서로 얽혀있는, 아는 듯 알지 못하는 여러 캐릭터들이 등장해서 자기의 이야기를 늘어놓지만 그 중 어느 하나도 내가 마음을 주고 싶은 사람이 없다.

소설 마지막 챕터에 초등학생 지환이가 다친 비둘기를 집으로 데려온다. “겁에 질린 표정으로 자신을 쳐다보고 있는 한 어른 [과외 선생] 의 얼굴”을 쳐다보며 지환이는 “마치 자신이 커다란 어른이 되고 선생님이 작고 작은 어린아이가 된 느낌 (p438)”을 받는다. 지환이는 하나도 무서울 것 없는 것에 잔뜩 겁을 먹은 것이 어린아이라고 정의하나보다. 그래서 두려운게 없어지는게 어른이 되는 것이라 믿을지도 모른다. 그러나 지환이의 주변에는 하나같이 자신의 욕망을 채우지 못할까봐 안절부절 겁을 내는, 타인에게 보내는 따스한 한마디조차 자기방어에서 나오는 겁쟁이 어른들만 있다. 어쩌면 이 소설에서 다친 비둘기를 안았을 때 그 따스함에 우와!하고 탄성을 지른 지환이가 제일 어른일지도 모르겠다.


“당신이 없는 것을 알기 때문에 전화를 겁니다”



당신이 없는 것을 알기 때문에
전화를 겁니다.

신호가 가는 소리.

당신 방의 책장을 지금 잘게 흔들고 있을 전화 종소리. 수화기를 오래 귀에 대고 많은 전화 소리가 당신 방을 완전히 채울 때까지 기다립니다. 그래서 당신이 외출해서 돌아와 문을 열 때, 내가 이 구석에서 보낸 모든 전화 소리가 당신에게 쏟아져서 그 입술 근처나 가슴 근처를 비벼대고 은근한 소리의 눈으로 당신을 밤새 지켜볼 수 있도록.

다시 전화를 겁니다.

신호가 가는 소리.

책 <정희진처럼 읽기>의 저자 정희진은 위의 시를 ‘간절한 외로움’이라고 소개했다. “읽고 또 읽노라면 외로움이 몸에 가득 차서 손목이라도 그어 몸 안의 외로움을 빼내야 할 것 같은 느낌이 든다.”

하지만 이 시는 내겐 수줍은 이의 사랑표현으로 다가왔다. 상대의 ‘여보세요’ 한마디에 순간 얼어붙을 것을 알기에 그사람이 없을 때 맘 놓고 전화를 한다. 대화는 없다. 하지만 목소리가 듣고 싶은 마음, 그래서 수화기를 드는 설렘, 반복되는 신호음에 맞추어 쿵쾅거리는 심장소리가 시에 가득하다.

빈 방을 채우고도 남아 그사람이 돌아올 때 까지 쌓여 있을 전화벨 소리가 울리는 동안 수줍은 화자는 듣는이 없는 이야기를 모두 속삭였으리라. 전달되지 않아서, ‘부재중 전화 7건’ 이 찍히지 않아서, 그래서 상대가 나의 마음을 몰라준다고 해서 간절한 외로움이라고 하고 싶지 않다. 정말 외로운 사람은 누군가를 이렇게 품을 여유조차 없을 테니까.

<정희진처럼 읽기>에 소개된 참 멋진 시가 하나 더 있어 아래에 붙인다.

사랑법 첫째


그대 향한 내 기대 높으면 높을수록

그 기대보다 더 큰 돌덩이를 매달아 놓습니다

부질없는 내 기대 높이가 그대보다 높아서는 아니 되겠기에

커다란 돌덩이를 매달아 놓습니다

그대를 기대와 바꾸지 않기 위해서

기대 따라 행여 그대 잃지 않기 위해서

내 외롬 짓무른 밤일수록
제 설움 넘치는 밤일수록

크고 무거운 돌덩이 하나 가슴 한복판에 매달아 놓습니다

Intersection between what you know and who you are

Sanger’s point rang true to me in part because I almost never speak about my own abortion, which I had when I was an eighteen-year-old freshman at U.C.Berkley. This was strange, it occurred to me as I read Sanger’s book, because the decision was as consequential as any I’d made as a young person’ it had allowed me to claim the future I imagined for myself. But, in another way, it wasn’t so strange, because I had never regretted having an abortion, so it was not a choice I felt compelled to revisit… I never did feel that I’d killed a baby; I felt that I’d ended a pregnancy. What I remember most of all was the relief when it was over, and the kindness of the doctor and the nurses at the health center, who treated me like a person with a reasonable sense of her own mind. So why don’t I ever talk about it? … in part, it’s true, because abortion has a stigma–a stigma I don’t believe should exist but am not entirely immune to, an aura of selfishness or callousness. (Obstacle Course by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker (April 3rd, 2017))

Margaret Talbot’s piece was just another monthly book review in The New Yorker until the paragraph above appeared. She reviewed a recent book on abortion and then toward the end of her piece, she unveiled the story of her own abortion. Her candor and willingness to stand up for and share her decision astonished me. It goes without saying that her honest personal account made her review more vital and relatable. Ms. Talbot’s article reminded me of an interview of Krista Tippett in the podcast “On Being”. When the interviewer asked Ms. Tippett about including her separation from her father in her book Becoming Wise, she said,

 … the book, it just — it didn’t come alive for a long time, and I realized, actually, I also had to do what I ask other people to do, which I know makes ideas come to life, and also makes them listenable, makes them land in the imaginations of listener with vitality, which is to really walk that line, that intersection between what you know, and who you are. And, yeah, then I had to actually — I had to be honest, even just with myself, about the hard, the sad parts of my life, and those things that I wrestle with. (

Perhaps, what makes someone a true intellectual who desires to bring about changes in others and communities is strength and courage that allows him/her to be able to share own struggles and vulnerability pertaining to his/her ideas. Because changes occur when the heart is touched and only a shaky but firm voice coming from the heart can touch another heart.

The coevolution of knowledge and schools?

In medieval Europe, the chief formula for knowledge was: Knowledge = Scriptures x Logic. If people wanted to know the answer to an important question, they would read scriptures and use their logic to understand the exact meaning of the text… The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data x Mathematics. If we want to know the answer to some question, we need to gather relevant empirical data, and then use mathematical tools to analyze them… As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity. If we wish to know the answer to any ethical question, we need to connect to our inner experiences and observe them with the utmost sensitivity… What exactly are ‘experiences’? They are not empirical data… an experience is a subjective phenomenon made up of three main ingredients: sensations, emotions and thoughts… And what is ‘sensitivity’? It means two things. Firstly, paying attention to my sensations, emotions and thoughts. Secondly, allowing these sensations emotions, and thoughts to influence me (p239 in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari).

In other words, the meaning of knowledge has evolved from what we were told to do to what we could test to what we experience and internalize.

The trajectory of this evolution is quite interesting. The realm of knowledge has moved from something concrete and tangible to abstract and intangible. The focus of knowledge was external objects (e.g., God or nature), but now it’s about what’s in me.

Then, what does this new formula for knowledge mean to us, educators? What types of experiences do we want our students to have in order to become competent, responsible and mindful adults? How can we create the environment that can cultivate the capacity for sensations, emotions and thoughts? How could we even assess students’ performances when the knowledge they acquire is about themselves?

Dr. Harari’s insightful perspective on knowledge encouraged me to imagine how the college would (or should) be changed. What would the college look like when its goal is to help students gain knowledge composed of experiences and sensitivity? Three pillars of the new school curriculum would be open-mindedness, self-consciousness and expressive mind. Experiences are qualitative. A single simple phenomenon could elicit a multitude of emotions and thoughts if the individual sees it from different perspectives. Internalization of an experience requires being mindful of oneself and expressing his/her emotions and thoughts in various forms–words, drawing, music, physical movement, etc. Namely, the new formula for knowledge would redefine the school as a safe place where students gain experiences without worrying about failure, pay attention to opposing or foreign ideas without any prejudice, get to know themselves without any pressure to fit themselves into the existing frames, and create and strengthen own channels of expression.