Category: non-fiction

Muscle Up (75 Books – L)

I recently started working out again, so I picked up the recently released e-book Muscle Up!, written by P.D. Mangan, who runs the blog Rogue Health and Fitness. The book primarily covers the benefits of strength training in itself and in comparison to aerobic exercises like running, and includes some tips on how to go about setting up a workout routine and answering some common beginner’s questions.

Mangan begins with some observations on how people often go about exercise, i.e. most don’t seem to take it as seriously as they should. “If you’re not grunting and groaning,” he writes, “or at least actively stifling your desire to do so – you’re not training hard enough.” He then spends the next several chapters on why one should work harder, and the specific benefits of weightlifting – it decreases one’s risk of getting cancer, improves cardiovascular and metabolic health, fights aging, and increases testosterone in men.

Interestingly, aerobic exercise isn’t enough for many of these benefits, and he devotes an entire chapter to the drawbacks of aerobic exercises. Surprisingly to me, running is more likely to result in injury than weightlifting, though a moment’s thought gives some clues as to why. E.g., the constant pounding on one’s joints when running tends to break them down, whereas lifting weights, especially if one makes sure to use good form and doesn’t try to lift too much weight, is fairly safe. Of course, this is aside from hazards like traffic and stray dogs that any runner, myself included, has had to contend with.

The penultimate chapter addresses high intensity training, which does have benefits comparable to strength training. Finally, the last chapter gives advice on how to begin a strength training program. For those who’ve already decided to start weightlifting, which is likely most of the book’s audience, this chapter is probably the most useful.

Mangan’s writing style is clear and straightforward; he includes a lot of references to scholarly research, but does a good job explaining and summarising the main points of the papers he cites. My one nitpick is that he can get a little repetitive, but that’s very much a minor flaw. In any case, the book was helpful enough that I’ll probably check out some of Mangan’s other work.…

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The Consolation of Philosophy (75 Books – XLIX)

The Consolation of Philosophy is one of those books that’s difficult to discuss without doing a full analysis, so I’ll be a lot briefer than the book deserves. Boethius covers the problem of evil, the nature of happiness, and a couple related topics, in the form of a dialogue in prison between himself and Lady Philosophy. It does have some more poignancy than most works of philosophy, because Boethius was in fact in prison awaiting trial for an alleged crime of treason, of which he was innocent, while writing the book. Boethius and Lady Philosophy also end or begin each part of the book with poetry, which no other philosopher I’m aware of does and which adds some aesthetic value, though strictly speaking the poetry didn’t seem necessary on my first read-through.

The dialogue reminds me of Plato’s Republic, and the method of Lady Philosophy’s discussion is similar to Socrates in that she will often question Boethius and draw out ideas, or at least starting points, from him. Boethius is more direct than Plato, though, as Philosophy tends to lay out a logical case for the point under discussion in a more-or-less direct fashion after Boethius’s initial answers to her questions.

I read the e-book edition published by Ignatius and translated by Scott Goins and Barbara Wyman. I can’t vouch for the accuracy, of course, but the English was easy to follow and about as natural as a philosophical dialogue can sound. The poetry, though not bad, struck me as a bit plain. However, that may just be carried over from the original, and may have simply been a stylistic choice.

In any case, the book is, of course, a must-read for anyone interested in the subject, and one can easily see why Boethius was so respected for centuries after his death.…

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Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited (75 Books – XLVIII)

When reviewing Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, I mentioned that although it’s a good book and well worth reading, Jones did not go into a lot of detail, but focused on the big picture and a handful of people and dramatic events. Those who enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty of archaeology, academic studies, and the like, though, will appreciate this book on medieval history, Emmet Scott’s Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited.

Scott examines the question of what, exactly, terminated Classical, Roman civilisation. Though the fall of the Western Roman Empire is typically dated at 474, it’s not clear when Classical civilisation gave way to what we would recognise as Medieval Europe. The standard view has been that it was a slow decline into the Dark Ages brought about by the Barbarian invasions in the centuries leading up to 474 or so, but Scott defends and updates a theory put forward by Henri Pirenne in his 1937 book Mohammed & Charlemagne, that Classical Civilisation continued until it was quickly destroyed by the Moslem conquests in the early-mid Seventh Century.

Scott spends much of the book examining archaeological evidence that indicates that recognisably Roman architecture and lifestyles continued throughout most of what had been Roman lands up to the Moslem invasions of the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. Rather than destroying Latin culture, the Germanic barbarian invaders had apparently been largely absorbed into it. This is why, for example, Spanish, French, and other Romance languages have little trace of Germanic syntax, whereas English, from one of the few places where Classical civilisation was undone by invading barbarians, is a Germanic language.

Now, the Arabs are often credited with preserving much of Greek philosophy and learning, but Scott demonstrates that men in the so-called “Dark Ages” actually were familiar with the Classics. They were only lost in Europe after the Arab conquest of Egypt, which was the major source of papyrus that Western scribes used, and Arab piracy and slave-raiding made much of the Mediterranean effectively uninhabitable and inhospitable to trade. Scott writes, “even the short periods of official peace [from Arab wars of conquest] were disturbed by the ‘unofficial’ activities of privateers and slave-traders. For centuries, Muslim pirates based in North Africa made large parts of the Mediterranean shore-line uninhabitable, and it is estimated that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries alone they captured and enslaved something in excess of a million Europeans.”

As for the fate of the Classics in Moslem lands, Scott is not impressed by their supposed respect for learning. He points out that many of the scholars active in Moslem countries were not themselves Moslem, but Christians and Jews living under Moslem rule. Furthermore, while they did preserve and foster a good deal of science, they were only interested in fields with practical applications, like medicine or physics. Scott is very harsh in his judgement, writing, “the very fact that knowledge has to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. Is not this an infallible mark of barbarism? And we should note that even the utilitarian learning which the earliest Caliphs fostered was soon to be snuffed out under the weight of an Islamic theocracy (promulgated by Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century) which regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of his freedom to act.”

Scott does a fine job presenting all of his evidence in an approachable manner, without ever dumbing-down or oversimplifying things for a popular audience. If you’ve any interest at all in this period of history, I’d highly recommend checking it out.…

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The Plantagenets (75 Books – XLIV)

Doing some reading and writing on Dante has piqued my interest in Medieval history in general, so while looking for a new e-book I picked up (er, downloaded) Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, which I remember hearing good things about. Even those who don’t know much about the history of the Middle Ages will recognise many of the kings and queens Jones discusses – Richard the Lionheart, John, Edward Longshanks, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are some of the most famous people in European history.

Jones’s writing style is more novelistic than, say, Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom or most other histories that I’ve read this year. That is, he focuses on the personalities of the kings and other figures he discusses, especially on the most dramatic events of their reigns, and never goes into much detail on battles, economic matters, and the like. It’s still a fine introduction, I think, and I never felt like he was dumbing down or oversimplifying the topic, but he’s clearly writing for a general audience and not for historians or even, necessarily, fans of history. So, people looking for a good story will be satisfied, people looking for an in-depth analysis of Plantagenet rule may not be.

He also occasionally engages in a “must have” type of narrative. For example, speaking of Henry II’s relationship with Thomas Becket, he writes, “[Henry] was known to ride into the chancellor’s dinner hall, jump from his horse, and sit down to eat. The experience must have grated on Becket as much as it amused the king.” It probably did grate on Becket, but this phrasing tells me that Jones probably doesn’t have a source of him saying so, so it’s speculation phrased as though it’s a fact. This isn’t a major problem, but is a nuisance for those who like their histories to stick as closely to established facts as possible.

The dramatic presentation and relative lack of details aside, though, there is enough material to detect some general trends in English history during this time. Famously, the Magna Charta was signed during King John’s rule, and the origins of parliamentary rule were laid over the next several reigns. However, the nobility only began to really assert itself through parliament in reaction to the worst kings of the dynasty. So, would parliamentary rule have developed in England at all if, say, Richard had lived longer and had an heir, meaning that John never became king? What if John, Henry III, and Edward II had just been wiser and more willing to compromise?

In any case, The Plantagenets serves as a good, readable introduction to a period of history that most people don’t know enough about. If you’ve any interest in the topic and don’t mind a novelistic presentation, check it out.…

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De Laicis (75 Books – XLI)

The best Catholic writers tend to be the ones who divide the world into Catholics, schismatics, heretics, Jews, and pagans, with no “separated brethren” nonsense. St. Robert Bellarmine takes just this approach in De Laicis, in which he discusses the nature and scope of political power and its relationship to the Church. His answers tend to be orthodox by the standard of the time and the book isn’t very long, but it’s an excellent and uncompromising primer to a traditional Catholic understanding of the state.

Now, most of the book was written in answer to objections to Christians holding political power raised by various Protestant groups at the time, but much of it reads like a response to the modern Christian Libertarian crowd. For example, some Anabaptists apparently believed that while kings were given to the Jews, Christians should not have secular rulers. Bellarmine responds, in part:

But the contrary is true, for in the beginning the Prophets predicted that all the kings of the earth would serve Christ and the Church, which could not come to pass unless there were kings in the Church. “And now, O ye kings, understand; receive instruction, you that judge the earth; embrace discipline,” according to the Hebrew Naschechubar, “embrace ye the Son”, whom in the same Psalm the Scriptures call the Messias… And, “Kings shall be Thy nursing fathers and queens Thy nurses: they shall worship Thee with their faces towards the earth and they shall kick up the dust of Thy feet.” We have certainly seen this fulfilled in the cases of Constantine, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and others who venerated the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs, and endowed and protected churches.

Many of the arguments draw from Scripture or the Church Fathers, as one would expect of a book primarily addressing a conflict between Christians. While writing about Dante’s Monarchia, I mentioned that many of the poet’s arguments draw as much from Aristotle or simple reason as Scripture. Bellarmine, however, caters his argument entirely towards fellow Christians, and uses Scripture and the Church Fathers as his primary authorities. Non-Christian readers may still agree with some of his conclusions, but not how he arrives at them. For example, he addresses an early version of the “social contract” theory, which drew from Cicero and stated that at one time men “wandered about in the manner of beasts,” but were later persuaded to live together in society. Bellarmine then says, “But that state of affairs never existed, nor could it have existed at any time. For Adam was a very wise man, and without doubt did not allow men to wander about like beasts, and Cain, his son, even built a material city; before Cain and Adam, man did not exist.” Non-Christian Rightists would certainly agree that this proto-social contract theory is nonsense, but certainly not for this reason!

A few of Bellarmine’s positions are not as reactionary as one might expect. While discussing sovereignty, for example, he states, “Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate.” So, while he certainly does not object to monarchy, he does not consider it inherently better than an aristocracy or republic. Sir Robert Filmer would directly address some of Bellarmine’s arguments in his work (and John Locke, in turn, would respond directly to Filmer), though it may be worth pointing out that Bellarmine here follows Aristotle, who supported a mixed form of government, more closely than some of the philosopher’s Medieval, monarchist students, like St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who did argue that monarchy is best in tune with natural law.

Not that Bellarmine is, by any means, a soft-hearted man. After introducing the idea that a nation ought to allow freedom of belief, he writes:

But this error is most harmful, and without doubt Christian rulers are in duty bound not to allow freedom of belief to their subjects, but to afford opportunity that that faith may be preserved which the Catholic Church, and especially the supreme Pontiff, says should be held. It is proved first from Scripture, “the king, that sitteth on the throne of judgment, scattereth away all evil with his look.” And likewise, “A wise king scattereth the wicked.” Indeed, it cannot be denied that heretics are impious. And the same is said, “And now, O ye kings, understand, receive instruction, you that judge the earth. Serve ye the Lord with fear.”

He spends more time on this question than any other, understandably so since this was such a major issue at the time. What he believes should be done in a state that already has a large number of heretics, though, he doesn’t say. Interestingly, he doesn’t object to tolerating Jews, because their scriptures contain the prophecies that the New Testament fulfills, because they’re clearly not Christians (as opposed to heretics, who are wolves in sheeps’ clothing), and because they do not proseletyze anyway.

In any case, while one may disagree with some of Bellarmine’s conclusions (for example, in today’s world it seems wise to work with Protestants where possible), De Laicis makes for good reading if only as a reminder of a time when the Church’s bishops appeared absolutely confident in what the Church teaches, and were unafraid of speaking boldly against error.…

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The Monarchia Controversy (75 Books – XL)

After finishing Dante’s Monarchia, I decided to look for some of the various commentaries and related works that editor Prue Shaw referred to in my Cambridge University Press edition. Several of these aren’t easily available, at least not in English, but I did find The Monarchia Controversy, edited by Anthony Cassell and published by the Catholic University of America Press. This includes Monarchia, Guido Vernani’s Refutation of the “Monarchia” Composed by Dante, and Pope John XXII’s bull Si fratrum, as well as Cassell’s own introduction and annotations.

Starting from the end of the book, Si fratrum is the document that sparked the controversy around the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor and whether one was subordinate to the other, though this controversy had been brewing for many years. It’s nice to have, then, for historical interest, but at only four pages it doesn’t develop any arguments, but simply proclaims that the pope is the legitimate ruler of the Empire when the office of emperor is vacant, and that it is his prerogative to approve of the election of the next emperor.

Guido Vernani’s Refutation is also relatively short, under thirty pages, and of mixed quality. Some of his arguments are disingenuous, as Cassell points out fairly often in his introduction and annotations. Also, while Dante kept a neutral tone throughout most of his work and portrayed himself as almost a third-party to the disputes, Vernani is sometimes outright abusive. Before introducing one of his last arguments, for example, he writes, “Here the wretch [Dante] reached the heights of his delirium: as he raised his mouth to heaven, his tongue lolled along the ground.” There’s nothing wrong with a polemical tone, and Dante isn’t subtle in calling some of his opponents sons of Satan, but in works dealing mostly in formal logic, theology, and history, this sort of attack stands out as mean-spirited and unworthy of formal debate.

That said, Vernani does raise some valid points. For example, he argues, quite reasonably, that only Christ could realistically have all of the virtues that Dante attributes to his vision of the universal monarch. He also points out that Dante’s interpretation of Roman history, with its heroism, nobility, and miracles, is very different from one of Dante’s own sources, St. Augustine, as well as several other authorities, who portray these same events in a very negative light.

I only skimmed through the Monarchia itself, but it seems readable enough. Of course, I’m not competent to judge the accuracy of one translation over another.

Over half the book is composed of Cassell’s annotations and his 100-page introduction, which is about three times longer than Prue Shaw’s in the CUP edition. Whether it’s three times more valuable depends on how much depth you want; both give an outline and some historical context, but Cassell goes into much more depth, especially on the reaction to Dante’s work, which Shaw only briefly mentions, and in analysing the method and substance of both Dante’s and Vernani’s arguments. This is all interesting to students of Medieval or philosophical history, but much of it isn’t really necessary to understanding either author. The annotations, which unfortunately are endnotes rather than footnotes, are also more thorough in Cassell’s edition, though not by a wide margin.

Now, I highly recommend reading Dante’s Monarchia, but which edition to read depends largely on what you’re interested in getting. If you just want the Monarchia itself with just enough additional explanation to understand the context and have a starting point for further study, then Shaw’s is perfect. If you’re interested in Medieval intellectual history and would like something more thorough, then Cassell’s is worth the extra cost – it’s fairly expensive new (over $70), but finding used copies isn’t difficult.…

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The 10,000 Year Explosion (75 Books – XXXIX)

I should probably begin with a disclaimer that I’m very much a layman when it comes to biology and genetics; my experience in the field is limited to a couple college classes. That said, I read and greatly enjoyed The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, which covers recent human evolution, essentially from the development of agriculture on. The authors accomplish a difficult task of explaining a fairly complex topic in terms that the average, non-specialist reader can understand, while still covering the topic adequately and not coming across as condescending. In fact, the tone is fairly light throughout, reminding me of some of my better college professors who took an almost conversational tone during lectures, with occasional touches of humour. In discussing how genes spread between populations, for example, they drily note, “Sailors and barmaids, like traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters, have played a crucial role in recent human evolution.”

Besides fairly abstract discussions of the technicalities of how human genetics and natural selection work, they also have a number of interesting illustrations of recent evolution. For example, while going over changes in skeletal structure, they provide a recent study from England:

English researchers recently compared skulls from people who died in the Black Death (≈650 years ago), from the crew of the Mary Rose, a ship that sank in Tudor times (≈450 years ago), and from our contemporaries. The shape of the skull changed noticeably over that brief period—which is particularly interesting because we know there has been no massive population replacement in England over the past 700 years. The height of the cranial vault of our contemporaries was about 15 percent larger than that of the earlier populations, and the part of the skull containing the frontal lobes was thus larger.

The 10,000 Year Explosion reminds me of Nicholas Wade’s book from last year, A Troublesome Inheritance, which covers biological racial differences, and which I’d also recommend reading for those interested in the topic. Both works are interesting in themselves, of course, but those of us more invested in politics than science will find it noteworthy that they were published at all. Wade addresses the racial angle head-on, though not polemically, but Cochran and Harpending take a different approach. They only mention the “controversy” around the topic a few times, and always dismissively. In the concluding chapter, for example, they say, “Evolutionary stasis requires a static environment, whereas behavioral modernity is all about innovation and change. Stability is exactly what we have not had. This should be obvious, but instead the human sciences have labored under the strange idea that evolution stopped 40,000 years ago.”

Also, while Wade does not directly address intelligence differences, Cochran and Harpending devote a chapter to exploring how Ashkenazi Jews came to have the highest average IQ in the world. In that chapter, they mention that there is a lot of controversy about the validity of IQ testing, but add, “These criticisms and dismissals, interestingly, hardly ever come from scientists working in the area of cognitive testing and its outcomes: There is little or no controversy within the field.” This correlates with comments by Wade and a few other people I’ve encountered who’ve studied the topic, and it’s interesting to me as an example of selective credentialism. How often do we see publications emphasise how widely theories of global warming are accepted by climatologists, almost always coupled with harsh criticism of the non-experts who question the scientists’ conclusions? Yet, the validity of intelligence testing is also widely accepted by experts, and is treated as if it’s highly controversial!

In any case, Cochran and Harpending’s topic is an important one, and I’d highly recommend that anyone at all interested give it a read.…

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The Analects of Confucius (75 Books – XXXVIII)

Let me start by saying this: The Analects of Confucius is a strong contender for the greatest work of non-fiction ever written, and has been the single most influential book on how I think about society and politics. I’ve read seven translations of it (Legge, Waley, Leys, Lau, Pound, Huang, and Chan’s partial translation), some of them multiple times. My knowledge of the Chinese language is only barely non-zero, so I can’t really offer an opinion on which is the most accurate, but in terms of literary style, coherence, and intelligibility to the average Westerner, they’ve all been at least decent. When looking for a Kindle edition of the Analects, I came across Leonard Lyall’s translation from 1909, and since it was free (or at least cheap, I don’t remember) I thought I may as well give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Lyall gets the honour of being the first translation I’d specifically recommend avoiding.…

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De Monarchia (75 Books – XXXVI)

Dante begins this short book by telling his audience that he has an unpopular truth to share. “No one has attempted to elucidate it,” he says, “on account of its not leading directly to material gain,” but share it he must, because men are made to seek the truth, and he does not want to be accused by later generations of “hiding [his] talent.” So, he argues that the world ought to be ruled by a single absolute monarch, that the Roman Empire ruled the known world by right (which, presumably, is passed to its successor), and whose power is God-given, though not dependant on the Church.

Unsurprisingly, De Monarchia (or just Monarchy in Cambridge University Press’s edition) had few fans in the Fourteenth Century and has even fewer fans now. As for me, of course, I love it.

Now, it can be a tough read; Dante structures each of the three parts as a series of syllogisms, and though he does explain some principles of logic as he goes, the writing is dense and requires the reader’s full attention. If you’ve read, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas you probably have a good idea of what to expect. He also writes primarily for a Christian audience; though he doesn’t rely on Scripture as much as, say, Sir Robert Filmer, he does make frequent reference to Biblical events, and one of his arguments in the second part, on whether the Romans ruled the world by right, is that they did because Christ gave an explicit approval of Roman authority. He also makes much use of pagan writers like Virgil or Cicero, and he draws from Aristotle about as much as the Bible, so non-Christian readers will still find a lot of material to consider, it just won’t be as convincing as it would to Dante’s intended audience.

The first part, on why a universal monarchy is needed, is the most interesting and relevant for modern readers. The second seems like a moot point; whether Rome ruled the known world by right is interesting for fans of that era of history, but who can plausibly claim to be “Roman” now? Even in Dante’s time, the Holy Roman Empire was only “Roman” in a very loose sense. I suppose Moscow is sometimes called the “Third Rome,” but I doubt that Dante would accept an Eastern Orthodox monarchy as a legitimate candidate for his universal empire. The third part considers whether a monarch depends on the papacy for legitimacy, and Dante argues forcefully that it does not, though papal approval can and should lend its support to monarchy.

Probably De Monarchia‘s main weakness is that it seems very theoretical. Once we accept that the Holy Roman Emperor (or some other suitable “Roman,” I suppose) has the right to rule the world, how do we arrive at that goal? Even Rome did not conquer the entire known world, much less the entirety of the seven continents. I suppose if the United Nations were turned monarchical and halfway effective we might be in the ballpark, but the UN is in no way Roman. Perhaps Dante must be content with the first step of convincing people that this is a goal worth working towards at all.

In any case, I’m reluctant to try summarising his arguments or even quoting at length, since his syllogisms are so interdependent that it’s difficult to find a snappy quote that stands apart. Besides, it’s only ninety-four pages, so really, if you have any interest at all in the subject, this is a must-read book.

On a final, somewhat tangential note, in my post on the appeal of Mishima Yukio I speculated on why Dante may have included Cato at the gates of Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. My theory was that even though Cato committed suicide, he did so not out of despair but out of zeal for the rule of law. Sure enough, in the second book Dante briefly discusses Cato and says, in part, “in order to set the world afire with love of freedom, [Cato] showed the value of freedom when he preferred to die a free man rather than remain alive without freedom.”…

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Short Breaks in Mordor (75 Books – XXXIII)

Reading e-books is, for me, an act of desperation. As I’ve written before, I love books as physical objects, and only resort to my Kindle if there’s no other feasible way to read something. So, this is how I read Short Breaks in Mordor, the newest book from Peter Hitchens, published exclusively in digital format.

His difficulty in finding a traditional publisher is unfortunate, because Short Breaks, which collects many of the author’s articles on his travels around the world, is well worth picking up and I’d love to have a physical copy of it. Destinations vary from Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho, and in each place Hitchens speaks to as wide a variety of people as he can meet to give readers a good sketch of the people who live there.

For example, in Iran he does speak with the type of religious fundamentalists one expects the country to be full of based on its portrayal in Western media. However, he also finds several examples of quiet resistance to the Islamic Republic, and finds a wide variety of opinions on the West and on their own country, and the resulting articles give a much more complex idea of what the country is like. On Iran’s dress codes, for instance, he observes, “Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations. Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty. But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well.”…

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