Saturday, December 27, 2014

End of Days by James Swanson

I really liked Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy, so I picked up another book on the Kennedy assassination, End of Days by James Swanson. I’m not sure it added much to what I already knew.

In the author’s own words, he states, “This book attempts to re-create a moment when time stopped. It seeks to recapture how Americans lived through this tragedy and to resurrect the mood and emotions of those unforgettable days between President John F. Kennedy’s murder and his funeral.”

He does a good job tracing Lee Harvey Oswald's moves and motives. As well as minute-by-minute details of the Kennedy’s doings. He gets in some behind-the-scenes details and seems to have really researched his subject.

I think this is a good, simple to read narrative of the end of JFK’s life. Great for anyone who doesn’t know that much about it. But I think I would recommend Killing Kennedy over this one. It reads more like a novel.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Father of us All: War and History: Ancient and Modern by Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is one of the last of what seems a dying breed. He is a war historian. He wrote The Father of us All: War and History: Ancient and Modern because he believes that, “War is inseparable from the human condition...As an empiricist, I note only that war -- like birth, aging, death, politics, and age-old emotions such as fear, pride, and honor -- has never disappeared. This so-called tragic view concedes that depressing fact about the human condition, and yet it steels the individual to the notion that suffering is a part of our human lot, and unfortunately cannot be entirely eradicated by any amount of well-intended nurturing.” He believes that the long-neglected study of wars past “still best explain present conflicts.” It seems the changing nature of universities “ensured the decline of the formal discipline of military history. Race, class, and gender studies sought to deal with the anonymous masses of history, not its medaled grandees and deskbound planners.” What a shame.

Without a literacy about the conflicts of the past, the public can find itself easily confused when confronted with the dogs of war. We become ill-equipped to make informed judgments. Military history is important for many reasons. One of which is its ability to remind us of how often pre-war planning is futile. Military history also shows how often things go wrong. Our expectation would be very different if we had a good understanding of the wars that came before. 

To study the classic Greek wars is to understand why Muslims, feeling envious and despising our culture, would attack us on 9/11. We would learn that wars involving democratic countries must have the support of the people. We would see the futility of reasoning with enemies when war is in the air. Thucydides’ “description of the horrific plague at Athens is both scientific and gruesome, as he chronicles the social chaos in the manner of a physician reviewing symptoms, formulating a diagnosis, and offering a bleak cultural prognosis.” These may be unwelcome lessons, but they are critical. 

Hanson gives us a bit of the military history we are missing through a series of essays he has written over the years and edited for this book.

He starts with what to read. His first essay is “Thallatta! Thallatta!: the timeless attraction of Xenophon.” He describes Xenophon as a man who “traveled, fought, wrote, and hobnobbed more than almost any other Greek of his age. He also had a multi-faced ability to relate such a rich life through the art of storytelling __ and nowhere better than in his gripping tale of thousands of greek mercenaries abandoned and trapped in hostile Persia.” 

His second essay recommends “The Old Breed: The brilliant but harrowing narrative of E.B. Sledge.” “Sledge, a previously unknown retired professor, late in life published his first book, which was originally drawn from contemporary notes taken during battle and intended only as a private memoir for his family. Yet within two decades of publication that draft became acknowledged as the finest literary account to emerge about the Pacific war.”

He next recommends Professor Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War in his essay “The War to Begin All Wars: Athens Meets Sparta.” Kagan has related this most famous of battles to our contemporary Great War. “It was a tragic event, a great turning point in history, the end of an era of progress, prosperity, confidence, and hope, and the beginning of a darker time.”

Next is Niccolo Capponi’s The Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto. Seeing as we face this battle again, it’s helpful to have some history for perspective.

Next his essays enter into modern warfare and how often, even in our days of nuclear arms and AK-47s we can still learn from the past. 

He asks, “Have we seen in our time the end of decisive battles between conventional armies and navies in the long tradition of Cunaxa, Lepanto, and Okinawa?” For the foreseeable future, it appears that we will not have large decisive battles. Terror and small skirmishes have replaced them. The stakes are simply too high and large battles could do too much damage. But with an apocalyptic Iran, that may change. The horror of large decisive battles may yet return. 

My favorite line in the whole book was in an essay titled, “The American Way of War -- Past, Present, and Future.” He states, “We concede that American success in fostering democracy in post-war Germany, Italy, and Japan was predicated by age-old, rather dark assumptions that the Nazis, Fascists, and Japanese militarists had to be defeated, humiliated, and only then helped -- and in that order. But whereas we now welcome the latter step of aiding a former enemy in the building of democracy, we loathe the first two requisites of inflicting a level of damage to ensure its success.” So true. We want to nation build our enemies without first defeating and humiliating them. Even saying those words sounds foreign. But our military and political leaders in the past knew that unless the enemy was soundly defeated and subsequently humiliated, helping would only give him time to rearm. They must be taught to NEVER attack again. Or they will attack again.

Hanson makes a great statement when he discusses how wars are lost, “But perhaps the American public, not the timeless nature of war, has changed. Present generations of unprecedented leisure, affluence, and technology no longer so easily accept human imperfections. We seem to care less about correcting problems than assessing blame ... We fail to realize that the enemy makes as many mistakes but probably addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance in war, which sometimes upsets our best endeavors. Rarely are we fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.” We have accepted defeat as somewhat inevitable. Wow.

As far as current warfare, he finds the West hold itself to an impossible standard and therefore makes actually winning wars all but impossible. We must suffer no casualties, we must have an exit strategy, we must not go into poor third-world nations, we must build up before we defeat, and certainly we must not humiliate, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold the enemy to, the war cannot be led by a right-wing war-monger, we must force democracy on nations with no institutions to support it or prior experience with it, we must make no mistakes, we must respond proportionately, and it goes on and on. All of this gives a huge advantage to insurgents and terrorists who have no such obstacles.

In short, because we have no sense of the history of war, we seemed doomed to continual failure in current conflicts. Sigh.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Jefferson and Hamilton: A Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling

Since I love, love, love history, especially American history, how could I not read a book featuring the contrast between two of America’s most influential historical figures, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton? Because Jefferson is so enigmatic and Hamilton is so good looking, yet despite what the kids will tell you today, he never became president, both present interesting character studies.

The author of Jefferson and Hamilton: A Rivalry That Forged a Nation, John Ferling notes that Jefferson and Hamilton, more than any other Revolutionary figures, shaped our great nation. “The strong central government, our system of finance, and the industrial vigor of the United States are Hamilton’s legacy. America’s bedrock belief in equality, its quest for novelty, and the continental span of the nation were bequeathed to succeeding generations by Jefferson.” In addition, some form of their historical rivalry continues to play out today as America experiences partisan clashes.

Their beginnings could not have been more different. Jefferson, heir to a large plantation, was the consummate Southern gentleman. Hamilton grew up with a single mother in disreputable circumstances. It was only the kindness of wealthy patrons who recognized something remarkable in Hamilton that allowed him to move to the continental mainland and get an education. Jefferson remained mired in history and tradition, wanting the newly formed America to be agrarian and believing slavery to be an entrenched, unsolvable problem. Hamilton knew the future American economy must be built on a strong industrial base, following the new-fangled ideas of Adam Smith and his “free market.” Hamilton was also “strikingly ahead of his time in his thinking on race.”

Jefferson definitely shaped America’s ideas on liberty and freedom. Although he couldn’t quite bring himself to apply these principles to blacks, for the white Americans, he saw the Revolutionary War all about preservation and expanding freedom and independence. Hamilton, who appeared to be much more pragmatic, knew these ideas were chimerical in a nation without a strong and secure national government. This ancient dichotomy of freedom vs. security continues today.

Although not born into the world of gentlemen, Hamilton recognized that people are inherently unequal. Therefore he desired a nation run by the best kinds of people. The will of the people and popular self-rule were not ideas that he promulgated. Meanwhile Jefferson, the consummate upper-class gentleman, fought for giving every citizen a voice in the government. He trusted the masses far more than Hamilton. 

Jefferson’s experience in a Europe undergoing the violent throes of the Industrial Revolution soured him to that form of economy. He saw the misery this caused to the common people and the grab for power by the wealthy and connected. Hamilton did not spend formative time in Europe, but saw an economy based in cities with industrial power as the only way to secure America’s place in the world as an economic powerhouse. 

It was interesting to see both men’s attitudes in respect to tradition. Perhaps because Jefferson was seeped in it, he saw the restrictiveness of blindly following the old ways. Hamilton, who was not raised in a traditional environment, “cherished the past as a weapon against radical innovation.” I believe both men were acting out of their individual experiences, both rejecting what they grew up with. This would have enormous ramifications for the newly forming United States. 

They also had strikingly different views of human nature in general. Jefferson was optimistic when it came to humanity. Hamilton had seen too much of the dark side of people not to hold “mankind in a pragmatic distrust.” He believed humankind to be easily manipulated by passion and possibly incapable of self-government. Jefferson believed that with education and the leveling of social classes, “the good in mankind would predominate.” These competing ideas of man’s basic goodness or fallenness lead to the two competing camps of liberals vs conservatives we continue to grapple with. Each view leads to radically different conclusions. 

One incident perfectly portrays the difference between the men. As Hamilton gazed at three portraits Jefferson owned, he asked the identity of the men. Jefferson responded that they were the three greatest men to have ever lived – John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Sir Francis Bacon, all men of the Enlightenment. Hamilton responded that the greatest man to have lived was Julius Caesar. 

Their most heated battles came when Hamilton began to set up a financial system Jefferson believed would only benefit the wealthy. Hamilton called for a national bank and assumption of state debts incurred in the War. His basic view of humanity driven by ambition caused him to try to channel those impulses through a hierarchical society. He worried about disorder that he believed would result without a strong central government. Jefferson believed humanity’s basic goodness would manifest itself best with the greatest possible allowance for individual independence. It’s odd to me that today, Hamilton’s beliefs lead conservatives to desire more individual independence, and Jefferson’s lead liberals to desire more government control. Perhaps it’s a case of the pendulum swinging too far one way or the other. 

Both inside Washington’s cabinet and certainly once freed of the conciliatory Washington, the partisan passions of Jefferson and Hamilton led to years of fighting. Often, Hamilton showed a hot-headedness that worked against him. He pushed his views and causes to his own detriment. But because Hamilton, more than Jefferson, had Washington’s ear, it was he who really “forged the contours of the new American nation.” But Jefferson gave us our highest ideals for who we are as a people and who we wanted to become. He too became seemingly irrational at times in his fight against the monarchical tendencies he saw all too often. 

I’m grateful to both men, extreme as they were, for shaping our nation. Both contributed in mighty ways the success of our nation today. It seems the pendulum has swung far in the directions both men feared. We need a return to the ideas of these men to see how we got here, and how we can further strengthen our great country.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe

I really enjoy reading about the intersection of faith and science. I love when someone writes a book showing how each bolsters the other. That was the case in Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe. The title refers to the molecular and cellular structure of life. When Darwinism was being first discovered and propagated, biochemistry was unknown and as such, not invited to the party. But now that we know the secrets of the cell, we have opened “Darwin’s Black Box” and can see that Darwinism is inadequate as an explanation for the cellular structure.

The cell contains within it many structures that are “irreducibly complex.” That is, they cannot be made any simpler and still function. Darwin’s theory rests on small adaptations to already working structures that simply improve it with each adaption. However, Darwin stated, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Behe then provides examples of just the sort of structures Darwin feared. 

He starts with the cilium. A cilium is a quite complicated structure of a cell that allows the cell to move in liquid with a hair-like appendage that beats like a whip. Although we have spent years researching this structure and discovering its complexities, it seems no one has been able to describe a pathway for evolution to bring about its existence. It is simply irreducibly complex. It cannot be made any simpler and still function in any positive way. And natural selection must have a positive feature to select. It cannot “hold onto” certain features knowing they will be used in the future. Each step in the evolutionary process must be beneficial right now, as is, before it can be selected to remain in the DNA of an organism.

He next brings up the system of blood clotting. Although we give it very little thought, the idea that we can be cut, bleed, clot up and stop bleeding is actually a wonder. Most of the time, leaks do not repair themselves, but simply leak until the vessel is empty. But our system of blood clotting is so fine-tuned, that not only do we not bleed out, but the clotting is very limited. If the clotting process began and was not checked by other processes all of our blood would clot and the circulation would stop. This very complicated system of protein that turn on and off other proteins would cause death if any individual part had not yet evolved. 

Behe also cites the “cell’s labyrinthine protein-transport pathway” as another system that cannot be reduced. Like the blood clotting system, the systems within a cell that transport proteins and waste are very finely tuned and highly dependent on other processes. A single flaw in the system causes death. How did this Rube Goldberg-like contraption evolve one piece at a time, when the entire system must be functioning in order to survive? Another question unanswered by the Darwinists. It seems, the more we study these beautifully complex system the farther away an evolutionary explanation moves. We can describe the processes, but we cannot explain the origins.

He moves on to describe other molecular structures like RNA which do not suffer from irreducible complexity, but rather from what he calls “the problem of road kill.” Like a small animal trying to cross a thousand lane highway, it is technically possible, but unbelievably highly improbably. Scientists have described self-replicating RNA arising completely randomly as “a near miracle.” In fact, once again, the more we know, the more miraculous it would be. 

While Darwinists can describe gradual changes that have occurred to complex system, no one has ever been able to offer a realistic explanation of how the system began in the first place. Imagine a mousetrap. If one tried to describe its evolution, he might start with the wooden block. But that alone will not catch any mice and will therefore be worthless. If a holding bar magically appeared, but was too short, it wouldn’t reach the catch. A spring might wander in from another structure, but is if it wasn’t just right, it would not work. A mousetrap is irreducibly complex. No one can explain how it could evolve, and be useful, one piece at a time. Similarly scientists who start out trying to provide models for these complex systems, generally move on and study other things. In fact many biochemistry textbooks have stopped referring to evolution at all and simply concentrate on the systems. Or if they do, they simply say evolution happened and we’ll leave the “how” for later. 

Finally he moves into the crux of the book, Intelligent Design. He defines design as “the purposeful arrangement of parts.” It is the elephant in the room. The explanation no one dares offer. But design can be difficult to detect. Sometimes very abstract artwork may look like random paint spatters, but may in fact be designed. But when something works as a system to accomplish more than its individual parts, we may confidently presume design. That is not to say we can infer the identity of the designer, simply that a thing has been designed by someone or something. 

Some argue against design because of “design flaws.” This however falls apart when we realize that to say something has a design flaw is to put ourselves above the original designer. I may look at a piece of obviously designed art and think it was badly done, but I cannot say mistakes were made. The artist certainly thinks the artwork represents his intent and accomplishes his purposes. Emotions categorically against any form of a “designer” seem to guide the scientist who cannot accept the design theory. Emotion and not rationality.

“The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell -- to investigate life at the molecular level -- is a loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’ The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science.” Yet it is met with embarrassed feet-shuffling. Why? For some it’s absolute devotion to naturalistic explanations. A priori. It’s like the bumper sticker, “War is not the answer.” Scientists, who have dedicated their lives to the natural sciences, declare above all, “Design is not the answer.” If God himself appeared to the world’s scientist and said, “I did it.” Scientist would feel forced to respond, “That’s all very nice and well, but seeing as you are outside the natural world, we cannot accept You as an explanation.” Also, in the last century, science has found itself as an antagonist to religion instead as a symbiotic partner. This has seemed to force scientist to take sides. They side with their own. 

Scientists, seeing their theory of Darwinian evolution crumble, have turned to the metaphysical and unverifiable theory of the multi-verse. They have cried, “Uncle.” They now support a theory that has no basis whatsoever in scientific fact or the natural world. It cannot by definition. It can never be “discovered” or researched. Its existence is a matter of faith. I believe the bottom line, is that scientists still have their god, but their god does not call them to life of holiness. The multi-verse requires nothing of them. The real God, however, has a few ideas about we should live. Heaven-forbid!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester

I heard Simon Winchester, author of the book, The Men Who United the States, on the Dennis Prager show. His book sounded interesting and I like the title, so I gave it a shot. 

It was OK, somewhat interesting, but definitely not my usual cup of tea. 

Lots of interesting stories about interesting people who contributed in one way or another to bringing unity to America, whether through travel and the opening up of previously undiscovered areas or innovation. 

Winchester states at the beginning, “America is, after all, a nation founded as a home for the single simple idea of universal human freedom. The country was established as a grand experiment, with people invited from all over the world to take part, to help build a nation of free souls, each to be given an equal opportunity to seek as each saw best the greatest happiness for themselves. The question I try to address in the following chapters is: just how has it managed to adhere, to keep itself annealed into one for all the years and decades since?”

To organize an admittedly ambitious project, he uses the rubric of the ancient elements: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. Each builds on the other in roughly chronological order. 

He begins with the time America was dominated by wood. Specifically, the woods. He highlights Thomas Jefferson in particular for opening up vast territory to the newly independent United States with his Louisiana Purchase. Believing, unlike the Native Americans, that land should be surveyed and owned, he sent out the Louis and Clark expedition to detail what this new land encompassed. He embodied a form of American exceptionalism that declared we would own the land from sea to sea. He both opened up a new frontier and gave America a mission to keep pushing borders and boundaries. Louis and Clark and their fellow explorers united the nation geographically and topographically. 

Soon America’s story takes her beneath the earth. The men who further united the nation geologically dove under the land to both map it and determine its substance. As amateur geologists began to discover the potential of the land, people set out in multitudes “because of what they knew, what they had heard told, or what they suspected about the very earth of which the West was made. Men like Stephen Long, Lieutenant Eliakim Scammon, and John Fre´mont became famous for filling the blank spaces of the maps. Ferdinand Hayden, a character in his own right became famous for discovering Yellowstone, a heretofore rumored area hidden behind difficult terrain. 

After mapping the United States, travel became a great concern. This is where America’s story turns to waterways. From the earliest days in the New World, explorers had searched for the holy grail, a navigable waterway which would transverse the continent. John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, first began the quest. Richmond now stands where he was forced to turn back. If God hadn’t provided a way, Americans would make one. Canal building started up with the energy and intensity of any new technology. George Washington himself was a big proponent of canals to strengthen and enervate a new country in desperate need of an economic boost. Small canal building led to larger canals as new technologies developed which eventually led to the Erie canal at 363 miles long. This canal “would change the face of America.” In addition, the Mississippi River literally united the nation from north to south. It would take a corp of engineers to tame the might river and control it for economic uses. 

Eventually, despite the tremendous advances, America’s story turns to one of fire. In order to go farther, faster, America needed more power than offered by water. We needed engines. A Scotsman named John McAdam first saw the need to improve the roadways before any engine-powered vehicle could safely make the trek. His improvement in road making soon carried his name as a generic term: macadam. Soon his macadam roads were covered in tar. Today we call these tar macadam roads, tarmac. Of course, before individual engine-powered vehicle could travel these new roads, investors and business engaged in a flurry of railroad building, uniting the states east to west, but also causing a disunity north to south. The most famous example of this east to west unity is seen in the transcontinental railroad. Now fire united the nation.  Of course trains could only go from station to station. To be able to get off at a station and continue on your journey required the genius of Henry Ford. McAdams early roads would need improvements to handle the new and growing traffic. This became the obsession of Dwight Eisenhower, to create a unified Interstate Highway System of roads suitable for a rapidly developing nation. Soon automobile travel opened up to air travel. The nation was not only becoming more united, it was becoming smaller. 

America was not only united by fire with the building of the railways, but united by metal. Not only the metal tracks which crossed its girth, but telegraph lines went up simultaneously with each mile of track laid. For this ingenious innovation, Samuel Morse deserves credit. His first declarative transmission, “What hath God wrought” seemed “a suitable portentous epigraph for an era of change.” Then Alexander Graham Bell joined Morse in fame with transmission of voice. Thomas Edison worked out how to record those voices as well as introducing electricity to the nation. Today the lines that criss-cross America are fiber-optic, carrying the internet all over the nation. 

Winchester is an engaging writer. The men whose stories he tells so well are engaging, often eccentric, figures. His progressive biases show once in a while, like when he declares NPR non-partisan, and repeated extols the involvement of the government in the technological feats. But these are small irritants in an otherwise interesting and well-researched book.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell

Darwin’s Angel by John Cornwell was not what I expected. It’s written from the perspective of an angel speaking directly to Darwin’s heir, Richard Dawkins. So it’s interesting, but a little odd. 

He states his purpose in writing as such, “I intend not so much to pick a fight with the good professor as to offer a few ‘grace notes’ and marginal glosses in the interests of shaper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy, not so much to settle the debate as to stir it once more.” And he definitely approaches his subject with the respectful, but authoritative demeanor you would expect from an angel.

The angel starts off discussing Dawkins’s sources. He states, “Your book is as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free of false modesty.” He notes the author most often cited is... Dawkins. I like his ironic tone, and I imagine he speaks with a British accent!

He points out Dawkins’s tendency to dismiss certain things out of hand. Imagination, poetry, beauty, religion are all suspect because they are not reducible to scientific principles. The angel gently chides him for his close-mindedness. 

As to theologians, the angel points out the flaws in Dawkins’s criticism of them by noting, “Your impatience with the general untidiness of the Scriptures and the different ways in which theologians, and indeed most believers, read them betrays your neglect of even minimal enquiry into the nature of scriptural scholarship.” In addition, after dismissing the entire field of theology as so much rubbish, the angel points out that Dawkins indignantly comments that theists have made no attempt to answer him. Odd seeing as there is thousands of years worth of literature Dawkins has clearly never read.

Since Dawkins seeks to replace religion with science, the angel reminds him of both the Nazi and Communist regimes that did just that with disastrous results. When Dawkins states that science will create “the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world,” the angel hears echoes of “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” Maybe Dawkins just seeks to substitute one religion over another. The religion of science combined with atheism has never worked out well.

Another aspect of religion that Dawkins shares with his fellow true believers is a type of fundamentalism that seems “to have never encountered the wavering shades of skepticism experienced by most religious believers.” His unwavering belief in Science gives the angel pause, as most believers in God readily admit to doubt. In fact, Dawkins takes his beliefs to a place where he seems to suggest others have no right to believe anything else. Few religionists would go this far.

The angel shutters when Dawkins agrees with a fellow atheist that raising children in a religious home amounts to child abuse. In an understated manner he says, “I suspect that children are more in danger of being passive recipients of pompous self-righteousness than they are of religious training.” Apparently Dawkins and his fellow believers will decide what exactly constitutes the “bad ideas” they seek to shield children from. I think it’s interesting that the Bible states in Malachi 4:6 that the Messiah “will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Yet here we have a group intentionally turning the children away from their fathers. 

The angel is also mystified by Dawkins attempts to replace the consolation of an afterlife offered by religion. Dawkins seriously believes that knowing one looked in the face of a meaningless universe and truthfully acknowledged its meaninglessness will give one so much comfort that an afterlife, and the idea of meeting loved ones who have gone on before, is irrelevant. “Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer, and his family.” Surely the thought of a meaningless universe where death is just a stage and the final death is no more or less meaningful than the death of anything else will comfort that family. Easy to see why 90% of the world’s population has rejected Dawkins’s view.

This short book is a fun read. It’s the conversation I’m sure the author wishes he could have with Dawkins. So he uses Dawkins’s own words and then responds. In the person of the Angel, he brings beauty and poetry to his writing and a depth rarely experienced outside of religious writings.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The New School by Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Since I love the topic of education, I picked up The New School by Glenn Harlan Reynolds. His book intends to show “How the Information Age will Save American Education from Itself.” If only that were true!

He begins by remarking that our current educational system is firmly rooted in the past - over a hundred years ago to be exact. In the 19th century, it was considered very modern to emulate the Industrial Revolution in education. Children and education were treated as a factory. The goal was to produce efficient, obedient factory workers. Therefore the school worked like a machine - on a rigorous schedule, orderly rows of desks, same subjects and assignments for each student in each class, students are advanced at a pre-determined time according to age, not ability. In short, children were treated as interchangeable cogs in a machine. 

It’s not clear if this model ever worked well, but it is clear that it is an anachronism in the 21st century.

Higher education has also experienced a change from its original intent of polishing young gentlemen for careers in the ministry or law to a place dedicated to training farmers and mechanics after the Civil War to a place for everyone after WWII. Today we have the mess of too many students being pushed into a path that is becoming more and more unaffordable. 

He believes, like many others, that something that cannot continue, won’t. He sees the movement to homeschooling, charter schools, online schools and other alternatives as a sign that the dam is beginning to crack. People are not happy with a one-size-fits-all education when unlimited potential for customization exists. 

Most of the book is spent cataloguing the problem and detailing ways we might see education go in the future. He believes we will evolve and adapt and that the old way of doing things will necessarily fall off. I’m not so sure. Once the government gets involved, ossified programs seem to still continue long after efficacy has proven non-existent. 

But, we can dream.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Declaration of Independents by Nick Gillespie & Matt Welch

I heard about The Declaration of Independents when the authors were interviewed by John Stossel on his TV show. I love the play on words in the title and I love the subtitle: How Libertarian Politics CAN FIX What’s Wrong With America.  I have a soft spot for libertarians. 

Unfortunately, the book was sophomoric boiler plate stuff. Not a lot of original thinking. Although I probably agree with most of what they say, it was uninspiring. They write in a very unserious way, so definitionally, it’s hard to take them serious. 

They believe that because we live in a era that is increasingly individualistic, this is the perfect time for a libertarian triumph. I agree. We are able to customize just about everything around us, yet we have a government that increasingly takes away our choices. It’s hard to see how young people, who grew up with non-fat, half-caf vanilla bean latte, with a double pump of sweetener, a single pump of white mocha, double-cupped and made upside down are going to be OK with exactly one choice in government run retirement plans or four Obamacare options or one choice of school to send their children to based on their zip code. 

So what is libertarianism anyways? Here’s how they define it: “[It] is about a default preference for the freedom to peaceably pursue happiness as we define it without interference from the government.” Sounds good to me.

They site examples of how things are moving in a freedom-loving direction including rock-n-roll loving Iranians, airline deregulation, the move away from “the company man” to a much more entrepreneurial economy, to the pluralism engendered by the web. We as a people have become “The people formerly known as the audience.” as stated by Jay Rosen. One-size-does-NOT-fit-all.

They believe that because of our mounting debt, the door will open soon to some real reforms in areas the government has the biggest footprint: K-12 education, health care, and retirement. These are are the biggest areas, with the most expensive and least efficient systems in our society, and are begging for customization and transformation.

The authors would love it if we would stop giving our reflexive support the two dinosaur parties that carry the blame for so much of what’s wrong with our system today. I feel this is a worthy thought, but practically impossible. Our system was built for two parties. The only way for another party to appear is that one must first go. The Republican party was built on the ash heap of the Whigs. The Democratic party has always existed. There is simply no precedent for a third-party rising to power. And our nation is so polarized and knee-jerk loyal, I don’t see either party going away anytime soon. The real trick would be to do what actually has been done in the past and highjack one of the major parties. I think libertarians will find the best fit in the Republican party, but you could make a case for either one. Whichever party allows themselves to be co-opted by libertarian philosophy will enjoy the benefit of majority support for a long time. 

For policy prescriptions, they have a few ideas to transform the big three: Education, Health Care, and Retirement. In Education, basically vouchers. The money follows the kid. Open up the health care system we have to real free market reforms. Privatize Social Security. I’m with them on all this. Their details, however are very slim. I do believe, like them, that these areas are way too important to leave to the government. 

Good thoughts. We’ll need something more serious to take us forward.

*Fun Fact: One of the authors, Matt Welch, grew up in the tiny neighborhood I live in, Lakewood Village.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Inventing Freedom by Daniel Hannan

After hearing him interviewed by Dennis Prager on his radio show, I decided to add Daniel Hannan’s book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples made the Modern World. How glad I am that I did. This is a great, non-apologetic book that pulls no punches and unabashedly promotes Western, English values.

Hannan is British and a Member of Parliament in the UK. He’s also very aware of the culture and details of the EU. In addition, he’s a lover of America. This background gives him an insight into Western culture not unlike his predecessor, Alexis de’ Tocqueville, whom many claim singularly understood America and its values. 

He begins by contrasting his background growing up in both the English-speaking UK and his family’s experiences in Peru. Although he loves Peru, he readily admits that the English-speaking world has better and more successful values and systems in place. In a world where it's politically incorrect to make judgments like that, his take is refreshing. 

First a definition. Western civilization is defined as having 3 things: Rule of Law, Personal Liberty, and Representative Government. Few nations can rightfully be said to have all three. From these evolve institutions such as elected legislators, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, a free press, religious freedom and jury trials. These are not coincidences, but the natural products of Western civilization. These are the things found in the Anglosphere. These are what the patriots in America fought for. They are the things we must continue to fight for against those intent on bringing our system more in line with autocratic foreign models.

But why the Anglosphere? Why do these values coincide with the English language? Winston Churchill sums it up with this, we share “the same language, the same hymns and, more or less the same ideals.” Our heritage travels with the language. English, unlike other languages, is such a free and open language “free to assimilate anything it found useful.” English is creative and expresses ideas in words not found in other languages. Free language leads to free minds.

Largely, the Anglosphere is Protestant. We sing the same hymns. This is important to the development of Western civilization because Protestantism, more than other religions rejected hierarchy and embraced equality. Protestantism began with questioning authority and that DNA has never been eradicated. There was no way this mentality was not going to infuse into the larger culture. 

The patriots who fought for American independence used such a word like "patriot" because they sought to harken back to an inheritance of ideals firmly grounded in English history. They claimed Common Law, the Magna Carta, and the English Bill of Rights as their own. Language, religion, and ideals thread throughout and unify the Anglosphere and create better and more prosperous societies. 

These values stand out as unique in a world described by Hobbes as, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The Anglosphere stood athwart History and yelled, “Stop.”

Many of these institutions had their genesis in the earliest of the English-speaking people, the Anglo-Saxons. These primitive people brought with them to England “three interrelated concepts that were to transform humankind.” First, personal autonomy which included private property and contract rights. Second, representative governance. Third, the rule of law above the whims of a king. Today, we benefit from their unique worldview. 

Eventually the Anglo-Saxons ruled England according to their principles, but were dealt a severe setback with the conquest by William of Normandy in 1066. Although the Anglo-Saxon legislative body, the Witan, eventually gave way to the Norman barons, the common people continued their Angle-Saxon practices. The people held fast to their values, but it took six centuries to undo the damage wrought by the French overlords. 

In 1215, the authoritarian Norman structure began to be reigned in with the signing of the Magna Carta, the foundational charter of the Anglosphere. This document ensured that the people would have a form of representative government, that the King was not a law unto himself. Without these institutions, rights become on paper only with no means of redress. In fact, this ability to have a voice in the government so infused England, that England largely avoided the history of many other nations of peasants revolting against their overlords. The reason? England didn’t have peasants. It  didn’t even have the word. Apparently new scholarship has shown, that even at the most local levels, commoners lived free lives and largely governed themselves. They were no one’s “peasants.” 

When the English-speaking people crossed the sea to the New World, they not only did not leave their ideas behind, but “brought with them a stronger dose of exceptionalism than those who stayed behind and, in their new home, distilled it to yet greater potency.” They enshrined private property to a greater degree than ever before and with that created Capitalism, the most moral of all economic systems. Private property rights that continued after death allowed for inheritance rights and foundations for charities and improvements on property that might take generations to manifest themselves. In fact, “four centuries ago, it was taken for granted that liberty, property, and private virtue were interconnected. The unique emphasis on ownership in England and North Americas was regarded as a bulwark against tyranny and an invitation to private benevolence.”

The American colonists had The Glorious Revolution to thank for their Anglosphere inheritance. “James II was deposed by the solemn decision of a full and legitimate Parliament.” It became understood that the British people now had the right to hire and fire their kings. A bloodless overthrow of a monarch was itself somewhat miraculous, but the resulting principles and capitalist-democratic society directly inspired the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But even the English did not believe they were breaking new ground in the Glorious Revolution. They simply harkened back to their history, the Common Law, representative government of the Anglo-Saxons, the repeated complaints and petitions against the king, the Magna Carta and solidified all they had reaped from their ancestors. Then passed it on to us. In fact, de’ Tocqueville describes an American as “the Englishman left to himself.” What a compliment.

After the Glorious Revolution, the second great Anglosphere Civil War occurred with the American Revolution. It was here that Englishmen once again asserted their rights against a tyrannical king. Again, they were not breaking new ground, but claiming their English birthright to live as free men. Even the revered English orator Edmund Burke recognized that the Americans were more British than his fellow countrymen, holding fast to the essential and peculiar idea of liberty that distinguished the English-speaking peoples. 

In the creation of the British Empire, England spread her values far and wide through the world. Many other nations that do not share an ethnic heritage with Britain now share a cultural one. We can see the benefits in ways like longevity, height, and equal opportunity. Today we see an Anglosphere spreading from America and Britain to Canada, the Netherlands, India, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as other nations where the English-speaking people have had an influence. Sadly, this group does not include much of Europe. 

Yet this success has paradoxically produced it’s own enemies. Those who would instinctively root for an underdog will never see the Anglosphere as an underdog. It is not. Its successful values, ideas, and institutions have allowed it to usually come out on top. It’s why our enemies, foreign and domestic, try to tear us down and make no secret of their hatred for us. Our strength makes others look weak.

Today, that success in in peril as the institutions and values that created it come under attack. Hannan states, “Once you reject the notion of exceptionalism as intrinsically chauvinistic, you quickly reject the institutions on which that exceptionalism rested: absolute property rights, free speech, devolved government, personal autonomy. Bit by bit, your country starts to look like everyone else’s.”

What a shame if we were to squander so great a birthright.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tides of War by Steven Pressfield

I decided to read Tides of War by Steven Pressfield when I heard Dr. Larry Arne and Hugh Hewitt discussing it on Hewitt’s radio show. They mentioned it was a great book on the Greek hero, Alcibiades. Since I had never heard of Alcibiades and they spoke of him as if everyone who considers themselves educated would have understood the reference, I had to get the book so as not to embarrass myself in educated company.

Little did I know, it was actually a fact-based fictional account of the man. Since his life spanned most of the 4th century B.C., the events he is a part of weave in and out of the most memorable of ancient Greek history. Therefore, this fun, quick read helped me to put other actual historical accounts into one narrative. 

The story is told by an old man to his grandson who is fascinated with Grandpa’s stories. After describing all the great men he has encountered in his life, his grandson asks if one in particular haunted him. In fact, the grandfather replies, the story of one client in particular kept returning to him lately. It is the story of Polemides, the man who assassinated Alcibiades.

The story weaves the grandfather’s words with those of Polemides. It is a wonderful conceit as the story moves from modern day to the old days. 

Polemides describes his love/hate relationship with the marvelous Alcibiades. In the context of the story, we focus mainly on the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens for control of the Greek city-states. 

Alcibiades is an unstoppable, charismatic warrior and therefore strikes terror into the hearts of the power-hungry ruling elite of Athens. He is a master strategist, and in a bold, unconventional move, convinces the Athenians to attack the Sicilian city of Syracuse. It is a dangerous and complicated maneuver for hegemony over Greece. Once the attack is launched, Athens has cold-feet and abandons the effort and Alcibiades is recalled home for trial for treasonous and reckless behavior. 

He escapes into the waiting arms of his enemy, Sparta. From here on, he fights for the Spartans against his beloved, and in his view, corrupt, Athens. Polemides, however is left to torture and rot in Syracuse until his “friend” Alcibiades plucks him free. 

After years of battle with Athens, Alcibiades double-crosses the Spartans and with Polemides returns as a hero in Athens. 

Once again, Alcibiades is consumed with an another audacious scheme - attack the Persians, after allying themselves with Sparta. Alcibiades’ plan is to win in Persia and then turn on the Spartans. The whole enterprise is once again cut short by the power-protecting Athenian leadership.

Now both Sparta and Athens want Alcibiades dead. Polemides has suffered terribly as he has followed Alcibiades through thick and thin. Finally, he is hired by the Spartans to kill Alcibiades. Although he doesn’t actually kill the man, he is there at his death. 

I feel like I have a much greater feel for the political and military history of ancient Greece after reading this novel. I’ll have to see if he has any other fact-based fictional accounts.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow

My favorite thinker, Dennis Prager, has recommended God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow multiple times as a book that had a profound impact on him. So of course I had to read it.

This short book, written in 1978, is so clear and concise and such an easy read for anyone concerned with a supposed Religion vs. Science dilemma. 

Robert Jastrow was a world-renown astronomer, the one-time head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Professor of Astronomy and Geology at Columbia, and Professor of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth. He begins his book by stating, “When an astronomer writes about God, his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers. In my case it should be understood from the start that I am an agnostic in religious matters. However, I am fascinated by some strange developments going on in astronomy – partly because of their religious implications and partly because of the peculiar reactions of my colleagues.” 

He is particularly curious about his fellow scientists who claim to follow the evidence wherever it leads in an unbiased manner. Yet when the evidence begins to line up with a Biblical viewpoint, suddenly the “unbiased, evidence-following” becomes unhinged. The burgeoning acceptance of the Big Bang Theory, in direct contradiction to the eternal universe theory, made scientist, inexplicably, angry. Where was the anger coming from? It seemed an odd response.

In his understated humor, he states, “It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper it over with meaningless phrases.”

The first time the Genesis story began find scientific backing came with the discovery in 1913 that the universe was expanding. Even Einstein was disturbed by an expanding universe because it implied a beginning – a time when the expansion started.

Then Hubble came along and his telescope showed the universe to be of an unimaginable size. Hubble postulated and Hubble’s law: “the faster away a galaxy is, the faster it moves.” So not only was the universe expanding, it wasn’t slowing down! Therefore, based on the theories and the evidence, the universe definitely had a beginning.  Like Genesis says, “In the beginning...”

Scientist began to theorize that while the universe had a beginning, it was not THE beginning. Perhaps the universe began with a Big Bang, expanded until it exhausted itself, and then collapsed back on itself to begin again with another Big Bang. The fatal flaw to this argument is the lack of fresh hydrogen needed to restart the process. Hydrogen is turned into heavier elements within stars. The process cannot be reversed. 

Faced with the evidence for beginning, scientist responded with statements such as, “the notion of a beginning is repugnant to me... I simply do not believe [it].” Or, “I would like to reject it.” Or, “It cannot really be true.” It seems that science had become a religion itself, complete with its own dogmas.

And with the idea of a beginning, science hits a wall. It cannot and never will be able to answer the question, “What came before the Big Bang?” “Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? Was the Universe created out of nothing, or was it gathered together out of pre-existing materials?” And when science reaches its limits, “the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized.”

He ends the book with this wonderful metaphor, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Monday, September 8, 2014

Real Education by Charles Murray

I found Real Education by one of my favorite thinkers, Charles Murray, fascinating. The subtitle is “Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality” and the book focuses on each of the truths in turn. Murray believes the educational system is living a lie and aims to correct these fundamental misconceptions. He states, “The unifying theme of the [book] is that we are unrealistic about students at every level of academic ability -- asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top.”

The four truths he promulgates are:
  1. Ability varies.
  2. Half of the children are below average.
  3. Too many people are going to college.
  4. America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

You can see these statements are not only heretical, but push uncomfortably into territory the educational behemoth has staked out for itself. 

Ability varies. Murray shows how with the theory of multiple intelligences, it is assumed that everyone excels in at least one of them. However, research shows that only four of the main seven contribute to academic ability and those are closely related to each other. Therefore, someone with may have high bodily-kinesthetic abilities, but that doesn’t correlate to academic success. It may correlate to other kinds of success, however, but not academic. 

Half of the children are below average. So the question becomes, can we raise the academic ability of those who are below average in the intelligences that matter most to academic success? Apparently, very little. 

Those at the lowest level of ability are able to rise a little and become a little less below average. But basic ability seems to be fairly fixed. (He’s not talking about taking a talented, but underachieving youngster out of an atrocious school and seeing him rise in a more conducive environment. He’s talking about ability regardless of environment.) In fact, he believes we have already made the leap at which most schools are adequate and the source of underachievement is not bad schools. The dream of raising up the bottom half through fundamental reform of the public schools is a romantic dream and a “triumph of hope over experience.”

Too many people are going to college. Murray estimates that between 10-20% of all students are mentally equipped to handle the rigors of a true college education. He further makes the case that colleges are not delivering a good, quality liberal arts education anyways. In fact, most students should be receiving that in high school. In addition, college as we know it is becoming obsolete. With the invention of the internet, the educational establishment is being blown wide open. Finally, the correlation of a college degree with monetary success is not necessarily true and the resulting stratification of society is an outcome to be avoided. 

This chapter hearkens back to the book I just read, Cultural Literacy, and makes the same case that even at the elementary level, our kids are not getting a true education. Creating a core of knowledge that all children proceed through is the best way to educate our citizens, not expecting everyone to go to college and pick it up there. 

He illustrates the difference between our current standards and a core knowledge format. Current Standards: “Read a variety of literature such as folktales, fairytales, poetry, newspapers, magazines, & Internet Web sites.” Core Knowledge Standards: Read “poetry by Lewis Carroll, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Eve Merriam & Ogden Nash. Read or are read Alice in Wonderland, tales from The Arabian Nights, “The Little Match Girl,” “William Tell,” selections from Wind in the Willows, Norse myths, Greek & Roman myths, & folktales from around the world.” See the difference. Business as usual hitting and missing key cultural components vs. a true education for all students. 

College has become a no-cost (to the employer) way of screening applicants, has lengthened the time of adolescence, has cost parents a small fortune, has wasted the time of most students, and has led to assumption that the graduates are actually educated. Sigh. 

Murray summarizes the theory behind college today quite nicely: First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it. 

America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. Ideally, college should be for the 10-20% of our most gifted students. Although it is not politically correct to say, these students are the ones who will end up in influential positions in society (whether we like it or not). “All we can do is try to educate members of the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, the obligations that go with the roles they play.” “The elite is already smart. It needs to be wise.”

Murray calls for a revival of a classical liberal education in college that best teaches the elite to do its duty to society. He advocates rigor in verbal expression, rigor in forming judgments using the study of history, rigor in thinking about virtue and the good starting with Aristotle and the cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, practical wisdom, and justice, as well as Biblical virtues and wisdom, and finally humility. Our elite must be taught what it is to fail. The responsibility of leadership must only be bestowed on those who know how badly things can go wrong. 

Finally, Murray advocates viewing education as a funnel. Those in the lower half are represented by the narrow end. The gains in this area are minimal and the focus should be on core knowledge. Those with the most ability are represented by the wide opening picturing the almost limitless possibilities of the elite. This is the opposite of our current system where gains by the bottom half are the most sought after. 

Instead, group children by ability and treat them differently. Pure heresy, I know. The kids know who is at the top anyways, why try to paper over it. Instead focus on the needs of each group. Teach the bottom half how to make a living and become productive citizens rather than college drop-outs. Offer school choice so kids can go to the school which best fits their abilities. Focus on the overall success of the students in life, not simply math and reading scores which necessarily focus only on those with high academic ability. Forget degrees as the one and only path to success and create a system that embraces interning, credentialing, and entrepreneurship. Open up our current one-size-fits-all system to welcome and facilitate different paths and abilities. 

Redefine the goal of education - “to bring children into adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and doing them at the outermost limits of their potential.”

Monday, August 18, 2014

Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss

I read Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss, because I was interested into some insight into the man who is our president. However, my first thought upon beginning the biography was to ask myself, “Who cares?” Why does this guy even care about where Barack Obama comes from? We already know who he is. Then I had to remind myself, “Well, he IS the president of the United States, and only a handful of people can say that. I suppose he’s worthy of a biography.”

Unfortunately, I came away with even less of an understanding of who Barack Obama is than when I started reading the book.

Maraniss scrupulously researches his subject. In fact, the amount of hard work he put into finding the details of Barack Obama’s life is quite impressive. He starts with the great grandparents on both Obama’s mother and father’s side. Therefore his journey begins in remote parts of both Kenya and Kansas. 

While these stories are interesting, in the way I suppose everyone’s story is interesting, what struck me is how normal their lives were. Of course, living in Kenya is not “normal” for me, but quite “normal” for a Kenyan. Barack Obama’s ancestors lived, married, divorced, moved, had tragedy befall them, watched children grow up to either make them proud but also disappoint in some ways, and generally had the kind of lives you would expect to hear about if you dug deep enough into your own history.

Of course, Barack Obama Sr. live a bit of an extraordinary life. Tapped early as a hope for a free Kenya, he was educated in America. But like many “gifted” people, he wasted his opportunities and didn’t end up amounting to much. He died while married to his fourth wife in a drunk driving accident. The tryst for which he became famous, with Stanley Ann Dunham, was nothing more than a blip in an otherwise narcissistic life.

He and (Stanley) Ann met at the University of Hawaii when she was, maybe, barely 18 and he several  years older. She became pregnant within weeks of meeting him. Since she didn’t know he was already married and had two children back in Kenya, she agreed to marry him in Hawaii. The “marriage” was over by the time Barack II was born. There’s little evidence they ever even lived together. He was as absent from Barack Obama’s life as an absent father can be.

Later, Ann met and married an Indonesian man who was in a similar situation as Barack Sr. He was sent to America to be educated and return to Indonesia to further the success of his nation. After trying to stay in America, he and Ann finally realized that time was up and they had to move back to the island nation. “Barry” was then about 5 and enrolled in the Indonesian school and took on his stepfather’s last name. 

As that marriage broke up, Barry was sent back to Hawaii to be raised by his grandparents and sent to an elite prep school, Punahou, on scholarship. Although he has a group of pot-smoking friends, called the Choom Gang, the author reinforces the idea again and again that Barry never felt that he belonged anywhere. 

Barry, changing his name to Barack, goes off to Occidental in Los Angeles, where once again, he hangs with his pot-smoking roommates. He prefers basketball to politics and never leads anything. Two years later, he transfers to Columbia in New York. There he remains off campus, making little impression on either students or professors. Those who remember him, remember him as smart, a good conversationalist, always listening, always talking about his Kenyan dad. He sticks with the international students. Once again, this seems to be a sign that he doesn’t feel he belongs.

With his New York girlfriend, Genevieve, an Australian, we start to get glimpses into who Obama is. The truth is, it appears to me at least, that there is not a lot of “there, there.” He writes her obtuse letters, trying yet failing, to reveal himself, “I don’t distinguish between struggling with the world and struggling with myself... I enter a pact with other people, in other forces in the world, that their problems are mine and mine theirs, and the contradictions within us are between us and to be found in the movement of the sea, or the tears of a child or the New York Post sports page. The minute others imprint my senses, they become me and I must deal with them or else close part of myself or make myself and the world smaller, lukewarm. And the helpful part of this is to populate both my nightmares and my visions, and gives me the necessary illusion that my struggles are the struggles of the first man, the river is the original river, and that my brief interludes outside the limits of the human construct are still connected to what’s going on within.”

Huh? I consider myself smart and well-read, but I have never read anything as insipid as this. What does this even mean?

Even though Genevieve was very similar to Barack in many ways, after a year of being together, even living together, she still could not say she knew who he was. He never really let her inside. I would say, that there was not that much to reveal. He seems like he’s simply acting a role, this is what a deep and thoughtful human would be like, if I was one. 

He tires of her, and after graduation, he moves to Chicago. Even though he struggles with his “white vs. black” identity, he didn’t really connect with any black people at Occidental or Columbia. So he heads to Chicago, the epicenter of black political life. 

He takes a job as “community organizer.” Even his uncle, who also lives in Chicago, doesn’t know what that means. Basically, he heads door-to-door in the South Chicago neighborhood he is assigned to, talking with the people, identifying and training leaders, and listening to complaints. After a year, the big success results in getting an aldermen to attend a meeting about getting asbestos removed at one of the housing projects he represents. He spend the next year training his replacement before heading off to Harvard. He knows he’ll need more on his resumé if he’s ever to enter into politics, which seems, in some remote, far-off way, where he’s headed. 

The book ends here. 

It explains so little of who Barack Obama is or what he’s accomplished. But the part about what he did as a community organizer really stuck with me. It’s not clear what he did after Harvard, during which time he met and married his wife. Four years after graduation, he’s elected to the State Senate. He loses his race for US House, four years later. Is nominated in the primary for US Senate two years after that, gives a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, and two years later starts his run for the Presidency. Was he doing more organizing or teaching or brushing up his resume in the four years before becoming a state senator? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Presidency is the longest job he’s ever had.

But now when I watch him speak, something clicks. He is still that "out of power, wishes he had power", community organizer. His job then was to get people riled up so that those in power would make the changes they desire. He’s still doing that. Except that he’s in power. Every once in a while he remembers that and then acts unilaterally as he assumed those he petitioned would do if they cared at all. Here is where his perception and reality clash. He would assume that the powerful didn’t act because... fill in the blank. But it was never a legitimate reason. He just had to get enough people fired up that the powerful would have to give in. Consequences didn’t matter. 

Watch his speeches. See him try to rally us vs. them. We are the community. He is the organizer. If we get angry enough and off our butts enough and DEMAND action, action will happen. And it will be good. And he can move on, checking off that box. He doesn’t want and has never wanted compromise. He didn’t compromise with the alderman. He wants action. He demands action. We are the masses who must rally behind him as he guides and directs us. “They” are the evil other side who must be forced to capitulate. 

He is leader the way a mob has a leader. He is not thoughtful. He speaks in platitudes like a true mob leader does. He rallies his base. He yells talking points. He makes inane statements with no ability to hear or compromise with the other side. He exercises power the way he assumes “they” would do it. It’s not so much that he’s a leftist/socialist, although no one denies he leans that way, it’s that he’s a cheerleading victocrat. And victocrats are not leaders, they are fascistic ideologues. 

I am not a community. I don’t want to be organized. I want to be left alone. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Belief by Francis S. Collins

Francis Collins is a believer in God and a serious scientist. Since he regularly encounters people who have a hard time squaring those two positions, he edited a series of essay in his book, Belief. He aims to show you can believe in God “with all your mind.” He states in the intro, “... absolute proof of God’s existence is not going to be available in this life. But that doesn’t mean deeply rational arguments for faith are not available for inspection and debate by interested believers, seekers, and skeptics.”

He includes a wide variety of essay, some dating back many centuries, to the modern era. Not every one is even written by a traditional believer, but all point to a transcendent. And they are all fascinating. I could write a post on each, but I will try to confine myself.

Collins describes his own journey towards faith in God. It started with the idea of Moral Law. It appears that there is some standard of right and wrong written on the hearts of man. Evolutionary theory falls far short of explaining it. He calls the Moral Law, “an interesting signpost toward a holy and personal God.” From there, he studied religion seriously and became a believer.

Essay #1: N.T. Wright: Wright points out that we all long for some sort of cosmic justice, where in the world will be put right. We thirst for spirituality. These are other signposts pointing to the divine.

#2 Plato: Using the Socratic method, Plato walks the reader through his classical arguments for faith and reason.

#3 Augustine: Augustine argues that because there is absolute truth, there must be and absolute mind. He, like Plato, uses the Socratic method to lead the reader to a Divine Source of Truth, which we can call God, who exists above us and our earthly reality.

#4 Anselm of Canterbury: He argues that what we can imagine, must exist. So we can imagine God, therefore, there must BE a God.

#5 Thomas Aquinas: From the Summa Theologica, Aquinas posits an “Unmoved Mover” or first cause of the world.

#6 John Locke: Our own faculties of reason lead one to believe that the creator must be still more reasonable. It must be eternal and cogitative in order to produce us. 

#7 Blaise Pascal: Pascal argues the we should believe because we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

#8 Os Guinness: God’s Truth is a robust Truth. Truth is everywhere at all times. Truth can be discovered and is available to us and makes us free of manipulation.

#9 Madeleine L’Engle: The famous author describes the search for Truth as frightening because it demands something from us. Real Truth, found in Jesus, transcends mere rational truth and gives us something to both live and die for.

#10 Dorothy Sayers: She links history to Scripture to make Jesus and his disciples “really” real. 

#11 John Stott: Belief is a battle of ideas and we must believe in the power of Truth. 

#12 David Elton Trueblood: He encourages the reader not to deny others’ religious experiences, but to rationally test them to see if they have borne fruit.

#13 Keith Ward: He challenges the notion that religion is simply a social construct.

#14 Art Lindsley: He defends absolute truth in our relativistic world. If we know there is evil, there must be good and only God defines what is good. 

#15 Desmond Tutu: He believes that in the face of true evil, we can be confident, because the oppressed have already won. Truth is on their side. “We humans can tolerate suffering but we cannot tolerate meaninglessness.”

#16 Elie Wiesel: After suffering tremendously in the Holocaust, he explores true evil and our response to it.

#17 Tim Keller: The church is filled with fallen and flawed people. That where Grace comes in. In fact, we cannot critique Christianity and Christians without first starting with the framework given us by Christianity. 

#18 Martin Luther King Jr.: We must have both a tough mind and a tender heart. 

#19 Paul Brand: We are the hands of Christ.

#20 John Polkinghorne: God gave us the ability to explore and understand our world through science.

#21 C.S. Lewis: He expounds on miracles.

#22 Alister McGrath: We all search for meaning. Yet our longing requires a leap of faith.

#23 Thomas Merton: We must engage in mystical contemplation by accepting God’s gift of Himself. 

#24 Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Coming from the evil world of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer describes true love and true enemies. He reminds us that our enemies, the ones we are called to love, are those that “are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love.” Jesus modeled how we are to treat enemies when He dies to save His own enemies.

#25 Viktor Frankl: Another Holocaust victim, describes man’s will for meaning. 

#26 Mother Teresa: We must love those around us with all our hearts!

#27 Mahatma Gandhi: If we fear God, we will not fear anything else. Truth is on our side.

#28 The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso): Science must be guided by moral ethics for “values, creativity and spirituality, as well as deeper metaphysical questions, lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry.” Science and spirituality can have a collaborative relationship and can be closer than ever. 

#29 G.K. Chesterton: “He expounds ont the collaboration of faith and reason like this, ‘It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’”

#30 Hans Küng: He attacks Freud’s atheism.

#31 Alvin Plantinga: He compares evolution to naturalism to show them in opposition to each other. Fascinating stuff.

#32 Antony Flew: The famous atheist came to belief in God because of (1.) nature obeys laws, (2.) the existence of intelligent and purpose-driven beings, and (3.) the existence of nature.

Every essay was fascinating and more than a few WAY over my head. If I had the time, I could spend hours reviewing and digesting each one. I’m sure that if the authors were to read my piddly summaries, they would cringe. I apologize for not doing them justice.