Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley because it seems that anyone who considers himself educated should have read it. Well I’m trying (very hard!) to be educated, so on my list it went. 

It’s an interesting book and often juxtaposed with 1984 (which I HAVE read!). In fact, the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death by neil Postman, makes much of the comparison. Both portray a dystopian future, but they arrive at two different places. 1984 is an all-controlling totalitarian government full of brainwashing and doublespeak. It is full of lies which all will believe, eventually, through use of force and terror. In contrast, Brave New World is a place of supreme happiness and contentment. But freedom is similarly limited and totalitarian control is exercised to keep everyone in a drug and entertainment-induced state of bliss. Postman thinks our future is more Brave New World than 1984. I tend to think it's a combination of the two.

The fable, Brave New World, opens somewhat in media res, with a tour of a fertility factory where babies are produced in test tubes and randomly sorted in groups. These groups are then artificially incubated into exactly the type of citizen needed for this futuristic society to function in a stable manner. Stability is the key.

One of the cream of the crop men, an Alpha Plus, Bernard Marx, exhibits some oddities and a bit of free-thinking. He decides to visit a Native Reservation where people live the “old-fashioned” way. While there, he is both repulsed and fascinated by the people he finds. He decides to bring a mother and her adult son back with him. Not wanting the life she had nor being able to fit into the extremely homogenized "civilized" life offered to her, the mother decides to kill herself in a drug-induced pleasurable coma. The son, however, begins to investigate the “civilization” so interested in investigating him and his “barbarism.”

At this point, the young man, John, called Mr. Savage by the civilized inhabitants of London, takes over as the main character. He has met a woman and fallen in love with her. He wants to make himself worthy of her undying love and convince her to marry him. All of these concepts are foreign to her and she panics when he attempts to explain them to her. 

In the end, John is convinced there is no place for him in this “brave new world.” It’s a sad and hopeless ending. It seems to indicate that this is where we are heading. If we want to get rid of all that is painful in our world we must totally submit our freedom to be replaced with the narcotic of pleasure and entertainment. 

According to John, this is not acceptable. He knows there is more. There is love and failure and hurt and pain and danger and freedom and sin. These are real and make life worth living. He has no desire to be in a stupefyingly blissful state. He is horrified that people are willing to make the trade. By this point, however, it is obvious that the people are too far gone to recognize what they’ve lost. 

I suppose that is the point. Know what you are losing. Understand the trade-offs as we seek a better world. Some pain and unfairness is inevitable and efforts to end these realities for good can result in something much worse. Very interesting thesis. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer

I really do love history. So anything that deepens my historical knowledge makes it onto my list. I’ve known about Susan Wise Bauer’s history books for a long time. We read all her Story of the World books when homeschooling. I also knew she wrote versions for adults. But a recent conversation included, “You should read Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World.” Well that sealed it, and out I went to obtain a copy.

Ancient history is somewhat of a lacuna in my historical knowledge. I know Biblical history, and a fair amount about the Greeks and the Romans, but the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Phoenicians, etc… not so much. Her book was a refreshing look at the people and personalities that made up the ancient world. 

I love how Bauer uses personalities to tell the story. Of course dates and maps are essential, but the people are made real. Their stories resonate as human nature has not changed. She manages to use dry historical documents to invite the reader into a long ago world full of fleshed out characters, with dreams and ambitions, faults and strengths, loves and desires. I looked forward to finding out, what happened next!

She eschews “pre-history,” that time before “particular human lives and audible human voices emerge.” She starts off, “Many thousands of years ago, the Sumerian king Alulim ruled over Eridu:…[his] rise to power marked the beginning of civilization, and his reign lasted for almost thirty thousand years.” What a fantastic way to begin! This is what we have recorded so it’s where she starts. It gives us a glimpse of a people who did not separate the material from the supernatural. Their kings, “descended from heaven,” and so a 30,000 year reign over a civilization which had always existed made perfect sense. 

Yet civilization did not always exist. It had a beginning and it appears to have begun in “the Fertile Crescent, not because it was an Edenic place overflowing with natural resources, but because it was so hostile to settlement that a village of any size needed careful management to survive.” Someone had to manage food and water in order for the people to live if not flourish. 

These Sumerians left us with, “The Earliest Story.” “At some point during the living, storytelling memory of the human race, water threatened man’s fragile hold on the earth. The historian cannot ignore the Great Flood; it is the closes thing to a universal story that human race possesses.” It is as story that echoes throughout every ancient civilization. And, it seems, we have within us the desire to return to the time before the flood. We are also seeking that perfect Eden, whether through prosperity or power, man seeks to remake the world. 

After the flood, we return to the Sumerian king list. The thousand-year reigns trail off, and we enter a period known more as “quasi-historical” in a town called Kish which sits between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Kingship is hereditary. An aristocracy begins to develop. 

Meanwhile, down in Egypt, the Scorpion King begins to develop an empire. The northern and southern parts of the Nile are eventually united and the first Dynasty begins. 

A third area was being settled as people passed through the Khybar pass towards the Indus River of India. The history here is hard to trace because so little exists, but she fleshes out what she can. Here a flood story also exists that tells of the civilization being wiped out and beginning again. Once again, small villages began to grow into towns, but the journey, “took its people that much farther from paradise.” 

Over in China, the Yellow River provided the water needed for another civilization. The small settlements were led by three god-kings, followed by three sage-kings. The sage kings recognized that power should not be hereditary, but should flow to the wisest and most deserving. This problem of heredity kingship is a theme which mankind will return to again and again.

Following these accounts of the earliest civilizations known to man, Bauer lists a series of “firsts.” She begins with the first written records. Writing developed from the need to celebrate great events and to determine what belongs to whom. The Sumerians began to make marks indicating how many cows one owned or how many bags of grain were traded. They wrote in triangular shapes called cuneiform. The Egyptians used hieroglyphics which looked like what it meant. These shapes eventually became phonetic and influenced our letters today.

The next first was of a war chronicle. Gilgamesh of Urek, conquers his neighbors. Urek was a Sumerian town and sought to have dominion over the other towns of the plain between the rivers. While Gilgamesh appears to have taken power over the surrounding towns, his accomplishments die with him. So it begins: one ruler seeks power over those outside his purview. Gilgamesh is also the subject of the first epic hero. Although an actual person, he was held to be a god, although not immortal. This semi-mythical king defeats every foe except the final enemy, death.

The first civil war occurred between the north and south of Egypt. As it became clear that the first dynasty kings were not really gods, the empire began to split up. It would not be reunited until the third dynasty reconquered all the territory again. This newly unified nation begins the Old Kingdom. We also see in Egypt the first attempts to overcome death occur with the great pyramids. They created these massive structures as a place to house their souls and remind the Egyptian people that the spirit and might of the Pharaoh was ever present and death was not the end.

Around 2350 BC, we get our first reformer. Urukagina of the Sumerian town of Lagash decided it was time for some serious societal changes. He “got rid of most of the tax collectors and lowered the taxes. He cancelled fees for basic services. He forbade officials and priests to seize anyone’s land or possessions in payment of debt, and offered amnesty to the debtors. He slashed Lagash’s bureaucracy, which was bloated with pork-barrel positions. He also, apparently, took authority away from the priests by dividing religious and secular functions, thus preventing exactly the kind of authority that had allowed [previous king] Mesilim to set up his stele by the authority of the god Sataran.” Where is Urukagina when you need him now?

Meanwhile, in the nearby Sumerian town of Kish, we find our first military dictator. Sargon played into the weaknesses found in the surrounding cities, the kind of weaknesses that Urukagina sought to alleviate. He could appeal to the inequalities found in the area and turn that from “a loose coalition of cities into an empire.” That didn’t take long.

Although civilizations had been fighting internal enemies and neighboring towns for a while, Naram-Sin faced the first barbarian invasion. He ruled the now-combined Sumerians and Akkadians, a group slowly changing from a “spreading army that occasionally stopped to eat” into more of a nation. The Gutian hordes attacked. They are referred to as “barbarians” because they had no written language, therefore no inscriptions or tradition or histories we can point to. In addition, they did not come to set up their own culture and displace another, but simply to destroy. 

Eventually, we meet the first monotheist. While the peoples of Sumerian Ur struggled with the Gutians, a man named Terah, together with his family and son Abram, set off for the west, at the command of God. This begins the history of the Jewish people. “Plenty of races have claimed to trace their ancestry back to one particular god-favored individual, but this is the first time it happens within recorded history… by divine fiat he was separated from the rest and began something new: one Semite out of the rest, one God rising above the chaos of polytheism. He was the first monotheist.”

Meanwhile, Mesopotamia is starting to see its first empires. Assyria is on the rise in the north, Babylon, under Hammurabi, is starting to build an empire in the south. While Hammurabi is not the first law-giver, his laws are the most complete to survive. They concern themselves over an amazingly long-range of problematic behavior. This incarnation of a Babylonian empire would not last long, only to arise later as another short-lived empire. But Assyria would continue to grow and clash with its neighbors. 

Over in China, the Shang family supplanted the Xia. “Just as the prehistoric Longshan culture itself extended overtop of the Yang-shao and the Xia grew up overtop the Longshan, so the Shang state lay overlapping the Xia land.” This pattern would repeat time and again. As a dynasty seemed to lose the Mandate of Heaven (an idea conveniently  begun by the group which replaced the Shang) through corruption, another family or group would take the helm, promising to restore order and justice. The Shang dynasty experienced a bit of jockeying for power from the nearby feudal lords. As a result, it shifted its capital numerous times. This kind of flexibility allowed to hold onto power for over 600 years.

In Egypt, the Middle Kingdom comes to an end and the Semetic Hyksos rule over a not-quite-united kingdom. These northern rulers still had to contend with a competing dynasty in the southern city of Thebes. Eventually, Ahmose of Thebes takes back Lower Egypt and reunifies the country. This begins the New Kingdom in 1570. It was at this time, in the chaos of succeeding rulers that Egypt gives us its first woman Pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Several years after her, the son of Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten, arises and tries to change the national religion of Egypt to the worship of the sun god Aten. However, this campaign appears to have barely out-lived him, undone by his replacement, Tutankhamun. It also appears that it was during this New Kingdom time that the Egyptians lost their Semetic (Jewish) slaves in what has become known as the Exodus. Eventually internal battles, battles for succession, and battles with the Mediterranean Sea Peoples so weaken Egypt, that the New Kingdom collapsed into chaos by 1070. 

Well before this, we get our first glimpse of Greek civilization in Crete. Little is known about the semi-mythical time of King Minos. Hints are derived from the Minoan myths about a half-bull creature sent human sacrifices by local tribute-paying islands. This seems to indicate that Crete was a center of power. Natural events like a volcano eruption may have led to its quick demise around 1628. Eventually the northern Mycenaeans became the most powerful Greeks in the area. These would be the Greeks who battled the city of Troy to a fairly devastating conclusion and gave us the legends told in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The weakened Greeks were eventually invaded by the nomadic Dorians from the north. So began a Greek dark age.

In India, northern Aryan nomadic tribes crossed the mountains and settled in the crumbling Harappan cities. There the cultures mixed, eventually giving us the Indian people. These Aryan people were instrumental in defining Hinduism and the caste system in India. They eventually gave the land oral compositions written down in the Rig Vedas. Eventually they migrated east, taking power in more and more of India giving us the foundations for the epic tale of the Bharata War. 

In Mesopotamia, the constant warfare between the Assyrians and its neighbors continues. They battle the growing power of the Hittites to their west and the Elamites to their east. In addition, Babylon in the south is the scene of constant struggles for power and begins to establish itself as a powerhouse. However, like the Greeks, the Mesopotamians entered their own dark age as barbarian tribes invaded and overtook all three powers, the Hittites, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians. 

Eventually the Shang dynasty grew corrupt. A neighboring tribe, the Zhou, decided it was time to displace the oppressive ruling family and replace it with a new dynasty. The Mandate of Heaven was then given to the Zhou. It would remain with the Zhou until it was lost to a competing group. This very circular reasoning allowed whatever group that came to power to justify its reign. Almost immediately the Zhou experienced a threat and had to split into the western Zhou and eastern Zhou. 

After escaping from Egypt, the Jewish people eventually make their way into their ancestral homeland on the eastern Mediterranean shore. There the 12 tribes conquer the land and King David unites them as the nation of Israel. Soon, however, the kingdom is divided and weakened. Eventually a rejuvenated Assyrian kingdom began to attack and defeat the northern tribes of Israel. It wasn’t long before all 10 northern tribes were slaughtered or carried off into captivity.

While not quite uniting as a nation, as the Greeks came out of their dark period, they began to create a shared past. Now three different people groups, the Mycenaeans, the Ionians (Greeks on the eastern Mediterranean coast), and the Dorians claimed a similar heritage. It was because of the Iliad, which praised the joining together of disparate Greek-speaking peoples in order to defeat a common enemy, that a kind of Greek vs. non-Greek identity began to arise, although this ancient oral tale had not yet been written down. The Olympic games were designed at this time to lessen conflict between the groups and further solidified their identity.

But while the Greeks competed in the games, over on the Italian peninsula, the tiny city of Rome was taking shape. It would not remain independent for long as the Etruscans had their eye on it. Meanwhile, Assyria finally mastered all of Mesopotamia, claiming kingship over Assyria and Babylon, even forcing a puppet ruler on Egypt. However, the victories were marred by the inability to conquer the southern tribes of Israel. And the Chinese fought with outside barbarians while feudal lords jockeyed for position within the Zhou dynasty.

At the height of the Assyrian empire, Ashurbanipal constructed a glorious library of almost 30,000 tablets. But the ascendence died with him as the very normal struggle for power ensued. This weakening gave an opening to two groups of people in the east known as the Medes and the Persians to begin to assert authority.  

Despite the attempts to unify, some Greek cities began to assert themselves as the center of Greek authority. Lack of land had forced Greek people to migrate all over the eastern Mediterranean. As small settlements began, larger urban centers like Sparta and Athens sought to establish dominance over them. 

In 605, the Babylonians took advantage of Assyrian weakness and experienced a brief renaissance under Nebuchadnezzar, as Assyria is conquered and brought under Babylonian rule. Eventually the reinvigorated Babylonians do what Assyria failed to do and take Jerusalem. But not long after, Nebuchadnezzar II loses his mind. (See: Daniel) “And so that ancient Sumerian unease with kingship is resurrected in the tale of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness… men are frightened by kingship because every man desires power, and desiring, is ruined by it.” Cyrus the Great of the Medes and the Persians waited at the doorstep for an opportunity to seize control. Eventually he would rule most of the near east, freeing the Jews to return to their homeland under his protection.

However, the makings of a Persian rival were appearing in Italy. Rome broke free of Etruscan kingship and began a Republic around 509. Invasions from the barbarian Gauls led to a return to dictatorship. Although a temporary position, it shows the republic struggled from the beginning with power dispersion. 

Further east, fighting for power led to philosophical discussions. In India, small kingdoms began to fight for territory and power. Even the Persians moved into as much of India as they could conquer. Into this chaos was born a prince disillusioned with what he saw. Siddhartha rejected the traditional Hinduism for not providing hope in this life and began a more enlightened religion known as Buddhism. In China, the five hegemonies had ended the Zhou dynasty and created a similar chaos. “In a world where force of arms seemed to be the only glue holding a state together, Confucius offered another way for men to control the society that surrounded. The man who understood his duties towards others and lived them out became the anchor of a country.” Virtue topped power. Sun-tzu also despaired of war and wrote the Art of War as an attempt to help powers avoid fighting. But the fighting and constant warfare continued. 

Not content with much of the near east, Persia moved in to take over the Greek cities on the Mediterranean coast. The other Greek cities united, temporarily, to defeat this threat. While barely mentioned in Persian history, these Persian Wars constitute a significant time period in Greek history. From this time we read about the Battle of Marathon, Thermopylae, the 300, Salamis, and the ultimate defeat of the Persians at Plataea. This unity was short-lived as once again Athens and Sparta sought hegemony among the Greek city-states. From this we get the Peloponnesian Wars, where a series of brutal battles between Sparta with her allies versus Athens and her allies. While Sparta ultimately won, the “victory” greatly weakened both powers. It is within these two periods of constant fighting that we find the golden age of Greece. Pericles, Leonidas, Socrates, Alcibiades, Lysander, Themistocles, and Thucydides among others gained their fame at this time. 

While Greece was consumed with infighting, Rome was expanding and simultaneously weakening. This provided the opening for the first sack of Rome by the barbarians. The republic, like all bodies of men, squabbled over power and direction. The Gauls took advantage of this vacuum in 390. Thirty years later, the Romans had rebuilt and restructured their republic to give the plebeians more power. They also engaged in the Latin Wars which were their attempt to sustain hegemony over the other Latin speaking peoples. As they grew in power, they began to threaten the Phoenician port city of Carthage, just across the Sea from them.

Far to the east, the warring states of China began to fall to the law and order Ch’in. This despotic people banned music and poetry as well as philosophical works like those of Confucius. But they grew powerful, ushering in the next dynasty. Their ruler Cheng became the first Emperor as he united all the disparate kingdoms. To protect it, he linked all the walls that had been built to repel invaders into one Great Wall. In death, he made sure his final resting place was fit for the first emperor, filling his tomb with almost 7,000 life-sized porcelain soldiers and horses. But the brutality of this dynasty meant they quickly lost the Mandate of Heaven. After the second emperor died, it was gone. 

Greek weakness opened the door to the Macedonians to the north. Philip II and eventually his son, Alexander, were able to claim all of Greece as their own. In fact, the Greeks could barely even muster the will to fight back. Alexander went on to conquer almost all of the known world with the exception of the growing Rome. Yet he died young and his empire immediately devolved into a series of warring factions. The near-eastern portion, the Seleucids, would go on to engage in near constant battle with the Egyptian section, ruled by the various Ptolemys.

One area Alexander did not take completely was India. Here the Mauryan Empire had managed to unite most of the sub-continent. One particular king, Asoka, seems to be the first to ever acknowledge that taking over another area and subjugating the people was wrong. He had become a convert to Buddhism and after eschewing further conquest, spent his time pursuing “the Way, the Rightness, the Duty, the Virtue.” Unfortunately this did not have the desired unifying effect and his kingdom collapsed upon his death. 

When Rome humiliated Carthage by taking its possessions, a young son of the king, Hannibal was raised to forever hate the Romans. One fought in the first Punic War and the son in the second. Hannibal ruled in the portion of the empire on the Iberian peninsula. He famously took his elephants over the Alps intending to finish the war once and for all. He did not defeat his hated Rome however. And his single-minded focus led to the weakening of Carthage and its ultimate fall.

With an ascending Rome, Carthage humiliated, and Greece/Macedonia in disarray, Antiochus III of the Seleucids was the new enemy of Rome. The Macedonian Wars tell the story of the two foes fighting for control of the country between them. With Macedonia destroyed by the Romans, the Seleucids turned their attention once again to Egypt. In the middle of this constant war, Israel was run over roughshod. 

With the short-lived Ch’in empire gone, the Han empire expanded its borders and sought to send ambassadors out into the world to report back on what was happening. These kinds of travels to the west eventually led to the creation of the famed Silk Road. While the Han faltered for a few decades, they were eventually restored to power. During this second phase, they introduced Buddhism into China. It was also during the Han empire that thousands of “poor, desperate, landless, and angry Chinese“ rose up in a futile attempt to gain power. This battle eventually led to the splitting up of China into three kingdoms.

Finally, Rome heeded the words of Cato and destroyed the resurrected Carthage. Next they swallowed Greece with little resistance. But as more lands were conquered and more people brought into the Roman republic, the strain between the haves, the have nots, and the slaves become obvious. People demanded the full rights as citizens. Into this scene stepped Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, fighter for the common people. Of course the elitist Senate would not stand for this. “The wound dealt to the Republic by Tiberius Gracchus’s death ... widened and festered. The only men ruthless enough to fight against tyranny were themselves inclined to it.” Eventually men like Pompey, Cicero, and Caesar would come to power and seem to be the hoped for reformers. Yet it was one of these very men, Julius Caesar, who would destroy the Republic and lead to the first emperor, Octavian, Caesar Augustus, upon his death. The Roman Empire had begun. However, this empire had a problem with succession. It tried valiantly to think of itself as still a Republic. Successors would be hand selected and “adopted” by the currently reigning Emperor. But as the military gained in power and status, they demanded a say. As the reigning Emperors appeared to lose their mind at some point, the military would feel the need to step in. Yet they rarely spoke with a united voice and some Emperors ruled for just days. “The empire was now run by something like a secret Junta: a band of powerful soldiers who could put up or remove a figurehead ruler, but who held the real power themselves.”

Into the Roman milieu entered a Jewish prophet named Jesus of Nazareth. This poor son of a carpenter, who if not for the following he inspired, would have never made it into the history books. But a political death and miraculous resurrection secured his place as the one person around whom all of history revolves. Interesting to see him in a history book, because his real history-making power was to come. 

In 209 AD, Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, named his sons as co-rulers after his death. It seems, he “had dealt the empire an almost-fatal wound. The Republic had died, but the empire had grown up to replace it, like an adopted cousin with a faint family likeness. The empire had sickened, under Caligula and the emperors who followed him, but it had made an unlikely recovery. The Romans had managed to figure out how to combine imperial rule with republican trappings, while avoiding the sort of dynastic declines which had been a problem ever since the Chinese had first cautioned about it back on the banks of the Yellow river valley three thousand years earlier. But now, the principle of hereditary succession was about to pull the power of the empire apart.” Eventually Diocletian would divide it into an Eastern and Western half. Constantine would attempt to reunite it, but it was now something altogether different. 

So the book ends. 

I really enjoyed Bauer’s storytelling abilities. This is how history should be told. She makes people come alive and pop off the pages. My only regret is that it is just SO MUCH history and I can’t possibly summarize or remember it all. Oh well. That's why I write about it. On to the The History of the Medieval World.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

After reading a bunch of books that were responding to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, I decided that I should read the book for myself. I wanted to see if it was being represented correctly. It lived right up to my expectations as a shallow, easily defeated treatise written by an arrogant, fanatical religious believer... in Natural Selection.

He starts off clearly irritated that religion holds a special place in most cultures and seems quite perplexed as to why believers would work so hard to defend it. This already has more than a whiff of disingenuousness. My response: Really?

Then he moves into defining his terms. The God Delusions follows from The God Hypothesis which he states as, “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us.” OK with me except for the “superhuman” part. God is not just a really cool human. He is other. I think this actually trips up Dawkins again and again, because he has a hard time seeing God as anything other than human.

He goes onto note that America, in contrast to Britain, is a very religious nation. He seems unsure why that is, but suspects it is because Britain, unlike America, made Christianity a state-sponsored religion. Yep, I agree with him, and I really do think that’s it. He also goes to great pains to disabuse us of any notion that the Founders were Christians. Ugh. I know enough history to know this isn’t true. But... whatever. 

Lest anyone should say that the question of God’s existence falls outside the purview of science, Dawkins is quick to disagree. “Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question...” Um, yeah, except the whole “Scientific Method” thing Dawkins praises so highly doesn’t work with what is outside the material world. Like his belief that God is some kind of superhuman, his belief in a god rooted in the material world is a stumbling block to his methodology.  He goes on, “If he existed and chose to reveal it, God himself could clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocally, in his favour.” Kind of like when He came to earth as a man, testified about himself for three years, died, and rose again? Kind of like that? According to Dawkins, none of that Gospel drivel counts as evidence. He easily dismisses all Scripture (except the parts he chooses to mock) as nothing more than a game of “telephone.” 

He spends some time comparing God to a teeny, tiny, almost invisible teapot orbiting the earth. He says the onus is on the one proposing the idea to prove it exists. One would never say, “Take my word for it.” Right. A teapot is a material object. It’s nothing like God or religion. It’s a weird comparison and reveals how hung up he is on God as Material Object.

Then he introduces his most unanswerable question by reviewing the arguments put forth over time for God’s existence. He correctly answers that they all, (like the Unmovable Mover, The Uncaused Cause, or the regression theory) end up making the case for an eternal God. But, he would say smugly with an arrogant assumption that the question cannot be answered, "Who made God?"

I posed this question to my believing friends. I got blank looks and an “Are you stupid?” vibe. Here’s the answer, Richard Dawkins. No one. He’s God. That’s kind of the definition. If He had a maker, that would be God. Or that thing’s maker would be God. There is none so blind as he who would not see. In fact, the more complicated the universe has been shown to be, the more finely-tuned and improbable, the more Dawkins believes his question is unanswerable. What kind of a marvelous thing or process could even create a God capable of designing such an amazing world? It’s mind-blowing. It’s like regression in reverse. That kind of a radically complex being is simply an impossibility in the eyes of Dawkins. 

He goes onto admit that although this world sure does look designed, that just goes to show how amazing the god of Richard Dawkins is: Natural Selection. The awe and reverence he gives to Natural Selection is a rare and beautiful thing. (Not Chance, which he says is of course impossible. He admits that chance is too random and astronomically improbable.) Natural Selection is omnipotent, omniscient, perfect in every way, all wise and wondrous to behold. It is ruthless, cutting out any and all that do not live up to it’s perfect standard. It is unforgiving. One maladroit DNA strand and it’s hellfire and brimstone for you. It is stunning in its beauty and simulation of design. It is able to take impossible tasks, chop them up into manageable pieces, and in the process produce nothing short of a miracle. It is so subtle and invisible, you’d almost swear the world WAS designed. But you’d be wrong. And it has one enormous benefit over the real God. Natural Selection has no moral code. One can have guilt-free sex with anyone, at anytime, anywhere. Your offspring may not be able to reproduce, but that’s the price you pay when you throw in with Natural Selection. 

He makes short work of any real scientist who may be counted as a believer in a real God. He repeatedly posits that they are either acting on the societal mores or they are loons, and he feel sorry for them. That’s pretty persuasive stuff right there!

He also dismisses any personal testimony of interactions people may have had with God. Either they were delusional, under a form of mass hypnosis, falling prey to the societal norms (like the believing scientists), the victims of illusions, or just liars. Well that takes care of that. Billions of people have had “religious experiences” that Dawkins is quite sure are not real. Next.

Again and again with the “Who made God?” This is a big one for him. In fact, since the universe regresses back into simpler and simpler functions and organisms, the first “cause” must have been the most simplest of things. It could not have been an omnipotent, omniscient, creative, and extraordinarily complex God. That makes sense. So this "God" must either be too extraordinarily complex to exist or too simple to have created anything. Heads I win, tails you lose. that's some good thinkin' right there.

Of course, he is flummoxed as to why his all-powerful god of Natural Selection would have created a being so bewitched by idolatry to another. Namely the real God. After all, his god is a ruthless utilitarian. He goes into a quite long and convoluted discourse about religion being a by-product of some other, beneficial adaptation or maybe it’s the memes we live by, or maybe it’s because children most naturally believe what they are told growing up. I’m not sure and neither, it seems, is he. Moving on. Not much to see or even ponder here. It’s obvious he’s working himself up into a fevered pitch of irrationality to avoid any semblance of doubt in his god.

After lambasting the real God as a sadistic masochist, he goes on to state why his god is actually better at creating a moral universe. “We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral' towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation... Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth... there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity a a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.” All this built-into-the-DNA morality despite most of humanity’s existence being routinely described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” I guess those people didn’t get the memo.

In fact, he can prove through various studies that morality seems to be remarkably consistent within all people groups. Except that it isn’t. I mean it is where Western (and Judeo-Christian) values have made great inroads. But studies that look at humanity over time and everywhere have actually found a very short list of consistent moral rules. (See: Haidt - The Righteous Mind) This proves to him that morality is a result of evolution and not some ramblings handed down through a millenniums-long game of telephone. Besides, it’s downright rude to say people wouldn’t behave themselves without a god looking over their shoulder. Except they don’t. Ever see a city where the police go on strike? How’s that “natural morality” thing workin’ out?

He goes on and on for some time mocking the Bible and the standards it sets to show we, in fact, do not get our morality from the Bible. Otherwise we’d all be sacrificing our children (Abraham) or sleeping with them (Lot). He ignores context and thousands of years of scholarship on these issues, but what’s a little commentary when mocking is so much easier and fun? (In fact, he readily admits to not being familiar with what the theologians have written because he does not want to waste any of his precious time learning about something that is clearly false.) Plus isn’t is obvious that human are getting better and better. Women and blacks have the right to vote! And don’t say Hitler or Stalin. That’s not fair. Hitler was most likely a Christian. (Seriously, that’s his response.) And don’t say the prevalence of abortion. That’s not a bad thing, just a matter of perception. Besides, we are actually MORE moral for being able to see the mother’s side unlike those Neanderthals who believe abortion kills actual, innocent, defenseless babies. He goes on a bit of a rant about the inability of people to even determine what actually is human life, because all life is on a evolutionary spectrum. In the next paragraph, he states that he cannot bear to detail Saudi Arabia’s crimes against women because they are too horrible to list. Apparently HE can determine what is human life and that it is valuable (unless it’s in the womb).

He also details how religions like Islam demand absolute adherence, and no ability to question or doubt, and therefore people are willing to die and/or kill for it. If only people were taught absolute adherence to things like questioning your beliefs (Is that belief up for questioning?) and eschewing absolute obedience to God, there wouldn’t be any suicide bombers. Oh yeah, and Christianity. That’s it. That’s another of his arguments against Christianity. Islam.

His next chapter details his belief that raising children to believe in a certain religion is child abuse: a term he uses without any kind of apology. He compares it to actual physical and sexual child abuse, and determines that instilling a belief system in a child is worse. Sigh. Of course he would love to instill HIS belief system in the child instead. That’s not abuse. At the very end he recognizes that something would be lost if we were to abolish all religious teachings. Rather he states, “We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.” Hard to imagine destroying the foundation and the house still stands, but maybe in his belief system, that’s possible. Just don’t tell a child that. It’s abuse.

He finishes up with a chapter detailing why we don’t “need” God. He likens God to an imaginary friend that may have provided some sort of purpose to us as children, but that we have now outgrown. He believes that our lives are as meaningful as we choose to make them. He then goes on to show how his own life is given meaning by science. He goes through  wonderful litany of the wonders that science has exposed. I am certainly in awe of all he delineates. However, those awe-inspiring facts simply make me appreciate my God even more. He worships the creation rather than the Creator. 

I checked out this book three times. Each time, I couldn’t finish it because I would get so frustrated with his sloppy thinking and non-sequiturs. But I finally finished it! I started it because I had read several books debunking it and felt it only fair to read the real thing. However now, I don’t think all those books are necessary. Simply read this book. It debunks itself.

The Third Target

I love Joel C. Rosenberg’s fictional books. He is noted for ripping stories from the headlines before they became headlines. He will say he is not a prophet, but someone who reads the prophets and takes them seriously. So he thinks, what would this prophecy look like if it came true today. Then it does. So I guess that kind of does make him a prophet!

Anyways, his books are always fun, quick reads. The Third Target is no exception. He began by asking his circle of experts what terrorist group most scared them but was not on the radar yet. To a person, they replied, “ISIS.” So he began to write about this group planning a massive terrorist attack on a mysterious “third target,” after Israel and the US. 

While what he wrote hasn’t exactly happened yet, it could. And ISIS has become a household word. When Rosenberg was writing this book, Obama was calling them a JV team. From Politifact, “At the time, Islamic State (often referred to as by its acronyms ISIS or ISIL) was not a household name. It was often referred to as an al-Qaeda-linked group in press reports.” Once again, he nailed it. 

Good read. I won’t give away the ending, except to say… it doesn’t really have an ending. Curses on Joel Rosenberg and his sequel style of writing books. I have to wait for the next one The First Hostage to see what happens!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes

The title of my latest reads intrigued me greatly: The Wealth and Poverty of Nations; Why some are so rich and some so poor. That’s a good question that David S. Landes asks. He does a very in depth job of researching how and why some nations succeeded and some failed. But in all his rich historical data, it was easy to miss a unifying theme. I tried to tease one out however. 

He begins with the reason why it is important to know what exactly contributes to a prosperous or poor nation. “Our task (the rich countries), in our own interest as well as theirs, is to help the poor become healthier and wealthier. If we do not, they will seek to take what they cannot make; and if they cannot earn by exporting commodities, they will export people. In short, wealth is an irresistible magnet; and poverty is a potentially raging contaminant: it cannot be segregated, and our peace and prosperity depend in the long run on the well-being of others.”

He begins with “Nature’s Inequalities” and discusses the role that geography plays in the success of a nation. He states, regular access to fresh water and temperate weather played a huge role in the early success of civilizations. “Life in poor climes, then, is precarious, depressed, brutish. The mistakes of man, however well intentioned, aggravate the cruelties of nature.” The patterns created by the well-suited geography led early people groups to form social and political organizations to help regulate the society. 

In the west, the notions of economic development and property rights began to develop. Part of this was due to the influence of Christianity. This belief system did not hold rulers to be gods, who could squeeze the people for more and more and take whatever they wanted. They believed everything belonged to the Lord, and we are His stewards. This transformed the economic development in Europe. In addition, the middle ages saw power decentralized in Europe. Unlike China, which considered itself the center of the universe, Europe offered somewhere else to go if one was unhappy with the current situation. The fall of Rome’s centralized authority led to decentralization and competition between areas that paradoxically added to the power of the overall supreme. The king knew that free people made the aristocracy less powerful and therefore less able to challenge his authority. And the free movement of people and goods led to higher tax revenues. In places like China which did not have free farmers but peasants under the control of a particular lord, the sense of rights and contract, to negotiate as well as petition, did not develop. 

Europe's decentralization proved a plus. Landes states, “In those middle years between ancient and modern, fragmentation was the strongest brake on willful, oppressive behavior. Political rivalry and the right of exit made all the difference.” In addition, within Europe the fragmentation created by the Protestant Reformation led to greater freedom of thought as compared to those areas under the dominion of a more controlling Catholic church. Yet even the more Catholic southern Europe suffered nothing like the thought-crushing Islamic countries. Even China, with no established faith, had a morality and belief system rigorously enforced by the mandarin class with no threats to the status quo allowed. In addition, the fragmentation made it difficult for the entire society to fall victim to a group of interlopers. An invading force would have to defeat myriad small kingdoms to gain a large territorial victory. 

As to the early success of Europe, Landes says, “The economic expansion of medieval Europe was thus promoted by a succession of organizational innovations and adaptations, most of them initiated from below and diffused by example. The rulers, even local seigneurs, scrambled to keep pace, to show themselves hospitable to make labor available, to attract enterprise and the revenues it generated.” The division of labor and widening of the market led to “one of the most inventive societies that history had known.” Some examples of technological innovations that Europeans, while not necessarily inventing them, exploited them like no other societies, were the water wheel to produce power, the eyeglasses, the clock, and printing. Many other places, like Islamic regimes or China, feared these developments as a threat to the stability of their societies and tried to shut them out rather than exploit them. Better to protect their power and religious interpretations if they could maintain the status quo than risk losing everything to an innovative and productive people. Once again, the Judeo-Christian character of Europe helps explain the difference. It promoted the value of work, believed in the subordination of nature to man, had a sense of linear time and progress, and promoted the basic equality of man to achieve and work to better himself. 

These western innovations eventually led to better weapons and transportation. This led, as it inevitably does, to expansion at the expense of the native inhabitants. Portugal led the way. Although China had some of the same advantages, they “lacked range, focus, and above all, curiosity.” They believed they were the center of the universe and had no need of outside goods or ideas. They disdained foreigners as inherently inferior. Why would they want to trade with or learn from them? 

Unfortunately this desire for expansion eventually led to the Atlantic slave trade. But this led in part to the Industrial Revolution as Europe sought to make products to trade. Landes believes the Industrial Revolution would have occurred without the slave trade, but it definitely helped fuel it. The Industrial Revolution then fueled a global search for markets, leading to empire building. 

We see that countries that industrialized quickly became more prosperous than those who resisted. This began a growing gap between the economic haves and have nots. “Paradox: the Industrial Revolution brought the world closer together, made it smaller and more homogenous. But the same revolution fragmented the globe by strangling winners and losers. It begat multiple worlds.” Even the apparent “winners” like the wealthy Spain and Portugal, wasted their wealth fighting wars. It was an industrial use of capital the spurned the economic growth of nations, not just the existence of wealth. Nations like Britain did not have the windfall gains made by early empire pioneers like Spain. Instead, they had to develop the habits of hard and innovative work. Additionally, some of the early economic players of Europe, like the Italians, were caught in a web of old structures like guilds, that suppressed innovation. Remarkably, Islamic and Chinese societies actively suppressed intellectual and technological advances. Whereas places like England were experiencing a “buildup — the accumulation of knowledge and knowhow; and breakthrough — reaching and passing thresholds.” Fame and a growing body of knowledge and technology spurred scientist to continue to push boundaries. 

Once again the Catholic/Protestant differences rise up. Landes quotes Max Weber’s thesis that the Protestantism of northern Europe created capitalism “by defining and sanctioning an ethic of everyday behavior that conduced to business success.” The doctrine of predestination led people to want to prove they were chosen by their moral and ethical work habits. Even after the belief in predestination faded, the habits remained. The Protestant Reformation also changed the rules for knowledge dissemination. Previously areas like Italy were great centers of the latest and greatest thinking. But then the Protestant Reformation came along and provided “a big boost to literacy, spawned dissents and heresies, and promoted the skepticism and refusal of authority that is at the heart of scientific endeavor. The Catholic countries, instead of meeting the challenge, responded by closure and censure.”

As the European empires began to grow, those founded by Catholic nations suffered from this insularity. They “did their best to close themselves off from foreign and heretical influences.” Dangerous new ideas and free thought were discouraged. This led to intolerance, superstition, and ignorance which continues to contribute the backwardness of some areas today. “The religious persecutions of old — the massacres, hunts, expulsions, forced conversions, and the self-imposed intellectual closure — proved to be a kind of original sin. Their effects would not wear off until the twentieth century… and not always even then.”

This Catholic/Protestant division led the Protestant Dutch to try to outcompete their erstwhile Catholic Spanish overlords. But the Dutch, where the Protestant Reformation flourished, valued tolerance and free thought. This upstart group of disparate provinces was able to challenge the very wealthy Spanish empire because the most innovative, free thinking, and freedom loving people fled from the tyrannical Spanish into the waiting arms of the Dutch. 

Britain soon followed the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch in empire building. They rapidly moved into India to create a colony there, which humiliated the resident Muslim rulers. Because Islamic fiefdoms operated fundamentally differently from the European system, the local rulers of India did not create the same barrier to entry as they did in Europe. In Europe, the local lords formed a largely hereditary system where they came to be intimately connected to the land and the people and competed with one another for free citizens. But in Islamic rule, the local lords were often randomly moved to prevent just such a possible threat to the Sultan. This led to a weakness the British were able to exploit. In fact, Landes makes the case that India was always going to fall to someone. It had been conquered multiple times throughout its history and never had a strong sense of nationalism to cohere it together in order to repel invaders. 

Eventually Britain moved well beyond its competitors. But why Britain? “By the early eighteenth century, Britain was well ahead — in cottage manufacture, seedbed of growth; in recourse to fossil fuel; in the technology of those crucial branches that would make the core of the Industrial Revolution: textiles, iron, energy and power. To these should be added the efficiency of British commercial agriculture and transport.” Britain, more than any others, was an ideal society to produce industrial, economic growth. He delineates 5 characteristics of an ideal foundation: “[The society] 1. Knew how to cooperate, manage, and build the instruments of production… 2. Was able to impart this knowledge and know-how to the young… 3. Chose people for jobs by competence and relative merit; promoted and demoted on the basis of performance. 4. Afforded opportunity to individual or collective enterprise; encouraged initiative, competition, and emulations. 5. Allowed people to enjoy and employ the fruits of their labor and enterprise.” This also implied gender equality, no irrelevant discrimination, a preference for scientific rationality over superstition, secure property rights, secure liberty rights, enforced rights of contract, stable government, responsive government, honest government, and a moderate, efficient, ungreedy government. In addition, there must be a sense of nation, “a self-aware idea characterized by common identity and loyalty and by equality of civil status.” There’s the formula for economic growth. Unfortunately, this has defined very few countries throughout history. 

This kind of readiness for industrial growth largely existed in northwest Europe and rapidly declined as one moves southeast on the map. While leftist political economists and economic historians like to blame poverty on the exploitation by richer nations, that is not the correct explanation. “Europe’s development gradient ran from west to east and north to south, from educated to illiterate populations, from representative to despotic institutions, from equality to hierarchy, and so on. It was not resources or money that made the difference; nor mistreatment by outsiders. It was what lay inside — culture, values, initiative. These peoples came to have freedom enough. They just didn’t know what to do with it.” He further states, “It is not want of money that holds back development. The biggest impediment is social, cultural, and technological unreadiness — want of knowledge and knowhow. In other words, want of the ability to use money.”

This explains most of the world. What then, explains America? “America’s society of smallholders and relative well-paid workers was seedbed of democracy and enterprise. Equality bred self-esteem, ambition, a readiness to enter and compete in the marketplace, a spirit of individualism and contentiousness.” America started with a tabula rusa and an optimistic open culture. Because Americans did not have to overcome a fossilized culture, all the fundamentals for success were already in place from the beginning. “The decisive and most distinctive American innovation, though was not any particular device, however important, but a mode of production — what came to be called the American system of manufactures.” Europeans eventually fell behind because the “found it harder than Americans to accept the ruthless logic of productivity.” America began to set the standard for productivity and ruthlessly pushed for more, faster, and cheaper. 

Landes then looks at why South America and Asia, specifically China, lagged so far behind. South America fell because of the same things that held southeastern Europe back. China suffered from “cultural triumphalism combined with petty downward tyranny [which] made China a reluctant improver and a bad learner.” 

He also spends time discussing Japan. Unlike China, they were learners. While initially open to trade and Christianity, this very traditional society began to feel threatened when the newly converted seemed to owe more allegiance to God than to their emperor. So like China, they shut down and turned inward. In a reactionary vein so common around the world, they wanted to “freeze the social order, fix relations of social and political hierarchy, prevent disagreement and conflict.” Eventually they saw how far they were falling behind the rest of the industrial world and made an incredibly valiant effort to catch up. Eventually they put their European and American competitors to shame. They were exemplars of the catch-up model, proving that sometimes, it pays to be late.

He looks at what ails the Islamic regions of the world. It starts with the dysfunctional Ottoman Empire. “The Ottomans had originally filled a power vacuum — they had taken over a region once strong, now enfeebled — looting as they went. Now they could no longer take from outside. They had to generate wealth from within, to promote productive investment. Instead, they resorted to habit and tried to pillage the interior, to squeeze their own subjects. Nothing, not even the wealth of high officials, was secure. Nothing could be more self-destructive.” Today the heirs of the Ottoman Empire, the Islamic countries “are without exception despotisms, where leaders are not responsible, actions are unpredictable, loyalty is a ruse or a mirage of propaganda, and everything, including the economy, is subordinated to politics and can be turned around by an event. Instead of courting legitimacy by appeals to material improvement — have I made you better off? — Arab leaders have boasted of victories over colonialism or Zionism and waved the bloody shirt of jihad, promising to put history right….[Arabs] had more pressing things to do — first of all, to defeat Israel. Prosperity could follow.” Which is to say, prosperity never.

Today, we see, what Landes calls, the losers. The Middle East is a failure. “Its political, social, and cultural institutions do not ensure security of enterprise or promote autonomous technological development. Also, cultural attitudes, and above all, gender biases, inhibit industrial undertakings.” “Most Latin nations have resorted to the manipulation of trade and money: import barriers and quotas, differential rates of exchange, a carapace of restrictions that some have called the ‘inward-looking model’ — and, of course, to borrowing.” These measures exact a heavy price. “Among the heaviest losers in this period of record-breaking economic growth and technological advance were the countries of the Communist-Socialist bloc… The striking feature of these command economies was the contradiction between system and pretensions on the one hand, performance on the other… The joke had it, they made believe they worked, and the state made believe it paid…” “All the ills that have hurt Latin America and the Middle East are exponentially compounded in sub-Saharan Africa: bad government, unexpected sovereignty, backward technology, inadequate education, bad climate, incompetent if not dishonest advice, poverty, hunger, disease, overpopulation — a plague of plagues.” Until these areas develop the cultural attitudes that lead to prosperity, they are bound to fall further behind. No amount of western meddling can pull a society out of its self-imposed limitations. 

Going forward, Landes states, “Until very recently, over the thousand and more years of this process that most people look upon as progress, the key factor — the driving force — has been Western Civilization and its dissemination: the knowledge, the techniques, the political and social ideologies, for better or worse.” “If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.” Yet here we are, by far the most successful economy on the planet throughout all of history and our colleges and universities are working feverishly to destroy all that that prosperity is based on. Pick a place where Western Civilization has not invaded, Somalia, Pakistan, and figure out which one we should become, because that is life apart from Christianity and Western Civ.