Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (Book Review #84 of 2016)


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis

I picked up this book because I wanted to both understand my neighbors better as well as the motivation behind the rust-belt surge for Trump in November. I'm from Kentucky and live in a town similar to the Middletown, OH where Vance's parents grew up. Georgetown, KY houses a Toyota plant, which employs 7,000 people who are increasingly either from Appalachia or are second and third-generation Appalachian transplants from Ohio, like Vance. My middle-class neighborhood is almost entirely made up of former coal miners or former factory workers from OH and MI with some connection to East KY who now work at Toyota or one of its subsidiaries, over 50% of the county's employment is manufacturing. I saw no Hillary signs in yards, but plenty of Trump signs (still up) and a smattering of Bernie signs. I grew up in a more affluent and liberal part of Central Kentucky 30 minutes away, and the culture I returned to here in Georgetown after 15 years apart seemed foreign in ways I could not understand until I read this book. Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands (and the follow-up series that the Lexington Herald-Leader published 50 years later) is likely a prerequisite. Vance's grandparents represented the aspirational families that Caudill wrote about, who left in one of the great migrations in the 1940s from the hills of Jackson, KY to an industrial town in Ohio; Vance writes of how a majority of Armco workers in Middletown were from a KY county (10% of Ohio's total population in 1960 was from KY, TN, or WV). Ironically, Trump's own Art of the Deal mentions his first apartment complex in Cincinnati in the 1970s, where he worked to run out tenants from the "Kentucky hills" who did not pay rent and whose children destroyed property. Vance's book is not about Appalachia, but about the Appalachian culture of families who have moved elsewhere (he split his time growing up between Middletown and Jackson). It would probably be a two star book if I were grading on the interest of his autobiography; its four star merit comes in the explanatory value of the viewpoint of his very working-class roots from his newfound position among the American elite.

I started listening to David Brooks' (2000) book Bobos in Paradise as I finished reading the last chapter, and I think the combination of the two books offer the most remarkably complete explanation I have seen for the white, middle-class rejection of establishment candidates in 2016 (see my review). Brooks' book focuses on the rise of meritocracy in America from the 1940s-2000, of the "bohemian bourgeouis" ("Bobos" for short). I grew up in more of a Bobo culture, my parents had climbed the meritocratic ladder and my neighbors were more likely to be from another country than they were from Appalachia. The meritocratic upper-middle class moved to suburban enclaves, set the rules about what was socially acceptable or  politically correct, and engaged in the ACT/SAT college-admissions arms race. "Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch." In Vance's Middletown home, where the poverty and disability rate are above OH and national averages, you will find neither caviar, nor Starbucks, nor mulch.

Brooks' own review (June) of Hillbilly Elegy tries to relate the two: "From 1945 to 1995, conservative and liberal elites shared variations of the same vision of the future...global, integrated, and multiethnic. But the elites pushed too hard, and now history is moving in the opposite direction. The less-educated masses have a different conception of the future, a vision that is more closed, collective, protective, and segmented." But Brooks clearly misses the point that Vance makes, namely that the door was never fully open for the "less-educated masses" to climb up the meritocratic ladder. Vance writes of his discovery that it was cheaper for him to attend Yale than it would have been to attend a public in-state school. (He cites a recent NY Times article on how Ivy League schools hold slots open for low-income students but receive very few applications.) At Yale, there is a whole vocabulary and protocol that he has to learn in order to survive, much less thrive. The elites have designed a system completely foreign and has at least the illusion of being unavailable to a huge swath of the white underclass, such as Vance's peers in Ohio, and this makes them angry.

Once Vance got on the ladder, he saw how far the elites' world is separated. Vance writes of a Yale professor who would rather not accept students from public schools. Many of his friends had never even MET an Armed Services veteran, much less served themselves. "I was an anamoly" (p. 182). This exclusion is what has fueled the anti-establishment movement on both the Right and the Left. Vance writes of his Ohio peers' "deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream" (p. 173). Vance penned much of his book prior to 2015 and does not write about the 2016 candidates, but does write about the white working-class rejection of Obama for seeming like the epitomy of the Bobo system: "President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them" (p. 172).

Ironically, Obama came from a broken home and lived between cultures similar to many in Middletown. (David Axelrod's memoir relates how Obama was able to endear himself to many white voters in rural Illinois because of his similarities vis-a-vis his upbringing.) As I write this review, Vance has just published an op-ed in the NY Times praising Obama for being an excellent family role model in the White House. But voters in Middletown and Appalachia rejected Obama for representing the result of his successful climb into the rule-making meritocracy: "Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it--not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right" (p. 172). It's therefore not hard to see why these people voted for Bernie and Trump--candidates who had been rejected by the meritocracy of their own parties and said things centrist elites would not.

Fox News, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, and others helped create the monster they now cannot control. As the Middletown factories close and people leave for jobs elsewhere or are stuck where they're at, "the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault" (p. 175). "The government's fault" quickly became "Obama's fault," or "China's fault," which played to patriotic instincts that Vance notes is "religion" to the largely non-church-going Appalachian people. They largely believe Obama is making things worse because he's a Muslim, or not actually born in America, etc (p. 171). Vance writes that the GOP has now allowed the Rust Belt to have scape goats, rather than point fingers at themselves. When the factory jobs and coal jobs don't return as Trump has promised, then I have to imagine these peoples' last shred of faith in institutions will be gone.

Now that Vance is of the meritocracy himself, he has empathy. "As a cultural emigrant from one group to the other, I am acutely aware of their differences. Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn—recently, an acquaintance used the word 'confabulate' in a sentence, and I just wanted to scream" (p. 224). Vance surveys his Yale friends and his Middletown family to see how they measure up in terms of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE); the results bear out the national statistics, that working-class people have seen more traumatic incidents and face more adversity as a consequence. He notes studies showing the correlation between such ACE scores and anxiety, obesity, depression, and failure to form stable households. Those with low ACE scores struggle to understand those with different childhoods, as is borne out anecdotally in his relationship with his stable-household wife. Vance lived much of his life estranged from his birth father and his drug-addict mother was constantly bringing various men into the home; there was constant conflict, and he brings that baggage into his marriage.

"One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is...by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong" (p. 184). But this statement brings to mind the flood of recent stories about Title IX and universities no longer permitting a traditional First Amendment understanding of free speech. As Nick Kristof wrote in 2016, "(T)he one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We're fine with people who don't look like us, as long as they think like us." Once an institution is created and a culture is entrenched, such as with the Bobos, it will be defended. When I go to the local playground with my son, I increasingly see men from this culture open carrying pistols on their hips. I get the sense that they do it as much because they feel their ability to do that is threatened by politicians advocating "common sense" gun laws. I can't imagine such a practice being accepted at a public park in, say, White Plains, NY.

What about those in the white working-class, can they be taught habits at an early age to get into the higher society? (Isn't that what public educators try to do?) "Mamaw always resented the hillbilly stereotype—the idea that our people were a bunch of slobbering morons. But the fact is that I was remarkably ignorant of how to get ahead" (p. 197). The educated elite are "playing a different game," writes Vance. They exercise and cook meals at home because eating out is unhealthy-- they avoid McDonald's. They join civic societies and clubs that build a network so they do not have to rely on sending out CVs and job applications. Can such rules of the game be taught? Vance points out that his school had a nice building and textbooks, and good teachers, but there was only so much educators can do with children whose families are unstable, in which the children may not get enough food and sleep, much less love. If people in the Middletowns of America increasingly reject government programs as being paternalist and designed by elites, if they reject Michelle Obama's advice about nutrition guidelines out of pure spite, then what hope is there? Vance writes that the white working-class are routinely passing up available jobs and other opportunities. "My dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility" (p. 175). Vance offers few answers. Appalachian poverty is no different than black inner-city poverty, as Vance remarks as a teenager reading William Julius Wilsons' The Truly Disadvantaged-- there are no magic bullets. "People have struggled to get out of Jackson for decades; now they struggle to escape Middletown" (p. 24).

Perhaps what I paid the most attention to in this book is Vance's interaction with, and critique of, the Church. Churches and other civic institutions and charities are conspicuously absent from the Middletown, OH that Vance describes. "We never went to church, except on rare occasions in Kentucky or when Mom decided that what we needed in our lives was religion" (p. 79). Just Googling brought me to the websites of several organizations there that one would think Vance would have interacted with, or at least mentioned, in his book. These non-profits can bring stability, meet physical and emotional needs, and can fill in the gaps in the safety net. Vance apparently never saw a church that engaged the Middletown culture to reach needs and teach or reinforce the values that Vance notes are critical to moving people out of poverty. Perhaps his family was too proud to attend a Christmas toy giveaway or other functions? (He writes that his mom and others would utilize a payday lender or borrow against a future tax return to put last-minute presents under the Christmas tree.)

Vance writes of his admiration for church as such a stabilizing influence. "Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all," studies have repeatedly shown (p. 86). He enjoyed church activities and the stability of his birth father's family temporarily in Jackson, KY. But he later left the Christian faith due to his distaste for the reactionary conservative fundamentalism he experienced, which he sees as just as closed-minded as liberal institutions. (If JD Vance ever reads this, I recommend Daniel Taylor's The Myth of Certainty as critical-thinking Christians also often feel suspended between two worlds that will never fully accept them.)

I suspect from Vance's words about the prevalence of Pentacostalism (the snake-handling variety) in East Kentucky, and from my own conversations with people in that tradition, that the Christianity Vance was exposed to had a particular inward bent (he notes one of his Marine Corps buddies had not even heard of a Catholic before). Many Pentecostals do not believe in charity, believing instead (against the Bible, rather than with it) that the more pure your faith is the more God will bless you with wealth. Vance's lasting impression of the Church is an institution withdrawing in fearful isolation from a secular world bent on destroying it and eager to root out corrupting influences from within. He instead wants to see a church "that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it" (p. 226). My hope is that now that he has recently returned to exploring Christianity in adulthood he finds a more Gospel-centered church.

How did Vance break the statistical mold and "escape"?  An older cousin encourages him to join the Marine Corps, and that breaks his cycle of "learned helplessness," gives him great responsibility and self-confidence, and pays for his undergraduate education. A tour in Iraq teaches him cultural sensitivity as well as a thankfulness for American poverty compared to the alternatives. The Marines also taught him (and all recruits) basic etiquette, personal hygiene, and personal financial planning. Militaries internationally are historically designed to be a civilizing force, which is why some level of participation is mandatory in many countries. While I am glad we have such an institution in the US, I am loathe to offer it as a prescription. Vance's Marine Corps experience is lucky in the sense that he was in a largely non-combat role, suffered no trauma, had an assignment usually done by those well above his pay grade, and he made good choices with his resources afterwards.

Vance is an economic conservative in his viewpoints, but argues for government policies that "put the thumb on the scale" for the poor. He advocates making it easier for extended family members to be foster parents, so that children won't lie to authorities about mom's abuse for fear of never seeing grandma again. He advocates eliminating some occupational licensing to make it easier for people to become hairdressers or taxi drivers, such deregulation would help the poorest of the poor (I recently saw some Democratic legislators embrace this in Kentucky, specifically to help immigrants and ex-convicts). He advocates spreading Section 8 housing vouchers to diverse neighborhoods, instead of clustering them all together as that exacerbates the pressure on those individuals by isolating them from non-poverty lifestyles. Nothing incredibly controversial (or original) there.

I think Vance's lack of acknowledgement of how fortunate he was in his circumstances, then preaching to his Middletown peers what they need to do to improve their lot, is what irks many on the Left about this book. His message is similar to President Obama's unpopular message of personal responsibility circa 2008: be a father to your children, make the most of education that's available, accept the job even if it requires you to wake up at 8am every day, and don't blame others for your circumstances. (That is, after all, what Obama did.) Sarah Jones' criticism of this book in The New Republic is incorrect, Vance does criticize the elites and the system they have created. But he is more greatly concerned about the pessimism and lack of trust in institutions he sees holding back the working class.

I have a fairly liberal activist friend whose Appalachian roots are similar to Vance's and she does a lot of advocacy there (she's a lawyer as well). She told me of frustrations she has trying to teach basic financial literacy and the importance of even just having a checking account; the people in the mountains tend to distrust institutions and prefer to stay in a cash economy. Distrust generally is a complement of pessimism. Vance cites Pew Research, "There is no group of people more pessimistic than working-class whites" (p. 175). This pessimism leads to cynicism and the "learned helplessness" that Vance experienced in Middletown, where people believe they can never advance. Rather than try, he writes, they blame, and we just saw a 2016 campaign where the winning candidate encouraged them to blame scapegoats and preyed on their distrust of institutions like government and the media. "I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better," (p. 227)-- I don't see how that makes him a "false prophet" any more than Harry Caudill was. Four stars out of five.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks (Book Review #83 of 2016)



Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks

I listened to this book on a long holiday drive at roughly the same time I finished reading JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016). Bobos in Paradise (2000) explains the rise of the meritocracy that Vance writes working-class whites have now rejected. I highly recommend reading one to help understand the other. Brooks himself reviewed Vance's book in June 2016 and almost connected the dots: "From 1945 to 1995, conservative and liberal elites shared variations of the same vision of the future...global, integrated, and multiethnic. But the elites pushed too hard, and now history is moving in the opposite direction. The less-educated masses have a different conception of the future, a vision that is more closed, collective, protective, and segmented."

But Brooks clearly misses the point that Vance makes, namely that the door was never fully open for the "less-educated masses" to climb up the meritocratic ladder. The elites have designed a system with completely foreign rules that has the illusion (at least) of being unavailable to a huge swath of the American underclass, such as Vance's peers in Ohio, and this makes them angry. Vance writes his observations of the working-class growing deep distrust of institutions built and run by the Bobo elites-- corporations, banks, the media, universities. Bobos in Paradise not only explains the psychology behind the meritocratic movement, but also demonstrates how that system is defended. The backlash against the Bobos explains much of the 2016 Presidential election, how the bulk of the electorate voted for the two candidates that the establishment had rejected and told them not to vote for: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

"Bobos" are shorthand for the "bohemian bourgeois," the marriage of capitalist riches with free-spirited, expressive bohemian lifestyles. It is suburban moms in Virginia driving an expensive SUV to yoga class on Tuesdays. It's the government economist who scoffs at a $200 Rolex as excessive but doesn't hesitate to spend $800 on a tablet. It's the household of 2.3 people that spends thousands of dollars in camping gear to "get back to nature." It's the software consultant that flies thousands of miles and offsets it by buying "carbon offsets." Where did these people come from, what are their values, and what is their consequence? (This book was written pre-9/11, pre-Great Recession both of which put a strain on Bobo self-confidence.)

The author states up front that he can write loosely ("comic sociology") and unscientifically because he is not a scientist or psychologist, "Max Weber has nothing to fear from me." In one part of the book, he takes up residence in Wayne, PA and people-watches like an armchair sociologist; every anecdote supposedly explains something profound. Brooks offers a survey of literature and newspaper items that fit his story of America's transition from aristocracy to meritocracy, focusing mainly on social transitions in the 1950s and 1960s. He offers a simple explanation for how standardized tests arose as the hurdle to leap to get into the Ivy League, and then even public schools. (But he neglects to mention that such exams are similar to the public service exams that growing national and state governments used to test its applicants beginning in the late 1800s and well through the 1980s, though such exams have largely fallen out of favor today. The merit system began in the 1880s after President Garfield was assassinated by an office-seeker, and was eventually adopted by all states in some form. Public service had always been considered a noble endeavor, and what better way to prepare for that endeavor than receive education that might help you in that office? See, I can be my own armchair sociologist.)

This shift toward meritocracy showed up in other ways. The New York Times began publishing notable Jewish wedding announcements alongside those of notable white people's in the 1930s. The Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights movement demanded that all people be judged on merit and not race or gender-- no one should expect to be treated differently based on his last name. The steady, rapid growth of the American economy after WWII gave most households rising incomes and standards of living. Suffering that was seen in the war and Depression years were an unknown to a new generation. Restraint was cast aside (as Brooks explicitly figures out in his later work The Road to Character). People drove new cars on new interstates to new houses in new suburbs. The gains from the growing economy, however, increasingly went to the educated as America transitioned from a manufacturing to a service economy. The arms race to get into college was on. Soon, the difference in wages among college graduates versus high school dropouts began to yawn and the supply of college students rose. The fact that people typically choose mates from the same socio-economic class meant that there was a widening rich/poor gap and increasingly two different societies. The policymakers and influencers of all societies were increasingly drawn from the ranks of the Ivy League. Getting into such schools was the prize that showed you'd "made it," and the payoff was the greatest.

In college, the Baby Boom children were exposed to different ideas, bohemian culture, and joined in the revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, namely sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Creativity blossomed, as did an edge against the establishment (Vietnam, Watergate, etc.). But Baby Boomers married, found jobs at major corporations, climbed the ladder, and worked on getting their kids into Ivy League schools. These Bobos were rich beyond their parents and accumulated things to put into their suburban enclaves. But they also increasingly looked for ways to still signal their 1960s hipster credentials in the face of the capitalist accumulation they used to rail against.

Bobos had to "make the profane sacred": Shopping suddenly became connected to social causes; it's okay to buy more than you need if you're "buying local," or if some of the proceeds go to preserve a Brazilian rain forest. Where possible, the "intellectual-entrepreneurial dichotomy" was eliminated, Brooks writes. So, weekends reserved for surfing and meditation became a Bobo start-up for peddling surfing supplies or a Bobo marketing her new meditation retreat center. Rules had to be established about where money was spent. "Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch." Almost any expense can be justified if it's for a tool. A $5 shovel won't do the job, you need the $25 model with the ergonomic handle. Spending $1 on regular coffee is a waste, but a $10 cup made from fresh-ground Fair Trade coffee brewed in a $50 French press is a great value. Spending many multiples on your kid's tuition for a degree in Art History at Princeton that he could have received much more cheaply at State College is a great honor. Standing in line for a new $600 iPhone to repace last year's model is almost expected.

Entrepreneurs suddenly became the source of wisdom that intellectuals and academics used to be-- bestsellers were now by Fortune 500 CEOs and creative capitalists. Intellectuals (like David Brooks) can't just be good writers, they have to also look good on TV (Every Friday on PBS NewsHour). Politicians, likewise, had to be presentable (but this had been the case since the photograph was invented). The Bobos' gods are people like Steve Jobs who live like bohemians and buck the establishment but get rich thanks to American market capitalism. "Self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in."

Brooks writes that the Bobos have abandoned traditional religious ethics as the moral code and replaced it with "disease prevention." "Bobos are uncomfortable with universal moral laws that purport to regulate pleasure. Bobos prefer more prosaic self-controlled regimes. The things that are forbidden are unhealthy or unsafe. The things that are encouraged are enriching or calorie burning. In other words, we regulate our carnal desires with health codes instead of moral codes.” Work must be well-balanced with play. Sex is encouraged, but it must be "safe." Risks are fine but must come with insurance policies or money-back guarantees. "Fairness" and "tolerance" have become the sacred cows. "If you live in a society like ours, in which people seldom object if they hear someone taking the Lord's name in vain but are outraged if they see a pregnant woman smoking, then you are living in a world that values the worldly more than the divine."

The emphasis on tolerance and fairness in the Bobo-dominated Ivy League led to a new word invented by Bobos: political correctness. Bobo society has a way of determining what language is intolerant, and therefore offensive; which new ideas must be rejected, and which old ideas are okay to keep. The Bobos, writes Brooks, have moderated politics and curbed the excesses of both the Barry Goldwater right-wing and the George McGovern left-wing. We now have the centrist "variations of the same vision of the future...global, integrated, and multiethnic," as Brooks describes it in 2016. This was also reflective of the Great Moderation of 1980s-2000s in general. We had a two-term Democratic President who spoke the language of the Left but deregulated the financial sector, liberalised trade, and famously declared an end to the "Era of Big Government." He won his election against a President who is perhaps most remembered for the phrase "stay the course," and whose son seems to be representative of the Bobo class (Brooks claims him for such, writing as Bush had not yet won the 2000 election). This political centrism is what led analysis of the language used by candidates on the Republican debate stage in 2016 to show they were all indistinguishable from each other--save one.

That voters rejected the elite homogeneity in 2016 came as a shock to everyone (including Brooks), save those furthest from the Bobo class-- people like Middletown, Ohio. Brooks' book says nothing about the hollowing out of the "Rust Belt," the stagnation of inner cities, and the book was written before America was in a "forever war" in multiple countries against largely unseen enemies with a starkly religious ideology. But some of the seeds of 2016 are found in the end of Brooks' book when he describes something that a decade later would be part of a phenomenon called the Great Stagnation: the lack of aspiration toward grand ideas that so motivated previous generations. There is no "moon shot," and seemingly no entrepreneurs aiming for the next big invention. Brooks bemoans the lack of "aspiration," as the "innervated" culture turns to various entertainments to stimulate itself. (The Road to Character is critical of the narcissism that has arisen from this generation that has not suffered in life like previous ones.) Brooks optimism reaches for the man of aspiration to kick-start America again. Instead, we were left with a disastrous Iraq war and a financial crisis followed by prolonged slow economic growth that led the masses to increasingly resent the Bobos and distrust the institutions they built. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Road to Character by David Brooks (Book Review #82 of 2016)


The Road to Character by David Brooks

(Two stars) I followed this book up later with Brook's earlier work Bobo's in Paradise. I suspect from comparing the two books, and what I read in his NY Times columns, that Road to Character is basically a dump of biographical information gleaned in Brooks' research over the years. As the NY Times' own review of this book states, Brooks has a knack for the "obscure but potent social studies research." For example, he begins with a supposedly influential book from 1965 by a Jewish Rabbi, which probably few have even heard of today, which could have been part of his research for Bobos but likely didn't fit with the story he wanted to tell there. Brooks reads material from the era he is trying to understand-- books which may have been widely read in a previous generation. Hence, Brooks can introduce to us a random collection of individuals ranging from Augustine of Hippo to various 20th century Lefties because he's read works by those authors or come across a biography of that character. (I suspect he grew up a Baltimore Colts fan, hence he loved Johnny Unitas and included him.)

It is hard to find any common threads between all of the characters in this book. Instead of "Character" meaning "integrity," or what you do when no one is watching, it is as though Brooks simply means "personality" or even just "adulthood." Some of these are "great leaders" or "thinkers," Brooks tells us, but they are more like atlas obscura. Some of these people are spiritual, some of these are basically anti-spiritual. Most are deeply flawed; Eisenhower, for example, had an affair and abruptly left his mistress deeply heartbroken. Brooks does not address this nor tell the reader that the man ordered more government overthrows and assassinations than perhaps all Presidents after him combined. So, Brooks chooses his "character" traits carefully.

I read most of Brooks' columns and watch him every Friday on PBS Newshour, am a long-time fan, so this book was a bit of a disappointment. My favorite chapter was the one on Augustine, in which Brooks quotes Tim Keller at points. That chapter is very much worth reading; the rest... eh. Hints of how David Brooks feels about how the 2016 Presidential Election comes to the surface at times, Brooks either quoted ideas from his book or referred to them throughout 2015-2016 in reference to how much he loathed Donald Trump. I listened to this book in the summer heat of the election and noted that Brooks seemed to be referring to Trump's characteristics at points illustrating the the antithesis of character in 2015 as he penned these pages. This was quite evident if you watched PBS' coverage of the Republican convention in which Brooks' asks Trump advocate Tony Perkins' what virtuous character traits Trump offers (Perkins responds with "courage," perhaps having read Brook's book).

The following is what I gleaned, personally, from the book:
Brooks begins with the 1965 work Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. The Rabbi reads the differing creation accounts in Genesis as representing struggles of human contradiction. Adam I- wants to build, create, produce, discover and create a resume-- to have "success." Adam II is the inner conscience, he wants to do good but also BE good. He believes in charity and love rather than success. This is how Brooks describes the struggle of "everyman," and confesses his own struggle in this area. Brooks (and presumably men of character)take steps daily to build character and confront Adam I. As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I found this chapter lacking. Tim Keller, who Brooks quotes later in the book, wrote Every Good Endeavor in part to tear down the false dichotomy of "sacred" and "secular." The Gospel frees us to work "as for the Lord," so even where we are Adam I aspirational we are fulfilling the cultural mandate God gave to Adam to "fill the earth and subdue it." Hence, we can worship and love as we work and these need not be juxtaposed.

Humility is freedom from the need to know you are superior all the time. Humility is knowing what you don't know. It is recognizing that we are all "crooked timber" (Kant). In his repeated reference to the "crooked timber," Brooks comes very close to the Gospel but not far enough. Brooks' Jewish background equips him with the knowledge that we all know there is something deeply wrong with us, deep down. There is something broken that we cannot fix. Brooks' own solution is to strive against Adam I in favor of Adam II. He offers Ida Eisenhower's advice that it is better to resist temptation than try and overcome once it is succombed to. He also writes that our universal sin nature equips us to empathize with others. If the issue is really virtue, only the Christian Gospel acknowledges that we do not have the power to pursue and achieve virtue ourselves. We have to be made righteous-- it has to be imputed. Jesus is the only one who was ever righteous, because He is God. But, as I said above, Adam I need not be seen as lacking virtue. By following Jesus, we die to ourselves and are daily made new, bringing every part of Adam II to every part of Adam I. We are still an incomplete picture of that, but we'll be much closer in a promised eternity when there is no more sin.

David Brooks moans a lot about the narcissistic nature of the 21st century. He compares watching NFL players celebrate after a 3-yard catch to the humility shown in radio broadcasts immediately following WWII; how thankful people were back then and how quick they were to give credit to others. George C Marshall didn't even keep a diary because he felt it was too self-centered an activity. The median "narcissist score" is rising (any time you hear him bemoan the narcissist it's easy to read "Trump.") Humility is knowing what you don't know; it is "freedom from the need to show that you are superior all the time." Character cannot be inherited, it must be built (can there be any doubt he refers to Trump in these points?).

I appreciate Brooks' point about vocation being your calling, which is different than a career or a job. This, again, jives with Keller and others who teach a proper theology of work. (The Hebrew word for "work" in Genesis 1-3 is the same as the one for "worship.") We need to reclaim "vocation" because it has been removed from our vocabulary because of abuse in prior times. Don't ask "what do I want from life but what does life want from me?"

The Eisenhower family had odd relationships with religion, but always a keen awareness of sin and temptation. Brooks profiles Dwight's mother as a way to show how she instilled character in Dwight. He had major rage issues, and recognized that discipline and self control reaped benefits. But, a little indulgence is okay-- "moderation is a good idea." The moderate individual understands that there is not a "one size fits all" approach to anyone. Everyone deals with his own sins/temptations differently. (Brooks seemed to be defending his moderation at times, perhaps writing autobiographically. As he writes, this book is an attempt to "save my own soul.")

One convicting point Brooks makes is that nonfiction has replaced fiction as wisdom (99% of the books I review are nonfiction). Education used to turn to Homer and the classics, which were fiction but taught great truths. We have abandoned that for the blogosphere, news networks, and non-fiction books. Google and other tools show literature is increasingly using economics terms like "utility" and "profit" instead of moral words like "bravery" and "virtue."

I did not make many notes in Brooks' profiles of several characters, but noted they had bents far to the left of Brooks' politics. One of the strangest profiles was that of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who advised Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the original advocates of non-violent protest, but was later disowned by the movement in part because of his homosexual lifestyle and self-destructive tendencies. Rustin had championed the rights of interned Japanese in WWII and was a critic of British colonial policy in India. Rustin kept advocating for African American and homosexual rights while serving a prison sentence. Eventually, he works for rights in the background with no publiclity, which I guess is the trait Brooks wanted to draw our attention to after painting Rustin as a rather unstable character. Brooks doesn't always spell out the character, some chapters are just mini biographies with little commentary and you can judge the person for yourself.

The pieces devoted to Augustine are quite good. Augustine wrote of his addiction to sin, his pure fascination with it, that is everyone's problem. Augustine also recognized that "the human mind stretches out into infinity," and nothing can satisfy our desires. We cannot be satisfied ourselves, nor can we steer our minds where we want. We cannot captain our own lives. Augustine eventually surrendered to God's plan and sovereignty and found in Him the infiniteness that could satisfy his own unlimited wants and needs-- this is also the Gospel. Brooks wisely quotes from Keller on inputed righteousness, and how grace means people receive what they don't deserve. Augustine, like all believers, recognized we can only love because God first loved us. (Brooks writes quite a bit more on love.) Pride, however, shows "confidence but insecurity." He further quotes Keller on pride and instability.

The goal of education should be to introduce us to new things to love. Brooks pens a summary of the life of 18th century British writer Samuel Johnson (who some might consider an undiagnosed autistic person today). Johnson's love of words called for a vocatino of writing things like the Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson was of Anglican background and wrote moral essays, and is more known for his famous quotes, like "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," (again-- Trump). Brooks seems to like Johnson more than Michel de Montaigne, who also wrote prose on morals and character (in the 16th century). Montaigne was smart, steeped in classical Greek and aware of it, and also wrote of the virtues of marriage but disliked strong passions. Other than "self-honesty," the character lessons of these two writers isn't clear.

That brings us to Johnny U versus Broadway Joe. John Unitas represented the stoic nature of yesteryear, he had the same expression after a touchdown as he did after an interception. There were no celebratory dances, no outward displays of emotion, just a desire to win for the team professionally. Namath, however, represented the rise of the Baby Boomer narcissist. His fur coats, and stocking commercials, and endless parties and women, his braggadocio. It seems unfair that Namath's Jets beat Unitas' Colts in Super Bowl III (a game Unitas played only a sparing role in), much less that Namath made the NFL Hall of Fame with one of the worst HoF resumes of any QB there. I could have written this paragraph just from watching the old NFL Films episode of SBIII narrated by John Facenda, which was my first childhood introduction to NFL football (I suspect that classic is where Brooks got the inspiration for this part from). Brooks uses Unitas-Namath to dispel a myth about the "Greatest Generation," these people sacrificed much during the Great Depression and WWII, but abandoned such moderation after the war. The economy boomed, incomes rose, and restraint was cast aside (and the new Bobo class was created, but Brooks does not reference his prior work here). Virtues and suffering were replaced with cults of positivism and humanism.

Even now, parents and children may be closer than ever before thanks to Facebook, but the love seems more conditional. Conditional love creates fear, fear that the love is not permanent. Such fear creates a desire to perform in order to get love, to need applause to feel loved but constantly being aware of how fickle the crowd is. Morality has been replaced by utility, we're taught that suffering is no longer necessary and that discipline may be harmful. Brooks reminds us that "everybody needs redemptive assistance from the outside," none of us is righteous of our own accord and we all need help from the community. Wisdom begins with epistemological modesty, to recognize that you don't have all the answers and that you may not even know how to best obtain them. But our (American) communities have become more tribal, less willing to reach outside a bubble.

“People of character are capable of staying attached to a calling, purpose through the long run. The things that lead us astray, like fear, gluttony, and vanity are short run. Elements like courage, honesty, and humility, take us on the long road.” I suspect that after 2016, Brooks is less optimistic about us embracing those virtues again and finding that long road. Two stars.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Center Holds by Jonathan Alter (Book Review #81 of 2016)



The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies by Jonathan Alter

If you want an extremely detailed account of the 2012 Presidential election, including the context of political news from 2011, from the slight slant of an Obama supporter, this is your book. I tackled this book after David Axelrod's Believer, so this review should be read in the context of the review of both books. This book offers more details than Axelrod's highly-praised work; it's hard to believe his book was about the same period and campaign at times. (I am an American who lived overseas for the entirety of 2012 and was pretty disengaged from the campaign.)

Part 1: 2010-early 2011
Alter begins in 2010, with the Tea Party putting Congress in conservative hands and derailing the Obama agenda. His purpose is to show the last two years of Obama's first term including the epic campaign. "History has a point of view," he writes and his is from the Left. I suppose this book repeats much of his 2010 book The Promise, which I have not read. With these books, it is hard to tell what is actual detective-style reporting (interviewing people and getting inside sources) and what is just painstakingly compiling every major news story, article, and media interview over the course of two years. As such, this deadpan NY Times review from 2013 is probably worth reading over my own if you want the gist of the book.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/03/books/the-center-holds-by-jonathan-alter.html

One political interest of Alter's is the campaign of Republican-led governments in various states to gerrymander districts and pass more restrictve voter ID laws, ostensibly to ensure victory in the 2012 election. Alter quotes one estimate that efforts could possibly have "subtracted five million votes nationwide," enough to have an electoral college impact. Alter revisits these laws and their court challenges throughout the book, including the final critical days of 2012. That is one particularly useful aspect of this book. Ohio is a particularly critical battleground for voter suppression. States pass laws that make it harder for voter registration groups to exist, massive (possibly unconstitutional) penalties for consequences if a voter they registered later commits fraud, unconstitutional laws forbidding taking groups of people to polls, etc. In many cases, courts overtuned the restrictions, polls were allowed to remain open during early voting periods in which there were long lines, etc. But this was still a great concern in the post-2012 era. Alter points out that many of the efforts actually hurt Republican voters more than Democratic. White elderly people in Pennsylvania suburbs were just as unlikely to have drivers licenses or other ID as an inner-city minority might.

While the Left blames the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision as a threat to democracy, Alter points out that the decision did not actually change much (and I would add that elections since have illustrated that the amount of money spent on a campaign does not correlate well with outcome.) Super PACs were already legal. Other legal tools for partisans just grew as people worked the system, even without a Citizens United case. Advertising dollars for cable news outlets and websites already mattered as much as any corporate donation. For example, Alter writes that an angry Steve Jobs personally ordered the company that handles their advertising placement to remove all ads from Fox News "immediately," over the course of a weekend and other advertisers followed suit as Sean Hannity and other Fox hosts pushed right-wing myths on-air. Networks' decisions of what news to show and what headlines to promote are driven by advertising dollars. (Jobs' decision came to mind when Kelloggs pulled advertising from Fox News in 2016 and got a Breitbart-led boycott movement).

Alter gives a pretty fair analysis of the roots and forms of psychology of the Tea Party movement. He rightly compares it to the same loosely-affiliated, internet-connected movement that helped raise money and bring Obama to power. The message was roughly the same: "We're angry at the government and we want change!" While the Left liked to cry "astroturf," some of it was truly grass roots. Voter dissafection in 2010 was similar to that of 2008 (and repeated again in 2016).

The point of interest most directly relevant to the 2016 race is the growth of "Obama derangement syndrome." Donald Trump makes appearances in the book spreading theories about Obama's birth certificate, and taking full credit when it is completely released. Alter points out all the stories that floated in the 2010-2012 period: A large number of Republican voters believe that Obama was born in Kenya, that neither of his parents were Americans, that he's a Communist, part of a left-wing plot, etc. Alter points out passion and rhetoric are not new to American politics. FDR was a "Jewish bloodsucker" in his day. JFK, LBJ were "Commies," Bill Clinton was signing US sovereignty over to the UN, etc. Some voters truly believe that Homeland Security was stockpiling enough ammo to kill Americans in mass gun-confiscation efforts under Obama. By the time you get through the "clown car" of the GOP primary, the seeds of the "post-truth election" of 2016 are sown. Alter is fair in pointing out that much of the criticism was not racist, but the "birther" movement had unmistakeable overtones (that would echo into 2016).

The 2010-2011 period of Obama failing to negotiate with House Republicans is interesting. While GOP loyalists scoff at the notion even today, Obama saw himself as a centrist and constantly returned to what he believed got him elected in 2008-- being a candidate that was above and against the partisan gridlock in Washington. (I remember the liberal critique of Obama around this period from leftish wonks like Paul Krugman was that he should have used the same no-holds-barred approach that Republicans don't hesitate to use when they're in charge, rather than try to negotiate and compromise with them.) In 2011, Obama proposed "centrist" packages that were too unpopular to be tried: an infrastructure package "to help the middle class," more housing relief, etc. Obama's faith in maintaining centrist unity and working for bipartisan cooperation was held to his detriment, David Axelrod's memoir also leans toward this. As I write this in December 2016, Obama maintains that he could have beaten Trump by maintaining the broad unified American appeal that won 2012, and Ta-Nehisi Coates has written an article on Obama's misplaced faith in the optimistic, centrist nature of the American electorate.

Obama's Simpson-Bowles commission on tax reform is illustrative of Obama's faith in centrist policy and also his shortcomings as a politician:
The original bipartisan commission was designed to draft legislation that would balance the budget in the long-term and be subject to a yea/nay vote in Congress. But several Republican Senators who publicly endorsed creation of the commission later voted against its creation ine arly 2010. President Obama then created it by executive order, which would not require Congress to do anything. There were public meetings through 2010 and a bipartisan mixture of proposals, but as the midterm election approached pressure on Republicans got more conservative and Commission members like Paul Ryan would not support it. Grover Norquist's groups' pledge to never raise taxes, that Republicans sign to get a major endorsement and money, holds many in its grips to the frustration of many. Simpson-Bowles included some ideas that are criticized on the Left, like lowering corporate tax rates and adjusting the COLA adjustment on entitlements and tax rates by using chained CPI. Obama himself did not campaign loudly for Simpson-Bowles, and Alter reports that after the Commission published its final report in December, after the Tea Party took Congress and swept centrist Republicans from their seats, Obama did not even bother to call Simpson or Bowles to thank them for their work-- a perceived snub apparently not forgotten.

There are many details on the 2010-2011 battles over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the debt ceiling debacle, Republican "hostage-taking" and the fiscal cliff are relived in detail in this book. Axelrod makes the point better in his memoir-- Reagan had Tip O'Neill to negotiate with, Obama had Boehner and an increasingly-conservative GOP that saw negotiation on any issue as an anathema "compromise." The President's disappointment with the 2010 election comes through clearly as he moves up David Axelrod's departure back to Chicago and basically dismisses other staff like Larry Summers (who Axelrod wrote had been promised to be appointed Fed Chair) as a disappointment. Obama's shakeup included hiring Bill Daley as the new Chief of Staff, over strong objections from Valerie Jarrett. Alter details the Obamas' "cold relationship" with the Daley family in Chicago and how this move was unlikely to work, Daley departed a year later.

Jarrett is an interesting character that Alter spends a few paragraphs criticizing before pointing out her possible virtues. She has a power behind the throne that no one completely understands and is almost universally disliked. The first problem is that having Jarrett at tables on critical policy discussions takes a seat away from experts on that policy. Second, she allegedly says nothing at those meetings, only listens, and then says things to Obama later, and only privately. That infuriates many who dislike not knowing her opinions and her often having the last word on the matter with the President. When corporate CEOs complained that Obama did not understand business and did not have any advisers who had business experience, Obama often points to Jarrett's experience as CEO of the Chicago Habitat Company. Alter notes her experience was limited in time and scope, and either dismisses or downplays her chairmanship of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Her relationship with Obama did not help his own with anyone outside his own family. Jarrett's positives are the fact that she insisted on keeping to his personal schedule, which includes a 6:30pm dinner with his family every night. She was essentially his enforcer and had the ability to remind him where he came from, as did his wife.

Jarrett was part of an inner-circle of Chicago friends that Obama kept close. Alter writes that one of Obama's failings as a politician was his inability to make friends outside that circle, his dislike of picking up a telephone, and flat rejection of the butt-kissing that goes with politics. He lacked the "schmooze gene," as Alter puts it. Republicans used such complaints against him painting him as a partisan uninterested in talking, but many Democrats had the same complaint-- Obama just wouldn't pick up the phone and reach out. It strikes me as admirable that much of this stemmed around Obama's desire for family and personal time with his teenage daughters-- attending their school events and insisting on evening dinners together as a family. (This is part of why Romney's character credentials weren't remarkable to me next to Obama-- we already had a super family man in the White House.) Disturbingly, however, Alter writes that Obama did not communicate at all with some members of his cabinet for YEARS, and never had Bill and Hillary Clinton over for dinner in his first four years. Obama made a few friends in Washington that he regularly played golf with, and he hated mixing politics with golf-- hence rounds with Boehner would be useless. (Alter writes that one round with Clinton ended up making Clinton angry because Obama was beating him and refused to allow mulligans.)
Obama preferred to spend his free time reading, Alter cites his love of novels, and a desire to write a book with Elie Wiesel, who had inspired him in college.

Obama was likewise "allergic" to "soundbyte politics," preferring deep policy discussions to pithy phrases. Many of his "schmoozing" efforts, like spending hours on the phone with people like Olympia Snow on the ACA, who eventually voted "no" turned him off. He hated greasing the wheels of government. This led to an embarrassing moment in December 2010 where Obama and Bill Clinton held a joint press conference, and Obama left early. Clinton proceeded to explain Obama's policies more cogently than Obama could himself and the media was ecstatic. Obama's dislike for soundbyte politics was evident in his first debate with Romney in which he refused to engage in point-scoring and "lost" the debate, causing much consternation and Democratic "bedwetting."

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster soaked up much of the news coverage of mid-2010, and the Obama Administration's determination not to let it be a "Katrina moment" and stay in front of all media coverage diverted efforts that might have been put toward policy, raising funds, or motivating the base for the presidential campaign. Alter bemoans this "wasted time." Alter seems to favor views that the government could have done more economic stimulus and that Obama had settled for a "U-shaped" recovery rather than a V-shaped one. One weakness here was ignoring Obama's delay in appointing members to the Federal Open Market Committee (as well as more Republican hostage-taking here), as the Fed had more to do with the delayed recovery than Obama possibly could have.

--
Part 2: The 2011-2012 Presidential campaign.

The author gives an inside look at the massive analytics machine the Democratic Party had assembled and its wishful thinking. The laboratory featured advanced econometric modeling by a former U of Chicago economics student who recruited a team of 54 people and spent $15 million. The analytics team was like Facebook or Google, you had to pass a complex 4-hour exam and be willing to work 24-hour days. They called their dream product "Narwhal" and basically wanted to connect every social media post and email with a voter ID-- a profile of every person in America's likelihood to vote, donate, volunteer, or share information. The best they were probably able to do on that front was design algorithms to direct advertising. The analytics team had huge data-driven projects that were costly, behind schedule, suffered from many crashes, and not that effective. Eventually, by the end of the campaign the campaign techies had designed a Dashboard that gave people going door-to-door on the ground real-time ability to profile voters, see donation histories, see which volunteer was garnering the most donations, etc. Obama would basically "win" Twitter and Facebook in terms of retweets and shares. The RNC would later try to copy the "Narwhal" project's grand ambition with tragic results.
Here's a Slate piece from 2012 on Narwhal's promise:
http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/victory_lab/2012/02/project_narwhal_how_a_top_secret_obama_campaign_program_could_change_the_2012_race_.html

The major weakness the Democrats had in 2012 was similar to 2016--a candidate that was more comfortable talking details of policies than making pithy soundbytes. Alter writes of the Democrats' problem with "jargon filled with programs and policies" whereas Republicans use words that appeal to emotions and stick in the mind of voters: "Death panels," "Obamacare," "Drill Baby Drill," ("Make America Great Again"). Alter retells decision to kill/capture Bin Laden in Pakistan and Obama's stated belief that it was the most important thing he'd done in his first term-- he felt it neutralized the GOP's usually strong foreign policy credentials. While Dick Cheney had said it was an "easy call," Alter notes the Bush Administration made no serious effort to go after him, and Republican Bob Gates had called it one of the "gutsiest decisions" he'd ever seen a President make.

The GOP primary circus is detailed. There was a period where Romney did not look like he'd emerge the winner, and Alter recounts how his chief donors and strategists got things in gear to take the nomination. Alter is highly critical of the "clown car," highlighting times like when all candidates on stage would not agree to even a 10:1 spending-to-tax-hike reduction. One thing I learned was that Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who has backed various GOP candidates is pretty socially liberal. Obama apparently respected John McCain in 2008 as a person more so than he did Mitt Romney, who he saw as simply the 1%. (Axelrod's memoir shows that Axelrod felt even more contempt for Candidate Romney.) Romney's history with Bain Capital Management was easy to turn into to the anti-trade rhetoric that Axelrod favored and his bank accounts in the Cayman Islands made him look like one of the Wall Street bankers that took us into the 2007 financial crisis.

While Obama basically thought it would be an easy-enough ride with the GOP no longer being a "serious party," there was enough Democratic infighting to make it challenging. Some members of the African-American community, like Cornell West, attacked Obama for not doing enough for black people; which led to a stinging public confrontation between West and Obama. George Soros was invited to a meeting of fundraisers and strategists and gave Obama advice on policy, which Obama rebuked with basically "I know policy just fine, thanks." Alter writes that Soros was deeply offended, this was another demonstration of Obama's inability to "schmooze."

The June, 2012 Supreme Court ruling on the ACA may have saved the Obama campaign because it cemented Obama's biggest legislative achievement and gave voters and major corporations the sense that health care reform was here to stay. That health care reform and Medicaid expansion showed up in Romney's worst moment-- the 47% fundraiser speech-- as an entitlement that Americans liked and would not want taken away. Romney's campaign rhetoric of being able to "fix" Obamacare based on his experiment with Romneycare in Massachusetts confused or fell flat. Romney was also too nice a candidate to attack Obama as a Socialist, or appeal to the right-wing conspiracy theories that Trump would use to motivate his base in 2016. Romney's choice of libertarian-leaning and Ayn Rand-influenced Paul Ryan made it easy to characterize the campaign as ultra-conservative. Alter writes that both Romney and Ryan shared a "maker versus taker" mentality that angered the Left, with Ryan characterizing government programs as a safety "hammock" rather than a "net."

Down the stretch, the polling showed it as close and Romney had beaten Obama soundly in the first debate by all accounts. It's interesting in light of the sainthood status given to Nate Silver in 2015-2016, and his (and others') epic failure to both predict Trump's nomination and eventual win, but Silver had basically predicted a close Romney win, and Romney's strategist Stuart Stevens put great faith in that.

Alter chronicles the major events that supposedly doomed the party:
1. The RNC had weaker technology than the DNC. Their attempt to create "Orca" to rival "Narwhal" failed, particularly when their Dashboard crashed nationwide on election day and Republicans were left "flying blind" as to voter turnout, exit polling, etc. For the Narwhal's failures, the DNC still won the technology and social media war handily.

2. Romney's 47% moment. Alter chronicles the life of that video's maker and in hindsight Romney's comments really do look careless. (I'm reminded of Hillary Clinton's leaked speeches about favoring free trade publicly to Wall Street donors and reminding them that she has to take a different stance publicly in the late days of 2016.) Still, Obama missed chances at the second debate to attack Romney on this point.

3. The failure at the Republican Convention. First, a hurricane cancels two days of airtime. Then, the deeply moving personal segment of Romney helping church members and friends deal with great tragedies was not shown on prime-time TV whereas Clint Eastwood was given a disastrous, unvetted prime-time slot which led Romney's strategist to go back stage and vomit (Alter omits this detail, I will have to read Halperin and Heilemann's account on the election for the GOP side, I guess).

4. Obama accepted coaching and got better at debating. He learned to speed up his answers and land punches, improving his favorability among the millions who watched.

5. Hurricane Sandy. One thing I did not know about Chris Christie before this book was that he was chronically late to meetings, even showing up late to a major fundraiser for Romney in which he was supposed to introduce the candidate and instead got introduced by Romney. This lack of reliability had ruled him out of a VP nod (and probably also explains his apparent exile after supporting Trump's election). Chris Christie's embrace of Obama visiting the NJ disaster area in late 2012 solidified in many voters' minds Obama's capability and dependability.

6. Obama's ability to motivate the Democratic base, particularly ethnic minorities and gays. The 2016 results bear this out-- these groups voted in larger numbers for Obama in 2012 than Clinton in 2016. Alter writes that almost 20% of Obama's fundraising game from the LGBTQ community. Hispanics liked Obama's ads recorded with him speaking Spanish rather than Romney's which were translated.

Certainly, there were other contributors (beyond randomness) . Alter writes of GOP "dirty tricks" and voter suppression efforts that were overtuned by courts in the closing days. The Benghazi attacks that killed Ambassador Stephens happened in September, and it was too late in the campaign to get the full facts out in time to attack Obama (hence Clinton became the target afterward). The economy also continued its slow upward trend; the Republicans notoriously accused the Bureau of Labor Statistics of "cooking the books" for showing job growth and a drop in unemployment.

Alter warns of the implications of the "Obama derangement syndrome" on the future of the Republican party. He notes the official GOP "autopsy" of the 2012 campaign was critical of the GOP to adjust demographically and its alienation of minority voters. But I note that attempts to woo minorities and pass immigration reform in the 2012-2015 period led to a GOP-base backlash that nominated the most overtly anti-immigrant candidate. I suspect Alter would see the greater credence given to right-wing conspiracy theories and the alt-right as a natural trajectory from 2012.

As I said in the opening, it's hard to tell how much of this book is the reporter's own work or the compilation of others, and enough points are omitted to necessitate reading other memoirs of the 2012 campaign, but this one is essential history to the 2010-2012 season. 4 stars.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Justin, how do you review 80 books in a year?"

Someone recently asked, so here's the answer.
This screenshot of my phone (a OnePlus One) explains a lot:


This is how I recommend spending your work commute, your walks down the hallway to the bathroom, and redeeming the time of chores around the house you'd rather not do: Listen to books, sermons, podcasts, and languages. I never just sit around and listen to a podcast or book-- I do it when driving or walking, to give myself time to do other things in my "free time" (like read other books and articles in print.)

I listen to these with my Mpow bluetooth earpiece which I keep with me at all times; I highly recommend this model as it stays in your ear well and the microphone works well enough for phone calls. (Neat feature of this device is that two Bluetooth devices can be connected to it at once.) Some people stigmatize those who wear bluetooth earpieces-- that's okay, you can worry about your ears while we're happy to be more knowledgeable and more productive than you all day long. This allows me to knock out about a book a week, plus about 25-50 other sermons and podcasts. Oh yeah, you can also stream music or whatever language you're learning. (Arabic at normal speed takes up a few hours of my time each week.) I don't wear this ALL day; I rarely ever wear it at home when I'm not working.



I listen to most books and all podcasts using the Pocket Casts app, which is designed for podcasts but has a Custom_Episodes folder where you can drop any mp3. Pocket Casts let's you speed up the playback and reduces the length of silent pauses-- especially handy for audiobooks and sermons that have long pauses. I've saved literally days of time this year just removing silence.

Here is my dashboard for roughly the last two years. Note that listening to things at 2x-3x speed has saved me almost two months and freed me to do things. I will note this post next year and compare.


I use Google Keep for my notes as I listen. It has a microphone dictation feature so I can dictate notes while I drive without looking at the screen. My book notes look like this, and I type them and add details later.


Listening to your device and talking on the phone is easier in the car if you have this Mpow magnetic device that clips onto your A/C vent. This stays right next to my hand on the steering wheel and makes it easy to keep Waze/Google Maps up as well. I have another device that plugs into the earphone jack that lets me listen to my phone/talk on the phone via my car's outdated sound system. (that way I don't wear the bluetooth earpiece ALL day, it charges in the car.)

See that circle next to my radio's Power knob? That's it. Best $5-8 you will ever spend.

I also always have a book on either my Kindle or Google Book reader for other times when I find myself sitting somewhere with time to fill. These can be read on my phone or my ipad at any time. Both Google Books and Kindle save your highlights and notes to the cloud for relatively easy copy/paste later. Goodreader is a must-have app for reading and taking notes on a PDF if you have an iPad. The Kentucky library system has a ton of audiobooks and ebooks available as free downloads (download them onto your PC then copy them onto your phone/tablet).

So, that's it. The downside? I probably need an intervention. But I try to do all of this as for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). See anything I'm missing? Let me know in the comments. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Believer by David Axelrod (Book Review #80 of 2016)



Believer: My 40 Years in Politics

I began this book just before the November, 2016 election and finished it in those incredibly sobering days afterward. (The 2008 election was somewhat similar to 2016 in that voters went with the candidate that least resembled their perception of Washington.) I listened to this in Axelrod's own voice, which is the best way to do it. This might be a good look at what it's like to be a professional campaigner, writer, marketer. Axelrod is famous for being Pres. Obama's political adviser, but this book covers 40 years of campaigns mostly involved in Chicago politics. I followed it with Jonathan Alter's The Center Holds, which is a detailed account of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, and found that Axelrod left out much of interest in that campaign and was perhaps not as self-deprecatory in this book as he could have been. Alter's more detailed account casts some doubt on Axelrod's spin here, and how Axelrod apparently left out some internal squabbles from his memoir.

In this book, and from what I've noticed following him on Twitter for a year or so, Axelrod seems to be a fairly stand-up guy. He's deeply committed to his family and keenly aware of his Jewish heritage. He's also for hire in a dirty business, but prefers to hitch his star to candidates he finds personally likable.

Axelrod is the son of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and migrated to New York. He tells the sad tale of his parents, who divorced and were ultimately unable to reconcile. His mother was an "elitist" career woman, and his father was not of that ilk. Axelrod's first campaign first political exposure was as a boy at a JFK rally, and he compares this to watching Obama in Iowa in 2012. He finds both men ideal candidates. He volunteered for Robert Kennedy and became a paid volunteer for a "hack" of the New York General Assembly. He quickly felt the stench of working for an empty-suit candidate whose seat was bought by the candidate's wealthy father. Axelrod went to the University of Chicago (where he teaches today) and got into journalism, originally writing for the Village Voice when he was back in New York. His willingness to do whatever it took to get a job landed him at the Chicago Tribune as a 23 year old working the late night crime beats and getting a view of the Chicago political machine. A big break came when he was assigned to follow an unlikely mayoral candidate's race and that candidate ended up winning--Axelrod was the only journalist who knew much about him.

While covering the mayor's office, Axelrod saw the outright Chicago corruption up close. There is much to dislike about Chicago in this book, and perhaps Axelrod does not realize how the label of "Chicago politics" follows him warily nationwide today. Somewhere while covering the mayor's office, the idea of writing for a candidate entered Axelrod's mind since he understood better how the media operated and had connections. He joined the 1984 Senate campaign of Democrat Paul Simon and was instrumental in shaping the message of the campaign. Axelrod's strategy was to run positive ads rather than attack, and Simon beat the Republican Percy despite Reagan's sweep nationally. This campaign also introduced Axelrod to Rahm Emanuel. From there, Axelrod starts his private campaign marketing firm and looks to build his career further. He specializes in creating ads that "tell a story." In each campaign, he seems to personally identify with the simple message he gives each candidate. The "jobs candidate" or the "big business" candidate, etc.

There's a shallowness to his thinking on policy that has tainted every race since--that trade is bad, or free enterprise isn't as noble as being a career politician, etc. For example, Axelrod defends the populist anti-trade, anti-outsourcing arguments that has made America more xenophobic, ignore the benefits of trade (that even Obama has espoused), ruined American politics, and precisely helped Trump create a platform on the issue in 2016. Axelrod writes as though he believes those things, even though some of his supported candidates have shown they have not actually. As a result, you have candidates today (Hillary Clinton most recently) who have to take one position publicly and another privately when they meet with donors (as her email leaks made clear of her "dream" of a hemispheric customs union while flip-flopping on her support for TPP).

Axelrod looks back on those days away from his wife and children with regret. His daughter was diagnosed early on with epilepsy and the family has since tried every treatment imaginable in the hopes of a cure or greater relief. This pushes him in the policy area of research and funding for special needs children. That does not come up a lot in the book, but his concern for his family does.

In 1987, Axelrod joined the re-election campaign of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, who died shortly after winning. It is here that the ugly racist side of Chicago politics comes out (this is the era that police are now being indicted for grave abuses now). In 1989, Chicago had the nickname of "Beirut on the Lake," for its ongoing gang violence, and Axelrod works on the campaigns of other black candidates. Around this time, he is introduced to Bill Clinton before Clinton officially declared his candidacy. Axelrod turned down an opportunity to be Communications Director of the Clinton campaign because of his lament of his long absences from his family and his epileptic daughter (the job went to George Stephanopolous). He then stays out of major campaigns until his daughter is more grown up. (Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, joins the Clinton White House.) In 2000, he turned down a Gore campaign invitation because of his wife's cancer diagnosis. (His family-first philosophy makes him similar to Barack Obama, who also had strong family considerations and moved his mother-in-law into the White House with him.) He worked some on Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.

Axelrod opines on the "evolution of Rahm Emanuel," who successfully ran for Congress in 2002 and became a good soldier of the Democratic party, recruiting successful Democratic candidates in Red States (the "Blue-Dog Democrats"). Axelrod worked for Emanuel in 2006 in helping elect that group. They maintained a good working relationship throughout the book and Axelrod tells stories about how Emanuel operates. Both have Jewish roots and are well-versed in Chicago politics, but perhaps no politician is more profane than Emanuel.

Axelrod worked on Barack Obama's successful Senate campaign and writes admiringly of the candidate who was raised by white grandparents from Kansas, which made him comfortable in white homes in conservative portions of the state. Barack was able to pick up white votes that black candidates had previously found difficult. Obama got newspaper endorsements and beat Hull for Senate. Obama was glad to to be against the 2003 Iraq war, he saw it as an easy call. As he made clear on the campaign trail (and later in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance), he is not against all wars, just "stupid ones." (Axelrod does not mention Obama's like of Reinhold Neibuhr's philosophy.) Obama was a big proponent of charter schools but opposed to vouchers.

Axelrod also joined the John Edwards presidential campaign in 2004, which he now considers a mistake. He writes of a campaign in disarray, in which Elizabeth and he clashed and she had a way of micromanaging. When things started to go badly, Axelrod was blamed and demoted. But he got to work with Obama around the same time, which he liked. Axelrod writes of Obama's preparation for the now-famous 2004 DNC keynote speech and the circumstances in which it was delivered. He writes of these moments similar to how a boxing trainer might send someone out in the ring and then assess his performance between rounds.

What is interesting is that Obama's campaign debt is what pushed him to do the book tours that made him a "celebrity." Obama recruited staffer Pete Rouse by promising that he would not run for President. But Obama disliked all of the "talk" of the Senate, he was frustrated easily by the rules and process. He hated traveling away from family on weekends, fundraising for the party, and making political stands like voting against John Roberts. According to Axelrod, Obama saw Roberts as a suitable candidate, but ended up voting against him because perhaps there was something he did not know about Roberts that would lead Roberts to vote on issues that would further disenfranchise minorities. Axelrod writes that Bush's "Hurricane Katrina moment" created an opportunity for Obama to speak about race and class divisions like few could, and that helped nudge him toward a presidential campaign.

Obama wrote his second book (which is much worse than the first) very quickly, working with staff on late-night productions to get chapters finished. His Presidential campaign didn't take shape until after he had traveled abroad and published that second book. Axelrod writes of the meeting with Barack and Michelle in which Axelrod is sure to put the cost of campaigning to them bluntly in terms of lost family time. Obama proceeds with three rules: Grass roots, no leaks or internal divisions, and let's have fun. Axelrod adds another rule-- that Obama quit smoking.

Axelrod writes that the campaign was similar to the Oceans 11 movie, recruiting the right people and doing whatever they could to raise support and unseat the larger candidates. He had originally considered sitting out the 2008 race because all the candidates had been clients of his firm at one time. Hillary, in particular, had been a donor to the cause of finding a cure for his daughter's epilepsy. He retells the story of the early dates, the gaffes, the debates, and the Iowa Caucus win that put the Clinton campaign on the defensive. Hillary built her campaign attacking the GOP and Obama wanted a different tone, more positive. The appeal of Obama, writes the author, was that he seemed to unite Americans across various lines and was different than a typical Washington candidate. Voters judged Obama by his character. Hillary was the consummate political class candidate (implications for 2016, anyone?). At one point, Hillary angrily confronted Obama privately and Obama was surprised by the "fear in her eyes" of losing the election; the Presidency was obviously something she would do anything to get. It is no secret that it was a rough campaign and that Bill Clinton would remain rather estranged from the White House until years later.

Plouffe ran the campaign, Axelrod managed the message, and Obama did his best. I noted that even Steve Jobs complained about their communications strategy. When they went to Berlin they saw what a unique opportunity they had in the world. Shortly thereafter, they settled on a VP candidate, and the author recounts the short list-- Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh. Bayh was too "flat," and Kaine was "too alike" with Obama. I did not learn much about the 2008 general election, the candidate stayed on message and things turned out like they'd thought.

Bits I learned about the first term:
There was a Somali-based threat against the inauguration that the Secret Service took seriously, and staff kept secret-- knowingly putting their own friends and family at risk in attending. According to Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel did promise Larry Summers that he would replace Bernanke as Fed Chairman, and that's what got Summers to take the ill-suited job of National Economic Council chairman. Summers was, of course, twice passed up for that position. That may have had to do with Summer's behind-the-scenes role of making sure the AIG executives got their bonuses paid, something Obama was "livid" about when he found out later. The meetings and talk of how to capitalize the banks and handle the middle of the financial crisis were interesting, but I got more from reading Timothy Geithner's memoir on this subject (and will soon read Bernanke's). Rahm Emanuel made it clear that an economic stimulus package could not have the "t-word" (ie: trillion) in it.

There is much of interest about the health care reform battle, and how that was handled. Everyone was wary about how the Clinton White House had health care reform destroyed by running it from the Executive Branch, hence the decision that the bill had to be written and handled by Congress. Nonetheless, Obama spent long hours talking to Olympia Snow and others who might vote for it. The insurance company had their own "secret seat at the table" of healthcare reform in order to get them to sign on, another reason it was left in the hands of Congress. The reader gets to relive the Scott Brown win of Teddy Kennedy's seat, the tradeoffs, and the White House's relief at the bill that eventually passed.

Perhaps the only Republican that Obama got along with was Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates reportedly said "I love working for this President" when he re-upped for another year (Gates' memoir is more even-handed on Obama). Stan McChrystal's days may have been numbered long before the fateful Rolling Stones article; Obama was angry after McChrystal's Afghan troop recommendation were leaked to the media. Axelrod writes that "soldiers are nonpartisan but the Pentagon is highly political." Everyone, including Obama, is surprised when he wins the Nobel Peace Prize, particularly ironic as it was during talks about how big the Afghan troop surge would be and the likelihood of more war. Elie Wisel apparently influenced and "sobered" Obama in college, they worked on a book together in the White House. A foreign policy victory came when Russian President Medvedev says that America was right about Iran's nuclear ambitions and supportive of curbing them. One great frustration was the BP gulf oil spill and they were perhaps too mindful of staying ahead of it in the PR department at the expense of other needs.

Despite successes, they experienced a midterm election "setback," as the Tea Party was swept to power and this created a great crisis of insecurity in the White House. Suddenly, everyone was a critic with unsolicited advice for Axelrod on communications strategy. During the first term, an unflattering piece had been written on a seemingly over-worked Axelrod and Obama expressed his personal concern. Axelrod returns to Chicago in early 2011, writing that it was all part of a pre-planned departure to get ready for the upcoming re-election campaign. Daley would take on a role as Chief of Staff in a general White House shake-up (Alter writes that Obama personally moved up the timeline to get Axelrod off the job sooner.) Axelrod whines that Reagan had Tip O'Neill who would compromise, Obama had Boehner who was keen not to, especially when feeling the heat from a now much-more-conservative GOP. But Axelrod admits that Obama did not enjoy the phone calls and glad-handing that it takes to get things done in Washington.

It did not take long for Axelrod to have some "separation anxiety" and he sounds kind of pathetic in how he misses the President. A book published with dirt from insiders during the re-election campaign angered Obama greatly. Axelrod writes that they never seriously considered swapping Clinton on the ticket for Biden, as some had suggested. He admits, however, that some polling was done and they found it did not move the needle on voters' opinions-- Biden was a lock to stay.

Alter's book makes me think Axelrod had a more high-level advisory roll in the 2012 campaign since so much of the detail of the ground game and targeted marketing is left out of this memoir. 2012 was the most high-tech campaign on record and much of that intentional strategy was left out. One pointed detail is before Obama "loses" the first debate with Romney and the criticism pours on. Obama was "grossly under-prepared" and at one point during a debate prep gives his team a sharp "you _____ are never satisfied" comment. He gets out of his slump and goes on to win the election. Axelrod seems to have personal enmity for Romney, writing a campaign story that pits the middle class against Bain Capital Management and the elites who have written off the bottom 48%.

The campaign is a bittersweet ending for Axelrod, because he enjoyed the war and the family of friends. He starts the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. He reminisces on politicians of the past, like Dan Rostenkowski, that he admired for "good" policies but were morally, internally corrupt (Rostenkowski went the prison). Obama is admirable because he maintained solid character, sometimes to a fault, and had policies that Axelrod supported. Obama comes across as centrist to a fault in this memoir. Axelrod wonders about the state of politics today, where even sharing a meal with another candidate is considered "treason" or something worse. Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to "fix broken politics," but did he? (Of course not. This is Axelrod again falling for his own marketing material.) Axelrod is concerned that hopelessly combative, divided politics is our fate.

Seeing the 2016 transition take place as I write this makes this book feel incomplete. It would be nice to have Axelrod's insights into the White House as Hillary Clinton's ship sunk could never quite pull away from Donald Trump. He was rather critical of her at times on Twitter, it would be good to have that retrospective in the book as well. I suppose an updated edition is unlikely. I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor - my favorite book of 2016


The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment by Daniel Taylor (Book Review #79 of 2016)

This five-star work is Book of the Year 2016 for me. Like many reviewers, my reaction is one of "I now know I am not alone." It is not in Kindle format, so I took pictures of probably 1/3 of the pages to make highlights (hence page numbers are missing from most of the quotations below). He later wrote a sequel from an older-age perspective, and I hope to find that soon.

Reflective Christians (me): "have found in God, and in Jesus Christ, the proposed solution to the human dilemma to which they have made, with varying degrees of confidence, a commitment. At the same time they have been blessed and cursed with minds that never rest. They are dissatisfied with superficial answers to difficult questions, willing to defend faith, but not its misuse. Furthermore, these people find themselves in the church, members of a Christian subculture...they are both indebted to it and victimized by it. At the same, time they are often part of...another culture...hostile to their Christian commitment. This is the secular, intellectual world that deals in the manufacture and propagation of ideas" (p. 11).

 I stumbled across this at a used bookstore about the time Andy Stanley's 2016 mini-series on apologetics (directed toward those who had left the church for a "None" status) was sparking controversy. I listened to the entire series and read Stanley's explanation in Outreach Magazine,
stating his belief in inerrancy but challenging preachers to avoid saying "the Bible says..." These were on my mind along with John Piper's response to his personal dialogue with Stanley when I saw this book and was struck by the Introduction (above). I do not know if Stanley read this book, but I suspect he has. I noted that Barnabas Piper rated this book 5 stars and wrote his own book (Help My Unbelief) along similar theme, which I now hope to pick up.

The older I get and the more widely I read and interact with educated, biblically-skeptical non-Christians the more I am in tune with an apologetic that asserts a "reasonable faith"; one that begins either by 1) pointing out the attractiveness of the Christian worldview compared to the logical absurdity of life/values/ethics in the absence of a creator, or 2) the reasonable probability based on all the historical evidence that Jesus did indeed leave an empty tomb. With this approach comes a probability-- there is a chance I am wrong but I believe the odds are in my favor because... (and reasons follow). Nabeel Qureshi's testimony, in which he studied philosophy in college and began to use Western logic to examine the Bible and the Quran + Hadith literature to reach a conclusion that Christianity was likely true and made a faith decision, also weighed on my thinking.

Faith necessitates a level of uncertainty that does not contradict the "assuredness" of Hebrews 11:1. Doubting Thomas believed in a resurrected Jesus because he saw and felt his wounds himself. Jesus said "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). None of us were there with our cellphone cameras, but we rely on the relayed testimony and historical evidences of those who were. Faith necessitates risk, another word for uncertainty. Without doubt, there can be no exercise of faith.

"Faith, however, is not a matter of rolling the dice. It is, or can be, a conscious expression of a great gift--human freedom...without this freedom, commitment would be inconceivable...Barth says freedom rightly understood is not freedom FROM something...'but freedom TO and FOR," a release to choice and action. And the greatest exercise of that freedom, Kirkegaard affirms, is to choose God, to choose commitment and responsibility.."

People do not like doubt or uncertainty, however, and we have a cognitive bias to believe with certainty things we cannot truly, absolutely know. An atheist maintains his certainty that I am a fool to be a Christian just as a fundamentalist may believe I am dangerous because he places his certainty on "because it's in the Bible." Within both camps there is also the presence of "True Scotsman fallacy," if you believe X, you must certainly believe Y, or else you're not a True Believer in X. (For example, before the GOP nominated Trump I would have said you have to believe in free trade to be a Republican, similar to how most Democrats say you have to be pro-choice to be a Democrat). Taylor deals with some of these cognitive biases without calling them such, (this was written before Kahneman and Tversky were household names).

"How does one survive as a thinker in the church and a believer in the larger world?"
Taylor's point is that people who may be well-read in non-religious Christian topics and yet maintain faith often struggle to fit into either our Church or among our non-Christian educated colleagues & friends, hence they/we feel alone. We need to be able to question institutions, which to some adherents is paramount to "attacking God" (p. 30), but need not be so. People defending institutions are often "protecting themselves, their view of the world, and their sense of security." The reflective Christian likewise questions the secular orthodoxy:

"Secularists don't generally think of themselves as having an orthodoxy, but they have one just the same...(with) articles of faith, each with its own history...like reason, inquiry, objectivity, tolerance... etc." The orthodoxy of the secular world today is pluralism. "Only 'friendly' diversity, like the pseudo-questions in the Christian subculture can be allowed. The intellectual world, like its Christian counterpart, exercises power first for the purpose of self-preservation..." As such, there are examples of closed-mindedness on both sides. Universities will bar creationists just as churches will bar atheist string theorists.

Taylor critiques the worship of reason by secularists, who do things with reason that it by definition cannot do. "There is no objective, neutral thing called 'reason' which anyone with some training can use to get at the 'truth' of things (especially nonphysical things). The closes we come perhaps is in the scientific method...or in the technical use of logic in formal philosophy." People who purport to use reason to equate faith with irrationality are as wrong as those who argue that reason and evidence PROVE the existence of God. "God is not reducible to proof and only our weakness makes us wish it were so." Reason is not at all useless, and the Christian can use it just as well as an atheist--the difference is the Christian is more likely to acknowledge its limitations.

Taylor likewise highlights "the myth of objectivity," noting that "objectivity is supposedly something that the intellectual can have, while the person of faith wallows in subjectivity." But "in deciding what is good and true and beautiful and worth living for in this world there is so much sheer humanness at work, that the claim of cool, rational objectivity is almost laughable. Only objects are truly objective" (p. 51).  He is standing on the shoulders of 150 years of secular thinkers who have used reason to critique and demonstrate its limitations. Pascal wrote "We must know where to doubt, where to feel certain, where to submit. He who does not do so, understands not the force of reason."

"The secular world will allow you to be a Christian, as long as your faith is kept in a quarantine and not allowed to influence your judgments or lead you to question secular presuppositions." The reflective Christian is "reluctantly" willing to be out of sync in both subcultures-- if he is convinced he is correct. "The reflective Christian does well, in my view, to freely admit this possibility of being wrong." I wish I held my own views with such humility. "One can hold beliefs passionately yet with humility...Humility helps us avoid confusing defense of the truth with defense of the self."

Though this work is non-fiction, Taylor sprinkles in an ongoing fictional illustration, the story of an English professor named Alex, who earned an advanced degree at a liberal institution but now teaches at a conservative Christian college. Alex is me. I taught at a politically and religiously conservative Southern Baptist school with its proud traditions and guardedness against anything that might be unusual. His field is English, mine is economics and both fields taught at Christian university may teach that only a particular type of literature or economics is truly "Christian." This was the most powerful passage in the book for me, a conversation between a frustrated Alex and an older, wiser fellow Reflective Christian colleague:

"But why (stay) in the middle of these people? Why not go where faith isn't mixed up with quite so many other things? I mean some of these people genuinely believe God is a free-market Republican."
"Why not, indeed...This is just one little, back-water spot in the river of faith. But it is the place where I have been put, and I have chosen to stay...Don't make the mistake of thinking there's another time or another place where following God will come easier...You have everything you need for your contentment or misery within the confines of your own heart. That will go with you wherever you go. Every place has its pitfalls and absurdities, just as each has its opportunities and measures of grace...Where do you walk to? To other people who are just as silly, who simply have a different mix of blind spots and prejudices?...(F)or me at least there weren't any greener pastures. Or, if there were, they were somewhere inside me."

Taylor writes about the importance of the faith community, both current and our historical forebears. "The church must remember well if it is to function well today." We Christians have two millenia of heritage that we inherit, respect, and are thankful for. "We" ended the slave trade in England and then the West, adopted abandoned children in ancient Rome and promote adoption and foster care today, preserved ancient literature during the Middle Ages, elevated the status of women, continue to feed and clothe the hungry, and so on. Our local faith community is not one we walk away from lightly, we accept one another, love one another, pray for each other, share with each other, and provide accountability and stability in relationships that all humans need.

"The community is (also) 'the place where the burden of doubt can be shared.'" Taylor writes that this particular aspect is "foreign to actual practice" but quite biblical. He warns the reader to guard against cynicism. The reflective Christian has trouble committing to something he is not completely certain about. We would rather think about it some more, and definitely not be looked at as an example. In doing so, however, we miss out on the benefits of exercising faith (and rob the community of the benefit as well).

My review cannot do this book justice, so I highly recommend it. 5 stars.