Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Reason for God by Tim Keller (Book Review #86 of 2015)

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
I consider myself to have read "a lot" of Christian apologetics, and I must say this is probably the first book I would give any skeptic. First, it is brief and concise. Tim Keller is pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City; he has dealt with a diverse crowd of people in a very multiethnic location. He converses with non-Christians constantly and begins by asking "What are your hang-ups with Christianity?" Each chapter of the book deals with answering the skepticism he encounters.

The book expresses clearly the appeal of the Christian worldview in the spirit of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Keller's books are always well-researched, his bibliographies often contain several hundred books, essays, and articles. I recommend reading one particularly good chapter that's freely available as a PDF: http://cdn2.overstock.com/Reason_for_God_Chap1.pdf  Keller is not out to "prove" Christianity right with a bunch of archaeological evidence or something. He is ultimately using logic as the apologetic, similar to William Lane Craig.

Many Americans/westerners reading the Bible reject God as an unfair monster whose actions are distasteful. But "why should modern western preferences be the judge of Christianities validity or tastefulness?" Those who make such criticisms don't realize that they're doing something ethnocentrically, even though they often criticize evangelicals for being ethnocentric. If you think your way of thinking is right and others is wrong, then you must give a reason. Saying "Christians are too closed-minded" is a criticism suggesting your way is right-- which is itself a narrow, closed-minded response.

The most-frequently given reason for rejecting Christianity, Keller finds, is its "exclusivity." But he points out that all of us build walls of exclusion-- we think our way is better, our political party holds the correct course of action, etc. and we reject the others.

“It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways.”

"Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true. But this objection is itself a religious belief. It assumes God is unknowable, or that God is loving but not wrathful, or that God is an impersonal force rather than a person who speaks in Scripture. All of these are unprovable faith assumptions."

People worldwide often have an objection that our religious beliefs are a reflection of our culture or how we were raised. Religion arised out of evolutionary necessity to create order and explain the yet-unscientifically explained world around us.

He cites Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga: "People often say to Plantinga, 'If you were born in Morocco, you wouldn’t even be a Christian, but rather a Muslim.' He responds: 'Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist. . . . If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he probably wouldn’t be a pluralist. Does it follow that . . . his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief- producing process?'"

People object that Christianity and the Bible are simply a hodgepodge of beliefs found in other cultures-- all roads lead to the same place, so to speak. "I know what I believe... what's true is true for me, but not you and vice-versa" are common comments we here. But these are illogical:
"Plantinga and Berger make the same point. You can’t say, 'All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making right now.' If you insist that no one can determine which beliefs are right and wrong, why should we believe what you are saying? The reality is that we all make truth- claims of some sort and it is very hard to weigh them responsibly, but we have no alternative but to try to do so...Most people in the world don’t hold to John Hick’s view that all religions are equally valid, and many of them are equally as good and intelli-gent as he is, and unlikely to change their views. That would make the statement 'all religious claims to have a better view of things are arrogant and wrong' to be, on its own terms, arrogant and wrong. Many say that it is ethnocentric to claim that our religion is superior to others. Yet isn’t that very statement ethnocentric?"

Skeptics like Christopher Hitchens point out that there are non-Christians who lead more moral lives by Christian standards than many Christians. What good, then, is Christianity? Keller responds that if everything in the Bible is true, then we should expect some aspects of all religions and worldviews and beliefs to have some truth in them, to overlap in some way. All things are not diametrically opposed. We should likewise expect some people to behave more morally than Christians. CHristians are not saved due to their moral behavior, only on the basis of Christ's redemption. Salvation is a free gift given by God, it has nothing to do with what we do. To think of Christianity as "moral behavior" is to fundamentally misunderstand Christianity and the Gospel.

Keller agrees that religions cause conflict; he acknowledges the untold millions who have been killed in the name of religion. But he points out the logical fallacies of those who say religion should be separated from the public sphere or is merely a "private matter."

"Once we recognize how religion erodes peace on earth, what can we do about it? There are three approaches that civic and cultural leaders around the world are using to address the divisiveness of religion. There are calls to outlaw religion, condemn religion, or at least to radically privatize it. Many people are in-vesting great hope in them. Unfortunately, I don’t believe any of them will be effective. Indeed, I’m afraid they will only aggravate the situation."

Many people point to the Christian on the street corner preaching that gays are going to hell or something, it's a message of condemnation and hatred. Keller reminds the reader of the above fact that Christianity says people are not saved by what they believe or do, but by what Christ did and defends "robust, orthodox Christianity" from the straw man caricature:

“Think of people you consider fanatical. They're overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It's not because they are too Christian, it's because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, emphatic, forgiving, or understanding- as Christ was... What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.”

"However, within Christianity—robust, orthodox Christianity—there are rich resources that can make its followers agents for peace on earth. Christianity has within itself remark-able power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart.Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths. Jesus assumes that nonbelievers in the culture around them will gladly recognize much Christian behavior as 'good' (Matthew 5:16; cf. 1 Peter 2:12)."

"Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf. Most religions and philosophies of life assume that one’s spiritual status depends on your religious attainments. This naturally leads adherents to feel superior to those who don’t believe and behave as they do. The Christian gospel, in any case, should not have that effect."

The Gospel, then, humbles us. Not only do we respect others as immortals created in God's image but because we know that all of our good works earn us no favor, we can do things without ambition or envy and consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We can love others because God first loved us; we know what it's like to be unforgiven so we forgive others.

“The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.”

Keller proposes a challenge to the moral relativists: "Why is it impossible for anyone to be a consistent moral relativist?"
We all hold up some measure of truth. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example, say they stand up for life and human rights. But they also tell us that life is simply a biological process and that we're all simply a random collection of atoms that will be scattered about the universe again later-- nothing more, nothing less, ultimately. Why, then, is it wrong to kill someone? They're going to die anyway. Perhaps you save them from future pain of losing a child or cancer.

What is the basis for our laws and property rights if there is no God in whose image we're made? Keller writes that most people say "Majority rule determines what's right." Okay, but if it's majority rule, what if they exploit or marginalize the minority? Is that right? If you say "no," as neo-atheists insist, the you're back to square one: How can you say it's wrong if the majority says it's right? Aren't you making yourself superior to the majority?

Those who decry the "intolerance" of Christians might point to historical cultures that thrived in tolerance. Keller writes that while "the Greco-Roman world’s religious views were open and seemingly tolerant—everyone had his or her own God. The practices of the culture were quite brutal, however. The Greco-Roman world was highly stratified economically, with a huge distance between the rich and poor. By contrast, Christians (living there) insisted that there was only one true God, the dying Savior Jesus Christ. Their lives and practices were, however, remarkably welcoming to those that the culture marginalized."

It was Christians who fed the hungry and clothed the poor, per the commands of Jesus. They were suspected by Roman authorities for their "love feasts" which were Sundays spent eating together across ethnic lines. This wasn't easy for them, as the New Testament records. Keller writes that Christians were influential in raising the status of women in the Roman empire and Asia:    
   
"(Women) had very low status, being subjected to high levels of female infanticide, forced marriages, and lack of economic equality. Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality than had previously existed in the ancient classical world. During the terrible urban plagues of the first two centuries, Christians cared for all the sick and dying in the city, often at the cost of their lives.Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behavior that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peacemaking. At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness."

Keller reminds us of the disillusion of utopian ideas of modern progress in Europe after WWI after seeing the destruction that mankind could inflict. "The real culture war is in our hearts."

Keller does touch a couple of times on science and historical evidence. He takes Genesis 1 as poetry with Genesis 2 describing the actual activity of creation. (This is similar to other portions of Scripture which Keller cites.) Evolution can be believed without resorting to philosophical naturalism and pure randomness. He shows many ways in which Darwinian ideas are an incoherent and illogical worldview, similar to what I wrote above about people just being a random collection of atoms. The author critiques Dawkins' "false dichotomy" and holds up biologist Francis Collins among others as those who reconcile a belief in evolution with a God in charge of it all. If evolution driven by pure randomness remains a theory instead of the incontrovertible fact that Dawkins et al make it out to be, then there ought to be a range of views of how it happens and how life began.

The author also provides a defense of the historical accuracy of the Bible, particularly the Gospels. The Gospel accounts include details that only eyewitness would account for. As many have researched extensively, the types of details included in the Gospels were not characteristic of literature or mythology in the first three centuries. C.S. Lewis spent a lifetime studying Greek and Latin works and immediately recognized the Gospels as being quite different. So, if they are fiction, then the authors have written fiction like no other type of fiction that is known to have occurred in that era.

Towards the end, Keller discusses the importance of forgiveness in place of revenge, answers the question of why Jesus had to die, and gives a brief defense of the authenticity of the resurrection accounts. He cites N.T. Wright's extensive research of first century texts to show that bodily resurrection was not thought possible.

“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”

This is a great point. I give this book five stars out of five. Read it yourself and give it to someone.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Weight of Glory and Other Treatises by C.S. Lewis (Book Review #85 of 2015)


Weight of Glory
This book is another of the most-cited books that I had not yet read; it contains some of Lewis' most famous essays/speeches/sermons. This edition was the 1980 that sought to harmonize both the U.K and U.S. editions of Transpositions/The Weight of Glory that contained different collections.

The foreword was written by the editor/compiler, Walter Hooper, an American who was invited to England by Lewis and spent Lewis' last three months of life at his home (meeting his family and comrades, "The Inklings"). Hooper resigned his position at the University of Kentucky (of which I am alum) to be Lewis' "literary assistant and personal secretary" in the last days of his life. Speaking to him on what was likely his deathbed creates the best anecdote from the personal recollection. Hooper confesses his frustration with God for not smiting one of his atheist neighbors who seems to take personal pleasure from Lewis' suffering. Hooper wants to pray that this is "monstrously unfair," to which Lewis asks "And what do you think our Lord would say to that?" "What?" "What is that to YOU!" (Hooper references John 21:22). Hooper remarks about Lewis' troubles that "having done all in his power to solve them, he left the matter to God and got on with his work and pleasures." Lewis announced his official retirement and died in November, 1963.

Lewis is such a sharp wit; his philosophy is Christian but he rarely explicitly quotes the Bible.

Here are the essays and the few notes I made. (All of these are available by searching the internet.)
"The Weight of Glory"
Probably the most famous quote:
"It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

What stuck out to me is the reminder that "we are always dealing with immortals...Next to the sacraments your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." That is a reminder of human dignity--we are made in the image of God--and a good admonition of how we should not hate our neighbors.

"Learning in War-Time"
This sermon was introduced to me by a math professor, and I really should read it at least annually. It's on the best treatises on a proper theology of work that has ever been written-- you really should read it annually, too. It is unfortunately forgotten or unknown by many in the theology of work/work as worship movement, however.

"Why I am Not a Pacifist"
Lewis does look at Scripture explicitly in this essay and uses it to argue against pacifism. The Bible tells us that sometimes it is necessary to take a life. Context matters, however. Nazis looking to ban your civilization, religion, and bent on extermination of races from the planet are a worthy enough cause to fight against. But I suspect Lewis would be more of a pacifist today when war has been something waged perpetually by the U.S. and U.K. since 9/11 against seemingly far less threatening foes. The essay is unconvincing to me in my current context.

"Transposition"

"Is Theology Poetry?"
This is a good sermon/speech in apologetics. Lewis is answering humanist criticisms of theology as being nothing more than a figment of man's creative imagination-- appealing to the same sense of imagination as poetry or mythology. "Theology is not very good poetry," says Lewis. A believed idea is more appealing than myth. It's poetry because one believes in the story, not vice-versa. 

"The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named roman magistrate, and with whom the society that he founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other."

"The Inner Ring"
"Membership"
"If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure."

"On Forgiveness"
 "I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, 'Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.' If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites."

"A Slip of the Tongue"

Some of the sermon/essays contain explanations of his faith, a very reasonable faith. He does a very logical take-down of cosmology; cosmology requires faith that everything we have observed in one part of the universe is universally observed at all points. I would like to read The Abolition of Man and other books where he deals with these issues.

I give it 4 stars out of 5. These should be read more frequently.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sermon of the Week (10/18 - 10/24, 2015) John MacArthur on Slave and Friends of Jesus (John 15:12–17)

I have been busy with work and trying to finish book reviews. But this sermon stood out enough to make time to post it. 
Several years ago I read MacArthur's book Slave, which argued that the Greek word doulos has been repeatedly mistranslated "servant" or "bondservant" instead of its apparently grammatical-historical meaning of "slave." In this sermon, MacArthur describes the importance of that translation and recounts how he "begged and pleaded" with the ESV translation committee (which included Wayne Grudem) to translate the word "slave" and they declined. (The HCSB was more receptive to his pleas.) Which begs the question who is right-- MacArthur or a team of people who went the other way? If you haven't read the book, you can get the summary from this sermon, which is Part 1 of a two-part series (the second one is fine as well).

This is the iTunes link. Enjoy.

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman (Book Review #84 of 2015)


NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

NeuroTribes is a combination of every book on autism I've ever read. Silberman has attempted a complete history of the research, diagnoses, treatments, and advocacy groups related to what we now call the "autism spectrum." It is also filled with anecdotes and personal stories, including those that led to everything in the previous sentence. This is not the first book I'd give to someone about autism. That would likely be Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism and Asperger Syndrom (The Facts) or Temple Grandin's The Autistic Brain. (The book is essentially a much wider version of Grandin's book, exploring more in-depth some of the themes she only touches on). But this book is definitely a book I would give to someone who wants to know everything they possibly can.

The theme of the book, never laid out explicitly, is that there is a group of people throughout history who have stood out as geniuses, providing us with many of the scientific breakthroughs, computer software, and other inventions that have provided us with much of the technology we now enjoy. When you look at the recorded history of these individuals, they tend to match what we would later call Asperger's or today the "autism spectrum." Temple Grandin's work similarly speculates that several people in history, like Einstein, were likely undiagnosed autistics. Silberman is tracing the history of where these people came from and why there seem to be more now than before. Grandin and Silberman's points are that autism doesn't just have a chemical, dietary, environmental, genetic, or social explanation. Trying to "cure" or "prevent" autism is similar to the government trying to eliminate the world of mutants in Marvel's X-Men series. The key instead is to work to integrate those people, allow them to live to their fullest potential, and enjoy the benefits they bring to our world.

The groundbreaking aspect of the book was Silberman's discovery of the connection between Hans Asperger's chief diagnostician in Germany later working in the U.S. under Leo Kanner, who pioneered both childhood psychiatry and the autism diagnosis in the U.S. Kanner must certainly have known more about Asperger's work than he ever let on, although he later erroneously claimed they were studying two different phenomenons. Asperger is essentially a hero who saved hundreds of kids from certain death under the Nazis, his research lost under Allied bombs. Kanner, a secular humanist, comes across as a cold and sometimes cruel, responsible for propogating such myths as "refrigerator parents" as the cause of autism and at one point favoring Nazi-style forced sterilization. Kanner used to favor institutionalization but later came around to Asperger's belief that progress was possibly only if a child wasn't institutionalized.

The most difficult passages in the book recount how a central Nazi death panel signed off sight-unseen on deaths of disabled or mentally challenged kids. This sidebar is a bit unnecessary to the book, but it underlies a point that Silberman is making about attempts to eradicate-- or prevent-- those who are different. How far is too far? Trying to weed autism out of the gene pool to prevent unnecessary hardship on parents and caretakers leads to the slippery slope of eugenics. Just as the Nazis purged their country of immense physical and intellectual capital by expelling and murdering Jews, our society runs the risk of purging ourselves of the capital that autistic people bring.

One major weakness of Silberman's book is his inability to mark out a distinction of the various sensory processing disorders that correlate strongly with autism, something Grandin spends time on in The Autistic Brain. Much research has been done on autism, but less on these SPDs and their apparent connections. An autistic person's "stimming" may not be autism, per se, but related to their type of SPD. Genetics seem to play the strongest role judging by studies done on autistics who reproduce, studies of twins with and without autism, etc. and genetics would explain historical instances of autism before there were vaccines or GMOs and other things that have been blamed over recent years.

The negative reviews of this book seem to primarily come from parents who are upset that Silberman seems to continually cast doubt on the "autism epidemic," as it's called. He does what any good journalist does, look at the history and check the facts. He is not overtly critical of the DSM system of diagnosis but provides the history of how the DSM came about. The DSM as a book was a way for the APA to make money, it is a bestseller, insurance companies now rely on it, etc. There were actually few studies or diagnoses behind anything written in the original DSM, it has gotten better through the years but the consensus process in which it is put together is far from scientific. Temple Grandin has the same criticisms, and admonishes people not to be stuck by a diagnosis. But when you broaden the criteria for being diagnosed autistic, as they have over the years, you're going to have more children diagnosed with it. Many of these children used to be diagnosed as "schizophrenic." That doesn't explain all of the increase in diagnosis, but it does explain a good chunk of it. It's just math. Running with the X-Men theme from above, he writes that modern art like comic books tends to celebrate uniqueness and diversity more than, say, 50 years ago. This has encouraged more people to be comfortable being different and for those on the autism spectrum to come out of the shadows.

Along with the origins of the autism diagnosis and Kanner's blaming bad parenting, Silberman explores the rise of the vaccine controversy, the stories that led to Andrew Wakefield writing his later-retracted paper paper, which led to thimerosal being removed from vaccines, to the outright factual errors in the paper and its later retraction. There are clear falsehoods that need to be examined, and plenty of problems with a vaccine explanation that don't explain what was seen in 1930s Germany.

The author also traces the history of various treatments for autism, such as applied behavioral analysis (ABA) and the gluten-free, casein-free diets. My son has gotten ABA therapy from ABA specialists and I was horrified by the dark history of ABA as pioneered by Ole Lovaas. Lovaas moved from focusing on positive reinforcement to experimenting with physical pain and punishment. Who knew that someplace in Massachusetts still uses electroshock therapy on autistic kids, and it's apparently legal? Lovaas' methods led to the controversial "Feminine Boy" project at UCLA (of all places), trying to normalize effeminate boys. The project, headed by future Famiy Research Council founder George Rekers, was a "cash cow" for the university, getting donations even from the Playboy Foundation. Rekers was himself later caught in a homosexual relationship, and the client which made his career hanged himself. Psychiatry really comes across as an unscientific field where experiments on children have long-lasting consequences seen only in hindsight. There is no "first, do no harm" rule as I can see it.

Nutrition science is another of those fields where non-scientist practitioners make money by peddling unscientific claims. The author looks briefly at various treatments put forth over the years from vitamin B diets to the GFCF movement.

Silberman also chronicles the rise of autism advocacy in the 1970s, a movement that grew from concerned parents looking for answers and networking for therapy help into the modern movement where autistic people advocate for themselves. The 1975 Disabilities Act for education paved the way for an era of inclusiveness in schools, putting the onus on the school to design education for every student. Interestingly, perhaps cautiously, Silberman includes a lot of female autistic examples, even though females make up a minority of diagnoses. He does explore this issue a little, but without going into Baron-Cohen's hypothesis that autism is an extreme example of the difference between male and female brain characteristics.

Interestingly, Silberman describes the making of Rain Man, the first time society saw autistic traits on a large scale. Critics have charged that Rain Man either trivialized the problem or made people say "We all have a little 'Rain Man' in us, don't we?" I found the description of Dustin Hoffman's time in institutions trying to get in character as pretty fascinating, it was an emotionally difficult movie to make, but I agree with Silberman that it was a hugely important undertaking and worthy of the awards it garnered. But it does raise another problem with the book-- almost all of the examples that Silberman cites are prodigies and savants. This has led to a lot of criticism from parents who may be dealing with non-verbal children who need 24 hour caretaking, have violent episodes, etc.

Silberman notes that with time, therapy, self-awareness, exploring their strengths, mating, etc. people move from and to different points on the "continuum" that is autism. This is similar to what is claimed by the autistic man John Elder Robison in his book Look Me in the Eye, and makes sense intuitively. But it is not something "cured" or to be viewed as harmful.

This book is the most complete scientific and social history I have seen to date. To understand autism you really have to be knowledgeable about at least 10 different fields of science and psychology. This book does its best to synthesize everything. My last criticism of the book is that it included too many anecdotal details. The first 10% of the book gives detailed picture of a few autistic people in silicon valley and a broad overview of topics to be covered later in the book, unnecessarily. With the weaknesses that could have been edited out, I give it 4 stars. But the underlying theme defending the tribe of autistic people from people who think they know best is vitally important. Highly recommend, but read Temple Grandin's The Autistic Brain first. 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid (Book Review #83 of 2015)


Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
The author is a Pakistani journalist who knows a lot of people on both sides of the border and can communicate with many players. He is invited to forums where he gives his opinion on things; he lives there so is not a "impartial" journalist we might idealize. Giving his opinions is seen by some negative reviewers as "arrogant." In some cases his personal memory of situations causes him to inject opinion as fact labeling things "relatively weak," "inadequate," etc. without references to back them up. Other reviewers have found some mistakes in his figures, or misrepresenting others' work. This is troubling. But who knows how his mistakes compare to others making similar errors in books? Thanks to the internet, every book gets amateur fact-checking. Does the exclusive stories he broke as a journalist make up for it? The narrative does jump around a lot to give context to specific developments, it would have been more boring if strictly chronological so I do not fault the author or editors there. But it's a 3.5 star book for some of these weaknesses.

My own criticism of the book is different. I don't doubt the disappointment and incompetency of the American-led effort in Afghanistan. But Rashid lists blunders and failures (some of which might be embellished, see the other comments doing the fact-checking) and shows few specific successes, if any. There are a host of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to rebuild Afghanistan whose work goes unheralded by Rashid. He doesn't highlight any changes in life expectancy, building of schools, women's rights and education, etc.  If anything, he could have documented their frustration with government actors or contrasted their work with the military efforts that seemed to be working crosswise, but does not. This is odd given how much he obviously cares about the region and situation. He does highlight the unraveling of these institutions in Pakistan, much as Malala's book did, confirming much of what I read in that account of life in the Swot valley.

It also does not cover the Central Asian republics as much as I'd hoped. It was perhaps difficult to weave these into the narrative. The big takeaway as far as the former Soviet republics went was, while we secured their cooperation in the military effort in Afghanistan, we failed to establish long-term relationships with these developing countries that might have fostered more cultural exchange, aid, and democratic effort. Putin has since stepped up his game in the region, so any opportunity we had to make a long-term relationship in the region seems to be lost, outside of securing natural gas contracts for Western firms (which often benefits Russia and Central Asian dictators as well--read the book Clinton Cash).

Here's what I learned and my overall summary of the book:
Rashid was one of the few Pakistani journalist allowed to report in Soviet Afghanistan, giving him perspective and access that would be valuable in the years following. He gives a brief history of Afghanistan and explains the situation there pre-9/11. Most of the book chronicles Pakistan's dangerous ISI and the love-hate relationship that Pervez Musharraf and the US had in the years before and following 9/11. If you've seen the PBS Frontline documentaries on Pakistan's ISI and their efforts at working against the US, then you've already been frustrated and outraged at how the ISI repeatedly works against US interests. Rashid profiles many of the actors in this drama, and discovers stories that saw firsthand little press coverage.

The ISI and Pakistan funded and trained Taliban fighters and undermined international attempts to sanction the Taliban pre-9/11. When the UN passed sanctions against Afghanistan due to Taliban atrocities, Pakistan and the ISI sanctioned pro-Taliban meetings and rallies, openly snubbing the sanctions. We now understand the reality of the Taliban safehaven in the Swat Valley and elsewhere and it's hard to remember a time post-9/11 when it was against US policy to admit that was the case, and that Pakistan feigned outrage at the very idea.

On 9/11/2001, ISI leadership was actually in Washington, DC meeting with Pentagon officials on ways to get Afghanistan to give up Bin Laden, none of which were seen as credible (according to Rashid, at least). Only in the week prior to 9/11 had the Bush Administration agreed to provide arms for the Northern Alliance. (This information seems to run counter to what Richard Clarke and others have claimed-- that the Bush Administration ignored Afghanistan and Bin Laden threats prior to 9/11.) The CIA had no operations in Afghanistan and no one who could speak the languages, according to Rashid. This seems to run counter to other accounts I've read, that at the same time President Clinton launched cruise missile strikes on Al Qaeda camps he also increased CIA funding and focus on Afghanistan (surely they'd have at least trained assets who spoke the languages...). According to Rashid, the CIA was essentially flying blind on Afghanistan on 9/11 and heavily reliant on the ISI, which helps explain the air evacuation of Al Qaeda assets from Kunduz (see below). 

Since Kunduz has been in the news recently (October, 2015) having fallen to the Taliban, it's notable that in the earliest part of the post-9/11 war Musharraf convinced the US to airlift out a significant number of ISI assets from Kunduz. We now know that these included hard-core Taliban, including many Al Qaeda operatives. The military apparently held its nose and did it secretly, with pilots calling the operation "Evil Air." When US forces, unaware of the previous airlift, arrived at Kunduz expecting a fight, they found it mostly empty. Kunduz apparently became the site of a prison where US Special Forces apparently tortured prisoners in the early days of the war, something the press later brought to light but for which there were few repercussions outside the long memory of Afghans. Kunduz would appear remain a rallying point for a resurgent Taliban.

The CIA and Pentagon's linking up with warlords to fight the Taliban in early days is not given much attention by Rashid. This Huffington Post piece in 2013 criticizes Rashid for characterizing the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as evil, when he was a US ally fighting along with the Green Berets and CIA to oust the Taliban and later playing a role in post-Al Qaeda Afghanistan.


The Bush administration had already ruffled international feathers before 9/11 because of their overall attitude of disinterest in working through international bodies and upholding various treaties. Rashid had written the best-seller The Taliban published in 2000 that recommended something like $5-6 billion/year in foreign aid to Pakistan, along with UN peacekeepers which would have been a fraction of what we later spent attempting nation-building from scratch in Iraq. His opinions and invitations to forums to discuss various situations do not make him look like a disinterested party, so one can imagine he was seen as an annoyance to the Administration. (It's hard to remember when $5 billion sounded like a large sum of money, and hard to remember when Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush Administration were testifying that the Iraq war could be quickly won at a cost lower than that.)

Rashid shifts gears occasionally to look at the Central Asian republics that the U.S. would need to build airbases and supply lines within. This was the first time since Alexander the Great that Western troops would occupy sections of these countries. Rashid reports that these countries had favorable views of America, goodwill that America would squander and Russia would quickly usurp. Most of these republics are run by dictatorial dynasties, and it is hard to imagine that a greater effort could be made encouraging freedom and democracy there with so many resources intended for Afghanistan. Rashid's brief background on Central Asia, and how the US lost it, is informative though unsatisfying for me. 

The author has a personal relationship with Hamid Karzai and tells his story. After 9/11, Karzai re-enters Afghanistan with tacit US support and goes up to a tribal holdout in the mountains, where he is eventually pursued by a force of hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters. The multilingual and charming Karzai thus becomes the only Pashtun fighting the Taliban. He uses his phone to call the State Department for help, leading to a CIA airdrop of supplies and a rescue from the hills, and from there he is propelled on to the Presidency. Putin, meanwhile, undermines the UN by acknowledging a different Afghan president. Rashid does not mention overt Russian action in Afghanistan very often, but it seems some of his criticism of US policy could have gone toward Russia's undermining of UN and US actions in Afghanistan and Central Asia at large.

Karzai is a difficult character and likely a product of the realities of post-9/11 Afghanistan, where coalitions have to be formed by promises and bribery, and corruption is widespread. I have seen Karzai scolded in sections of Bob Gates and Leon Panetta's memoirs, as well as the Broadwell biography of Petraeus. Stan McChrystal's account of Karzai contained less criticism and more admiration. Rashid chronicles both the US hopes for Karzai and the criticisms of him, as well as Karzai's angry attempts to defend his brother from charges of corruption. Karzai was obviously frustrated both by the civilian deaths, night raids by the US military, and the constant undermining by Pakistan that the US continued to turn a blind eye toward. I'll just say I'll read Karzai's memoir before I read Pervez Musharraf's (which is not on my shelf).

You can't really understand Pakistan's political situation absent the rivalry with India. The US fanned those flames by helping India with its nuclear program. Musharraf asks for F-16's to counter India while the US would rather he focus on the growing Taliban presence in the country. Musharraf, who styles himself after Atatürk, makes repeated blunders and Pakistan descends further to chaos. Toward the end of the book, Rashid documents the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and how it was received around the country. This also reads similarly to Malala's memories of the period, but Rashid gives more behind-the-scenes insight, making it sound ultimately inevitable.

At one point, President Bush gives a speech laying out a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan, which apparently raises the hopes of Karzai and others, only to see no follow-up in action or resources. As the US pivots to Iraq, Karzai increasingly believes Rumsfeld is out of touch with reality. Rumsfeld rejects any White House or State Department hopes to use US soldiers as nation-builders. Rashid repeatedly blames "neocons" throughout the book, labeling all in the Bush administration as such. The problem is that officials and generals came and went with different ideas, nuances, and designs; Rashid should know better than anyone that grouping everyone into a one-word label is problematic. 

One informative aspect of the book for me was Rashid's comments about USAID, responsible for development projects on the ground, having been totally cut out of the policymaking by the CIA. USAID was "understaffed" with "no expertise," particularly in local languages. It has/had become a "contracting agency," a middleman for contractors on the ground. As I wrote above, some of the projects must have turned out alright; others might not have, but Rashid does not focus on these. In general, USAID comes across as looking bad. In 2008, the U.S. had finally altered its strategy to send PRTs into the regions to do rebuilding projects as Petraeus and others started utilizing an Iraq-style strategy of COIN. But Rashid, writing in 2008, says taht these had no strategy or measurements. This jives somewhat with McChrystal's memoir where he talked of the problem of getting continuity in officers managing projects on the ground.

Nation-building is hard, after all. How do you form a tax system when people have never paid taxes? Rashid chronicles the nonsensical war on poppy plants/heroin. The Taliban tolerated poppy growth because they ruled it to be a drug sold only to Westerners (but they cracked down on hashish, reportedly) and were able to extract a five percent tax from farmers, perhaps the only successful system of taxation in Afghanistan.

Surely of all the international coalition that is operating in Afghanistan it's not all the U.S. fault. After all, Sec. Gates and others began clamoring for more NATO attention and funding after 2008. But Rashid writes that Rumsfeld "hated" ISAF and NATO, seeing them as unable or unwilling to do anything. The Germans trained police but most countries were too afraid to take casualties. One problem was that the US was too unwilling to ensure good governance. When an effort was made to train police better after noticeable failures, Jalali was appointed and began to root out corruption. In turn, he was ousted politically.

I've read Condi Rice's memoir and her own frustrations in dealing with Rumsfeld. Rashid writes that she tried to take the reigns on Central Asian policy for the State Department against the Pentagon's wishes and got rebuffed by Rumsfeld in the process. Uzbekistan became the CIA dark site "jailer" for Taliban combatants, and what went on is of course the source of international controversy. Rashid quotes US Justice Department lawyers looking at the legalities of US treatment of prisoners as a "descent into hell" for the legal system.

Meanwhile, the US watches ISI shuttling Taliban fighters in and out of Afghanistan while denying it. Before Sec. Gates took over from Rumsfeld, the US would not publicly admit or acknowledge that the Taliban were headquartered in northwestern Waziristan. The author himself witnesses Taliban training camps in Baluchistan as well as the Pakistani army's disastrous failure in Waziristan. The ISI actively worked to undermine elections in Afghanistan, the success of which brought encouragement to the country and the author. The Pakistani government tacitly approved literature coming out of Pakistan that included allegations that 9/11 was all a CIA plot because Bush hated Muslims and wanted to make war on Muslim countries (this idea is common throughout Central Asia, I can testify personally). Rashid writes that perhaps only 25 percent of the Pakistani population is literate, and this is not increasing, more evidence of government ineptness. Education is in the Saudi-funded madrasas that teach no science or math. It's in this context of growing militancy that Bhutto is assassinated and hope for democratic liberalization falters.

After reading the book, one will not be surprised that Osama Bin Laden was living fairly comfortably in Pakistan, that the Taliban have regrouped in their safe havens and were able to retake Kunduz and other parts of Afghanistan, social indicators have not improved much, and the situation looks even more bleak than in 2008. Rashid's main thesis is that the West did too little, too late; the West could have saved a lot of money by not pivoting to Iraq and instead securing both Afghanistan and Pakistan. That appears to be quite complicated given the complex Pakistani political situation and the US Congress' (and the public's) preference to fight wars on the cheap via proxies than commit hundreds of thousands of troops and nation-builders for decades. Once this became "Obama's war," things only changed temporarily, if at all.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I learned a bit from it. The author's opinions get in the way for his Western audience, if the opinions were left out it could have been a stellar history. But it also would have been more boring without the author's vested interest-- he lives there and has to live with the aftermath.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel (Book Review #82 of 2015)


The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood
I enjoy works by practitioners of their craft over journalistic accounts of those crafts and the practioners' discoveries. I suppose most practitioners too eccentric to be good writers, but Irving Finkel does a decent job he; apparently moonlights as a fiction author. He's a committed philologist and Assyriologist living his childhood dream of working in the British Museum and is one of the world's foremost experts on Akkadian/Sumerian/Babylonian cuneiform. I listened to Gerald Davis' "new" translation of Gilgamesh before this book; that and Genesis 5-11 are prerequisites. I take particular interest in this book as Answers in Genesis is building a life-size replica of the biblically-described ark not too far from where I live.

The first 1/3 of the book deals with the development and history of language and its translation. Writing was invented in Mesopotamia around 3,500 BC. The earliest clay tablets from around that time have yet to be translated. Gilgamesh and other works are quite difficult to translate, and Finkel gives plenty of details of his own discoveries regarding the Ark tablet he uncovered that will make one appreciate the difficulties of translating ancient texts, including the Hebrew Bible. (One also shudders at the invaluable history that ISIS has destroyed in Syria and Iraq, never again to be recovered.)

Interestingly, cuneiform cannot be written with the left hand, which perhaps helps explain the aversion to left-handedness that exists in many cultures there today. Clay tables with errors are remarkably uncommon and Finkel details how they dealt with errors. Akkadian became the dominant language in Mesopotamia until it was replaced by Aramaic at about 1,000 B.C. It's important to remember that what we have on clay or paper is not the sum of ancient thought, knowledge, or philosophy-- it's only a window, at best, and much still remains untranslated.

Finkel's office came into possession of several cuneiform tablets donated from an antiquities collector, and on a small "mobile phone-sized" tablet Finkel found lines matching up with Utnapishtim's account of building the ark that he dates around 1,750 BC. Finkel feigns no modesty in calling this "one of the most important documents ever discovered," and translating and filling in the blanks are Finkel's devotion. The way in which this is done is interesting but I noted that Finkel falls into a couple of exegetical fallacies along the way (more on that later).

The flood narrative was first recorded around 2,000 BC and the non-biblical account comes down to us in three forms: One Sumerian and two Akkadian on nine known tablets from the Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian periods. Finkel's table is composed in the literary Akkadian style. In deciphering certain unusual words, Finkel consults lexicons created by other Assyriologists finding definitions from limited other tablets. Finkel's headline discovery is that the boat described in his tablet is round and held together by hundreds of kilometer of rope. In this way, it resembled a larger version of the vessels that were used in the rivers of Mesopotamia.

I note one exegetical fallacy in Finkel's quest to interpret the text, and that is to look for meaning of a word in a different semantic field. Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are all Semitic languages with similar grammar and shared root words. But the meaning of words in those languages evolved over time, as words do in every language. At one point, Finkel reaches for the Arabic word meaning "basket" to show a similarity in sound with a word on his tablet which he says gives further evidence for the round basket-like boat he is interpreting from his text. So, he's reaching for a word dating after 600 AD in one language to determine the meaning of a word written in another language 2,000 years before! Surely someone would correct him in his fallacious reasoning here, but apparently not.

Finkel's lack of cross-checking his work with others also comes across in his putting forth a "new" theory about when the Old Testament, including and especially Genesis, was written. This stems from Finkel's second exciting discovery- the words meaning "two by two" which were either missing or illegible in previously discovered tablets, which match the biblical account of animals coming onto the ark in pairs. Finkel uses this fact and the date of when the Genesis account could have been recorded, if indeed by Moses (~1400 BC during the exodus from Egypt), to state that the Hebrew flood account MUST have been copied from the Babylonians. Finkel proposes that the entirety of the Torah was written whole cloth in Babylonian times with Jews borrowing everything from monotheism (Marduk) to the flood account (Gilgamesh) and rewriting it to establish an independent and seemingly superior account for national interest.

This "new" hypothesis, not theory, is neither new nor supported by evidence nor is it accepted by scholars, for good reason. Many scholars already believe that the Torah and Talmud as we have them today were compiled by Hebrew scribes around 500-600 BC during the 70-year Babylonian exile, that is not new. But no one believes the Hebrews made up their traditions out of whole cloth as they had a tradition of language and literacy and brought with them both scrolls and oral tradition from Israel. Hence, there were scribes who could read and write the Hebrew text that scholars believe they had the capability of writing. (Finkel even cites the this bringing of scrolls as authoritative, undermining his own argument.)

Most scholars believe all the separate pieces were compiled and redacted into a single collection, with the more liberal/skeptical scholars arguing for a greater amount of redaction than others. Finkel is claiming that there was little or nothing to be redacted, everything needed to be written for the first time-- where the Hebrews had oral traditions about creation and the flood, their scholarly leaders deemed them inadequate to explain their exile predicament and insufficient to keep Hebrews patriotically devoted to rebuilding their homeland. Daniel and his friends, for example, were attending Babylonian schools and would have been well-schooled in their languages and literature; it was likely among these, claims Finkel, that the Hebrew Bible was written. Finkel either ignores or omits that the Book of Daniel (9:1) records Daniel's reading of Hebrew scrolls (Jeremiah) predating the exile. Jeremiah, like Isaiah and Ezkiel (also predating the exile) quotes from or alludes to Genesis 1-11, and Isaiah refers to Noah.

It is also problematic that Finkel accepts one of several versions of the Documentary Hypothesis without explaining its background and how that hypothesis has evolved in the last two hundred years. For a description and critique of the hypothesis, as well as a plausible Tablet Model that Finkel does not mention, see this link:
https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/moses/did-moses-write-genesis/

The Documentary Hypothesis, ironically, can be used against Finkel's argument about how Genesis was written as scholars subscribing to the hypothesis believe the 3 or 4 traditions (depending on which form of the hypothesis they endorse) were written down before the exile. As pointed out by others critiquing Finkel's work, many of these texts (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, which was studied by Daniel during the exile) refer to Genesis and mention the flood. Finkel is either ignorant of or omits the Tablet Model, that the "toledoth" found in Genesis may indicate multiple tablets as part of a single narrative -- a view I find more plausible given Finkel's own research on the various tablets related to Gilgamesh.

Given the historical problems with Finkel's hypothesis, I find it unlikely that the Hebrews also borrowed Genesis 1-3 from Babylonian accounts. Major parts of Genesis 1-11 seem clearly written as a polemic against alternative creation, flood, and geneological accounts in Mesopotamia and Palestine. The Gilgamesh epic is polytheistic, Babylon believed it descended from heaven as a divine city (rather than being the source of God's judgement of languages--Babel), and the biblical account clearly contrasts with these and its stories are much less fantastic than Gilgamesh. If we believe that Moses had something to do with the writing of these accounts (as Exodus says and Jesus as well as Jews in his day claimed) then it stands to reason he would have been aware of these competing accounts, having been raised in Pharoah's household and likely literate in many languages and having encountered stories from ancient Mesopotamian cultures, such that he could have been conscious of them writing ~1400 BC. Finkel argues that these accounts clash because of a concerted effort of Hebrew scribes, but the evidence of historical dates is against him, as well as the lack of the ability of anyone to concertedly write so well and so subtly a polemic (even many commentaries written on Genesis today miss the polemic aspects).

Finkel's descriptions of the difficulty of translating and interpreting are the main thing I gleaned from this book. He points out that several parts of Genesis 6-9 contain Hebrew words not used elsewhere, illustrating the difficulties of translators. The ark's rectangular measurements are a problem for him, and he believes it was intentionally written not to be round. But I think given that ships built for centuries around the world tend to be rectangular in shape rather than round make the measurements unproblematic; why would the Hebrew scribes be so desirous to not let their boat be round if it's a good model? If the ark was round and Hebrew scholars have simply misinterpreted the ancient measurements all these years then that would still not have any implications for the veracity or meaning of the overall account.  

Another interesting aspect of The Ark Before Noah is the evidence that people have been searching for Noah's ark for millennia and its pieces sold and used as amulets similar to how supposed pieces of Jesus' cross became marketable all through the Middle Ages. Finkel also notes tablets that indicate the Assyrian king Sennacherib searched for the ark. Sennacherib's seige of Jerusalem is recorded in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. After an angel wipes out 185,000 of his soldiers, Sennacherib returns to Ninevah where he is murdered by his sons while praying in a temple (Isaiah 37:37-38). Finkel reports that one of the Assyrian tablets confirms this account of his death, with the detail that Sennacherib was praying to a plank of Noah's ark. Finkel describes various recorded attempts to find the ark through history.

In all, I give this 3 stars out of 5. Finkel's exegetical stretches and eagerness to trumpet his own work without examining critiques of others is problematic for me. I enjoyed his passion for his craft and he gave me a greater appreciation for linguistics and interpretation.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Gilgamesh: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis (Book Review #81 of 2015)


Gilgamesh: The New Translation
I followed this book with Irving Finkel's The Ark Before Noah, an account of discovering and translating recently uncovered cuneiform tablets, and the difficulty of translating ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian works. I recommend Finkel's book if you're interested in the history and scholarly debate around the various translations and meanings of the Gilgamesh tale. The original work is belived to originate in 2500-2000 B.C. and the earliest tablet dates to 1700-1800 B.C.

Davis prefaces his translation by noting which accounts were considered to have originated from which time period, some may have been unrelated but written as a sort of parallel. He apparently takes quite a few liberties with the translation to make the narrative flow, but maintains the poetic repetition of verses that are repeated. I suppose it compares roughly with the Iliad or the Odyssey. My main motivation in reading this is because I've recently been studying Genesis more closely and wanted to compare the flood narratives. The flood makes up a relatively minor part of the Gilgamesh tale, and it's fairly evident to even a lay reader like myself that it's an older tradition woven into the "newer" Gilgamesh epic. In listening to Gilgamesh, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis statement about how he came to the Bible in his memoir Surprised by Joy: He'd spent a lifetime familiar with the ancient myths and could clearly recognize that the stories in the Bible were not myths, they're quite different.

The Gilgamesh text is filled with gods of every aspect of nature, they quarrel, scheme, are surprised, and have other human qualities. The text is ultimately about Gilgamesh's quest to become immortal, like the gods. Gilgamesh is an ancient king of Uruk and god-like in his qualities. He was known for his cruelty, having sex with every wife, killing every husband, and being roundly unfair. A goddess makes a man named Enkidu to humble Gilgamesh through battle. Enkidu lives like a wild beast until tamed by intercourse with a temple prostitute who leads him to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh. (Scholars apparently believe that ancient Mesopotamian culture believed a boy became a man in a ritual engagement with a prostitute, a practice that I can note is still alive and well in nearby countries like Azerbaijan.)

Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle but eventually become lifelong companions, engaging as warriors together. They unite against Humbaba, defender of the cedars. Gilgamesh constantly prays and offers homage to the sun God Shamash for favor. There are several instances of dreams and interpretation by either Enkidu or Gilgamesh. Together they kill Humbaba and then are challenged by the goddess Ishtar's bringing the bull of heaven to earth after Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's marriage proposal. The friends slay the bull and offer his heart to Shamash, after which the gods demand retribution.

Enkidu has a foreboding dream immediately followed by an illness in which he dies. Gilgamesh mourns for his comrade until he sees a maggot crawl out of his nose, after which he buries him (this detail is repeated a few times). Gilgamesh is inconsolable and rages against the world, seeking an explanation as to why his friend had to die and why he doesn't die with him. Shamash eventually has pity on Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh meets Utnapisthim, an immortal who somehow survived the flood and was given the secrets of the gods, which he then tells to Gilgamesh. The flood was intended to quiet the clamor of man which had annoyed the gods. The god Ea told him to build an ark, and he quickly gathered craftsmen and others to build it in 5 days and made sure to take his gold with him (who would need gold after the world was destroyed?). The gods are surprised by the amount and brutality of the flood and seem to argue with each other about the consequences and who is to blame. Afterwards, Enlil grants Utnapishtim and his wife immortality.

Utnapishtim's wife tells Gilgamesh where to find a plant on the bottom of the sea that will keep him eternally young, but a serpent then steals the fruit and Gilgamesh is left weeping for his mortality. Oddly, the story continues with Tablet 12 which seems like a parallel or additional story, in which Gilgamesh loses his ball in the underworld and is again crying for his loss. His friend Enkidu agrees to go and retrieve it for him and later answers questions about the condition of Gilgamesh's family and the various types of people one may find in the underworld.

Gilgamesh is eventually granted a sort of immortality by the gods, being granted lordship of the underworld. I am not sure if this was in the original tale, its various renditions, or if the author just made it up for a different ending.

This is an ancient compilation of even more ancient texts, so my rating goes on the translation-- which I had to read other accounts to find out. 4 stars?  Worth reading and wondering.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Book Review #80 of 2015)

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates' old blog on The Atlantic website was one of the best on the internet. I didn't subscribe to The Atlantic just because of his work, but I considered his work a bonus and supporting his work and blog through a subscription fee was a joy for me. He interacted with readers in the Comments and it became a community. Now that he has a NY Times #1 bestseller, having him comment on one of my comments was like an "almost famous" moment. Coates' writing on the Civil War and how deeply he moved he was by reading U.S. Grant's deathbed memoirs is an enduring memory. Whenever someone breaks out the herring "the Civil War wasn't primarily about slavery," his writing inevitably comes up in a subsequent Google search.

This (very short) book reads like a lot of his writing, honest and stream-of-thought but also insightful and full of questions. It's also full of his ability to portray emotional moments in print very vividly, in this case dealing with injustice, mourning, and fear. "They will take your body..." The book is written as a letter to his son and it's mostly an explanation of where his father is coming from (Baltimore with all that comes with it). We're close enough in age that we have some similar memories of the 1980s, and I wonder if some of his comments are universal to that period rather than purely the perspective of a black man. I recommend listening to him read it, I was glad my library got a digital audio copy quickly.

Early in life, Coates' forebears taught him to question as a ritual rather than as a quest for certainty, that was a big takeaway for me. His delving into black history, including African history, reminds us that history isn't clear, it's messy. But he asks the questions in his childhood that someone raised in a privileged white neighborhood would not have asked, like "Why are the heroes of black history month alone non-violent?" The subtle message is that whites have communicated their dominant position in such subtle ways, where they do not do it overtly through politics, the police, or other means.

One irony of Coates' memoir is that even though he disparages the "American Dream" as a myth, he is living it. His son's standard of living will be higher than his, which was higher than his father's and his father's father's and so on. He doesn't mention that he never graduated from Howard, even though he learned as much (or more) than many who did. His parents were intellectuals who were able to introduce him to a wide range of counter-cultural ideas, including the atheism he still embraces. He was able to both luck and work to the top and is now being awarded monetarily and socially for writing this book-- hard to do anywhere outside America. He learns French and visits France and naively does not understand that a black person there, or a brown-skinned person, etc. will be stuck in a class system that is more restrictive than anything in America-- just ask the teenage Muslims who riot from time to time. (As I write this there is an article out in a business journal about how the youngest French company listed on their exchange was formed prior than the 1970s; entrenched elitist system dominated by whites.) Indeed, Coates and his family eventually ponder that at least some of French wealth was built on enslaved workers in colonies. That is why people from the rest of the world still clamor to get in here, mythical or not Coates is a shining example of why.

 "They made us into a race but we made us into a people." In the end, Coates' quest is to find his own tribe that is characterized more by common ideas than race. That certainly seems more American than anything else I've read lately. I am somewhat disturbed that from this he will go on to write Black Panther comic books for Marvel, and that it's being hailed as a good thing. Coates' love of comics is mostly absent from these pages, but I guess elevating comics as a source of truth is just another legacy of the Children of the 80's.

 In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It touched me emotionally as a father and helped me be more aware of the unspoken tension in my own neighborhood, as well as the obligations I have as someone who claims to believe in justice.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Podcast of the Week (9/26 - 10/3, 2015) Child Soldiers and ISIS and "Learned Helplessness"

I've been busy so didn't get around to posting one last week. Here are a couple who stand out over the last few weeks:
Middle East Week is a podcast covering what its name suggests. In this episode (9/1/2015) Dr. John Horland is interviewed on how ISIS recruits and utilizes child soldiers. This is the iTunes link.

Another offering is from You Are Not so Smart examining how we learn and unlearn how to be helpless. A professor describes a classroom experiment she designed where she tricks students into believing they can't perform a task. Experiments with dogs show that they can become discouraged not to try again. How do we overcome this cognitive bias? Here is an overview and you can link around to recent episodes covering the topic:
http://youarenotsosmart.com/2009/11/11/learned-helplessness/

Enjoy.