Tuesday, March 22, 2016

An American Son by Marco Rubio (Book Review #17 of 2016)

An American Son: A Memoir
Ultimately, this is a one-and-a-half star book. It is terribly boring, uninformative, and could be much shorter if Rubio had left out many of the trivial details about boyhood clothes, football games, his grandparents' and parents' lives, and other aspects of his life growing up. You think there will be some point to the details he remembers, but there is not; it is like reading from an ordinary average Joe's daily journal. We don't need to know about every odd job his grandfather had or every nick and scrape Rubio gets on the football field. What we do need to know is what drives Rubio and shapes his worldview, and preferably what principles he follows in his "conservative" politics. While the book outlines every decision Rubio made in his political life and campaigns, he rarely explains why he made those decisions. The only book he mentions as helpful in his political life is Jim Collins' Good to Great, which helped how he and others put together the House leadership team when he was Speaker of the House in Florida. What drives his economic, political, or even parenting philosophies otherwise is a complete unknown.

The book becomes slightly more exciting during his Senate campaign against failed Governor Charlie Crist, truly a unique election in that Crist was willing to change all his positions and even to switch parties (despite pledging not to) just to get elected. The Crist-Rubio campaign should be studied more, and Rubio's side of the story is worth hearing. The National Republican Senatorial Committee backed Crist and pushed Florida's Republicans to back Crist officially-- even pushing a Rule 11 letter (p. 220). Hence, the establishment looked stupid when Crist openly courted liberal votes and ran as an independent when it eventually became clear he would not be the Republican nominee. One thing I did not know was that Donald Trump (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger) was among those who urged Crist to run against Rubio as an independent (p. 287). That should be a note to those who think Donald Trump is a conservative today.

But it contains so much detail and repetition, so much reliving the rebuttles of Crist staff and the media, his family's thoughts, and more and it goes on forever in mundane detail. Much of Rubio's writing deals with his rebuttles against charges leveled by the media in 2010-- misspending funds, a foreclosed house, potential pork-laden deals, etc. What is sad is that this book was published in 2012 and, in my opinion, Rubio's facts rebut his critics well, but the New York Times and other publications regurgitated the claims in 2015.  For example, the New York Times was credited with "revealing" Rubio's financial troubles and ties to donor Norman Braman, who employs Rubio's wife. But Rubio details all of this in the book and it was covered by the Florida media for all of 2010. The fact that so many media outlets have regurgitated the NY Times' reporting as original, when the reporters are either regurgitating this book without citation or the work of plenty of Florida newspapers in 2010, is rather eye-opening. Rubio explains in detail, repeatedly, every credit card transaction ever made and why. Perhaps, however, his ties with Braman are not sufficiently disclosed-- the NY Times reported that Rubio's teaching position at Florida International, which he held long before the Senate race, was funded by Braman; if true, this is never mentioned by Rubio. But Rubio himself detailed what his wife has done working for Braman in 2011-2012 more than the NY Times did in its reporting. Nobody reads books anymore, I suppose.

Besides chronicling the 2010 campaign, is there redeeming value? Yes. You will learn how much Marco Rubio loves his family and how open he is about his love for Jesus. His insecurity and efforts to "get the balance right between my career and personal life" and also live up to the standards of effort and sacrifice of his parents and grandparents stand out (p. 13).
"Why had my dreams come true? Because God had blessed me with a strong and stable family and parents who cherished my dreams more than their own, and with a wise and loving wife who supported me" (p. 332).
"And last but most important, I thank my Lord, Jesus Christ, whose willingness to suffer and die for my sins will allow me to enjoy eternal life" (p. 358).

Even a cynic would likely see his faith is not fake, the guy has been interested in theology since going from Catholicism to Mormonism and back to Catholicism. He closed out his stint in the Florida House with a speech outlining the basics of the Gospel. His family apparently current blends his wife and kids' preference of an evangelical Baptist church and Catholic Mass; his kids are currently in parochial school. He writes that the Bible-based sermons at the Baptist church on Saturday nights gives greater meaning to his understanding of the Catholic faith on Sundays. The writings of Scott Hahn, a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism influenced him (p. 164) . (That and the Collins book are the only two I remember him mentioning.)

The greater disappointment is that there is almost nothing in there about how he managed his campaign staff, tough issues and decisions he made in the Florida legislature, or what, if any, specific political philosophies have shaped his worldview. What does "conservative" mean to him? At one point he mentions "limited government and free markets" but the book, like the 2016 Republican primary generally, seems to assume that people know what defines "conservative" when candidates say it. Rubio speaks highly of Jeb Bush, borrowing from him by collecting ideas from around the state to propose as legislative initiatives. Rubio's House has to battle the Florida Senate that either want weaker or less-effective legislation; one particular story about autism legislation that Rubio wanted to expand to all children with disabilities was particularly interesting (p. 194). Rubio does give a careful look at immigration reform and why he did not support the DREAM Act in Congress; he wanted less-broad legislation that might be more effective, he writes. Where he stands on other key issues is woefully unclear, as are his campaign pledges in all his campaigns which are never mentioned.

I was planning on reading Rubio's second book supposedly outlining his economic policies but he has since dropped out. I say skip this book as well if you can.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Two Worlds by Roxana Saberi (Book Review #16 of 2016)

Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran
After recently finishing Jared Cohen's Children of Jihad, in which he chronicles a brief detention in Iran and his experience with various dissidents and underground life, I came across Saberi's chronicle of her extended detention in Iran (years after Cohen visited the country). While this book is useful to draw attention to arbitrary and wrongful detentions in Iran, I found it raised more questions about the author. It is not an incredibly interesting book. Saberi initially cooperates with her captors and consents to their lies before meeting Iranian detainees who actively resist. Saberi's resolve is strengthened and she retracts her coerced confession, demands a lawyer, and goes on a hunger strike while garnering international support for her release; she is granted release after 101 days in captivity. She writes the book seemingly to draw attention to the perversion of justice in Iran and bring some attention to the women she shared her cell with.

I have the same question of Saberi as I have of Jared Cohen's visit to Iran -- why risk it when you know that sometimes Americans are detained for seemingly arbitrary reasons? Around the time of Saberi's detentions, American hikers along the border were also detained for a long ordeal. Saberi went to Iran in 2003, when she was 26 years old and out of journalism school. She maintains she spent six years working on a book about Iranian life, while working on a Masters degree, conducting interviews with at least 60 different people, which apparently is what drew Iranian's attention. She seemed to be trying to emotionally reconnect to her roots-- her father is an Iranian-American. She apparently dates several men, getting involved with dissident Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, who may or may not have been her actual fiancee (their wikipedia profiles currently do not mention it although Ghobadi claimed as such during her captivity and Saberi tells her interrogators that they "discussed marriage"). I do not want to engage in victim shaming, prosecutors were clearly making false accusations, but if you live in a foreign country that has no official diplomatic relationship with the country on your passport, and do things that are counter to that culture, you will raise suspicion.

Saberi seemed to want to blend into the journalist crowd without actually being a journalist. She knew enough Farsi to get around, but really had to learn better once she was imprisoned. She was able to sell some stories and once got on Fox News in the US (which her accusers claim is an "arm of the Pentagon"). Iran had revoked her journalism credentials, which I would have taken as a warning. Whether she knew it or not at the time, the government was claiming every media outlet in the US was an arm of the US government, especially newspapers with the word "intelligence" in them (like the Seattle Intelligencer).

She downplays it in her book, but she was a beauty pageant queen in the US and one wonders if a less-pretty face would have gotten so much attention; the epilogue mentions that the blue scarf she was so often pictured in became a hot-selling commodity in Iran, "Roxana scarves." Her education and talents connected her to people in higher society, like Ghobadi. Perhaps as someone who had been on television news she was somewhat of a celebrity. In the end, Secretary Clinton and President Obama both worked with other embassies and the UN to get her early release.

The mental anguish of captivity are clearly described by Saberi. She is constantly taunted with "if you cooperate with us, you'll go home shortly" a pattern that continues repeatedly. She confesses to espionage, denounces the Zionist regime in Israel, and more on camera. Her interrogators ostensibly recruit her to spy for Iran, threatening to kill her "anywhere in the world" if she reveals she has been recruited; something she initially agrees to do but later regrets. There is a magistrate who deals a bit more honestly, and the layers and politics of the Iranian justice system are a bit confusing-- particularly for herself. After five weeks in captivity, she realizes her captors knew that she was never a spy but the die was cast so they must keep up the false pretense. A newspaper article found in her apartment is called a "classified document," and her personal life is scrutinized, her 60 interviews for her book become 600, and other lies.

When she is sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for espionage, reality hits home. After getting educated by her cellmates and doing plenty of time soul-searching with the help of her Bible, she resolves to pay the price and tell only the truth. She is granted many rights, retains a lawyer; argues in court with judges, her interrogators, and other witnesses; she gets to call them liars and counter their claims. She is fed, allowed her own books, and allowed supervised calls and visits with loved ones. Some reviewers of this book have pointed out that she would not have gotten near as many rights had she been imprisoned by Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Saberi goes on a hunger strike when the situation appears desperate, and becomes dangerously underweight at the dismay of her parents who come to Iran for support.

To Saberi's credit, she pays many thanks and draws attention to the plights of her cellmates-- other women who have been accused of political crimes. From them, the reader learns that fortune telling with the Koran is a popular past-time in Iran, and other means of passing the time. Saberi learns Farsi from her cellmates. She also writes of how she relied mentally/spiritually on passages from the Bible in her captivity, while a cellmate also teaches her the Shahada and how to read the Koran (Saberi was allowed to have both a Bible and her English Koran). Her jailers watch various television shows while the inmates live through the sounds of what is on TV. Eventually, Saberi learns that the media is covering her story and some journalists are hunger-striking in solidarity, which she discourages. She does pay many thanks to the many parties who influenced the Iranian government for her eventual release. Her would-be fiancee gets out of the country to go to the Cannes film festival just before she leaves. She is not ultimately sure why she was arrested-- perhaps it was to stop the publishing of her book, whatever it contained, perhaps it was part of some unseen inter-governmental struggle. But she writes that her detention is similar to many other political detainees and writes to put pressure on the regime for change.

If one is looking to learn a lot about life in Iran, the subject of the book she had supposedly spent six years working on when she was arrested, you won't find it in these pages. I would like to read that book, but after another six years since captivity I suppose it is not forthcoming; though she supposedly had sent a draft to her mother before imprisonment. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen (Book Review #15 of 2016)

Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East

I previously had no idea who Jared Cohen was, but I found this book while prepping to work through a series of books on Islam, including ones looking at modern conflict and reform. Cohen's adventure in this book eventually led him to great success at the State Department and now at Google. There are some events in this book that I think are unbelievable-- how a person "just happens" to end up in Mosul in the middle of a war zone, avoids detention in Iran, and more tight spots that it seems a Jewish-American could easily have been kidnapped or badly mistreated. He intentionally wanted to sneak through the Syrian-Iraq border in the middle of the insurgency against the advisement of any local who can help him. Details about how he made sleeping arrangements, was able to wash his clothes, or get by with his worn out treads, etc. get lost between conversations with students and wild parties in Lebanon. (I also imagine much goes unsaid about those parties and what happens afterward, he knows too much not to have experienced things very personally.) Nonetheless, I found the work captivating; I admire his courage. I was intrigued also because I once also spent part of my formative years traveling and even lived with some college-aged youth in a Muslim context, watching them walk the line between cultural conservativism and their desire to drink and party. Children of Jihad is an excellent book to get a primer on the Arab Spring as the seeds were beginning to germinate during Cohen's travels. But it is worth keeping in mind that he does not speak Farsi or Arabic, he is reliant on English. He may have picked up some Syrian Arabic in his extensive time there, but anyone there could tell you that Syrian-Lebanese Arabic is different than Iraqi and others; if he was communicating on the street he was not learning anything universal. Thus, I am highly skeptical of many of the risks he takes with his own life given he has no language-- that language barrier is rarely mentioned, even in remote places.

Cohen is already no stranger to travel, having spent time in Africa and seeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. The Introduction begins in Beirut where there's a distinct dichotomy of teenagers who love American food, culture, and music but hate the government; and then there's Hezbollah. Cohen's travels lead him to note that extremism gains a foothold whenever an extremist group builds a school or a hospital, as is the case with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Wahabist outfits places like Pakistan. Much of the book, and Cohen's work, deals with youth and their increased access to unfiltered news via social media outlets; Cohen's work in this area was lauded both by Sec. Condi Rice and Clinton, and is what vaulted him to Google Ideas.

The first chapters chronicle his four months in Iran in 2004-2005. Cohen underestimates the difficulty of getting money transferred to him from the US around the restrictions, and lacks initial contacts until he runs into serious trouble and draws on his contacts from his Rhodes scholar studies at Oxford. Cohen is followed by minders and his hotel room is searched randomly and repeatedly. Within 24 hours of arrival, he is threatened with imprisonment. This brief incident actually breaks him emotionally, which makes it rather incredible that he decides to stay in the country and risk his own life and others he meets with. Nonetheless, through a university he is able to make student contacts and find the help he needs-- he avoids further detention despite coming into contact with dissenters, moonshiners, and more which would have been highly punishable (I will follow this review with Roxana Saberi's account of detention in Iran for supposedly lesser sins.)

Cohen documents the underground parties, illegal wares, and the boldness of Iranian students, particularly females. This is just prior to the "Green Revolution," which Cohen basically foretells. The students recall previous riots under Khameny, and the dashed hopes from false reformers they had previously supported; there is now "fear and loathing" under Ahmadinejad. Now with weak internet filters and satellite television, the whole country has access to different views from abroad. Iranian politics, like Iranian nationalism, is complicated and rooted in a long history of disappointment with the West. Iran's nuclear program a case in point, begun in the 1950s with US help under the Shah, it is still a source of pride and in 2005 a bargaining chip. Remarkably, at one point Cohen actually gets close to a classified facility. When hikers are detained in a country for doing far less, Cohen, without any aid of Farsi, seems either young and naive or foolhearty. Cohen also seeks out a synagogue in Iran, revealing and taking pride in his Jewishness. Eventually, he leaves and is denied a visa to return.

Back in Lebanon, Cohen makes friends with liberal Lebanese-- attending multi-ethnic beach parties and even gay bars. He chronicles parties with mingling Druze, Jews, and Muslims, noting that "most one night stands cross religious lines" as it's safer as there are no expectations afterwards. He also chronicles the history of the Maronite people, retells the history of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, and the eventually united movement against Syrian influence in Lebanon. He meets a lot of students who are either secretly or openly members of Hezbollah; something like 70% of Hezbollah students enroll in the sciences and most keep their membership secret. But Cohen notes that they are "radical by day but partying by night." Cohen writes that while Israel was criticized for its actions in Lebanon in 2006, it was Hezbollah who was "looking for a fight" and "willing to kill civilians" to get it. The author also visits the camps of displaced Palestinians. He meets some who fit the stereotypes of radicals and others who welcome him warmly as a human being-- even as a Jew.

Cohen moves onto Syria, where he initially spends a lot of time in cities with the secular youth; few wear a hijab and fewer wear a chadour. He senses change as youth have the internet and demand more, he essentially sees the Arab Spring before it begins. I thought Cohen did a good job giving a historical overview of Syria, describing its ruling minority Alawite population (16%), the historical practice of Christianity in the region who also give support to the Alawite government, and the Assad family history of wiping out tens of thousands of Sunnis. In this, Cohen chronicles the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria as well. Just like Lebanon and Iran, Cohen finds the gay parties less-than-hidden night life. Like Iran, Syrian intelligence picks him up and gives him a warning.

The author finds conservativism when he ventures out of town, spending time in Palmyra and Deir Ez-zor. This is sad to read in light of ISIS' wanton destruction of the area. Cohen again finds the influence of the satellite dish, even among Bedouins. (Interesting anecdote from this section: The West Wing Season 2 was banned from Syrian TV because of its favorability toward Israel?) The author is impressed by Syrian nationalism, the "we are all Syria" that helped eventually fuel the Arab Spring protests. Another commonality he finds in Eastern Syria in 2005 is that no one wants to go to Iraq, and no one will agree to take him there for any price. Why he feels compelled to go there during the height of the insurgency, by any means, is unclear.

Eventually, Cohen gets into Iraqi Kurdistan by skirting the area around the Turkish border. It is hard for me to believe he somehow navigates all of this completely in English. In Kurdistan, he witnesses children who are homeless but have learned to hack cellphones. One person gets a phone and they all figure out how to use it. Cohen details some of the history of Kurdisan, the 1975 Algiers Accords and Kurdish betrayal, their sense of betrayal worsened by the Bush Administration not helping after the 1991 uprising, the KDP and PUK civil war, and more. One interesting thing he notes is that televisions stay on all the time everywhere, through all events. Whether this is due to an increase in channels available after Saddam's fall or not is unclear. But Cohen finds Kurds to be the most democratic people in the Middle East.

While apparently trying to take a taxi to the Turkish border, his driver decides to go to Mosul to save a few bucks on gasoline while Cohen naps unawares. When he wakes up in the cab, he lays low, terrified, in the 120 degree car, afraid to leave and unsure what to do-- certain he is likely to be kidnapped at any moment. Cohen's driver eventually returns and they set out on the dangerous journey, his driver stopping for tea along the way as if there is no danger to his American passenger. Eventually, they end up at the border and Cohen practically runs to US soldiers guarding the border; they help him find a way out through the mess.

Thus ends Cohen's wild tale of adventure, youth, and technological awakening in the tense Middle East. "The monolithic characterization of 'us' versus 'them' fails to take into account humanity," he writes. He befriends people in Palestinian refugee camps, conservatives in rural Syria, and enjoyed hospitality in Iran and Lebanon. It's easy to see how he wanted to help spread American ideals of freedom and democracy through the still-underground channels of social media as a career. I give this book four stars out of five. It loses a star because I am curious about what is left unsaid, feel he took unnecessary risks with his life in Iran that would have eventually cost US taxpayer dollars, and I don't believe he did all he claims and enjoyed the conversations he claims without having any language other than English.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success by Michael D'Antonio (Book Review #14 of 2016)

Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success
"For the most part you can't respect people because most people are not worthy of respect" - Donald J. Trump (from the author's interviews with Trump in the book's postscript).

That quote alone sums up why I can neither vote for Trump nor understand why others are so enthusiastic about him. The title of the book sums it up well. Trump gets bored with his buildings, his toys, and his wives, and moves on to more. If he sells at a loss in moving on, so be it. He takes risks by taking on massive loans from multiple banks, leaning on politicians to give his properties favor, and cajoling or charming people to make the deal. D'Antonio paints him as someone who would have been comfortable among the "Gilded Age" barons of the 19th century, making names for themselves in New York City. He loves the spotlight, being called "the best," and the media seems to love giving it to him. It's about himself; he is supremely worthy of respect and no one else is worthy of praise unless they first--and consistently--praise him. Why else are his offices filled with framed pictures of every magazine cover he has ever been on? Why else does he use an election-night victory speech to hock Trump-label water, steaks, etc?

I would not have read this book if I had not felt it was imperative to understand more about who might be the next President. I call it the "Mein Kampf rule," you need to take a leader at his word and not be surprised later when his policies match up with all of his previous history and writings. Don't let the negative reviews deceive you, this book is about as even-handed a biography you will read-- it is straight-up boring in that regard. Much of it is simply culled from publicly-available information along with a few granted interviews with former Trump partners, a chauffeur, and even ex-wives. Trump gave the author a series of interviews until he discovered D'Antonio had spoken with someone who had wronged Trump back in 1993, in which case Trump ended the interviews. You have to admire D'Antonio's courage, Trump's last biographer was sued by the Donald for millions, only to have a court decide in favor of the First Amendment. Where the author presents facts that are on their face unpleasant, he tries to rationalize Trump's decisions or behaviors; bending over backward at times to be "fair." The book is depressing in that there are a lot of events from Trump's past that have been under-scrutinized by the media and Trump's political opponents. It's almost as if Americans don't bother to read about the people they're voting for...

What I did not realize before this book were the essentially faux political campaigns Donald has run since 1987. Politico didn't run with this story until February, 2016. Donald gave a well-attended Rotary Club speech then railing about how Japan was "killing us" in trade, and "laughing at us" in foreign policy the identical soundbyte he uses today. He spoke about we needed a strong leader in the White House to stand up to the Ayatollah in Iran, someone who really knew how to negotiate. (And this is when St. Ronald Reagan was at his nadir.) “If the right man doesn’t get into office you’re going to see a catastrophe in this country in the next four years like you’re never going to believe. And then you’ll be begging for the right man.” He took out a full-page ad in several newspapers arguing that other countries should pay for the protection and benefits we offer as allies, similar to his argument about the Mexican wall. All of this was part of a larger promotional campaign for his new book-- The Art of the Deal.

Trump actually did run briefly as a candidate in 1999 when he and others joined the Reform Party; Trump said Oprah Winfrey would be an ideal running mate and probably set forth more substantive policy ideas than he has thus far in his 2015-2016 run. Wealth tax on the rich, gays in the military, and other un-conservative ideas. Trump gave a speech in St. Louis probably almost as well-attended as his rally there in 2016, but it was part of a speaking tour of motivational speakers like Tony Robbins. Same stump speech, same script about weakness in foreign policy and trade. Al Gore allegedly asked for his endorsement later. Like 1987, 1999 was another way to promote a book-- The America We Deserve. D'Antonio has made that chapter available online here, I recommend reading so you can see how little has changed in 16 years:  (It also contains the only explicit error I noticed in the book, that Dick Vermiel was coach of the St. Louis Cardinals rather than the Rams.)

This book is lengthier than you might expect because the author has written it for audiences 30 years from now as well as today. He explains what reality television is, the history of real estate and fiscal crises in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, what Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was, etc. in order to provide context for Trump's decisions and fame. The conclusion I think D'Antonio wants you to draw is that Trump is simply a product of his time. Here's a summary:

Donald J. Trump is the grandson of German immigrants. His grandfather, Friederick Trumpf, initially joined the gold rush and dabbled in real estate speculation and opened a restaurant/brothel before returning to Germany and being expelled for tax and military service evasion. Back in New York, he began the family's interest in real estate. Donald's father, Fred, became a real estate magnate in Brooklyn and Queens; one of Donald's first jobs was to collect rent in his father's apartment blocks in Brooklyn. D'Antonio implies that the elder Trump was also a product of the Dale Carnegie 1920's era of salesmanship, traits that his children would later develop in their own generation. Fred Trump's big break came in entering a partnership with another magnate which positioned him to learn which tenants were delinquent and likely to be foreclosed on; this allowed him to buy up those properties cheaply and start his own empire. Complaints abounded about many landlords of the period, and Fred was no exception. What I did not realize was that Trump testified before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee in 1954 investigating how builders were enriching themselves off of FHA loans. President Eisenhower expressed his disgust at Trump and his ilk; the trial got less attention than it might have due to the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings happening at the same time. Trump was later sued by his tenants for his practices. Eventually, President Nixon's Justice Department sued Trump over racial discrimination in its renting policies. Trump consented to advertise vacancies in minority publications, and be more transparent about his practices. It was around this time that Donald J. came on board the family business.

Another striking quote from Donald is that when he looks in the mirror he is the same person he was in first grade. He means it as a form of authenticity, but it strikes me as a lack of personal development. He was sent to military school by 7th grade, in which tough love from drill instructors was combined with boys running amok with hazing and mob rule. Donald apparently experienced success in athletics, often referring to his abilities later in life. Despite this athletic skill, he received a medical deferment from the draft for his heel spurs.

By 1980, Trump was seen as sort of a Gatsby character in New York magazines; he was once named a Sexiest Man Alive. He turned his father's loan and connections from his father's business, particularly lawyer Don Cohn, into his own real estate success. D'Antonio interviews Trump's former chauffer, an ex-cop who speaks glowingly of Trump's loyalty and personal kindness. "He was a nice, considerate guy." Ivana, meanwhile, is a mystery. She claims to be a Swiss olympian, but no no record of athletic exploits or even her national origins exist-- only rumors. Trump's wealth is also mystery and rumor; at any time he has leveraged so much in debt that he admits to friends that his net worth is close to zero. He rails at Forbes and others when they make similar claims.

It was in the 1980s days of Savings & Loan scandals and Wall Street excess that Trump honed his crafts-- self-promotion and negotiation. Trump negotiates by staking out an outlandish or unreasonable position and then negotiating backwards to what he really wants. The author chronicles the construction of Trump Towers and the hiring of undocumented Polish workers. The local union, paid multiples of the Poles' earnings, supervised the workers who are sometimes paid sometimes not paid sometimes paid with vodka or threatened with deportation-- there was no shortage of supply. The building Trump demolished contained an Art Deco exterior that Trump pledged to donate to a museum, but were later destroyed-- possibly by accident. Trump invented the name of a media spokesman to make official statements to the press denying fault or assigning blame. The book has to delve into the real estate and construction markets of New York to make sense; this gets boring. Contracts for things like concrete have to be run through the mafia, and Trump has to navigate city hall as well as crime syndicates to get real estate deals done.

Trump Tower housed celebrities, which put Donald Trump in their midst and he increasingly became one himself, being featured on Robin Leach's show. There is little in the book about his personal family relationships, Donald doesn't talk about much and little is known other than what his ex-wives divulge or was picked up by other writers. His brother died as an alcoholic at age 42, something that apparently affects Trump's moderation in certain vices today. His friend, lawyer, and mentor Roy Cohn, a closeted homosexual, died of AIDS not long after. Most of Trump's friends in the book are currently deceased. Marla Maples apparently still speaks well of Donald, even after admitting their relationship was an ill-fated mistake. Her years-long seduction and the divorce settlement with Ivana-- in which Donald could not afford to pay the committeed pre-nuptial, which was updated and changed over the marriage-- is chronicled in detail. The Maples affair and Donald's business troubles with airlines and casinos eventually lead to tabloids taking a less-rosy view of Trump, to which he lashes out in his second book. Trump likes celebrity, but he doesn't like to be criticized as celebrities always are; he can dish it but he can't take it.

Trump and his lawyer-mentor Roy Cohn were always actively engaged in local politics from regulations to police. One of Trump's nemeses was three-time mayor Ed Koch. Trump would get vocal and take out full-page ads, write editorials, and others in New York newspapers when he felt the need to trumpet his successes or properties and sway the public toward reform-- such as calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty. The author provides details of New York's fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the book is almost about New York's societal and financial struggles as much as it is Donald Trump's.

The author addresses the claims that Trump is a racist, dating back to his father's company's housing discrimination of the 1970s, to which he was party. D'Antonio reaches a conclusion that Trump is better attributed with "insensitivity" rather than "outright bigotry." At the height of a crime epidemic in 1989, Trump took out full-page ads calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty for a group of black teens arrested and charged with rape in Central Park. While convicted, DNA evidence later exonerated them as the real culprit confessed. The author suggests it is possible to frame this in Trump's larger statements about "roving bandits" committing crimes; it is not actually targeted at any one race but rather a class of people. While there are anedoctes from the 1970s that Trump did not want blacks living in his buildings, it is more likely that he did not want low-income people who wouldn't pay their rent. Trump has employed plenty of minorities in his businesses and counted some as friends. But Trump, and his son Donald Jr., certainly believe their success is in part due to genetics. While Trump has railed against others for winning the "lucky sperm contest," his family believes they have God-given abilities that make them superior. There is an implicit racial bias in such statements. Trump's involvement, even leadership, in the "birther" movement is chronicled. Many see race baiting in that, although it is hard to make that charge stick exactly. More damning in the eyes of many were his comments about Mexican immigrants being "rapists" and other criminals, seemingly dumped on America by the Mexico that rejected them. Like Obama's birth certificate, Trump's comments do not stand up to scrutiny of the actual evidence and statistics.

While it's chronicled that Donald is really friendly with some of his employees, sometimes doling out cash and other favors, the only moment of true compassion revealed in the book is Trump's encounter with a boy dying from cancer. The boy was granted a wish from the Make A Wish Foundation to be fired by Trump like an apprentice contestant. Trump couldn't bring himself to do it, giving the boy money instead.

The book ends with the story of Trump's attempting to use a sort of eminent domain to build a world-class golf course in Scotland, for which he pulls out all the stops cajoling government officials. Trump faces a wave of grass-roots opposition from homeowners who do not want to be bought or forcibly removed from their land to build the golf course, eventually winning the public's favor. I would like to see the documentary You've Been Trumped made during this period. It seems the Scots are the only example of long-run collective defiance to Trump's desires, perhaps the Republican establishment can learn something from their battle.

D'Antonio concludes: "Life is a never-ending competition for Trump." This appears to be true throughout his life, "loser" is his ultimate put-down and fear for himself. This is why I would bet on Trump making a third party run if denied the GOP nomination. My concern is, should he win the presidency, how will Trump handle that need for competition with Congress, the Supreme Court, and world powers? D'Antonio is purely the biographer, he offers no grandstand predictions. Four stars out of five.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton (Book Review #13 of 2016)

Introducing Covenant Theology
I read this work after reading Chase Sears' excellent Heirs of Promise: The Church as the New Israel in Romans (Snapshots). Sears’ book focuses on Paul's arguments in Romans about Christians being on equal footing and the inheritors of promises to Israel. Horton's work gives an overview of covenant theology and some of the views of early Reformers. It also contains some sermonizing only tangentially related to covenant theology, some of which is good. Like Sears, Horton strains to avoid replacement theology in describing covenant. “(I)nstead of seeing the church as Israel's replacement, it regards it as Israel's fruition” (p. 131).

Horton not only comes out of the Reformed tradition but writes that Reformed theology is covenantal theology. "Reformed theology is guided by a concern to relate various biblical teachings to the concrete covenants in Scripture as their proper context" (p. 11). Citing Meredith Kline's groundbreaking work (The Treaty of the Great King) on recently uncovered Near Eastern suzerain treaties through archaeology, covenant theology is seemingly a new strain of thought that blossomed under the re-emergence of biblical theology--focusing on the arc and message of Scripture in its entirety while appreciating the historical context and authorship of each component. Yet, Horton quotes many old voices, so that what is "new" is really just new again.

Horton's work helped me as I was working through the Pentateuch to teach a Sunday school class. He helped connect and enlighten some of the covenantal theology I was finding describes in various commentaries I was using. My Western American mind cannot wrap itself around joyful submission to a king, which Horton claims archaeology has shown us to be so in the Near East. “The great king was the father adopting the captives he had liberated from oppression” (p. 25).

The book begins by noting that all of creation has a covenantal relationship with God that goes back to Genesis 1. "the biblical understanding of God's relationship to the world as covenantal is both a bridge that deism ignores and a bar to any confusion of the Creator with his creation...We are all bound together ethically in mutual responsibility...The kingdom of God does not advance through cultural achievement but through divine rescue. Covenant theology marvelously unites these crucial commitments without confusing them." (p. 15-17).

The author then walks us through how the Abrahamic and Sinaitic Covenants mirrored other covenants of the day with preamble, prologue, stipulations, witnesses, deposition, and blessings and curses. Horton sees a dichotomy between the two, and cites Paul to get there. “Even when we are talking about Israel in the Old Testament, it is not enough to talk about the covenant, as if there were only one covenantal arrangement that could account for all of the conditional and unconditional language. We will first look at the precise nature of the Sinai covenant (a covenant of law) and then the Abrahamic covenant (a covenant of promise)” (p. 37). Horton sees the Sinaitic as being temporary, Israel failed it and therefore have no claim on the land, no claim on the promises therein.

“Dispensationalism and the so-called two-covenant theory currently popular in mainline theology both treat the land promise as eternal and irrevocable, even to the extent that there can be a difference between Israel and the church in God's plan. Both interpretations, however, fail to recognize that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves qualify this national covenant in strictly conditional terms. This is the witness of the Law and the Prophets as well as Jesus and Paul, not to mention the radical Jewish communities of Second Temple Judaism. In fact, nobody in Jesus's day doubted that Israel was in exile as a direct consequence of their corporate disobedience to the terms of the Sinai pact” (p. 47). “As the Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes, neither Abraham nor Joshua regarded the earthly inheritance as ultimate. Instead, they looked through this arrangement to the original promise of a heavenly rest” (p. 101).

Ultimately, the Sinaitic covenant found its fulfillment in Jesus alone. But the  Adam-Noah-Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-David covenant is separate and ongoing. “The unilateral and utterly promissory character of the Abrahamic covenant yields to the conditional arrangement at Sinai even while the former is never—can never be—revoked by the oath-taking God (p. 50). “For the apostle to the Gentiles, the simplistic identification of the Old Testament with ‘law’ and the New Testament with ‘grace’ is unthinkable. God's covenant of grace, announced beforehand to Adam and inaugurated with Abraham, is precisely the same as to its content in both testaments” (p. 68).

Horton’s rejection of what he sees as the false “law” and “grace” dichotomy of OT versus NT seems problematic given that he early on quotes John 1:17 from which that dichotomy seems to come: “for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” But Horton rightly points out that the Law was always based on love and the heart rather than outward works like circumcision. Circumcision came after God’s initial covenant with Abraham, it was an outward sign of belonging to the covenant people. In Deuteronomy 6, God commanded Israel to love Him supremely and circumcise their hearts, and David reminds us in Psalm 51 that it is ultimately a contrite heart and true repentance in faith that God requires. “So it does not contradict the Abrahamic promise in the slightest. No one in the Old Testament obtained the inheritance by works, but only by promise. Yet Israel's national status in God's land depended on fulfillment of the treaty's terms” (p. 101).  

Horton deals briefly with various schools of eschatology-- amillennial, premillennial, postmillennial. Horton seems to be of the amillennial tradition, as he writes on page 120: “This view is usually called amillennialism (i.e,,"no-millennialism"), but this is a misnomer, at least for those of us who believe that the millennium is not denied but is in fact a current reality. What we reject is a literalistic interpretation of the thousand years, since the book of Revelation employs numbers symbolically.” He rejects the premillennial ideas prominent in contemporary American evangelical thought, noting it is the same error the Catholic church had made in seeing theirs as God’s kingdom on earth (P. 121-122):

“The body of Christ was not simply a heavenly, spiritual entity made visible in the world through Word, sacrament, discipline, worship, and fellowship in the covenant of grace, but a powerful worldly institution that served the interests of a particular earthly empire. This is the myth behind the Crusades, the Inquisition, and such American institutions as slavery and the doctrine of ‘manifest destiny,’ which gave narrative justification for the slaughter of American Indians. The American version of the Holy Roman Empire regarded the proliferation of Protestant hospitals, colleges, women's societies, and men's societies as signs of God's approval and, indeed, of the advancement of the kingdom of God...Ironically, even staunch premillennialists like Jerry Falwell sound a good deal like the postmillennialists of yesteryear. It is one thing to inconsistently act out a two-kingdoms position and quite another to act out a Christendom model because one has confused a particular culture with the kingdom of God.”

He further critiques the isolationist schools of Anabaptists and the Puritan thought of establishing God’s kingdom on earth which eventually led to the American Revolution. Pg. 127:

“But if Calvinists are not expected to endure tyranny, they are also not given liberty to take justice into their own hands or to exercise the judgment reserved for the King of Kings on the last day. Nor are they to seek to impose their distinctively Christian convictions on society through the kingdom of power, as both Rome and the radical Anabaptists tried to do. Rather, they are to pursue their dual citizenship according to the distinct policies proper to each kingdom. The Bible functions as the constitution for the covenant people, not for the secular state...Those who confuse civil righteousness with righteousness before God will be likely to confuse moral reform in society with the kingdom of God.”

It seems a fine line, and difficult to explain, how the church is the “fruition” of Israel and not its replacement. Grafted into the tree when Jews rejected Jesus, yet not a replacement. The promised land of the Abrahamic covenant no longer relates to a physical land, but to the place Christians dwell (Horton does a bad job of explaining this). Yahweh’s presence is the distinguishing mark between Israel and the nations (Exodus 19-20) and that can ony be said about Christians today. Covenantalists reject the idea that national Israel today has any special claim on the land. Yet, they agree that God is not done with the Jewish people; Romans 11:25-32 tells us that God will “pour out his Spirit on the Jewish people en masse” after the full number of non-Jews are brought into the fold (p. 132).

The author then looks at the sacraments and how the covenant is symbolized in them. I especially liked his thoughts on communion. He would decry the Southern Baptist churches I grew up in who often treat communion with the solemnity of a funeral rather than the celebration of a resurrection and forgiveness. P. 157:
“In all of this, therefore, two extremes are avoided: the sacerdotal error, which fails to distinguish the sign from the thing signified, and the memorialist error, which fails to recognize the union of the sign and signified.” P. 159-160:

“The Lord's Supper, then, is a covenant meal. That means that while it is first of all a ratification of God's pledge to us, it also ratifies our pledge to God and to each other...One cannot treat the Lord's Supper in an individualistic manner, but only as a covenant meal...The problem with the pietistic version of the Lord's Supper, therefore, is that in its obsession with the individual's inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other. Instead of viewing it first as God's saving action toward us and then as our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion, we are still trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion.”

I had honestly never pondered the term “excommunication” in light of the communion sacrament/ordinance. Too often, we hear pastors warning congregants to abstain from communion unless they can take it in a “worthy manner.” This suggests that Christ’s death and resurrection was not sufficient to cleanse us of our sins. Since communion is a communal activity, not participating is self-excommunication. Horton notes that this is not biblical: “(W)e do not have this right to excommunicate ourselves. If members are not being disciplined by the church, they are worthy communicants.” As such, it is no wonder why churches that focus on pietism don’t have communion more frequently.

Horton then pivots back to the covenant and laws. “Calvin (like the Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon) followed many church fathers in distinguishing three types of old covenant law: the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial. The moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is inscribed on our consciences by virtue of our being created in God's image (Romans 1-3)...the New Testament intensifies the requirements by emphasizing their internal significance...Paul's marvelous description of life in the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit is simply an elaboration of the inner significance of the moral law: loving God and neighbor...Jesus did not make the law easier, but more difficult (p. 178-179).

Jesus standards of Matthew 5 and 6 remove any idea that a person can be morally pure under the law; indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).

My favorite passage in the book notes that there are no Lone Ranger Christians, covenant is communal and not individual. P. 179:
“Where both Jewish and Christian covenant theology agree is that piety is directed to others—God and our neighbor, not chiefly toward ourselves. Many Christians today associate words like piety, devotion, spirituality, and Christian life with things a believer does in private. ‘How's your walk?’ is shorthand really for asking how well you are keeping up with your personal Bible reading, devotions, and other spiritual disciplines...a covenantal orientation places much more emphasis on what we do together, with each other and for each other... “The piety Calvin advocated was largely communal, churchly. There is much here about 'frequenting the sermons' and sharing in the Lord's supper, but very little about individual devotional reading of the Bible or daily routines of prayer, let alone group Bible studies or prayer groups."

Hence, our piety should be toward service. We were saved to do good works, not to be introverts. Loving our neighbor. A sermon by a local pastor also stuck with me. He mentioned that 15 years ago, when he was in college, he might have told someone to pursue godliness by starting a quiet time with God, but has changed on that individualistic component if you ask him today. “To be sure, our obedience is never complete. Inner renewal and renovation are always in process, falling short of that holiness of heart and life that we will enjoy in our glorification. Nevertheless, we have died with Christ and we have been raised with him in newness of life. These new covenant blessings cannot be reversed” (p. 191).

I felt that much of the book was only tangentially related to the specific ideas of covenant theology, but some of that which may not have been exactly connected were quite good. Other points were not explained quite as well. I will judge this book better after reading JI Packer’s Intro and various dispensationalist critiques of Horton’s work. For now, 3.5 stars out of 5.