God on Trial
by Peter Irons
I decided to take a break from my lengthy and slow going journey through Judt’s Postwar and check out God on Trial, a book on recent church-state separation cases that’s getting some good reviews. I was not disappointed; this is a fascinating book that deserves to be read by everyone interested in these cases.
Irons’s book takes a unique approach: rather than just describing these cases, he gets participants on both sides to give us some of their background and explain why they did what they did. It makes for interesting and illuminating reading. Irons discusses six cases: Mt Soledad cross case, the Texas football game prayer case, the two Ten Commandments cases from Kentucky and Texas, the California Pledge of Allegiance case, and the Dover ID case. He gets important participants in each trial to discuss their view of what happened. The one exception to this is the Dover trial, where the pro-ID person was not actually involved with the board until after the ID policy was in place. For each case, people on both sides of the issue run that gamut in terms of their explanations. We mostly get people who just felt the policy in question was wrong and that was the extent of it. There are some people who appear incredibly confused and didn’t appear to have thought about the issue at all. You also get instances of activists on either side, who are confident in their grasp of the history and law of the issue at hand. Predictably, you see two general opinions: the separationist side thinks religion shouldn’t be in government and the other side believes their freedom of religion and expression is being threatened. They aren’t all the fire-breathing atheists and Christian nation zealots that each side characterizes the other as on occasion.
Irons does an excellent job of describing each case, along with some interesting insights about them. The comments of participants in each case make for interesting reading on top of that. If you’re interested in these issues and want to have a good grasp of what actually happened and what the opposing sides believe, in their own words, I highly recommend checking out this book.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein
The fruit of my post asking for Science Fiction recommendations, I just finished up Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Filled with politics, humor, and irony, the book has made it on my (short) list of favorite novels.
I’m fairly sure most people reading this know what the book is about, so I’ll spare you that, except to say that it’s the story of a revolution on Earth’s penal colony on the Moon. The book is written from the point of view of one of the protagonists in a jarring grammatical style. It’s only noticeable for a couple of pages, then it becomes quite natural to read. Heinlein creates a fascinating world to place the story in; notably, polyandry is the norm and there really aren’t any laws of which to speak. The technological aspect of the book is also interesting, detailing the irreversible effects of life on the Moon, catapulting grain all the way to Earth, etc. The book rarely felt dated, a very impressive achievement. The book is very funny in spots; I kept cracking up when Mike, the sentient computer, kept calling another, less sophisticated, computer his “retarded child” and “idiot son.”
I told you I wasn’t good at fiction reviews. In any case, I really did like this book. It cracks my top five favorite books, but it didn’t have much to climb through. For the record, it’s currently 1984, Catcher in the Rye, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Clockwork Orange, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (in that order). I just edges out Fahrenheit 451, though perhaps because I haven’t read that book in such a long time.
by Kurt Vonnegut
I somehow missed reading anything by Kurt Vonnegut in high school. I’ve wanted to since then, but my fiction reading is rather lackluster (there’s too much real information to learn to be bothered fake stuff), so I only just now got around to it. Overall, it was a decent book, but nothing too amazing.
I’m really not going to attempt any sort of review of the book. Literary criticism is not my thing. Oh, Billy watches a war documentary backwards! That’s like saying war is backwards! I’m fucking brilliant! It was a good book, though I can’t say I was a huge fan of the style. It’s unique (to me, at least) and interesting, but it didn’t really hook me. It has its funny and powerful moments, but I’m just not much of a fiction guy, so I wonder if I can truly appreciate it.
Like I said, no real review here. It was a good book and a nice break from nonfiction. I’m still going to read TMiaHM, but after that it’ll be back to nonfiction full time, I believe.
All The Shah’s Men
by Stephen Kinzer
This book tells the story of America’s first coup: overthrowing Mohammed Mossedegh and a struggling democracy and putting into place the autocratic Shah of Iran. The coup has had an undeniable impact on the history of the Middle East and American foreign policy. The book lives up to its subject and provides an engrossing account of the coup and some of its aftermath.
The story of the coup revolves around a British oil company: the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, known today as British Petroleum. The company had full control of Iran’s vast oil reserves and gave little back to the people of Iran. The Iranian workers used for lower level positions were housed in squalid ghettos and paid next to nothing. Little of the profit was paid to the country’s government. Mossedegh’s time in office was consumed with one issue: nationalizing AIOC. The British were bound and determined not to let this happen; they refused any compromise and displayed staggering arrogance and contempt for Iran. Despite this being the story of America’s coup, the fault lays to a large degree at the feet of the British. The Truman administration attempted to bring Mossedegh and Britain to a compromise numerous times, but it was rejected time and time again. The British, in turn, began (fruitlessly) pushing Truman’s administration to help them subvert Mossedegh’s government. During the conflict all British residents of Iran were expelled and aspirations of doing such a thing themselves ended. The Truman administration then left office and Eisenhower was elected. A much more aggressively anti-communist administration than Truman’s, they (particularly the Dulles brothers) signed on to Britain’s plans and carried out the coup.
The story is an interesting and complex one, far more so than the brief summary above. Kinzer makes connections to our current unpopularity in the Middle East, which is undoubtedly correct. Guessing what would have happened if the coup had not been carried out is difficult, but it would certainly be a different world. Would Iran be a stable democracy? Would they be friendly to the U.S.? We’ll never know.
Why I Am Not a Christian
by Bertrand Russell
I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, but I’ve always put it on the back burner in favor of other books. Not to my surprise, I found it to be an interesting and enlightening read, both for its arguments against certain doctrines held today and as a window into the social and religious opinions of the mid-twentieth century.
The book opens with the essay from which the book draws its title. I’d already read this and defended it on this blog. It’s still a good read and the “where did God come from” response to the various first cause arguments for a god has a timeless force to it. As I said above, the book is also interesting for its commentary on mid-twentieth century social beliefs. Russell promotes and defends birth control quite vigorously. This seems odd in the current times, when birth control is ubiquitous and generally uncontroversial. Some of Russell’s views on child rearing and sexual practices among adults, while undoubtedly radical at the time, seem pedestrian. Some of those views haven’t aged well (particularly the child rearing ones), but others seem fairly normal. It’s certainly an indication of how far we’ve come.
The book concludes with an account of Russell’s appointment to a professorship at City College of New York and the subsequent controversy and dismissal. The judge’s ruling in the case is unfathomably stupid and it’s hard to imagine a more paradigmatic case of judicial activism. One wonders if the same kind of controversy could be summoned today; it seems doubtful, but you never know what would happen if an American university attempt to give, say, Richard Dawkins a position. In sum, the book is well worth a read and an interesting look at the mind of an amazing human being.
The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins
by Burton Mack
Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel is a look at the world of Q and its impact on the origin of Christianity. Mack recounts the history leading up to Q’s “discovery,” its content and history of composition, the peculiarities of the group responsible for it, and finally the necessary revisions to our understanding of Christian origins.
If you’re not familiar with Burton Mack, he’s Biblical scholar who taught at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (long since retired, I believe). He’s definitely on the liberal edge of things and he brings a distinctly left-wing sensibility to his scholarship. In this book, he gives us a portrait of Jesus as a Cynic-like sage, not at all like the traditional portrait in the gospels. Of course, a Jesus figure that isn’t like the one portrayed in the gospels is nothing new. Biblical scholars have been coming up with historical Jesuses for at least a century. Schweitzer’s apocalyptic prophet, Crossan’s social revolutionary, etc. Q presents us with a new picture: a Cynic sage who bears no relation to the messiah of the gospels.
Q seems like something that should appeal to so-called “red-letter Christians,” those who try to emphasize what Jesus said, rather than the theology of the New Testament as a whole. Q is such a task on a radical scale. Taking the simple observation that Luke and Matthew share many sayings, scholars deduce a sayings source must have existed prior to composition of those two gospels. Pulling the sayings out of their gospel context puts them in a whole new light. Layers of composition emerge (that I find a little sketchier than the rest of this, but I’m hardly an expert) and we can pare down the sayings until we have an early core. This is where Jesus looks rather different than in the gospels. The line of authority from Jesus to the apostles to the early church is completely severed. Jesus appears to be a simple teacher of Cynic-like wisdom. Is this the actual historical Jesus? I must say, it’s the most convincing picture I’ve seen. The making of the rest of Christian mythology is traced through additions to Q and then its absorption into the other gospels.
Mack regards the revelation of Q to be earth-shattering. It’s hard to disagree that this is a massive revision of the gospel histories. Mack also wonders if Q will prompt a rethinking of our society’s myths (and wanders into some rather leftist social theory). Fourteen years later, we have good answer: nope. Q is still a relatively unknown theory of Biblical scholarship. Partially, this is because we don’t actually have a copy of Q. The Gospel of Thomas gives a glimpse of the genre, but we have no concrete evidence of Q, just the arguments of scholars based on careful readings of the gospels. Until we discover a copy, Q will have a limited impact. That’s too bad, because Q is an interesting document and Mack’s book does an excellent job of laying out just how important it may be.
Them: Adventures with Extremists
by Jon Ronson
This is another book about the weird people in our world, written before The Men Who Stare at Goats. Ronson chronicles his travels with extremists of various stripes: Islamic fundamentalists, David Icke, Alex Jones, the KKK, the Weavers, etc. A main theme throughout the book is Ronson’s search for the infamous Bilderberg group, who allegedly control the world from a small room.
The book is quite funny, considering the topics Ronson explores. Omar Bakri, the British Islamic fundamentalist Ronson followed for over a year, comes off as jovial clown. At times it seems like an act, but he nonetheless appears quite clueless. Others in the book come off sympathetically, like the Weavers. They certainly had (Randy seems to have become less extreme since Ruby Ridge) some insane ideas about the world, but Ruby Ridge was undoubtedly a tragedy and an overreach on the part of our government. On the more amusing side of things, David Icke is profiled and the question of whether the lizards who he believes control the world are actually Jews is raised. I have to say that I think Icke actually means 12-foot shape-shifting lizards from another dimension, as he insists. I realize code words are part and parcel of the conspiracy world, but that one really seems like a stretch. Most amusing is probably Alex Jones, the talk show host from Texas, whom I’ve mentioned before. His passionate and animated paranoia makes for entertaining reading. Jones’s and Ronson’s differing interpretations of the Bohemian Grove ceremony they both witnessed really illuminates how the extremists’ views of the world differ from more mainstream views. Ronson takes the “Cremation of Care” ceremony as a rather adolescent ritual symbolizing the discarding of worldly cares during a weekend retreat. Jones sees it as a satanic ritual centered around mock child sacrifice. One can certainly see where Jones’s view comes from, but it takes a lot of paranoia to come up with it.
As with the last book of Ronson’s I read, this one is well written and fun to read. Ronson does an admirable job not only chronicling the bizarre beliefs and antics of the people he profiles, but also humanizing them. Their beliefs do not deserve our sympathy, but it’s worthwhile to remember that they’re really not much different from the rest of us. They may have crazy ideas about the world, but we shouldn’t overestimate how dangerous they are.
The Men who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson
This is a bizarre book. Well, maybe the book isn’t so bizarre, but the subject matter certainly is. Ronson chronicles his search for those who can, allegedly, kill goats just by staring at them. In the military. Seriously. The goat story always lingers, but his search takes him into somewhat darker territory as he probes the stranger side of our military.
The story goes that after Vietnam, a few military types are so traumatized that they decide to find a new way of dealing with conflict in the world. They find that new way in the burgeoning New Age movement. You get the strange combination of the military and spiritualist ideas like remote viewing and you end up with a psychic spies unit, which was unmasked in the mid-90s. It’s weirder than that, however, as there are also stories that some people are able to kill animals with only their minds. Ultimately, Ronson fails to find much in the way of evidence for such events; a couple people know of it and believe it and he meets a man who claims to have done it himself, but there appear to be no eyewitnesses nor any sort of evidence. A curious moment has Ronson watching a videotape made by the man reputed to accomplished the feat attempting to influence a hamster by staring at it. It doesn’t die, but it acts “strange” at one point, during a two-day staring marathon. The same guy also has a picture of a goat being attacked by some random military guy, if you didn’t think the hamster thing was weird enough. Ronson goes from there into less paranormal military tactics: blasting Barney and Metallica at prisoners in Iraq, MK-ULTRA, subliminal messages, etc. Much of this appears to be only vaguely connected to the New Age origins of the psychic spy unit, though Ronson and his interviewees seem to believe in a stronger link.
Ronson makes the story both entertaining and frightening. I was slack-jawed through nearly the first half of the book, until Ronson delved into saner, but darker, aspects of his search. It’s hard to know what to think about it all. Ronson doesn’t really attempt to verify if some of the weirder claims are true, which would probably have made for a less interesting book. You’re left looking at the claims of some of his subjects warily, but at the very least there are lot of people in (or formerly in) important positions who believe some really weird shit. That’s perhaps more frightening than the possibility that we can “influence livestock from afar.”
The Blind Watchmaker
by Richard Dawkins
I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages. Since I became an atheist, really. It was recommended to me on Daily Kos after I made a remark about the origin of life being impossibly improbable. I was corrected and I then looked into other information, and here I am. That was at least three years ago or so and the book has been on my list ever since. I just hadn’t ever gotten around to reading it.
I don’t really have much to say about it. It’s a straightforward argument for natural selection as the explanation for adaptive complexity. Perhaps I shouldn’t say straightforward. Dawkins makes plenty of very clever arguments to support his point and does an excellent job of making his point. Dawkins is well known for his eloquence as a writer and this book doesn’t disappoint; there are passages where you just have to marvel at how perfectly he put something. There were those moments in The God Delusion, but he’s clearly better at writing about science than religion. Strangely enough, you would almost be tempted to think Dawkins has a fairly conciliatory attitude towards religion from this book. He uses Biblical analogies and examples somewhat frequently and not disparagingly. Maybe it’s just that I’ve come to associate exceedingly strident anti-religious beliefs with him and he deserves a little more credit. Then again, I say that about the book that has his most famous quote among creationists: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
The above statement is quite obviously true, though. It’s also quite obviously not a statement that you have to be an atheist to believe in evolution, but that evolution doesn’t require the involvement of the supernatural. People are free to believe in whatever superfluous entities they wish. In any case, all this discussion of religion is not on topic. The book is a well written and readable defense of evolution. It’s worth a read, especially if you find yourself a little skeptical about evolution building some of the more amazing organisms in our world.
Good Intentions Corrupted: The Oil for Food Scandal And the Threat to the U.N.
by Mark Califano and Jeffrey Meyer
After reading this book, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to read the entire Independent Inquiry Committee report. This book is fairly brief summary of the findings of the U.N.’s independent investigation into the oil-for-food scandal. In it’s roughly 250 pages you get a picture of what has to be the worst management and oversight job ever. You’re confronted with tales of missed opportunities, corruption, and negligence on page after page.
It’s hard to be surprised that Iraq attempted to circumvent the sanctions and corrupt the oil-for-food program. We all know the horror stories of that regime and corruption is nothing next to them. They seemed to have tried what you’d expect: bribe top officials (i.e. the Secretary General, though they appear to have failed), “surcharges” on oil contracts, kickbacks on humanitarian contracts, smuggled oil, sketchy oil allocations to important people, etc. Iraq succeeded at all of those and it’s not surprising. However, the scale at which they succeeded and the scale of the failure of oversight is remarkable. Top officials literally refused to do their job. Officials like Benon Sevan, the director of the program. He was receiving oil allocations from Iraq on the side, while essentially refusing to investigate charges of kickbacks and illegal surcharges. It’s absolutely pathetic. The 661 committee, the committee set up to oversee the program (notable members being France, Russia, and the U.S.), failed miserably as well. Russia stonewalled most oversight and restrictions on Iraq, probably due to state energy companies being the biggest buyers of Iraqi oil. The U.S. and Britain made some noises, but even they were more concerned with looking out for “dual-use” goods than actually overseeing the program. Describing one remarkable incident, the authors detail how the U.S. seems to have essentially turned a blind eye to oil smuggling by Iraq to Jordan.
As I said, failure at every level. The book wraps up with a list of recommendations, some of which, according to Paul Volcker’s introduction, have been implemented. Several key players in the scandal have been indicted. So, there is hope. Califano and Meyer make an admittedly dry subject interesting and easy to understand, thankfully. The book moves quickly enough and has just the right amount of detail to allow to understand the issues, but not get lost in them. No small task considering the subject matter. This is for all intents the definitive account of the oil-for-food scandal. It’s not pretty and it presents great challenges to the U.N. I can only hope they’re met.