23 November 2013
I will brief because the book is brief. And largely lacking in substance. Fraser attempts here to illustrate Quebec's dynamic economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s by looking at key entrepreneurs and businessmen in the province. With lots of journalistic fluff and little economic context, the book is largely a breathless "who's who" compendium from 1987. Which makes it of little value here in the 2000s. The fault is largely mine, I suppose, for expecting more. I think an excellent book could be written about the French Canadian economic transformation, about the dynamic of multiculturalism and plural national histories in Canada, and about subregional economic transformations in the era of international liberalism. I am certain excellent books have been written about each of these topics in fact. This book is not it though.
I have long been fascinated with conspiracies. For the longest time, whenever visiting a bookstore I would go immediately to find conspiracy theory books and related material; they were the sort of books I wanted to peruse but never actually purchase. I was just so fascinated by how people wove complex narratives based on little information and enormous speculative insinuation. In the intervening years, however, I have been unsettled by several friends and acquaintances confiding in me their beliefs in various conspiracies: the moon landings were faked, 9/11 was an inside job, Obama is not an American, etc. These are educated, well-informed, and generally rational individuals. What is the attraction of conspiracy theories for such people? On that point, why do I found them so fascinating too?
This book was my attempt to understand better the historical and psychological context for conspiracies. On the whole, I was satisfied on that count despite the author's moderately condescending tone, weak writing, and loose thesis. Conspiracies are just that interesting for me I guess.
Aaronovitch basically does a grand overview of some of the more prevalent conspiracies in Western culture for the last 100 years--Jewish cabals running the world, Soviet staged trials, JFK, Diana, 9/11, Obama, as well as a smattering of small scale, but nonetheless interesting, intrigues. The summary is helpful, especially the attempts to delve into the backgrounds of chief conspiracy promoters. Beyond the individual promoters, the degree to which various theories are upheld by the general public often seems to be a function of how senseless the underlying reality is. Senator McCarthy actually encapsulates this sentiment well while trying to explain the basis for his belief in a vast communist conspiracy within the U.S. government:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man (p. 118, emphasis added).If we cannot explain something, then there must nonetheless be a reason. We humans love to have a reason for everything; it empowers us and helps us feel in control in the world. Great change can shake our preconceived notions and paradigms so strongly that instead of rebuilding our worldview, we insist it never crashed in the first place. Only a massive conspiracy could enable our presidents to be killed or our cities to be attacked, we tell ourselves. Our own hubris did not lead us to war, it was surely the conniving [fill in the blank of someone/something that is not like you] who planned all this, we say assuringly.
And herein the danger of conspiracy theories is clear--conspiracies enable a flight from reality and responsibility. We wash our hands of the unknowable and escape from the difficult work of reexamining the world in light of new information. Conspiracy theories beget arrogance. And this arrogance begets history's worst moments. The Jews--inexplicably at the center of many of these theories--can certainly attest to this.
I wish Aaronovitch could have made this point more explicit throughout. The last chapter was very helpful with some academic references that probably would have been better in the beginning as context. And condescending snark never helps establish credibility. Because we all have our own forms of conspiracy theories--we hold fast to our own soul's version of the truth as we struggle to organize the world around us. Humility, as we gaze into the unknown together, is most appropriate.
17 November 2013
Women have had it rough in religion. Historically, they have been treated as second class citizens, as the Other, often completely ignored in history. Even today, women remain a distinct class in many cultures subject to bizarre and arcane proscriptions about their behavior and responsibilities. Christians are no different in this regard, and indeed, the Bible has some of the most disturbing narratives and regulations for women's behavior of any of the holy books. Why?
A faithful Christian and feminist (if that word has not become too besmirched in religious circles), Evans tries to tackle this issue head on. For one year, she lives the Bible's more unique commands directed to women in order to reclaim her religion for herself and her sex. Humorous and disturbing at the same time, the book points out the Bible's complex laws on sexual purity, subservience to husbands (and all men), responsibilities in the home, and gender expectations in general. True to A.A. Jacobs form, Evans adheres to various principles each month and explores the principles deeper through meetings with orthodox Christians who emphasize those principles.
Some may feel that the book's title overstates Evans' commitment to biblical living; after all, she does not actually follow every law in the Bible for the whole year. But I think that is part of the author's point; no one can live in adherence to all of the Bible's statutes. Some of the reasons are obvious--it is likely illegal to sprinkle sacrificial animal blood over a congregation for example and definitely illegal to stone fornicators (at least in the United States). But even going beyond the easy Old Testament targets, the Bible is full of contradictions and conflicts that force us to wrestle with a multitude of perspectives. Does Christ bring peace or conflict? Is family the foundation of religious life or a distraction? And most relevantly to this book, are women equal in the sight of God or subservient to men?
Which brings me to the concept of cafeteria Christianity. All of us in all our denominations and in all of history pick and choose which concepts and principles we emphasize. The way we live our Christian lives reflects more about ourselves than it does about our religion. (See here for an excellent discussion of this principle as it applies to the LDS church.)
So this brings us back to Evans' book. This book is an exploration of what is possible for women within Christianity. And the results are encouraging, however frustrating current paradigms may be. Evans shows, for example, how Proverbs 31 is an empowering chapter honoring potential rather than a rigid list of cultural expectations. Stories of Ruth, Christ's disciples, or Deborah are underutilized of women working in non-traditional settings. And verses often used to silence women and reinforce existing cultural stereotypes can be historically contextualized and contained.
But I confess, it is a tough sell. The Bible is so full of patriarchy, seemingly endorsed by God, that it will take a significant cultural movement to quell the misogyny and false perceptions that abound within Christianity. I applaud Evans' approach and am encouraged by the success this book has had. But it will take more, a lot more, to rethink gender identity and women's roles within our religion.
03 September 2013
It is hard to write a book explaining contemporary events using history as your guide. Sure you may be able to explain today's problems, but can you explain tomorrow's issues too? Somehow, Fromkin accomplishes this feat in his remarkable overview of the modern Middle East. I read this book several months ago, before the Syrian conflict became the leading news story, in an attempt to understand better the issues surrounding the Arab spring. And indeed, I was not disappointed. I came away with a much greater appreciation for the region's complexities, history, and cultures. A masterful writer who is not afraid to provide details when warranted, Fromkin had definitively demonstrated how understanding history is the first step in avoiding history's mistakes.
For Fromkin, the Middle East can still be classified as post-Ottoman Empire. At first glance, tying the Arab Spring, Wahhabism, Arabian monarchs, and nearly every other characteristic to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I may seem like a stretch. Consider though that the Empire had been around for nearly 500 years; its collapse, the resulting power vacuum, and the plotting schemes of European policymakers in the critical early years were powerful forces but could not completely overhaul those centuries of history. The result is a curious mix of contemporary political structures, arbitrarily drawn geopolitical lines, deep-seated sectarian distrust, and utter confusion on the part of European and American policymakers.
I fear I cannot give the book's narrative arc justice here. Fromkin takes great care to provide ample details and nuance; simplifying his argument without providing the details removes much of its persuasive power. Let me touch on a few points though that struck me as particularly poignant though:
- Anti-semitism was a powerful force in geopolitical affairs, and Western leaders were always quick to find Jewish conspiracies where there were none. According to Fromkin, British and European leaders believed a powerful Jewish cabal was actually controlling the Turkish regime and the German kaiser and sought to bring Jews to the Allied side of the conflict by issuing the Balfour Declaration. All sides appeared to distrust the Jews at every stage, leading them to overstate the group's influence and take drastic, unnecessary, and even dangerous countermeasures. Fearing conspiracies begets poor policy.
- Traveling a region does not make one an expert. From Lawrence of Arabia to Mark Sykes to Sir Henry McMahon, British policymakers thought they could remake the world after striking some key friendships and visiting important regions. Secret deals to create new states where none had existed, to delineate regions of influence, and to set up certain groups over others were rampant and the results disastrous. The hubris of these and other policymakers during and after World War I is shocking, until one considers that Western countries have been doing thusly for nearly 300 years. And we still continue to do so.
- Democracies rarely, if ever, have the resolve to see grand schemes through to their conclusion. Wilson wanted a war to end all wars and a League of Nations for collective global security. Arthur Balfour and David Lloyd George wanted a united Jewish state with the backing of all its Arab neighbors. And European and American leaders at the end of World War I wanted a neat little map of self-sustaining countries where the Ottoman Empire once was. Yet when push came to shove, domestic issues, budgetary concerns, weariness, and the passing of leaders overcame these initial aspirations. Democracies are well-attuned to short- to medium-term issues that impact their citizens on a daily basis; nation-building, not so much.
It is easy to get discouraged after reading this book--how do we solve foreign policy challenges that are rooted in 500 years of inertial history and egregious policy errors that were frozen in time by peace settlements at the end of horrific wars? Fromkin offers some hope, however, by providing context, a call for humility, and encouraging greater resolve to see commitments through to the end. The peace agreement ending World War I did none of these things; let us hope we have learned our lesson since then.
16 August 2013
On a whim during a recent vacation with my extended family, I picked up this quick and enjoyable little book. It's a story about a Native American family as told from the perspective of the dying grandfather of the clan as he struggles to make sense of his life's purpose at the twilight of his life. There is plenty of fun action, short bursts of philosophical discussion as the Grandfather pleads with God (whom he addresses as "Grandfather"), and a climactic ending that is enjoyable, albeit predictable.
Coming in at 116 short, double-spaced pages, this book probably qualifies more as a short story. But still, it is a fun read, especially for young children, and provides some good basic philosophical discussion without too much philosophical dependency on any religious narrative. Although written by a Mormon and published by an LDS publisher, there is no real Mormon angle to the story, except that its themes of agency, family, and faith will easily register within the community.
All in all, a fun quick read.
28 July 2013
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001 [Originally published 1963]. 592 pp., $16.95.
Few books are as likely to stoke a heated debate among a group of women as this book; few books are as likely to engender yawns and blank stares among a group of men as this book. That dichotomy is all the more perplexing after reading this book and realizing just how fundamentally this book has altered the world of men as it has of women. Perhaps Friedan simply was in the right place at the right time and the feminist movement would have come forth regardless. But the book's compelling narrative is extremely persuasive and very well-written, and it is no wonder that women rallied to her cause when she came forward in the 1960s. I am just sorry it has taken me so long to read this seminal work of the feminist movement.
The premise and title of this book is really beautiful in its simplicity: what is it about modern society that engenders a feeling of malaise, uneasiness, and unhappiness among many upper and middle class women? Post-war standards of living were higher than at any other point in history, the horrors of war and separation from loved ones was over, unemployment was down, and home ownership was up. The American dream was achieved. Except that many women were not sure that was the dream they wanted. The Feminine Mystique, is as Friedan says the name she found,
for whatever it was the kept us from using our rights, that made us feel guilty about anything we did not as our husbands' wives, our children's mothers, but as people ourselves (p. 65).
Undertaking an analysis of such a broad-sweeping social malaise is audacious to say the least. But Friedan accomplishes an incredible amount in 500 pages, surveying historical, cultural, and demographic forces that have undermined female independence and achievement. Friedan is not afraid to directly confront Freudian psychology, functionalism within the social sciences, and capitalism's marketing tactics to argue that the true potential for millions of women has been curtailed, contained, and constrained, with women forced to swallow their self-doubt and frustration silently. For Friedan, these forces are particularly pernicious in the 1950s and early 1960s when post-War America was somehow seeking to return to a falsely conceived adolescence of familial innocence.
For me, this book really helps contextualize de Beuvoir's The Second Sex, especially her framing of transcendence versus immanence. The fundamental question, I think, at the heart of first wave feminism is, "Are women entitled and permitted to create, transform, and influence the world in ways other than being a mother and a wife?" The fact that most people today would say "Yes, obviously!" to this question is a testament to Friedan's compelling argument. And the fact that some would pause, want to caveat their answer, or say "No!" outright means that the feminist movement still has a legitimate foundation to seek greater change in society.
With broad-sweeping characterizations, there will be collateral damage. From my perspective, that is this book's fatal flaw. It may have been first wave feminism's fundamental undoing too. Friedan's revolutionary call for women to fulfill their potential, to become educated, to contribute to society in meaningful ways, and to throw off the shackles of culture and patriarchy unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) presumes that all women are unfulfilled as mothers, caretakers, and homemakers. And of course, many women have reacted strongly to such an accusation, feeling that their time and energies have been well spent in the home. How can the author presume to know what does and does not make women feel happy and transcendent?
Friedan does not concede this point easily though, and suggests that homemaking and childrearing may be simpler, easier, and less conflict-ridden than tackling the world head on individually. But that does not mean that it is better. Attempts to complicate house cleaning, burn off extra energy through innovative exercise, and live through the success of children and husbands are poor substitutes for engaging head on in with the world as an independent being.
For me, even 60 years after its original publication, this book still feels revolutionary and incredibly relevant. And there are broad implications too, not just for women. Race, nationality, gender, socioeconomic class: all of these have been used as limiting categories by those with power to suppress, repress, constrain, and contain. But are any of them valid indicators of anything? Biology, place of birth, and parental heritage are all external to the individual, so I feel these are weak measures of intrinsic worth or identity. Society causes more harm than good with these broad categorizations, and I feel we are collectively (albeit slowly and painfully) coming to recognize this.
Not everyone will agree with Friedan's assessment of the problem or the remedy for contemporary women. (Indeed, it was one author's incredibly angry response to Friedan that put this book on my reading list in the first place.) But I feel that Friedan is pointing us to one noble goal: human striving for a better world, for greater opportunities, and for less judgment for those who do not fit our prejudicial mold.
16 July 2013
Every child should read H.G. Wells when they are young and impressionable. I myself remember first reading this book one rainy summer night in my attic room when I was 11 or so, huddled under my blankets and imagining an alien invasion that could not be stopped by any human weapon. It was thrilling and evocative stuff. Having a free afternoon recently, I revisited this classic novel and found myself smiling and remembering my own childhood through the pages of the book. I hope modern technology and green screen special effects don't destroy the magic of such sci-fi classics for younger generations. Although our scientific understanding and cinematic visualizations have expanded since the book was published, there is still an important part of imagination that is best explored by this sort of minimalist, breathtaking narrative.
The book is almost stunning in its simplicity. No character development whatsoever, no complex psychological plot underpinning the narrative, little foreboding, and no flowery language to fill the blank spaces. Heck, we never even learn the main protagonists name. I guess you could say this book is the exact opposite of Moby Dick in nearly every constructed aspect.
Almost like a newspaper report, we are treated to a whirling tale of an alien invasion for which England is entirely unprepared and against which there is no human defense. It is exactly that sense of hopelessness, of futility that drives this novel. What does humanity look like when it honestly confronts hopelessness, despair? How do individuals respond to trauma? Mass hysteria, irrational utopianism, religious self-righteousness all appear in the novel as probable but ultimately futile responses. The narrator certainly has no prescription or overall moral lesson to convey from the invasion. Rather, he tells us like it is, with all the ugliness and humanity. I was particularly struck by the narrator's account of being trapped in a house with a curate for two weeks; unlike lauded heroes in more modern science fiction, there is no noble attempt to save or rescue. Each man and woman is simply out to save his own skin. And none of those efforts really work.
If that all sounds hopeless, that's because our culture has trained us to believe that every challenge can be overcome through human ingenuity and grit. Call it what you want--capitalism, the protestant ethic, faith, the id/superego, humanism--but I and many of those in the United States and the west are driven. We are driven to progress, to do more, to be more, to try more. It is hard for us to imagine a problem that cannot be resolved, eventually. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed this book so much: it reminds me that there is so much about which I don't know and which thus leaves me vulnerable. And that I should be more afraid of that reality.
This is far too much analysis for a 100 page science fiction book from over 100 years ago and probably reflects more about my current philosophical state of mind than the book itself. Suffice it to say, I highly recommend this book. Especially on stormy nights in attic rooms under a blanket with a flashlight.