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Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Saints and Sinners: Walker Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Anton LaVey, Will Campbell , Matthew Fox by Lawrence Wright

Wright has written a very personal examination of some religious trends in the United States. Fundamentalism, or Primitivism as some would call it, is certainly on the rise, a new "Great Awakening", if you will. Lack of an established religion, many have argued, creates the perfect medium for the development of cults and other fringe beliefs. It has also become " a patchwork of mysticism, hypocrisy, hucksterism, and violence, with an occasional dash of sexual perversity."

This book is not written from the perspective of a non-believer, rather as one who believes in the power of faith. “ I have seen it in prisons and ghettos as well as in boardrooms and chambers of power. I have often found myself admiring people who held views I strongly disagreed with—for instance, the Black Muslims, who believe that I am a devil because of my race but who have generated the moral power to bring order and dignity to prison life. Where addiction rules or where social values have collapsed, it is usually only those rare persons of faith who can survive and sometimes even transform their seemingly hopeless environments.”

Nevertheless, he takes a rather perverse look at the symbols of both religious and non-religious icons such as Jimmy Swaggart and Madolyn Murray O’Hair.

Wright first examines the tragic case of Walker Railey, his minister in the large Methodist Church in Dallas, a man who engaged in an affair with a member of his congregation and then probably killed his wife. Transformative faith?

None of these people is particularly nice even as they held considerable power over their faithful but each was engaged in his own kind of spiritual struggle and the author’s personal struggle. “The lesson I had drawn from Walker Railey’s life so far was that good and evil are not so far apart either. They were both inside Railey, warring for control—as they were in me as well. Whether or not Railey was guilty, he had caused me to look into myself and see the lurking dangers of my own personality.”

I must admit to being one of the gleeful watching the downfall of Jimmy Swaggart. I had watched his TV show on several occasions, mesmerized by his excessive sanctimony while attempting to strip his viewers of their bank accounts. I’ve always speculated that people specialize in their deficiencies so having him self-destruct in the arms of a cheap hooker virtually in plain sight suggesting his perverse desire to be caught was gratifying. “Sex is the great leveler, the shadowy companion of the transcendent spirit.” Swaggart had equally gleefully brought about the collapse of Martin Gorman, pastor of one of those mammoth churches. “Swaggart accused Gorman of having had numerous adulterous affairs. Although Jim Bakker [who was to have his own spectacular fall] took Gorman’s side and actually pleaded for his forgiveness, Swaggart muscled Gorman’s show off the PTL Network. The Gorman empire, such as it was, quickly collapsed. His church, his television stations, and especially his reputation were lost to him. He was reduced to preaching in a drafty warehouse in Metairie to a congregation of folding chairs. There he began to consider his revenge.” Sordid

Moving along to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who sued the author, interestingly. She the most accomplished of the self-promoting, she made a fetish out of trying to protect everyone from every hint of religiosity. In the end she became nothing but an embarrassing spectacle, in my view, although one has to credit her with some important victories like that of O’Hair v Hill which prevented Texas (of course) from trying to institute a religious test for office contrary to the Constitution.

Ironically, the least interesting of the characterizations is that of Anton LaVey, the supposed father of Satanism. He just tried too hard to be something he clearly was not: “the evilest man in the world.” Having been a circus performer and carnival barker, his career in satanism seemed just a continuation of that former self. On the other hand, as he noted, Satan is probably religion’s best friend; without it religion would not have survived so many centuries. His connection to Jayne Mansfield was rather titillating.

Will Campbell is surely the most interesting of the bunch. A Baptist minister, reviled by the leadership of his church, he was a vigorous supporter of civil rights and good friend of Martin Luther King who ministered to James Earl Ray and other Ku Klux Klan members. He was one of only four whites who held hands with the little black girls in their attempts to integrate schools in Little Rock. His uncompromising positions earned him hate letters from both the Right and Left.

The book is easily read as separate essays and the only element that ties them together is the author’s personal journey and reactions to the individuals he interviewed. As such it’s of perhaps more interest for its historical value than a memoir. Wright’s more recent books: The Looming Tower and Going Clear are more important. If this review seems to ramble, blame it on the book.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: The Deep State by Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former GOP Congressional aide for twenty-eight years who has become disenchanted with several features of our current government. In “The Party is Over” he complains the sole purpose of Republicans elected to Congress is to shut down government or at least bring it to a standstill. They have often succeeded. He argues in this book that there are two governments in Washington: the visible one that is in the public eye with campaigns and elections, and the “deep” government that operates behind the scenes, often following its own agenda and never changes regardless of who might be elected. Ironically, I sensed much of this reading Robert Gates’ memoir “Duty.” It was clear that he, as Secretary of directions his president wanted to move.) Defense, often had trouble moving the Defense Department bureaucracy and military in directions he wanted (and I felt he sometimes thwarted or at least resisted.) The process has been a gradual one and not unexpected.

Much of the problem he attributes to the “beltline” mentality and the aggregation of agencies, foundations (there are now more than sixteen-hundred of these tax-exempt “ hordes of gun slinging grants man who tried to maintain a facade of scholarly disinterest are functionally as much a part of the ecosystem of the town is the lobbyists on K Street,) and agencies like Homeland Security, which, truth-be-told, would make much more sense after 9/11 to be dispersed throughout the country, but which instead is firmly entrenched in a former insane asylum retrofit, now ten years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget, but thankfully protecting us from shampoo-bottle bombers. Its first chief, Michael Chertoff, I suppose could be congratulated by the bureaucracy for his display of efficiency in turning DHS (doesn’t the word Homeland remind you of “fatherland” and cause a reflexive need to bring the right arm to sharp Hitlerian attention?) “into a contractor-infested replica of the DOD’s in only a few years. His post-government career has been single-minded attempt to cash in personally on his bureaucratic creation and his own notoriety.”

9/11 had an effect on all of this, of course, as military contractors rushed to merge and join the hoards of others with headquarters in Washington (thanks to generous tax benefits passed at taxpayer’s expense) sucking at the government teat.

For all the bellyaching that goes on throughout the country about out-of-touch bureaucrats, corrupt and unresponsive government, and how much everyone hates Washington, these visible signs of our increasingly intrusive and overbearing government did not fall out of the sky upon an unsuspecting public. The Deep State, along with its headquarters in Washington, is not a negation of the American people's character. It is an intensification of tendencies inherent in any aggregation of human beings. If the American people did not voluntarily give informed consent to the web of unaccountable influence that radiates from Washington and permeates the country, then their passive acquiescence, aided by false appeals to patriotism and occasional doses of fear, surely played a role. A majority of Americans have been anesthetized by the slow, incremental rise of the Deep State, a process that has taken decades. (p. 29)

Much of this “deep state” results from Washington group think. In the military it’s clearly more obvious, you have to get on board with the mission or go nowhere career-wise. In the bureaucracy the pressures are equally strong if not as apparent. And they know they’ll be around long after the flavor-of-the-day politicians move on. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The last chapter consists of Lofgren’s prescriptions for resolving some of the issues he has highlighted in the book. I would disagree with several of them. His first solution, “eliminate private money from public elections” has been batted around so many times. When has money never been a problem in campaigns? It always has and will always be. Public financing is hardly the solution. Do I really want my tax money to be used to fund the campaigns of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann? And is this only for presidential campaigns? It’s local city and state elections that often have more of an influence. I would argue for complete transparency but let people spend their money on campaigns as they wish, just make sure everyone knows where it’s coming from. PACS should be eliminated; all the money should go directly to the candidate but with full accounting and accountability.

I fully concur with his recommendations that we reduce military spending and stay of of the Middle East. Nothing we have done in the past sixty years seems to have worked the way we intended it to beginning with the CIA-Seven Sisters overthrow of the government in Iran. To quote him: “ISIS is undeniably a toxic gang of murderers, but our own disastrous intervention in Iraq formed the petri dish in which its diseased ideology could evolve.” I love that metaphor. Constant military interventions have provided the rationale for ruinous military spending which, in turn, empowers the shadow government even more not to mention increased the debt by six trillion and counting. His suggestion that much of that military spending be channeled to domestic infrastructure repair and building is admirable but would, ironically, continue to empower the shadow government in the form of additional bureaucratic structures.

He admits that many of his proposals sound utopian (not to mention Progressive) but insists that the United States has reformed itself several times in the past on equally grand a scale. I’m not so optimistic.

Lots of amusing, if cynical, lines in the book. For example, referring to the invasion of Iraq and its justification, “ the tongue tied George W Bush sorely needed the mellifluous double talk of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the theory that nothing sells hideously awful policy as well as an Oxford accent (the American political class swoons on cue at gibberish delivered with Received Pronunciation.) I could go on with many other examples. But read the book and weep.

I enjoy Mike Lofgren’s work and was offered an “Advanced Reader Copy” of this book in hopes I would read and review it. I was happy to do so since I intended to buy it when it appeared anyway, although I would have much preferred an ebook copy for my Kindle (much easier to take notes and highlight passages.) The book is excellent but probably futile (I must be really pessimistic this morning.)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review: Rules of Prey by John Sandford

Audiobook: Rules of Prey is the first in a long series of Lucas Davenport police procedurals set in Minneapolis. I’ve read about ten of them, not in order and for some reason never got around to the first, an oversight I have now remedied. The Sandford Davenport books are all quite good, although Lucas’s relationships with women I sometimes find superficial and irritating.

Lucas is independently wealthy having sold the rights to a software game he had developed and he drives around in a red Porsche. In this one, he’s been tasked with finding the “Mad Dog Killer,” a man -- whose predations and POV we are subjected to -- who is killing women.

One aspect puzzled and put me off a little. That was Lucas’s manipulation of the press. He’s sleeping with (and has impregnated) one of the star reporters of a local paper. She has no qualms about using things she has overheard during his private phone conversations even though she has been asked to leave the room. (His relationship with her is highly improper, in my view and hardly necessary since he’s sleeping with a victim of the Mad Dog Killer - also extremely unprofessional and irregular.) Then he uses a TV reporter (whom he regards as dumber than a rock) to leak all sorts of incorrect information clearly to irritate the killer. Whether that encourages the killer to kill in a different way I’ll leave up to the other readers. I understand that some writers feel it’s necessary for cops to break the rules to catch the bad guys but imho then they become bad guys as well. (Not a spoiler since we know who the bad guy is almost from the beginning, unfortunately participating in his depredations via his POV that become gross as the book progresses.)

Richard Ferrone does his usual brilliant job reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Deathdeal (Wyatt #3) by Garry Disher

Wyatt is on the run. Everyone is looking for him following the mess-up of his failed attempt to hijack the armored car. He’s determined, in the meantime to get the money back from those who stole it from him (as told in Wyatt #2). As seems to be his lot, others have the same idea and he can trust no one.

The Wyatt series was written before his police procedural series features Hal Challis, a very different character from Wyatt who remains one of the more hard-bitten and amoral anti-heroes I’ve read. There’s very little humor here, just the struggles of a man who wants nothing more than to have his place in the country where he can hold up and rob a few banks every year. He has no interests, few needs or goals and in less capable hands the books would descend into mere shoot-em-ups. Disher instead has created a memorable character. If you like Westlake’s Parker (written under the name Richard Stark), or Collins' Quarry, you’ll devour the Wyatt series. On to #4.

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Natural Rights" is all Hooey

John Locke was an optimist assuming that humans could live together in a state of reason. Hobbes on the other hand, thought man existed in a state of chaos and that some form of structure is required to bring order to the chaos. Locke is describing what "should" be; Hobbes is describing what "is."

It follows that all notions of  "rights" will be determined by whatever scheme of laws a society will determine for itself, or be forced upon it, i.e., rights are generated by the human rule-book.  Thomas Jefferson can say whatever he wants in the Declaration of Independence, but just because he says them doesn't give them validity and in any case, again, they require government to enforce them. Ironically, even though I consider myself a form of libertarian strongly supporting the concept of individual rights, I understand that a reasonably strong form of government is required to enforce my "self-determined" individual rights

For example: Property rights exist only in the context of government without which the concept of property could not exist since government is required to enforce and codify them. The whole concept of innate or "natural" rights is basically a Lockean concept that appeals to many people, but which has little basis in reality. What rights you have are determined by whatever government you have. Some forms of government are more oriented toward collective rights that benefit society as a whole, the altruistic version, while other forms emphasize individual rights at the expense of collective rights. A classic example is the "individual" right to own slaves. Collectively, as a society, we decided that individual right does not benefit society as a whole (not to mention we decided that non-whites should be entitled to the same individual rights as whites) but, again, that right requires governmental enforcement and approval.

What we "should" do is determined by a constant refinement of ideas (which is why philosophers should get paid more than welders in spite of what Rubio thinks) and compromise.  There is a constant tension between the needs of the collective (traffic rules, if you will) and the wishes of the individual who assumes that because something he desires is attainable it must be good and a natural right. The difficulty arises when the collective determines that coercion is needed in order to protect the collective right. So there is again a constant tension between different perceived rights.  The Constitution is full of these tensions: the individual right to believe whatever you wanted opposed to the collective right not to have government enforce a particular brand of religious belief;  the individual right to a gun in order to promote the collective right through militias to prevent the larger collective from enforcing tyranny; the individual right not to quarter soldiers in the home opposing the needs of the collective in time of crisis; and the individual right of not incriminating oneself versus the collective's right to solve and prevent crime, to name but a few examples. 

Quoting Jonathan Wallace: "The natural rights debate leads us down a false road. The energy spent in arguing which rules exist should better be spent deciding which rules we should make. The "perfect freedom" Locke described "to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit... without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man", does not dictate the existence of rights; instead it leaves us perfectly free to legislate them.
I prefer this freedom, which seems to me simple and clear: we are all at a table together, deciding which rules to adopt, free from any vague constraints, half-remembered myths, anonymous patriarchal texts and murky concepts of nature. If I propose something you do not like, tell me why it is not practical, or harms somebody, or is counter to some other useful rule; but don't tell me it offends the universe."