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Saturday, July 17, 2004

More of my favorite H.L. Mencken
...The only really respectable Protestants are theFundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are also palpable idiots...
What is the function that a clergyman performs in the world?Answer: he gets his living by assuring idiots that he can save themfrom an imaginary hell. It is a business almost indistinguishable fromthat of a seller of snake-oil for rheumatism.
The Killing Floor and The Visitor by Lee Child

Of these two books, I preferred The Visitor, (also available as Running Blind). In The Killing Floor, Jack Reacher, the itinerant ex-homicide investigator for the military becomes too much of a vigilante for my taste. There is also a series a coincidences that stretch credulity. The beginning will definitely hold your interest, however.

Minding his own business while having breakfast, Reacher is arretsed in a small town in Georgia and accused of a particularly vicious murder. After establishing his alibi, he learns that the dead man is his brother. (Jack was arrested because he was seen walking down the road near the industrial site where the body had been discovered. Jack had been on a cross-country bus and had just arbitrarily asked the driver to let him off at a random intersection so he could walk fouteen miles to some town to learn more about Blind Blake, a black jazz singer.) Jack had not seen his brother, a treasury agent who had single-handedly eliminated counterfeiting from the United States, for many years. Anyway, turns out the town is being run by the Kleiner family. They have figured out a way to manufacture almost perfect $100 bills.

Reacher is a good character, but his sudden brilliant insights and instant appeal to women, make this title just too unreal. Good fast airplane read.

Much better is The Visitor. Why this was also published as Running Blind is beyond me. Jack has been targeted by the FBI's behavioral science unit – I love several of Jack's comments regarding this speculative agency and its worth, its best profiler has a degree in andscape gardening -- as being a likely serial killer. It seems severeal women from his past have been murdered. All of them had filed sexual harassment charges against a superior and Jack had been an investigating office while in the army. Using his investigative skills and knowledge of the army, Jack establishes his alibi, and then reluctantly agrees to help investigate the murders.

The killer is supremely clever. All the victims are found in their bathtubs, naked, and completely submerged in army camouflage paint. They didn't drown, weren't stabbed or shot, and bore no marks or bruises There is no forensic evidence to determine how the women were killed and the only link seems to be that they are ex-army and had filed sexual harassment charges against a superior officer. This is a very good who-done-it that focuses on physical evidence and hard investigative work to determine the identity of the killer.

The ex-9/11 FBI of this book is not that of Efram Zimbalist, Jr. They will stop at nothing, blackmail, threats of torture, illegal activities, and just plain stupid stuff to get their way. I hope the author doesn't know something we don't know, although clearly Ashcroft would love this amoral, the-ends-justfies-the-means agency. Reacher is fleshed out much more as a viable character, a good investigator who has no time for silly psychological profiling (remember how wrong the FBI profiles were of the sniper in Maryland.)
River of Darkness by Rennie Airth

The effect of WW I on the survivors continues to provide a reservoir of themes for authors of English detective novels. Charles Todd's (actually a mother-son team) Ian Rutledge, a Scottish detective is one example. Rutledge suffers from guilt-ridden hallucinations.

Airth's Inspector John Madden is even gloomier having lost his wife and daughter to the great flu epidemic. Madden is the lead investigator in a series of horrific crimes. In what appears to be an attempted robbery, an entire family has been massacred. Madden, following a search of nearby woods, discovers evidence that the family's home had been under observation for a period of time from a dugout that bore unsettling similarities to battlefield trench observation posts. Further evidence leads the police to suspect the work is just one man, a former soldier who kills his victims with a bayonet in the manner taught for use on the battlefield.

We experience some of the action through Pike, the killer's point of view, and realize that facing the memories of war and dealing with those traumas often takes a variety of mechanisms as Pike and Madden are contrasted. I hope this is the beginning of a series featuring Inspector Madden.
Isaac Asimov
A prodigious explainer, Asimov's output was enormous.  He wrote over 470 books covering each of the major categories of the Dewey Decimal system.  For a really interesting assessment of his as a writer see this article.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Unsinkable by Daniel Allen Butler

“It has been said that Titanic is the third most recognized word in the world, following ‘God’ and ‘Coca-cola’ “. The story of the sinking has been told over and over from several different perspectives, but usually by those who have an axe to grind or who wish to cast aspersions on one ethnic group of the passengers or crew or another. Revisionists have tried to blame different sets of people, or absolve others, for example, holding the builders to a set of standards that were not in place until many years later. Butler has written a straight narrative history that illuminates the myths that have been surrounding the ship’s accident over the past decades without the “moralizing, social leveling, finger pointing, or myth making.

By the launch date of the Titanic transatlantic steaming had reached a level of safety unheard of with any other form of transportation. Only four people had died in the forty years prior to the Titanic’s sinking, so a level of overconfidence and complacency was perhaps not unreasonable.

Titanic was the first of a planned set of three ships. The first to be launched was the Olympic, and the Titanic was to be followed by the Gigantic. Many modifications were made to the Titanic after the seas trials of the Olympic. All were owned by the White Star line that had just been purchased by J. P. Morgan who was trying to create a transportation monopoly that would stretch all the way from Europe to California. By this time he owned all the steamship lines except Cunard that was desperately seeking government assistance to fight off his takeover bid. A massive fare war erupted. At one point steerage fares could be had to America for as little as £2. This contrasted with the one-way fare on the Titanic for the most luxurious suites of about $80,000 in 1997 dollars. The robber barons who enjoyed traveling in style could easily afford it.

One unusual feature on the Titanic was the configuration of the engines. The ship had two reciprocating engines and a low pressure steam turbine that efficiently used the excess low pressure steam from the other engines, but it could not be operated in reverse. This was not thought to be a defect, but it made emergency reverse difficult. The 162 furnaces that heated water in the 29 boilers required the services of over two hundred men around the clock and used about 600 tons of coal per day.

The ship sailed just before the end of the great coal strike that managed to hurt most those people it was intended to help. The effect on the Titanic was that because coal was in such short supply, two other White Star ships had their sailings canceled in order to fill Titanic’s bunkers. It was rushed aboard and not wet down properly causing a fire to begin that smoked and smoldered the entire abbreviated journey.

The ship itself met and, in some cases, exceeded all the Board of Trade safety regulations. In fact, the inspector, the hated Captain Clarke, was known to be the most persnickety of all the B. O. T. inspectors. He passed the ship. The ship had more than the number of required lifeboats even though they were far short of being able to carry all of the passengers and crew. The theory at the time was that lifeboats were merely to be used to transfer crew and passengers from a sinking ship to the rescue vessel. A complicated formula was used to calculate the number of lifeboats based on the cubic foot capacity. The disaster was to result in rewriting the regulations regarding lifeboat capacity.
Garry Wills on Executions

The appalling spectacle surrounding the execution of Timothy McVeigh provides the backdrop for another of Garry Wills – not to be confused with a much less thoughtful George Will -- thoughtful articles, “The Dramaturgy of Death” in the New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001 (more evidence of how behind I am.) Wills reviews the philosophical bases for society’s use of capital punishment.. He discusses the urges that often find their rationalizations after the fact. The practice of “outlawing,” i.e., removing from the protection of the laws was often a form of killing by exclusion and it was practiced in our own colonies, most notably by Thomas Jefferson when he revised the statutes of Virginia. Certain categories of persons Jefferson wanted so excluded from the protection of society, e.g. Freed slaves who entered the state or refused to leave it, or “a white woman bearing a black child who does not leave the state within a year.” These people could be killed or mistreated at will because they were placed beyond the legal fabric. It became a way to keep the race pure and to maintain a social type (didn’t stop Jefferson from bedding his black sister-in-law, though.)

Other forms of legalized killing were used to legitimize a political structure (common in all revolutions) and social orders (in “Jefferson’s legal code, slaves could not testify against whites, but whites could testify against slaves,” and still today in many parts of the United States non-whites are much more likely to receive the death penalty than whites convicted of the same crime.) Often the way an execution was carried out served a purpose. In Elizabeth’s England, traitors were killed publicly in a particularly heinous and prescribed manner: “they were stripped, hanged, cut down living, castrated, [it was a male crime] heart and viscera thrown into boiling water, decapitated, quartered, and his head exposed on the Tower Bridge.” Joan of Arc’s public burning was intended to degrade and the Romans left bodies to dangle in the open and become food for birds and animals.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Killing and the Army

Most mammals have an aversion to killing their own species. That has caused problems for the United States military in Iraq. The reasons why and why the military is doing – or not-- doing are laid out in a recent article in the July 12/19, 2004 issue of The New Yorker, “The Price of Valor” by Dan Baum.

The famous military historian, S.L.A. Marshall discovered in his analysis of combat units in WW II that approximately only fifteen percent of front line troops would fire his gun at the enemy. They were simply reluctant to kill. Those who did kill often suffered psychological damage. The army did its best to combat this (pun intended) and by Vietnam, everyone almost was shooting, but the rate of traumatic stress disorder rose concomitantly.

Now, in Iraq, the level of street fighting, has had significant impact on the soldiers' psyche. (Chaplains, of course, have their own form of hypocrisy, distinguishing “killing, now okay, as opposed to murder, as in the “correct translation of the commandment, “Thou Shall Not Murder.” One soldier, relating his experiences as a helicopter gunner fighting in Vietnam, recounts that he would shoot at anything he was ordered to, often entire villages, including women and children. The images of their faces recur often. When asked how often, he replied, “every ten minutes.” This almost forty years later.

The army doesn't know how to deal with the moral problems. When encouraged to talk about killing and to justify it morally, they change the subject. The Veterans Administration doesn't have “a clear, medically oriented treatment program for helping soldiers cope with the killing they've done.”
Plain Heathen Mischief by Martin Clark is just plain fun. The Rev. Joel King has just been released from prison following his guilty plea for molesting a young girl in his parish what actually happened comes out later.) Reviled by the community and his wife, now suing for divorce, he is taken under his wing by Edmund Brooks. Joel, unable to find work, is courted by Brooks, into an insurance scheme. In the meantime Christy Darden, the underage girl he supposedly had sex with, is suing the church for several million dollars. Joel, attempting to protect his church, and feeling guilty as sin, meets with Christy, only to discover that she is part of a larger insurance scam created by Brooks that used Joel as the fall guy. The whole mess becomes complicated as Joel attempts to con the con men but becomes snared in a quagmire of his own making. It’s very funny with serious overtones.
The Bush thing.

Some recent books about George W. that are worth the read include: Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward (personally, I found this the least satisfactory, a little disjointed); Worse Than Watergate by John Dean, a scathing indictment of the Bush administration’s obsession with secrecy, including misinformation about Cheney’s state of health (just imagine, if Cheney died, Bush would become president); American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (Phillips is a populist who has been trying to move the Republican party away from the politics of class and entitlement to a broader base) and House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Most Powerful Dynasties. A common theme is the dynastic quality of the Bush family, a sense that the Bush family – the Kennedys notwithstanding, have used personal influence and connections to achieve power for the sole purpose of enriching their clan rather than provide public service. Politics is to be conducted over table in front of drinks; vision is irrelevant and frustrating.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Rarely does one come across a book that is recognized as erudite, essential, and readable simultaneously. Karen Armstrong's The History of God has brilliantly analyzed the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction to the emphasis on logos of the Enlightenment as opposed to mythos that had been essential to one's view of the world. "The economic changes over the last four hundred years have been accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different, scientific and rational, concept of the nature of truth; and once again, a radical religious change has become necessary." As science and technology began to become associated with such visible successes in overcoming disease and social ills, the tendency was to believe that logos (rational, scientific thinking related exactly to facts and external realities) was the only “means to truth and began to discount mythos [that which is timeless and constant, “looking back to the origins of life . . to the deepest levels of the human mind . . . unconcerned with practical matters” and rooted in the unconscious, that which helps us through the day, mythological stories not intended to be literal, but conveying truth] as false and superstitious.” The temptation is to think of mythos as meaning myth. Inj this context that would be incorrect. Armstrong uses this word as it relates to mystery and mysticism, rooted ultimately in traditional biblical and Islamic history “which gives meaning to life, but cannot be explained in rational terms.”Logos, however, was unable to assuage pain and suffering leading to a vacuum the fundamentalists sought to revive. The danger unseen by modern fundamentalists is that they have tried to imbue mythos with an element of literalism essential to logos. The difference between these two concepts forms the basis for the battle between modernism and fundamentalism.

She traces the beginning of the fundamentalist movement back to the time of Columbus when a crisis occurred in Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled both Muslims and Jews from Spain. The three religious groups had actually coexisted quite happily and profitably together for several centuries, but the prospect of modernity and threats from a new world view, science, threatened age-old traditions and myths. The fundamentalist movement was an attempt by traditionalists to retain a sectarian view of the world.

For many of these people the world can be divided into two camps: good and evil and those forces that are not allied with their own narrow view of the world are labeled as evil. That these believes are rooted in fear does not lessen their impact or importance to the faithful. Often an arrogance and condescension – I plead guilty here – make secularists insensitive to those who feel their religious beliefs have been undermined and challenged. The seemingly irreconcilable difference between rationalism and mysticism perhaps make militant fundamentalism inevitable. The danger for fundamentalist lies in their attempts to turn mythos into logos, e.g., have sacred texts be read literally and inerrantly as one would read a scientific text. That may lead to inevitable discrepancies between observation and belief that may hasten the defeat of religion.

Of great benefit, is Armstrong's clear explanation of the differences and conflicts that exist in Islam. Shiite and Sunni branches represent very different interpretations of a major faith.

The eventual outcome of the dichotomy of secular versus sectarian remains unknown. What is apparent is that fundamentalism cannot tolerate pluralism or democracy and compromise seems unlikely. The author identifies two major threads in the development of fundamentalism: (a) fear of the modern world and (b) that the response to fear is to try to create an alternative society by preaching "an ideology of exclusion, hatred, and even violence." She warns at the end of the book, "If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbors experience but which no society can safely ignore."
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