Youth Tales Of Crisis And Despair

This past Sabbath I heard a sermon that gave me a great deal to ponder.  The speaker commented in his introduction on the rise of youth tales of crisis and despair, as if this was a new thing, and he seemed to think of it as a sign of a society in the grips of a breakdown, in the absence of community.  Are young people really to blame for this, though?  As someone at the boundary between the cynical members of Generation X and the more group-minded idealists of the Millennials, and with a fair amount of traits on both sides of that divide–being a cynical idealist or idealistic cynic is not as easy as one might think–I feel it necessary to speak in defense of young people.  There are plenty of good reasons why young people might feel it necessary to comment on the despair and crisis that they feel.  Our society, after all, has been in a state of crisis for decades, and there has not been a great deal of improvement in the underlying moral problems faced by young people, who are often not well-equipped in terms of life experience or good role models in handling the difficulties they face.

Let us first note that tales of young people in crisis and despair are not a new phenomenon [1].  In the early 1800s, for example, there was a generation of people who were moved to despair and grief through reflecting on the Sorrows of Young Werther, a piece of romanticist writing by the famous German writer and thinker Goethe.  Young people in that age in Europe wrote moody poetry and indulged in overwrought melodrama, and then they were marched off in the armies of Napoleon or rulers of the beleaguered ancien regime and then died on battlefields all over Europe.  The Lost Generation writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s wrote their own tales of despair and crisis, whether it was Nathaniel West writing about a cynical love columnist or the corruption of the Hollywood of the age (some things never change) or whether it was Ezra Pound writing poems about usury with anti-Semitic implications in the search for scapegoats for economic crisis, and so on and so forth.  These cynical young people either died too young or redeemed themselves through service to the common good during the crisis of World War II.  The seemingly selfie obsessed generation of young people today only seems particularly unusual because most people lack the historical context to see that they are one generation that is not particularly unusual in the larger context of the history of the West over the past couple hundred years.

Even if contemporary young people do not seem to be as interested in the common good and in community as one might expect, and that is something which is up for argument, can they be blamed for it?  Considering the lack of community spirit among adults who regularly break up marriages and destroy the unity of families, or break up churches and other institutions, or engage in partisan political rancor without any thought of the well-being of those whom they wish to rule over, where are young people supposed to learn how to work on behalf of a larger community?  Who is going to teach them how to harness their unusual blend of strengths and weaknesses, their own perspectives, and to work with others who are different but complementary to them?  Surely this is the goal, as the rest of the sermon message made plain, but who is going to teach young people how to do this?  Do we not expect that it is people who are successful at working with others and behaving with respect and concern for others, who can demonstrate they care not merely through their words but through their behavior?  Are we to expect broken people from broken families who are continually provoked into believing that the world is in crisis by everyone around them to automatically work together without any sort of practical instruction in how one is to go about doing it?  Shall we condemn these young Israelites for struggling to build bricks without straw when the straw has been denied them by their rulers and overseers?

And yet despite the disadvantages faced by many young people today, there are efforts by young people to work together for the common good.  Even within our own congregation, I know of a sizable group of young adults who are working to overcome the divisions of our generation by forming their own groups with a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek humor and more than a little bit of idealism.  Being a bit older than most of the people myself, I have supported the efforts myself with encouragement, although I feel that I am a bit too old to take a direct role in the group myself, unless I am invited to be a part of it.  Even so, the record of these young people and their efforts suggests that young people are already aware of the need for greater cohesion and already working on creating solutions despite the fact that they are blamed for the sins of their fathers and mothers in many circumstances.  Let us not look at the struggles of young people and be quick to blame them.   It is far better to show them, if they are willing to learn, a better way to live that takes the high degrees of conscientiousness and the desire for change and improvement that can be found among young people and to put it to a good purpose.  If we wish people to work for the common good, we must be able to show them examples of people working for the good of all and not merely our own selfish interests.  We must embody the ideal we wish for others to serve.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Simplicity Of Life

Simplicity Of Life:  Why Does Being Human Complicate Everything, by Steve Leasock


[Note:  I received this book free of charge by BooksGoSocial.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

This book is a textbook example of an author going beyond his depth and speaking about what he does not know about.  It is hard to know whether the author is self-aware about the immense gulf and tension between his rhetoric and his ideals, because as is common in this case, he ends up making a strong criticism of biblical faith and setting grounds for the meaning of life as well as epistemology and then manages to continually fall short of them.  At some level, the author appears to understand that his writing is abstract, but he does not appear to grasp the full level of his error, and although he claims to speak out against religion as well as science as authorities and place himself in its stead as an authority, he relies on particularly bad science (in a misguided evolutionist perspective) and manages to be just one of many recent examples of apologists for Eastern religion contrary to biblical thought [1].  Perhaps most ironically, there is a simple reason why being human complicates everything, because we have fallen into sin and rebellion against God, and this book strenuously and consistently rebels against this simple conclusion, showing the author himself to be human and complicated as a result of his own unacknowledged fallen and corrupt nature.

In terms of the structure of the book, the book consists of lengthy rambling essays of uneven length.  While this book at least coherent enough on the sentence level to keep it from being a strong contender for the worst book I have ever read–I was able to understand what the author was about, perhaps far better than the author himself–the book suffered from a strong degree of incoherence above the sentence level of writing.  This book is an example of the difficulties our contemporary self-publishing culture creates for readers in that this book would likely have never passed through the quality checks demanded by any mainstream publisher.  Mind you, had this book been edited so that it had no fortune cookie-level sentences serving as whole paragraphs, it would not have been any better in terms of its meaning, but it would have been better worded and better structured garbage than it was.  Instead, the book is rambling, highly repetitive, and immensely libelous.  The author seems unable to recognize how foolish he looks by writing in the fashion that he does, and appears to be most interested in convincing himself and those who are already convinced as to his beliefs.  Lacking any kind of citations or any sort of enjoyment or any sort of informative value, it seems puzzling that the author would expect to find any audience of people who is not similarly rebellious towards God to enjoy this book.

In the end, perhaps the simplest aspect of this book is to recognize that the author is simply out of his depth in talking about matters of meaning and purpose and experience.  The author consistently misrepresents scripture and considers himself, for some unknown reason, to be the sort of authority that the reader should respect and agree with.  The author takes a matter of great importance and considerable complexity and somehow manages to get it exactly wrong.  Even worse, the author consistently violates his own principles in his terrible execution, writing what he wishes to be true rather than what is actually true, protesting too strongly against what he views as an imaginary God so that he ends up, like the New Atheists, in sounding like a child throwing a temper tantrum who acts as if a strenuous enough denial of reality can make that unpleasant reality go away.  One does not know whether to eviscerate the writer for his terrible writing in nearly every aspect of rhetoric, to laugh at him for being so ridiculous, or to pity the author for thinking himself to be an intelligent and articulate writer when he simply cannot deliver the goods that he claims.  Either way, the only way to enjoy this book is to treat it as a comedy sketch from someone who ought to know better, but who cannot resist polluting the world with ignorance and folly.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Questioning Evangelism

Questioning Evangelism:  Engaging People’s Hearts The Way Jesus Did, by Randy Newman

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Kregel Book Tours.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

As someone who has always been very fond of asking questions and who is intrigued by the debate within Christian circles concerning the matter of evangelism [1], this book greatly intrigued me.  Those who look at the title of this book alone may think that the author is questioning evangelism, but in reality the book champions the use of leading questions as a way of overcoming objections and getting to the heart of what is on the minds of those whom one is talking with.  The author has clearly thought through the implications of some of the concerns that many people have with apologetics, in that dry and philosophical answers do not address the concerns of the heart that are at the basis of many of the issues that people have with Christianity and Christians, and that makes this book one that will likely be greatly appreciated by those engaged in efforts at Christian outreach.  The fact that this book is in its second edition speaks highly of its continued worth.

In writing this book the author expressed concern that people would use it as a template for what to say instead of a guide to help the reader develop an approach of asking questions.  This concern appears to be a valid one given the fact that the author includes such a large amount of sample dialogue in this work as a demonstration of the author’s approach, which means that some unwary users may be very likely to use it as a catechism instead of as illustrative.  This tendency to seek after scripts and templates is all too common.  At any rate, this book includes thirteen chapters in three parts.  After a foreword by Lee Strobel, a preface to the second edition, acknowledgments, and a short introduction, the first part of the book examines why we should ask questions by telling us why questions are better than answers, what the book of Proverbs tells us about questions, and how questions pave the way for answers.  The second part of the book looks at questions that people have about God and Christians, often of an unfriendly nature.  The third part of the book looks at the insufficiency of mere questions and answers by asking the reader to take a look at their own heart and their own motives and the importance of silence in providing a context to what is said.  Some of us are not very good at silence.

Overall, this book can be characterized by a few qualities that will make it a much appreciated work on the subject of evangelism.  For one, the author shows himself highly respectful of others and greatly interested in what they think and feel.  This always bodes well for someone being able to successfully communicate in the face of continual threats of misunderstanding.  Likewise, the author is pretty humble about his own struggles and his own growth process when it came to being able to successfully communicate with other people and use questions to get at the real issues that people were wrestling with.  This is not an ordinary book on apologetics that seeks to overwhelm opponents with logic, but rather a work that uses questions to discern where someone is coming from in order to help give an answer that meets them where they are rather than pummeling them with unwelcome truth expressed in an uncharitable fashion.  There are more than a few writers I am familiar with that could use a lot more of the approach given here.

[1] See, for example:

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Booklet Review: Angels

Angels:  God’s Messengers And Spirit Army by Beyond Today (Peter Eddington with Tom Robinson and Scott Ashley)

In the evening portion of the Sabbath day, after I came home from a dinner with some fellow brethren of my congregation, I found this particular booklet waiting for me.  When I looked up the title, I saw it as being identical to a sermon given more than a decade ago by a pastor, and lo and behold, the sermon had been given by the same gentleman, including a great deal of shared content.  Is it possible that this booklet had been in the works for a dozen years?  At any rate, I read the booklet as soon as possible (the next morning) and thought it would be worthwhile to share my own thoughts and observations about this particular booklet.  For one, I would like to say that I am pleased to read a booklet about angels, seeing as the subject is of great interest to the world at large [1] but not a subject that has been discussed very much on an official level within the Church of God as a whole.  It is good to see this subject addressed in such a thoughtful manner, laying a sound biblical context for the subject and also giving at least some voice to the author’s personal angel stories.

As a booklet, this particular volume is only about fifty pages long, making it a fairly easy read for most people.  In terms of its structure, this booklet is divided into various sections.  The first section is an introduction that, like the sermon message given by the author in response to a request by young adults in the Cincinnati East congregation, discusses the popular accounts of angels within society.  After that come a discussion of the origin of the spirit realm based on what is given in the Scriptures.  A section on the numbers of angels and the meaning of the biblical expression YWHW Sabaoth (or “The Lord Of Hosts”) follows, and then a look at the Bible’s comments on the appearance of angels in various forms.  A short biographical sketch of leading angels, namely Michael and Gabriel, is next, along with a discussion of different kinds of angels.  From this discussion the author moves to a discussion of the angelic purpose of serving God and mankind as well as some personal encounters of angelic encounters, before the author concludes his discussion.

There is certainly a great deal more that could be said about the subject matter at hand.  The book does include a great deal of sidebars that show the art history of how angels are portrayed throughout history as well as a discussion on demonology, another subject of intense contemporary interest.   The sidebars demonstrate some impressive research into the history of Renaissance baby angels, the griffons of the Ancient Near East and their biblical origins, as well as the pagan origin of the halo.  Overall, therefore, this is a booklet worthy of high praise.  It gives a thoughtful and well-researched discussion of an important biblical subject and provides a biblical and personal discussion of the subject that avoids a great deal of speculation and that prompts further questions and implications for future messages and episodes of Beyond Today to address.  It also demonstrates a willingness to deal with the concerns of the time and not merely recycle older material as is the case with some.  The tone struck is one of thoughtful moderation concerning the accounts of angels given in various books of the Bible.  A particularly important aspect of angels is one I will have to muse on in the future, and that is the contrast between the way that demons tend to gab on and on, drawing a great deal of attention to themselves, while angels do their task and deliver their message and then leave, seeking the credit to go to God rather than to themselves.  There is much to reflect on here.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Healing Of America

The Healing Of America:  A Global Quest For Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, by T.R. Reid

As someone who works in part of the healthcare industry, the health care system of the United States is something I read about and think about on a fairly regular basis [1].  Having read another book by the same author (from which he liberally borrows here), I knew going into this book that I would probably not like it a great deal.  My low expectations were met, as this book was exactly how I thought it would be.  As this author has experiencing with the Washington Post, it should come as little surprise that he is almost a caricature of a whiny, bleeding-heart liberal who talks out of both sides of his mouth and engaging in blatant dishonesty and crass partisanship.  One wonders how the author expects anyone to believe him when part of the time he complains at how health care reform has been frequently derailed in the United States due to claims of socialism that the author considers unjust and when part of the time the author plays up the communist and socialist language and sympathies of those who have reformed health care in various countries.  The author seems not to understand that one cannot have it both ways–either health care reform on the lines supported by the author is socialist, in which case it is just and proper to criticize it on precisely those grounds, or it is not, and there should be no connection between health care reform and an increased entitlement mentality and decreased fiscal stability among governments.

The contents of the book are basically divided into two parts, although the division is not explicitly made.  After an introductory chapter that lays out the author’s contention that he is looking for two cures–one of them advise and treatment for a bum shoulder, the other a cure for the ailing American health care system, the author spends the first half or so of the book or so wandering from country to country:  France, Germany, Japan, the UK, Canada, and India looking for treatment for his shoulder as a test of how the various health care systems work, and also seeking to compare various qualities of the system in terms of cost, freedom of choice, as well as the nature of their health care systems.  After that the author decides to move from historical and geographical studies to some annoying leftist prescriptions for our own health care system, including a claim that our system is not too big to change, that a focus on preventative medicine is a path to lowering overall costs, and a sad liberal story about the contrasting tiers of health care in our country as a way of helping to encourage efforts at change.  The book includes an appendix that discusses the best health care system of the world.

Despite the fact that I congenially loathed this book and found the author to be extremely shrill and dishonest in his rhetoric, this book is not entirely useless.  Reform efforts that target the profit-based nature of much of America’s health care companies and that seek to simplify the amount of paperwork necessary and the billing, and that create a shared nationwide risk pool for all citizens would seem to be a reasonable means of addressing some of more obviously broken aspects of our health care system.  There need not be any complicated 2000 word laws that create reforms that are build in order to fail to spur on a higher degree of socialized medicine.  Even so, despite the fact that not all of what the author says is total garbage, there are a lot of areas that the author simply gets wrong, including a lack of trust in the efficiency of government that hinders support of many of the more socialist options for health care.  If there is one thing clear from the author’s discussion, it is that a belief that health care is a “right” that belongs to all citizens is an expensive entitlement for all nations, especially in an age of default and austerity like our own.  These are not propitious times for the prescription this book has to offer.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The United States Of Europe

The United States Of Europe:  The New Superpower And The End Of American Supremacy, by T.R. Reid

A friend of mine with questionable taste in books [1] had borrowed this book from another mutual friend and loaned it on to me, and while at first I found much to appreciate about this book, as the book progressed I was more and more irritated at the author and about his point of view, and by the end of the book I was convinced that the author and those of like mind on the part of the left who want to copy Europe’s model of life ought to be declared ineligible to be a part of the American political community.  If they want to live in Europe, let them, but they should not be allowed to pollute and corrupt our own republic by importing the socialist and bureaucratic model of Europe.  The author probably assumed, given his frequent flattering of the erudition of his reading audience, that he was writing to people of like mind, which made him perhaps more honest and upfront than he would have been had he realized that not everyone reading the book was friendly to his political worldview or to his praise for Europe’s influence on American law and practice.

The nearly 300 pages of material in this book is organized into a thematically organized set of chapters and a slightly entertaining if somewhat arbitrary appendix.  The book opens with a discussion of Americans being particularly ignorant about the revolutionary changes going on in Europe.  The author then talks about the widening division between Europe and the United States during the early 2000s, as well as the pacifist political philosophy of Europe in the aftermath of World War II.  The author has a chapter talking about the promise of the Euro as a threat to the dollar, and then spends an entire chapter talking about GE’s failed attempts to acquire Honeywell in the face of European concerns about bundling and a lack of competition.  After this there is a chapter about European investments in American brands, an entirely too flattering discussion of Europe’s social model, an account of Europe’s lack of military capability, a glowing introduction to Europe’s “Generation E,” and a closing chapter encouraging readers to wake to what is going on in Europe.  After this comes two appendices, the first one giving the states of Europe and the second one showing the insanely complicated governing structure of the European Union.

Again, I am probably not the ideal reader for this book, but although I am fairly hostile to the author’s political worldview, I am at least a writer whose familiarity with Europe and with more recent events than this book’s conclusion allows me to evaluate the author’s claims.  The author does not come off well as a prophet.  To be sure, Europe’s unification is momentous, but it has hardly been without problems, including the massive debt crisis in many nations.  Likewise, although the author presents the UK as having a bit of an identity crisis, he appears not to have had in mind the Brexit and its complications for devolution within the EU.  Overall, the author is too sanguine about the EU and about its greatness, to the point where the author comes off as being particularly unpatriotic as an American, jeopardizing his own credibility as someone who can speak with authority to Americans who are more critical of foreign influences than he is.  Overall, this book is disappointing and politically unacceptable, and provides yet more evidence of the illegitimacy of much of left-wing political thought in the United States and its desire to make us just another corrupt European socialist country.

[1] See, for example:

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An Inexorable March

Sometimes the theme of an evening is a ripe piece of low-hanging fruit and sometimes it is a matter that requires a bit of thought.  I have now gone to a fair amount of dinners as a part of our congregation’s dinner clubs [1] and they have been quite a varied set of experiences, and that of last night had its own distinctive elements.  In fact, it was not until after the dinner was over that I realized how biased our group of people was to the distaff side.  Out of nine people there, I was one of only two gentlemen.  The husband of the hostess was away in Wyoming, and all of the additional guests in our party, two young women (one of whom was the daughter of the hostess) and the hostess’ sister-in-law, were women.  Being someone who tends to enjoy the company of ladies, despite my own lack of success in romantic endeavors, this was not something that I consciously thought about until later, although a fair amount of the discussion dealt with the awkwardness of being single when one attracts blame for it in some fashion, as at least a few of there could relate to.

As I was thinking about the meal, what struck me most was a sort of inexorable nature of it.  There was present a woman who is struggling with a progressive disease which has gradually laid waste to her own mobility.  There were several of us present pondering where we fit into the grand scheme of life and where we were to find our place in this world in terms of jobs and relationships and the like.  To add to the interest, during the course of the conversation after the meal some of us had the chance to look at a notice given to the hostess and her family about the expansion of the neighboring city of Cornelius.  We reflected on the fact that it was likely inevitable that their house, which currently is in a rural zone allowing for the taking care of chickens, will be annexed into the city of Cornelius and will be required to be on the city’s water and sewage and that taxes will likely get more expensive.  The hostess seemed resigned to moving further out into the country where there would be a bit more space and a bit less traffic, and even thought of moving down to Marion County to be closer to her future grandchildren.  All of this seemed to suggest the march of time that does not pause for anyone.

The meal itself offered the opportunity for a great deal of reflection.  The hostess chose a Thai theme, and so I made krapow gai kai dow, or basil leaf chicken with fried egg on top.  The dish itself was a tasty one and I am glad that it was enjoyed by the people there.  There were only a few leftovers and everyone seemed to enjoy all of the food that was provided, which was definitely something to appreciate.  Of course, it is hard for me to think of Thai food without thinking of my time in Thailand, and that sort of thought does not always leave me with a feeling of great tranquility.  My time in Thailand was not exactly the most peaceful, given my own predilection for finding myself in personal and political drama which was certainly in evidence there.  About that little more needs to be said, although I found it interesting that the other person at the dinner who had been in Thailand regretted her time there because she had not been as involved in helping the students there as she had wanted to be, largely because she seems to have taken a particularly relaxed approach to life.

Time marches on.  A night of conversation goes on long enough that it is very late by the time people leave.  Discussions range over subjects from food allergies to the way in which people can fail to make themselves appear to be marriage material through economic success or emotional and spiritual maturity.  Cities annex their rural hinterlands in the search of tax revenue and a larger population to make themselves more important among their growing neighbors.  Diseases progress and people struggle to have faith that they will be alright when they are no longer to fully take care of themselves.  Such is the world we live in, where progress can either be viewed as positive or negative depending on what is progressing and where one stands.  There is so much ambiguity in life, for though we are only here for a short while, there is much we long to say and long to hear and long to see and experience, and we are creatures given to worry that time is slipping away and that we have nothing to show for it that will last.

[1] See, for example:

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Last Of The Mohicans

You know that empty feeling an office gets when a long weekend approaches?  It begins early in the day, as people call in sick with imaginary maladies in order to stretch a three day weekend into four days.  Even for those who are able to resist the siren’s call and show up to work are not entirely immune, as their productivity is sapped by thoughts of what they are going to do on their long weekend, or indeed what they are going to do after work.  People search the cabinets looking for tea and find none, and so they make plans to work from home where the caffeine headaches [1] will not bother them after lunch.  For those who are still able to overcome the pull of unproductivity, the dangers do not cease.  Frustrations in doing one’s reports or in collecting money owed by others is hampered by the fact that everyone else is taking a long weekend and no help is available.  Even at long last, when one is nearing the end of the workday, there are still other frustrations to deal with when is trying to make accounts reconcile so that one does not have to come back to a large and unpleasant amount of work after the holiday is over.  In short, working anything close to a full day as a long weekend approaches makes one feel like the last of the Mohicans.

When I said this to the only two people in my entire department to be present at our office after 3PM this afternoon, I got a lot of laughter, as the mental image must have been rather entertaining.  My witty comment, though, as is often the case, was not entirely ridiculous, though.  The reference, of course, is to the novel by James Fenimore Cooper, from the 1820’s, where one of the last survivors of a nearly extinct tribe of American Indians is induced to take part in the French & Indian War even though he wanted to stay neutral and keep himself out of trouble.  The fact that the hero’s name is Natty Bumppo makes it an even more appropriate joke for me to make given the similarities with my own name.  Anyway, you can feel like the last member of your tribe when everyone goes home early on a weekend before a holiday, and as someone who tends to be rather sensitive to loneliness and solitude, it is certainly something I pick up on pretty quickly.

So, what did I do after leaving work about on time for all of my efforts at having a slightly longer weekend myself?  Well, first I went to the grocery store to acquire some items for tonight’s dinner club meeting, which involved a rather entertaining search for items that I normally do not buy.  For example, I feel it necessary to note that ground chicken is not as easy to find as an item of food as one might think.  Likewise, the local grocery store tends to be rather thin on the ground when it comes to exotic herbs like basil as well as unconventional sauces.  Considering these are the same places that only had a couple of brands of unleavened bread when I shopped there earlier this year, that would seem to indicate that this particular grocery store just does not suit those rare moments when I break the mold and seek unusual and quirky items.  I tend to think that the items I am shopping for cannot be all that unusual, but sometimes I grossly underestimate just how unusual my tastes are.  I suppose when one spends one’s life trying to pass oneself off as at least an acceptable sort of eccentric person that one neglects to realize just how odd one can be.

After my shopping was done I went home, it still being somewhat early in the afternoon, and proceeded to do some reading and writing.  Unfortunately, being somewhat tired as well, my reading was interrupted by occasional catnaps and/or bear naps.  At any rate, it was not too particularly late when I proceeded to do the cooking for tonight’s dinner.  I suppose, given my fondness for paying people to do my cooking for me most evenings, as well as for eating relatively ready-to-eat meals for lunch, that it must seem odd that I would be cooking much at all.  Nevertheless, I find the practice pretty useful and enjoyable, as one must hone one’s skills at cooking at least a little bit from time to time, lest one not have any ability to take care of oneself when all one has is food items and not meals already made.  Given my own upbringing, that would be an unacceptable situation.  If you want to find out how the dinner went, though, wait for the sequel.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution

The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn

In one sense, this book is not a particular surprise.  If you are familiar at all with the writings of Bernard Bailyn [1], you will have some idea of what you are getting here:  a thoughtful and scholarly account that has elegant and highly quotable prose as well as an attention to strong standards of both quantitative and qualitative elements.    You know you are going to get a book that is well-researched and worthy of reflection, and one that will come from an unexpected angle.  You may not be sure how his books will be different from the usual treatment of the material they cover, but you know they will be different.  All of that is true for this volume, which takes about three hundred pages or so to cover its subject, the roots of American republican political philosophy.  Anyone who is familiar with Bailyn’s work as a whole will know that he is going to discuss something of importance that other historical presentations ignore and that the study is going to be intense and in-depth and that it will show a remarkable degree of evenhandedness in its approach, and that will likely be enough for those who are fond of his writing to explore this volume, which won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize as well as a Bancroft Prize in 1968.

The structure of this book is straightforward, all the more stark in pointing out the immensely important nature of its contents for understanding the political history of the American Revolutionary generation.  First the author begins by looking at the literature of the American Revolution and comparing it to the polemical literature of Great Britain, which was generally of a more technically proficient quality, which makes sense given the fact that American writers were amateur writers who were busy in their day jobs.  After this the author spends a great deal looking at the sources and traditions of American political writing, not only looking at the familiar Greco-Roman and Enlightenment citations, but also spending a great deal of time looking at a forgotten and vitally important strain of obscure English opposition writing from the 17th and early 18th century.  After this Bailyn examines the American experience through a theory of politics that involved liberty and power, and that included a particularly pessimistic view of power.  Following this is a lengthy discussion of the logic of rebellion that proceeded from the premises of American political thought that led both future Revolutionaries and the British/Loyalists to go to the brink because of competing conspiratorial worldviews.  After this, Bailyn examines the transformation that book place over the period between 1765 and 1775 in American thoughts about representation and consent, constitution and rights, and sovereignty that made a break with the British Empire inevitable.  The final chapter adds a great deal of relevance by looking at the contagion of liberty into other areas outside of political theory to issues of slavery, the establishment of religion, democracy, and the deference and respect owed to superiors, all of which were drastically affected by American political rhetoric in ways that would have dramatic effects on the future of the American Republic.

It should go without saying that this book is of the most use to those who have an interest in the political history of the 17th and 18th centuries in the English speaking world [2].  This particular topic demonstrates the importance of the marginality and peripheral status of the English-speaking colonies of North America.  For much of our history, political trends that were subsumed in Continental Europe were allowed to flourish in the North American colonies, and the result is a distinctive and distinctively paranoid political culture that continues to shape the differences between the United States and European culture as a whole.  It is of the utmost importance that America has had a vibrant political culture that heavily indulged in the dark musings of country political philosophers who thought the worst of those in power.  This book, and others like it, are helpful in explaining where we come from, and that along makes this sort of book immensely useful to read.  We cannot do something about the sort of political impasse we find ourselves in unless we know how it is we got to this point–where our political culture has been shaped for centuries by a great mistrust for authority, which has somewhat predictable consequences in our own place and time.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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Book Review: Sometimes An Art

Sometimes An Art:  Nine Essays On History, by Bernard Bailyn

When I was an undergraduate student taking a course on historiography, there was one sense in which I was like all of my other classmates.  We were presented with a choice as to whether we would defend history as an art or as a science.  Everyone I talked to, and I made it an effort to discuss the matter widely, chose to view history as an art.  Now, at the time I was a civil engineering student, and nothing in my professional career has made me less fond of quantitative analysis, which I have spent a great deal of my own life involved in, but I am still prone to view history as an art [1].  This book, written by someone who like me is fond of a great deal of quantitative history, nevertheless gives a strong defense of history as an art by dealing with the craft of history, providing a set of thoughtful and related essays that combine together to present a worthwhile introduction to the author’s work as a whole.  This is the sort of work that gives highly quotable [2] and bite-sized servings of the author’s work as a way of encouraging the reader to look more into his material.

In terms of its structure, the nine essays of this work are divided into two parts and take up about 260 pages of material in total, making this a very reasonably sized book for most readers of history.  The first part of the book contains five essays on history and the struggle to get it right, first looking at the importance of data in better understanding the slave trade, then examining the importance of context in history (a favorite study of mine), an examination of three trends in modern history (the importance of data in providing the context of historical events, a greater cross-fertilization of disciplines to show influence, and the search for knowledge in interior and subjective aspects of history), and a sympathetic look at the American loyalists, among whom was at least one of my ancestors.  The second part of the book contains four essays that deal with the provincial aspects of the American founders, including a retrospective look at the ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, a comparative analysis of Scotland and America as England’s cultural provinces, co-authored with John Clive, an examination of how the peripheries of the British world were peopled, and a discussion of perfectionism in the context of American history.  At least as far as I am concerned, these are excellent essays and it is immensely worthwhile to read them here.

In terms of the overall structure of this book, it is apparent that this is a mosaic book, not a large and sustained one.  At this stage in the author’s life and career, though, anything he releases is likely to be worth reading, and he has earned the right to capitalize off of his well-earned reputation as a seminal historian of the Atlantic world to release late-career collections of essays for critical acclaim and the approval of discerning audiences.  I will certainly not begrudge him that profit, and this book further confirmed my own interest in reading as much by this author as I can, given that this is the third book I have read by him and all have been very excellent so far.  If you like reading thoughtful discussions of the American founding and gracious comments about its implications for other areas, including the founding of Australia, and you want to see the author’s work in small packages for appreciative audiences, this is a worthwhile book to read that will whet the appetite for more substantial material.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

“In politics he was active, bold, and forthright, but never a mean-spirited, vituperative, vengeful antagonist; his speeches, memos, letters, and formal pronouncements were logical, rational, and cogent. His aim in politics was to keep the peace, maintain the received structure of authority, and enforce the law in accepted, traditional ways. The Puritan values of self-restraint, personal morality, worldly asceticism, and above all, stubborn insistence on pursuing the truth however unpopular or dangerous it might be to do so were essential parts of his personality. He was acquisitive, but not ostentatious; eager for public office–for his family as much as for himself–but careful not to overstep the accepted bounds of law and custom. Though more dutiful than colorful and in appearance unimpressive–a contemporary described him as “tall, thin, half-starved”–he was intelligent, well informed, well-educated, and capable of clear exposition, with a writer’s instinct to resolve and objectify his experience by writing about it, if not with Jefferson’s lyrical flow than with Madison’s concision and accuracy of phrasing. In this sense his life was surprisingly contemplative (150-151).”

“From his embattled position in the defense of a liberal alternative to totalitarianism, the enemy was ideological perfectionism, the passionate pursuit of which he took to be the driving force behind the twentieth century’s tyrannies. No one knew better than Berlin or expressed more brilliantly the genealogy and structure of perfectionist ideas. But their threat to civilization, in the most general terms, lay not in their intrinsic malevolence but in the brutality of those who implacably imposed them: the populist thugs, the fanatical monopolists of power–beings alien to Berlin’s sensibilities, incomprehensible to his humanely inquiring mind (260).”

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