Book Review: Richard Hofstader's The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays

Political analysis and punditry can date awfully quickly.  Nevertheless–and this is especially true in a place like the United States, whose structural continuity is exceptional–some pieces of political prose, especially when written in a historical context, can have relevance for several generations.

One of those analyses–actually a series of essays not originally intended to be a corpus–is Richard Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays.  It’s one of those books, for better or worse, whose influence has not waned in the years since its first publication in the mid-1960’s (some of the essays go back further than that).  It’s one of those works, for the left at least, that leaves you wondering why anyone bothers writing on the subjects again, except that a) the names change and b) they need the money.

The book is made up of six of Hofstader’s essays, divided into two sets of three.  The first are “Studies in the American Right”, which leaves the reader no doubt where Hofstader’s sympathies lie.  The first essay is, of course, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, and the other two concern the campaign and defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, along with an analysis of the “pseudo-conservative” (to use Hofstader’s distinction of the Goldwater right from the moderates in the Republican party who opposed him) movement.  And this is where the relevance comes in: depending upon how you look at it, Hofstader either nails the right so well that everyone who comes after him cribs him to be correct, or that his view of “flyover country” is so congenial to the left that they no longer have to think of another model to use (which is why, I think, liberals often refer to this piece in their own analyses).

All of the usual actors are in place: the militant anti-communists, the religious right, the small business people, the less educated, the emotionalist–all of them find a place in Hofstader’s knave’s gallery of which he presents a sweeping view.  Hofstader, to be fair, does not believe that the paranoid style is the exclusive franchise of the right.  But he hardly spends enough time on their left-wing counterparts to leave any doubt of where he thinks the home of paranoia in American politics lies.  One thing he consoles himself with is a) Goldwater managed to alienate such a large part of the electorate and b) their commitment to their cause without regard for political consequences indicates that their 1964 performance with Goldwater would be repeated in the future.

Or would it? In the second series of essays, “Some problems in the Modern Era”, he deals with three topics which don’t get a good deal of treatment these days.  The first concerns the Spanish-American War and our entry into imperialism, one which was uncharacteristic (for foreign imperialism at least) up to that time.  The last is devoted to William “Coin” Harvey, his “Financial School” and the subject of bimetallism, where he is able to capture a conspiracy style of thinking that has resurfaced in differing forms.  But his treatment of the intricacies of bimetallism, something that is difficult for those of us who are products of fiat money times may find difficult to grasp, is one of the strong points of the book.

But it was in the middle essay, on the subject of anti-trust, that the possible future (at that point) of the post-Goldwater Republican right surfaced:

In politics, of course, it is the right-wingers who really count–it is they who have the numbers, the money, the political leverage.  They can also invoke the old American pieties and can appeal to the kind of old-fashioned American who believes that federal fiscal policy is just like the family budget.  Much of our conservative writing echoes with concern over the decline of the older kind of economic morale, which it identifies with smaller entrepreneurship.  But conservatives understandably fear to make the large corporation the object of their criticism; this smacks too much of subversion.  They have a safer and more congenial outlet against the organisation of modern life in the form of denunciations of big government…

In this regard Hofstader was prescient, for the conservatives, roundly defeated in 1964, and the Republican Party, trashed by Nixon in Watergate, looked like a lost cause by the mid-1970’s.  But conservatives’ organisation and rootedness in the country’s core ethic–plus finding a more congenial leader in Ronald Reagan who knew “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em”–put them back in the driver’s seat in the 1980’s and pretty much for the next quarter century.  So how else has Hofstader’s whole model held up?

Hofstader was right in pointing out the paranoid style in American politics, but he was blind to its relevance on the left.  It wouldn’t be long before that came roaring out in the 1960’s campus revolts which were in part a revolt against liberalism’s own quiescent acceptance of large corporations (something Hofstader also identified).  If there’s one thing the unwashed students didn’t think much of, it was working for “the man”.  Such raw emotionalism resulted in the nervous breakdown that the U.S. experienced in the early 1970’s.  (A more balanced view of American emotionalism can be found here).

But that, in turn, leads to a more contemporary question: if Barack Obama manages to crush the Republican Party the way he wants to (and, for those who can still count, that would lead to a one-party system) and at the same time break the right once and for all, would we have a better country for it?  Or, to put it another way that would be a fair question Hofstader doesn’t address, how is it that a nation of insane crackpots has been as successful as we have?  The 60’s and post-60’s left in this country hasn’t shown that it understands how to have a growing economy (let alone really wanting one) or a great nation, let alone one with a more even distribution of income (one that existed, by the way, in Hofstader’s day).  They are good at going through their process.  But will that carry the day when the competition is Asia?

Although Hofstader makes many astute observations about this country, its past and for him its present, one gets the impression that he’s like Biblical scholars who really don’t believe the truth content of the book they’ve devoted their lives to studying but don’t have the grit to find another line of work.  One another level one can only wish that those who pine to make us like Europe would just move there, but that’s another post.  In the meanwhile The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays is a “must read” for those who really want to understand where liberals have come from for a long time.

Book Review: Frank Bartleman's Azusa Street

Anyone who has been around Pentecostal academic circles (and yes, they do exist) has heard a great deal about the Azusa Street revival of 1906, an event which marks (but does not solely define) the beginnings of modern Pentecost.  And they’ve heard many things about.  But how do they know these things?  How, for example, do we know that William Seymour, the black man who lead the initial revival, prayed speaking into a shoe box?  Who said that the colour line was washed away in the Blood?  How do we know that they sang “The Comforter Has Come” as sort of an anthem?

While not the only source, a key witness–and participant–to all of this who went on to write his account down was Frank Bartleman.  His Azusa Street: How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, first published in 1925, is probably the single most important account we have of an event which has, over the past century, swept the world and transformed Christianity as nothing else has since the Reformation.  However, in spite of what has come to be associated with “Pentecostal” and “Charismatic”, Bartleman–at once journalist, tractarian and preacher–was in many ways a far cry of what many associate now with a Pentecostal minister.

Bartleman was born in 1871 in Pennsylvania, and was converted in a Baptist church in Philadelphia.  Like many of his era, he was uneasy with the church choices of his day, and he wandered from one to another, getting married in the meanwhile.  He eventually ended up “cured of ever worshipping a religious zeal or creed” at the Pillar of Fire Church in Denver.  From there he moved to Los Angeles, where he ministered to the downtrodden, preached and wrote and distributed tracts.

There had been signs in Los Angeles that something greater was coming in Methodist and Baptist churches.  There was also the Welsh Revival in progress across the Atlantic, and Bartleman corresponded with Evan Roberts.  When Seymour was locked out of a Nazarene church for preaching the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues, he began his work at the Azusa Street Mission.  On 19 April 1906–the day after the San Francisco earthquake up the coast–Bartleman first visited the Mission.  The evidence Seymour had preached for had been out in the open for ten days, and the racially mixed services abounded with a new move of the Spirit.

That move did not come without controversy.  As would be the case today, the secular press of the day (especially the Los Angeles Times) trashed the movement.  But there were problems enough “inside the camp”.  Bartleman, for his part, attributes most of these to the ministers, both those who opposed the movement and those who supported and attempted to “lead” the movement.  Bartleman was a tireless advocate of a truly Spirit-led Christianity where the only authority came from God and the only movement came directed by the Holy Spirit, and the machinations of ministers grieved him greatly.  He even decried the “jazzy” music that came into vogue in Pentecostal churches after World War I.  For those of us who were nurtured on folk music during the Charismatic Renewal, then went to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches only to be told that first the “bar room” style, then rock-style praise and worship are the only things that came from the Throne Room, such an assessment is heartening.  (His comments on the deleterious effect of war on Pentecost and revival bear repeating; it wasn’t the first time it happened, and certainly not the last).

His attitude toward ministers–one that has some parallel in Charles Finney, although in many ways Bartleman is more “purely spiritual” than Finney was–is only part of what sets him apart from today’s standard.  He lived his life in poverty, depending upon God for his sustenance and wandering from one rented room (or not much more than that) to another.  His daughter Esther died shortly before the revival began, leading to the most heart-rending part of the book.  But he accepted what came his way as part of the price he paid for doing God’s work and forwarding the revival, one which he was confident would go around the world, as it did.

Bartleman writes in a maudlin style that has gone out of fashion, with many pithy and poignant phrases, but he still writes with more precision and without the positive-confession triumphalism that is common now.  This edition’s introduction by Vinson Synan provides very helpful historical background to Bartleman’s life and writing, although Bartleman’s own book does not need as much commentary as many others.

Bartleman ends his book with a plea for Christian unity.  Division and difficulties were present even at Azusa Street; our track record in that regard is no better, we should take his exhortation to heart.  Azusa Street: How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles is a sincere and documented account about a movement that has shaken the world to the same extent as the earthquake shook San Francisco, one that anyone who considers him or herself an heir to should read–and one that those who don’t should also.

Book Review: Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45

When we think of China today, we think of a nation growing very fast economically and taking its place as one of the great powers of the world.  Getting to that point–or getting to that point again, if one takes a long view of history–took a course of great suffering and several unexpected turns (how unexpected they were depends upon whom you are talking to). Understanding that course is essential to understanding where China and the Chinese are today, and a key reference is still Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45.  Told through the career of one of this country’s unique generals, it documents not only the course of China itself from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the end of World War II but the course of American policy (civilian and military) and how that policy interacted with the realities of China to, at best, not hinder the Communist victory in 1949.

In reading this book, one needs to keep in mind its central purpose: to show that the “loss” of China in 1949 was not caused by pro-Communist people in our own government but by the realities of China in general and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government in particular, led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  It’s easy to forget that the one event since World War II that has galvanised the American left more than any other was the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s.  That scare, in turn, was given life in no small measure by the fall of Nationalist China.  It’s supremely ironic, therefore, that the beginning of the reversal of American isolation of the People’s Republic of China was presided over by the left’s bête noire, Richard Nixon, a process begun shortly after the book’s publication.

On 10 October 1911 (the “double tenth”) anti-Qing revolutionaries staged a coup in Wuhan.  They chose as their leader Li Yuan-Hung, the regimental commander who was hiding under his bed.  Told that he was to lead the revolution or be shot, he chose the former, and the beginning of the end of China’s last imperial dynasty was at hand.

The following month Joseph Stilwell made his first visit to China.  The scion of an old prominent Yankee family, he was a West Point graduate and a career Army officer with a strong sense of duty and a dislike for many of the trappings of officer life.  He had a gift for languages, and learned Chinese before his first trip.  That knowledge made him over the long haul one of the most knowledgeable “China hands” the U.S. had at its disposal, albeit one whose language skills were not matched by his diplomacy.

In the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the system for governing the country was decapitated, which devolved the governing of the country to the provinces.  That was the source of the “warlord” system which dominated Chinese politics in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and led one observer to call the situation “democrazy”.  More to the point, Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Republic, characterised his country as not one China, but a “sheet of loose sand”.  The centripetal tendency of Chinese politics–not understood by Americans–is a reason the People’s Republic acts the ways it does towards dissenters, as they proved fatal to the Kuomintang.

After Sun’s death, leadership of the Kuomintang ended up with his brother-in-law, Chiang Kai-Shek.  A Chinese politician of the old school, Chiang attempted to pull things together through a system of patronage and playing one warlord/governor/general off against another and, in doing so, insure his survival.  The one group of people he had absolutely no use for were the Communists, doubtless because they opposed the moneyed classes which bankrolled him.  The history of the Kuomintang and the Communists is complicated, because in the beginning the Kuomintang modelled itself after the Soviet Communist Party and had Soviet advisors.  Chiang attempted to exterminate the Communists after formally splitting with them, which led to the famous “Long March” to Yenan.

Stilwell, after serving in France during World War I, was posted in China in various capacities during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He supervised the building of a road near the Yellow River and got to meet many of the political figures of the time in North China (he was stationed in Beijing and Tianjin).  One of the more interesting was the “Christian Warlord” Feng Yu-Hsiang, who baptised his troops with a fire hose and taught them evangelicals hymns.  In addition to that, he also taught them trades and to treat the people properly, as the Communists were to do in Yenan a few years later.  Stilwell also found what just about everyone else who has visited China has found: some of the most charming and beautiful people on the planet.

Bringing up Feng brings up the subject of the missionary effort in China.  It’s easy to forget that China was the mission field par excellence for the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.  But missions were vastly different.  In contrast to today, where American elites are as little inclined to be Christian missionaries as they are to serve in the military, the Christian mission was very much a Main Line effort, both in terms of the denominations and the family origins of the missionaries, including Franklin Roosevelt’s mother’s family.  Seldom have the U.S. ruling classes had so much foreign experience of any kind.  One thing that the elites of the day shared with those we have now is a childlike faith in the Chinese ability to embrace Western democracy, at that time through the effects of the mission work.  This system, with its mission stations and protections for foreigners extended to the missionaries, was criticised at the time, but both facilities and missionaries turn up often in the narrative.  At the end of the book, Tuchman states that Christianity did not address the needs of the Chinese, but later events have shown that the missionaries, having started the work, simply needed to step aside for the greatest Christian revival in human history.

Chiang’s method was a recipe for corruption.  It just might have triumphed, however, had it not been for one of the rude interruptions of history: the Japanese invasion of China, starting with the north in 1931 and moving southward through the decade and into the next.  When the United States was kicked into World War II by Pearl Harbour, Stilwell was assigned to the Chinese forces on the east side of Burma.  The Japanese were swift in their conquests in South-east Asia, swallowing up the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and ultimately Burma itself.  The British had never had a serious military challenge in most of their empire, and the Japanese basically overran Burma in short order.

Stilwell, caught with about a hundred others and trapped, opted to walk out of Burma.  He even refused the services of Robert “God is My Co-Pilot” Scott, who came to fly him out.  If he expected others to walk out, he did also.  So his party, many sick and wounded, set out on a miserable march northward.  It’s an epic that rivals the Communists’ trek in difficulty if not in distance.  Along with Stilwell was Baptist medical missionary Gordon Seagrave, whose Burmese nurses–singing Christian hymns and songs along the way–seemed to fare best.  The walk out exemplified much of what was best in Stilwell–his willingness to share the hardships of those under him, his devotion to duty irrespective of cost to himself, and his dogged determination to meet an objective.

Once out Stilwell had to face his two biggest problems: Chiang Kai-Shek and the British.  The latter were the usual obstacles to progress.  Their first goal was to keep their empire in general and their treaty-enforced place in China in particular, and often ran interference against Stilwell to fulfil both goals.  Stilwell in turn disliked the British and, in his style, wasn’t reticent about letting that out.

With Chiang things were more complicated.  Both Roosevelt and Stilwell were convinced that China was to become a great power, the former through his mother’s family experience and the latter through his own.  Roosevelt additionally wanted to help China’s entry into the world stage.  Chiang’s method of power holding, however, prevented him from seeing a successful military figure from emerging among his generals, to say nothing about the skimming from the top he was doing with American aid.  He turned his military strategy into a large delaying tactic, irritating the more proactive Stilwell to no end.  Most of the book is taken up with Stilwell’s struggles with “Peanut” (the code name for Chiang Kai-Shek) over military strategy.  Stilwell was able to get enough authority over enough troops–and trained many of them personally, as was his style–to win Myitkyina back from the Japanese and open up a larger flow of supply to China, both by air and land.

Chiang’s continued back-pedaling, however, combined with Stilwell’s ever-difficult relationship with the British, made follow-up of this victory difficult.  The result of this was a diplomatic “Hail Mary pass” if there ever was one: Roosevelt asked Chiang to make Stilwell commander over the entire Chinese army.  Chiang, shamed at the request, came back with his own request: remove Stilwell.  Roosevelt complied and Stilwell’s career in the CBI (China-Burma-India) theatre was at an end.

One thing that Tuchman attempts to explore was Stilwell’s regard for the Communists.  He was so frustrated with Chiang that he was certainly ready to consider working with them, but Chiang blocked that relationship.  Stilwell didn’t see the Chinese as much Communistic, which probably elicited snickers when the book was published but has proven correct, especially since the death of Chairman Mao.  (The Soviets were never really sold on Chinese Communist orthodoxy’s purity, which is one reason it took so long for them to back Mao and his party and why they were shown in the door in China.)  Stilwell also saw China as a great manufacturing power, this before Japan led East Asia on its export-driven road to success after World War II.

Tuchman remains one of this country’s great historians, although occasionally one gets lost in her battle descriptions.  It was a special pleasure reading a book that showed signs of a serious editor at work, which is more than we generally get these days (such as this).  She wrote when many of the principals in the story were still living (Stilwell himself died of cancer in 1946) and had a better feel of what a World War II narrative should be like than we do now.

My only regret is that I did not read this (and many other books like it) before my foray into China in 1981.  It is a tribute that Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 remains the definitive narrative on the subject forty years after its first publication.  It is an era that is too easily forgotten, but it’s too important of a moment in American–and Chinese–history to set aside.

Book Review: Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach

One day while growing up in Palm Beach, I stopped to visit my grandmother.  As I’ve documented numerous times on this blog, I frequently found myself on the wrong end of Palm Beach’s brutal social system (well, the young part of it, at least.)  In response to my complaints about the place, she, in some ways embodying the “old Palm Beach,” said that the town was a place that grew on you and you’d always want to come back to.

As the years pass, in some ways I find she’s right, although Palm Beach, like some other places in the world, doesn’t have a “right of return.”  More to the point Palm Beach is a place that doesn’t leave you once you’ve internalized it.  The world never looks the same once you’ve lived and moved and had your being in a town that is, for many of the most successful in this world, the ne plus ultra of communities.

It is with more than passing interest, therefore, that I picked up a copy of Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.  Leamer, who has written extensively about the Kennedys (another Palm Beach fixture,) went one better than many people who write about the place: he actually has a residence there and moved socially amongst the residents before putting his thoughts, experiences and interviews to book form.  How he manages to show his face in the place after this is his problem, but for me a documented journey through the island was an opportunity to reflect on my own experience and to see what had changed and what had not.

The best place to start is the title.  There’s no doubt that Madness Under the Royal Palms was intended to be provocative.  But is the way the social system works in Palm Beach really a generalized form of insanity?  A true Palm Beacher would simply come back in this way: is there any other way to run a social system?  Like many places in the world, Palm Beach runs on its own internal logic, which makes sense to the participants even if it defies the conventional wisdom of outsiders.  But one of the first lessons of life under the royal palms (or the Australian pines, or the banyan trees, or behind the ficus hedges) is that you’re not on this earth to conform to the conventional wisdom of the unwashed.

Leamer’s chief explanation of the ostensibly bizarre doings on the island is that the system is entirely driven by money, especially its disposition.  At one point in the book he compares the destructive results of the system to the One Ring of J.R.R. Tolkien.  A more relevant ring analogy would be Wagner.  Palm Beach has more than its share of Alberichts who have forsaken love for gold, and that fact leaves more conventional wisdom about human relationships behind as well.  In the end, however, things are more complicated.

In the midst of his chronicle of the present reality of Palm Beach, Leamer does provide some background.  Palm Beach is originally a product of the Gilded Age, a place meant to be both the pleasant geographical terminus of a nation and the end game of success and upward social mobility.  His account of the family affairs of Henry Morrison Flagler, the real founder of the place, is intended to be compared to the escapades of his current characters.  To some extent the career of Addison Mizner, the gay architect whose Mediterranean creations defined Palm Beach for many years (and much of whose work has been lost in the “level and rebuild” craze that has taken the town by storm the last thirty years) is paralleled with the current situation of that community in Palm Beach.  But Palm Beach, although a world unto itself in many ways, is influenced by the changes taking place in American society at large, and Leamer’s book documents those changes without really coming to grips for an explanation.

One of the important variables in the way people move up socially is determined by the rate of ascent.  As long as that rate is moderate, it’s possible for those who at the top to begin with to properly assimilate those who are moving up, both by marriage and by enforcement of the rules of society.  When that rate is very fast, however, the assimilation problem breaks down, and you end up with most dreadful result possible: tasteless nouveaux riches making a statement and getting away with it.

Leamer is certainly aware of the effects of vast sums of money showing up all at once, and its effect on society:

At the top of the milieu Shannon (Donnelly, the Palm Beach Daily News’ society columnist) covered was a new breed of billionaire and near-billionaire who set themselves apart and above from the old elite.  For the most part, they did not join the clubs, and they held themselves separate from the community.  The gods of irony or unintended consequence had played a cosmic joke, giving them money beyond human imagination, money so grand that there were no pleasures expensive enough be beyond them; yet in having everything they cared for nothing. (pp. 153-4)

The fundamental disconnect between money and the positive human attributes that most Americans associate with material success isn’t new in Palm Beach.  The whole concept of “more money than brains” is an old one there.  The realization of that disconnect is one of those things that sticks with a product of Palm Beach more than just about anything else.  It’s a major reason, for example, for my instinctive aversion to prosperity teaching, an aversion that’s next to impossible to explain to people.  (I see that my fellow Palm Beacher George Conger has a similar aversion that that theology, although he, like most, couches it in Biblical terms.)  What’s changed, however, is a) the size of the fortunes being made and b) the fact that most of the people who have them have ostensibly come by the wealth in the first generation, which implies that they’re responsible for its accumulation even when there’s no obvious reason why they should be.

The inrush of that kind of money has changed the landscape of Palm Beach more than anything else, both physically (to the extent that those who want to build can get past the preservationists) and socially.  At the vanguard of that change is Donald Trump, whose transformation of the Mar-a-Lago estate into a private club, with the concomitant opportunity of the clubless arrivistes to have their own place in the sun free from the constraints of places like the Everglades Club, the Bath and Tennis (B&T) Club, or even the Palm Beach Country Club.  (As an aside, my gut tells me that Leamer has overplayed his hand on the formal stuffiness of the B&T.  Palm Beach is full of institutions which set ridiculous rules and people who ignore them when the situation calls for it.  The B&T was the place, for example, where one Palm Beach Day School classmate asked me at a dance, “Are you experienced?”)

Mentioning the Palm Beach Country Club brings up another ongoing transformative aspect to Palm Beach life: the island’s Jewish community.  Jews have come to Palm Beach since the beginning, in the early years readily mixing with their Gentile friends.  (For numerous reasons I prefer my mother’s term for the non-children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over Leamer’s “WASP.”)  The whole saga of a Jewish community that is socially (and to some extent physically) separate from its Gentile counterpart began in 1944, three years before the founding of the State of Israel.  At that time Jewish entrepreneur A.M. Sonnabend offered to purchase a large tract of land and buildings which included the Biltmore Hotel and the original Flagler mansion.  Just as their Zionist counterparts needed an Arthur Balfour to facilitate their return to the Promised Land, so also did the Jews who wished to come to the island.  They found one in Claude Reese, scion of a pioneer family in Palm Beach County and an eminent realtor.  (The Southern Scots-Irish have always been the great interlopers between Jew and Gentile, and always with unexpected results.)  The Gentiles were furious at such an invasion, so Reese, mindful of his commission, came up with a plan.  Knowing that Sonnabend was undercapitalized, he offered to the residents the option to buy out his contract before he could come up with the money.  They could not bring themselves to do so, and Sonnabend was able to make the purchase.

The subsequent quasi-two-state history has pretty much paralleled its Middle Eastern counterpart, albeit with more money per capita on the table and less bloodshed.  (My brother did get a fractured jaw out of the conflict.)  The Gentiles fulminate and moan about the Jews and their ways, but with each passing year the Jewish presence in Palm Beach increases and the Gentile decreases.  Without enough fresh Gentile blood and money (and without the Palestinians’ death penalty for selling property to the Jews, we sold our house to a Jewish couple when we left in 1972) Palm Beach is transformed into a predominantly Jewish town, gripes about the Shiny Sheet looking like the Jerusalem Post notwithstanding.  (Personally I think that the paper’s coverage of Jewish holidays and other religious events is one of the best things they do.)  In the meanwhile Palm Beach life goes on with separate clubs, charity balls and other social events.  It’s a situation that doesn’t fit into anyone’s “politically correct” paradigm and Leamer has received criticism for discussing it.  But he is spot-on in his description.  I first commented on this state of affairs in 2005; its perpetuation isn’t really a credit to anyone on the island.

While discussing communities in Palm Beach, Leamer documents the rise (or more accurately the revealing) of another group: the gay community.  Until the 1990’s the existence of same was largely an open secret in a town where open secrets are plentiful.  But, in parallel with developments elsewhere, the gay community has come out in force to the extent that Leamer proclaims that Palm Beach is as gay as San Francisco.  (But does it rival Atlanta?)  As is the case with just about everything else in Palm Beach, the results don’t match conventional wisdom.  To begin with, Leamer had more difficulty getting gays to talk about their life in Palm Beach more than any other group, and in some cases was forced to use pseudonyms, something that strikes me as “old school Palm Beach” as much as anything he touches upon.  Beyond that, rather than creating a new paradigm for life on the island, “(w)hat the gays in Palm Beach have produced is largely a society that replicates the straight world with the same preoccupations the same narrow preconceptions and judgments.  They play same games with charity and go through the same struggles to get their Botoxed features in the Shiny Sheet.” (p. 253)

If group documentation was Leamer’s main device to chronicle Palm Beach in the decades straddling the turn of the millennium, it would probably make for a dull book.  Leamer’s technique, however, is to use selected people to illustrate the state of the island.  He weaves his characters skilfully like a good novelist, which is good to hold your interest, and of course it’s always a good idea to keep up with the key players (which he struggled to find in some cases, especially when it came to the Gentiles.)  Novelists, however, are forced to resort to artifices to keep the narrative moving, and although Palm Beach is this country’s small town par excellence, he runs the risk of either missing something or someone really important or having to bend his narrative to keep his story together.

Through his characters we see the various aspects of life in Palm Beach: the houses, the Worth Avenue shopping, and the charity balls.  These last are not to be underestimated; they define both the season in general and those who attend them.  They are part of the race to the top that Leamer likens to a greyhound race (an analogy I used in my piece Running Rusty.)  Although these have doubtless raised money for worthy causes, the whole spectacle of the things tends to sour the long-term observer to charitable giving as a whole, which is something else that’s hard to explain outside of Palm Beach.  But perhaps the sincerity of the givers and guests should not be underestimated.  Leamer’s epilogue is the aftermath of the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s scheme, which drained funds from both the Palm Beach Country Club and a good portion of its membership.  In the wake of that collapse, one lament many of his Jewish victims made was that they were no longer able to give to charity, something that struck me as heartfelt.

The one place that hit home more than any other was the effect of Palm Beach-level wealth on family life. It was painful to read many of the accounts.  This is one place where Palm Beach has changed very little.  Children are still victims of acrimonious divorces and abductions that would land lesser parents in prison, in between being shunted off to boarding schools and raised by the help.  Leamer’s account of Fred Keller, which ended up in Keller murdering his wife and going to prison while his son Fredchen blocked him out of his life, was one of the more riveting—and gut-wrenching—things to get through in the book.  But if Leman had gone back a generation or two, he could have found equally squalid accounts.

That, of course, brings me to an aspect of Palm Beach life I am all too familiar with: Palm Beach Day School.  His description of the school (with the exception of a few details) could have been made when I was there:

The Day School teachers are often excellent, and they try to teach the children about the world beyond Palm Beach, but it is difficult.  Ten-year-olds have their hair colored and go in for weekly manicures and pedicures.  The private school children learn how to judge another person by his clothes, his car, and his address.   Many of them are brought up more by nannies than mothers, and only toddled occasionally to be displayed to dinner guests like a new bibelot.  Many of the children, especially those who are the children of divorce, have their own therapists with whom they discuss their problems.

They live on their own island of children within the island of Palm Beach.  If things go according to plan, they go to prep school and then to the Ivy League, and from there perhaps to Wall Street.  As long as they live in this pocket of privilege, they are smart and adept, but step across the bridge into what most people call America, and they are confronted with a world about which they know nothing. (pp. 24-25)

At the start I considered the book’s title, Madness Under the Royal Palms.  It’s time to consider the subtitle: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.  Leamer rightly describes Palm Beach, behind the three bridges that both connect and separate the town from the mainland, as the country’s first gated community.  It is a place at the pinnacle of this country’s life, and its residents—past and present—know it.  For all intents and purposes they might as well inscribe on all of the bridges’ the street lights the same motto the Romans had for the Straits of Gibraltar: ne plus ultra, there is no beyond.  And it’s not only gated from the outside world, but within there are many gates and walls that keep people from each other as well, barriers more than what we see “beyond the gates.”

To have grown up in such a place was and is an experience both defining and dissatisfying.  There has to be better, one tells oneself, even as people pay exorbitant prices for large houses (only to replace them in some cases) on tiny lots to have their address on the island.  Some of that beyond can be found in that wide world beyond; in that respect, the efforts of my Palm Beach Day school teachers paid off (maybe too much.)  But when you’re in the “centre of the universe,” there is ultimately only one plus ultra that can satisfy:

And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be. (Hebrews 13:12-14)

Book Review: Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide

One of the challenges of New Testament study at any level is simply putting ourselves–and the events and people depicted therein–into the world in which they actually happened and lived.  The Greco-Roman and Jewish world at the turn of the first millennium has many features that are on their face unfamiliar to us, yet are crucial to understand the life and ministry of Our Lord and the early days of the church.  Many of these features, if properly explained, can be more readily understood, clearing up mysteries and enriching our understanding of the Scriptures.

A book that can be very useful in that explanation is Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide.  Written by Dr. William A. Simmons, Associate Professor of New Testament at Lee University, it uses the device of “people groups” to break down and explain the various groups and institutions that Jesus and the early church encountered in the New Testament era.  The whole concept of “people groups” may conjure visions of political correctness run amok, but this book is anything but politically correct.  Sticking with the Biblical text while employing a broad range of scholarship, Simmons begins with a brief introduction which is more of an overture than anything else, repeating themes that he returns to in the core of the narrative.

Simmons’ core contention is that the Judaism’s leitmotif from the Babylonian Exile onward to the destruction of Herod’s Temple was dealing with constant threat of national extinction, either through genocide or assimilation.  (For some reason the author uses the term “holocaust” for just about every disaster the Jews encounter, even when genocide isn’t the whole discussion.)  In doing so Simmons extensively explores the intertestamental period, a portion of time that many Evangelicals look upon with the same inchoate dread as Muslims do al-jahiliya.  That, in turn, is due to the fact that those books referred to by Protestants as “apocryphal” and Catholics as “deuterocanonical” (specifically 1 and 2 Maccabees, but also Sirach and Wisdom) are key references for this period, which is the immediate prologue of the New Testament era.  But Simmons is unafraid of using and discussing these sources, along with other classical sources, chief among which is Josephus.

The Jews’ response to their existential threat varied from religious resistance and exclusivity (the Pharisees and Essenes) to political accommodation (the Sadducees and Herodians) to political revolt (the Zealots).  Some of these make up the people groups he reviews, which are as follows:

  • The Pharisees
  • The Sadducees
  • The Scribes, an excellent section which shows how literacy empowered this group in a world where it was the exception
  • The Zealots
  • The Tax Collectors, with an overview of the Roman system of tax farming and how the Jews were paying taxes both to the Romans (and their clients) and the Temple
  • The Sinners
  • The “People of the Land” who clashed with the Jewish establishment from Ezra’s return from exile onwards.  This whole subject engenders a discussion of Ezra’s exclusivistic standards, why they were brought into being and how they conflicted with other Jewish and semi-Jewish groups.
  • The Samaritans
  • John the Baptist and his disciples, which is where Simmons brings in the Essenes and Qumran.
  • The Hebrews and the Hellenists.  In his coverage of these two groups, he deals with one of the knottiest problems in studying the Acts of the Apostles: the whole rationale behind the appointment of Stephen and the other deacons, and the nature of these two groups both within Judaism and the Jerusalem church.  Simmons’ idea is that the Hellenists, being Jewish by religion but largely Greek in culture, were the vanguard of the church’s outreach to the Gentile world, and also the chief sufferers of the persecution unleashed by the Sanhedrin.
  • Charlatans, Exorcists and Magicians
  • The Herodians
  • The Roman Imperial Rulers, which includes a description of every emperor from Augustus to Domitian, including the most detailed description I have seen of the lives of the three emperors of Tacitus’ “one and long year” (69 A.D.) namely Galba, Otho and Vitellius
  • The Centurions
  • Patrons, Clients and Trade Guilds.  Patronage drove the whole Roman system and made it work for a millennium, but this is a subject that gets almost no coverage in Christian literature.  Simmons discusses patronage in general, how it affected the church from the outside, and how the patronage mentality, engrained in the people, entered the church.
  • The Greek Philosophers.  Another subject that Evangelicals tend to shy away from, Simmons concentrates on two schools: the Epicureans and the Stoics.
  • Slaves and Freed Persons, where he discusses the whole institution in its Roman (not American) context and why the church probably did not openly advocate its abolition at the beginning

Simmons’ narrative is generally clear.  He tries to avoid the academic jargon that seminary scholars are famous for, but many of his topics are complex.  Lighting the way are his illustrations, which are numerous and attractive.  In particular his use of the artwork of J.-J. Tissot is proof that, as long as copyright laws are what they are, Christian authors will continue to profit from their nineteenth century predecessors, although there’s no question that Tissot’s work (he spent extensive time in the Holy Land) does add to the book.

The editing needs some touching up in spots.  If there’s one aspect of the content that in my opinion could use some enhancement, it’s his use of his sources and context after the New Testament era, which needs to be brought up to par with his use of intertestamental information.  For example, his depiction of the brutality of the Julio-Claudian emperors should be set against, say, the Severans and their third century successors, whose damage to the Empire was far more extensive and ultimately proved to be fatal in the West.  Some discussion of the effects of the Roman world on the development of Christian theology wouldn’t hurt either.  For example, he discusses the “graces” that came from patrons, but that reality in turn influenced Augustine’s concept of justification, so important for Reformed theology.  In the reverse, he mentions the proper client response of being eucharistos (grateful) without really dealing with the relationship between that and the Lord’s Supper.

But perhaps much of this is beyond the scope of the book, which is broad enough.  It’s hard to think of a book where one can get “up to speed” more readily on the world of Jesus and the Apostles than Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide, and as such it is an essential reference for those who wish to really know what it was like to walk and live in the world of Jesus and his Apostles.

The book’s author furnished the review copy.

Book Review: The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy

Ever since World War II, most Americans have taken for granted that we should have a strong military establishment befitting a world power.  That wasn’t always the case; in fact, it took some serious reality checks to convince a critical mass of the American body politic that any substantial military establishment was even necessary.  In spite of the fact that the Republic was born with a long coastline (and one that got longer with territorial acquisitions,) this was particularly true with the Navy.  The process by which that perception changed is the backdrop for Frances Diane Robotti and James Vescovi’s The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy.  Through the events of one ship and those who commanded it, the story is told of the U.S.’ earliest forays into both foreign relations and world commerce.

The need for a substantial standing military force wasn’t obvious in the early years of our Republic; in fact, the general consensus was that the whole point of the founding of the U.S. was to get away from large, impressed (drafted) military forces.  (The New York draft riots during the Civil War demonstrate that this opinion persisted for a long time.)  Unfortunately, the French Revolution which began in 1789 and the European conflicts which followed that caught the U.S. between competing powers.  That squeeze was manifested most clearly in the effect it had on U.S. shipping.  In spite of what looks to us now as primitive technology of shipping and communications, international commerce was vital to the welfare of the Republic.  Shorn by independence of the Royal Navy’s protection, American shipping fell victim to interceptions of all kinds.

The trading “establishment” was the first to realise the gravity of the situation.  Salem, Massachusetts, is best known today for witches, but it was in age of sail an important port for international commerce.  As was the case with other leading American ports, the merchants of Salem put up a “subscription,” i.e., contributions, to build a 32-gun frigate, which would be then outfitted by the U.S. Navy.  Built in Salem, the USS Essex was launched on 30 September 1799.  Its shakedown cruise, under the command of Edward Preble, was to what is now Djakarta, Indonesia and back, not an inconsiderable voyage then or now.  In doing so it became the first U.S. Naval vessel to round the Cape of Good Hope.

Although the warring European powers were a serious problem, Essex’s first combat missions would take place in the country’s first round of wars with the Barbary States.  It’s easy to forget this war now, but it was our country’s first foreign war, and it was our first serious contact with the Islamic world.  The lessons learned in that conflict would have been useful in what we have gone through in the last decade, but learning from history—ours and others’—isn’t an American strong suit.

The Barbary States—which are today occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya—had made a reasonable living for themselves and their rulers by piracy against ships sailing through the Mediterranean.  (The Somalis today have attempted the same thing in the Horn of Africa, albeit without the strong supervision of their government.)  They frequently captured the ships, seized the cargos and enslaved the crews.  The usual European response to this was to pay tribute to these states, and the U.S. followed suit.  In 1800 William Bainbridge, later to command the Essex, had the distasteful mission of delivering tribute to the Dey of Algiers.  Having done this, he was forced to deliver the Dey’s own tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, along with the Dey’s new ambassador and his retinue.  He made the most of the voyage.  For example, he tacked the ship (put it on a zig-zag course) so that the Muslims were never sure which way they were supposed to orient themselves at prayer time.  When he reached Constantinople, he made a better impression on the Sultan than the Dey’s envoy; the Stars and Stripes had never flown in the Ottoman Empire before.

Unfortunately the Algerian Dey’s success made the neighbours envious, especially the Bashaw of Tripoli.  In 1797 the U.S. had signed a treaty with Tripoli which exchanged tribute for safe passage for American vessels and persons.  This is the treaty that contains the following clause, beloved by American secularists:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This Masonic flourish (and it needs to be understood in that context) was in response to the Bashaw’s claim that his pirates were conducting what amounted to a holy war in their activity (including the straight shot to paradise if they were killed in battle.)  It should also be compared to George W. Bush’s protestations that the “war against terror” wasn’t a war against Islam.

All of these niceties, however, didn’t stop the Bashaw from declaring war on the United States on 19 May 1801, with the idea that the U.S. would up its tribute.  Unfortunately the next day a squadron of Navy ships (including the Essex, under Bainbridge’s command) sailed for the Mediterranean.  When they arrived they, and the Bashaw, realised they had a fight on their hands.

The war against Tripoli was, in many ways, a desultory affair.  To begin with the rules of engagement laid down by President Jefferson were too restrictive (a mistake the Americans would repeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  In spite of this Essex managed to execute its merchant marine escort duties successfully, although the squadron in general was unable to bring the Bashaw to heel.  It came back to the U.S. from its first tour and was put “in ordinary” (mothballed, using the modern terminology.)

The U.S. sent another squadron under Preble’s command, with broader rules of engagement.  Bainbridge, commanding the Philadelphia, managed to run it aground off of Tripoli; he, his ship and his crew were captured.  The Bashaw began reconditioning the ship for his own fleet, but on 16 February 1804, in a daring raid under Stephen Decatur, the Philadelphia was burned.  While in prison, Bainbridge was also witness to a “suicide bombing,” but the bombers were in this case Americans: thirteen were killed when the ketch Intrepid, filled with explosives and floated in under the command of Richard Somers, blew up in Tripoli harbour.  (The original plan was to light the fuses and escape in small boats, but the escape plan went awry when the Tripolitanian harbour guns opened fire.)

The Americans’ third squadron, under the command of Commodore Samuel Barron, included the Essex.  The Americans got down to business in good Middle Eastern style, including recruiting the Bashaw’s brother as a power challenger.   This last squadron managed to make a sufficient impression on the Bashaw that he sued for peace.  On 27 May 1805 the Essex, near “the shores of Tripoli” immortalised by the Marines, raised a flag of truce and fired off two shots, answered from the shore.  The following month an agreement was struck between the U.S. and the Bashaw and this phase of the war was over.  (There was one more round of hostilities with the Barbary States after the War of 1812.)

Much of the book is spent chronicling the Essex’s performance during the War of 1812, under the command of David Porter.  The U.S. entered this conflict with a navy that was literally dwarfed by the Royal Navy.  She had no first rate ships of the line and was badly outnumbered.  Nevertheless the U.S. Navy, a volunteer force that was better trained and had higher morale than the Royal Navy (much of which was impressed) scored some significant victories against the world’s greatest navy.  Porter, bending his orders a bit, rounded Cape Horn (another U.S. Naval first) and entered the Pacific.  He wrought havoc amongst the British whaling ships; in the days before petroleum, whale oil was a vital fuel and lubricant for an emerging industrial Britain.  He captured so many and had such a large number in his “fleet” that he was forced to do another U.S. Navy first: place his chaplain in command of one of the captured ships! He attempted to claim the Marquesas Islands for the U.S., a claim that did not stick, and he helped to inspire the Chileans, engaged in their own revolution against Spanish rule.

Although Porter’s damage to British interests was significant, it was spoiled by another good American trait: impetuosity and the desire for a good fight.  He had the option of sailing west to the East Indies and continuing to damage British commercial interests.  A century later, Karl von Müller did just that with the Emden in the age of steam, and Porter didn’t have the radio communications that Müller had to contend with.  But Porter was no von Müller; he wanted a one-on-one sea battle, and got it (sort of) on 28 March 1814, when near Valparaiso, Chile, he took on the HMS Phoebe, under the command of James Hillyar.

Everything that could go wrong for Porter did.  First his main topmast was lost in his attempt to escape into open water.  The “one-on-one” battle didn’t quite materialise because Hillyar also had under his command the HMS Cherub.  Porter’s biggest problem, however, was that, when last under repairs, the Essex was fitted out (over Porter’s strenuous objections) with carronades, cannons with larger bores and ammunition than usual but shorter ranges.  If an enemy ship was in range, the carronades could turn an opposing ship into splinters in short order.  If, on the other hand, the opposing ship had longer range guns, the carronades were useless.  Hillyar was able to force Porter to strike his colours by staying out of the Essex’s carronades’ range, and with that Porter’s dream of victory at sea was at an end.

Porter and the remainder of his crew (including his stepson, David Glasgow Farragut, of Civil War fame) were paroled to return to the U.S.  The British took the Essex back to the UK, where it was turned into a prison ship and eventually scrapped.  With the French defeated, the British could have probably done in the U.S., but decided that discretion was the better part of valour and signed the Treaty of Ghent.

In spite of Porter’s loss at Valparaiso, he was regarded as something of a hero.  He literally opened up new vistas both for his country and the navy, vistas that would continue to expand (especially when the U.S. acquired a Pacific coast) during the next two centuries.  And the U.S. would finally commit to a consistent development of its Navy, which would bear fruit in every war it has fought from then onward.  (The book also outlines the difficulties the Navy had had in obtaining funding from a Federal government that was struggling to pay off its Revolutionary War debts.)

The book is a straightforward read, with good explanations of the age of “iron men and wooden ships.”  It’s amazing how many expressions from the age of sail have survived in our vocabulary, including “first rate” (and second, and third…) and “loose cannon.”  I also saw some expressions I heard growing up in a family of “old salts,” such as “stem to stern” and “powder monkey.”  The book also does a good job illustrating the state of admiralty law in those days and how it affected the conduct of war and merchant ships alike.

Our country is in need of a refresher course in the early history of this Republic if we are ever to understand its purpose. The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy is an excellent and easy to read narrative of one important aspect of that history, one that is too often neglected.

Note: the illustrations are obviously not of the Essex, but depict ships in the age of sail.  They were drawn by William H. Warrington; more of his drawings are here.


Book Review: Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso)

One of the points that the late scholar Allan Bloom used to make is that Americans are no longer impacted by great books. Music, other cultural influences, yes, but books? I would have to confess that, much of the time, that was the case for me, too. But in the spring of my junior year in prep school, a dormmate’s textbook contained something that made an immediate impact, one that literally altered the course of my life at a time when an alteration was certainly in order.

That “something” was an abridged version of Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Inferno, the first third of what has come to be known as the Divine Comedy. Dante himself only referred to it as a Comedy; the “Divine” characterisation was added later. What I read whetted my appetite for more, but Sayers’ translation is archaising and difficult. So when the time came to acquire the entire work, I turned to the American poet John Ciardi’s translation, still widely regarded as the best.

The Divine Comedy is a long poem whose narrative describes what amounts to the poet’s tour of the afterlife. Set around Easter 1300, it is divided into three parts: the Inferno (Hell,) which he visits first with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. Readers of the Aeneid will quickly recognise that one of Dante’s objectives is to pick up where Virgil left off in Aeneas’ visit to the underworld, an objective he succeeds in handily. The second part is the Purgatorio (Purgatory,) where Virgil continues to accompany Dante through the places where souls do penance after death until they reach the Terrestrial Paradise, at which point the poet is handed off to Beatrice, an acquaintance from his youth who leads him into the third and last part of the poem/journey, the Paradiso (Paradise.) The poem ends with his vision of God.

Beyond the tripartite division the poem is divided into 100 cantos; the Inferno has 34, the other two parts 33. If the Inferno‘s Canto I can be considered an introduction, then each part has the same number of cantos. Each canto is written in a form referred to as terza rima, where every three lines rhymes. Getting that rhyming scheme from Italian into English has been one of the major challenges of every translator of the work. Ciardi’s solution was to only rhyme the first and last lines, which works reasonably well.

That brief overview of the poem brings up what is probably the poem’s greatest asset: it is structured with an attention to detail. That structure to some extent overwhelms the fact that Dante moves in a Ptolemaic universe and a Scholastic intellectual framework. Dante uses not only what he says to make his point, but the location of the speech or action as well. Dante also displays acute powers of observation, up to and including detailed description of how his senses work. His abilities in this regard make his visualisation of that which was either beyond the technology of his time (which required flight, for example) or beyond physical representation (much of what he saw in Paradise) credible.

That kind of structure is a large part of the poem’s reputation as complex. But that complexity is on a multi-level basis. It’s one of those things that makes several readings of the poem rewarding. The Divine Comedy is justly described as allegorical, but the symbolic and metaphorical also enter into the picture as well. Dante believes in the objective reality of the places he visits in the poem, but he also believes that the afterlife and this one are two parts of a single continuum. He uses the world of the afterlife to comment on the state of this one, and specifically of the Italy of his own time, a significant and intriguing place whose historical relevance has been obscured by the Renaissance.

Dante’s voyage is in the afterlife, and this brings up the spiritual component of the Divine Comedy. Dante’s whole scheme can be (as usual in his case) in three parts. The Inferno can be seen as the recognition of sin, and he can vividly see both the perpetrators and the consequences of that sin. The Purgatorio is the repentance of that sin, which those who are there are in the process of doing. Finally the Paradiso is the benefit of living in Christ. This process isn’t an exclusively Catholic one, but one which is universal with all types of Christianity. It’s also interesting to note—and it’s something that doubtless gives Evangelical and secularist alike heartburn—that Virgil, representing human reason, manages to get Dante through most of the Comedy until he hands off the author to Beatrice, representing divine revelation. (It’s also interesting to note that Beatrice, who guides Dante to the Empyrean, and Matilda, who takes the role of a priest by essentially baptising Dante in the Lethe, are both female, which gives opponents of women’s ordination heartburn.)

But this adventure isn’t simply otherworldly, as Dante also gives vent to his ideas of secular government and the church. In Dante’s time the Papacy reached its apogee in terms of political power, both in Italy and elsewhere. The Papal States (a problem not completely solved until Mussolini and the Pope made the Lateran Treaty) had secular as well as spiritual objectives, and the popes of Dante’s time weren’t shy about playing politics. Dante believed that the church’s primary mission was spiritual and the state/monarchy’s role was primarily secular order, that the two complemented each other, and that the two should stick to their respective roles. That was revolutionary in Dante’s time; he spends a great deal of time denouncing the corruption in the church that came with the state of affairs of his time.

That leads one to consider Dante’s Roman Catholicism. For me personally, one of the results of reading the Comedy was a serious consideration of the Catholic Church, which I actually joined within a year. I was impressed with Dante’s unified vision of the physical and spiritual worlds, and of the way in which he could view the world in terms that were both intellectually and spiritually satisfying. Dante also tackles many of those basic issues of life and divine justice that concern any thoughtful Christian as they concerned Dante.

Dante integrates both the science and theology of his day, as did most of his contemporaries. That goes for classical paganism too, in a way that goes far beyond what even the Fathers of the Church—who saw it as a competitor—would have done. Dante’s reliance on Scholastic theology, and particularly on St. Thomas Aquinas, keeps him on an even keel. It was not an obvious choice: Aquinas was controversial in his lifetime, and the adulation that Catholics and their church have given him was only beginning when Dante wrote the Comedy. That choice led to spend a lot of time in Aquinas, which had two important benefits: its rigidly logical structure is a good way to learn how to think (something that benefited Dante immensely as he wrote the poem,) and Aquinas’ (and Dante’s) view of God was and is higher than what one encounters in many “full gospel” circles and elsewhere.

Dante is sure that salvation comes through the Church. But in many ways Dante isn’t as “churchy” as those who have come after him. The Church has numerous faults, and Dante isn’t shy about detailing and denouncing them. Moreover Dante’s presentation of the afterlife was in itself a reminder that the Church, for its holding of the keys, wasn’t the final arbiter of who ended up where. In addition to the numerous clerics and popes we meet in the Inferno, the first ledge of the mountain of Purgatory was that of the contumacious, i.e., those who died excommunicated but repented.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church I joined wasn’t up to Dante’s standard in many ways. It was surely shorn of the political power it had in the Middle Ages; that was especially evident in living in the Old Confederacy, where Roman Catholicism is in most places a small minority. What bothered me the most was that Roman Catholicism revels too much in mediocrity, especially in what it expects out of its people. Dante’s integrated vision of life, for all of the criticisms that can be levelled against it, is a statement that we can’t be intellectually honest and compartmentalise our Christianity. But Roman Catholicism, too fearful of the effects of enthusiasm amongst the faithful, is too often content with allowing its people to drift along rather than challenging them. And that, unfortunately, isn’t restricted to Roman Catholicism either.

Ciardi’s translation is up to its reputation, as easy to understand as is possible with one who writes as compactly as Dante does. It has aged more gracefully than many other translations of ancient and mediaeval works of its era, which suffer from archaising tendencies or are too deferential to the sensibilities of the time. The notes are generally good and helpful. Sometimes he misses a Biblical reference and the notes of the Paradiso show signs of what I would call “humanistic crabbiness,” but without the notes most readers would be lost.

It’s one of those supreme ironies of life that a signer of the Humanist Manifesto (which Ciardi was) would translate a work that reinforced at least one of its readers’ theism. My guess is that secularists of our day will not allow such things to happen again, if given the chance. Dante, however, depicts a universe moved by God’s love and shaped by the free will which its Creator endowed us with, and as long as people have enough sense to see that this is an improvement over the alternative, the Divine Comedy will have more that just a place in the “canon” of literature.

Note: in addition to Ciardi’s translation and notes, the following books were very useful in writing this review:

  • Lamm, R.C., Cross, N.M., and Turk, R.H. The Search for Personal Freedom. Seventh Edition. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1984. (It was an earlier edition of this work where I first read the Divine Comedy.)
  • Orlandi, E., Dir. Les Géants: Dante Alighieri. Paris: Paris-Match: Pierre-Charron, 1970.

Book Review: Jim Wallis' The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America

The last two years haven’t been kind to Jim Wallis.  First his man in the White House, Barack Obama, has spectacularly stumbled in his bid to reunify the country and get the economy going again (I don’t think he was sincere about either, but that’s another post).  To use Sarah Palin’s delightful phrase, that “hopey-changey thing” hasn’t worked out for Wallis any better than anyone else.  Then the Religious Right, whose demise he celebrates in the book under consideration, has helped to energise the Tea Party, creating more (and broader based) triumph on the right and heartburn on the left.  And last but not least we all know that Jim Wallis, who enjoys “speaking truth to power,” in reality takes money from that ultimate power of the financial world, George Soros.

Given all of this, it’s probably not a bad idea to revisit Wallis in one of his more triumphalistic moments, before all of these disasters took place.  So let’s take a look at his book The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.  Wallis’ basic thesis is that we need–and are on the verge of–a socially conscious revival that will sweep away the Religious Right (am I sounding like Mao here?) and bring social justice to the land, in the tradition of Charles Finney and the anti-slavery movement.  Since he’s brought up Finney, a good place to start would be to consider his legacy.

To put things into focus, let me start with an analogy to another towering figure, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  Probably one of the most influential philosophers to ever live, Hegel’s immediate legacy is conventionally divided into two camps: the “right Hegelians,” who wanted to keep Hegel’s idea more or less intact, and the “left Hegelians,” who turned Hegel’s philosophy into a vehicle for radial revolution of one kind or another.  The best known left Hegelians, of course, are Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.

It is my opinion that Charles Grandison Finney is the single greatest religious figure in American history.  Reading Revivals of Religion, one wonders why anyone bothers to write anything else on the subject after that, because all of the elements of revivalistic Christianity are described there in their most successful implementation.  Finney is currently at the “back of the bus” in Evangelical discourse because Evangelical Christianity in this country is dominated by the Southern Scots-Irish, and they can’t quite bring themselves to give credit to a Northerner who did so much to spark the War Between the States.  Cane Ridge is a more congenial place to mark the beginning of revival than somewhere between Albany and Buffalo.

As with Hegel, Finney’s successors have split into right and left camps.  The right camp desires to continue revivals without necessarily linking them to a political, social justice movement.  The name of Leonard Ravenhill is conventionally associated with this idea; in our time people such as Lou Engle (and outside the U.S. Reinhard Bonnke) continue this tradition.  On the left you have those who pursued the social justice movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as prohibition (Wallis shows no sign of having learned anything from that fiasco).  The split has been exacerbated by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split.

Personally I don’t think that the whole process of “revival” (and it is a process, not just an event) that Finney practised can be replicated in this country today.  We are too ethnically and religiously diverse country to start with, and have too many distractions, for such a focused process (and anyone who has read Finney knows how focused it is) to be sustainable.  We need something more viral than the mass-movement kind of thing that Finney saw in his day.  In the case of a “left-style revival” that Wallis envisions, the broad power of the state and the nature of the allies that Wallis has to have will turn such a process into a “perpetual revolution” that Mao Zedong tried to implement in China.  (Wallis supportively uses that phrase in the book, quoting Jaques Ellul).  The end of result of that was the Cultural Revolution, which may explain why Chinese Communist and Christian alike have moved on to other methods.

But, as No. 2 said in The Prisoner, to the matter at hand: this book is a call to a Finney-type of awakening where social justice is at least as much a part of revival as personal conversion.  He starts by setting the scene with the “New Agenda” for American Christianity, why it’s important, why it’s now viable (that’s where he pronounces the “death” of the Religious Right) and how he thinks the best way is to accomplish it.  The book then turns on his call for a “moral centre” for American politics.  The rest of the book concentrates on specific issues: war, the environment, life, etc., and he ends with another call for action and a hopeful look for the future based on the dispositions of the new generation.

I would have to admit that there are certain points with which I agree with Wallis.  We need leaders who are more interested in the general good of the country rather than simply lining their own pockets.  What has eluded our generation is defining what that “general good” is, and I’m not sure Wallis has moved that part of the debate as far forward as he thinks he has.  He’s also correct that the right’s approach to immigration is flawed; I have stated on numerous occasions that the Republican Party’s general stance on this issue is one of the stupidest things we have ever done.  And I agree that the Religious Right has spent too much time on same sex civil marriage, although I doubt that Wallis is far enough along to support the abolition of civil marriage altogether.

That being the case, I found much of this book hard to take.  And that, in turn, forced me to ask myself the question: why is it that, ever since left-wing religious social activism was first thrust in my face in prep school, I have always had such a profound aversion for it?  There are five basic reasons for this.

First, particularly in the Main Line churches, many of the purveyors of this kind of thinking and action are also purveyors of unorthodox belief.  Although there were a few things in the book that left me suspicious, I don’t think that Jim Wallis is a James Pike or Katharine Jefferts-Schori, not yet at least.

Second, putting political and social action at the centre of Christianity seemed to me than and seems to me now to be a diversion from what Christianity is at its heart.  Wallis spends a great deal of time, for example, talking about the redistribution of wealth, but in good Evangelical style seldom discusses its renunciation.  (I’d like for him to try to sell that to George Soros, because we’d all be better off if he succeeded).  As is the case with his Main Line friends, he’s always more comfortable lobbying Caesar to spend his money than to direct God’s money to do the work.  He never quite grasps the truth, as Jesuit John McKenzie did, that the image the New Testament gives of the church’s relationship to the state is Jesus before Pilate.

Third, his “prophetic” approach to politics is, in practical terms, a non-starter.  Do it long enough, and one of three things will happen: you will get tired of seeing nothing done and sell out, you will turn to those who will accomplish what you believe is God’s will by force (more about that below), or you will become a perennial gadfly, garnering no respect from either side of the debate.  As a general rule, it is the prophet’s job to proclaim what is on the Lord’s mind and then let God make it happen.  The “right-Finneyites” know that; the left ones don’t.

Fourth, Wallis is a babe in the woods on two topics he needs to be more conversant with if he’s going to debate intelligently in the public square: economics and science.  In that respect it’s unfair to compare a “left-Finneyite” like Wallis with left-Hegelians like the aforementioned Marx and Engels, because the latter had a far better grasp of both the economics and science of their day than Wallis does of his.  This is a typical fault of left-wing Christian activists, Main Line and Evangelical, and Wallis does nothing to fix it.  No where does this become more evident than in his chapter on the environment.  He uncritically replicates the environment movement’s conventional wisdom every chance he gets, including the “green jobs” mirage.  Needless to say he also replicates Al Gore style panic on climate change, although the rough road that this line has experienced lately post-dates the book.  What really rankles about this last point, however, is that he does not come out and state the obvious: that, if he and Al Gore are right on climate change, the only appropriate solution is universal poverty (the “fifty square metre apartment” business), which would induce an immediate drop in energy consumption.  If universal poverty is the deal, why all of this longing to bring the people who are there out of it?  His position is either delusional or disingenuous.

And that leads me to the fifth reason for aversion: Wallis’ uncritical belief, evidenced in just about every chapter, that all problems can be solved by another “moral crusade”, never mind that Christianity is not principally a moral system.  Much of our current difficulty in the U.S. is due to the simple fact that our criminal and civil codes are littered with the results of one moral crusade after another.  Think about it: just about every piece of legislation is the product of some blow-hard member of Congress telling us that “we need to get tough on _________”, or “so that ___________ will never happen again”.  Our ridiculously high rate of incarceration is a testament to the victims of perfectionistic moralism driving our political life.   Today we live in a society where there are so many laws and so much regulation that it has shoved real, bottom-up wealth creation (a concept that eludes Wallis as it does many clerics) into the legal shadows and rewarded inaction as surely as it did in H.M.S. Pinafore. As Robert Samuelson observes:

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to “save the planet,” “protect the unborn,” “reclaim the Constitution.” When goals become moral imperatives, there’s no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they’re immoral. They’re cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.

Wallis extols the virtue of Micah 4:4 (“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it,”) but it never occurs to him that this is most appropriately applied to a society where individuals can live and create wealth for themselves and their families with inviolate property rights.  Wallis’ moral posturing is guaranteed to erode that possibility as it has done in the past.

He brings up slavery (old and new) up often, and Finney’s crusading against it.  But he ignores the fact that it wasn’t a moral crusade that ended slavery in the U.S. but the War Between the States.  Since he thinks he’s such a prophet, he needs to answer this question: when is he going to anoint his Jehu?  How many people will have to die, be imprisoned, or financially ruined to see his moral vision fulfilled?  I guess the answer to that is tied up in his call for an international “police force”.

His stance on same sex civil marriage–that we need same sex civil unions–may sound good to him but will not cut it with his LGBT friends, or at least their leadership.  One thing he will find out the hard way–as many North American Anglicans have–is that the message of the LGBT community to the nation and the church is the same as Ulysses Grant’s to Simon Bolivar Buckner: no terms except unconditional surrender.  I expect that, sooner or later, he will sell the pass on the Christian sexual ethic, as his Main Line counterparts have done, but that is something he will have to deal with.

He spends some time at the end of the book about the death of Jerry Falwell, telling us that it is a turning point for Christian political involvement in the U.S.  Another figure in the “Religious Right” that doesn’t get the same space is Pat Robertson, only mentioned once, and that in a disparaging way by secularists.  I suppose that a figure such as Robertson, who himself expressed grave misgivings about the war in Iraq, who poured millions into the relief of the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina and participated in the “One” campaign is too complex for Wallis to unpack.

In his discussion on race, Wallis quotes himself (it’s a bad habit of both his and mine) as follows:

The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.

When I read that, my gut reaction was simple: “If he thinks that’s true of this country, why doesn’t he call for its abolition”?  Such a connection eludes Wallis, whose Evangelical roots leave him unwilling to think an issue through to its logical conclusions.  With our country’s parlous economic state, dysfunctional political system and ballooning debt, he may yet live to see a world without the United States.  I doubt very seriously he would find that an improvement, and would doubtless consign any hopes he has of seeing the best parts of his agenda realised to the dustbin of history. The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right Americamay be his idea for making this country a better place, but it certainly isn’t mine, and I would not be as sure as he is that it is God’s.

Book Review: Jean-Baptiste Duroselle's France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932-1939

One of the urgent questions that keeps coming up in the war with Islamic careerists is this: what is the similarity of the situation that lead up to the start of World War II?  Are our leaders appeasers in the tradition of Neville Chamberlain, letting budding Hitlers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have victory after victory until they start a war their opponents are unprepared to fight?  To understand the answer to this question, it’s necessary to understand the events that lead to the first part of the analogy.

Most Anglophones do think of Chamberlain and the British, but what about the French?  They were the other “key player” in the whole drama, and had more “skin in the game” as they had a land border (and three neutral countries unable to withstand a German onslaught) between them and Germany.  Why didn’t they act more forcefully?  The answer to that question is the subject of France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932-1939 by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, the most eminent expert on the subject France has produced.

Most American conservatives tend to dismiss the French, especially in the wake of their lack of support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  But the French, especially in the early part of the period in question, did many things that would warm the hearts of any American neo-con.  For example, they held out for the gold standard much longer than their American and British counterparts.  In an age when disarmament talks were much the rage in diplomatic circles and at the League of Nations, the French were advocates of the “trust but verify” philosophy which Ronald Reagan would advocate in the 1980’s.  Especially when Louis Barthou–in some ways the real “hero” of this story if there is one–was Foreign Minister, France pursued a system of alliances with eastern European countries and with the USSR as well to counteract the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany.  But Barthou died in the assassination of Yugoslavian King Alexander I in Marseille, and his successors lacked his vigour, to say the least.

But fail France ultimately did, and Duroselle attributes this to several factors.

The first was the nature of France’s political system.  Having drug themselves through the Reign of Terror, two Napoleons and the other excitement of the nineteenth century, the French were wary of real centralisation of power.  The Third Republic, an heir of the French revolutionary tradition, was set up in theory with Cartesian logic and centralisation.  The reality was that its multi-party system and weak presidency guaranteed that no one group would dominate, which meant instability.  During the period in question (from the death of Aristide Briand to the outbreak of the war in Poland) France had no fewer than nine Foreign Ministers, some of them serving more than one time in office.  As a result France was inherently slow to react to focused threats such as Nazi Germany.  One thing that Duroselle observes more than once is that this instability reflected the desires of the French people even if it didn’t serve their interests.

The second was the legacy of the “Great War,” World War I.  France had been “bled dry” by that conflict.  Its people were totally unenthusiastic for another war; much of the slowness of their response was a form of denial.  Its military, having been burned with an obsessively attack-oriented strategy in World War I, overcompensated by adopting an obsessively defensive strategy, symbolised by the Maginot Line.  This strategy ignored the rise of mechanisation, both on the ground (tanks, motorised infantry) and especially in the air which would change the nature of war.  France was especially tardy in rising to the latter issue, not beginning to seriously upgrade its air force until 1938 (the Germans and even the British had started in the middle of the decade.)

And that leads to the third problem: the British were no help at all for most of this period.  It was no secret that France could not stop the Germans militarily without the British.  But the UK had a different view of the situation.  Protected (or at least they thought they were) by the Royal Navy, the British were not as sensitive to the needs for strong land defence as their French counterparts.  In any case most of those in London–including Neville Chamberlain and especially Sir John Simon–were appeasers from the start to Munich, even insisting in the early period that the French disarm, as was the fashion of the time.  The only British politician to address the issue of Germany satisfactorily in the period was Anthony Eden (Churchill, who would have proceeded entirely differently, was in the political wilderness during the 1930’s,) and he didn’t last long.  The performance of the British (and to a lesser extent the Americans) doubtless was in de Gaulle’s mind when he constructed France’s offish security arrangements in the 1960’s.

Through one government after another, the French attempted to put together a plan to deal with Hitler’s rise.  They did so in the middle of the last Great Depression.  France’s agrarian economy insulated it from the initial severity of the crash, but as depression drug out and the Anglophone world played post-gold standard games with their currencies, the economic debacle reached the Hexagon.  The turning point of the story took place in 1936 with a) the German occupation of the Rhineland and b) the election of the Popular Front and Léon Blum.  France’s attention was more focused on its social problems (the 40 hour work week and the exit from the gold standard were implemented in this period, the former only to be fudged on with war preparations and the latter subverted by the French themselves) than with the rise of Nazi Germany.   The Rhineland occupation caught both London and Paris flatfooted.  The French lack of meaningful response was in part due to Maurice Gamelin’s overestimate of Germany’s strength.  (The Americans were to repeat this faulty guesswork during the Cold War, overestimating the USSR’s missile strength in the 1950’s, then to wake up in the late 1970’s to discover they really did have a “missile gap” on their hands, although the American response was different.)

The capitulation at Munich in 1938 may have been an embarrassment to the British, but it was a disaster for the French.  Édouard Daladier had good intentions, but in some ways he was a hawk flying with turkeys such as Chamberlain and his own Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, as accomplished of an appeaser as the British.  The sell-out of Czechoslovakia led to the collapse of France’s credibility, especially in eastern Europe and the USSR.  That collapse doubtless made an impact on Stalin and Molotov as they, having toyed with the British and French about a mutual assistance pact, turned around and signed the non-aggression pact with Germany, which cleared the way for Hitler’s Wermacht to invade Poland on 1 September 1939.

In the middle of this drama Duroselle chronicles much of the history of Europe in the 1930’s as it affected France’s foreign policy.  It will come as a surprise that Mussolini’s Italy, always assumed to be hand in glove with Hitler, was in fact alarmed at Hitler’s rise and especially the possibility of the absorption of Austria into the the Reich.  It wasn’t until the Italians invaded Ethiopia that Italy, isolated by sanctions and disapproval, really gravitated towards Germany and the “Pact of Steel.”  In the background also was the Spanish Civil War.  One would expect Popular Front France to be enthusiastic about supporting the Republicans, but France took a policy of non-intervention.  The final collapse of the Republic (followed by France’s recognition of Franco) is probably the most moving part of the book from a humanitarian standpoint.

In the middle of the book Duroselle stops and takes a look at France in the 1930’s.  In spite of their reputation as a chic and sophisticated people, the French of the era were insular, lacking in foreign language skills, and inveterate homebodies.  Their commercial presence internationally–aided to some extent by their empire in Africa and South-east Asia–was reasonable but not outstanding, and not a centrepiece of their foreign policy, as the loss of France’s presence in eastern Europe in the wake of Munich would attest to.

Duroselle was certainly the master of his subject.  The reader is well advised to become familiar with the French system of the Third Republic before attempting to wade through the diplomatic maze he describes.  The translation is reasonable, although dense in spots.

Americans frequently think they are wholly other than the French–whose current political state is the other major direct product of the Enlightenment–but reading Duroselle should disabuse anyone of the notion.  There are important differences, some of which he points out, but France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932-1939 should be a warning that a divided country facing both a major economic crisis and emerging threats can be vulnerable to serious disaster irrespective of its past as a world power.

Book Review: Finding God’s Frequency

When I came back to the Chattanooga area from Dallas in the late 1970’s, it was something of a culture shock, even though I had lived here before.  (I recently met a young lady who was raised in the Dominican Republic and on Manhattan and came here, I can’t imagine the culture shock for her!)   One thing in particular that was missing was a contemporary Christian radio station; I was spoiled by KPBC in Dallas, even though its playlist wasn’t the “edgiest.”

Fixing that problem and making it stick is the story of Finding God’s Frequency by Bob Lubell.  Lubell’s own testimony is amazing enough: a product of a Jewish/Norwegian family in Columbus, OH, he got himself into the drug scene (few didn’t in the early 1970’s).  Always with a knack for business, he quickly passed into dealing, and that lead to his arrest.  Facing hard, extended time, he ended up in Christian halfway house, where he ended up accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.

All the while he was influenced by the rock music around him, first unsaved and then saved.  He ended up playing drums for the World Ministry Singers (yes, Ancient Star-Song fans, their album is reviewed in Ken Scott’s Archivist, although it hasn’t been posted.)  The impact of seeing that influence in his life and of those around him never left Lubell.

He ended up in this area with his wife Debbie, but the vision of what used to be called “Jesus music” could do in the lives of people never left him.  That vision was a call from God to start a radio station in this area.  Most of Finding God’s Frequency is the story of how that call turned to reality.

It wasn’t a straightforward business either.  First he connected with business partners that proved to be less than satisfactory.  Then, turning to a more non-profit model, he ran into studied disinterest.  But Lubell pursued the vision.  One of the “breakthrough” moments was meeting the book’s co-author, Dean Arnold.  Arnold is a pioneer in his own right, having started the first electronically delivered news source in the area.  Other than being a great Christian, his other asset from Lubell’s standpoint–and one that Lubell didn’t appreciate up front–is what we would call in politics a “killer Rolodex,” which advanced his fund raising.  All of this and more came to fruition on 5 March 1995, when “J103” went on the air.

Today J103 is an important part of the Christian community in this area, with its “J-Fest” and other events outside of the station itself.  But Finding God’s Frequency isn’t just about getting the broadcast licence and having a successful radio station; it’s a fast and compelling read about one person’s finding God’s frequency for his own life in coming to Christ, finding the ministry that God had for him and making a difference in the lives of others.