The Naked Constitution, by Adam Freedman

November 10, 2013 at 11:36 (Book Reviews, Philosophy, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , )

TheNakedConstitution

4/10

4/10

“What the Founders said and why it still matters” is the proclamation emblazoned on the front of this ponderous new diatribe. Would that this boast were true! It can be difficult for non-Americans to understand (viscerally if not intellectually) why the United States stands so fiercely and so doggedly to its historical codifications, and a passionately-written explanation of why this might be the case is an interesting and compelling prospect.

Alas! For Adam Freedman does not address his book to the earnest seeker, but rather to the confirmed disciple. Like a new convert turning to a book of theology only to be driven thence by sludgy discussions on the Greek translation of parousia, readers of The Naked Constitution will be confronted almost immediately by a schoolyard bicker about whether conservatives or liberals are true “originalists”. There is not really an honest attempt to explain how the determination of “original intent” is uncovered, nor even to explain why original intent is even important.

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, anti gun zealouts insist that their narrow reading of the Second Amendment is the true ‘originalist’ reading.”

-The Naked Constitution

In examining the general mindset of men over two centuries dead, it might be expected that the politics of the olden days would take precedence, but instead this book is firmly entrenched in scouring through court decisions and bills passed in the last two decades–particularly under Clinton and under Obama. And that is the real meat and bones of this tract. It is a fiercely partisan denunciation of liberalism in the early twenty-first century, and little else. It makes some very good points and some poorer ones; it descends to pettiness as often as it makes honest and thought-provoking points. But it emphatically does not answer the thorny issue so proudly displayed on its cover. If anything, it proves only that the United States Constitution is irrelevant as a basis for government, as it can be (and is) dissected and patched back together by liberals and conservatives alike, to serve their own particular interests. In one or two shameless slip-ups, Freedman does exactly this, mentioning in passing that such-and-such constitutional idea cannot really apply in today’s world, and ought to rather mean so-and-so.

Besides this, there are the same old tired political talking points that obsess modern commentators so: the anachronistic gun-worship, the quibbling and complaining about nineteenth-century federalism, bickering about the division between church and state, and where the lines are drawn, and how thickly, and by whom. There is a great deal to value in this book, but it is either irritatingly dishonest, or else an abysmal failure in its central point and intention. Ultimately, that makes it just another run-of-the-mill polemic, and while interesting on its own merits, it has nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other books of the same shade.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig

June 30, 2013 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Literature, Mediocre Books, Music, Philosophy, Science and Technology) (, , )

FreeCulture

6/10

6/10

There is a sort of schizophrenic veering between Lessig’s historical contextualising of the evolution and development of copyright law, and his impassioned denouncement of so-called ‘Big Media’. His attempts to draw a straight line between the two are not always entirely successful, and hostile readers might well suspect him of permitting his motives to lead him on an unwarranted crusade. Where he is successful, he is often convincing and guileless, and speaks with a great deal of conviction. His forays into historical documentation are amateur sketches of dogeared case-studies that have held his own attention for years, but are nevertheless interesting with only a few exceptions. His contemporary hectoring tends to be a lot more vibrant, and the autobiographical sections detailing his own Supreme Court case manages to be at the same time exciting and frustrating, bearing the fault that it has been trimmed down to a bare summary of the facts.

“The hard question is therefore not whether a culture is free. All cultures are free to some degree. The hard question instead is “How free is this culture?” How much, and how broadly, is the culture free for others to take and build upon? Is that freedom limited to party members? To members of the royal family? …To artists generally, whether affiliated with the Met or not? To musicians generally, whether white or not? To filmmakers generally, whether affiliated with a studio or not?”

-Free Culture

Lessig has the flaw of being needlessly paternalistic and pedagogical, particularly when describing the absolute worst-case scenarios that he anticipates. In spite of his flaws he is deeply passionate about his subject, and although it is this passion which often leads him astray it also breaks up the monotony of his drier material and lays his biases and motives fairly plainly out for all to see.

This is neither great literature nor a particularly cunning or sophisticated piece of work, but it is the work of a true believer with a strong argument to make. Doubtless there are more informative texts on the battle for copyright protection; also doubtless there are books written by men and women whose expertise on copyright history is a little more solidly defined. This is therefore a difficult book to recommend. It is a good book, but not a great book. It is a good entry-level text, but has faults that might deter further inquiry into the subject. It is easy to read, but it might have been both easier to read and less repetitive, with a more comprehensive exposition.

Read it, enjoy it, but don’t expect it to be the best or most scholarly piece of work available.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Candide, by Voltaire

June 8, 2013 at 08:01 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Comedy, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Philosophy) (, , , )

Candide

6/10

6/10

Voltaire’s controversial masterpiece is an impressive chunk of book; none the less considering it is still able to provoke strong reactions two and a half centuries after its initial publication. That alone does not make it worthwhile or amazing: strong emotions can be conjured by simple things. But there is no denying its cleverness. Cursed cleverness sometimes, and seldom in the service of anything clearly noble or even clear. Voltaire’s mockery of altruism is as plain as the nose on one’s face, but his derision for any who might dare to read his tragicomedy so straightforwardly shows through in many places, leading astute readers to suspect that he is equally contemptuous of pessimists, who might nod sagely at his farcical series of mishaps while he laughs behind the backs of both.

“‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.'”

-Candide

It is the great trick of snide writers to be able to sneer at any strong belief their readers hold, regardless of what that belief is. An excellent review (for which this review is at least partly an apologetic) makes the very salient point that Candide paints so black a picture of the worldview it seeks to emasculate that it becomes useless, and distorts everything into a caricature. But Voltaire’s clumsy straw man is a pastiche not only of altruism, but a cruel sketch of those who would themselves construct such straw men.

It is very unpleasant to be laughed at, and for that reason it is tempting to adopt the same distant aloofness and join Voltaire in his ivory tower. He is a misanthrope, and it is very difficult to see things from a misanthrope’s point of view without also joining him in his pathology. This can cause problems for readers unwilling to enter into conspiracy with the author. Several writers both modern and classic exhibit this same disagreeable trait of being unbearably clever (and sometimes even witty) without being at all likeable or honest: Joseph Heller, for instance; or Will Self.

There is a great deal of parable in Candide, and a hallmark of a parable is its licence to dispense with logical storyline (“and then, because it suits my purposes, an Ogre appeared in Grimsby”), dispense with a willing suspension of disbelief (“and just as her pursuers caught up to her, she grew great wings and took to the sky”), and dispense with solid characters (“once upon a time there was a wicked witch”). Because of this, if one is unwilling to enter into conspiracy against the public with Voltaire, there is very little in this book that will be at all interesting. Because of this, the author clearly expects shortcomings in his story to be forgiven at the behest of his message. One’s willingness to do this (or at least to feign it) will be directly proportional to one’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this book.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

July 4, 2012 at 19:25 (Book Reviews, English Language, Historical, Literature, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , )

5/10

The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been somewhat misrepresented of late, not least due to its immense impact upon so many authors and storytellers. But it is not a manual of story structure, nor an analysis of such; nor even is Campbell’s monomyth a blueprint for fictional writing. Campbell’s promise to distill and analyse the stories told across the world and through history is neither a scientific survey nor even a chronological view of the progression of literary heroes. Far too specific (and occasionally frustratingly myopic) to be very scientific, Campbell appears mostly as a somewhat slavish echo of Freud, and obsesses over a narrow selection of stories that apparently support his conclusions most convincingly.

His chapters (and the stages of the heroic journey that they describe) are peculiar things: vague and elusive enough to apply readily to the handful of stories he uses as examples, but strict enough to bear out some stern conclusions, and some strangely ubiquitous and overwhelming ideas about the universal human psyche.

“…the way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man…”

-The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In spite of its popularity, it is not an easy book to read. It consists of three types of writing: firstly, there are lofty and grandiloquent rhapsodies about the transcendent universal mind, and the evolution of the dream world, all of it very Freudian and fuzzy. Secondly, there are immense recapitulations and quotations of ancient and classical and modern stories, cleverly and neatly clipped and trimmed into the shape Campbell wishes for them to appear. Finally, there are occasional gems of insight, and throwaway lines nested within the reams of clunky, unattractive scholarly mess; not axioms, necessarily, nor even well-developed enough to be theories. These flickers of interpretation are often interesting, but seldom revelatory and never poignant enough to make up for the waffling that goes on all around them.

This book is as much a comparison of world religions as it is a survey of myth and mythology. It frequently feels like Campbell is ill-informed about everything except his incredibly bold assertions, and that he is simply making things up. It would be hoped that if he was, then he would write something a little more interesting. Largely uninformative, needlessly esoteric, and depressingly reliant upon early twentieth century psychology, this book does not deserve its reputation, although it might deserve a few hours’ attention from patient readers.

Permalink 1 Comment

Anthem, by Ayn Rand

June 23, 2012 at 21:09 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Dystopia, Fiction, Philosophy, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

3/10

It is important to not mince words. Ayn Rand was a hack, a shuddering and grating alarm blaring a single-noted siren with a stygian monotony. She never knew Dante, but if she had, she would surely have figured in his magnum opus as one of the particularly graceless staff of his infernal establishment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she represents the absolute bottom rung of the tiresome ladder of the written word, pasting up antisocial complaints and hideously self-satisfied whining and expecting it to be hailed as literature.

But let the philosophers judge her defunct philosophies for what they are! It is for the students of literature to pick over the carcass they have left, and see if there remains an actual story beneath the epistle of this raving prophet. In Atlas Shrugged, the clear answer is no. In Anthem, the answer might be a little more complicated.

“I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures, my thought, my will, my freedom; and the greatest of these is freedom.”

-Anthem

In her favour, there is a story to be found: a light dystopia such as Lois Lowry might have penned for children; a simple parable with an equally simple message behind it. Never mind that the message in Rand’s case is abhorent. At least it is a story, and told in a consistent if petulant voice. She aspires to Orwell and ends up with a juvenile pulp novelette, but although the product is trite, rushed and muddled, it is at least not nauseating.

A great deal of this changes in the penultimate chapter, which is the light version of John Galt’s speech in her more famous book. There are no apologies, no warnings, and if ever there were a distilled version of Rand’s own ten verbose commandments, they would be found starkly inscribed here. A tedious chapter and a predictable and shabby end for a book, but the fact that this one chapter is so noticeably worse than the others, is a pyrrhic point in favour for Anthem.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Tea Party Goes to Washington, by Rand Paul

February 8, 2012 at 20:02 (Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )

5/10

To glance the crudely-sketched comic on this book’s cover and take in the name emblazoned above its title, readers might fear the worst. How much political theory can really be compacted into a two-hundred page book? Which chapter might detail a raving warning about Liberals murthering us in our beds with the guns they’ve plucked from our patriotic hands?

But it is a welcoming surprise to find that Senator Rand Paul does not quite fit his caricature. He is full of the whimsy and self-important gas that most politicians of this age are, and his book is equal parts a clarion call to casual libertarians, and waffling autobiography. For the first fifty pages or so, Paul speaks softly and waxes conciliatory. He goes so far to acknowledge that some of the points he makes have another side to them, and that some of the issues he is most passionate about have good counter-points to them.

“…saying that libertarianism isn’t conservatism is like saying communism isn’t socialism or progressivism isn’t liberalism–yet, it’s amusing the degree to which some people still seem to think the two philosophies are incompatible or exclusive.”

-The Tea Party Goes to Washington

Speaking in a literary sense, it is difficult to take any writer seriously who refuses to recognise his own faults, or who makes pretend that his opponents are fiends in human guise. It is hard to stomach the blustering tirades of writers whose fanaticism pours out colourblind manifestos rather than carefully constructed arguments. Rand Paul is guilty of neither of these sins; not here, anyway. For this reason his book remains palatable, and will not be too difficult to read through to the end, for Republicans, for Democrats, or for the rest of us.

It does grow difficult, however, when his passion and fervour take him in dangerous directions. Where he stoops to childish parroting of stock phrases and hackneyed slogans, long bereft of any real meaning and designed for emotional impact only. To a rational reader, his constant invocation of the ghost of Reagan, the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, liberty, small government, freedom, the spectre of communism–all these are swiftly denuded of any actual meaning, and become as useless as old socialist dogma about the working class, the bloodstained flag, the bourgeouise, the reactionaries–and all that claptrap. Seldom does he stop to explain what he even means with some of his key phrases.

“My father also made the point that Obamacare, or the very concept of having a ‘right’ to healthcare, undermines not only the free market but some of the most basic precepts of American life and liberty.”

-The Tea Party Goes to Washington

Does he believe in the liberty to speak one’s mind, the liberty to wreak vengeance upon one’s enemy, the liberty to starve in the street, the liberty to own tanks, or the liberty to give children halucinogens? He never really explains. His definitions are fuzzy around the edges, and limited to one or two hard cases that are nonetheless themselves without context.  For instance, he loudly trumpets his cause against domestic espionage and wiretapping, presenting it as an obvious case where the Fourth Amendment is being violated. He may very well have a point there; but he makes a very poor show of demonstrating his point, contenting himself instead with leaving the point as self evident. This hurts him when he comes to more complex issues. He is simply not willing to venture beyond his catchphrase politics.

So what of this book? It makes a pretence of being some kind of systematic treatment of the Tea Party’s beliefs, but it is long on rhetorical posturing and short on substance. Rand Paul makes a fairly convincing case here that he is not a bad person, but that does not necessarily make him a good politician, or a good writer.

Permalink 2 Comments

Heretics, by G. K. Chesterton

June 19, 2011 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )

9/10

Gilbert Keith Chesterton is a very funny man, which certainly comes in handy when he takes it upon himself to scathe and blister his peers. His denouncement of their heresies begins as piecemeal accusations and isolated comments on extremely idiomatic character traits and specific published works, but does come to some coherent sense by the end of the book, when it becomes apparent that neither Shaw nor Kipling nor the Yellow Press are his true targets; and the entire work coalesces into a remarkable study of humanism and the realisation that the train is blowing full steam ahead towards “progress” – without any real idea what it left behind, or what the “progress” actually is.

Chesterton offers some wonderful insights into the redeeming qualities of dogma, religion, ritual and several other dirty words that he rehabilitates so eloquently as to build a swift and beautiful case for common sense and the re-evaluation of fundamental questions of what is good and pure and true–and why.

The book does lose some of its flair and excitement towards the second half, but chiefly because Chesterton populates his examples and his case studies initially with timeless writers and thinkers, and later with figures and entities personally aggravating (or known) to him, but less significant for the rest of us. Despite this, he retains his wit and his penchant for the surprising paradoxical proverb until the end, and provides an excellent complementary volume to Orthodoxy, operating magnificently as either a stand-alone or companion piece.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

June 12, 2011 at 19:35 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )

9/10

Common Sense and The Rights of Man are so much two sides of the same coin that it is impossible to treat them separately. Despite the rather universal title, Thomas Paine’s chief intention is less a manumission of the human creature than it is a thorough indictment of the British Empire at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Addressed in excruciating detail are the nobility, the monarchy, Wat Tyler and the Civil War, the Republic and the Restoration, rotten boroughs and general disenfranchisement: all given their place in the sun, and none permitted to spare a single blush on Britannia’s cheek.

Paine goes on to expound in the detail of a clerk or petty accountant his redistributive plan for the abolition of hereditary wealth and a proto-socialist state, a federalist agenda for Europe, and a clearly-stated confidence that the Christian churches of Europe would henceforth unite (although he has no plan for this save bewilderment that they had not already done so). On the subject of religion, he professes dumbness, yet expounds meticulously and convincingly on the theological problems and contradictions inherent to monarchy, turning over the bones of David, Samuel and Saul, of Abraham and of Adam, and trawling through the Gospels (though not, for obvious reasons, the Pauline epistles) to form not merely an incidental, but a key pillar of his argument.

It is all too evident throughout that Paine had the mind of an economist and the heart of an optimist and a humanist, and that his political theory plays a distant second behind his instructions to his own fictional treasury; he refuses to countenance anything but altruism in any member of a democratic government (or indeed any commoner); and that his utopian vision has room for no ounce of cynicism or even unhappy accident. In all of these, his work is less thorough, and for that, less convincing, than Hobbes (albeit much easier to read).

In spite of these failings, and in spite of his myopic preoccupation with Great Britain and his unquestioning naïveté in lauding every step of the French Revolution, Paine is a passionate pamphleteer, and seems to have been an honest man and a philanthropist down to his bones. It could be very easily argued that for every claim he makes that is impractical, the world would be a more kindly place even for hearing and acknowledging it; that for every blindness he exhibits, his eyes are wider than any man’s to a dozen other issues that must be set right.

Permalink 2 Comments

God is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

April 21, 2011 at 14:43 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )

8/10

There is an irony about this book, in the way that it presents itself and the final impression it leaves. Prothero’s chief intent is to strike a blow against the ill-informed syncretists, who neither know about the differences between the religions of the world, nor care. He paints with dazzling colours, and writes like an art admirer locked up with bread and water in the Louvre. But that is really where the problem lies. For all his enthusiasm, and his denigration of those unscholarly plebs who know nothing of the vivid shades of Islam, or the fragile beauty in such-and-such a cult of Hinduism, is the enthusiasm and the scorn of a scholar.

Prothero himself claims, time and time again until it has taken the form of a mantra, that to look at religion as a dogmatic pursuit, or a scholarly thing, or even as an experiential phenomenon, is to shackle oneself with the bonds of Western Thought–or the bonds of whatever our preconceptions might be. How terribly unfortunate, then, that he himself is unable to truly tackle that thing that truly separates the religions from each other: not philosophies or disparate ways to differing ends (although his acknowledgement that different religions seek after different things is poignant and well developed), but monopoly. These are not beautiful paintings, each different from the other as a Picasso is different from a marble sculpture or a Rembrandt; but wild things, and though they may be beautiful by standards and by standards, they will not coexist. His own blind spot is his inability to see religion as anything other than a unique (always unique; and at least he manages that!) thing to be admired, as a pastime or a momentary distraction. Even as a subject for a lifetime of teaching.

He fails to grasp perhaps the most important part of his own titular statement: that God is not the same entity to any of the adherants he describes; but that these groups do not only differ in drastic ways; they despise the philosophies of one another.

He makes admission occasionally, such as when he mentions that Buddhism, at its root, considers the dogmatic worship of a god to be precisely the sort of kharmic pain that must be purged from the world; that Islam will never countenance the same equality with God that Christ did not consider to be robbery. The most welcoming and flexible religions in his structure can only bend unto the point where they encounter another’s rigidity, and their own willingness to flex becomes inflexibility. One can hardly expect a tired old professor of comparative religion to starkly admit irreconcilable vitriol as the only commonality between the subjects of his classes, but without this admission, his honest attempt to show off a collection of jewels that all sparkle with equal and different beauty comes off as a sham once the surface of his study is scratched.

Despite its manifest theological and philosophical failings, this is a good entry-level guide to comparative religion, and if Prothero’s own likes and dislikes are worn somewhat on his sleeve, then at least he makes an effort to play fair with all concerned, and writes like a professor ought to write: the faintest touch of good-humour, businesslike without brusqueness, and with the warranted assurance that even if he isn’t the ideal man to save your soul, at least he has a fair idea about what everone else is doing to save theirs.

It must be added that, while Prothero is a fastidious scholar and presents a fair and balanced view of each of the religions he studies (as a Professor at Boston University, one would expect nothing less), he occasionally makes mistakes that are downright embarrassing; seemingly minor errors that a layman might pass off as theological quibbling, yet which in his position he ought to recognise as gross errors of earth-shaking magnitude. It would not seem a “minor error”, for instance, for a Jewish reader reading Prothero’s earnest assertion that Abraham never entered the Promised Land of Caanan. While these errors seem to be few and far between, the fact that they are present at all does a great deal of damage to Prothero’s credibility.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Sixty Minute Father, by Rob Parsons

March 8, 2011 at 00:42 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy) (, , )

8/10

It would have been nice if Parsons had written the One-Hundred-and-Twenty Minute Father. His style is earnest if not professional, and honest above all. There is nothing here that is controversial or even all that surprising. When he dips into areas such as discipline, he does so briefly and extremely cautiously.

He’s not here to take sides, and it is abundantly clear early on that this book is emphatically not a complete parenting guide. It is a friendly and heartfelt guide to square one of the trek. Those who are already there will be reassured, those who are completely lost will be gently reoriented, and it is really impossible to be disdainful, or to consider any part of this book to be “too simple” – any more than a doctor might consider the human body’s need to breathe as “too simple”.

The only shortcoming is the extreme brevity of the book, but even that makes it a book that can be easily revisited, and thumbed through idly; not to learn, necessarily, but to remember. Recommended highly.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Next page »