Thursday, October 20, 2016

Reflections: The Tragedy of American Compassion

By far one of the most interesting non-fiction books I read last year was Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple. It presented a view of poverty that was provocative and challenging. In addition, its focus was on the ideas which create and perpetuate poverty, which is a little understood and often ignored element of the problem. The Tragedy of American Compassion takes a similar approach. The author, Marvin Olasky, seeks to delineate the pervasive ideas of those who combated poverty in the 18th and 19th century and how those ideas truly helped the poor, as opposed to the ideas of today which hurt the poor. Like Life at the Bottom, it's a provocative book which should not be ignored in the wider discussion about poverty.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Tragedy of American Compassion is its re-alignment of the word compassion. As with many words in politics, compassion becomes a word used as often in political attacks as it does to encourage others to actually have compassion. Furthermore, as Olasky shows, the word compassion meant something very, very different to those charity workers of the 18th and 19th century than it does to our professional social workers and bureaucrats of today. Perhaps the most challenging idea posited in the book is that some forms of charity are more harmful than doing nothing at all. In other words, Olasky suggests many of our modern prescriptions to cure poverty—such as the Great Society—has perpetuated and exacerbated some of the most pernicious problems of poverty, such as unwed pregnancy and family abandonment by fathers. These aren't necessarily new ideas from the conservative side of the ideological scale, but The Tragedy of American Compassion does a nice job of reinforcing the reasons for the belief.

As someone who believes strongly in the power of ideas, I found the book's exploration of the ideas which inform our prescriptions for poverty to be the most interesting. Olasky wrote: "Our ideas about poverty always reflect our ideas about the nature of man."  There is a lot to unpack from that simple statement. As society moved away from the Biblical view of mankind, what were the impacts of that shift? How does that change our approach to poverty and how to solve it? Those are compelling questions, which I feel secular society dismisses with too little thought and consideration. Regardless of your theology or lack thereof, one must admit, in my opinion, the ideas of religion matter deeply and influence at a fundamental level how we approach societal issues and how we approach each other. Are we treating the poor like animals in a zoo—simply feeding them and not requiring any type of behavioral change—because we truly see each other as animals, merely the result of a long, uninterrupted evolutionary process, and incapable of change? The Tragedy of American Compassion adds a valuable level of insight into this consequential question.  (Albeit, I found some of Olasky's comments regarding the homeless to be painting with a brush which was a bit too large but thought-provoking nonetheless). 

Perhaps the biggest downfall of the book is that it was written over twenty years ago.  As one can imagine, there has been a great deal more literature and research completed since the publication of this book regarding poverty, its causes, and its effects.  However, I'm not convinced the ideas discussed in The Tragedy of American Compassion are any less valuable.  The other downside to the book is the writing.  Overall, the writing is fine, at times pithy, but not particularly memorable.  Too often the book buries the reader in data which is redundant.  I thought to myself once or twice while reading it: "Move on." 

The Tragedy of American Compassion is a good book.  It's interesting and provides a valuable perspective on poverty, as well as a compelling history of compassion throughout America's history.  It wasn't as memorable or provocative as Dalrympe's excellent Life at the Bottom, but it showcases ideas regarding poverty we should not overlook.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass
Reflections: The Road to Serfdom
Reflections: Capitalism and Freedom

Friday, October 7, 2016

Reflections: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King is a bizarre book—perhaps one of the strangest I have ever read. Its narrative structure is erratic, sometimes it even feels vaudeville.    One can see Monty Python in certain scenes; in others you can see the greatest themes of the greatest literature ever written; and still others you'll find the melodramatic love triangles prevalent in modern young adult fiction and episodic television. Most will easily recognize the first quarter of the book being the inspiration of Disney's The Sword in the Stone, but once the Wart becomes Arthur and the great quest to dethrone the ideology of "Might makes Right" begins the book will be mostly unfamiliar to many readers.

T.H. White's sensibilities are on display through his prose and commentaries found in the book. Especially in the character of Merlyn, who is absolutely wonderful, unique, and truly unforgettable, the story drips with anachronism. It's a clever technique considering Arthur's goal as king is to bring his kingdom and people into modernity, even if he doesn't know exactly what that looks like. Furthermore, The Once and Future King is filled with humor, some of it very, very funny. Albeit, as the reader reaches the close of the saga the world becomes darker, more complicated, and more dire. In addition, the book has some incredibly shocking moments—from incest to gruesome violence (that poor, poor unicorn) to adulterous affairs—the story never lets you feel at ease. The playfulness of the first quarter of the book only comes in brief episodes toward the latter half of the book as Arthur's knights, especially Lancelot, roam the world looking for adventures.

As a commentary on society, whether modern or ancient, the book feels cynical. And considering the history of mankind and the dramatic arch of this book one realizes why. Is our modern society much improved in the way of morals, honor, and justice? Are the court rooms of today mere proxies for ancient duels intended not so much to achieve true justice but to decide the strongest and most skillful brute? These types of questions are provocative and sobering. Arthur's quest to abolish "Might makes Right" eventually becomes circular. Morality becomes fuzzy to characters who should know better. Human mistakes have generational effects, and the great lesson of life—choice and consequence—is illustrated in a powerful display of pathos. For hundreds of pages you see the tragedy coming, you feel it coming, but it still breaks your heart when it arrives.

Mordred, the sinister and nefarious son of Arthur, is an antagonist not to be forgotten. Arthur, the visionary but tragic king, is both an object for admiration and for pity.  The lessons on leadership taught to and taught by Arthur are important, poignant, always relevant.  My feelings toward Guenever and Lancelot are complicated, albeit mostly negative.  Their actions lead to great misery for those around them, but their actions highlight some of mankind's greatest weaknesses, such as envy, lust, and selfishness.  Merlyn, as I mentioned earlier, is the great archetype of a mentor and teacher.  There are other fascinating and entertaining characters throughout The Once and Future King, and they provide the glue and substance to a narrative which is unconventional and strange.

The Once and Future King is a profound book.  The last dozen pages or so is a tour de force of philosophical and ideological commentary.  As an old man, Arthur struggles to make sense of the human condition.  The reader attempts to do the same.  However bizarre a book The Once and Future King is, it's a book not to be ignored or forgotten.  The lessons of Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot are not fictional fantasies but those which are "common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13).  And seeing as how we are all common in our humanity, we would do well to learn a thing or two from them.

Notable Quote:
Of the several profound passages in the book, I found the following to be particularly piercing:
  • "Do you think that they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription?  Even if they were foolish enough to believe that the earth was the center of the universe, do we not ourselves believe that man is the fine flower of creation?  If it takes a million years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?"
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: From Beirut to Jerusalem

Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections: Number the Stars

Lois Lowry's The Giver is a masterpiece and easily merits a spot on the Thousander Club Must-Read list.  Number the Stars, which title comes from the 147th Psalm, is only the second book of Lowry's I have read.  It's smart and tense, albeit not as affecting and profound as The Giver.  Written for younger readers, it creates enough peril and danger to instruct children regarding the terrifying atmosphere of the second world war without becoming too heavy-handed.

The didactic value of Number the Stars is in its lesson on bravery.  Annemarie, the book's main protagonist, is a modern symbol of Little Red Riding Hood, which is referenced directly in the book.  Young readers, especially young girls, can benefit by relating to Annemarie—an ordinary girl thrust into an extraordinary and difficult situation.  In fact, Number the Stars is a book I want my young daughters to read.  I want them to learn how to be brave, and Number the Stars teaches that lesson quite nicely.

I do feel the book requires some additional context which is not provided.  Although a young reader may understand the overall peril in the book and discern who the bad and good guys are, I felt the exposition in the book may leave some readers, especially the younger ones, wondering what may be happening.  Perhaps there is value in that since the protagonist is a young person herself, and she doesn't fully understand the gravity of the situation in which she is placed.  As the book suggests, sometimes not knowing something is where bravery may be found.  I cede that point but wonder if adult readers are taking for granted what we already know about World War 2, the Holocaust, and Nazism.  Regardless, Number the Stars is perfectly readable the way it is.

Lois Lowry's intended audience can be taught and molded by a book like Number the Stars, and I think Lowry knows exactly who that audience is.  It's not the masterpiece that The Giver is, but it's a good book. It's worth reading, and its lesson is worth learning.

Other Topics of Interest:
Thousander Must-Reads
What Should a 9th Grader Read?
Reflections: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reflections: The Marshmallow Test

I first heard about the marshmallow test in 2010 while listening Dieter F. Uchtdorf's conference address titled Continue in Patience.  I thought the concept was fascinating at the time, and over the years I have stumbled across various accounts of the tests and their impact on the academic community, as well as public policy debates.  The Marshmallow Test, written by Walter Mischel, is a deeper dive into the origins of the famous study and the subsequent academic work which has been done to confirm and challenge its findings.

The reader will immediately notice how the marshmallow test and its findings are far more nuanced than how its often reported in the media.  It's not that the findings are incorrect or distorted, it's that the story is so much richer and more complex than a headline.  I found this to be the most intriguing and valuable aspect of The Marshmallow Test.  I love taking a deeper dive into assumptions. When it comes to human nature and human behavior generally, there are a lot of assumptions and even intellectual biases.  Mischel takes a special interest in the nature versus nurture debate, and he points toward a bevy of academic research to support his findings.  As I am wont to do, I accept the premises and conclusions of most academic research with limited skepticism because there is always another view, another study, and another reasonable opinion to suggest a contrarian viewpoint.

Although all of the material is interesting, the writing isn't noticeably poignant.  Mischel appears to be much more of a researcher than an author.  In addition, The Marshmallow Test probably could have been a bit shorter.  The main point of the book was made repeatedly and in different contexts.  A few stories and a few research studies probably could have been omitted and the results would have been the same.  Having said that, Mischel does spare the reader the graphs and charts which usually accompany a book like this.  I enjoy looking at those and trying to understand the data at a more granular level, but it wasn't necessary for this book, which is mostly written for the layman.

In conclusion, the marshmallow test is a very, very interesting academic study which deserves some attention, especially in the context of public policy, such as education.  The debate over nature versus nurture is a fundamental one, and the results from Mischel's work and others contributes in a significant way to the debate.  The Marshmallow Test was a nice look behind the curtain of a particular set of academic studies, and if you have interest in something like that then this book is worth perusing.  Otherwise, it may be a bit of slog.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: Life at the Bottom
Reflections: Up from Slavery

Friday, September 2, 2016

Reflections: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

What would I have done, said, wrote, and believed if I were there?  That question remained in my mind nearly the entire time I read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The era of Nazism in Germany is one of the most harrowing, disgusting, and fascinating epochs I have ever read about it.  Bonhoeffer's biography by Eric Metaxas is a competent biography, albeit not a great one, about a man who existed in a world gone mad and did what he could to push back against the darkness.

When writing about personalities who lived during consequential moments in history, there must be a compulsion for authors to try and link that personality's life with the events  as much as possible.  I feel this biography tried to oversell Bonhoeffer's participation in historic events or didn't make it clear enough how his life was interconnected with those events.  Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his seditious actions, but the author seemed to stretch his direct involvement in certain assassination plots.  Regardless, Bonhoeffer was a man of courage and confidence who demands the highest level of admiration.  When so many voices were crying for compromise, he made the case for conviction. 

As an influential theologian, he saw the evil of Nazi Germany through the prism of his Christian faith.  Of the many biographies and non-fiction books written about or related to the era of Nazism and World War 2, the spiritual and faith-centered aspects of this book are perhaps the most unique.  Was Christianity an impetus for Nazi ideology or was it corrupted by it?  Why did so many religious people support Hitler?  Why did ecclesiastical leaders do the same?  There is a clear warning and tragic lesson to be learned.  Metaxas gives significant time in this biography to let the theological debate rage, which was enthralling and troubling.  Through it all, I queried myself, as a devoutly religious person, what would I have done?  On which side of the line would I have stood?

Although Bonhoeffer is a wonderful subject for a biography, the most fascinating elements of this book are the details related to the rise of Nazi Germany.  (I added The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to my Amazon wish list while reading Bonhoeffer).  This book proves the historical point made by Barbara W. Tuchman: "No single characteristic ever overtakes an entire society."  Bonhoeffer and others like him, such as his family, show that sanity prevailed in some pockets, however small, of the German population.  Not everyone became bloodthirsty, sadistic, depraved automatons goose-stepping in loyal obeisance to Adolf Hitler.  Many individuals gave their lives trying to stop evil from completely strangling their beloved homeland.  In many respects, they failed; however, their efforts, heralded in a book like Bonhoeffer, show that moral degeneration is not universal, even when it takes hold of the majority.  (After reading Bonhoeffer, I'd really like to re-watch Valkyrie, which I enjoyed but feel I would appreciate it quite a bit more now). 

The conclusion of Bonhoeffer is predictably heart-breaking but no less affecting.  It is staggering to comprehend how much evil was perpetuated and how much human suffering was caused by Nazi Germany.  Yet, it is also moving to learn of the men and women who refused to break under the burden of popular opinion or government coercion.  I  am nonplussed by how iniquitous mankind can be, but a book like Bonhoeffer gives me hope that I, as well as others, can still choose to be saintly.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The March of Folly
Reflections: The Culture of Disbelief
Reflections: The Lessons of History