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