Monday, December 31, 2012

Thinking About Thinking is Harder Than You Think

Steve Siebold, Sex Politics Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America
Linda Elder and Richard Paul, 30 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living Through Critical Thinking: A Guide for Improving Every Aspect of Your Life, Revised and Expanded

Motivational speaker Steve Siebold has made the media rounds since the Sandy Hook shooting, and before that really, advocating a robust raft of reforms. He has publicly scolded President Obama and Congress for letting partisanship trump meaningful thought. But who hasn’t? His latest book demands citizens engage in deeper, realistic thought, which he evaluates by its conclusions: if you’re thinking, you’ll agree with that paragon of critical thought, Steve Siebold.

Siebold unpacks public morals and public policy, which he lumps under the titular umbrellas of Sex, Politics, and Religion. He further subdivides this into fifty-four subtopics—in a book under 300 pages! How can he possibly examine so many topics, when few merit more than three pages of widely spaced, large-font type? You know the answer. This book stinks of straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, and doctrinaire thought feeding foregone conclusions.

This produces a haphazard goulash of Ayn Randian libertarian diatribes. Repeatedly, he intrudes the caveat “Critical thinking tells us...”, which inevitably precedes an unexamined conclusion. Like his TV persona, Siebold reflexively excludes other viewpoints, dismisses debate in one or two sentences, and only considers arguments which support the position he already had. But he considers himself the distillation of hard thought and realistic (read “cynical”) positions.

In his intro, Siebold promises: “This may rank among the most controversial books ever written.” But his unimaginative, doctrinaire opinions are old hat, even boring. This book epitomizes a man with great pride in his accomplishments, and impatience for divergent reasoning. Despite repeated calls for “critical thinking,” his frankly coercive tone rewards intellectual passivity and groupthink.

Briefly, Siebold exemplifies the three-part structure favored by schoolyard bullies and scolding fathers: “I’m right. You’re wrong. Shut up.” In a time of dangerous political controversy and remarkably banal violence, we need public figures to widen, not narrow, the debate. We must challenge ourselves to new solutions, not anchor ourselves to old ones. Thankfully, such a book exists.

Linda Elder and Richard Paul have dedicated their careers to advocating Critical Thought, which they see not as a series of conclusions, but as a process. We engage in critical thought when we test our assumptions and beliefs; practice intellectual virtues such as humility, honesty, and fairness; and practice discretion in how we receive news and opinions from media, bosses, and politicians. And they admit, this is much harder than it seems.

Fortunately, in their latest book, Elder and Paul have broken the process down into thirty nuggets, designed so you can digest each in one day. Drawing on the same techniques teachers have historically used to parse difficult books, like the Bible or classic Russian literature, their process guides readers through an intellectual labyrinthe by taking it one step at a time. This encourages readers to unpack their own conclusions, not swallow ready-made opinions.

Human thought, like human muscle action, must be learned through gradual coaching. Just as we may believe some lifting technique makes perfect sense, only to discover too late that it causes severe back pain, a thought may seem reasonable in light of reflexive beliefs and old prejudices. We must learn carefully, over a span of time, which thoughts will result in desirable outcomes, and which we’ll pay dearly for down the line.

Far from expounding their own opinions, Elder and Paul cite many sources. Some expound how critical thinking works: Plato and Aristotle, Émile Durkheim, Eric Hoffer. Others exemplify critical thinking in action: Aquinas, Thomas Paine, HL Mencken, Margaret Mead. The authors’ sources give us key insights into the thought processes we should pursue, and just as important, they give us models to emulate so we know how critical thought may appear.

In their intro, which runs nearly fifty pages, Elder and Paul distill the points of their many prior books into a short rundown on how your mind works—and how it sometimes fails to work. This introduction contrasts very specific technical language with simple diagrams that make concepts comprehensible. One can imagine this as their PowerPoint presentation at corporate gatherings. It’s somewhat intimidating, though; feel free to skip it until you’ve read the rest of the book.

These two books are mirror images. One would exclude new ideas, stifle avenues of thought, and submit all insights to groupthink. The other encourages innovation, opens doors that only seem closed, and neither dominates nor submits. One seems useful in the near term, but will hasten painful consequences. The other requires more effort, but will proffer real solutions, or at least more meaningful debate.

Friday, December 28, 2012

I.M. Pei Builds the 20th Century

Jill Rubalcaba, I.M. Pei: Architect of Time, Place and Purpose

Ieoh Ming Pei was born into a Chinese society whose best days seemed behind it. Wracked with revolution, hectored by European capitalists, China appeared to be on its last legs. But Pei’s family stayed ahead of the violence by moving among a succession of Buddhist monasteries, ancestral meditation gardens, and modern urban developments. These ancient and new influences provided Pei’s first education in making buildings both useful and uplifting.

Jill Rubalcaba has a substantial résumé publishing history and historical fiction for middle grade readers. Her publisher is pushing this new biography of IM Pei for readers age twelve and up, but with its lavish illustrations and sweeping human landscapes, adults will find plenty to like as well. You could press it into your kids’ hands if they’re looking for a purpose to drive their lives, or you can display it as art in pride of place in your living room.

Like many Chinese in the years between the world wars, Pei’s family sent their oldest son to study in America. Architecture initially put him off, with its emphasis on rococo design frippery, but Pei happened to hit the field just as Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus pioneers revolutionized the discipline. Suddenly, instead of being the exclusive domain of rich sybarites, artful design promised to allow ordinary people the chance to live in beautiful spaces.

Unable to return to China when the Communists took over, Pei instead joined forces with a Manhattan land tycoon, designing low-cost housing for the post-war economic boom. Though “high art” architects looked down on this kind of work, it proved a valuable learning experience for Pei. He learned, because he had to, how to perform feats of remarkable engineering with scarce materials and less money. This would pay off when he graduated to more ambitious projects.

More than once in this book, Rubalcaba quotes Pei insisting that he has no specific “signature” as an architect. And there’s something to that, inasmuch as he doesn’t incorporate the same ornamentation into every design, like Le Corbusier’s elevated pylons or Maxwell Fry’s picture windows. But with his fondness for radiant natural light, glass architecture, and geometric minimalism, Pei most certainly has his own distinct, and influential, style.

Rubalcaba focuses on just a few of Pei’s buildings (notably not including perhaps his most famous design, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum). These range from well-known and iconic, like his glass Louvre pyramids and Hong Kong’s landmark Bank of China building, to less famous buildings, like Kyoto’s Miho Museum and Beijing’s low-rise Fragrant Hill hotel. Her descriptions of Pei’s ambitious process emphasize architecture as art, not “mere” system.

Jill Rubalcaba
Importantly, Pei seems to relish challenges. Designs like the Kennedy Presidential Museum and Fragrant Hill were marred from the start by community opposition, bureaucratic intransigence, scarce resources, and budget shortfalls. But the skills Pei first cultivated building postwar housing on a shoestring paid off with interest. He designed elaborate workaround techniques that not only saved the project, but presaged today’s environmental design.

And Pei proves important principles which current designers and artists could stand to emulate. He eschews pretentious ornamentation, keeping focus on simple geometric forms which enhance whatever work or leisure happens within their walls. His lack of ostentation breathed new life into the Louvre, which was decaying before his intervention. And his National Center for Atmospheric Research building, designed half a century ago, still looks innovative and new.

Rubalcaba fleshes out her fast-moving but detailed text with breathtaking illustrations. Pei’s preliminary pen sketches give way to detailed design drawings and models, photos of construction in process (Pei importantly appears on his sites, not just designing from some glass-enclosed Manhattan office), and comprehensive landscapes of his finished buildings. Rubalcaba emphasizes Pei’s architecture as doing and living, not art on paper.

She also does a remarkable job situating her subject in his life and times. As she states, Pei’s work is inseparable from the Buddhist gardens and minimalist Chinese design of his boyhood. Her photos document what remains of Pei’s ancestral China, and she incorporates numerous pictures from his life, including interactions with such luminaries as Paul Mellon, François Mitterrand, and Jackie Kennedy.

Rubalcaba dances along the border between children’s book and grown-up art folio, creating a product sure to please anyone who loves great design, fine photography, and contemporary history. She makes Pei come alive through his works, and his buildings come alive through him. This book is a pure pleasure to read, look at, or just to hold.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Contemporary Christians—Red Letter Daze

Shane Claiborne & Tony Campolo, Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?

Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne need a new name to explain what kind of Christianity they believe. “Evangelical” and “fundamentalist” have accrued political baggage outside the faith. So they’ve selected “Red Letter Christians,” to emphasize the primacy of the words Christ spoke about how to live in the world. And they back that new moniker with a manifesto which I fear will talk past those who most need their message.

Conventional churches have hemorrhaged members for two generations now, as Christians, particularly young Christians, note the gap between the gospel message and how churches run. Youth admire the church of Acts 2 and wonder why it resembles so little the way we do church today. Some have responded by organizing their own intentional communities outside the standard denominations, to live out the words of Christ they so treasure.

Throughout his career as a public Christian, Claiborne has repeatedly quoted the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians... pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” This has been the cornerstone of his public ministry. And he doesn’t just speak the words; they define his daily living.

Campolo, a scholar, and Claiborne, a community organizer, have gained acclaim from audiences who love Jesus but are bored of church. They have both garnered recognition for living out the Gospel: Campolo has challenged his church hierarchy by taking unpopular or controversial positions, while Claiborne has been jailed for feeding the hungry in violation of the law. I expected this book to be as robust as their reputations.

Instead, this book is really, really talky. Considering that these authors are famous for bold stances and undaunted actions, bolstered by their faith in a Christ who makes all things new, their exchanges in this book come across as windy, full of circumlocutions and intellectual jargon. Their strong actions don’t suit their prolix language. (Claiborne was Campolo’s undergraduate student, and this book has a distinct student-teacher texture.)

Not that they ever say anything out-and-out wrong. Time and again, I felt the surge of recognition when they voiced a concept I’ve long nurtured but couldn’t quite enunciate. They frequently put their fingers on the pulse of some omission I often excuse, or some justification I make to vindicate my sins. In terms of what they actually say, Claiborne and Campolo are not just right, they pierce my pretensions and hold me to account.

I just wish they offered the Reader’s Digest version, then explained what that means on the street. Reading this book, compared to Claiborne’s prior titles, feels like abstract criticism instead of lived theology. Up to now, he’s been all about how we live out the principles Jesus teaches in the Gospels. This time it feels like a question of how we talk about Jesus’ teachings, and the talking never quite resolves into anything concrete.

If I had to name the problem, I suspect this book lacks unifying vision. Yes, Campolo in the introduction holds forth on the importance of living out Jesus’ words, which I appreciate. But as a thesis, it’s thin. I don’t want to know how somebody, somewhere, could live out Jesus’ words. I want to know how I could live them out, on the streets where I live, in today’s world, without compromising Christ’s mission.

Claiborne has written extensively about Christianity as a lived principle. Books like The Irresistible Revolution and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers took me by surprise, forcing me to reevaluate dull theological precepts I’d long taken for granted, emphasizing faith as action, not intellectual precept. These books shook me to my core, which explains why he’s so popular with Christians my age and younger. (Campolo I know only by reputation.)

So imagine my frustration when I opened this book, only to find two Christians of such storied reputation engaging in “dialogues” that consist mainly of them discoursing at one another. Their long passages, barely held to any recognizable thesis, read like rough drafts for dissertations they have yet to write. Though their theology is sound, it all feels very high-minded, without the lived practicality for which both authors are known.

I like this book’s premise. But Claiborne, at least, has done much better. Christians, especially young Christians, cry out today for a bold, muscular theology. But this sprawling would-be manifesto is flabby and vague. Check out Claiborne’s prior books, which fulfill this one’s promise.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Day Freud Psychoanalyzed God

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Five
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Evangelical leaders crying in their beer about the “New Atheism,” led by partisans like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, treat this phenomenon as somehow new. This reflects an appalling lack of historical perspective. Though today’s atheism differs palpably from pop atheist icons like Camus and Nietzsche, it doesn’t entirely plow a new road. Dawkins’ and Harris’ arguments merely extrapolate from claims first propounded by Sigmund Freud.

As a product of prewar positivism, Freud, like many of his generation, saw religion as a primitive holdover from humanity’s prior epochs. The persistence of religious belief, even among many intelligent people, vexed the scientific illuminati of his generation. By 1927, Freud had established himself as Europe’s preeminent theorist of imponderable human behavior. So he set himself to unpacking the remarkable tenacity of religious illusions in a modern, scientific era.

Freud establishes early that, in calling religion an “illusion,” he is emphatically not calling it a “delusion.” He does not contend that religion proceeds from a deviant or deficient mind. Rather, it finds its roots in a world view founded on desires and testimony, not observable evidence. In that sense, religion is like racism (yes, he makes that analogy), in that we wish it to be so, but can never test our premises and arrive at ironclad conclusions.

We must establish one fact about this book right away: it is at heart a work of philosophy, not science. Freud doesn’t even pretend to engage in empirical research or scientific discourse between these covers. And he certainly doesn’t maintain the illusion of scholarly dispassion for his subject. Well before Freud published this book, Émile Durkheim and William James had undertaken more dispassionate, methodical research into human religious experience.

Instead, Freud steps beyond the observable and the quantifiable, unpacking the structural motivations that would permit modern, educated people to retain belief in God in a scientific age. He keeps explicit focus on post-Enlightenment religious experience, which he sees as distinct from more rudimentary, naive “totemic” religion. Specifically, he insists that now, we believe despite the falling away of tradition, and in the face of growing scientific certainty.

The question, then, becomes not why individuals believe, but what benefit religion brings to society. (Freud treats “religion” as a sweeping category of experience, ignoring the different beliefs and aims of particular faiths.) And every religion, to some degree, propounds rule systems, which place a normalizing influence on individuals. That, Freud says, pointing triumphantly, is religion’s gift: it subsumes individual impulse to the common good.

Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, perhaps blown out of proportion in his reputation, feeds into his theory of religion. All humans, in his estimation, must somehow reconcile our innate desire for incest, cannibalism, and murder, into the needs of a society which would collapse if we acted on these impulses. The belief in transcendent forces which would hold us to account gives us an external motivation, fear of punishment, to restrain our base appetites.

In other words, because humans recognize ourselves as only steps removed from the mud, we create the desire for something greater than ourselves, to control our animal natures. By giving us a weighted system of rewards and punishments which exceeds the sensual rewards of the moment, we give ourselves reason not to indulge ourselves. And religion persists because science has not yet provided an alternate foundation for morality among the lumpenproletariat.

Therefore, Freud makes a suggestion that would make current atheists like Harris and Dawkins choke: we must not abolish religion. Though he includes his readers in a circle of enlightenment, he implies that the mass of humanity still consists of intellectually unevolved peons. And those lesser minds still need to believe in God, because those people still need external motivation for their moral actions. And God, for all His limitations, fills that bill.

This explanation has obvious shortcomings. For one, it only explains the Judeo-Christian, and arguably Islamic, tradition. Other religions may not emphasize judgement, like Buddhism, or may permit multiple shots at virtue, like Hinduism. This intellectual tunnel vision reflects European triumphalism (Freud, a non-observant Jew, fled Europe barely ahead of the distinctly non-Christian Nazis).

Not everything Freud writes has withstood changing time and technology. Developments in neuropsychology, for instance, show that at least some religious impulses originate internally, not just from society’s imposed needs. But just as we read Aristotle believing that his central truths exceed his incidental limitations, Freud’s points matter more than his errors. His most important challenges still deserve answers from modern believers.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rediscovering Faith In Life's Unexpected Corners

Tony Kriz, Neighbors and Wise Men: Sacred Encounters in a Portland Pub and Other Unexpected Places

American Christians have an earned reputation for only listening to each other. We are famed for brewing extreme agendas, often without consulting Scripture. Psychologists call this “group polarization,” when when we speak only to people we already agree with, and emerge believing a more extreme, intolerant version of our prior opinion. The military has an altogether more apropos term: “incestuous amplification.”

Tony Kriz grew up in a conservative Christian community, and fresh out of college, he thought he had faith sewn up. So he joined the mission field, becoming an early evangelist in the newly opened Albania. But in an environment perhaps best described as “high pressure banality,” he discovered that Christianity means more than doctrine. And he found that, to hear God’s voice, he had to listen to more than church insiders.

Kriz’s faith memoir resembles other recent Christian authors like Shane Claiborne and Donald Miller. (Kriz plays a supporting role in Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.) Like them, Kriz writes for Christians, about the importance of overcoming the cultural trappings we often mistake for a genuine relationship with God. He shows what he learned the hard way, that God unmakes true believers before remaking us in God’s image.

Albania made a harsh proving ground for a young evangelist. He entered dividing the world into “us,” Christians, and “them,” everyone else. Albania’s Muslim population was, for Kriz nothing but future proselytes. But time and again, he heard God’s word emerging from Albanian Muslim mouths. This was a hard lesson, that “we” have no exclusive claim on holy wisdom. The conflict between his learned expectations and God’s way left him burned out early.

Tony Kriz
Bounced from missions and believing he had lost faith, a theme he revisits often, Kriz returned to school in his native Oregon. But when school provided only more of the same he’d just fled, he started frequenting a crosstown British pub. There, conversations with ordinary drinkers, a rotating selection of customers, and anyone who would sit with him, led him to embrace the heart of Christianity, while discarding the trappings.

From there, Kriz spent time as unofficial campus chaplain at Portland’s Reed College, sometimes called America’s least religious college, before moving into urban missions. Time and again, his story turns on the conflict between his learned American Christian culture, and God’s true movement in the world. Like me, Kriz struggles to separate wheat from tares in his life. And in so doing, he calls me to greater diligence in mine.

We cannot have Christianity without Christian culture. Culture is the system of agreements and shorthands that let us communicate with one another. But too often, we forget that we create culture ourselves, laying it over Scriptural teachings. Like the Pharisees whom Jesus attacked so vigorously, we treat man-made rules as holy and inviolable. And in so doing, we miss “the least of these” whom Christ came to save.

Thus, Kriz thought he lost his faith. But time and again, God chose outsiders to remind him he only lost his culture. A Muslim grandmother, a Jewish pubgoer, an agnostic drifter, Portland’s gay mayor—all intrude into Kriz’s self-induced existential dramas, reminding him that God is so much bigger than his learned habits. Faith is so much more than the answers we memorize. Sometimes faith means asking honest questions.

Kriz unpacks a complex and sometimes contradictory faith journey, one that repeatedly reminds him that wisdom does not come with a degree, or intelligence with status. He sets out to teach, but learns the greatest lessons. He sees ways that life proves more important than dogma. Parables as intense as any from the Gospels unfold in the little ways people touch each other’s lives. God walks close, even when Kriz goes his own willful way.

I could wish Kriz was as forthright in his own suffering as in the lessons others teach him. Twice, when he felt adrift in Albania and again when he was coarsely ejected from Reed, he admits his own bad behavior, but only in sweeping generalizations. While I don’t want theatrical Augustinian breast-beating, I would like more detail. What does it mean for an American Christian to lose faith on foreign soil?

That objection notwithstanding, Kriz’s faith memoir gives me hope that God can speak in any life, if we have the courage to listen. He reminds me that God’s life is not in knowing, but in living. And if as strong a man as Kriz has the grace to learn from God’s world, so can I.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Coming of Age in an Italian Cloister

Victoria Strauss, Passion Blue

Young Giulia Borromeo, half-caste daughter of a Milanese nobleman, aspires to marriage and the stable home she never knew in girlhood. But her father’s spiteful widow forces her into the convent. Renaissance Italy offers women limited choices, and Giulia has learned to navigate a woman’s place, but behind the convent wall, in an entirely female world, she discovers the most fantastical world of art she’s ever known.

Victoria Strauss’ latest youth “romance” is delightful in its ambiguity. The “Passion blue” in her title refers not to romantic passion, but to a shade of blue oil paint so vibrant that artists favor it for painting of Christ’s Passion. And while “romance” may best describe this story, in the sense of heroic aspirations and legendary style, but men play a very small role, and though Giulia aspires to romantic love, she learns to define herself away from her relationship to men.

Instead, Strauss presents us a coming-of-age story with hints of fantasy, and a remarkable immersion in the world of Renaissance art. Though we often think of men like Michelangelo and Leonardo, who ran for-profit art workshops, the Renaissance apparently produced many refined, innovative women, mostly nuns who painted religious frescoes. And as Giulia discovers this shadow world hidden behind Italian patriarchy, we discover it with her.

Giulia has grown up in a world where a woman can become a wife, a courtesan, or a nun. She thinks the cloisters will inhibit her natural spirit, which tends to run very high. (Women in these historical romances generally reflect the time the book was written, not the time it’s set—think Desdemona, or Juliet.) So when Giulia finds she’s being forced behind the wall, and will probably never be free to marry, she sees her life as coming to a premature end.

Simon Bening, "The Arrest of
Christ," ca. 1525. Click to enlarge
Seeking to subvert this seeming doom, Giulia sneaks out to a local sorcerer. Because of her tight circumstances, she purchases a charm that will grant her “her heart’s desire,” which she assumes will be the husband and home her mother taught her to want. But even inexperienced readers will anticipate, correctly, that her story will represent not the fulfillment of the dreams her mother had for her, but the dreams she has nursed in her heart, secret from even herself.

Despite the sorcerer and his charm, Giulia’s story remains substantially free from signs and wonders (the odd prophetic dream peeks through). Instead, plunged headlong into a world where women build their identities separate from the men who would define them, she gradually learns to read her own spirit. She learns to separate her real personality from the one her culture says she should have, and to stand up for what’s real, not what’s learned.

And she discovers the world of art. In a time when artists collaborated in factory-like workshops and undertook years-long apprenticeships; when every pigment had to be ground, blended, and poured by hand; when heroic-scale commissions defined a city’s identity, Giulia goes through the process of becoming a true Renaissance master. The slowness of the process doesn’t just make her a better person; it strips her false desires, one by one.

Giulia’s greatest struggle comes in letting go of worldly ambitions, and the culture enforced on her by men. It’s remarkable to see her persevering in her dreams of marriage and submission, when all around her, she sees that the man-free world of the convent gives her freedom and power she could never have. But the true nature everyone else sees in her, remains concealed behind curtains of patriarchy from her own view.

If it’s true, as I’ve read, that the best youth fantasy can only be truly understood and enjoyed by adults, then Strauss, a seasoned youth fantasist, has accomplished that goal admirably. Her detailed, rich setting and complicated characters yield their revelations to careful reading, free from judgment. Her moral lessons, while present, don’t bludgeon readers into agreement. And her situations, while building to an inevitable end, never cease bearing a texture of joyful surprise.

Had I a daughter, I’d press this book into her hands early. Its message, of knowing yourself and seeking your greatest meaning, not just the one some man sells you, is one many girls learn late. Strauss doesn’t preach, but she takes readers on a journey through one girl’s conflicted heart, letting the message speak for itself. When we emerge from a book that seems much shorter than it is, we feel we share Giulia’s triumph. What more could we desire?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Die Hard as Parable; Sandy Hook as Fact

The picture at right began circulating on Facebook on Friday, hours after the Sandy Hook school shooting killed twenty children, seven adults, and the shooter. This image might reward unpacking on multiple levels, including the strategic: do we really want to permit, even invite, gun battles in elementary schools? But I’d like to consider the implicit narrative underlying this seemingly straightforward image.

John McTiernan’s 1988 classic Die Hard is a very good movie. I’ve seen it many times, and enjoy it immensely. It’s based on the myth, pervasive in American society, that the right person with the right skills in the right place can prevail against forces of unimaginable depravity. This myth contrasts with the police in this movie, whose fear of collateral damage forces them to form a perimeter and wait, helpless while the villains rack up the body count.

(Please note, when I say “myth,” I do not mean it disparagingly. Critics use the word “myth” to describe the stories we tell to make vast, complicated concepts comprehensible, and that’s my meaning here.)

This contrast strikes a chord because we’ve seen it play out. At Virginia Tech in 2007, at Columbine at 1999, even as far back as the University of Texas in 1966, the police could do no more than form a net to keep the shooters contained. Outsiders demanded that some Die Hard hero go shoot the bastard. The police demurred, however, claiming that they could not risk capturing unarmed bystanders in an uncontrolled crossfire.

Die Hard's John McClane (Bruce Willis) is more
than a movie character; he expresses core
American aspirations.
The conflict between myth and reality has come up in several recent mass shootings. The most high-profile have been the Aurora, Colorado, cinema massacre; the Clackamas, Oregon, mall shooting; and now Sandy Hook. In every situation, armchair quarterbacks have claimed that if we merely armed teachers, mall cops, and other untrained civilians, any of them could Die Hard their charges to safety, while the police sit paralyzed.

This myth wavers, however, when we look at cases where the police have tried to do more. Consider the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, when fifty Chechan insurgents took 850 theatregoers hostage. The Russian government, thirsty for victory at any cost, hit the theatre with an unknown toxic gas, then launched a full frontal assault. The police got their win, but at the cost of 130 dead hostages, an unacceptable outcome by any measure.

Thus the police have to wait, or accept direct accountability for civilian deaths. Perhaps we really would prefer if John McClane were in there with the shooter. Though heroes emerged—like teacher Victoria Soto, who protected her students by diverting the shooter, at the cost of her own life—none of them managed to stop the bloodshed, because none was equipped to confront an armed madman. Maybe one rifle on the inside could have saved lives.

Seriously? Anyone who believes that needs a refresher in the difference between fantasy and reality. Die Hard is a story. The creative team carefully gave their protagonist adequate cover, good light, excellent sight lines, and little ambiguity in identifying his enemies. That’s because, let me say again, Die Hard is a myth. It reveals fundamental truths about the human psyche in story form. It is emphatically not a primer in law enforcement technique.

Every schoolteacher, airline pilot, mall cop, and civilian with a concealed carry permit is not John McClane. Situations like Sandy Hook, Clackamas, and Aurora are not movies with directors and set dressers. Professional police and soldiers spend years training for situations like this, and even they miss more often than they hit. Do we really expect a teacher with a weekend riflery diploma to do any better?

Victoria Soto gave her life to protect her charges
at Sandy Hook, but did not engage the shooter
in a confrontation she could not win
Die Hard, besides a very good movie, is a modern parable. It stresses the importance of preparedness, determination, and refusal to quit. These are all noble traits which we hope children learn early. But just as Jesus did not mean his parables to be taken literally—the Good Samaritan is not about the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, it’s about mutual responsibility—only a fool would take from Die Hard that each of us can outshoot armed criminals.

The battle has begun over what myth we take from Sandy Hook. The image above would spread a myth about action hero theatrics and preemptive violence. This misses the deeper question about why anyone considers shooting children an option. We must address the suffering underlying the violence, beforehand. Because turning elementary schools into a free-fire zone is not the myth for which we want to be known.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Passion for the New Bachelorhood

Joe Keller, Single Effort: How to Live Smarter, Date Better, and Be Awesomely Happy

Two generations ago, feminists rebelled against the idea that an unmarried woman must necessarily be merely waiting for a husband. Now the tables have turned: we accept women who remain single, but look askance at male bachelors. Joe Keller survived a painful midlife divorce and returned to bachelorhood, only to discover that, like millions of single men, he lacked core survival skills. So he set about to rectify this lack.

I wish more of what Keller writes in this book qualified as common sense. We’d all like to live in a clean house that celebrates our interests while looking inviting to women. We all think men know how to meet and court women. Yet common sense and experience reveal that bachelor living skills, which look so obvious in romantic comedies, are very rare on the ground. Keller helps close that gap by combining careful research with hard-won experience.

The title comes, obviously, from the effort of living single in a world geared to couples. But it also describes Keller’s belief that we can make one effort fill two goals. Keeping your house isn’t just about having a presentable place to sleep; it’s a way to maintain a relationship with your kids, and a cue to dates about your personal qualities. Self-improvement efforts, such as fitness classes, can double as low-pressure opportunities to meet women.

Some of Keller’s advice is specific to divorcés: How to divide your marital possessions. How to make not just a living space, but a life worth living, at an age when you didn’t expect such upheaval. How to decorate a house so your kids feel at home, but your date doesn’t think you’re still hung up on your marriage. Some of this isn’t divorce-specific, though, considering that many engagements and courtships can outlast modern marriages.

Joe Keller
Other advice applies to men at any relationship stage, and even to unmarried women. What do you need to make a complete kitchen? How do you keep a clean house on a single person’s tight time schedule—and when do you consider it a good investment to hire a professional cleaner? What household appurtenances are worth the money, and which will turn into mere household clutter? When the time comes, where can you meet a potential mate?

Keller provides welcome guidance on living skills such as how to manage a kitchen. Too many bachelors live on carb-rich takeout, which shows on their waists, and their marriage prospects. Keller’s eminently readable, jargon-free guide to kitchen practice includes how to handle common ingredients, follow simple recipes, and pair food with wine. Your beltline and billfold will thank you for the knowledge. So will your date.

Speaking of dates, Keller dedicates the second half of his book to the presumption that, even if you’re single now, you don’t expect that for the rest of your life. Midlife courtship is categorically different than college romance, and many of the standards, like where to meet women and how to comport yourself, have changed. Dating is its own unique skill set, especially when you and she may both have kids, and Keller breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized nuggets.

For instance, many men see courtship as external. We don’t take the effort to make ourselves marriageable material. How we groom and dress make more of a difference than we care to admit. Likewise, bars and other meat markets make lousy places to meet committed spouses. Keller provides useful, nuts-and-bolts suggestions of ways to go where the women are, so you can meet and get to know them on favorable terms.

Perhaps Keller’s most important advice is not about dating, or housekeeping, or surviving the divorce. Underlying nearly every piece of advice, Keller wants to make sure you remain willing to live with yourself. You will never keep peace with your ex, maintain a relationship with your kids, build a life and career worth maintaining, and meet your next possible spouse, unless you first can stand your own company. That’s harder than it sounds, but Keller is there to help you out.

Many midlife bachelors have a passive attitude to being single. After all, our parents probably expected us to meet our spouses in school or early in our work lives; they never instilled the skills for late life singlehood. Keller provides the guidance we wish we’d had earlier on how to remain active in our own bachelorhood. Don’t wait for a wife to take control of your life. Be the man worthy of such a wife, now.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Alan Russell and the Marks of the New Noir

Alan Russell, Burning Man

One or two novels that break the established genre mold may be mere outliers; when you see it time and again, you know you’ve spotted a trend. Having recently seen mystery novels by Mark Mynheir, Tyler Dilts, and others, I’ve spotted a recurring theme where cynical noir antiheroes don’t just revel in their anguish. They want the path out. To that roster of authors, we can now add Alan Russell.

Detective Michael Gideon, a genuine LAPD hero, catches the case of the Paul Klein, a Beverly Hills teen whose body is found crucified in a local park. But when he begins poking the case, Gideon uncovers some unpleasant truths behind Paul’s seemingly charmed life: it seems young Paul had a fondness for antagonizing workers, immigrants, and anyone even slightly different. Suddenly, Beverly Hills High looks like a cauldron of suspects.

As if that wasn’t enough, Gideon, whose unique relationship with LA’s finest gives him the liberty to pick his own cases, also catches Baby Rose, an infant abandoned beneath a commuter rail line. The normally jaded PD always stumble on dead babies, and Gideon’s no different. But as he becomes increasingly entangled with his city’s most beloved child finder, and LA’s biggest Dominican monastery, he realizes his cynicism isn’t as complete as he thought.

Russell, probably the most seasoned mystery novelist you’ve never heard of, manages to keep several fires burning at once—pun intended, considering Gideon’s disfiguring burn scars. He takes the unusual tack of making his hero more brutally damaged on the outside than the inside. Gideon uses anger to defend himself against the world’s violence because, at root, he retains an essentially honest, unblemished, and very loving core.

Alan Russell
The one storyline Russell doesn’t completely sell features Ellis Haines, the Santa Ana Strangler. Years earlier, Gideon and his K-9 partner Sirius courted death to bring Haines in through a raging brushfire. Now, Haines holds a Hannibal Lecter-like sway over Gideon, who has externalized parts of his soul: Sirius has become his better angel, Haines his dark side. Sadly, this story thread feels imperfectly transplanted from a Thomas Harris novel.

Like Asta in Hammett’s The Thin Man, Sirius serves to highlight Gideon’s personality. We’re all only human, and we’ll say things to our dog we would never confide in another person. Sirius serves as Gideon’s police partner, but also his shrink and confessor. He gives Gideon the opportunity to come to terms with his own life. One wonders if Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe might have been better adjusted if they’d had a pooch.

But that’s a key part of the difference between Russell and writers like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Where that founding generation of the noir tradition created characters steeped in psychological depth, these characters don’t think about their own depth. In the culminating scene of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade turns Brigid O’Shaughnessy over to certain execution because honor says he has to. He never asks why.

The noir pioneers asked questions about society, crime, and violence. The New Noir heroes ask questions about themselves. This does not make them simple, uncomplicated characters from the pre-noir era, like Miss Marple or Auguste Dupin, who served as driving vehicles for the mental puzzle. Russell, Dilts, Mynheir, and other writers create protagonists who turn the same cynical eye on themselves as they turn on the larger world.

Thus, notably, New Noir characters do something the classic noir antiheroes never do: they fall in love. Spade and Marlowe progress through a succession of commitment-free sexual encounters (Spade’s discussion with his secretary, who is also his paramour, about his affair with his partner’s wife, while also sleeping with O’Shaugnessy, is typical.) These New Noir heroes, on the other hand, engage in courtship, unheard of in prior noir iterations.

If Russell and the other New Noir authors stumble—and they do—it’s because they’re trying something new. Too few working writers today have the courage to try something really innovative, so it’s a simply aesthetic pleasure to see authors taking risks. Even their mistakes have gravitas.

While Russell doesn’t completely integrate every component of his storyline, perhaps because he has so many, he nevertheless manages to sell Gideon as a compelling character whose struggles command our attention. If there really is a New Noir, with characters who actually live rather than exist at the mercy of their past, Russell’s writing is a good way to get into it. And Michael Gideon and Sirius are good characters to open that door.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Religion For Non-Religious People

Michael Neale, The River

As a child, Gabriel Clarke watched his father give his life saving a kayaker from certain death. The son and grandson of seasoned river guides, this tragedy leaves Gabriel terrified of his inheritance on the water. He endures a youth of timid choices and small accomplishment, colored by fear. But in little moments, if he’s paying attention, glimpses of his intended life peek out, calling him to face his fear and become the man he was meant to be.

Michael Neale’s first novel reaches for that market William Young cracked five years ago with The Shack: Christianity for people who dislike liturgical language. Neale goes out of his way to show divine providence opening doors for his protagonist and making his path straight, without mentioning God. Even leaving aside how milquetoast this sounds, I never wrapped my head around Neale’s episodic, low-stakes style and clunky prose stylings.

Neale’s prose unrolls in an inelegant, declarative style that reminds us we’re reading a novel. Events simply happen to Gabriel; he rides along, a mere passenger. Neale amplifies this by his tendency to simply assert things to be true. Consider his character note on Gabriel’s father:
“With shaggy blond hair in a shag cut and a swagger to boot, he was a man of few words with wisdom beyond his years.”
Really? What does that mean? Neale never says; he throws that out there and expects us to accept it. In the same manner, Gabriel’s mother:
“Maggie had grown to love her son with all her heart, and she would never give up on him.”
The stray dog Gabriel adopts after it saves him from a rattlesnake:
“Rio gave Gabriel friendship and strength. Everyone could tell his confidence had grown, especially the boys at the pond.”
I could go on. Neale introduces every character and situation thus, mere assertions, never backed with action. This crafts a story in which audiences don’t feel very invested, because we don’t undertake the journey with Gabriel. I wanted to grasp Neale’s lapels and shout: “Don’t tell me what I should think! Show me what happens and let me share the experience!”

In a similar vein, Neale wants us to simply accept his assurance that Gabriel suffers with the shadows of his past. Gabriel makes weak choices time and again because he can’t face his lingering childhood fears. Neale asserts that “the grief, scars, and rejections that plagued his childhood and adolescence had led to on-again, off-again friendships with the other kids, but no deep friendships to rely on at the brink of adulthood.”

Again, I don’t know what that means, because Neale doesn’t show me. Nearly every chapter begins with Gabriel acting long in the tooth; nearly every chapter ends with some vague but uplifting life lesson in facing fears and shedding the chains of the past. This supposed grief is mere background noise, not actually comprised of anything that happens in my view. Were I to judge by what I see, notwithstanding his father, Gabriel’s life appears pretty good.

What background Neale does give us is so slipshod as to approach comedy. Gabriel grows up in a rural Kansas straight from Norman Rockwell, populated by walk-on characters with stereotyped names like Thelma Lou Nichols and Naomi Ledbetter. He misplaces both the Arkansas River and St. Louis, Missouri. Gabriel’s bucolic boyhood interactions resemble nothing so much as an Archie comic.

Through it all, Gabriel feels the call of The River, always spelled thus, with caps. Whether the Colorado, the Arkansas, or Soco Creek, every stretch of moving water is The River, which both holds him captive and offers him redemption. For Gabriel, every river is the Jordan River, with the Baptizer waiting for him to step into the current and be washed clean. Gabriel just needs to take that first step.

Nothing ever feels very important in this book. Though I’m sure Gabriel’s struggles seem large to him, as mine do to me, Neale never convinces me anything particularly significant is at stake. Because I don’t really go on the journey with Gabriel, I reach the end and feel nothing. Nothing.

Neale, a Dove award-winning Christian songwriter, is now on tour with The River Experience, a multimedia extravaganza anchored by this story. Considering Neale’s background in music, I bet it isn’t half bad, and he means this book primarily as the take-home for his concerts. If so, God bless. But without that context, this book feels anemic. It only reinforces my apathy toward religion for non-religious people.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Susanna Clarke's New Fantastic Tradition

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Four
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel

Britain is, for lovers of literature, a magical place. Its history of poets and wordsmiths tangles back to time out of mind, conjuring images that exceed its small area and population. But if you read recent Brit Lit, it has a distinct atmosphere of discouragement about it. So when English author Susanna Clarke recaptures pre-Victorian times in a heroic fantasy, we know exactly what she means when a character asks: “Why is there no more magic done in England?”

Clarke tells a story that delves into two worlds at once. Her plot, stripped of the language in which she clothes it, tells of two men, wanderers outside their time. Gilbert Norrell is a collector, an introvert, a man with his head in the clouds. Jonathan Strange, who first apprentices to Norell before they descend into rivalry, is eminently practical, a man of the people. And both of them happen to be wizards, with power unmatched in Britain since time of myth.

But Clarke doesn’t strip the story of its language. The events of her story don’t just happen; they happen in a very specific context. Hers is the world of Jane Austen and Laurence Sterne, of Mary Shelley and Sir Walter Scott. And the language she uses painstakingly reconstructs the time in which its set. Clarke infuses her words with the intricacy, lyricism, and humor of Britain’s pre-Victorian heyday, a time when, for literature lovers, England still had magic.

Because the time in which she sets her story is so well known, Clarke feels free to insert characters who will be instantly recognizable to readers. In addition to the title heroes, Clarke trots out stock characters like Sir Walter and Lady Emma Pole, and the slave Stephen who possesses practical wisdom his masters don’t share. She also uses historical figures: George III, Lord Nelson, and Lord Byron make cameo appearances.

Susanna Clarke
Any college-level Brit Lit survey course will spend the longest amount of time on the years surrounding the Napoleonic Wars. Ironically, the years when England produced its greatest linguistic magic corresponded with the years when the land was nearly at greatest risk of disappearing from the globe, second only to the Blitz. Perhaps the fear that their culture might not last long gave the Limeys reason to remember they had a culture.

And the works produced in that time have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the linguistic flowering that began with Marlowe and Shakespeare bore fruit in the days of Wordsworth and Johnson. On the other, because the pre-Victorians accomplished so much, they have linked British letters to a veritable industry of nostalgia. No wonder English Literature progressed through Victorian weariness to the sooty, emasculated world of Amis and le Carré.

Clarke at once channels that nostalgia industry, by recapturing the pre-Victorian tone, and challenges it, by forcing a conflict between the past and the present. Just as Austen’s excessively prim patriarchs subtly mocked the mores of her time, Clarke’s wizardry mandarins, frozen in their worship of the past, point the finger at today’s professors and librarians. Our best work is not behind us, Clarke says. But we have to actually do that work.

But it’s not just about who creates the work. By mocking the nostalgia industry, Clarke also indicts us readers for keeping our eyes turned backward. We, like the authors, are not living up to our potential. We are creating a system of rewards in which all of us feel free to rest on the accomplishments of the past. And we have convinced ourselves, by lionizing how good things used to be, that we can never be that good again. Shame on us.

As the forces our title heroes unleash turn on them, forcing them to overcome their rivalry for the greater good, Norrell and Strange go on a journey in which they come to grips with the future. Neither Norrell’s dusty historical scholarship nor Strange’s practiced applications mean anything when apocalyptic forces threaten. England is changing around them, and they must find the strength to change with it. They have so much to accomplish, if they (and we) will survive.

And the same applies to us. The broad, fantastic world Clarke reveals indicts us for accepting smallness and diminished hopes. She challenges us to honor the past by making a present, and planning for the future. In short, she tells us that, if we fear there is no magic being done in English, we have no one to blame for that but ourselves.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What Are Conservatives Conserving Today?

Henry Adams
A recent article in The Baffler, by historian Rick Perlstein, documents the strange parallel between recent American conservative rhetoric, and scare-based advertising. His often harrowing account of the ad barrages from right-wing mailing lists looks like a pantheon of recent reactionary bugbears. But strangely, Perlstein apparently misses the narrative that links these ads, and the implications that narrative has for American discourse.

The ads Perlstein cites share a myth of a world full of horrible monsters who will consume you if you fail to throw your trust behind some white-hatted hero. Perlstein describes exhortations against a murky medical “elite”; financial hustlers tutored by “pinko” college professors; and garage scientists whose discoveries shame funded universities. These stories pit a “just folks” hero against a shadowy illuminati determined to shackle human ingenuity to their nefarious goals.

Because the white-hatted hero makes his face visible, his leadership appears preferable to that of the shadowy illuminati. But because we have only the hero’s claim that the illuminati even exist, we wind up seeing that which we fear, and that which we trust, through the words of the same influence. In a way, we are accepting the Janus-faced claims of a single individual: I will make you fear, but then I will take away your fear.

American conservatism, once the bastion of altruistic public intellectuals like Henry Adams, TS Eliot, and Russell Kirk, has been hijacked by a for-profit, fear-based world view. Because we need a hero, we are left paralyzed in our own shoes; we can do nothing ourselves until the hero arrives. That makes the fear-based world a call to inaction, a desire to surrender all our power to the designated hero who will make all things better for us.

TS Eliot
We are called therefore to decide whose control we will accept. We are called to accept a position of both powerlessness and stasis, to become entirely passive in the face of the horrible monsters. While conservative demagogues have hitched their wagon to the rhetoric of “rugged individualism,” a vague but persuasive goal, since at least the John Birch era, the actual content of conservative thought has become dominated by individual stagnation.

Why anyone would find that acceptable, I don’t know. The American tradition has long embraced the call to action: the Revolutionary call to stand up against oppression, the Lincolnite call to resist injustice in our land, Roosevelt’s call to oppose fascism throughout the world. Our nation has historically acted with boldness, yet a subset of the current discourse encourages trembling fear-based paralysis.

I reject that. We must act, both individually and together, because the needs become more pressing as our world becomes more complex. Accepting individual and collective responsibility for our own lives lets us, us, resist the enemy without relying on a white-hatted hero. But more important, our resistance lets us put a face on our enemy. We see that person, because one shadowed individual or cabal cannot withstand the scrutiny of the massed population.

Certainly, many people will find this call to action uncomfortable. It does not let us rest on our accomplishments, count our money, or sleep in the same bed every night. When we resist powerful enemies, we must remain ever vigilant, because the enemy—crooked bankers, foreign militants, or the “establishment”—is ever vigilant against us. I can see where a population, comfy in its accumulated stuff, would not want to take the risks involved.

But this call to action restores the people’s power, which first made America great. Standing against oppression does not mean squelching fear, as Perlstein’s advertisers offer, but embracing our fear. Like Churchill and Roosevelt, we must step off the secure path, into the unknown of Jeffersonian authority. I suggest that this is much more conservative, and much more American, than the milquetoast terror peddled on today’s organized right.

Russell Kirk
The secure life, under the mysterious bootheel, has seeming comforts that the peripatetic life of resistance does not offer. Sure, those comforts come at the cost of our essential humanity, but so what? It’s easier, and that’s what we think we want. But like the conservative intellectuals of days gone by, we know, if we look deep in our hearts, that accepting powerlessness and anarchy leads to diminished lives.

The narrative Perlstein uncovered opposes the very nature of a free and democratic society. It excuses us from responsibility for our own lives, and empowers demagogues who keep their eyes only on their own bottom lines. This is not conservative, and it’s certainly not American.