Monday, March 12, 2007

Some thoughts on some books...

So far I've finished four books this trip. The irony is that I'm about to head on my first long (23hr) bus trip tomorrow (note--I´ve already taken the trip at this point; I started this post in BA and I´m finishing it in Bariloche) and I'm out of reading materials. The carefully calculated plan of buying craploads of books before the trip and having my mom ship me new ones every few weeks has not been flawlessly executed (...yes, mistakes were made).

Here are my thoughts on the books I've finished so far. Obviously, feel free to skip this post if you're here for pictures and travel stories, not my "expert" opinion on subjects about which I know no more than you do.

Barak Obama, Dreams from my Father

I found Obama's first book generally quite interesting--and appreciated his reflections on his upbringing, time as a community organizer, and trip to Africa (although I was of course disappointed that his time at PIRG merited only one line about working for a Nader group). Two larger themes particularly struck me, so I'll restrict my comments to these topics.

First, it's impossible to read the book without being struck by how race infused every aspect of Obama's life. I know from personal experience that this is something that is very difficult for white Americans to understand. As a white male I've been blissfully unaware of rampant sexism occurring under my nose in middle school (apparently one of our science teachers refused to call on girls); and I owe a debt of gratitude to some of my black law school classmates who have patiently explained how race is constantly present in their lives.

Given Obama's newfound status as a national figure, many people will undoubtedly pick up this book that wouldn't ordinarily read this type of memoir. The question that remained open in my mind when I finished is, how will middle of the road white Americans, without particularly progressive racial politics, react? Will reading the book be an eye-opening experience that will affect their views on policy issues and the black American experience generally? Or will they see Obama as just another whiney liberal who chooses to racialize everything?

I hope that Obama's current stature will, in the minds of his readers, ascribe retroactive weight to his thoughts as a young man. I hope readers will be open to thinking about what it must be like to think about, and question, one's racial identity and its meaning at every turn. No doubt this is difficult for most white Americans who've never had to confront the presence of race in our lives even once, let along "todos los dias" as they'd say here in Argentina.

The second aspect of the book I found particularly strinking was the story of Obama's religious conversion. I wish I could quote more accurately from this section, but I've already lent the book to a fellow traveler. The bottom line is that in the course of organizing Chicago churches he was often asked about his own faith. It wasn't until he attended a particularly moving service featuring a sermon titled "The Audacity of Hope" (yes, the title of his current book--coming up on my reading list) that he found a spiritual home.

Those who know me know that I'm a skeptic when it comes to religion (more on this below in my thoughts on The End of Faith), so not surprisingly, the message I took away from this section was a bit different than what Mr. Obama surely had in mind. It seemed to me from reading that a large part of what Obama was seeking, and what fellow congregationalists had found, was community--which may include some measure of spirituality, but can easily (in my mind) be separated from notions about God.

It made me think that what we need in this country are secular churches.

We need places where people can go to sing together, laugh together, eat and drink together, talk politics together, care for children together, etc... Personally, I don't think that one's opinions about the existence of an afterlife have much to do with all of this. And, I think a large part of the success of the mega-church movement of Rick Warren et. al. stems from the fact that in the new milenium people are starved for community (sprawling development, bowling alone, you've heard the story...).

Perhaps if we had secular churches (probably not called churches, I guess) that weren't tied to the rather strange ideas about morality that seem to emerge from our established religion (sex is a sin rather than a celebration, same-sex sex is the ultimate sin, etc...) we'd have a better chance of loosening the grip of right-wing social conservatives on this country. We'd have a natural base for organizing (which is what churches have always been) without the baggage.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

Motorcycle Diaries is a quick read, so I'll keep this post one as well. Obviously the book was particularly relevant to my current life. But, the ultimate affect was to make me realize that my own thirst for adventure is quite limited. Lots of this book is about being HUNGRY and COLD. Reading it made me quite thankful for my hot showers, real beds, and indoor transportation. Not very Che-like; I know. But at least my Uncle Michael will be happy to hear that I'm no closer to running off and becoming a communist revolutionary.

I did wonder whether one could pull off today what Che and Alberto did in the early 50s--essentially beg, borrow, and steal their way around the continent. Don't worry, mom, I'll continue to wonder...

Sam Harris, The End of Faith

This may be the most interesting book I´ve read since The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (which is about evolutionary phsychology--and no matter what you think of that subject the book is fascinating; I highly recommend it).

Harris´thesis is that religious faith is an outdated and backward idea which is not only retarding our progress as a race but actually threatens our very existence. Attachment to thousands-year old dogma has prevented us from making the type of progress in the fields of ethics and spirituality that we've made in fields like medicine and politics. Now that we have weapons of mass destruction the stakes are higher than ever--imagine 15th century Inquisition-happy Christians with The Bomb. He goes after Islam particularly hard, but does not spare Christianity or Judaism either... and he reserves a special ire for ¨religious moderates.¨

Fairly provocative stuff--I´ve never seen anyone go straight at faith like this before. Here are some representative quotes:

-"By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally." (21)

-"It is time we recognized that the only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts...We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it." (48)

-"Religious violence is still with us because our religions are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise it is because secular knowledge and secular interests are restraining the most lethal improprieties of faith. It is time we acknowledged that no real foundation exists within the canons of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity." (225)

-"It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil. Wherever conviction grows in inverse proportion to its justification, we have lost the very basis of human cooperation. Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in the halls of power." (225)

-"The litmus test for reasonableness should be obvious: anyone who wants to know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms, will be open to new evidence." (225)

Yáll know that I´m a skeptic when it comes to religion, and some of these arguments definitely resonate with me. Wanting to hear the other side, I sent these quotes and a few others to a set of my friends from law school that are both religous and extremely intelligent self-reflective. The result was a fascinating email conversation. My friends provided some interesting arguments, including:

-attacking Harris for a tautological claim on the substance of rationality (one of my friends asserts that she came to her faith through reason)

-attacking Harris´strict textualism when it comes to religious text and highlighting the role of intepretation

-accusing Harris of holding an unduly static view of religion and neglecting the long traditions of evolution in all major faiths

-pointing the the essential human (rather than religious) nature of violence

I can´t say I´m wholly convinced by any of their retorts; but I think conversation is both fascinating and foundationally important. One example of its import: there is much talk in the progressive community of the need to stop ceding ¨moral values¨to the right and start talking in religious language. The idea is that Republicans have been painted as the party of God and Democrats the party of secular humanism. As exemplified by Barak Obama, Dems need to be able to talk eloquently (and honestly) in the language of faith. At the same time, rational, tolerant ¨moderates¨need to take religion back from fundamentalist ¨crazies.¨ Harris´perspective challenges all this.

Ultimately, the best advice I got throught the emails came from a couple of friends who advised that if I am skeptical and want to understand faith I should read its proponents, not its detractors. I´ve taken that point to heart and plan to delve into their recommended texts when I return from my trip (which include G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” or “The Everlasting Man,” C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain, ” William James´"The Will to Believe," and Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virture").

Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas, Crashing the Gate

Between the Dems´loss in 2004 and victory in 2006, the founders of DailyKos and MyDD delivered a polemic on how to reform the party and start winning. Their essential points are: bring the single-issue groups into line behind a greater progressive vision; fire all the same damn consultants who´ve been losing elections for a decade; don´t purge canddiates who aren´t 100% pure on every issue; understand that the media environment has changed fundamentally and stop waging 1990s campaigns; pursue a 50 state strategy (a la Howard Dean); and tha the left needs to be willing to nurture its young and pay them well in order to attract the best talent.

The first point on single issue groups is good, but easier said than done. I work for an organization that takes an issue-by-issue, no permanent friends, no permantent enemies approach to policy reform; but I´ve become increasingly interested in building a progressive infrastructure and seeing our work as an ideological battlefield. Iironically Armstrong and Moulitsas seem confused or divided about the role of ideology. On one hand, they chide our side for being insufficiently ideological (¨To their detriment progressive organizations feel comfortable advocating policy-based solutions to problems. Meanwhile, the other side is waging an ideological war¨(50) ); on the other hand, they seem to see the battle more in terms of practical solutions than ideology--they say later that netroots activism ¨is not an ideological movement¨(146). My own sense is that ideology has an important role to play here. The bottom line, though, is that it´s extremely difficult to get groups to ¨get in line¨and hold back on pushing for their own agendas. Here´s an effort at a methodology for accomplishing this by some recent Yale Forestry graduates that´s worth looking at:

I basically agree with all the other points--but having worked my entire career at a progressive organization that is well known for paying low salaries, I see how the salary issue is a bit more complex that the authors might allow. The authors write, ¨We need a professional movement that treats its people as well as Microsoft and Google, that rewards them based on the market value of their talent and skills, and that generally believes that old saying that ýou get what you pay for.´¨ I generally agree with this thrust; but in order to accomplish this, we´ll need steady, sustainable income sources--like Microsoft and Google, who don´t have to go begging at the trough of foundations. In other words, I think in order to start operating more like businesses, progressive nonprofits need to be IN business, creating sustainable income streams. PIRG has started to do this with Earthtones phone company and Green Century Funds mutual funds; but we as a community have a long way to go.

Finally, I should comment on the fact that the authors give the McCain-Feingold bill (BCRA) a lot of credit for forcing the Democratic party to reconnect with its base. Anyone who knows me knows that I fought hard AGAINST that bill--not because of the soft money restrictions, which I agree are helpful; but because of the doubling of hard money caps. This isn´t the place for a long discussion, but I just wanted to say that there is truth in the authors´comments (and surely there is), that seems to me to be more sad commentary on the Democratic party than reasons to love the new law. After all, Republicans didn´t need BCRA to reconnect with their already thriving small donor base. Nothing would have prevented Dems from actually living as the ¨party of the people¨before 2002.


The Auto Snob said...
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The Auto Snob said...

Wow, I didn't realize you'd be quite so prolific. I haven't checked the blog for a while, and now I discover you've written 3 dissertations' worth since the last time I read. I see you're reading some of the same books I'm listening to. I read The End of Faith a little while ago and Into Thin Air last year. I guess paper books probably suit your academic sensibilities much better...I can just picture you highlighting quotes from End of Faith for later use in your blog. Keep up the good readin'. If you like the Krakauer book, he wrote another on Mormonism called Under the Banner of Heaven which was excellent and also quite scary.