Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Knight's Reading List XXII: October 2008

Reading List:

Highsmith, Patricia. Ripley Under Ground.
Quine, Willard Van Orman. Elementary Logic, revised edition.
Vidal, Gore. Burr.

Non-Fiction:

Quine, Willard Van Orman. Elementary Logic, revised edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1980. xii + 129 pages. Index.

After reading Mark Zegarelli’s book Logic for Dummies (see my reading list for September 2008), I got out some of my other books on logic, some of which I had read and some of which I had not. The first one I finished was Elementary Logic, by the dean of American formal logic, Willard Van Orman Quine of Harvard. This is the revised edition of a book first published in 1941. By Quine’s own account he had made some significant changes in the book through the various editions.

Elementary Logic consists of 48 short chapters in four sections. The first section lays out the structure of statements, uses of the inclusive “or”, the equivalence of “but,” “although,” and “unless” to “and,” and so on, with particular attention to transposing ordinary language into the unambiguous notation of formal logic. The second section deals with “transformations,” that is, the technique of turning a statement in one form into another, thus opening it up to different techniques of proof. The final two sections are on quantification and the techniques of inference appropriate to quantified statements.

The brevity of this book, along with the word “elementary” in the title, might lead one to underestimate its power and difficulty. This is very dense stuff, and each chapter builds on the previous material, so that the cumulative effect is very powerful. For the same reason, failure to master points in the early sections will leave one helpless before the more technically difficult material in the later parts of the book.

Fiction:

Highsmith, Patricia. Ripley Under Ground. 1970. 298 pages

One might think that the only way one could appeal to the emotions of a reader would be through the corresponding emotions of a character. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels present us with an anti-hero, whose emotions are opaque and inaccessible. Tom Ripley tends to be reactive, not proactive, and his actions are completely ungoverned by social or moral norms. He seems a shallow, pleasant, vaguely artistic sort, living the good life at his chateau in France. If threatened, however, Ripley will lie, defraud, or kill, and his concerns are entirely technical. The police are often suspicious of Ripley, but he slips through their fingers, largely because he has none of Raskolnikov’s urge to confess.

In Ripley Under Ground, which I believe to be the second in the series, following The Talented Mr. Ripley, a long-running fraud in which Ripley and his accomplices have been profiting from the popularity of the works of a dead artist, is threatened with exposure because of an American art amateur with a theory about the artist’s use of color. The American is threatening to expose many of the paintings as forgeries, and the forger is starting to break under the pressure. On top of that, a young cousin of Dickie Greenleaf, a boy Tom killed and impersonated in the past, pays Tom a visit. Will Tom have to dispose of him, too?

Vidal, Gore. Burr. New York: Vintage International, 1973. 430 pages.

Gore Vidal is not a likable person. I saw him on television the other day, frail and confined to a wheelchair, and just as waspish as ever. Vidal is, however, a very fine writer. One of his most ambitious projects (and we may never know if this was conceived as a project, or if it just grew) is the American Chronicle Series. This consists of seven historical novels: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and The Golden Age. If Lincoln and Burr are reliable indicators, these novels may be a better introduction to American history than your average academic history text.

Burr is centered on Aaron Burr, our country’s third Vice President and the killer of Alexander Hamilton, who has returned to New York and the practice of law in his old age. The novel is set in the years 1833-1836, from Burr’s marriage at the age of 77 to Eliza Jumel, until his death. (There is a brief postscript in 1840 to wrap up a matter concerning the narrator.) There is a nice interplay between the current political scene, in which Martin van Buren is preparing to succeed Andrew Jackson in the White House, and the days of the Revolution, to which Burr often returns in memory. Along the way we have character sketches, and sometimes fuller portraits, of Hamilton, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Washington Irving, and the other founders of our country, all in Burr/Vidal’s particularly sardonic tones. Of particular interest is Burr’s view of Jefferson, who tried to have Burr judicially murdered on two occasions. Vidal’s portrait of Jefferson is not flattering, but it is consistent with other sources.

This is an excellent novel and well worth reading. An interest in, if not some background of American history, would be helpful in sorting out all the names and characters.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Good Spending vs. Bad Spending

Just in case you all thought that my earlier post, "Stimulus or Spending: A False Dichotomy," indicates that I'm incorrigibly sold on the current administration's economic policies, I thought I'd come back with some comments on an area in which the Democrats are being as fatuous as the Republicans are about stimulus. This is the idea, which seems to have been foisted off on the Obama administration by the left wing of Congressional Democrats, that you should punish companies which have taken Federal dollars for spending their money in certain ways.

Money is fungible. That is, money is interchangeable. You can't tell one dollar from another. Let's say we give the health department of some third-world country $20 million, and we tell them they can't spend it on birth control. Fine, they allocate our $20 million to malaria eradication, and then they take the $20 million they had already budgeted for their malaria program, and give it to their family planning clinics. Suppose we give Israel $1 billion in financial support, and we tell them that we can't support the settlements on the West Bank. So the Israelis make a few bookkeeping entries, so that our money is all spent inside the recognized boundaries of Israel, but, in some mysterious fashion, the settlement-building budget goes up by $1 billion.

So it's just silly to say to a bank that they can't pay their management more than a certain amount, as long as they're taking taxpayer money. They will find ways, they will find means, and they will compensate their people as much as they think they need to. The government already limits executive compensation. Companies can only deduct the first $1 million in salary and direct payments to an executive as a business expense. Pay more salary, and you incur a big tax bill. But you can pay much more in bonuses. There's no limit on bonuses, as far as I know, so executives get a lot of their compensation in bonuses.

I think John Thain at Merrill Lynch handled this very badly, partly in apparently lying to his new boss, Ken Lewis. But here's the thing. Some of those bonuses were actually salary, disguised as bonuses to get around the tax code. And some of the guys getting bonuses actually earned them, even if the company went in the dumper in the second half of the year. So I don't think it's as simple as cutting off all the bonuses for employees of companies taking Federal money.

If the Federal government wants to exert that level of control on financial services companies, then they ought to go ahead and nationalize them. Then they'll have the responsibility, as well as the power.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stimulus or Spending: A False Dichotomy

The author of the attached article is another in the long line of Republican and "conservative" authors and speakers, including several members of the United States Congress, claiming that the economic recovery package passed by Congress is a "spending bill," but not a "stimulus bill." As Steve Pearlstein pointed out in a recent column in the Washington Post, spending and stimulus are the same thing. Let me repeat that: Spending and stimulus are the same thing.

The economy, quite simply, is the sum total of the demand for goods and services in a given time period. If you increase spending, you increase demand for goods and services, that is, you increase the amount of economic activity. And increasing an activity may be said to stimulate it. I think these Republicans know that, I think even the dimmest of them know that spending is stimulus, and stimulus is spending. So I must conclude that they don't like what the money is being spent on, not whether it is stimulative or not.

It is well-known that the Republicans prefer tax cuts. But tax cuts are not, in and of themselves, stimulative. Tax cuts mean that disposable income is increased, but they don't necessarily motivate people to spend that increase. Whereas spending, spending on anything, is at least initially stimulative, in that it increases the demand for whatever the government is spending the money on.

Let me note that all dollars are equal. If I take $100,000 and pay it to a small businessman to upgrade the insulation in an office building, I'm giving that businessman money, and he will spend it, and that will stimulate the economy. If the insulation is already on hand, and he takes a big chunk of the money to pay down his debt, by that amount we get less additional demand. If I take the same $100,000 and use it to pay the salary of a teacher or a policeman, or pay it to a construction firm, or use it to buy a van for a senior citizens' program, the portion of that $100,000 spent on additional goods and services is stimulative, and the portion used to pay down debt is not. And the same would be true of a $100,000 tax cut.

There are two exceptions, which apply equally to spending and to tax cuts. If I give $100,000 to a couple who are in over their heads on a mortgage, and they use the $100,000 to pay down that mortgage so that they can afford the monthly payment, no new goods or services were generated, and $100,000 was destroyed. (The creation of debt is the creation of money; the payment of debt is the destruction of money.) If I give $100,000 to a couple, and they go out to the Mercedes dealer and buy a new Mercedes for $100,000, and the dealer does not order a new Mercedes to restock his inventory, then no new goods or services were generated. The amount of the dealer's commission will be stimulative, and any money spent on dealer prep and so on, but the car already existed, so buying it doesn't create additional economic activity.

Knight's Reading List XXI: September 2008

Reading List:

Anonymous. Pervigilium Veneris.
Berton, Pierre. The Great Depression.
Tibullus. Tibullus.
Zegarelli, Mark. Logic for Dummies.

Non-Fiction:

Berton, Pierre. The Great Depression. 1990. xviii + 675 pages. Index.

With all the recent talk about the New Deal, I think was good for me to read Pierre Berton’s account of the Great Depression in Canada. Berton often draws a stark contrast between the experimentalism and optimism of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the stodgy conservatism and passivity of the two Canadian prime ministers of the period, Richard Bennett and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Bennett was a Conservative and Mackenzie King was a Liberal, but that made little different. They were afraid of communists, they were afraid of expanding the power of the central government, they were afraid of running up deficits, they were afraid of their own shadows. (In the case of Mackenzie King, who was heavily involved in spiritualism, this last was almost literally true. He backed away from anything his late mother might have disapproved of.)

The result was a terrible experience. Children on the prairies were reduced to eating Russian olives and thistles. The dole was quite intentionally stingy and humiliating. A lot of effort was put into moving young men into camps in the woods and keeping them behind wire, rather than putting them to useful work. This was a government, whether led by a Liberal or a Conservative, which was afraid of its own people, and which had no sympathy for them. Let us hope that Americans don’t forget how fortunate we were to have FDR, and that the fears of present-day “conservatives” don’t stifle the government’s efforts to solve our current economic problems.

Zegarelli, Mark. Logic for Dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2007. xviii + 362 pages.

Not everyone likes formal logic. I have recently read Quine’s Elementary Logic and Methods of Logic, and these are serious, useful books on the use of formal logic for sentential analysis. Mark Zegarelli has written a book which combines a systematic presentation of formal logic with a light touch. I’m not sure I understand formal logic better from Zegarelli than from Quine or Kahane, but it was more fun reading about it in Zegarelli’s version. I may even be more apt to apply these principles and techniques than I would have after reading the other texts.

Poetry:

Anonymous. Pervigilium Veneris. Translated by J. W. Mackail. Revised by G. P. Goold. Pages 341-359 in Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris, 2nd edition revised by G. P. Goold. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1962. Loeb Classical Library 6.

Tibullus. Tibullus. Translated by J. P. Postgate. With revisions by G. P. Goold. Pages 185-339 in Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris, 2nd edition revised by G. P. Goold. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1962. Loeb Classical Library 6.

It may be useful to point out that the Loeb Classical Library series from Harvard University Press comes in two colors: green and red. The books with green covers and dust jackets are translations of works in Greek. Those with red covers and dust jackets are translations of Latin originals. (Green = Greek; Red = Roman). Each work is presented in the original language on the verso, and the translation is opposite on the recto. The small format means that one can cover the translation with a 3” x 5” index card to focus on the original.

When Albius Tibullus died in 19 BCE, he left behind two books of poetry: Delia and Nemesis. These are reproduced here, along with a “poetic miscellany” called The Messala Collection. Tibullus wrote narrative poems with a rather rural flavor. “When the time is ripe, let me plant the tender vines and the stout orchard trees with my own deft hands, a countryman indeed.” (I, i) There are plenty of poems about love here, and fervent love at that, but at a more leisurely pace than that of Catullus. Given the martial nature of Roman society, I, x “Against War” is particularly interesting. “What madness is it to call black Death to us by warfare!”

The anonymous poem Pervigilium Veneris (The Vigil of Venus) is, the translator says, ascribed to one Tiberianus, and to the African school of the late third and early fourth centuries. It is a celebratory poem in ten stanzas, including three poems on Spring, three on the festival of Venus, and four litanies to Venus. The first poem is punctuated by a refrain: Cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet!. (Let him love tomorrow who has never loved, and let him who has tomorrow love!) This recalls to mind one of the anomalies of the identification of Greek gods with Latin deities. Venus is usually identified with the Aphrodite of the Greeks, but I think it is fair to say that Venus is more of a Goddess of Spring and of the fertility of the Earth than Aphrodite.

The Third Assumption

James L. Kugel, in How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, asserts that Biblical interpretation was based on four assumptions. These four assumptions guided the interpretation of the Bible from at least the later writings in the Old Testament, until the development of the "higher criticism" in the 19th century. Fundamentalism, as a movement, has sought to restore these assumptions to their dominant position in Biblical interpretation. The first assumption, of which I wrote last month, was "that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B." The second assumption, as Kugel states it, is “that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day.”

The third assumption is “that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. It is perfectly harmonious, despite its being an anthology; in fact, they also believed that everything that the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreters’ own religious beliefs and practices (since they believed these to have been ordained by God).”

This assumption can give a reader some problems. By the time of the postexilic reoccupation of Judea, it is apparent that religious practices have changed. Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus are full of sacrifices to God. There are sin offerings, burnt offerings, fellowship offerings, and so on, all involving the sacrifice of living animals, as well as grain, oil, and human hair. The descriptions of how these sacrifices are to be performed are very detailed (and very similar to descriptions in The Iliad).

“And so Agamemnon prayed
but the son of Cronus would not bring his prayer to pass,
not yet . . . the Father accepted the sacrifices, true,
but doubled the weight of thankless, ruthless war.
Once the men had prayed and flung the barley,
first they lifted back the heads of the victims,
slit their throats, skinned them and carved away
the meat from the thighbones and wrapped them in fat,
a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh.
And they burned these on a cleft stick, peeled and dry,
spitted the vitals, held them over Hephaestus’ flames
and once they’s charred the thighs and tasted the organs
they cut the rest into pieces, pierced them with spits,
roasted them to a turn and pulled them off the fire.” The Iliad, 2.

The first animal sacrifice I find in the Bible is in Genesis 8, a passage from the story of Noah to which I will return at the end of this essays. This is a very simple sacrifice. Things get much more elaborate later on. The design of the tabernacle (and, later, the Temple) and its furnishings and staff are all focused on the practice of sacrifices. In Exodus 29, for example:

“This is what you are to do to consecrate them, so they may serve me as priests: Take a young bull and two rams without defect. And from fine wheat flour, without yeast, make bread, and cakes mixed with oil, and wafers spread with oil. Put them in a basket and present them in it – along with the bull and the two rams. . . . Bring the bull to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. Slaughter it in the Lord’s presence at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Take some of the bull’s blood and put it on the horns of altar with your fingers, and pour out the rest of it at the base of the altar. Then take all the fat around the inner parts, the covering of the liver, and both kidneys with the fat on them, and burn them on the altar. But burn the bull’s flesh and its hide and its offal outside the camp. It is a sin offering.”

Animal sacrifice was obviously a big part of the religious life of the Israelites in the legendary days of Moses and Aaron, but it disappears completely and without explanation. Moreover, this would seem to accompany a change in God. Accompanying these descriptions of sacrifices are frequent comments that the burning flesh makes a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Leviticus 23 says, for example, “They will be a burnt offering to the Lord, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings – an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.” The Israelite practice resembles the Achaean in this: “All the fat is the Lord’s.” Leviticus 3:16.

The God of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called books of Moses, is much more physical than the later, more immaterial God who resides in Heaven. God is present in the Most Holy Place, God is present as He leads the Israelites through the desert, God smells their sacrifices, God finds the aroma of burning fat pleasing, and God is an emotional sort. From time to time He is angry and sends a plague, or burns people with fire, and punishes them in other ways. Moses is kept busy trying to propitiate God. To put it simply, the God who exiles Cain, who causes the Flood, who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, who burns people who complain about the food in Sinai, is not the same God of the later Bible, and certainly not the God of New Testament. In general, God seems to mature, to become less petulant, less quick to anger, more a God of love and forgiveness, as we move through the Bible.

This is a problem for interpreters. God is perfect, and the perfect cannot change. Just as the Greeks believed that the perfection of the spheres made them immortal and unchangeable, the Biblical interpreters attribute these qualities to God. (I don’t believe that God himself claims these things; these beliefs arise as a matter of tradition.) But if God is perfect, if God is unchangeable, He can neither make a mistake, nor can He learn from it. Therefore, it cannot be the case that God is actually sorry that He caused the Flood, and is swearing that He won’t make that mistake again. But this is what the Bible says:

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”

This third assumption thus involves a significant trade-off. We gain a seamless, consistent narrative, without fault or contradiction, but we lose any sense of change, maturation, of spiritual growth, on God’s part or on the part the men who worship Him.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Knight's Reading List XX: August 2008

Reading List:

Drake, David. The Fortress of Glass.
___. When the Tide Rises.
Marryat, Frederick. Mr. Midshipman Easy.
Ryan, Mark. Geometry for Dummies, 2nd edition.
Talese, Gay, editor. The Best American Essays 1987.
Theroux, Paul, editor. The Best American Travel Writing 2001.

Non-Fiction:

Ryan, Mark. Geometry for Dummies, 2nd edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2008. xviii + 388 pages. Index.

Most people think of geometry as a branch of mathematics. Some of them think of it as a particularly dull branch of mathematics they were compelled to study in ninth or tenth grade. Because of its emphasis on proofs, Mark Ryan’s book makes it clear that geometry is a method of logical thinking. Geometric proofs, like other kinds of formal logic, have very precise rules and require rigorous thought applying the relevant principles.

I have often said that the most useful part of the mathematics I learned in school was trigonometry, because it’s the only part I ever made money from. (I worked for a civil engineering firm for a couple of summers while I was in college, and I applied trigonometry to land surveying.) That is not entirely true, I realize. The logical thinking and the attention to the structure of a problem required for geometry are applicable to many of the problems we face at work and in other fields of life.

I enjoyed revisiting geometry, the logical structure of which was so admired by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. You mind find that you also enjoy returning in thought to the tenth grade.

Talese, Gay, editor. The Best American Essays 1987. 1987. xxii + 323 pages.

Theroux, Paul, editor. The Best American Travel Writing 2001. 2001. xxii + 418 pages.

I really enjoy the “Best American” collections, whether short stories, mystery stories, essays, or travel writing. If I’m going to review them, however, I need to take a lot more notes on the contents. Right now, I couldn’t recall a single essay from Talese’s collection, even though I know I found a number of them to be interesting and well-written. One of the best essays in the Theroux collection is by a woman who goes to the Arctic islands and goes out with Inuit seal hunters on their dog sleds. It comes to me now that the same woman wrote an essay on ranching in Wyoming that was included in Talese’s collection. I think I’ll have to re-read these books before I can say much more about them. I do think they would repay re-reading.

Fiction:

Drake, David. The Fortress of Glass. New York: Tor, 2006. 384 pages. The Crown of the Isles, Volume One.

In the beginning, there was Lord of the Isles, a fantasy novel set in a world of islands ranged round the Inner Sea like jewels around a diadem. This developed into a series of six books called, also, Lord of the Isles. After the first book, there were the sequels Queen of Demons, Servant of the Dragon, Goddess of the Ice Realm, Mistress of the Catacombs, and Master of the Cauldron. The unifying motive of the stories is the struggle of six friends – the only six characters common to all of the novels – against magicians and demons using the forces of evil against the interests of mankind. The six friends consist Garric or-Reise and his sister Sharina os-Reise (who are not, in fact, biological brother and sister; Cashel or-Kenset and his sister Ilna os-Kenset, children of a human and a nymph; Tenoctris, a wizard brought forward from a thousand years in the past; and Liane bos-Benliman, Garric’s fiancee. The religious background is based on the pantheon and beliefs of the Sumerians, while the magic is classical and largely Egyptian.

The Fortress of Glass marks a departure in this series, hence its designation as “The First Volume of The Crown of the Isles.” Basically, the clash of magical forces becomes so cataclysmic that the world of the Isles undergoes a basic physical and temporal transformation, and comes into contact with a new and threatening culture, the Coerli. The novel leads up to that catastrophe in Drake’s patented fashion. The six friends arrive with some other friends and advisors, and a royal fleet, at the island of First Atara. They find that King Cervoran has just died, and his son, a young boy named Protas, has succeeded him. At the funeral for King Cervoran, Garric disappears, transported by magic to another plane, a world on which the Coerli are the dominant species. Ilna, with her friend Chalcus and the child Merota on a patrol on the cutter Heron. Cashel takes the orphaned Protas in hand. Sharina becomes regent in Garric’s absence. And we’re off!

Imagine a novel in which the author follows Lewis and Clark on their expedition, interweaving an account of Zebulon Pike’s travels up the Arkansas, while following the activities of Jefferson back in Washington, and bringing all of these characters back together at a reception at the White House at the end of the book. Imagine, moreover, that Lewis and Pike bring back to Washington information that allows Mr. Jefferson to solve his most pressing political problems. There, in a nutshell, is David Drake’s technique. He divides his characters up into four groups, sends each group off on a series of adventures that would stand on its own as a novella, and brings them back together at the end so that the resolution of their individual challenges contribute to the successful conclusion of the main problem of the book: defeating evil and unifying the Isles under Prince Garric. Herman Wouk used a similar structure in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, but I think Wouk used even more characters. Allan Drury’s Washington novels had something of the same structure, and so did Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are a number of tricks to managing a work in this form, and Drake handles them all competently, resulting in an engrossing read, in which the reader is caught up in several narratives at once.

___. When the Tide Rises. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2008. 356 pages. Sequel to Some Golden Harbor.

David Drake has two successful series of novels in print. From Tor, you get Lord of the Isles. From Baen, you get The RCN Series, the first of which was With the Lightnings. The adventures of Lieutenant Daniel Leary and his communications aide Adele Mundy in the Royal Cinnabar Navy (hence “RCN”) are fast-paced and exciting. This is Space Opera in a modern incarnation.

The sixth in The RCN Series, When the Tide Rises, involves now-Commander Leary and Mundy in the affairs of a backwater planet, threatened by the forces, and the intrigue, of the Alliance, Cinnabar’s chief adversary. Drake bases this book on Lord Cochrane’s experiences in Chile and Brazil. (Patrick O’Brian used some of the same material in some of his novels. I must say the whole thing reminded me of Conrad’s Nostromo, but without the mines.) Which is to say, with slender resources, their wits, and the courage of their RCN crew, Leary and Mundy have to overcome not only the Alliance threat, but the cowardice, selfishness, and fecklessness of the locals.

I went into some detail about the structure of Drake’s Isles novels above. The RCN novels are shorter and very much simpler. Instead of tracking four groups of characters, plus side events, you have two: Leary and Mundy. Moreover, they operate together at frequent intervals, and their communication is constant. In fact, they come close to the sort of rapport that allows people to finish each other’s sentences. On the other hand, the simplicity of the plots shouldn’t deceive you about the characters; Leary and Mundy are fully-realized personalities, with quirks and twists enough to make them almost as surprising as real people.

Marryat, Frederick. Mr. Midshipman Easy. 1998 [1836]. Xviii + 340 pages.

I enjoyed reading Mr. Midshipman Easy. Marryat has a wry and ready sense of humor, and this is a lively tale of sea-going adventure in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars. I don’t know if C. S. Forester read Marryat, but Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, certainly did. In fact, there are incidents in Mr. Midshipman Easy which will be easily recognizable to O’Brian fans. This is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in naval warfare. Mr. Hornblower! Mr. Aubrey! Meet your literary great-great-grandfather!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Conscience of a Conservative

The Conscience of a Conservative
by Barry M. Goldwater; CC Goldwater, editor; Sean Wilentz, introduction; George F. Will, foreword; and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., afterword.

Princeton University Press, 2007.

This new edition of Goldwater’s classic statement of conservative principles is one of the volumes in a series of reissues selected for The James Madison Library in American Politics. I was initially drawn to it by the prospect of George F. Will and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., facing off in the forward and afterward, respectively. One imagines a steel-cage death match at the next Wrestlemania…

The reality is that their comments and Goldwater’s text are important and thought-provoking. Indeed, the book may be more important today than it was when it originally appeared. As Will and Kennedy both point out, the principles of conservatism—and even the very label “conservative”—have been hijacked by the modern Republican party's leaders and their talk-radio hangers-on. They both correctly point out that Barry Goldwater would be at the very least disgusted and more likely horrified by what is happening today in the name of conservatism. That's because as he saw it, the single function of the American system should be to maximize the freedom enjoyed as a birthright by every individual in order to allow each individual to achieve to his or her maximum potential.

The book explicates that principle clearly and succinctly. Goldwater believed that freedom was the highest value in American society—freedom from law, freedom from government, freedom from anybody else's vision but one’s own. The book is almost certainly the definitive modern statement of the quintessentially American notion of self-reliance.

Not surprisingly, most of the specific policy positions Goldwater takes in the book are at the least dated and many are now moot. However, his statement of the essential conservative philosophy still resonates. It has an oddly compelling power to stir even those—like me—who don’t consider themselves conservatives.

It is obvious that there is virtually nothing being done in the name of conservatism today that fits the definition Goldwater establishes. This is because the big government conservatives and their religious and social conservative allies are interested in expanding government power over individuals in order to achieve the social aims they seek, while the neoconservative chicken-hawks are interested in projecting American military power to every corner of the world to achieve the geopolitical aims they seek. None of these people have the least interest in maximizing individual liberty. The conservative movement that Goldwater galvanized has been so radically recast as to be unrecognizable.

In addition, Goldwater was an exemplar of the kind of politics that simply don't exist today. He was passionate in his beliefs, often abrupt and even abrasive in his delivery, and occasionally profane. But he was never mean, small, or personally insulting. Indeed, in the run-up to the 1964 election, Goldwater and President John Kennedy were thinking of travelling together around the country to engage in dozens of debates about the issues of the day. What an odd idea: The people running for President should talk about the issues and argue directly with one another. No American flag lapel-pin loyalty tests, no religious tub-thumping, no dirty tricks; just real political dialog.

Liberal, conservative, or anything else—this book is well worth reading. Here is the seminal work by perhaps the last national-level politician who actually said what he believed and actually believed what he said.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Daughter of Time - A Review

Tey, Josephine [Elizabeth Mackintosh]. The Daughter of Time. With a New Introduction by Robert Barnard. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 1995 [1951]. Scribner Paperback Fiction. 206 pages + “About the Author.”

The Daughter of Time was first published in 1951, a year before Elizabeth Mackintosh, who had written the book under the pseudonym “Josephine Tey,” died. As far as I know, Mackintosh published nothing under her own name, but she produced a number of books under the “Josephine Tey” name, and both books and plays under the name of “Gordon Daviot.” In the Introduction to this edition of The Daughter of Time, Robert Barnard points up Tey’s impatience with the usual mystery formulas, a characteristic which makes it difficult to estimate what she might have written had she not died at the age of 54 or 55. This book certainly has very little in common, except good writing, with the other three Tey mysteries I’ve read.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read The Daughter of Time, but it made quite an impression on me. I never forgot the book, its basic theme, or how much I enjoyed it. But, until now, I never got around to re-reading it. My sister recently sent me this attractive paperback edition, as much to clear her crowded bookshelves as for any other reason, I think. I took the opportunity to find out if it was still as enjoyable as I remembered it. I was not disappointed.

This is not to say that I was as impressed by the book as I was as a youth. I like to think I know a little more about reading, and about writing, than I did years ago. Some of Tey’s devices are pretty transparent. Some are, in fact, inevitable in constructing a mystery story. Our hero, Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard detective temporarily confined to a hospital, needs interlocutors to act as sounding boards for his suspicions, and the nurses, along with the occasional visitor, serve that purpose nicely. Grant needs a legman, and up pops a young American historical researcher, Brent Carradine, who is already familiar with the British Museum. But the key literary trick here is the order in which Ms. Tey reveals the evidence.

As to the mystery itself, that is quickly told. Knowing of Grant’s fascination with faces, an actress friend gives him a number of photographs of persons, all with some mystery about them. Grant finds interesting, and dignified enough to be that of a judge, a picture of a medieval figure who turns out to be the infamous Richard III. Grant, chagrined by his placement of this character on the bench, rather than in the dock, starts investigating the story of Richard III, the murders of his nephews, the battle of Bosworth Field, and all the story most familiar to us from Shakespeare’s play.

Here is what I mean about the order in which Grant uncovers the evidence. First he gets a couple of simple school histories from one of the nurses, and finds in them the familiar story, but with enough apparent inconsistencies to lead him to enquire further. He obtains more serious histories, and eventually gets to Sir Thomas More’s book, which is the primary source on the subject. Holinshed got his version of the story from More, and Shakespeare got the story from Holinshed. And, as everyone knows, Sir Thomas More, later executed by Henry VIII for refusing to approve Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was an unimpeachable source.

Or was he? I would say that the crux of this story comes when, in the midst of reading More’s book on Richard III (and somewhat put off by the gossipy tone), Grant realizes that More is precisely a man of the reign of Henry VIII, while Richard’s death began the reign of Henry VII. Thus he is led to discover that More was only five when Richard was crowned king, and is, therefore, not the eyewitness, the impartial observer, he has been thought to be. No, More has taken an account written by Bishop Morton, an interested party, and produced it, years after the events concerned, as a favor to his master. After all, if Richard II had not been killed, if Henry VII had not become king, Henry VIII would have been just another descendant of Edward III by an illegitimate granddaughter.

And so Grant, with the help of the more mobile (in a couple of senses) Carradine, works out what really happened at the end of the War of the Roses, and how the Tudor propaganda machine had successfully slandered the last Yorkist king. Once they figure out that More is not a trustworthy source, they look to other, contemporary sources, and they find any number of anomalies. Why wasn’t Richard accused of murdering his nephews as soon as Henry became king and brought charges against him? Because they weren’t dead yet! Why were his subjects so sad at Richard’s death? Because he wasn’t the tyrant More claimed!

In the end, looking at the old principle of “who benefits,” and with a devotion to the predictive efficacy of character, Grant and Carradine conclude that Henry Tudor himself murdered the young princes, who were in fact illegitimate. They note that Henry, with dreary efficiency, disposed of all the possible Yorkist claimants to his throne. And, besides that, Henry was a penny-pinching, unlovable monarch, who could be expected to do any evil thing you might conjure up. Their only disappointment is that the story turns out to be a twice-told tale; there have been other “vindications” of Richard, other “exposes” of Henry VII, in the past.

Aside from its entertainment value, and it is a good read, The Daughter of Time carries some nice lessons about watching out for history, which is, after all, written by the winners. It also makes a nice point about the difficulty of changing popular perceptions, no matter how poorly founded they might be. The thing Miss Tey doesn’t want you to notice is that she may be doing the same thing to poor Henry Tudor that she says More did to poor Richard III: using selective sourcing and careful insinuation to paint a man a villain.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Foreign Affairs Bestsellers - July/August 2008

  1. The Post-American World. Fareed Zakaria. Norton, $25.95. [New Listing]
  2. The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. Steve Coll. Penguin Press, $35.00. [New Listing]
  3. Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West. Benazir Bhutto. Harper, $27.95. [New Listing]
  4. War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. Douglas J. Feith. Harper, $27.95. [New Listing]
  5. America: Our Next Chapter; Tough Questions, Straight Answers. Chuck Hagel with Peter Kaminsky. Ecco, $25.95. [New Listing]
  6. Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Michael Scheuer. Free Press, $27.00. [Previous rank: 2]
  7. Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad. Andrew C. McCarthy. Encounter Books, $27.00. [New Listing]
  8. The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes. Norton, $22.95. [Previous rank: 8]
  9. A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. William J. Bernstein. Atlantic Monthly Press, $30.00. [New Listing]
  10. Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making. David Rothkopf. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00. [New Listing]
  11. Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century. Philip Bobbitt. Knopf, $35.00. [New Listing]
  12. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Naomi Klein. Metropolitan Books, $28.00. [Previous rank: 6]
  13. The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. Parag Khanna. Random House, $29.00. [Previous rank: 12]
  14. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. Muhammad Yunus. PublicAffairs, $26.00. [Previous rank: 4]
  15. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. Robin Wright. Penguin Press, $26.95. [Previous rank: 11]

There was another big turnover in the list between May/June and July/August 2008, with nine new listing. The top five slots are all held by new entrants, while the bottom four are books from previous lists. Several of these were new on the May/June list. I’m somewhere in the middle of Dreams and Shadows at the moment. I have posted a review of George Weigel’s Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, which was in ninth place on the May/June list.

If you happen to have read any of these books, I’d enjoy hearing your impressions. If you’re prepared to write a review suitable for posting, please let me know by leaving a comment with this post.

Guests of the Ayatollah

Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam
by Mark Bowden

Grove Press, 2007, 704 pages.

What more could there be to say about a crisis that happened over a quarter century ago? As it turns out, there are some very important things to say about it, and Mark Bowden's masterful history of that crisis says them.

This is an absolutely first-rate “you are there” account of what the 52 American hostages went through during the 444 days they were captives as Iran descended into chaos and near madness after the ouster of the Shah. One can literally feel their anger, fear, and depression—and their pride when they can defy or denigrate their captors, even fleetingly. However, one can feel the smugness and religious certainty of their captors, too.

It is interesting to note—and important to remember—that while many of the hostages were experienced diplomats, and some were serious students of Persian history and culture, the young Iranian radicals were amateurs, most of whom had na├»ve, conspiratorial views of the world. The hostage-takers believed that the American embassy was literally a den of spies and each of the hostages a cleverly-disguised James Bond. Further, most of them knew almost nothing about history and even less about cultures other than their own. As a result, the hostage crisis was essentially inevitable.

The book is thought-provoking in ways I didn't expect. The ostensible trigger for the crisis was the decision by the US to admit the Shah to this country for treatment of the cancer that would eventually kill him. However, that decision was sold to President Carter by his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, who in turn was sold on it by Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller. As the years roll on, it's interesting how many disastrous US foreign policy decisions come back to Kissinger.

Further, the CIA was no better then at understanding and predicting events in the Islamic world than it is now. Shortly before the crisis erupted, the agency reported that the religious radicals would soon be relegated to the background there, so the US could deal with an emerging secular state with confidence. In reality, the country was degenerating into a hurricane of religious nuttiness that soon swept aside all of the secular leaders. Quite literally, no one at all was really in charge of anything in Iran, and that's the reason the crisis dragged on for over a year.

This brings us to the role of President Carter. Nearly everyone felt at the time that he was too weak and vacillating to resolve the crisis. Not so; he tirelessly attempted to find a way to deal with the situation, but every attempt failed when the connection at the Iranian end disintegrated. No one could have done much more, which is why presidential candidate Ronald Reagan continually criticized Carter, but never offered a specific word of explanation about what he would do.

The failed rescue attempt was blamed on Carter, too, but as Bowden makes clear, it had little chance of succeeding because the equipment available at the time was inadequate, and the situation was impossible. Even if Delta Force had made it to Tehran, it's likely that most or all of the hostages and rescuers would have died in the operation. Carter and the troops deserve credit for daring the attempt, even in the face of near-certain failure.

The crisis is still relevant because it explains why the Islamic Republic behaves so rashly and seemingly without strategic direction. In foreign affairs, the country is isolated; economically, the country is wretchedly managed; and in politics, the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly embraced Holocaust denial. All of this raises the obvious question: “Why are they acting in such a seemingly self-destructive way?”

As Bowden explains, the answer may well be that the mind set of the hostage-takers still dominates political thought in Iran today. The embassy seizure was not a well-conceived strategic move; rather, it was a carelessly and rashly planned action designed to attract maximum public attention, demonstrate the hostage-takers’ anti-imperialist fervor, and drive a wedge between Tehran's moderates and radicals.

Now, three decades later, Iranian politics still works similarly, with apparently impromptu decision-making and abundant confusion. This really shouldn’t be a surprise; Ahmadinejad was one of the student radicals, though his specific role and importance is in dispute. A surprising number of prominent Iranian officials were also involved in the embassy seizure. They clearly still have much of the hard-line student radicals left in them.

This book is must reading as the authoritative account of the first battle in the war with the "Islamofascists." And it's well worth reading as a rich account of the courage that the hostages and their would-be rescuers displayed in very trying circumstances.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Knight's Reading List XIX: July 2008

Reading List:

Coben, Harlan. Promise Me.
McCarry, Charles. The Tears of Autumn.
Saramago, Jose. The Cave.
Stewart, Mary. The Last Enchantment.
Stewart, Mary. The Wicked Day.

Fiction:

Coben, Harlan. Promise Me. Dutton, 2006. 370 pages.

The late, great, Robert E. Howard once said that his hero had to be a little stupid, because if he were too intelligent he wouldn’t get into the situations Howard needed him to encounter. Howard may have been speaking of his most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian, but the comment applies to many of the heroes of thrillers and adventure novels. Many of these stories depend upon vows of secrecy or other mechanisms to keep the protagonist from just picking up the telephone and calling the police, the potential victim’s parents, or the local newspaper, an act which would end the novel on page 15.

This is one of those stories. Myron Bolitar, sports agent and former basketball star, foolishly extracts a promise from the teen-age daughter of a friend to call him if she’s in trouble. To induce her to keep the promise, which he intends as insurance against her taking a ride with a drunken boyfriend, he promises not to reveal anything he might learn to the girl’s parents. By the time Bolitar is induced to break that promise, both he and the girl are in deep trouble. This story hinges on a foolish promise, and upon hiding a bit of information that should have been exposed rather quickly. These artifices allow Coben to keep us turning the pages in this thriller, but they also make it rather unsatisfying in the end. If Myron Bolitar were just a little smarter, there’d be no story here at all.

McCarry, Charles. The Tears of Autumn. Overlook Press, 2005 [1974]. 276 pages.

Speaking of satisfying thrillers, this lovely, lovely book, first published in 1974 is one of the best I’ve ever read. We’re talking about deep plots on the order of John LeCarre, elegant prose, and terrific descriptions of scenes around the world. There is a sequence in Vietnam which is as heart stopping as anything in the oeuvre of Adam Hall. McCarry, who worked for the CIA in the 50s and 60s, sets up Paul Christopher as smart, knowledgeable, and brave, and Christopher drives himself into the middle of the Kennedy assassination plot. McCarry does a beautiful job of working his fictional scenes into the background of facts, so that the reader will find himself asking if this is the real explanation of Kennedy’s killing.

Overlook press began reprinting McCarry’s novels in 2005, and this was the first of the series. It was an excellent choice. I, for one, intend to find more Charles McCarry novels and read them. If they are all as good as The Tears of Autumn, I’m going to spend many enjoyable hours with them.

Saramago, Jose. The Cave. Harcourt, 2002. 307 pages.

Saramago is a Nobel Prize winner in literature and a well-known Portuguese of the leftist persuasion. As the title indicates, this spare story draws upon Plato’s parable to explore our struggles to cope with a world we perceive only dimly. Unfortunately, a couple of the major characters failed to come alive for me, and the economy Saramago creates is simplified to the point of being a parody. I don’t think there was really enough here to make a novel of even this moderate length.

Stewart, Mary. The Last Enchantment. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1979. 538 pages. Sequel to The Hollow Hills.

This is the finale to the legend of Merlin, and Stewart does a nice job of wrapping up this complex tale of love and betrayal. The way she portrays the relationship between Guinevere and Bedwyr captures the tragic conflict between love and duty, desire and nobility. By the way, Stewart doesn’t include the character Sir Launcelot du Lake, noting that this name is a late addition to the Arthurian legend. This book completes the story of Merlin and Arthur, but it doesn’t quite complete Arthur’s tale.

Stewart, Mary. The Wicked Day. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1983. 453 pages.

The Wicked Day is the story of Mordred, King Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister. Naturally, no good can come of incest and deception, and this book takes us through Mordred’s life, as told by himself, to the point when he and Arthur, all unwilling, battle each other for the kingdom and all is lost. No, this isn’t a cheerful story, as it seems that human frailty, misunderstanding, and suspicion must turn all good intentions into daggers pointed at the hearts of those we love. Throughout the Arthurian legend runs a theme of good intentions thwarted and love gone wrong. This book makes that theme starkly plain.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Interstellar Patrol II: The Federation of Humanity - A Review

Anvil, Christopher. Interstellar Patrol II: The Federation of Humanity. Compiled and edited by Eric Flint. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2005. 648 pages. Afterword by the editor. $26.00.

Christopher Anvil is a prolific science fiction writer with a long career. Most of his work was published in magazines, where it is unlikely to be available to twenty-first century readers. The stories in this collection had their first publication between 1958 and 1990 in such venues as Amazing, Astounding/Analog, If, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Eric Flint and Baen Books have, therefore, done us a service by issuing a series of compilations of Anvil’s work. Interstellar Patrol II: The Federation of Humanity is the third of these collections, and follows Interstellar Patrol (2003).

The first six stories in this collection concern the Interstellar Patrol, and all but the first, “The Claw and the Clock,” star Vaughan Roberts, sometime con-man and self-proclaimed nobleman turned secret agent. Since the sixth story in this group, “Warlord’s World,” is nearly 150 pages long, the Interstellar Patrol does fill almost half of the volume. These are stories in the fine tradition of adventure tales, whether horse opera or space opera, with an emphasis on cleverness, rather than sheer physical power and bravery. Roberts and his three sidekicks, Hammell, Bergen, and Morrissey, use disguise and trickery before they kick the doors down and charge into battle.

“Warlord’s World” is, as mentioned above, a long story, and it features one of the more interesting villains I’ve run across, Duke Marius. The Duke is whiny and self-pitying, as well as self-justifying, but he comes up with counters for every one of Roberts’ clever schemes to establish the rightful heir on the throne of Festhold. The rightful heir, Harold William, is brave, skilled with weapons, but bound by Festhold’s rules of chivalry, and limited by the Duke’s efforts to undermine and debauch him. It’s a good thing that Vaughan Roberts is there to take over Harold William’s mind –sort of.

What makes the Interstellar Patrol stories, and, indeed, many of the stories in this collection worth reading is their humor. Anvil reminds me in some ways of Robert Scheckley, whose “The Gun Without A Bang” is a classic of humorous science fiction. All of Roberts’ clever schemes keep failing because the Duke has arranged his defenses in depth, and seems to have an answer for every challenge. Eventually the Duke is worn down, but it is personal qualities, not technology, which defeat him.

The group of five stories in the Soldiers and Scholars section provide skeptical, and sometimes acerbic, portrayals of the failure of pure theory when it meets the “real world.” “Facts to Fit the Theory” and “Cantor’s War” both involve theorists whose theories fail to overcome the nature of reality. “Uplift the Savage” does the same thing more elaborately, and with a more explicit statement of the author’s viewpoint. Anvil here assails most development aid projects as being designed without regard to the psychology and social structure of the recipients. Since most “primitive” peoples understand perfectly well that there are no free lunches, they look askance at new technologies provided out of sheer altruism. The answer is to make them want the new stuff by making it hard for them to get it. A nicely done story that, by the way, ties in with some of the research I did for my Master’s degree.

The Trouble with Cargoes section includes five stories on the travails of interstellar shipping. These stories have a lot in common with any number of seafaring stories, with the officers trying to manage their fractious crews over long, boring voyages, with dangerous cargoes and irritating officials at every turn. I thought the best of the lot was “Trial By Silk,” a story about temptation. Paradise may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, at least not over the long run. “The Low Road” also has a good punch line.

The seven stories in The Trouble with Colonies section reminded me powerfully of Robert A Heinlein’s young adult novels Tunnel in the Sky and Farmer in the Sky. (The latter of which could have been retitled A Boy Scout in Space.) It’s pretty obvious that Anvil is familiar with the stories of the Plymouth and Jamestown colonies, as well as other frontier situations. Being a pioneer involves a lot of hard work and danger, and the danger isn’t always the nice, exciting kind that gets your adrenaline pumping. Being snowed in for weeks at a time, hit by unfamiliar plagues, let down by members of your own group, and having your crops ravaged by pests are bad enough. A shortage of women can be even worse!

As in the Interstellar Patrol stories, a lot of these stories find their resolution in the cleverness of the protagonist(s). “Leverage,” for example, is pretty much about what the title says: how to use the leverage you can get to overcome obstacles that are bigger than you are. “The Sieve,” on the other hand, is a grim little story drawing the moral that you can’t help the weaklings, and you can’t let them draw you down with them. “When the supply rocket landed next spring, the crew found eight healthy men and women, three babies, and on the edge of the clearing, ten neat graves with flowers growing around them.” One benefit of this collection is that Eric Flint has pulled these stories together in a group, and the cumulative impact is very impressive.

There are things Anvil doesn’t deal with at all in these stories, race being the most obvious issue. Perhaps that’s why Anvil chose to write stories of the far future, when all these problems will have been settled. This collection is as lily-white as any bunch of cowboy stories, and as all-male, too. Women are, by and large, sex objects and not players. The protagonists are all men with names like “Bart,” “Dave,” and “Al.” I’m not complaining; I liked this collection a lot. But if you are looking for diversity, this is not the place to look.