criminal justice, politics

Black Lives Matter

blacklivesmatter

Last July I went to a local Black Lives Matter vigil.  It had been a hard week.  A really hard and depressing week.  Videos on successive days showed two different black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, dying at the hands of police officers.  Then, when tensions were already high, almost to the breaking point, a peaceful protest in Dallas was interrupted by gunfire as a disgruntled man targeted the police officers who facilitated the protest.  He killed five officers and injured more.  All of these deaths were awful.

The vigil I attended was a way for the community here in Sioux Falls to stand in solidarity with other affected communities.  Sioux Falls is a predominantly white city.  In 2010 our population was nearly 87% white (compared to the U.S. as a whole, which in 2010 was 72% white), but it’s becoming less white, just as the rest of the U.S. is becoming less white.

I had decided that I wanted to participate in the vigil because I wanted to mourn with those who mourn, and because I wanted to affirm the worth and value of black lives in my community and in my country.

The plan was to march to the County Administration building.  We met several blocks away on an empty lot next to what passes for a major artery through town.  I saw a few friends milling around, and I was relieved to see the familiar faces. There was a local TV news crew and a reporter or two, interviewing the organizers of the march. I had forgotten to bring a sign.

The organizer gathered everyone around and then she read the last words of black people killed by police plus their names and age at death.  (You can find these and others using #lastwords).

“I can’t breathe.  Eric Garner, 43”

“I don’t have a gun.  Stop shooting.  Michael Brown, 18.”

“Mom, I’m going to college. Amadou Diallo, 23.”

And on and on.  So many names.  So many last words.

[The original version of this post included Trayvon Martin in the list of last words.  Martin was not shot by police, of course, but by George Zimmerman, a civilian who felt empowered by the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.  I included Martin because his case was so prominent, and because his death was so tragic.  I didn’t mean to imply that he had been killed by police.  I regret the error.]

Then we started to march.

We chanted “Black lives matter!” as we walked to the county building.  Yelling in public is not really my thing.  In fact, public demonstrations of emotion of any kind aren’t really my thing.  I’m more of a homebody.  I like to stay at home and read a book or watch Netflix.

But I was there to march.  And I was there to chant.  So I yelled along with everyone else.  I wanted my voice to join with the chorus.  I wanted everybody there to hear me voicing my solidarity.  I wanted to be a part of the vigil.  And I wanted the other marchers, especially the living, breathing, black lives there to know that I was standing with them.

Near the county building, police officers stopped traffic so that the marchers could cross a busy street to get to the parking lot.  I noticed one officer was smiling and shaking hands with everyone who passed him.  I gladly shook his hand.  The officer next to him wasn’t smiling, but he had been persuaded to shake the hand of someone in front of me.  I stuck out my hand, and though he didn’t notice it immediately, he then shook my hand.  I’m not against police.  They have an extremely difficult job.  If I can help build bridges, that’s what I would like to do.

At the county building, the space was given for anyone to share grief, pain, anger, sadness, or whatever.  Many people came to the front to talk, sharing impromptu thoughts and feelings.  I knew I wouldn’t go up to say anything.  I was there to listen and just be.

There were lots of black and white people there, and at least one Native American guy.  Some pastors from several different churches and denominations got up and prayed.  One memorable guy spoke about Martin Luther King and why we can’t wait for justice.  Someone read, “First they came for the socialists, then they came for…” to illustrate how glad she was that people were there who aren’t black, that they would stand with their black brothers and sisters.  I was glad to think that my presence might be an encouragement to her.

A few white people went up and said unfortunate things about how all lives matter and we shouldn’t focus on race.  I could tell that they meant well, truly, and I felt pretty awkward for them.  They wanted to say something positive, but didn’t know how to put it.

What does black lives matter even mean, and why is it insufficient to say all lives matter?  Many others have explained it better, but for me, when I say black lives matter, it boils down to expressing concern and support for those who don’t feel like society values them as much as everyone else.  When they see that black people are more likely to be killed by police, when they see that black people are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, when they see discrimination against black people in housing or employment or in the classroom, when they see black people’s voting rights attacked, and when they see large portions of the country question whether the first black president was even born in America or if he is patriotic and loves his country, they can be forgiven for thinking that their lives don’t matter as much as others do.  It’s not that other lives don’t matter because it’s not a zero sum game.  If I affirm that black lives matter, it doesn’t mean that other lives matter less.  No, what it means is that black lives matter, too.  Black lives matter just like other lives matter.  Even if they are oppressed and killed, their lives still matter.

So what’s wrong with saying that all lives matter then?  The reason it’s an unhelpful response to someone who says black lives matter is that it is beside the point.  It’s not addressing the problems that lead one to feel the need to say that black lives matter, too.  In fact it treats those problems as if they don’t really exist.  Think of it like this, if I broke my arm and went to the emergency room, I’d want them to splint my forearm and come up with a plan to fix it.  But if the doctor listened to my tale of woe about my broken arm and responded, “All bones matter,” and then sent me on my way without even looking at my arm, I’d feel like the doctor wasn’t listening to me and my pain.  In fact, I’d think the doctor didn’t actually want to help me get better because he couldn’t even acknowledge the problem by looking at my arm.  That’s what “All lives matters,” sounds like.

A while back I wrote a post about a time a few years ago when I got pulled over.  I wasn’t worried about the situation escalating, and I wasn’t fearful for my life.  A few months after that post I got pulled over again on the way to pick up my son from kindergarten.  Again it was for having an expired registration.  I had mailed in my money for new stickers to put on my license plate, but they hadn’t arrived yet.  The officer told me that I should have used the kiosk to get my stickers instantly (note to Sioux Falls residents, use the kiosks!).  He was very nice about it, but he still gave me a provisional ticket.  When my registration arrived a few days later, I drove downtown to the station and provided proof and my ticket was nullified.  A dozen years ago when I was in graduate school I was pulled over for speeding, but the state trooper let me go with a warning.  Those are the only times I’ve been pulled over by law enforcement that I can remember.  Three times in over twenty years of driving.

Now think about Philando Castile, the black man who was shot during a traffic stop that July week, a man who worked for years for the St. Paul school district in the lunch rooms.  According to NPR, Castile was pulled over at least 46 times in a 14 year period between July 2002 and July 2016.  I can’t imagine facing that kind of scrutiny as a driver.  I would be worried whenever I got in the car to drive anywhere.

Now think about the situations in Ferguson and Baltimore.  There were riots in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.  But the riots weren’t really about those deaths.  Or I should say they weren’t merely about those deaths.  Their deaths were a catalyst.  The killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were the lit fuse, but the powder kegs were already there.  In the case of Ferguson, which is one of the municipalities in St. Louis County, there was a large measure of distrust of the police force.  And for very good reason.

After Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, the Justice Department looked into the matter of his death and at the Ferguson Police Department as a whole.  The result of the first investigation was that they “determined that the evidence does not establish that Darren Wilson violated the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute” beyond a reasonable doubt.  The results of the other investigation were much more troubling.  The DOJ found that the Ferguson Police were racially biased against African Americans, made illegal stops and arrests, and focused on generating revenue over public safety.  Read that last part again: the police and courts in Ferguson were focused on giving out tickets and fines so they could raise revenue for the local government at the expense of keeping the public safe, which is their whole reason for being.  As others have put it, they treated the citizens of their municipality like an ATM.  Check out the summary by the Justice Department for yourself:

“The department found that the FPD has a pattern or practice of:

Conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment;

Interfering with the right to free expression in violation of the First Amendment; and

Using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The department found that Ferguson Municipal Court has a pattern or practice of:

Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.

Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.

The department found a pattern or practice of racial bias in both the FPD and municipal court:

The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans and that this disproportionate impact is avoidable.

Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials.”

The problem wasn’t limited to Ferguson, but occurred in many of the other municipalities of St. Louis County.  St. Louis County has 90 small municipalities, most of which have their own police force, city government, and municipal court.  Those police, government, and court officers need to be funded.  Many of those towns use tickets and fines as a source of funding.  The police departments and the courts are often staffed with people from other, wealthier towns, so they do not understand the people they are supposed to be protecting and judging.

The situation in Baltimore before the death of Freddie Gray was also bleak.  For years the Baltimore police also had a pattern of violating the Constitution and discriminating against black people.  The report put it this way:

“BPD makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression.  The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies that have persisted within BPD for many years and has exacerbated community distrust of the police, particularly in the African-American community.”

If you have doubts about the situations in these communities, please, please read the links I have provided to the Justice Department report summaries about Ferguson and Baltimore.  Read the whole reports. It’s impossible to understand the situation in these places without that knowledge of how police had mistreated the black people in their community.  That doesn’t condone violence by the protesters.  I’m not asking you to say that violence is okay.  But it does help us understand what they are protesting; it helps us understand why they feel like they have no voice and no power.  Then maybe we can think about how we would feel and what we would do in similar circumstances.

Imagine that you’ve received a parking ticket, or gotten pulled over for an expired registration like I have been, and then because you live paycheck to paycheck (as so many people do) that led to a downward spiral of court dates, late fees, and arrest warrants.  The original ticket was too much to pay, but you couldn’t get off work to fight it in court either.  The outrageously high late fees add to the amount that you can’t afford.  Finally the court issues a warrant for all the money you now owe, all because you forgot to get your new registration on time.  How would you feel towards cops?  How would you feel towards the courts?

Imagine that a friend of yours was arrested, and then on the ride back to the station he mysteriously died from a broken spinal cord like Freddie Gray did.  How much would you trust the police after that?

In the fall during the presidential campaign, after the high profile shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, then Indiana Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence (and current Vice President) said, “we ought to set aside this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias.”  There is clear evidence of institutional racism and institutional bias in the police departments of Ferguson and Baltimore, but Pence would prefer we not talk about it.  He thinks we should sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.  In effect, he is saying that black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.

Earlier today, recently confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, head of the Justice Department, admitted that he hadn’t read the full Justice Department reports on Ferguson and Chicago (and presumably Baltimore, too).  He found the summaries “too anecdotal” so he dismissed them.  Contrary to Sessions’s blithe description, the Ferguson report was based on interviews with city officials and half the police department; data analysis of stops, citations, and arrests; review of police records and emails; observations of the municipal court; etc.  It is not merely a few anecdotes of bad behavior.  The problems in Ferguson were system wide.  But the new Attorney General would rather not read the whole report.  He’s not going to bother.  He’s also effectively saying that black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.

So here’s what I mean when I say Black Lives Matter.  I mean that it’s a travesty that black people are killed by police at a higher rate than white people.  I mean that it’s unjust that black people are over-represented in arrests for drug crimes when they use drugs at similar rates as whites.  I mean that it’s sick that municipal governments could act like shake down artists to their residents.  I mean that black lives matter as much as my own life or anyone else’s life.

So I will join with others who say it because it needs to be said until it becomes a reality.

Black Lives Matter.

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book reviews, comics, faith, history, humor, literature, nature, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s hard to narrow down a year’s worth of reading to a manageable list of the cream of the crop, but I’ll try.  From the books I read in 2016, here are the fifteen books I would most recommend.  First are the top three essential books that I would most enthusiastically recommend to anyone.  The other twelve were also great, and I recommend them heartily, too.  If you want to check out last year’s list, click here.  Like last year, I’m putting them in the order that I read them.  Unlike last year, I’m including longer excerpts from my reviews to give a fuller recommendation.  But if you’d like even more, click on the title of the book for the complete review.  Now to the books!

The Top Three

Evicted (Matthew Desmond)

“an essential book.  Please, please, read it.  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  […]  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.”

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

“a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  […]  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.”

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

“an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  […]  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.”

And all the other great ones

Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

“It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  […]  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.”

Our List of Solutions (Carrie Oeding)

“a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.”

Sula (Toni Morrison)

“a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  […]  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.”

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

“There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.”

This One Summer (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki)

“a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  […]  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.”

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)

“I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  […]  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.”

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

“a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.”

Does Jesus Really Love Me? (Jeff Chu)

“a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  […]  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.”

Thunder & Lightning (Lauren Redniss)

“an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)

“a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book.”

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

“a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  […]  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.”

Julio’s Day (Gilbert Hernandez)

“a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.”

I mentioned in my last set of reviews for 2016 that I don’t plan on doing my monthly roundup of mini book reviews anymore. However, I’ll still do a best books of the year feature of the books I liked and would most recommend. I’m already working on that list. I hope I find as many good ones as this year.

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book reviews, comics, faith, history, nature, parenting, politics, science

Selected Book Reviews, October – December 2016

This batch of book reviews round out last year’s reading.  I got behind in writing them for reasons that I can’t even recall, but it nagged at me that I hadn’t finished them.  These will probably be the last set of book reviews I do in this format.  In the future, I may do a deep dive into a particularly insightful or powerful book.  Or I may do a roundup of a few books on one topic.  I’m not entirely sure yet. But I’m not planning on doing monthly reviews anymore.  However, I think I’ll still make a list of the best books I read in a given year to recommend.  Speaking of which, I’ll put up a year in review of the best books I read in 2016 shortly.

  • Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics by Jonathan Dudley is a careful critique of evangelicalism by someone who grew up in that world.  It reads as a succinct summary of some of my own changes in thinking on these topics.  Dudley’s book can be summarized well with two quotes.  First, his thesis: “Evangelicalism has defined itself by weakly supported boundary markers, which are justified by a flawed understanding of biblical interpretation and maintained by suppressing those who disagree” (24).  The four boundary markers dealt with in the book are abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, and evolution.  Basically the hot button topics in the culture wars.  If one takes the wrong view on any of these issues, one cannot be in the evangelical club anymore.  The second quote concerns the justification from the Bible part of the thesis: “Biases and prior beliefs are not something that get in the way of interpretation, something that must be brushed aside; rather, biases and prior beliefs are behind every interpretation” (108-9).  Everyone approaches the Bible with prior beliefs and biases.  Even the straightforward plain interpretation that we think is objective is certainly a matter of the lens we use when we read.  An easy example from the book is that Christians were not all that concerned when Darwin first published his theory of evolution in 1859.  It wasn’t until decades later that fundamentalists and evangelicals felt that they had to reject evolution and believe in a young earth.  Christians approached the same text with different prior beliefs at different points in time and came to vastly different conclusions.  Besides this major point about interpretation, Dudley also wants to make a point about the Christian use of science.  He notes how Christian pro-lifers claim that science shows that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception (an argument Dudley doesn’t accept).  But when it comes to other matters of science, such as the widespread scientific evidence for evolution or global warming, evangelical Christians often find themselves dismissing science.  Evangelicals only like science when it seemingly agrees with their political beliefs.  Dudley grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to several evangelical colleges and publishing houses.  He attended Calvin College, then studied religion at seminary, and then began medical school, while finishing this book.  I don’t have the same educational path, but I can relate to his intellectual and faith journey and some of his conclusions.  I would definitely recommend this book.

squirrel-girl

  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North and Erica Henderson is an incredibly fun comic book.  It’s light-hearted and funny.  I find it hard to decide which I like more, the writing or the artwork.  North has fun with Doreen Green and her supporting cast of friends and squirrels, as well as the villains, but he gives them all a lot of heart and personality.  Henderson does a great job balancing cartoony action and characters, but never exploits or sexualizes the characters, a problem all too rampant in comics.  Doreen looks like the college student she is, not an unrealistic supermodel in a swimsuit trying to fight crime.  She’s someone I’d want to be friends with if I had a friend who could talk to squirrels.  She eats nuts and kicks butts.  Even if you think you don’t like superhero comics, you might like this one.  I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson is an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  Through the story of Ida Mae we learn how tenuous was the position of sharecroppers in Mississippi, how hard the work was picking cotton and how little they got paid, if at all.  So much depended on the whims of the white landowners.  After Ida Mae’s husband’s cousin Joe Lee, who lived a few shacks down from them, was falsely accused of stealing turkeys and subsequently half beaten to death, Ida Mae and her family packed up and left for Milwaukee, ending up on the South Side of Chicago before long.  There they face housing discrimination; all the black families moving in are forced into strict geographical boundaries, and any time they try to move into a new neighborhood, the white neighbors first try to fight their arrival, and if that failed then they all moved out.  If you want to know why cities are like they are, this book is illuminating.  Even the world famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson faced housing discrimination when she bought a house in a nice neighborhood.  She received death threats in the middle of the night before she moved in, and after she did, bullets shattered some of her windows.  Police had to keep guard around her house for nearly a year to prevent violence.  No one was immune from discrimination.  Despite the hardships in the North, Ida Mae experienced some measure of true freedom.  She was able to vote for the first time.  The family was eventually able to buy a house, but soon after they did, the whites in the neighborhood took flight.  The two other individuals the book focuses on, Dr. Robert Foster and George Starling, provide more glimpses into life in the Jim Crow South and how they tried to make a better life in L.A. and New York, respectively.  Dr. Foster left a life in rural Louisiana where the highest he could have risen was to a country doctor making house calls to black families with no admitting privileges at the local hospital.  He wanted fame and fortune and a good life.  George Starling picked fruit in the groves of Florida, chafing at the unfair labor practices, before he headed North.  He worked for the railroad on a line that traveled up and down the east coast, so he got to see the changes from North to South for decades.  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert is a short and excellent primer on climate change (I read it in a day).  The book is based on a series of articles Kolbert wrote for The New Yorker magazine, where she is a staff writer, in order “to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming” (2).  By traveling to locations across the globe, Kolbert tells how things are changing: glaciers are shrinking, permafrost is melting, oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, animal migrations are shifting towards the warming poles, and plants are earlier than usual.  A small island community in Alaska has to move because of the rising ocean level.  While telling the stories of various changes worldwide, Kolbert also explains the science to a lay audience without getting too technical.  The only downside to this well written little book is that it is already a bit out of date.  It was published in 2006, but since then we have had still warmer years, and the trend continues upward.  Despite that one drawback, I would highly recommend it. [Note: there is a newer revised and expanded edition, so forget what I said.  Read that one instead.]
  • The Everyday Parenting Toolkit by Alan E. Kazdin with Carlo Rotella is a very helpful book for parents.  Kazdin draws on the available social science on children’s behavior and his experience working at the Yale Parenting Center to give useful guidelines for how to change problematic behavior in kids.  The key is the focus on behavior.  Parents, me included, want our kids to be kind and generous, resilient and motivated, and not selfish jerks.  But how do these qualities get cultivated?  It starts with behavior.  Kazdin explains his ABC method, which is backed up by research and with examples of how it works.  He describes his techniques as tools in the toolbox.  They are adaptable depending on the situation; some will be used more than others.  The first thing to think about when considering children’s behavior is the Antecedent of the behavior.  How can parents set up the situation for the behavior they wish to see?  The goal is to make the choice for the child as likely as possible.  Asking in a calm voice one time helps.  Giving a choice also helps.  Children like to have at least a small measure of autonomy.  The next consideration is the Behavior itself.  Sometimes this is clear like when I want my kids to clear their places by putting their dishes into the sink after a meal or brush their teeth before bed.  But often I want them to stop an irritating or dangerous behavior.  It’s not very effective to merely say don’t do that.  What kids need is positive reinforcement for the behavior I do want to see.  In order to make that happen, I have to think of the positive opposite of undesirable behavior.  This isn’t always easy to do, but it’s crucial.  So for example, my 3 year old throws screaming tantrums sometimes.  I can’t change the fact that he gets upset by things, but I do want him to deal with his upset feelings with a different strategy than by screaming.  So I will praise him for any approximation that gets us closer to the desired behavior.  This is called shaping the behavior.  If he never has done the desired behavior, then we can practice a simulation so he can try to do it when he does actually get upset.  The third part is the area of Consequences, which is where a lot of people want to start.  For Kazdin, consequences are positive reinforcement for the desired behavior.  Mostly this means praise from parents that is immediate, effusive, and specific, with some sort of affection added.  Sometimes other methods can help, too, like a point chart, but praise from parents is the best reinforcer.  Kazdin has a lot more to explain and tons of examples (as well as another book for the tough cases of especially defiant children), but this is the outline.  Some of it is definitely counter-intuitive.  But I can see that barking at my children to stop doing something rarely works and it often escalates.  When I’ve been able to implement the Kazdin ABCs I’ve had much more success in changing unwanted behavior.  I’d really recommend this to any and all parents.
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor is a revealing and instructive memoir from one of our Supreme Court Justices.  She details her life with precision and insight up until her appointment as a District Court judge in 1992; the rest of her life and career will presumably have to wait until her retirement.  I was especially interested in finding out more about her life because my kids attend a Spanish immersion elementary school named after her.  There are many interesting details to her early life growing up poor in a housing project in the Bronx.  Her alcoholic father died when she was young, so she and her brother had to assume a lot of responsibility in their household with only their mother to raise them.  Especially humanizing is her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at age seven that she has had to manage for the rest of her life.  That diagnosis led her to give up dreams of growing up and becoming a detective and instead focus on training to be a lawyer.  She knew from an early age what she wanted to do in life.  One of the overriding themes of her memoir is that of empathy.  In a pivotal passage, Sotomayor explains how she understood the importance of empathy through two events and by reading Lord of the Flies.  In the classic book, a group of boys have to fend for themselves on an island by themselves.  Their survival is precarious, and they must work together in order to make it through.  Sotomayor notices the same precariousness in her own life.  She notices a police officer extorting a street fruit vendor for two bags of fruit.  She also witnesses her own aunt making prank calls to random women, pretending that she was having affairs with their husbands.  Putting it all together, she declares, “I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view” (123).  Her story continues as she details how hard she worked to make it through Princeton and Yale Law School, despite “limits of class and cultural background” (171).  It’s an inspiring book, and she doesn’t refrain from talking about mistakes she has made such as her brief marriage to her high school sweetheart.  This is a memoir I’d recommend reading.
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personal, politics, psychology

The Problem with Hillary Clinton and the Yankees

hillary-clinton-yankees

No matter who you support in this 2016 election, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: Hillary Clinton is not very authentic.  Her every move is focus-group-tested and she’ll say just about anything to get the power she’s always craved.  We all know it.

Back in the 1990’s while I was in high school and college, I hardly followed politics at all. I was a Republican, of course. Everyone I knew was a Republican.  I remember in 1992, when Bill Clinton won the first time, my changing voice cracking as I told my high school friends the results of the electoral college.  One of my friends listened to Rush Limbaugh, and I remember how he would refer to Clinton as Slick Willy.  Although I didn’t really follow the issues, I knew that Clinton was doing things I disagreed with and that the Democrats were despicable. My first vote for president was for a doomed Bob Dole in 1996 when I sent in my absentee ballot back home from my dorm room.  Looking down the ticket, I didn’t know about any of the other candidates on the ballot, so I voted for all the Republicans.

As little as I knew of politics at the time, I did know this: I didn’t trust those Clintons, either of them.

So a few years later when Hillary decided to run for the open Senate seat in New York for the 2000 election, I agreed with those who thought it was rank opportunism.  She and Bill bought a house in Chappaqua, and she engaged on her famous listening tour.  But one detail of her pandering stood out to me: in June 1999, a month before she formally announced her candidacy, she put on a Yankees cap.

The problem with putting on a Yankees cap is that everyone knew that she, a native of Illinois, was a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan.  Switching allegiance for the sole purpose of trying to win an election was clear evidence she was a faker.  Rooting for a sports team, especially the local team from childhood, is a part one’s identity.  To suddenly cheer for another team showed how inauthentic she really was.  Oh sure, she tried to tell Katie Couric in an interview that she could be both: “I am a Cubs fan,” Clinton said. “But I needed an American League team…so as a young girl, I became very interested and enamored of the Yankees.”  The front page of the Style section of the Washington Post noted that “a sleepy-eyed nation collectively hurled,” at the obvious lie.  No one bought it.  And neither did I.

I knew Hillary Clinton was a fraud.  She didn’t have any core beliefs.  She would say whatever it took to win the election in New York.  Her newfound love of the Yankees was one more piece of evidence that confirmed my thinking.

But what if I was wrong?  I didn’t consider the possibility at the time.  I didn’t consider it eight years later during the 2008 Democratic primary when I supported Barack Obama.  Even though I had become a Democrat in the intervening years, I still didn’t trust Clinton.  (The story of my switch from Republican to Democrat will have to wait for another day.)

I found out recently that I have been wrong all these years.  Hillary Clinton genuinely did like the Cubs and the Yankees growing up.  Clinton’s love for baseball and her lifelong Yankee fandom were documented in two Washington Post articles, in the same Style section, years before she even thought of running for the New York Senate seat, left open by a retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The first article, published right before she became First Lady in January of 1993, showed how she practiced with her dad and learned to hit a curveball as well as this key detail from a childhood friend: “‘We used to sit on the front porch and solve the world’s problems,’ said Rick Ricketts, her neighbor and friend since they were 8. ‘She also knew all the players and stats, batting averages—Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle—everything about baseball.’”  Maris and Mantle, known as the M&M boys, were Hall of Famers who played for the Yankees during the years of Clinton’s childhood.  In the ’61 season, when Clinton would have been 13, they both chased the single season home run record held by Babe Ruth with Maris eventually breaking the record on the last day of the season.

The second article was published the following year when the Ken Burns documentary about baseball came out.  Burns admired Clinton’s swing of the bat when he asked,

“‘That was a great swing,’ Burns told her. ‘Did you get some batting practice before the screening, just to warm up?’  Mrs. Clinton, who as a kid was a ‘big-time’ fan of the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees and ‘understudied’ Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle, smiled.”

Banks played for the Cubs, and Mantle, of course, played for the Yankees.  Both started their major league careers for their respective teams in the early 50s, when Clinton was a young child.

So all this time Hillary Clinton had been telling the truth about the Cubs and Yankees.  The issue could have been easily cleared up in 1999, but it wasn’t.  Instead, a narrative about her cravenness took hold and persisted in my mind until a few months ago.  I’m sure I’m not alone.

This whole incident is a perfect example of my own confirmation bias.  One psychologist defines it like this: “Confirmation bias, as the term is typically used in the psychological literature, connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.”  I already knew Hillary Clinton was untrustworthy, so when this piece of evidence about her posing as a Yankees fan in 1999 came to light, it confirmed what I already knew.

Even if it had been true, claiming to like the local sports team is obviously a venial sin.  But in my mind it represented a core truth about her.  My entire conception of her was informed by this anecdote; it stood for something much larger.  Believing such a falsehood tainted how I perceived Clinton for years.  It was impossible not to see her as a calculating panderer who would do anything to get elected.

During the primaries of the 2016 presidential campaign, I tried to take an open-minded look at all of the candidates, including Hillary Clinton.  But it was still hard to trust her.  As I learned more about her, my perspective on her slowly shifted, until I now find myself nearly 180 degrees from my college self.  My former self would have been shocked and incredulous to learn that factcheckers rated her one of the most truthful candidates.

So if I could be wrong for so many years on such a little matter that affected how I saw a prominent politician, what else could I be wrong about?

In the end, putting on a Yankees cap was a problem for Clinton, but not only because it falsely confirmed the narrative that she was a fraud.  It was a problem because the Yankees aren’t the only baseball team in New York.  Fans of the Mets had reason to be mad at her.

(I learned the truth about Clinton and the Yankees from Kevin Drum and Bob Somerby.)

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faith, personal, politics

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

I have been called on to repent.

Me and all other progressive and liberal Christians.

The American Association of Evangelicals has written “An Open Letter to Christian pastors, leaders and believers who assist the anti-Christian Progressive political movement in America.”  They call on progressive Christians “to repent of their work that often advances a destructive liberal political agenda.”  They do this in a heart of love, of course.  I know this because the letter tells us, “We write as true friends knowing that most believers mean well. We desire the best for you and for the world God loves.”

Their main target of criticism is Jim Wallis of Sojourners because he has accepted money from George Soros, a liberal philanthropist.  Multiple paragraphs denounce the nefarious Soro, all of them filled with links about the many ways he is undermining their conception of America.  Wallis is presented as a stooge of the supposedly anti-Christian Soros, as are any other progressives who might agree with their political ideas about immigration reform or other social justice issues.

So who is the American Association of Evangelicals?  They describe themselves this way: “Speaking truth to power, more than 100 evangelical and Catholic leaders urge Progressive “faith” groups to turn away from the liberal political funding and agenda that demoralizes and weakens the poor, the family, the Church and the nation.”   I like the way they put “faith” in scare quotes in order to delegitimize progressive Christians.  That’s what true friends do.  I can tell that they’re really sincere when they say that “most believers mean well,” except they can’t accept that the faith of progressive Christians might lead towards a more liberal political agenda.  So they can’t call it faith.  It has to be placed in scare quotes.

I suspect, for a few reasons, that the author of the letter is Kelly Monroe Kullberg, founder of The Veritas Forum at Harvard.  She is first on the list of signees.  She is listed as the contact person for interviews.  Because of those first two clues, I searched for more information about her and came across a guest blog post she had written against immigration reform in 2013.  The writing style of that blog post has some similarities to the Open Letter¹.  Also, just as the Open Letter does, her blog post from 2013 takes aim against Jim Wallis and George Soros for their involvement in organizing evangelicals for immigration reform.  The same two targets for the Open Letter and the blog post from three years ago seems more than coincidental.  She has it in for these two.

Of the signatories to the Open Letter, I recognized a few names: Eric Metaxas (author of a popular biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer), Wayne Grudem (an evangelical theologian who has written a widely used Systematic Theology textbook, one that I used in some of my Bible classes in college), David Barton (a pseudohistorian), and John Morris (president emeritus of the Institute of Creation Research, a young earth creationist organization).  Metaxas and Grudem have published articles urging their fellow Christians to vote for Donald Trump in November, claiming that it is the Christian thing to do.  (Many other Christians, in turn, have written strongly worded rebuttals to Grudem.) [edited to add: In light of further revelations of ugly things Trump has said about women, Grudem has retracted his earlier statement of support.  In his new statement, he condemns Trump and Clinton.  He states that he refuses to vote for Clinton, but leaves open the possibility of still voting for Trump.  His earlier article called “Why Voting for Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice” is still available in archived form.][Another edit: Grudem is back to arguing that voting for Trump is necessary because of his policies.]

The letter has attracted an interesting cross section of evangelicalism.  Of the remaining names I didn’t know on sight, I did recognize some of the organizations they were affiliated with: the executive director of Precept Ministries, the president of the American Family Association, the founder and president of Charisma Media, etc.  There are also pastors, educators, elected officials, and other ministry leaders on the extensive list of 100.  As of this writing, more than 800 people have added their signatures to the letter.

The letter claims that “We are not here endorsing or denouncing a political candidate but reminding you of basic Christian morality,” but it’s a little hard to believe (though I understand that they have to say that for legal purposes).  For one thing, this letter was published on September 27, 2016, which is 43 days before the presidential election.  Two prominent signers are vocal Trump supporters.  Soon after this statement about not endorsing or denouncing candidates, the letter has a list of ten “consequences of Progressive political activism over the past eight years.”  Hmm, I wonder who has been in office for the past eight years?  Right after the list of consequences, most of them distortions or falsehoods, they ask “why would any religious leader ask Christians to embrace a Progressive political agenda that is clearly anti-Christian?”  Immediately following this incendiary question, the letter impugns Hillary Clinton, who happens to be a political candidate at the moment.  Here’s what the letter says about Hillary Clinton in its entirety.

“When Hillary Clinton stated during a 2015 speech at the Women in the World Summit that religious beliefs “have to be changed,” she was openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church. And now Progressives claim that supporting such a view is the Christian thing to do?  This is spiritual abuse of the family, the Church and the nation.”

There is a link to her speech, or rather a link to a short clip from the speech.  I recognized this.  I came across this same edited clip of her speech on Facebook a while back from a linked article that was even more wild-eyed and conspiratorial.  It was written by Theodore Shoebat, who calls himself a “proud fascist,” and supports having the government execute gay people, and says that women who have abortions should be put before a firing squad.  In his article, Shoebat claimed that “Hilary [sic] Clinton just said that Christians must deny their Faith through the enforcement of laws.”  Then he misquotes her: “Notice that she says that the change of Christian beliefs is the ‘unfinished business of the 21st century,’ which means she wants to persecute Christians.”  He caps it all off by calling her a “witch.”

Although the American Association of Evangelicals version is slightly more timid than Shoebat’s, they are both saying essentially the same thing.  And they are completely distorting Hillary Clinton’s words and their meaning in order to make it falsely look like she is against Christian belief.  They are bearing false witness.  Let me show why.

Here is the clip of the speech.

And here’s the transcript provided on the YouTube video:

“Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

The clip was uploaded by a conservative talk radio program called The Joe Walsh Show.  Joe Walsh was a one term U.S. Representative from Illinois who was elected in the 2010 midterm Tea Party wave.  He lost in 2012 to Tammy Duckworth, and soon afterwards started his radio program.

So is Hillary Clinton “openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church” with these words as the Open Letter and Theodore Shoebat would have you believe?  The answer is no.

The reason I know this is because the clip has been taken out of context.  Anyone who has learned the fundamentals of biblical exegesis knows the importance of considering context rather than trying to interpret a statement in isolation.  (Wayne Grudem, the systematic theologian who signed the Open Letter, points out that “the place of the statement in context” is one of four sources for interpreting biblical passages in a chapter he has written on Bible Interpretation.)

Clinton is not speaking about America or American laws.  In this quote, she is actually talking about the worldwide maternal mortality rate, not that you would know that because the edited clip begins partway through a sentence and omits the first words.  And the edited clip has had a much greater impact, having been viewed more than 600,000 times compared to the full speech, which has only been viewed slightly more than 150,000 times.  (The edited clip, or a brief summary with the key words “religious beliefs have to be changed,” has made the rounds of Christian websites and conservative media sites.  A partial list of Christian sites: LifeNews, CharismaNews, ChristianDaily, and Now the End Begins.  A partial list of conservative media sites: The Blaze, National Review, The Daily Caller, and Fox Nation.  Interestingly, the last two include the video of the entire speech, but only highlight the same portion about “religious beliefs have to be changed” as those who include the edited version.)

Here is the same quote with the fuller context.  I’m going to provide more than the beginning of the sentence that was cut, going back even farther so that there can be no mistake what she is talking about. (Begin the video at 7:40)

“But the data leads to a second conclusion that despite all this progress, we’re just not there yet.

Yes, we’ve nearly closed the global gender gap in primary school, but secondary school remains out of reach for so many girls around the world.

Yes, we’ve increased the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence, but still more than half the nations in the world have no such laws on the books and an estimated one in three women still experience violence.

Yes, we’ve cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”

I’ve provided the larger context so it is clear that when Clinton says, “far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth,” she is talking about the maternal mortality rate in the developing world.  We can know this because of context and because of the facts about maternal mortality.  First, she is giving the keynote address at the Women in the World conference.  Of course her remarks are going to be global in nature. Second, the context of the first two examples in this list of three areas where more progress needs to be made—the gender gap in education and domestic violence—makes clear that she is referring to areas other than America (“global gender gap,” “girls around the world,” “number of countries,” and “half the nations in the world.”).  And third, according to the World Health Organization, “99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.” (All quotes from the World Health Organization come from their fact sheet on maternal mortality published in November 2015.)

So when Clinton says that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed,” in order to further cut the maternal mortality rate, she means in other countries, specifically in the developing world.  So what are the challenges with cutting the maternal mortality rate in these countries?  Though the maternal mortality rate has been nearly cut in half in the past 25 years, as Clinton said, still around 300,000 women die each year for preventable reasons associated with pregnancy or childbirth.  According to the WHO, greater than 50% of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and nearly a third in South Asia.

Here are the reasons given by the World Health Organization:

“The major complications that account for nearly 75% of all maternal deaths are:

  • severe bleeding (mostly bleeding after childbirth)
  • infections (usually after childbirth)
  • high blood pressure during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia and eclampsia)
  • complications from delivery
  • unsafe abortion.

The remainder are caused by or associated with diseases such as malaria, and AIDS during pregnancy.”

The first four reasons the WHO lists require what Clinton said in the first part of her statement: “access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth.”  So that leaves the issues of unsafe abortion and the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to WHO, “To avoid maternal deaths, it is also vital to prevent unwanted and too-early pregnancies. All women, including adolescents, need access to contraception, safe abortion services to the full extent of the law, and quality post-abortion care.”

There are two components here.  First, there needs to be access to contraception.  One reason is to “prevent unwanted and too-early pregnancies.”  The other reason is to prevent the spread of AIDS.  Consistent and proper condom use helps reduce the spread of STDs, and HIV/AIDS specifically.  So widespread access to contraception would help reduce the maternal mortality rate by decreasing unsafe abortions and by helping curb the spread of AIDS.

One of the barriers to widespread access to contraception, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is the belief that contraception is immoral.  I think it is most likely that Clinton’s comment that “cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” has to do with the use of contraception.  If people changed their minds about contraceptives, then the maternal mortality rate would go down.  Here is the only place where Clinton could be urging Christians to change their beliefs.  The Catholic church still forbids the use of any contraceptives with the exception of natural family planning.  However, while that is the official position of the church hierarchy, the vast majority of Catholics worldwide (78%) do not find contraceptives morally wrong.  But Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa do agree with their church’s position on contraceptives at a higher percentage.  I find the idea that this is Clinton waging war against Christians and their beliefs hard to take seriously when American Catholics also overwhelmingly do not think that contraceptive use is immoral.

The second component is “safe abortion services to the full extent of the law, and quality post-abortion care.”  To a pro-life audience, which the AAE Open Letter clearly addresses, this is anathema, but please hear out my reasoning.  Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa restrict abortion much more than in the United States.  Only two countries, South Africa and Mozambique, allow abortion for any reason with gestational limits, the same as the U.S.  All of the other countries restrict abortion to save the life of the mother or they ban it outright.  The story is similar in the countries of South Asia.  So between the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, most of them restrict abortion heavily or completely ban it.  The WHO and Hillary Clinton are calling for the laws in these countries that do allow some abortions in some cases to be enforced and for those abortions to be safe.  How could it be the pro-life position to allow a woman who has a legal abortion to die from inadequate medical care during and after the abortion?  These women need good and safe reproductive care—whether they choose an abortion or not—during pregnancy and afterwards.

So while pro-life Christians can certainly disagree with Hillary Clinton’s positions on abortion, Clinton’s comments in this speech are about following existing laws in other countries and saving the lives of women.  She is not calling on Christians to change their beliefs on abortion or any other article of faith, aside from accepting the use of contraception.

So not only did the letter writers take Clinton’s words out of context to distort their meaning, they also charged that she is “openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church.”  This accusation seems to presume that Clinton herself is not a Christian.  That is not true.  Clinton is a Christian, and though she is fairly private about her faith, it has never been a secret.  They are again bearing false witness.

Back in January of this year, at a campaign stop in Iowa, Clinton, when asked about her faith, proclaimed, “I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist.”  Later in her answer, she boiled down the essence of her faith: “My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do.”  Her beliefs have led her to a life of service in which she fought for health care for children during her husband’s administration, for women’s rights around the world, for health care for 9/11 first responders, etc.  At the end of the Democratic National Convention in July, after her speech, Clinton listened to the benediction by a Methodist minister where he ended with the Methodist maxim, “Do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we ever can.”  If she isn’t a Christian, she sure is trying to do the work of a Christian.

So here’s my answer to the Open Letter calling me to repent:

I do have reason to repent.  I need to repent of my selfishness and idleness.  For harsh words spoken.  My indifference to suffering.  And my envy of others.

But I will not repent supporting liberal political policies that feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison.

And I will not repent supporting a politician who works towards closing the global gender gap in education, prohibiting domestic violence, and cutting the maternal mortality rate.


Footnote

¹In her blog post, she also used a phrase that stood out to me when she called an evangelical group in favor of immigration reform “an ad hoc group.”  The Open Letter also calls themselves “an ad hoc fellowship of evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox believers.”  In 2013, in response to the evangelicals in favor of immigration reform, Kullberg formed “Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration (EBI) [which] is an ad hoc movement,” and more recently The America Conservancy, whose motto is “For America’s renewal. Because of love.”  The line “because of love” can also be found on the Open Letter just after the author describes them as an ad hoc group, “We stand — because of love.”

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book reviews, literature, nature, politics

Book Reviews, September 2016

My September book reviews offer three different vantage points of America, from the rich and powerful and their political interests to the recently repatriated reconnecting with the American landscape on the fabled Appalachian Trail to the rural poor Latino figuring out his place in the world.

  • Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer is a good book about an important subject—money in politics—but I couldn’t help feeling depressed as I read it.  Mayer has done the research and followed the money trail.  She meticulously shows how rich men (especially Charles and David Koch, but also many others such as Richard Mellon Scaife) have used their fortunes to fund and influence the political conversation towards their preferred policies.  A lot it comes down to tax avoidance.  Scaife, for instance, and his sister received their large inheritances from their father in the form of two trusts of $50 million apiece.  The money sat in the trusts for 20 years accruing interest.  The interest had to be spent on charitable nonprofits, but after the 20 years were up, the children would get the entire $50 million tax free.  The Koch brothers received a similar arrangement from their parents.  Scaife and the Kochs used the interest from the trusts to fund nonprofits that aligned with their political views.  One way they did this was to give to new, more ideological think tanks in the 1970s.  Before this, research think tanks had been driven by social science research for the general public interest.  The new think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute had a much more ideological bent.  It didn’t stop at think tanks.  Then the Kochs and like minded rich philanthropists started funding programs in higher education in order to compete with the liberal agenda they saw in academia.  Most of these billionaires were in the energy sector, whether oil, coal, or natural gas.  They were most determined to fight any research that conflicted with their bottom line.  Mayer details the political fights of the Obama presidency, showing how the influence of the money and operations of the Kochs and other billionaires has stymied progress.  The total opposition to Obama began as soon as he took office, not in reaction to anything he did, but the very fact that he had won the election.  The Koch brothers’ group Americans for Prosperity and another group FreedomWorks, funded by other billionaires and companies like Philip Morris, helped organize and promote the Tea Party.  It wasn’t a grassroots uprising.  The sea change in thought on climate change was especially profound and evidence of the power of monied interests.  John McCain in 2008 actually ran on a platform of acknowledging climate change and advocating for a cap and trade bill, a relatively conservative solution to curbing green house gases based on free markets.  A year later when Obama supported a cap and trade bill that passed the House, the opposition in the Senate became intense.  It was never even brought up for a vote because it wouldn’t have passed.  By 2012, Mitt Romney had to reverse his previous position of acknowledging human caused climate change in order to be acceptable to the conservative side of the Republican party.  It was no longer acceptable to the big donors who funded the party.  The Koch brothers believe that they are fighting for their libertarian free market principles when they fund attacks on regulations of the fossil fuel industry.  It just so happens that all of the issues that they fight the hardest for and put their money towards would also help them avoid taxes or responsibility when accidents happen.  The amount of money involved is truly astounding, made more so by the recent Supreme Court decision Citizens United which breaks down barriers to pour even more money into politics.  It’s depressing that those with the most money have so much power and influence on our political system and even political opinion.  Mayer focuses her attention on what she calls the “radical right,” but the problem of money in the system goes both ways.  It is especially evident on the right at the moment.  She does point out at various times some of the liberal billionaires who have attempted to use their money in a similar fashion, but it is mostly a reaction to the efforts of the Kochs and their like minded billionaires, and not nearly as well coordinated or funded.  The book is solid research, but I would only recommend it to someone who can stomach it.
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson is a fun travel memoir about friendship and nature.  After spending roughly half his life in Britain, Bryson embarks on a hiking trip with an old friend from his hometown who he hadn’t really kept up with.  Neither of them has much experience with hiking and the wilderness, though Bryson has done a lot of research for the endeavor.  Bryson’s narrative is very funny and compelling as he relates how they eat the same meals over and over, encounter a bear one night, and face the difficulty of carrying everything on their backs mile after mile in spite of being out of shape and overweight when they begin.  I especially liked the parts where Bryson gave the history of the AT and the challenges of nature conservation.  It’s true that Bryson didn’t complete the whole trail.  I don’t hold that against him, though he could have been more up front about his plans. Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, I joined an experienced friend to hike the John Muir Trail in California (itself a part of the Pacific Crest Trail).  Unfortunately, we had to quit the trail before we had even exited Yosemite National Park because my friend was experiencing knee pain.  Those three days on the trail were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically.  It took real effort to continue putting one foot in front of the other.  We probably would have hit our stride in a few days, and it would have become easier.  I often wish I had gone back to do the JMT in full.  I would like to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a comparison and contrast to Bryson’s tale.  Some of the crudity of Bryson’s friend Stephen Katz is presented as “boys will be boys,” which was distracting in parts.  It’s another reason I’d like to read Strayed to get a different hiking experience.  But overall I enjoyed Bryson’s travelogue.

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  • Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez is a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.  It begins in blackness, and then we see Julio’s open crying mouth; it ends in the same open mouth and blackness when he dies.  The artwork, done in black and white, is somewhat cartoony, but it’s never simplistic.  The approach is spare and clean.  Julio grows up in a poor rural area of the country that is never specified (my guess is California).  He is closeted and complex, not really acknowledging the love of his life, his childhood friend Tommy.  He never marries and lives with his mother.  But the story continues along various paths, tracing the history of his family and community: his evil uncle, his friend Araceli who goes off to nurse soldiers in multiple wars, his sister’s family, including her grandson Julio Juan.  Julio Juan is an interesting contrast to Julio, as he is also gay, but since he came of age in a different era, he can live freely.  There are multiple stories and characters, so sometimes Julio drifts to the background of his own story, but he and his life ground it all.  It’s a rewarding read that I would definitely recommend.  [Read an excerpt here at NPR.]
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Book Reviews, August 2016

The batch of book reviews for August is another hodge podge of comics and American history.  Much like I did for a review last year (Ari Berman’s study of the Voting Rights Act), one of the reviews is twice as long as usual in order to cover the topic of the Second Amendment more thoroughly.

  • Batman: Contagion by various writers (including Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Dennis O’Neil, Alan Grant, and even a short chapter by Garth Ennis) and artists (including Kelley Jones and Mike Wieringo, among others) is a crossover event comic that under-delivers on a promising premise.  What if an ebola-like virus struck Gotham?  How would Batman save the city?  If any peril merited the mind of the world’s greatest detective, this would be it.  Unfortunately, it mostly involves our heroes punching bad guys while numerous civilians we’ve never met before succumb to the deadly virus. As a big crossover event, it means Batman gets help from Robin, Catwoman, Azrael, Oracle, Nightwing, and Huntress in order to save the city.  Though one of the heroes contracts the virus, we as readers never doubt the cure will arrive in time.  The whole exercise feels nothing like a real outbreak of a deadly pathogen.  The artwork is mostly pedestrian or outright bad, with the exception of Kelley Jones’s exaggerated dark and brooding version of Batman.  The original comics came out in 1996, a year after Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and the film Outbreak.  If you want an interesting story about ebola, try one of those.
  • The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman is an important book that looks at two important things regarding the Constitution.  First, it is a history of how the Second Amendment has been interpreted.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it wrestles with how to interpret the Constitution today, showing how the theory of originalism does not work as a coherent theory of interpretation.  So first the history of the amendment.  The Second Amendment is notoriously difficult to interpret because it has such a strange grammatical structure: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Waldman starts with a lesson about colonial America and the history of militias versus standing armies.  It is this context that informs the writing of the Second Amendment.  During the Constitutional Convention, there was no debate about an individual right to “private gun ownership” or that it needed to be protected in a bill of rights.  Later, during the House debate on the Bill of Rights, “None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting, or for any purpose other than joining a militia” (55-6).  In the literature of the time, especially political writings and those of the founders, almost every use of the phrase “bear arms” had a military context.  It was the duty of every adult male in the community to join the militia and bring his own gun when training or when mustered for duty.  The courts of the early era mostly all understood the right espoused in the Second Amendment as a collective right so that there could be a local militia.  Waldman then proceeds to give a history of the NRA, showing how it evolved from a marksmanship and recreational organization to the militant lobbying group it has become today.  In 1958, their Washington headquarters had the sign, “FIREARMS SAFETY EDUCATION, MARKSMANSHIP TRAINING, SHOOTING FOR RECREATION.”  By contrast, their new headquarters in the 1990s had an edited version of the Second Amendment which omitted the first half about militias.  The key moment in between these two mottoes happened in the late 70s when new leadership ousted the old in what was called the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” and the group became much more political.  This change in the NRA coincided with a new interpretation of the Second Amendment.  From 1888 to 1960, “every single [law review] article concluded the Second Amendment did not guarantee an individual right” (97).  In the next 20 years, however, articles were evenly split, 27 apiece, for an individual right, but 60% of those for an individual right “were written by lawyers who had been directly employed by or represented the NRA or other gun rights organizations” (98).  It should also be pointed out that law review articles are not peer reviewed.  These articles cited each other and found tenuous arguments and often misunderstood or taken out of context quotes to bolster their claims.  The NRA itself is not above trying to misconstrue the founders when it suits their purpose.  For instance, a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington contained the quote “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”  From context, it is clear that Jefferson is not speaking of firearms at all, but rather is asking for some letters back so that he can prepare rebuttals in his capacity as Secretary of State (See the quote at the link for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action site and this explanation of the Jefferson letter).  This sea change in interpretation of the amendment culminated in the 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller which finally established a federal individual right to own a gun.  Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, the right was incorporated to the states, thus overturning Chicago’s handgun restrictions.  The late Antonin Scalia, a firm believer in originalism when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, wrote the  Heller majority opinion.  This is notable because the decision picks and chooses from the original context of the writing of the amendment, avoiding much of the history and context of the colonial militias.  Then, later it moderates somewhat by mentioning a list of exceptions to the absolute individual right to a gun (i.e. rights of felons and the mentally ill, carrying firearms into schools and government buildings, and allowing for conditions and qualifications for commercial sales), none of which have an originalist explanation.  They are clearly in the opinion in order to secure the swing vote so that it could pass 5-4.  The decision is not in the least conservative, either, as it overturns over 200 years of precedent.  It is the very definition of an activist judiciary to find a new “true” meaning of the amendment that the courts had never before found.  This inquiry into the change in interpretation of the Second Amendment thus serves as a good case study for why originalism does not work as an interpretive framework for the Constitution.  The first question is whose intention counts when trying to figure out what part of the Constitution means?  Do we side with those drafting the document (they certainly didn’t all agree; that’s why they debated it), or the new Congress, or the ratifiers in the states?  Perhaps more to the point, a theory that rests on finding an original meaning (if one can be found) does not keep pace with social progress.  How could the founders, smart as they were, consider the principles that would shape our current more technological, globally connected, era?  Each generation reads and interprets the document differently, applying it to the contemporary dilemmas.  Waldman has done a superb job explaining the history of a thorny debate.  I highly recommend anyone interested in the Second Amendment to read it.
  • The Wicked and the Divine Vol. 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie is a promising start to a comics series.  It begins with a solid premise: every 90 years, gods return to earth as popular icons, but it doesn’t last.  They die within two years.  Much like any pantheon, the gods fight amongst themselves, while being adored and misunderstood by humans.  This particular go-around, the gods are popstars.  The series plays with notions of celebrity and fandom in interesting and playful ways.  It’s still early, but I’d recommend giving it a try.  [After reading Vol. 2: Fandemonium, I would definitely recommend the series.]
  • The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell is a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  She focuses on the Massachusetts Bay Colony rather than the earlier Plymouth of Mayflower fame.  The Bay Colony features interesting figures like John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson.  She gives the necessary background for why the Puritans were leaving England in the first place, leading to Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”  The sermon is famous for calling the Massachusetts colony “a city on a hill,” an example for the world, but also the same watchfulness was a warning to live up to their ideals.  The colony had famous religious freedom battles where first Roger Williams and later Anne Hutchinson were banished.  Williams sets up the colony in Rhode Island known for its religious tolerance, which paves the way for the First Amendment’s protections more than a century later.  But it’s not all religious squabbles in the early colony, there are also skirmishes with, and the slaughter of the Native population (after smallpox had already ravaged them).  Particularly horrifying is the description of the Mystic Fort Massacre.  A group of allied colonists and Narragansett and Mohegan warriors surrounded the Pequot fort and set fire to their homes, shooting anyone who tried to escape the walls.  I was deeply disturbed to find that the destruction of the Natives was immediate and unrelenting.  For the past few years, ever since I knew I would be living in South Dakota, I’ve been reading and learning about the decimation of the people who lived on the Plains.  But that’s not where it started.  It goes back to every first encounter with Europeans, including the Puritans of New England.  While that is certainly a hugely depressing point in the book, much of the rest of it is made fun by Vowell’s sharp wit and humor.  As a side note, I would point out that Vowell makes no secret that she is politically liberal, but that she is also a patriot (an earlier book of hers is called The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an apt self description).  She spends time comparing the Puritan conception of what “a city on a hill” meant to them to how Reagan repurposed it during his presidency.  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is a decent, if not great, thriller.  I picked up the novel because Hawley is the showrunner for the TV series Fargo, which has had two great seasons so far. I enjoyed the book, but I expected more.  The story revolves around a plane crash, what led up to it, and its aftermath.  The mystery is the unfolding of how the plane came down on the short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York.  Hawley spends time with each of the characters on the private jet, the pilots, flight attendant, the banker and his wife, the cable news executive and his family, and an artist.  My main problem with the novel is that there are a couple of villains in the book and, despite his attempt to humanize them, they come across as flat characters to me.  In fact, the more I thought about them afterwards, the less I liked the book overall, even though I had enjoyed reading it.  This shortcoming left a sour taste and is seriously affecting my feelings for the book.  The book wrestles with the idea of our constant bombardment of infotainment from cable news and the need for narratives to fit every news story whether we have the all the facts or not.  It would be even more interesting if the novel itself didn’t fall prey to its own narratives that forced the villainous characters to fit certain roles.  I have to say I ended up disappointed with this book and wouldn’t recommend it.
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book reviews, comics, faith, literature, politics, psychology

Book Reviews, May 2016

In May I read two great books on serious questions about America today that I would recommend heartily, one on what it means to be gay and Christian in America, and the other on poverty and the crisis of affordable housing in this country.  There are two reviews for comic books, too, but only one of them is worth your time.

  • Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu is a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  He would then tell his own thoughts, but it was clear who thought what.  He even managed to do this when talking to Fred Phelps, the late pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, in a tense conversation (the book was published in 2013, a year before Phelps’s death).  Chu also spends time with those who have lost faith because of the way the church treated them, and with people in ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, and with gay Christians trying to remain celibate, and with those who have reconciled their sexuality with their faith.  He talks to some who are well known like Ted Haggard, the disgraced pastor, Jennifer Knapp, the one-time star in Contemporary Christian Music, and Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network.  But he mostly talks with everyday ordinary people who are trying to figure out their faith and sexuality.  A recurring element throughout the book is the ongoing story of a young man who is struggling to come out to his conservative family.  It all adds up to a very powerful book.  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.

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  • Ocean/Orbiter: The Deluxe Edition, written by Warren Ellis with art by Chris Sprouse and Colleen Doran, is a collection of two stories about human space flight.  Though unrelated, both stories are science fiction about technologies beyond what we currently have.  In Ocean, a global research team attempts to figure out what is below the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, before a technology corporation (a thinly veiled Microsoft stand in; their operating system is called Doors instead of Windows).  The answer threatens the fate of humanity.  The second story involves a space shuttle that disappeared for ten years and then suddenly returns to Earth modified by unknown forces.  Again, the answers to what happened to the shuttle affect the fate of humanity.  The concepts behind both stories are interesting to a point, but they were very idea focused and not invested nearly as much in character.  I don’t regret reading the book, but I don’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone unless they’re craving mysterious space adventure light reading.

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  • The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts by Paul Pope is a grab bag of early formative comics by an extremely talented artist.  Pope’s art is full of action and expressive characters both heavily influenced by Japanese manga.  The art is not a rip-off, though, but a blend of styles that becomes something new and uniquely his.  The title story fits nicely in the crime genre, but with a bit of a supernatural twist.  Rival gangs such as the Paid-in-Spades and the Do Nothings compete in the city, but individuals in the One Tricks gang each have a special ability to control others with their speech (much like Kilgrave in Jessica Jones).  The protagonist of the story is Tubby, a member of the One Tricks, and his girlfriend Vim.  They plan a heist of their own gang’s stash so they can get out of the city, but naturally it all goes wrong as these things tend to do.  The other stories in the collection range from poems put into comics to a short story about an eating contest to a pair of wordless stories about chance encounters.  A particular standout is a short piece about a young woman waiting for her artist boyfriend to pick her up after work late at night.  He says he’ll be right there, but then gets caught up in his work again and arrives later than he said, leading to her having to fend off sexual violence from strangers while she waits and waits.  It does a good job of perspective taking since most everything else in the collection is about young males and their viewpoint.  Overall, it’s a good read for those who like crime fiction or good art.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is an essential book.  Please, please, read it (Read an excerpt here).  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  We meet Arleen and her two boys Jori and Jafaris (all the names have been changed) who get evicted at Christmas time after spending money on a funeral for Arleen’s sister instead of rent.  We meet Scott, a nurse who lost his license after he suffered a back injury and got hooked on painkillers and can’t keep up with rent because of his addiction.  We meet Lamar, a man with no legs, who tried to make up for back rent by helping paint the upstairs apartment, all to no avail after the house burned down later.  Their stories are gripping and heartbreaking.  And we meet their landlords Tobin and Sherrena, the former the owner of a rundown trailer park and the latter an enterprising owner of many dilapidated yet lucrative properties in the city leading her to proclaim that “the ‘hood is good.”  For the most part, their stories are presented in a straightforward manner based on first hand observations and recordings Desmond took while spending time with the people.  Occasionally he would add a beautiful description that made it more novelistic: “[she would] sit on a windowsill and light a cigarette, its smoke coming alive in the breeze like a raging spirit that had only seconds to live” (289).  When appropriate during the narratives, Desmond explains aspects of the housing crisis in cities like Milwaukee, but he leaves most of the research, his own and others’, in the 60 pages of endnotes (which are worth reading, too).  For example, “For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties” (75), and that over a period of two years, half of renters in Milwaukee “experienced a serious and lasting housing problem” (76).  Problems with housing ripple outwards, too, leading to health and psychological problems.  For instance, if the tenants at a property called 911 too frequently (3 times per month) the police could cite the landlord for a nuisance violation.  Landlords would likely evict renters who called 911 too much, thus leading to an incentive for renters not to call, which is of course a problem if there are genuine reasons like domestic abuse to get police involved.  Milwaukee recently changed the nuisance law to make an exception for abuse, but the incentives not to call remain for most situations.  So many poor people live in substandard housing in bad situations, but then they don’t even receive the help that they are entitled to because the programs are underfunded.  Sixty seven percent of poor people who rent received absolutely nothing from the federal government for housing assistance in 2013. It’s shameful.  At the end, Desmond offers two solutions that could begin to ameliorate the sad state of affairs in housing.  The first is to guarantee legal representation for those in eviction court, just like is done for criminal defendants.  Without a proper defense, most renters lose in court against their landlords, if they even show up to court at all.  But more fundamentally, housing should be a basic right for everyone.  One way to accomplish this would be to give everyone under a certain income a universal housing voucher that guarantees that no more than 30% of their income goes towards housing costs.  Such a program would not be cheap, but is certainly achievable if it were made a priority.  For example, the cost of the mortgage interest deduction to the federal government alone would be able to pay for the program.  For a country that calls itself a Christian nation, our priorities are certainly skewed.  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.
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Best Books I Read in 2015

I read a lot of great books in 2015, and I would recommend many of them to interested readers.  But I thought it might be helpful to narrow it down to a smaller list of titles for a year end wrap up.  So here are the five books I would most recommend to anyone, followed by ten more that were also great (and I feel bad leaving off books I liked by Anne Lamott, Patrick Hicks, Marilynne Robinson, and Brian Turner, among others—it was a good year of reading).  I’ve put them in the order that I read them with a brief quote from my original reviews (and a link to the review if you want to see more).  First, the top five.

Complications (Atul Gawande)

“a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.”

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

“a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.”

Get in Trouble (Kelly Link)

a book so good I reviewed it twice!

“It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.” (blog review)

“It’s this quality of the fantastic, when in the best hands like Link’s, that helps the reader to get out of the ordinary world and see something different, all while shedding light on some part of the ordinary that we often overlook. Plus, it’s fun.” (Rock &Sling review)

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

“And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.”

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

“a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.”

And the runners-up

Gulp (Mary Roach)

“the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

“The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.”

God and the Gay Christian (Matthew Vines)

“Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.”

Carver: A Life in Poems (Marilyn Nelson)

“In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.”

Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)

“a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.”

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

“Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.”

Neurotribes (Steve Silberman)

“a comprehensive and important history of autism […] it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition”

Davita’s Harp (Chaim Potok)

“another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.”

Killing and Dying (Adrian Tomine)

“is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.”

March, Book One (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell)

“This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.”

I hope 2016 brings at least as many good books my way!

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Book Reviews, November 2015

November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker).  You might find something you like.

  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism.  He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations.  Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.”  Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades.  It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift.  In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.”  The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987.  One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis.  It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years.  Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it.  Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it.  There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side.  One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it).  Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom.  Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself.  Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.  The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with.  The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb).  I could barely put it down.  The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop.  The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation.  Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before).  He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research.  What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway?  Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290).  I can’t recommend this book enough.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history.  It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting.  First, she knows a lot about history and literature.  Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience.  It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect.  There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful.  For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm.  I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93).  Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need.  It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading.  I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading.  She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written.  I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
  • My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran.  The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir.  To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed:  “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo.  Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time).  I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book.  It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized.  The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time.  Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse.  One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army.  He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person.  In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life.  He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone.  It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century.  I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war.  Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not.  Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well.  [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
  • Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time.  I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base.  Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development.  These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection).  For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done.  Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill.  But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men).  I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
  • Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.  Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist.  Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.  Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from.  They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place.  Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937.  Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party.  Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better.  She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past.  It’s all quite mysterious to Davita.  As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists.  There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one.  I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).
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