Archive for the ‘about books’ Category
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor with The New Republic. I recall reading his stuff before and remember that a lot of it was thought provoking. This review of WW II histories is no less thought provoking. The NY Times piece offers this set of seldom seen images of that horrible time that I brushed so close to in France during May and June 1940. Kirsch’s ending is most evocative for me:
After all, the present is always lived in ambiguity. To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat. The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis — or to pacifism and isolationism, as Nicholson Baker and Pat Buchanan would have it.
On the contrary, the more we learn about the history of World War II, the stronger the case becomes that it was the irresolution and military weakness of the democracies that allowed Nazi Germany to provoke a world war, with all the ensuing horrors and moral compromises that these recent books expose. The fact that we can still be instructed by the war, that we are still proud of our forefathers’ virtues and pained by their sufferings and sins, is the best proof that World War II is still living history — just as the Civil War is still alive, long after the last veteran was laid to rest.
My own Lilliputian view is that the world conflict known to us as WW II really began in Manchuria, now a major part of northeast China, in September 1931. Generals of Japan’s Kwantung Army, which occupied parts of southern Manchuria, decided for their own nationalistic reasons to undertake invasion and near war against China, which seemed a conquerable power at that time. It’s notable that Japan’s war in China lasted about 14 years and was followed by open civil war in China between the Kuomintang of Chiang-Kai-Shek and Mao’s Communist forces, which ended in October 1949.
- World Wars: Final Assessment – AN ALTERNATE HISTORY (isedphistory.wordpress.com)
Being as helpless and impotent as we are in understanding the meaning of our existence, the majority of mankind turns to organized religion for answers, while a much smaller number of humans turn to learned religious writers and theologians. But all we ever get from any of these sources is unintelligible and/or absurd answers to insoluble mysteries. God, if there is a God, would have all the answers. But he is waiting for us, if at all, outside the reach of our minds — our finite minds cannot comprehend that which is infinite (or as Einstein put it, “The problem is too vast for our limited minds”) — and that is why the effort of religion and theology to define and explain God is inherently futile. Thus, my agnosticism.
Is the conclusion of agnosticism no more than an intellectual exercise? Can it have any value to the human condition? Perhaps. I believe there is an ethical dimension to agnosticism that has the potential, to the degree it is embraced, to make man more honest. We know that untruthfulness, dishonesty, deceit, hypocrisy, and pretense are so much a part of life that we almost expect these things in our daily living and find it refreshing when we see their absence. And it’s not too likely this will ever change. But if man can ever at least hope to reduce the level of dishonesty in his existence, there perhaps is no better place to start than in his relationship with God.
- Book Review: Divinity of Doubt by Vincent Bugliosi (blogcritics.org)
- Frank Schaeffer: Divinity of Doubt (huffingtonpost.com)
- Divinity of Doubt: The God Question (jenx67.com)
- The Sense and Morality of Agnosticism (unreasonablefaith.com)
Ben Hammersley, at FT.com, gives this capsule description of the Internet profile today:
The internet has come a long way since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, turned on the first web server in Geneva on Christmas day 1990. Today, 2bn people are online; 800m of them are on Facebook. Every minute, 24 hours worth of video is uploaded to YouTube. Google, a company founded only 15 years ago, has a market capitalisation just short of $200bn and a mission statement that it intends “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – something no one thinks unlikely or even remarkable. We now bank, shop, communicate, work and date through the internet. The internet has come of age. It is as defining an achievement for humanity as the Enlightenment or the industrial revolution.
This article includes a review of three books that are longer reports on the state of the Internet, or SOI.
- The Semantic Web | MIT World (mitworld.mit.edu)
- Web Inventor Tim Berners-Lee Seeks Voice-Enabled Internet in Africa (fastcompany.com)
- Journalists of the future need data skills, says Berners-Lee (guardian.co.uk)
Lee Smolin is a world class scientist and does his science in Canada. He recently reviewed a book by Marcelo Gleiser that has a highly suggestive title “A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe”. Here is a telling excerpt from that book selected by Smolin for his review:
It became clear to me that scientists and seekers of perfection from all walks of life have been courting the wrong muse. It is not symmetry and perfection that should be our guiding principle, as it has been for millennia….The science we create is just that, our creation. Wonderful as it is, it is always limited, it is always constrained by what we know of the world….We may search for unified descriptions of natural phenomena, and we may find some partial unifications along the way. But we must remember that a final unification is forever beyond our reach….The human understanding of the world is forever a work in progress. That we have learned so much, speaks well of our creativity. That we want to know more, speaks well of our drive. That we think we can know all, speaks only of our folly.
As I read those lines I couldn’t help thinking that he could be describing how religious authorities propose unified models for human morality. Surely the one constant here, human folly, applies as much in the scientific domain as in the moral.
Scientists seem to be ready to express humility in the face of human intellectual weakness. When will religious spokespersons do as much? Is it possible that religious authorities speak from a position of intellectual arrogance since they propose that they are the final judges on earth of the perfection of their vision of human life.
- The exciting absence of certainty | Jonathan Jones (guardian.co.uk)
- Embracing Nature’s Imperfections (3quarksdaily.com)
- (book review) Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” (war-on-error.xanga.com)
I have a buddy who suggested to me this morning that the “silly season” is now over. So much for Xmas and New Year’s Eve.
Maybe that notion explains my own “silly season” which seems to be coming to an abrupt but not unpainful end. Sorry for the indirectness of these comments.
One unwelcome thing is happening these days for this user of VPN from a China based surfing laptop. I’m having lots of trouble accessing Twitter and Facebook. Twitter seems harder to access.
This morning I read an interesting essay about the reality of public apathy in Western democracies. The essay begs Americans to begin to protest more publicly and loudly about the fundamental injustice that has grown in the American economy in the wide gap between the wealth of the wealthiest vs. the rest.
One of the triggers for this essay is the obvious popularity of a small book in France written by a 93 yr old WW II hero and former French diplomat Stephane Hessel, “Indignez-vous!” Here is an excerpt:
Hessel’s book argues that French people should re-embrace the values of the French resistance, which have been lost, which was driven by indignation, and French people need to get outraged again.
Right now it seems to me that “Become Indignant” is almost too polite. The injustices in the present global economy are so extreme, in whatever country one considers, that indignation is not enough.
We, the people and unrich, have to find a way to fight this monopoly of power, political and financial, represented by the likes of Goldman Sachs in some real way. Why is it that the Tea Party in the US is supposed to represent public indignation. They suggest that it’s the govt that is wrong and working against the people. That’s just plainly wrong-headed.
Hessel’s thesis strikes me as much more relevant to us all than curiosities like the Tea Party.
- Political essay by 93-year-old tops Christmas bestseller list in France (guardian.co.uk)
- The little red book that swept France (independent.co.uk)
Last night, Xmas night, I was in a Chinese restaurant in Ganjingzi, a new and expanding neighborhood near the Dalian International Airport. I was the guest of Sherry Cai and Bin Qui, her husband. It seemed like a normal Chinese dinner in an average to good area, lots of fresh seafood.
And then there was a sort of night club show with pretty girls doing a sort of belly dance routine, an MC who recognized the only Laowai in the restaurant, yours truly. I guess this was more evidence in these good times in China, that the Chinese enjoy parties and celebrations as much if not more than many other places I have lived.
So I am in an Xmas mood this morning and couldn’t help feeling touched by these thoughts written by Alan Wolfe in a review of an interesting book about the connection between religion and culture. Here is a telling excerpt from that review:
We are, in addition, witnessing the severing of religion from the cultures within which it was once embedded. Religion and culture have long existed in an uneasy embrace. Catholicism is presumably a universal faith, yet long before the reforms of Vatican II allowed Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, Brazilian Catholicism owed as much to its South American roots as Polish Catholicism did to its Eastern European ones. Islam sought to conquer the world, or as much of it as it could, yet it was intimately connected to the Arab culture in which it was born. The only reason we do not find the term “secular Jew” puzzling is because we appreciate that Judaism is both an ethnic and a religious category. Much the same can be said for many of the other world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
If religion is in decline in the modern world, Roy argues, so is culture. On the one hand, we have multiculturalism, celebrations of diversity that somehow wind up making all cultures look and feel alike. More important, we face globalization, today’s true universal faith, which subjects all local customs to the laws of the market. Under the influence of both, religion loses whatever affinities it may once have had with the cultures that sustained it. Jakarta, the capital of the world’s largest Muslim country, lies some 5,000 miles from the holy city of Mecca, and even Mecca, Roy argues, has lost much of its specifically Arab character.
I am a declared Agnostic about all religion and especially about the intersection of religion and North American politics. Here the reviewer and the writer point out that religion begins in a cultural context but it tends to cool as its original cultural connection wanes and withers. Is that what happened to me? Did my cultural unrootedness lead to my Agnosticism? I think that could be the case.
In Dalian I am a Laowai but I don’t feel a strong cultural attachment to that connection, since most Laowai here seem to share a very shallow and uninteresting cultural view, at least here in Dalian. Oh, I can’t pretend to be Chinafied but I do enjoy my cultural connection with them better than I do the connection with Westerners. Maybe I just prefer to seem different because that’s what I have always felt in whatever city/community that I lived or worked in.
- A tuneful Christmas in Beijing. Why do the Chinese love singing so much more than us? (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- The Real War on Christmas: No Teaching of Religion (time.com)