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January 2017

The Country Girls

[ THE COUNTRY GIRLS BY O'BRIEN, EDNA](AUTHOR)PAPERBACK[ THE COUNTRY GIRLS BY O'BRIEN, EDNA](AUTHOR)PAPERBACK by Edna O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought so many books while in Dublin my luggage was heavy the rest of the trip. But of course. Ireland is such a literary place. Everywhere you went you heard and saw reminders of their great writers, and more specific local writers were acknowledged in the various parts of the country we visited.

I had never read any O'Brien, so thought she was one worthy of picking up. This is her first novel, about two young women from western Ireland in their late adolescence as they go to convent school and then move together to Dublin. When published, Ireland was a very conservative,Catholic country and this novel shows another side.

O'Brien captures the romantic ideals of a young woman, ideals which won't survive the encounter with the real world.

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The Prince

The PrinceThe Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found this book to be a rather useless pile of shit.

But I did find some bits of advice that Trump should learn, and further criteria by which to judge him poorly.

"A prince must also show himself a lover of merit, give preferment to the able, and honour those who excel in every art."

"The choice of a prince's ministers is a matter of no little importance; they are either good or not according to the prudence of the prince. The first impression that one gets of a ruler and of his brains is from seeing the men that he has about him. When they are competent and faithful one can always consider him wise, as he has been able to recognise their ability and keep them faithful. But when they are the reverse, one can always form an unfavourable opinion of him, because the first mistake that he makes is in making this choice."

"he ought to be a great asker, and a patient hearer of the truth about those things of which he has inquired"

"It is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised."

"Nothing does so much honour to a newly-risen man than the new laws and measures which he introduces. These things, when they are well based and have greatness in them, render him revered and admired."

"The prince must avoid those things which will make him hated or despised . . . and so contrive that his actions show grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude."

So, Trump's even already utterly failed at being an autocrat.

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How Jokes Won the Election

Emily Nussbaum's piece in the latest New Yorker, which appears as a piece of television criticism, is one of the more perceptive, and scarier, analyses of the recent national catastrophe which I have read.  Online the title is "HOW JOKES WON THE ELECTION: How do you fight an enemy who’s just kidding?"

Comedy might be cruel or stupid, yet, in aggregate, it was the rebel’s stance. Nazis were humorless. The fact that it was mostly men who got to tell the jokes didn’t bother me. Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth—that meant freedom for everyone.

But by 2016 the wheel had spun hard the other way: now it was the neo-fascist strongman who held the microphone and an army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office.


American Carnage and Other Thoughts on the Day

He seems to imagine himself the Tribune of the People.  The speech reminded me of Julius Caesar.

At first I found the speech frightening, and then, the more I considered it, I realized that once again he had demonstrated that he is a petty, sad, little man.

Most new presidents look like they are having a good time.  He looked sour and impatient.  

Today I heard one commentator say that not only is he the first president never to be in politics or the military, but in his professional life he has never been part of an institution, because being a family business, he never had a board or stockholders to be responsible to.

In a strange way, both the elections of 2008 and 2016 were repudiations of the party and policies of George W. Bush.

It will be interesting to watch his relationship with the Congressional GOP.  Also interesting to watch what political realignment may follow.

The Party of Lincoln is now the party of populist, nativist, nationalism?  Really?

Populist nationalism was long a cancer in the Democratic Party.  They finally ridded themselves of that cancer, only to have the GOP decide to exploit those folk for decades.  Now those folk have revolted against their exploitation.  The Republican Party has now fully given itself over to something antithetical to who it once was.

But how does his Cabinet fit the speech?  For instance, Carl Icahn, one of the new special advisors, is one of those folk who has spread carnage in industrial America.


Henry McNeal Turner

Henry-McNeal-Turner

The first person that Gary Dorrien focuses on his book The New Abolition is Henry McNeal Turner, a leading figure in the AME Church and an outspoken voice of black nationalism.  Turner was a pioneer of the blackness of God.  He argued that African-Americans could not be self-respecting and not believe in a black God.  Better to be atheists.

He had been a legislator in the early days of Reconstruction but lost hope in America as Reconstruction was abandoned.  He wrote, defending the contributions of African-Americans to American culture:

We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years!  And what do we ask of you in return?  Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you--for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled?  Do we ask retaliation?  We ask it not.  We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you, now, for our RIGHTS.

 Gives us some perspective to note that Turner wrote the obituary for the Republican party of abolition and civil rights in 1877, saying it was "slaughtered in the house of its friends" when it abandoned Reconstruction.  Though Turner gave up hope that America do anything but get worse for African Americans, so he advocated that people should disrupt the system "Vote any way in your power to overthrow, destroy, ruin, blot out, divide, crush, dissolve, wreck, consume, demolish, disorganize, suppress, subvert, smash, shipwreck, crumble, nullify, upset, uproot, expunge, and fragmentize this nation, until it learns to deal justly with the black man.  This is all the advice I have to give."


Recovering the Black Social Gospel

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Having read the very white Religion of Democracy, my next theology book is The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien.  The covers the development of African-American theology after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.  Dorrien feels that this movement has been overlooked and that it should be recovered.  One reason is that these are the historical and theological influences on King and leaders of that generation.  Here is a good summary from the opening chapter:

The black social gospel arose during the trauma and abandonment of Reconstruction, resuming the struggle for black freedom in America.  Like the white social gospel and Progressive movements, it espoused principles of social justice, conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights, struggled with industrialization and economic injustice, and grappled with the Great Migration.  Like the white social gospel, it also wrestled with modern challenges to religious belief. But the black social gospel addressed these things very differently than white progressives did, for racial oppression trumped everything in the African American context and refigured how other problems were experienced.

The black social gospel affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression.  It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it.  Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny.  Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression.

Dorrien details four versions of the black social gospel.  First was the Booker T. Washington group that sought "a season of peace and economic opportunity for blacks."  The second was the "path of nationalist separation and/or African emigration."  The third group engaged in protest action and called for "a new abolitionist politics of racial and social justice."  The final group "advocated civil rights activism while relating more diplomatically to Booker Washington and Bookerism."


The Virtues of the Old Establishment

What I miss about [George H. W.] Bush is that, while he had no program, and no principles beyond his bromides about service and patriotism, those bromides contained valuable ideas. Namely, that competence, the public good, and integrity matter, regardless of the party in power or the details of the legislation being debated. That there are rules and expectations of decency, which everybody ought to follow.

This essay for First Things celebrates the virtues of the old establishment.  There are significant things I disagree with in this article, including some of its criticisms of the elder Bush, who any reader of this blog knows I admire.  But I agree with the essays defense of the old civic and patriotic virtues, which I believe I was raised with and was taught in public school and church.

Unfortunately the author diagnoses our current situation-- "our politics has become absurdly high-stakes, even as character has been entirely devalued. There is no room for a politics of character that is not deformed by ideology and partisanship."

But, similar to what I've been writing in the last few months, he believes that a return to these virtues is the only viable path forward, as he concludes:

 But all sides can learn from Bush to set up standards of behavior and decency that cross ideological and party lines. We can treat each other as fellow citizens, even if we have very different political beliefs. We can try to hold all politicians to the same standards. We can build a cross-party understanding of decency. And we could do worse than to start with some bromides about service and patriotism.


Beinart on Trump Foreign Policy

In the Atlantic Peter Beinart discusses how Trump breaks with America's foreign policy orthodoxy that it is our missionary duty to defend freedom around the world.

The discussion then goes to what will be the Democratic response.  Will they become the party of orthodoxy or will their left wing become dominant?  

I liked the contrast drawn in this final paragraph:

Trump wants America to be a “normal country” like China, which focuses on its own economic and civilizational interests. Liberal Democrats want America to be a “normal country” like Sweden, which helps solve common problems, but without telling the rest of the world what to do.