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Personal History

Personal  HistoryPersonal History by Katharine Graham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Katharine Graham's autobiography. In fact, I wish she had instead written a series of more focused memoirs so that you could get more in-depth to some of the key, historic moments of her life.

The autobiography serves also as a personal view on American history in the 20th century, as her parents, husband, herself, and kids, played significant roles and knew very important people throughout the century. The one serious surprise is how much the Civil Rights Movement and racial issues are mostly absent in the story. She does not appear to have had any close relationships with people of other races.

At times reading the book I was nostalgic for another age, when politics and journalism and the wider society functioned by a set of mores and standards that seem to be missing now. One reason Watergate was such a shock, and ultimately the parties united against Nixon, was the way he flouted the traditions.

In this strange time we live in, it was good to read a book lionizing the importance of journalism.

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Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."

O Sing Unto the Lord

O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church MusicO Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightfully witty and informative book on the history of English church music. Thanks to the book I've discovered some musical gems such as Wylkynson's 13 part harmony Jesus autem transiens


And Tallis's Spem in alium, a 40 voice motet.


I've been looking up the pieces he discusses on YouTube and creating a playlist, which I'm not finished with, but here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...

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This Little Trailblazer

This Little Trailblazer: A Girl Power PrimerThis Little Trailblazer: A Girl Power Primer by Joan Holub
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great little book about powerful, trailblazing women. We got the similar book about Little Presidents at Mount Rushmore, and it became one of Sebastian's favourites. I saw this and that it would be a nice gender balance with that book. So far Sebastian delights in this one as well, as it has become a favourite to read.

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Robert Peel: A Biography

Robert PeelRobert Peel by Douglas Hurd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Peel, the 19th century British Prime Minister, appeared as a supporting character in a number of things I've read and watched in the last year. I had a growing intuition that Peel is the sort of leader our nation will require in the next generation to recover from our current crisis. So, I wanted to know more about him.

This biography is written by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign and Home Secretary, writing as a contemporary Conservative politician on the founder of the Conservative party. Hurd's asides comparing Peel and his time to issues in our time are part of the joy of the book.

In short, I have come away from the book hoping that America will find someone like Peel to help lead us in the middle of this century. But, yet, how unlikely that will be because Peel is so singular and rare. We can only hope.

Peel created the modern police force, revised the entire English economy, helped to reform the church, reformed the banking system, completed negotiations with the US settling our northern border, revised the entire English criminal code, and helped open public office to Roman Catholics. But his greatest achievement, according to Hurd, was establishing free trade as the dominant global force it has become.

What Hurd admires most about Peel's position on free trade, is that Peel did not make it a matter of negotiation with other nations, with some quid pro quo. He eliminated English tariffs unilaterally because he felt it the right thing to do. Primarily that it would lower the cost of living for the poor and working classes, helping to improve their lives. And also that the bounties of nature (God's blessings) ought to be able to move about the world freely to the benefit of all.

Peel's form of conservatism was devoted to some key ideals and values, not any dogmatic positions on issues and policies. For he radically changed his mind on major issues more than once--Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws being the two supreme examples. Where others, such as Benjamin Disraeli, saw hypocrisy and equivocation, Peel saw his changes of mind as furthering the core values.

Those were conservative values of maintaining order and stability and moving slowly and deliberately to change and only when the facts and reason compelled it. Peel studied the French Revolution in-depth, clearly in an attempt to understand what forces had led to it and how to avoid something similar in Britain. So his changes of mind on major issues were often because he realized that to hold dogmatically to a position would invite social discord and lead to the destruction of the things he valued most. He could not grasp why other conservatives did not understand this.

So his concerns to alleviate poverty did not arise from some deep humanitarian feeling--quite the contrary--but because he saw poverty as leading to social disorder and revolution. Therefore poverty should be alleviated.

He was also committed to diplomacy and a quieter, persuasive foreign policy. The more adventurous foreign policy of Palmerston, for instance, appalled him. He thought a strong nation was made stronger by persuading others to adopt its values (Hurd has a little commentary on recent American foreign policy at this point).

In the introduction Hurd writes that 150 years is a relatively short time in the life of a nation (a sentence I marveled at as an American) while making the point that the issues dominant in Peel's day are not completely gone from British life and his solutions created the systems still followed.

Peel was pragmatic, studied deeply, worked hard, led decisively, was convinced by facts and reason to change his mind, and was devoted and loyal to family and friends. Even when he was the leader of the opposition, he argued that it was wrong to oppose everything the Whigs did, that instead the proper role for the opposition was to help for the good of the country to achieve the best legislative outcomes. He also thought that doing so built trust that would lead to electoral success, and he was proven right.

So I read this book with a deep sense of admiration and sadness at the current plight of America and what we lack in our political leaders.

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How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

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"Evangelical" Hypocrisy

Much ink has been spilled about "Evangelical" hypocrisy when it comes to Trump.  Of course these are not real Evangelicals but a version of Fundamentalism--I digress.  Here's a column from Michael Gerson contrasting Billy Graham's reaction to Nixon's scandals with Graham's son's open embrace of Trump.

But the best explanation I have yet read is this one which identifies the roots of this form of American religion in the slave-holding South and a break-away from actual Evangelicalism which was abolitionist.  Excerpt:

patriarchal amoralism, not the Bible, not Christian teachings,  is the foundation of this Evangelical sect.  After slavery, it justified the lynching of blacks, segregation, and the vile hatred that we see being fanned today in such churches.  Being patriarchal and authoritarian, it has never in America’s history supported nor nurtured the values of democracy.  Thus  Its “religious” leaders convey the theological values needed to prepare its communities for fascist rule.  This thread has always existed within American society.  It is not new. It is not superficial. It will not disappear. America made a moral compromise at the beginning of its existence. Every century or so, the reality of it gets thrown like acid into our faces. 

Sun, Sand, and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62

Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62 by Nancy a Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun, witty, and insightful glimpse of a lost world. It may only have been a half century ago when Nancy Gray lived in Arabia and visited throughout the Middle East, but the world she experienced--of Beirut as the "Paris of the Middle East" and pre-Revolutionary Iran--is no longer.

She arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1960 to teach school for the Aramco oil company. Initially her exotic expectations are unfulfilled as she struggles to create social connections and find her place. But soon the narrative turns to her series of adventures in the region--from the unique way she visits an island in the Gulf to attending Christmas Eve services in Bethlehem--and the lessons she learns about the region, its history, and its people.

One interesting feature of Nancy's story is how many of her conversation partners are themselves exiles and refugees sharing about the lost worlds of the early 20th century--including the Joneses who organized relief for fleeing Palestinians during the 1948 war or Natalya the refugee from Czarist Russia living a diminished life in Beirut or the Armenian shop owner relating tales of the genocide of his people at the hands of the Turks.

From one smart and witty perspective we receive an intimate view of the turmoil and turbulence of the twentieth century.

Note: It was my privilege and honor to twice workshop portions of this memoir at the Yale Writers Conferences in 2014 and 2015 and to spend many mealtimes in extended conversation with the author, the delightful Nancy Gray.

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Hauerwas: Protestants Won. Now what?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an interesting take on Reformation 500 in the Washington Post.  Protestants won.  The RCC has reformed itself to address Luther's critiques. Now what?

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

This is an enjoyably provocative essay, but what's missing is an exploration of the ongoing nature of the Reformation, something stressed by most of the traditions.  So though the 16th century issues may have been largely resolved, the Protestant spirit and style opened us up to further developments.  That the RCC may have caught up to the 16th century in the mid-20th doesn't address the 500 years of further development on the part of Protestants.