29 January 2008

The End of America, by Naomi Wolf

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007. 168 pages. ISBN 978-1-933392-79-0.

This is a disturbing little book. It's extremely well-written, relatively dispassionate, and coldly logical. It did not make me feel well.

The full title is The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Wolf has written it directly and emphatically, outlining her points clearly and describing nothing less than an emergency to her fellow citizens of all political persuasions.

While her claims may at first seem extreme and alarmist, a reading of her carefully thought-out arguments brings to one some rather unwelcome revelations. Reaching back through the history of the Bush administration to the date of her writing (late 2006) Wolf itemizes instance after instance of power-grabbing initiatives by the Bush Executive Branch.

In her introduction (go to this site and scroll down toward the bottom, there's a link to download a copy of the introduction and some other material from the book) Wolf says
"I began to take a second look at how leaders in the past had cracked down on societies over which they had
gained control..."

End of America compares moves made by the Bush administration to steps taken by leaders such as Mussolini as they established totalitarian control over their countries.

How can we ignore such legislative travesties as the USA PATRIOT act and the Military Commissions Act? This last, which suspends habeas corpus, should make any American of any political persuasion furious. The idea that the President (whoever he or she is, no matter of what political party) would have the ability to imprison any citizen without charge, without the right to representation, and even without disclosing that the imprisonment has been accomplished or where the citizen is -- this is in my mind a definition of the opposite of what the Bill of Rights and Constitution exist to protect.

Wolf's comparisons of strategies, and of language, are chilling. She points out the significance of the term "homeland" as we now use it, and how it was used as the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s. It is considered "over-the-top" to make comparisons with the Nazis and Hitler:

"I also know that there is a kind of intellectual etiquette, an unwritten rule, that Nazism and Hitler should be treated as stand-alone categories. But I believe this etiquette is actually keeping us from learning what we have to learn right now. I believe we honor the memory of the victims of Nazism with our willingness to face the lessons that history—even the most nightmarish history—can offer us about how to defend freedom."
Wolf points out her own bona fides in this,

"As someone who lost relatives on both sides of my family in the Holocaust..."
There will still be detractors, those who will say that this book is unnecessarily paranoid, that there just isn't any basis for believing that our leaders are headed in this direction.

I found the most chilling aspect of this work to be the idea that we are supposed to know that our government will deal with us if we speak out against it. We are supposed to be aware of the downhill slide from legal interrogation of prisoners with Constitutional rights to the covert torture of helpless "disappeared" captives.

It serves the ends of what Wolf terms the "Fascist shift" for us to have a growing fear of our government. We know that it imprisons our fellow citizens without recourse to traditional legal protections, and we know that it has reached out to foreign nationals and governments and committed crimes. We know that if the magic word "terrorism" is invoked, all bets are off, and all rules are suspended. There is no real effort to conceal these things, there is no need. The more this incipient knowledge is revealed, the less likely we all become to resist any initiative taken by the Executive.

I put this book down about a month ago and put off writing this review. I was just too uncomfortable. As time has gone by, I have found myself brushing off her arguments as too extreme, even obsessive. And then I think back, and I understand that this, too, is probably a predictable reaction. People who live in societies that are becoming more repressive no doubt feel just as I do.

Therefore I say, read this little book, and judge for yourself. If Naomi Wolf is wrong then we have nothing to fear and there is no harm in the reading. If she is right, we may be at an important point in our history, where we will need every intelligent and alert American to be aware of what our government is doing, and to fight to retain the freedoms that have made this country the beacon of light that it once was in the world.

27 January 2008

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Houghton-Mifflin, New York, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-618-68000-9. 374 pages.

The God Delusion
is well-written, and well-reasoned. It deals with a difficult and complicated subject in a manner that kept my interest without being condescending or simplistic, in spite of the need for detailed explanations throughout. Dawkins comes across as a likable, optimistic teacher with a strong desire to see clear thinking take root and grow in the world.

Dawkins uses science and logic to illustrate how irrational religious beliefs have evolved and developed over the history of mankind, and how they have plagued civilization.

There will be, of course, objections to this book. Atheists run into this all the time. Apparently some religious people feel threatened by atheism; perhaps they don't like to have to think carefully about exactly what they believe. Dawkins' analysis of the origins of religion, and the actual substance of which it is formed, is daunting to say the least. He challenges the circular logic of faith, which says that one must believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. It is this anti-logical trump card that defeats all rational discussion. If one argues that God cannot be seen, heard, or felt, the response will be that God wants it this way: God wants us to have faith in him without any evidence of his existence. Religion says that belief in the improbable is the key to understanding God and pleasing him.

This book provides welcome relief from the background guilt that I experience when discussions of religion erupt. While I regard most of this stuff as nonsense on a rational, adult level there is always the "inner child" that was taught early on to fear the omniscient bearded man in the sky. There is the confusing story of Jesus and his inscrutable sacrifice, which somehow relieves me of original sin, or something like that. Talk about a guilt trip! Here's this man who, 2000 years ago, suffered a horrible death at the hands of merciless sadists because he knew that you were coming along, and he loves you, even now. Aren't you ashamed of yourself for not believing this.

It is not hard to debunk the myths that come from religion, whether it's the story of Jesus or the promise of a heaven full of virgins to the suicide bomber (Dawkins, by the way, rightly asks: what about the fate of these virgins? How do they feel about it? And why would a man want virgins, anyway?) it's pretty easy to simply say: this is not possible, not probable, it cannot be proven and so it is not true. What is difficult is to free people from the innate feeling that they are supposed to believe in this claptrap, and that if they don't, they are evil, ungrateful heretics and that God (who loves them) will punish them with nothing less than merciless eternal torture. This predisposition to adopt such illogical nonsense as one's "beliefs" is, as Dawkins points out, most likely a sort of side-effect of natural selection.

I found this concept immensely attractive. Parents impart much useful knowledge to their children, e.g. don't eat spoiled food, wash your hands, get enough sleep, the good fish are in this part of the river, etc. At the same time, parents may tell their children things which are inaccurate or untrue, such as the idea that you can "catch" a cold from getting wet and chilly, that people of another race are inherently inferior, or that there is an invisible omniscient omnipotent being who requires certain bizarre behavior and will punish you if you fail to display it. While the bad ideas may be quite useless or even harmful, the basic good information is often required for survival. Offspring with a penchant for hearing and adopting the instructions of their parents are probably more likely to survive, hence natural selection will favor this trait. The bad ideas, such as religion, are as fervently adopted as the good. Dawkins' own explanation of this concept is much more skillful than mine, and includes good examples and illustrations.

The message of The God Delusion is that too much evil is done in the name of religion for it to occupy the exalted place that it enjoys in human society. Why should we continue to grant special privileges (tax exemption) and overlook behavior which, if not excused under the explanation of religious belief, would be considered illegal and destructive (e.g. taking children out of school)? Religion is responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Religion fuels the never-ending wars of the Middle East, and the conflict in Ireland. Many representatives of one of the major religions of the world have been exposed as pedophiles, and that church itself has been found to be complicit in covering up or impeding prosecution of crimes committed by these people. How is it that rational people continue to tolerate this monstrosity in our midst?

This topic cannot be broached without inspiring controversy. I am sure that many people will find me heretical, insensitive, and evil for expressing these ideas. Fortunately for me, very few people read what I write here, so I will not have to put up with too much abuse. But to anyone who does object, I invite you to borrow this book from your public library (or buy it, if you don't mind putting money in the hands of the infidel) and read it. Give it an honest chance and ask yourself if it doesn't make a lot of sense. Some will, of course, reject it out of hand. But a few may just be relieved to find that they are not alone: many of us are unwilling to ignore logic, to eschew science, and adopt dangerous and destructive myths foisted upon us by previous generations. Many, I imagine, will be very pleased to read this book, and to enjoy its clear and reasonable arguments and Dawkins' fine writing.