Book Write-Up: Kant, by Manfred Kuehn

Manfred Kuehn.  Kant: A Biography.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

From the time that I was an undergraduate until now, the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant has been with me.  I’ve heard or read such things as: “Kant refuted the arguments for the existence of God.”  “Kant offered a moral argument for the existence of God.”  “Kant did not believe time and space are real.”  “Kant did not believe in cause and effect.”  “Your defense of our ability to know the outside world and talk about it objectively can be knocked down by a neo-Kantian!”  “Kant was not an epistemological skeptic but was trying to refute Humean skepticism.”  “We don’t need God to have morality, for Kant offered his own basis for morality: you refrain from doing what you don’t want everyone else to do.”  “Kant was absolutist when it came to ethics.”  “Kant said you should stick with moral principles out of duty, regardless of what you feel.”  “Kant said Abraham should have disobeyed God when God told him to sacrifice his son.”  “Our universe is an orderly machine, as Kant said.”  “Kant was so orderly that people set their clocks according to his daily walks.”  “That guy is not sophisticated enough to understand Kant.”  “You don’t understand Kant.”  “It’s pronounced ‘KOnt,’ not ‘KAnt!’”  “I have a philosophy joke: Who was the greatest philosopher?  I Kant remember!  Ha ha.”

I wondered what exactly Kant believed, for so many things that I read and heard about him seemed contradictory.  I have been particularly curious about Kant’s epistemology—-his view about whether or not we are able to understand the outside world and to talk about it accurately—-and also Kant’s stance regarding religion.  Perhaps I could have read his works on reason: I picked up a book that contained some of Kant’s prominent works at a library giveaway a while back.  But many will agree with me that Kant is not easy to read (though I do remember translating a sample from one of his books about reason for a German class, and I did not find the passage particularly difficult to translate).  I thought that, if I read a biography about Kant, maybe I would get to know him better, and the biography would effectively communicate what his philosophy was, within Kant’s historical context.  I went to a library and saw that shelf after shelf was devoted to Kant: there were more books about Kant in that library than there were about David Hume!  I thumbed through various books.  Many of the ones that I looked at had thick prose.  Manfred Kuehn’s Kant: A Biography attracted me, however, for its prose appeared lucid, accessible, and engaging.  The few pages that I looked at while I was perusing it read like other biographies I have read and enjoyed, ones about Nixon and Reagan.  I decided to check the book out.  “Maybe now I will finally understand Kant!,” I thought.

Do I now understand Kant, after having read Kuehn’s book?  Well, I think that I know Kant better as a person.  As far as Kant’s philosophy is concerned, I’m still hazy, and I figure that I need to read more books to get more of a sense of where Kant was coming from.

Kuehn disagrees with many other biographies of Kant.  There are biographies of Kant that depict him as extremely introverted, unsociable, unwilling to engage other scholars in discussion, misogynistic, cold, orderly, stingy, and shut off from the wider world.  Kuehn attempts to account for these portrayals, as he offers evidence that Kant was sociable and engaged other scholars.  While Kant never married and maybe never even had sex, he had female friends, and he did not marry because he never found the right time.  Kant could also be generous, according to Kuehn.  While I would probably identify with Kant more had he been introverted and unsociable—-he would then be another inspiring example to an Aspergian like me—-I could relate to Kant’s struggles to find a foothold within academia, with all of its rivalries and judgments.

Regarding philosophy, Kuehn’s book is useful for those who would like summaries of the various stages of Kant’s thought and works.  I am still hazy about Kant’s thought, however, for a variety of reasons.  For one, Kant changed his mind about things.  Earlier, for example, Kant radically distinguished between what we know empirically and what we know rationally (a priori, prior to experience).  Later on, he appeared to conflate the two.  Second, the way people understood and characterized what Kant was saying was not necessarily how he himself understood what he was saying.  Kant was accused of being an atheist and a dangerous epistemological skeptic, when Kant viewed his project differently.  Third, Kant seemed to me to be all over the map in what he said.  On some things, he seemed to me to contradict himself, and yet there were times when he could hold those apparently contradictory concepts together with some nuance.  I think specifically of his support for the American and French revolutions, even though he wrote against the idea that people can revolt against their government.  Fourth, Kant did not always believe in what he wrote.  While, in his writings, he was rather open to the existence of God and immortality, he personally was very skeptical about these things, according to Kuehn.  My impression is that Kant was interested in religion in terms of its social consequences: its promotion of morality and social well-being.

I think that Kuehn could have explained better what was at stake in many of the philosophical discussions of the day.  Kuehn is effective when he describes the interaction between Kant and other philosophers and the political systems of that time.  But I often felt that I was reading about philosophical discussions and did not fully understand the significance of what I was reading.  In my opinion, Kuehn would have done well to have included a glossary of philosophical terms, such as pre-established harmony and idealism.  Pre-established harmony comes up often in Kuehn’s book.  Kant had a pietist evangelical background, which he did not exactly hate or scorn, and the pietists loathed a prominent philosopher named Christian Wolff because Wolff believed in pre-established harmony, which they took to imply fatalism.  Kant appeared to be open to pre-established harmony, however.  I am not entirely sure what pre-established harmony was, or why the pietists hated that concept so much.  It is associated with Leibniz, who held that our world is the best possible world, so maybe that is relevant to pre-established harmony.  Regarding idealism, my hazy impressions are that it either maintained that all of the world is in the mind of God, or that it is in human minds, but I should do more reading about that.  According to Kuehn, Kant was accused of being an idealist, but Kant believed that he was refuting idealism!

I had moments of lucidity in reading Kuehn’s discussion about Kant’s philosophy.  According to Kuehn, Kant said that we know things by how they appear to us, not according to how they actually are.  That makes a degree of sense to me!  Kant also discussed contradictions within reason.  Kant may not have taken these insights into the realm of complete epistemological skepticism: perhaps Kant was critical in his analysis of reason, not thoroughly skeptical.

There were some aspects of Kant’s thought that I found interesting.  For instance, Kant was critical of looking for a Golden Age (perhaps a supernatural one), for he believed that the evil in this world was somehow necessary in our progress and maturation.

Overall, I could identify with what one thinker quoted in the book said about Kant’s works: it takes thirty years to understand them, and then one has to wait another thirty years before one is qualified to comment on them!

As I said, I will need to read more.  The next book that I will read is the Cambridge Companion to David Hume, and it looks very lucid to me.  The Cambridge Companion series advertises itself as such—-as accessible books that break down complex thoughts for readers.  I notice that there are Cambridge Companion books about the German Idealists, Kant, and the influence of Kant’s thought.  I may read those books in the future—-not immediately, but in the future.

 

 

 

Published in: on April 21, 2014 at 2:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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Book Write-Up: Religion and the Enlightenment

James M. Byrne.  Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

I decided to get this book so that I could read a clear explanation of Immanuel Kant’s epistemology, plus I figured that I could solidify and build on whatever I knew about the Enlightenment.  I found this book, overall, to be rich and lucid.  It has chapters about the history of the Enlightenment, deism, and atheism, and it also profiles the life and thought of Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.  While it has chapters specifically on these figures, it also discusses others in the course of its narration, such as David Hume, Joseph Butler, Isaac Newton, and the list goes on.  This book is about the relationship among science, reason, and the Christian religion during the time of the Enlightenment, as old authorities were being challenged and questioned.  The issues that were discussed included arguments for the existence of God, whether the Bible was an adequate revelation or should instead be replaced by looking at nature for God’s revelation, whether nature was actually good, the question of what moved the elements of nature (i.e., God, consciousness within matter?), epistemology, and the basis for morality.  Byrne went into what people during the Enlightenment thought, as well as critiques of their positions.

While I found my reading of this book to be very informative, there are still areas in which I am confused.  I am puzzled as to how Rousseau could lambaste society in favor of the individual, while at the same time promoting a society that many would consider to be totalitarian.  Moreover, while I learned that Kant was actually attempting to refute David Hume’s epistemological skepticism, I believe that Byrne should have gone into more detail about this: What I got was from the book was that Kant believed that we could interact with phenomena, yet could not know those phenomena in terms of their essence.

The book had humorous moments.  For example, there was one figure who tried to prove the existence of God in so tortuous a manner that someone glibly remarked that nobody doubted God’s existence, until this figure attempted to prove it!

Good book!

Book Write-Up: Hitler’s Cross, by Erwin W. Lutzer

Erwin W. Lutzer.  Hitler’s Cross: How the Cross Was Used to Promote the Nazi Agenda.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for my review copy of this book.  See here for Moody’s page about it.

Lutzer makes a variety of points in this book.  He goes into the many people and beliefs that he believes influenced either Adolf Hitler or the German people who accepted Hitler, including (but not limited to) occultism, paganism, theological liberalism, Hinduism, and anti-Judaism within Christianity.  He profiles Christians who resisted Hitler, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, as well as Germans who helped Jews, in a time when many Germans (even Christians) were idolizing Hitler as the savior of their nation, one who had restored Germany’s pride while improving its economic condition.  While Lutzer maintains that Hitler was demonically-influenced, faults the church for not doing enough to stand against Hitler, and argues against the anti-Jewish idea that the Jews should be blamed for Christ’s crucifixion (Lutzer states that all of humanity is to blame), he still believes that Hitler played some role in God’s plan, as he notes the many times that Hitler dodged literal and figurative bullets as examples of possible divine providence.  Lutzer also holds that there are lessons for today in the historical events that he discusses.  In many cases, these “lessons” reflect a Christian conservative political agenda: Christianity in public school, being against judicial activism, and a pro-life stance on abortion.  But there are times when Lutzer deviates from the priorities of a Christian conservative agenda, as when he mentions compassion for the poor and the need to stand against racism, criticizes the marriage between Christianity and nationalism, and affirms that politics alone is not sufficient to help America.

Not everyone will agree with all of Lutzer’s theological, historical, and political arguments.  I did not, but I still found the book to be worth reading.  Most importantly, the book challenged me spiritually.  Many Germans took the easier, softer way when it came to their response to Hitler, in that they went with the flow or supported Hitler out of their pride as Germans or their desire to preserve their economic security.  As Lutzer argues, such a stance contradicts the cross of Christ, which promotes humility and love rather than pride and hate.  This book can influence us to ask: Are there areas in which we compromise principles in pursuit of an easier, softer, more secure way?

I also appreciated Lutzer’s references to discussions that he has had with people, especially Jews.  That added an element of humanity and thoughtfulness to this book.

In terms of criticisms that I have, I think that Lutzer should have documented more of his claims, and that, in more endnotes, he should have cited not only the secondary source, but also the primary source that the secondary source was quoting.  Still, Lutzer referred to books and authors that one can read if one wants to know more.

Published in: on March 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Book Write-Up: The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America

Valarie H. Ziegler.  The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Valarie Ziegler was my academic adviser when I attended DePauw University, but she actually wrote this book when she was teaching at Rhodes College, before she came to DePauw.  I one time saw her book in her office, and I was asking her what it was about.  She said (as I recall) that it was about pacifist abolitionists in America’s pre-Civil War days, and how a number of them faced a dilemma when the Civil War arrived: Would they continue their policy of opposing war, or would they support a war that had the potential of ending slavery?  I have been wanting to read this book for years, but I either did not have the time to do so, or I simply could not find the book.  The book was not in any nearby libraries, and it was very, very expensive on Amazon.  Well, times have changed!  I found the book at a local library, and the book is more widely available now, and at a good price.  See here for Amazon’s page about it.

The book was excellent, but, if I had a favorite part, it was in the Foreword, which was written by the series’ editors, Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein.  They state that Dr. Ziegler “succeeds by, as it were, getting inside each position and looking at the world from the stance of its presuppositions.”  I found that to be true when I had her as a teacher: that she was good at conveying where theologians were coming from, whether she agreed with them or not.

Did I find that to be so in this book?  Overall, I would say “yes,” for I could understand why people were pacifists.  One person in the book almost killed someone with the belief that he was defending himself, and he concluded that such a policy was not the way to go.  Someone else in the book said that, if a person smites you on the cheek, that shows that the person has problems, and thus you should feel compassion for that person rather than retaliating and possibly sending him to hell by killing him!  But does not non-resistance put one in danger of losing his own life and the lives and well-being of his or her loved ones?  In that case, many pacifists argued, one should trust in God.  Many pacifists did not believe that pacifism was just an individual Christian duty, however, but they held that it should apply to societies as well.  They could point to the disaster that war brought, and they did not feel that war was necessary.  One prominent politician became controversial when he remarked in a speech that the American Revolutionary War was not even necessary, and that America’s disputes with Britain could have been resolved peacefully!

And yet, according to Dr. Ziegler, there were different kinds of pacifists.  Some were against offensive wars, but they were open to defensive wars.  Many were Christians, basing their pacifism on the Sermon on the Mount, but William Lloyd Garrison came to move away a bit from Christianity.  Garrison was no longer satisfied with the idea that God was a war-mongering deity of wrath and violence in the Old Testament but changed into a God of peace in the New Testament, and he became receptive to the idea that the truth of moral values does not depend on whether or not they are a part of Christian revelation, for they are eternal.  Many pacifists came to support the American Civil War as a way to end slavery, an institution that a number of pacifists opposed because it entailed the use of force and violence that went against their pacifism.  Some did not fight in the Civil War themselves but decided to be tolerant of how the non-regenerates went about solving the slavery problem: through war.  Some did not even label the Civil War a war, but considered it to be the state putting down domestic rebellion and keeping order, in accordance with Romans 13.  There were some pacifists who opposed the American Civil War, however.  One view was that the North should simply allow the South to secede, and this would lead to the end of slavery because the North would no longer be dependent on Southern slave labor.  Moreover, there were British pacifists who were criticizing American pacifists for supporting the Civil War.

There were not only different kinds of pacifists, but many of the pacifists themselves could feel conflicted.  They were pacifists, yet they could identify with the slaves who rebelled against their masters, or they rooted for Mexico rather than the U.S. in the war with Mexico, which they believed was unnecessary, and which they feared would expand slavery if the U.S. won.  While there was some attempt on the part of pacifist abolitionists to love and to acknowledge the humanity of slave masters, the masters were deemed to be so vicious and lacking in restraint that there was question of whether they even could be redeemed, or whether peace was indeed enough to redress the problem of slavery.  In addition, Dr. Ziegler argues that the conflicted way in which many pacifist abolitionists approached pacifism may have opened them up to supporting the American Civil War.  On the one hand, they were for non-resistance, period, and they argued that people should follow this path even if it may lead to their harm, as Christ did when he submitted to death.  On the other hand, they contended that pacifism could bring about a just and a peaceful society, meaning that they believed it could be successful in attaining a goal.  What happened, however, when it did not appear that pacifism would lead to a just and peaceful society?  Well, a number of them backtracked a bit from their pacifism, seeing war as a necessary path to peace.

If there was a position in the book that I had a difficult time understanding, it was that of the non-resistants, the more radical among the pacifists.  They tended to be against engagement with government.  They did not take this policy to an absolute, for they did sometimes exhort the government to act a certain way, on the Fugitive Slave Law, for example.  But they were not too keen on running for office, for they thought that the government was evil in its compliance with slavery.  They seemed also to have been rather critical of the nature of government itself, for, while there apparently were indications that they acknowledged Romans 13 and regarded the government as a necessary evil, they still recognized that the state rested on coercion and force, even violence, which went against their pacifism.  Their approach was to try to convert people to Christianity and their way of thinking, in the hope that this would lead to a peaceful society.  And their eschatology played a role in their mindset: they believed that they were in the millennium then, and that Christ had actually returned (in some manner) in the first century.  I admire their integrity, but their approach strikes me as unrealistic and overly optimistic, plus I am unclear as to their view of government: Did they see it as necessary, or not?  (UPDATE: I should also note that, according to Dr. Ziegler, a war in Europe was challenging certain pacifist tenets.  There were pacifists who actually were optimistic that a Christian society could accept pacifism.  For one, a society that is predisposed towards Christianity would be more open to Jesus’ teaching on non-violence.  Second, there was a pacifist belief that most people did not support war, and that war was primarily supported by powers-that-be.  In Christian Europe, however, there was popular support for a particular war, and that influenced some pacifists to re-examine their convictions.)

I am glad that I finally got to read this book!

Published in: on March 6, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

“Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”

We sang a hymn at church this morning that I really liked.  I was restless, irritable, and discontent before we sang this hymn.  I felt, well, offbeat: we would sing hymns, and I did not know where exactly we were, or what verse we were supposed to be singing.  I also did not know the songs or where exactly they were going, in terms of their music.  Add to that my discontent this week about my apparent lack of social skills, of feeling that I never quite say the right thing in social settings.  I was dealing with my bad memories of that.  After singing one particular hymn at church this morning, however, my mood changed for the better.  It was like how Temple Grandin was in the Temple Grandin movie after she used her squeeze machine: she was much more relaxed, at peace, and sociable, calmly asking a classmate if a particular seat were taken.

The hymn that I liked was entitled “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”  The last two verses really stood out to me:

“Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
“Till all our strivings cease;
“Take from our souls the strain and stress,
“And let our ordered lives confess
“The beauty of Thy peace.”

“Breathe through the heats of our desire
“Thy coolness and Thy balm;
“Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
“Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
“O still, small voice of calm!”

Those were the things that I wanted: quietness, peace, order, rest, coolness, calm.  I was a perfectionist, one who was irritable when things were not a certain way, or when people did not interact with me in a particular way.  I wanted for God to breathe through the heats of my desire God’s coolness and balm.

I read more about the hymn on wikipedia, and what the article about it said was interesting.  The hymn that we sang was part of a larger poem, “The Brewing of Soma,” which was written by John Greenleaf Whittier in the nineteenth century.  Whittier was a Quaker, a poet, and an abolitionist.  Whittier College, where Richard Nixon went to college, was named after him.  According to wikipedia, “The Brewing of Soma” essentially contrasts ancient Hindu and a number of Christian attempts to experience the divine with the Quaker way, which Whittier prefers:

The Brewing of Soma is the Whittier poem (1872) from which the hymn is taken. Soma was a sacred ritual drink in Vedic religion, going back to Proto-Indo-Iranian times (ca. 2000 BC), possibly with hallucinogenic properties.  The storyline is of Vedic priests brewing and drinking Soma in an attempt to experience divinity. It describes the whole population getting drunk on Soma. It compares this to some Christians’ use of ‘music, incense, vigils drear, And trance, to bring the skies more near, Or lift men up to heaven!’ But all in vain—it is mere intoxication.  Whittier ends by describing the true method for contact with the divine, as practised by Quakers: Sober lives dedicated to doing God’s will, seeking silence and selflessness in order to hear the “still, small voice” described in I Kings 19:11-13 as the authentic voice of God, rather than earthquake, wind or fire.”

The wikipedia article about Whittier himself said that Nathaniel Hawthorne was quite critical of Whittier’s poetry.  Well, I love The Scarlet Letter, but I happen to really like “The Brewing of Soma”!  I am not a poetry person myself, but the poem speaks to me in terms of what I long for in life.

According to the wikipedia article about the hymn, the hymn is often set to a different tune in Great Britain than in the United States.  Here is the hymn sung to the tune of “Repton,” which is what is usually sung in Great Britain.  And here is what I sang this morning: the hymn played to the tune of “Rest.”  To be honest, I prefer the Repton version: I find it more relaxing.

 

 

 

Published in: on February 23, 2014 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Millard Fillmore and Ringing Bells

I was watching the CBS morning show before leaving for church yesterday.  You know, the show that Charles Kuralt used to host.  Does that name (Charles Kuralt) ring any bells?  Anyway, there was a segment about President Millard Fillmore, since today is President’s Day.  Different people shared their assessments of Fillmore.  One lady was defending him against detractors who criticize his signing of the Fugitive Slave Law, arguing that President Fillmore signed the Compromise of 1850, of which the Fugitive Slave Law was a small part.  Another guy was lambasting Fillmore, calling him anti-Catholic, anti-black, and the list went on.  There seemed to be a common admiration for one thing that Fillmore accomplished, however, and this admiration appeared to be shared even by his harshest critic: Fillmore lowered the price of the postage stamp!

On a side note, wasn’t the high school on Head of the Class named after Millard Fillmore?  Does that show ring any bells?

Two Nations 1

I started Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.  I have the 1995 version, which includes reflections about the O.J. Simpson verdict.  An African-American friend a long time ago recommended this book to me to show me that racism is a problem in the United States.

In this post, I would like to use as my starting-point something that Hacker says on pages 45-46:

“At this point, it can be said that few teachers attempt to explain how the human beings consigned to slavery shaped the structure and sensibilities of the new nation.  Apart from brief allusions to a Sojourner Truth or a Benjamin Banneker, your people appear as passive victims and faceless individuals.”

I don’t consider myself to be a racist.  I know plenty of African-Americans who are not just equal to me, but are superior to me, especially in intellect.  But I have to admit that the way that the race issue was presented to me over the years gave me some racist sentiments, at least somewhere in my mind.  And I am not just talking about the narratives that I heard from white conservatives; I blame liberal narratives for this, too.

When I was in school learning American history as a child and a teenager, I heard about slavery, racial discrimination, and segregation.  My teachers taught me that those things are wrong.  The thing is, though, the image that I was continually getting of black people was that they were victims.  “Oh, those poor black people, always being treated so badly,” I thought.  When I watched Roots, I saw these advanced white Europeans coming to primitive Africa and capturing Africans to sell them as slaves.  Now, granted, the African culture was not depicted badly, per se: the Africans on this miniseries valued community, tradition, wisdom, and heroism.  But they were not as technologically advanced as the white Europeans who captured them.  If one is a victim, does that make one inferior?  I don’t think that I ever verbalized that idea, even in my mind, but it was somewhere in there.

I think that there are Afro-centric scholars who try to compensate for this by arguing that there was a time when black Africans were advanced, when they were warriors.  I vaguely recall this idea being expressed in the movie, Malcolm X: an African-American named Baines tells Malcolm that blacks were a race of kings, while white Europeans were still swinging off trees.  To be honest, I do not know enough to evaluate this claim.  I am aware of scholars who question the arguments in Black Athena, and I one time heard a professor in Egyptology question the notion that Egyptians were black, as she referred to Egyptian pictures of blacks that she found to be rather racist.  But that is the extent of my knowledge.  The friend who recommended to me Hacker’s book referred to statues of blacks that indicated to him that blacks sailed the world way back when, but I do not know the specifics of that.  (UPDATE: On page 178, Hacker refers to a sample lesson, and he sums up its message as: “The fact that some Pre-Columbian statutes have what could be seen as Negroid features strengthens the supposition that it was Africans who first sailed across the Atlantic to America.”)

Were the Israelites inferior to the Egyptians when the Egyptians enslaved them?  Well, the Egyptians were certainly more advanced at that time, since they had been around longer as a nation; they had time to develop, when the Israelites were just getting started and were focusing on herding their flocks.  (I’m just assuming the historicity of the Exodus here, but I realize that there are plenty of reasons to question that.)  I suppose that is one key: that it’s not a matter of one nation or race being superior to another, but some have managed to develop earlier than others.  When the developed ones go into not-so-developed countries (or even developed ones) and manage to stomp out whatever chance these countries have to improve themselves or to support themselves, then that is a problem.  It’s not the case that the Babylonians were racially superior to the Israelites when they took them over, but it’s a fact of life that some countries manage to advance above other countries: maybe it’s because they have been around longer and have become firmly established, and they take advantage of their head start so they can stay in the lead.

Perhaps I should be looking at the question of why countries rise and fall—-how some get to the point where they are able to conquer another country. 

Anyway, please do not take offense at my remarks.  They come from my ignorance, not from any hostility on my part.  One factor that I believe is holding back progress on race relations is political correctness: that people cannot express what they think for fear of being attacked.  Hacker seems to discuss this phenomenon in this book.

Reflections on My Year (or More) of Nixon

Sometime in 2012, I got in the mail a book that I had ordered off of Amazon for a cheap price: Irwin Gellman’s The Contender, which was primarily about Richard Nixon’s years in Congress (both the House and the Senate).  I had seen the book years earlier at one of Columbia University’s libraries (I had library privileges there as a Jewish Theological Seminary student), and it intrigued me.  The book came across to me as a defense of Richard Nixon against detractors who claimed that Nixon ruthlessly and unfairly exploited anti-Communism to advance himself politically.  One of the book’s arguments was that Nixon was actually a level-headed voice of sanity on the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

When I received Gellman’s book in 2012, I had a thought: I knew that the centennial for Richard Nixon’s birthday was coming up—-for Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, and it would soon be January 9, 2013.  How about if I read Gellman’s book during the month of January?  But then I thought some more.  Richard Nixon had long intrigued me, for he was socially-awkward, introverted, resentful, and yet rather hard working, like me.  He had a kind side, and also there were liberals and conservatives who were claiming that he was politically progressive in areas, and that was of interest to me.  I had long noticed Stephen Ambrose’s trilogy about Nixon in libraries and I had wanted to read it, yet I did not feel that I had the time or the discipline for such a task.  But what if I were to devote an entire year, or even more, to reading about Richard Nixon?  Instead of just blogging about Gellman’s book in January 2013, perhaps I could devote all of 2013 to reading books by and about Nixon!

I had reservations.  For one, I feared that I would become bored with the topic.  Wouldn’t I be reading the same stories over and over, which would get old after a while?  Second, I feared that my blog stats would plummet because my readers would become bored with the topic, and potential readers would not read my blogs because they would see that I write primarily about Nixon.

But I decided to go ahead with the project.  On my fear of boredom, I reminded myself that I would read thirty pages of a Nixon book a day: I could handle that, even if I became bored.  On my fear of my blog stats plummeting, there was a part of me that said “So be it.”  I felt that I had to do this project for me, even if nobody else appreciated what I was doing.  If I could not blog about my own interests, then what was the point of me blogging?  But another part of me hoped that my posts on other topics would allow my stats to remain as high as they were, or to increase.

I went into the project with a list of books that I wanted to read.  Many of them, I read.  Some of them, I did not.  And there were books that I read that were not on that initial list.  My plan was to read Gellman’s book, the Ambrose trilogy, Monica Crowley’s books about her time working for Nixon, Richard Reeves’ book about Nixon, a psychological profile of Nixon that I saw at a Harvard library years before, all of the books that Nixon wrote, Theodore White’s books about the Presidential races in which Nixon ran, and others.  I read most of these.  I never got to Theodore White’s books, however, but I’ll probably read them during the next Presidential election (in 2016).  As I read Gellman’s response to Roger Morris’ book, and I noticed that I could get Morris’ book off Amazon for a cheap price, I decided to read Morris for My Year (or More) of Nixon.  I also added other books to the list in the course of the year.

I am proud of myself for sticking with this project.  I also think that most of my blog posts for it were good.  The project did not result in a drop in my blog stats.  On my blogger blog, my Nixon posts got the same amount of views that my other posts usually got.  (My hunch is, though, that the 200-plus views for one of my posts on Gary Allen’s Richard Nixon: The Man Behind the Mask was largely due to spam or robotics!)  On my WordPress blog, my stats actually increased in 2013, but that was not due to my Nixon posts: I had a lot of views of posts that I had written in the previous years, or of non-Nixon posts that I had written.  But at least My Year (or More) of Nixon did not hurt my WordPress stats!

I think that I wrote a lot of good posts about life and social skills as a result of My Year (or More) of Nixon, but many might not read them because they don’t have a catchy title.  I titled my Nixon posts in reference to whatever book I was reading (i.e., “Six Crises 3), and that does not exactly catch readers!  I thought that a number of my posts were rather antiquarian, in that they discussed historical situations that many may think are not particularly relevant today.  I can understand why those posts would not attract people, but my hunch is that some of them eventually will.  I won’t be surprised if someone who is interested in learning the nuances of the Alger Hiss case will find my blog after doing a Google search!

Interestingly, I can’t say that I became thoroughly bored in doing this project, for I did it for a year, and there was enough material in the books that engaged me enough for me to write blog posts.  There were stories that crept up in most of the books that I read, but each book had a story or a take that was unique.  Still, I have to admit that I am itching to move on to another project!  I decided to end My Year (or More) of Nixon today because there are books that I want to read for Black History Month, which is in February 2014.

What was my favorite book about Nixon?  To be honest, I think that it would be Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.    It was far from being the best book about Nixon that I read, for there were other books that I found far more informative.  I was initially hesitant to read Black’s book because it seemed to me to rely largely on secondary sources, a number of which I had already read.  But I have pleasant memories of Black’s book, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I loved the scene where Richard Nixon’s father was driving Richard and some of his schoolmates, and Black was talking about the improvements around them on this road-trip that were due to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Second, I liked Black’s analysis of issues and his suggestions of what Nixon and others should have done.  Granted, Black did come across to me as somewhat of a know-it-all in these discussions, but I still liked them.

Irwin Gellman’s The Contender has a warm place in my heart because it inspired this project and was the book that introduced me to prominent aspects of Richard Nixon’s life—-the controversy surrounding Nixon’s activity at the 1952 Republican National Convention, for example.  But, as I read books after Gellman, my conclusion was that he did not say much that was particularly new, that others (I think of Jonathan Aitken) had defended Nixon better than he did, that some of his arguments were not that good, that his representations of the other side sometimes amounted to being strawmen (for example, the biographers Gellman criticizes acknowledge that Helen Gahagan Douglas lost the 1950 Senate race not only on account of Nixon’s attacks of her), and that the authors Gellman criticized themselves presented a fairly decent case.

There were books that I liked, but my liking them had little to do with what they said about Nixon.  For example, Fawn Brodie had some interesting things to say about Nixon’s lying or embellishments of the truth early on in her book, but what she had to say about Nixon got pretty boring as the book proceeded.  But I was fascinated as she told the story about the Kennedys and how Joseph Kennedy had to struggle to become accepted in the United States on account of his Irish and Catholic heritage.  Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland told many of the same stories about Nixon that I had read elsewhere, but it had a number of interesting stories about other political figures, and it, more than any other book I had read, effectively told the story of the political developments and turmoil of the 1960′s-1970′s.

Did I learn more about Nixon as a result of this project?  Well, I learned a number of facts that I did not know before, but I can’t say that my conceptualization of the man is all that different from how it was before the project.  I will say that I am more familiar now with the arguments of those who do not feel that Nixon was overly progressive, with the view that Nixon was a calculating politician rather than a principled leader.

All of that said, I am glad that I did this project, and I hope that some of you got something out of it, or will get something out of it if you stumble upon my posts in the future.

Published in: on January 31, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (3)  

Nixonland 12

I finished Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland.  In this post, I will discuss three items from the book.  In my post tomorrow, I will offer an overall reflection about My Year (or More) of Nixon.

1.  On pages 343-344, Perlstein tells an inspiring story about Edmund Muskie, who ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1968 and 1972.

Muskie in 1968 was speaking before a crowd in Pennsylvania, and some long-haired college students were trying to disrupt his speech with chants to end the Vietnam War.  Such disruptions occurred at the speeches of other candidates, too, such as Vice-President and Democratic Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.  Rather than attempting to outshout the demonstrators, Muskie pursued another approach: he would allow the demonstrators to pick a spokesperson who would speak for ten minutes, on the condition that the demonstrators would listen to what Muskie had to say afterwards.  The demonstrators picked a spokesman, a nervous college kid, who would learn what it was like to try to speak when people were heckling!  But the spokesman’s essential message was that people should not vote in the Presidential election, for candidates George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Hubert Humphrey were “no answer” (his words).

Muskie then spoke.  Perlstein states: “He reviewed his modest upbringing.  He described what the price of political apathy had been for the poor Maine region he came from: the special interests ran things and made the people poorer.  But once the people became engaged and started electing Democrats, things started getting better.”  Both hippie students and George Wallace supporters liked Muskie’s speech, and they began mingling with one another.  The Washington Post said that this event was “one of the spectacular performances of the 1968 political campaign” (its words).

I like this story for three reasons.  First, the sentimentalist in me appreciates the themes of different people coming together and listening to what each other has to say.  Second, the story makes me think about the issue of participation in the political process.  Is government too corrupt to be reformed, or should people at least try to reform it?  I’m not for utter naivety about the political system and the politicians within it, but I also don’t believe that sitting out of the political system is the way to make a difference.  When we participate, the politicians are more accountable to us than if we do not participate.  Third, the story came to my mind as I read other parts of Perlstein’s book, which discussed what happened when a number of New Left activists started to participate in the political process rather than shouting at it from the outside.  Nixon encouraged this in supporting the extension of voting rights to eighteen-year-olds, out of the alleged hope that this would divide the Democratic Party.  And it did, as young New Left activists were at odds with Democratic power-brokers and machines.

That makes me wonder: Do I prefer governance by mainstream politicians, or by outside-of-the-mainstream people?  My hope is that outside-of-the-mainstream people can challenge the powers-that-be and bring about reforms that previously were not even on the table.  The thing is, though, that the Tea Partiers were outside-of-the-mainstream, and their contribution was bringing the government to a screeching halt just because they were not getting their own way.  Standard, mainstream powers-that-be don’t act that way!  Maybe I would prefer the outside-of-the-mainstream left over the outside-of-the-mainstream right, but then I wonder if they themselves would stir the pot in disastrous directions!  Should I stick with establishment politicians and all of the problems that accompany them?  Is the devil you know better than the devil you don’t know?

2.  On page 660, Perlstein narrates the following about Arthur Bremer, the man who shot George Wallace:

“Bremer was an unemployed busboy whose only extended conversation with another friendly human in months was with a girl in a massage parlor whom he was disappointed to learn wasn’t a prostitute.  He had a plan, however, to get noticed: he would shoot the president of the United States and go down in a blaze of glory.”

Charles Colson of the Nixon Administration would try to portray Bremer as a leftist, but Perlstein was saying that the truth was different: Bremer was a lonely man who wanted attention.

This passage made me think about how many friendly extended conversations I have had with people.  I have often felt my share of loneliness and disconnection with others, but I cannot say that I was totally alone for any extended period of time.  I would go to church or support groups, or I would talk with people online, or I could talk with my family.  Imagine not having anybody.  That very thought scares me.

3.  On page 740, Perlstein quotes 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern saying: “We don’t have John Connally with us.  He’s with his rich oil-baron friends.  But we don’t need John Connally and the oil barons.  We’d rather have the oil workers.”

This passage stood out to me because it showed McGovern playing the anti-elitism card.  The point of Perlstein’s book, however, is that Nixon was a politician who often played the anti-elitism card: he appealed to the white middle class, many of whom felt alienated from the establishment and the educated elites.  The thing is, though, many have argued that Nixon himself was entrenched with elites, particularly big business.  Democrats have frequently made this charge about Republicans—-that Democrats are the party of the little guy, whereas Republicans are for the rich and well-to-do.  I guess that both sides play the anti-elitism card, because both sides have their share of elites, and thus one side can attack the elites of the other side.

Published in: on January 30, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments Off  

Nixonland 11

On pages 739-740 of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein tells the following story about George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate:

“‘In a recent month,’ McGovern intoned in a radio ad, ‘a quarter of the wounded civilians in South Vietnam were children under twelve.  As we vote November seventh, let us think of Tanya and all the other defenseless children of the world.’  The candidate was howling, howling into the wilderness.  If he was going to lose, he would lose his way.”

Tanya was a twelve-year-old girl whom Richard Nixon mentioned in his 1972 acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention.  She lost her family in World War II, and Nixon exhorted, “Let us think of Tanya and the other Tanyas and their brothers and sisters everywhere—-in Russia, in China, in America, as we proudly meet our responsibilities for leadership in the world in a way worthy of a great people.”  McGovern was turning Nixon’s reference to Tanya on its head: Sure, lets think of Tanya and people like her, but let us remember that defenseless people like her are being wounded due to the war in Vietnam.

I like what Perlstein says on pages 739-740 because it is about transforming a loss into an opportunity.  If McGovern was going down, he was going to go down making an important statement.  Granted, people were seeing him as a cliche of himself.  He himself was much more moderate than many believed him to be: he wasn’t in favor of drug legalization, abortion-on-demand, or many of the radical or controversial groups at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, but many people thought that he was, one reason being that a number of his prominent supporters had those stances.  When McGovern tried to explain that he wasn’t for putting half of the country on welfare whether the recipients wanted to work or not, but instead wanted for everyone to have a job, many did not believe him.  They thought he was flip-flopping.  McGovern was on the defensive and was trying to explain himself, and, as someone Perlstein mentions in the book asserted, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.  (Well, not always: there was Nixon’s Checkers Speech, and Arnold Vinick’s exhaustive response to reporters’ questions at the nuclear power plant on The West Wing!)

Maybe McGovern had been caricatured and his loss was certain.  But he was still going to make a clear statement.  He was still going to call out evil when he saw it.  He would appeal to people’s moral sensitivity.

Published in: on January 29, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (2)  
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