Book Review: Ayn Rand’s ” Ïdeal”


August 12, 2015

Review: Ayn Rand’s ‘Ideal’ Presents a Protagonist Familiar in Her Superiority

Paul Krugman on Thomas Piketty’s Capital


August 7, 2015

BOOK REVIEW

Paul Krugman on Thomas Piketty’s Capital

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/03/books/review-the-economics-of-inequality-by-thomas-piketty.html?ref=books&_r=0

Back in 2001 two French economists, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, circulated a seminal research paper (formally published two years later) titled “Income inequality in the United States, 1913-1998.” They used data from income tax receipts to do two things that you can’t do with standard data on the distribution of income, which come from household surveys. First, they gave us a portrait of the economic stratosphere — the incomes of the now-famous 1 percent. Second, they gave us historical depth, reaching all the way back to the late Gilded Age.

T Piketty2

Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha


July 17, 2015

Din Merican at his UC OfficeNote: I have read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha a few years ago and re-read it last week. It is a fascinating philosophical novel of a young Brahmin who sought enlightenment. I was attracted by this statement which was attributed to Siddhartha.  It reads :Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it — Din Merican

Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

by Abhay Joshi of Pune

http://punejournalofphilosophy.com/?p=123

Hesse's SiddharthaA beautiful philosophical novel by a Nobel Prize winner. It’s a story of a young Indian Brahmin’s pursuit of enlightenment. The setting is the time period of Gautama Buddha. The story is rich with philosophy, but the language is so lyrical and the narration so vivid that it is difficult to separate the poetry and the deep philosophy. One flows with the story as if flowing with a peaceful river. The author seems to conclude that no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give you the real sense of peace or happiness unless it is enlivened by real first-hand experience.

Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy, is brought up in a devout and learned family, but he is restless and full of doubt about the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. So he leaves home and spends time with the ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”. A long time passes in the world of birds and flowers, sensuous pleasures and pains, and money and vices.

Initially, Siddhartha participates in ordinary people’s activities as if they were just games, and views ordinary people as children and laughs at their childish intensity in their material obsessions. He is able at will to return to the inward mental sanctuary of Siddhartha the ascetic and not be bothered by anything for too long. But sure enough he soon gets drawn into the whirlpool of Sansara and all but forgets his real pursuit. Eventually though, a bad dream awakens him and he returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered.

He is saved from suicidal thoughts, and then he becomes the assistant of a wise old ferryman who has learnt the art of listening to the river and learning life’s secrets. Here, finally, Siddhartha achieves peace (although there is a brief period of torment when he experiences what it is to be a father).

He realizes that life is like a river – timeless, present everywhere at the same time, with no past and present, and when one conquers the unreality of time, one is happy and at peace. He realizes that the wisdom is in accepting things as they are.

The story is presented in a poetic and rhythmic language. A few examples:

Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun’s melting rays.

His worthy father and … the wise Brahmins had already poured … their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.

The Buddha went quietly on his way, … his face and his step … spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continual quiet, an unfading light, an invulnerable peace.

Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha’s soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it to sleep.

He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky-blue reflected in them.

As time passed and the boy remained unfriendly and sulky, when he proved arrogant and defiant, when he would do no work, when he showed no respect to the old people and robbed Vasudeva’s fruit trees, Siddhartha began to realize that no happiness and peace had come to him with his son, only sorrow and trouble.

And here are some of the philosophical gems:

One can beg, buy, be presented with and find love in the streets, but it can never be stolen.

Gradually his face assumed the expressions which are so often found among rich people – the expressions of discontent, of sickliness, of displeasure, of idleness, of lovelessness.

When someone is seeking, he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he has a goal, he is obsessed with his goal.

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it.

There shone in Siddhartha’s face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

Everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. Through my body and soul … I learned to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.

PJOP: What can we, as ordinary men and women of the material world, take away from Siddhartha?

As a man of the real world, perfectly stuck in its vagaries and uncertainties, I found the section of the book that dwells on Siddhartha’s own participation in Sansara very helpful. He views every transaction as a game played by little children. He is not emotionally invested in the outcome of these games. He gambles with abandon – with amounts that astonish his more earthly mates. He treats his business partners – whether they are customers or vendors – as humans, and not as means of profit-making. He is as happy to win one big deal, as to lose another. There is a little episode narrated in the book of Siddhartha going to a distant marketplace ostentatiously to make money, but returns with empty hands. But, he had great fun, he says, with all those wonderful villagers feasting him, dancing with him, and what not. His logic is that these wonderful people would certainly help him make money in the future.

This detachment of Siddhartha from the fruits of his deeds is not a new idea – it’s one of the central tenets described in Gita. But, through the real-life examples the book provides it appeals even more and appears to be something that is not impossible to practice.

Siddhartha’s encounter with Gautama, the enlightened, is a must-read for those of us who I think mistakenly look for readymade recipes for everything. Listening to the great Gautama, whose fame is far and wide in alleviating the spiritual pain of millions, it is astonishing that Siddhartha comes away as a skeptic of Gautama’s cookbook for eternal happiness. Of course, it is not a comment specifically on Gautama’s ideas. Rather it is the realization that dawns on Siddhartha that he was not going to benefit from any doctrine, not even one as great and effective as Gautama’s. The author has timed this realization, wonderfully I think, during the encounter with Gautama, since the counterbalance to this sad realization is Siddhartha’s joy for finally getting to observe someone in flesh and blood who epitomized enlightenment. He is endlessly happy that he now knew what he was aspiring for all along. He wanted to be like Gautama – one whose limbs exhibited the perfect balance, one who walked in perfect peace, and one whose eyes emitted perfect happiness.

Hermann Hesse

Finally, this book is a feast for the literary aesthete. It is written in a lyrical fashion, and the story flows beautifully like the smoothly rolling river which is the central philosophical metaphor used towards the end of the book. It is interesting that many philosophical books have been written using the lyrical format. Gita is a great example, and so is the Marathi commentary on Gita by Sant Dnyaneshwar. Also Shankaracharya (aka Sankara) wrote couplets whenever he had spiritual inspirations. Looking at this philosopher-poet duality, it may be safe to conclude that philosophy is not the dry subject that many call it!

I think “Siddhartha” is really a journey of a seeker, and the most significant takeaway from this book is probably that there is no “one” path; everyone must undertake a similar journey of discovery of the ultimate truth. Siddhartha’s interaction with Gautama, the enlightened, beautifully portrays this message. Siddhartha is impressed with Gautama himself – by his serenity and his whole persona – and knows instantly that that is the state he wants to achieve himself. At the same time, Siddhartha has the intelligence to realize that Gautama’s teaching may not be the path leading to that state, and he, Siddhartha, must himself continue his quest. But, at least now he knows what he had been looking for all along. He now has a clear-cut goal personified in front of him in the shape of Gautama.

Siddhartha’s companion and friend, Govinda, travels with Siddhartha almost all throughout the journey, until they meet Gautama. At that point, Govinda decides for himself that he had reached his destination; he had found a home for his soul – the Sangha of Gautama’s disciples. And, so, Govinda separates from his lifelong friend and allows him to continue his journey.

Great works like the Bhagavad Geeta are clearly the result of accumulation of experiences of thousands of seekers – rishis and yogis – who explored different ways to enlightenment. Gita is a tome of this accumulated knowledge. Krishna, while answering Arjuna’s questions, suggests and expounds so many different means of reaching Him. And he informs Arjuna that there is no “recommended” or “preferred” way; one should follow a path that suits his/her temperament and liking.

It does not appear to me that there is any conflict between ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Gita’ so far as this specific “truth” is concerned. Gita also believes in the timelessness of life, the unity of things, and that life flows endlessly like a river.

PJOP: What is the extent to which Siddhartha follows a typical path in his pursuit of self-knowledge. I mean he is the student, the employee, the family man, the ascetic as he progresses through life—is this supposed to be a typical path?

One of the fascinating aspects of Siddhartha’s story is that he does not follow the typical path an average person goes through in the pursuit of spiritual peace. The average person usually starts out in the material world and goes through a prolonged Sansara (family life). (S)He may then realize the need for spiritual study and enlightenment for him/her-self. At that point, (s)he has a variety of paths available to choose from, and so forth.

Siddhartha chalks out a different sequence in his life. He is brought up in a devout and learned family, which indulges in the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. Dissatisfied with this lifestyle, he leaves home and spends time with the forest ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route also does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets up with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes then that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”.

Thus, Siddhartha enters the stage of “Sansara” much later in life – after spending considerable amount of time in spiritual pursuits. In fact, he decides to experience Sansara only to try it out as another means of finding the ultimate truth, and not as an inevitable step in life like other ordinary people. Therefore, his responses to the worldly events are also very unlike the ordinary people’s. This part of “Siddhartha” is one of the most fascinating sections to read.

Only after spending an extended period of time in Sansara, and after realizing that it was all like a long bad dream, he awakens from it and returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered. There he continues his pursuit of the ultimate truth.

Note: You can contact Abhay Joshi at abjoshi@yahoo.com.

NY Times Book Review


July 11, 2015

In ‘Between the World and Me,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers a Searing Dispatch to His Son

I love America the way I love my family — I was born into it. And there’s no escape out of it. But no definition of family that I’ve ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate , never speaking directly. On the contrary, that’s the very definition in my house, and the house that I grew up in, of what family is.–Ta-Nehisi Coates in an Interview

by Michiko Kakutani@www.nytimes.com

Inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic “The Fire Next Time,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, “Between the World and Me,” is a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today. It takes the form of a letter from Mr. Coates to his 14-year-old son, Samori, and speaks of the perils of living in a country where unarmed black men and boys — Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter L. Scott, Freddie Gray — are dying at the hands of police officers, an America where just last month nine black worshipers were shot and killed in a Charleston, S.C., church by a young white man with apparent links to white supremacist groups online.

Mr. Coates’s expressionistic book is a sequel of sorts and a bookend to “The Beautiful Struggle,” his evocative 2008 memoir of growing up in Baltimore, the son of a Vietnam vet and former Black Panther — as compelling a portrait of a father-son relationship as Martin Amis’s “Experience” or Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Duke of Deception,” and a showcase for Mr. Coates’s emotional reach as a writer and his both lyric and gritty prose.

“Between the World and Me” (which takes its title from a Richard Wright poem) offers an abbreviated portrait of the author’s life at home, focusing mainly on the fear he felt growing up. Fear of the police, who he tells his son “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” and who also possess a dominion of prerogatives that include “friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.” And fear of the streets where members of crews — “young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage” — might “break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies,” where death might “billow up like fog” on an ordinary afternoon.

Between Me and The WorldThe “need to be always on guard” was exhausting, “the slow siphoning of essence,” Mr. Coates writes. He “feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give police a reason.”

Mr. Coates — a national correspondent for The Atlantic — contrasts this world of the streets with the “other world” of suburbia, “organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.” He associates this clichéd suburban idyll with what he calls “the Dream” — not the American dream of opportunity and a better life for one’s children; not Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of freedom and equality (which the Reverend King observed was “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”), but instead, in Mr. Coates’s somewhat confusing use of the term, an exclusionary white dream rooted in a history of subjugation and privilege.

Those Dreamers, he contends, “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.”

There is a Manichaean tone to some of the passages in this book, and at times, a hazardous tendency to generalize. After Sept. 11, he writes that he could “see no difference between the officer” who had gunned down his Howard University schoolmate Prince Jones a year earlier — firing 16 shots at the unarmed young man, who was on his way to visit his fiancée — and the police and firefighters who lost their own lives in the terrorist attacks: “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”

This startling passage seems meant not to convey a contempt for the first responders on Sept. 11, but to underscore the depth of Mr. Coates’s emotion over the loss of his friend and his anger at police killings of unarmed black men — killings that represent to him larger historical forces at work in American society, in which black men and women were enslaved, their families and bodies broken, and in which terrible inequities continue to exist. Yet it could be easily taken out of context, and it distracts attention from Mr. Coates’s profoundly moving account of Prince Jones’s brief life, and the grief of his mother, a woman who had worked her way up from the “raw poverty of her youth” to become an eminent doctor, trying to provide her children with comfortable — and most of all, safe — lives, which, in Prince’s case, would be cavalierly taken away one night by a police officer later found guilty of negligence and excessive force.

Sometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that “you and I” belong to “that ‘below’ ” in the racial hierarchy of American society: “That was true in 1776. It is true today.” He writes that “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.

He points out that his son has expectations, hopes — “your dreams, if you will” — that he did not have at his age, and that he, himself, does not know “what it means to grow up with a black president, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural hair.”

“The grandness of the world,” he tells Samori, sounding a more optimistic note, “the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you.”

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/books/review-in-between-the-world-and-me-ta-nehisi-coates-delivers-a-desperate-dispatch-to-his-son.html?ref=books&_r=0

A version of this review appears in print on July 10, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Father’s Desperate Dispatch to a Son

Book Review: More on Richard M. Nixon


July 2, 2015

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/books/review/being-nixon-and-one-man-against-the-world.html?ref=books

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President Richard M. Nixon–America’s Most Tortured President

In May, to start the final broadcast of David Letterman’s late-night show, a dimly familiar yellow-tinged 1970s video began to play. “My fellow Americans,” Gerald Ford intoned, “our long national nightmare is over.” In specially recorded messages, Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama then recited the famous line, which Ford had first spoken just after the disgraced Richard Nixon left the White House, the only president ever to resign. No one in the Letterman bit mentioned Nixon’s name, but his specter — as it so often does in our political culture — hovered over the whole thing.

Being NixonHard though it may be to recall, for a time during the 1990s Richard Nixon seemed bound for rehabilitation. He had spent his last years romancing the pundit class, fashioning an image as a sage. Historians, digging into his administration’s domestic record, developed a ­man-bites-dog story line that pronounced him a Great Society liberal. And as the flood of Watergate memoirs dried up, kooky conspiracy theories flourished, some exonerating Tricky Dick from a key part in the 1972 burglary and cover-up that brought him down.

Now we’ve come full circle. The release of White House tapes and documents since Nixon’s death in 1994 has rendered the pro-Nixon historiography of yesteryear a musty artifact. Washington ­pseudoscandals have come and gone, clarifying anew how breathtaking Watergate was. And this summer brings two major new Nixon books — Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon” and Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” — neither of which offers much that’s novel but which together reaffirm the old (and new) consensus. These well-researched efforts remind us, fundamentally, that Nixon himself led the criminal conspiracy at the heart of his presidency, the revelation of which forever tarnished the White House in the public mind.

Both authors are highly accomplished journalists. Weiner, a former New York Times national security reporter, is decidedly hostile to Nixon, structuring his account of the presidency around a litany of transgressions related to Watergate and the Vietnam War. Thomas, a prolific author and veteran Newsweek editor, aims for a more fully rounded portrait, carefully pairing each indictment of Nixon with a mitigating perspective or flattering ­counterexample. Weiner makes more fruitful use of primary sources, while Thomas has a surer command of the secondary literature. Whether you prefer the edgier Weiner or the judicious Thomas may depend on whether you like your political history fizzy or still, spicy or mild, extra crispy or original recipe.

Dozens of splendid works on Nixon already exist, of course. My short list would include Garry Wills’s “Nixon Agonistes,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “The Final Days” and Stanley I. Kutler’s “The Wars of Watergate” (all still in print). Yet there remains no authoritative cradle-to-grave biography. Stephen E. Ambrose banged out a solid, breezily written trilogy, but his wanton acts of plagiarism and the posthumous revelation that he fabricated interviews with Dwight Eisenhower have rendered his work unusable. Tom Wicker and Herbert S. Parmet each tried to fill the Nixon biography void, but they produced gargantuan tomes without touching key parts of his presidency. Roger Morris wrote a magisterial, if slightly conspiratorial, first installment of a planned multivolume work, but its thousand-plus pages reached only to the end of 1952. The other volumes never appeared.

Thomas’s “Being Nixon” aspires to be the go-to one-volume life. The author guides us from Nixon’s boyhood and eventful early career through the war-making, peace-making and policy-making of his presidency, to his post-resignation comeback bid. But it’s no knock on Thomas’s storytelling powers to conclude, on finishing his study, that a satisfying one-volume biography probably just can’t be written. The sheer yardage that one has to traverse simply defies easy narration.

Thomas has a fine eye for the telling quote and the funny vignette, and his style is eminently readable. But for much of the book he pin balls from one topic to the next. A quick take on school desegregation dissolves into a riff on Nixon’s taste in movies and then it’s off to Cambodia. The insistence on tackling so much material also precludes the sort of fine-grained analysis — whether of politics or policy or personality — that a porterhouse steak of a biography like this implicitly promises.

Fathoming the murky psychological depths of our most tortured president also presents a challenge. To his credit, Thomas treats Nixon as a human being, not a cartoon. Always on the lookout for the good deed or the sympathetic angle, he stresses not the familiar hatreds and well-known vindictiveness but Nixon’s shyness, his devotion to family, his sentimentality: “Being Nixon” opens with a meditation on Nixon’s love of the movie “Around the World in 80 Days,” and he is later shown listening happily to recordings of “Carousel” and “The King and I.

Empathy is admirable and even necessary in a historian, but Thomas’s fulsome charity obscures the rage, paranoia and chilling amorality that propelled Nixon to the peak of power and brought on the Watergate nightmare. In some places Thomas relies uncritically on dubious sources, like a 1993 Nixon hagiography by the conservative British politician Jonathan Aitken. At other times, his ­evenhandedness yields misleading understatement and ludicrous litotes. “Nixon was not completely free of prejudice,” he writes of this racist, anti-Semitic churl. “Favoring hush money over full disclosure was a moral lapse,” another sentence begins. He starts the book’s last paragraph, “Nixon was no saint,” before ending with the claim that Nixon tried “to dare to be brave, to see, often though sadly not always, the light in the dark.”

This peroration is unpersuasive, not least because Thomas himself show­cases so many scenes of Nixon rolling up his sleeves to break the law. “Being Nixon” doesn’t neglect the notorious train of abuses — from Henry Kissinger’s illegal wiretaps to the “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the Watergate special prosecutor — that amounted to the worst constitutional crisis of the century. On the contrary, Thomas’s account gets exciting precisely when it hits Watergate and the obligatory discussions of wage and price controls and the office of consumer affairs recede. His gentle judgments thus ring false.

If “Being Nixon” struggles to encompass Nixon’s whole life, “One Man Against the World” zeros in on the Vietnam War and Watergate, with other Cold War dramas — China, détente, Chile, the Yom Kippur War — also getting attention. This focused approach avoids the pitfalls of sprawl. Weiner’s barrage of information, however, devolves into a charmless inventory. Intent on reeling off facts, he provides little scene setting, few character sketches and a dearth of political or historical context. And where Thomas suffers from a surfeit of empathy, Weiner displays too little.

Weiner’s staccato typewriter prose, with its one-sentence paragraphs and bullet judgments, also contrasts with Thomas’s inoffensive, glossy lyricism. On whether Nixon should be considered a liberal, for example, Thomas writes (correctly, in my view): “He was not, but he was a crafty activist who loved to outflank and confound his foes.” He then dilates dutifully on such topics as the environment and welfare reform. Nixon’s onetime assistant budget chief, James Schlesinger, is quoted saying that the president even reviewed the details of fiscal policy.

Weiner, on the other hand, states emphatically that Nixon “cared little about domestic affairs: least ofNixon One Man Against the World all housing, health, education, welfare and civil rights” — all true enough — and his narrative skirts those issues almost entirely. Yet he goes on to assert that “getting rid of things was the heart of Nixon’s domestic policy — especially tearing down the structures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” I know of no historians today who would endorse that claim. Nixon did in fact preside over a welter of new liberal programs, but mainly because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, public opinion was demanding activist government and the president had bigger priorities than fighting those battles.

Differences also arise in the two biographers’ takes on the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, which Nixon mounted to stop the North Vietnamese forces from hiding across the border. Weiner emphasizes the president’s deceit in concealing the operation from the American people and in having the military issue false reports about it. And he concludes ominously, in the last sentence of one chapter, “The bombing of a neutral nation arguably violated the laws of war.”

Widening the war into Cambodia fueled tensions at home, and the concealment of the operation typified Nixon’s furtive diplomatic style. But it’s noteworthy that Congress dropped the Cambodia incursion from the charges of impeachment it drafted in 1974, and Weiner is compelled to include the deflating adverb “arguably” for a reason. As Thomas explains in his more balanced account, “The North Vietnamese controlled Cambodia’s bordering territory,” and “‘hot pursuit’ into neutral territory is an old military doctrine.”

Weiner’s book is valuable insofar as it adds details to confirm what we knew about Nixon’s desperate Vietnam gambits and his central role in directing the Watergate cover-up. For example, he unearths an incriminating May 1973 tape of Nixon talking to his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, about memos from the previous summer that had been delivered by Vernon Walters of the C.I.A.; those documents described the president’s illegal effort to have the agency shut down the F.B.I.’s burgeoning probe of the Watergate break-in on the bogus grounds that it would compromise national security. “It will be very embarrassing,” Nixon says of releasing Walters’s notes. “It’ll indicate that we tried to cover up with the C.I.A.”

Weiner has clearly logged time in primary sources — C.I.A. files, Nixon’s tapes, oral histories, the State Department documents collected in “Foreign Relations of the United States” — and he serves up delightful nuggets of information. He discovers, for instance, that Nixon included a sentence in his first inauguration speech, “Our lines of communication will be open,” at the suggestion of the Soviet intelligence operative Boris Sedov, as a signal to Moscow. Unfortunately, Weiner exaggerates the import of this diplomatic wink, calling it “the K.G.B.’s proposal to ghostwrite a passage of the inaugural address.” Here and elsewhere, hyperbole undercuts his reliability.

Throughout the book, and in his public appearances promoting it, Weiner inflates his own contributions, sometimes leaving the impression that he first uncovered the information he cites. In truth, this volume adds less to our knowledge than two other recent books: Ken Hughes’s “Chasing Shadows,” about Nixon’s efforts during the 1968 election to keep the South Vietnamese from agreeing to Lyndon Johnson’s peace proposals, and John W. Dean’s “The Nixon Defense,” which uses hundreds of original tape transcriptions to illuminate the purpose of the 1972 Watergate break-in and the depth of Nixon’s knowledge of his aides’ obstruction of ­justice.

In 1994, during the height of the revisionism, one pro-Nixon scholar crowed that as time went on, Nixon would come to be known first for his social programs, next for his diplomacy and only incidentally for the orgy of lawlessness that had otherwise defined his reputation. Among the other verdicts that these two notable books offer — for all their sundry virtues and forgivable flaws — is the unmistakable conclusion that those revisionists were completely wrong.

ONE MAN AGAINST THE WORLD
The Tragedy of Richard Nixon
by Tim Weiner
369 pp. Henry Holt & Company.

BEING NIXON
A Man Divided
by Evan Thomas
Illustrated. 619 pp. Random House. $35.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and the forthcoming “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

Christian Evangelism: Interview with Iain Buchanan


June 12, 2015

Christian Evangelism: Interview with Iain Buchanan, Author, The Armies of God

by Yogesh Pawar

http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/interview-evangelical-christianity-devils-in-high-places-1524855

From shaping American foreign policy to manipulating local Third World conflicts, evangelical Christianity has become a powerful force that has a vast global network of modern warriors engaged in ancient — and destructive — spiritual warfare, author of The Armies Of God, Iain Buchanan says.

iain-buchanan-armiew-of-godIn his explosive new book The Armies Of God: A Study In Militant Christianity, British-born, Malaysia-based academic Iain Buchanan blows the lid off a subject that most scholars and journalists tend to shy away from: the rise of US evangelism as a force in global affairs.

His book looks at how some of the powerful evangelical outfits operate — often as US government proxies — in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and of course, India, and the disastrous effects this has had on the relationship between the Christian West and non-Christian cultures, religious communities and nations. He also unmasks the role played by the seemingly secular ‘success motivation’ industry, and its leadership gurus such as Zig Ziglar and Ken Blanchard, who are not only management experts but also conscious agents of US-style Christian evangelism.

Excerpts from an interview:

What led you to write this book?

I grew up in an agnostic family with respect for spirituality of all kinds — from animism to true Christianity. I suppose one of my strongest incentives for writing the book was to show how, in the West, inherently decent things like liberal secularism and Christian spirituality (no necessary conflict here!) are so deeply corrupted by political power and so dishonestly vaunted as marks of cultural superiority.

Not many would want to come out in the open and talk about the issues raised in your book. Was that a concern for you?

In the West, certainly, there is a reluctance to enquire too deeply into the affairs of organised Christianity — both at home and overseas. Western culture is a deeply, subliminally Christian culture, and even committed secularists have trouble avoiding Christian parameters in their arguments, and recognising the Christian capacity for wrong-doing. Among other things, this leads to a rather benign view of the behaviour of our missionaries overseas — fed partly by ignorance, and partly by a sense that the Christian mission can be equated with civilisation. And such myopia has increased dramatically over the past 40 years, as the secular West has managed to define a global order largely in its own terms, with decisive help from its Christian missionaries.  By contrast, of course, the behaviour of non-Christians (especially Muslims) is scrutinised ruthlessly, misunderstood, and demonised.

Academics who have attempted to study the work of missionaries in India have been accused of helping the right-wing Hindutva brigade. Has this been your experience too?

The glib response to this would be to say that religious extremism of any kind needs to be exposed. But it is more complex than this. There is a need to go beyond the purely religious objection to Christian missionising, and examine the global forces which define it, and which are subverting countries like India in a far more comprehensive and profound way than most people realise.

A key contention of my book is that the extremism of Christian evangelicals is no more benign than the extremism found in non-Christian religious groups. Indeed, its local impact can be hugely destructive — precisely because of its ability to draw upon a vast global network of forces (including powerful secular ones), and its ability to penetrate and shape local forces, whether they be ethnic, religious, political, or social, according to alien priorities.

You speak at length of the US’s use of Christianity for it own geopolitical designs. Is this manifestly part of US strategy worldwide?

Most Western leaders (not just Bush and Blair) will claim they are inspired by their Christian beliefs. Sometimes, as with both Reagan and George W Bush, they quote chapter and verse in support oIain Buchananf policy, although usually it is not so blatant. Certainly, deep in Washington, self-professedly Christian pressure groups (like the Fellowship Foundation and the Council for National Policy) have a highly influential membership and a powerful grip on policy.

Of course, one can debate whether US strategy is manifestly Christian in inspiration — few Americans would say it is not, although most would probably insist that such strategy is guided primarily by secular concerns.

But there is no doubt at all that US strategy makes deliberate (and somewhat cynical) use of Christian agencies in pursuit of foreign policy — and that the distinction between the religious and the secular is deliberately blurred in the process. There are over 600 US-based evangelical groups, some as big as large corporations, and between them they constitute a vast and highly organised network of global influence, purposefully targeting non-Christians, and connecting and subverting every sector of life in the process.

Most of the major evangelical corporations (like World Vision, Campus Crusade, Youth with a Mission, and Samaritan’s Purse) operate in partnership with the US government in its pursuit of foreign policy goals. World Vision, which is effectively an arm of the State Department, is perhaps the most notable example of this. There is also the benefit of a custom-built legislation, with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 providing necessary sanction to bring errant nations into line.

This means that evangelisation is an intensely secular pursuit, as well as a religious one. In turn, of course, the secular powers, whether they be departments of state or corporate businesses, find such evangelicals to be very effective partners.

Indeed, most missionaries are not obviously religious. A case in point is the Success Motivation industry.  Many of the most popular ‘leadership gurus’ — Zig Ziglar, Paul Meyer, Os Hillman, Richard DeVos, John C. Maxwell, and Ken Blanchard, for example — are not just management experts, they are also evangelical Christians and conscious agents of US-style evangelisation. Conversely, groups which, on the face of it, are primarily religious, may also serve a powerful secular agenda, such as the collection of intelligence, the grooming of political or commercial elites, or the manipulation of local conflicts.

Some accuse the church of fomenting dissent among poor tribals by exploiting them; others say the church is a liberating force. This debate has gone on for decades in India’s North-East. What is your view?

The situation of India’s tribal people, like that of tribal people elsewhere in Asia, is certainly tragic. And it may be that Christian activity offers an opportunity to escape the various forms of homegrown oppression — state and corporate abuse, Hindu contempt, and so on. But Christianity in India is a very diverse thing. There are many situations where the Christian church has taken firm root, and is deeply involved in local administration, social welfare, education, and so on. Nagaland is a case in point. There are movements for tribal welfare elsewhere which are Christian-inspired and doing excellent work.

But there are many cases, too, of evangelical missions which go into tribal areas with little respect for local realities, and with an agenda far removed from tribal welfare. In this, they may be no better and no worse than the home-grown oppressor. But there is an important difference. Such missionaries often belong to an evangelical network whose strategic purpose is defined elsewhere, and which has little loyalty to the local population, its cultures, its communities, and its welfare, let alone to the nation as a whole. This is particularly true of the new breed of US-inspired evangelicals, led by Baptists and Pentecostalist/Charismatics, who have spearheaded evangelisation over the past 50 years. It is the working of this wider, and self-consciously global, structure of behaviour which is of concern.

It is unfortunate that missions doing good work in tribal areas have their efforts tarnished by others whose approach is more opportunistic and exploitative. For the new evangelicals, distaste for paganism is just part of the equation — oppressed tribal groups are a relatively easy target to penetrate in a much wider war against non-Christians generally, and for influence in strategic (especially border) areas. In this respect, even a relatively long-established Christian presence — as in Nagaland — has utility as a strategic outpost.

These are turbulent times for India as its number of hungry and poor are growing exponentially even as the wealthy in the cities are becoming billionaires. Does this make harvesting of souls easy? Do missionaries love turbulence?

It certainly seems, sometimes, that evangelicals thrive on suffering and disaster. India’s own KP Yohannan, for example, welcomed the tsunami of 2004 as “one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share His love with people” — and he was only one of many expressing such sentiments. There is no question that many evangelicals exploit the poor and marginalised for reasons which have a lot to do with narrow theology and political self-interest, and relatively little to do with long-term practical help.

But evangelicals court the wealthy and the powerful of a society with equal passion. One of the most telling features of the new evangelism is the way it has turned Christianity into a force for protecting the rich and powerful. US Protestantism, in particular, has worked hard to undermine the impulse in the church towards social justice and reform. A measure of its success has been the defeat of Liberation Theology and the remarkable expansion of US Pentecostalism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More than a quarter of all Christians now belong to Pentecostalist and Charismatic churches.

In these, as in most new evangelical churches, great attention is paid to a ‘theology’ of economics which stresses individual profit, corporate obedience, the sanctity of making money, and the power of “miracles, signs, and wonders.”  This ‘theology’ is a key part of modern imperialism: it offers something to both rich and poor, it is safely counter-revolutionary, and it ties tightly into the wider global network of more secular influences (in business, government, education, the media, the military) which underpins Western expansion.

So the evangelical church has a key role to play in a society as disparate as India’s. It is a form of social management: it gives divine sanction to the rich, it gives hope to the struggling middle class, and it cultivates discipline (and distraction) amongst the poor — and it does all this with a keen eye to the West’s self-interest. This is not to suggest that India does not have its own mechanisms for doing the same things. But such evangelisation, as a concomitant of Westernisation, is bound to strengthen as India urbanises and looks ever more Westwards.

A recent issue of the Texas-based magazine, Gospel For Asia, says: “The Indian sub-continent with one billion people, is a living example of what happens when Satan rules the entire culture… India is one vast purgatory in which millions of people …. are literally living a cosmic lie! Could Satan have devised a more perfect system for causing misery?” How and why does such propaganda work in a developed country like the US in the era of the Internet and the media?

There are two important points here. First, we must not assume that the ‘developed’ West is free from willful ignorance. Indeed, willful ignorance is often a very useful weapon. We need enemies, and, as religious people, we need demons. The utility of Islamophobia is a case in point.  Besides, there’s a useful role for such bigotry within the system: as a foil for the liberal powerful to prove their liberal credentials.

But such attitudes are nothing new, of course. Christians have waged such ‘spiritual warfare’ against their enemies for centuries, and with the same kind of language. What is new is the vastly increased facility, offered by the electronic media, for fighting such a war. And this is the second point.

New technology is spreading, and hardening, such bigotry. Since the mid-1960s, the evangelical movement has systematically computerised its entire global operation, creating huge databases of information on its non-Christian enemies, centralising administration, and linking some 500 million ‘Christian computers’ worldwide for the purposes of fighting ‘spiritual warfare’ against non-believers in strategic places. And ‘spiritual warfare’, for the evangelical Christian movement, is not just a matter of prayers and metaphor: it is also, very decisively, a matter of ‘virtuous’ troops, tanks, and drones.