Archive for the ‘Books I’ve Read’ Category

The Fisher King

July 23, 2017

The Fisher King is a figure in Arthurian legend. He is the guardian of the Holy Grail who has been wounded in the foot and cannot discharge his duties as king of the land he rules. Many scholars believe that the foot or leg is an euphemism for a wound in the groin and that the king is impotent. Whatever the case, according the the legend, because the Fisher King is barren and impotent, so is the land he rules. The health of the land depends on the health or virtue of its king.

This happens to be a motif found in many places in mythology, folklore, and political propaganda. There seems to be a strong need to believe that a strong and virtuous king will have a flourishing kingdom, while the kingdom of a weak or evil king will be desolate. The Chinese belief in the Mandate of Heaven held that the prosperity of the Empire was directly dependent on the virtue of the Emperor. If China was doing well, the Emperor must be good. If there were natural disasters or economic catastrophe, than the Emperor must be at fault somewhere. In the Old Testament there is an explicit link between the devotion of the kings of Israel and Judah and the welfare of the kingdom. It makes sense that if the king or emperor is the representative of God or the gods and is not doing a good job then Heaven might signal its displeasure by causing natural disasters.

One might think in our more modern world in which most countries are republics, such superstitions would be a thing of the past. That does not seem to be the case. It is true that people no longer ascribe earthquakes or hurricanes to the faults of our political leaders, but we do have a way of assuming that they have far more influence over the affairs of the country, especially over the economy, than they actually do. Here is an example from Sean Hannity.

President Donald Trump has made the United States more than $4 trillion richer since taking office last January, but you wouldn’t know that from watching or reading the mainstream press, writes Fox’s Stuart Varney.

As the destroy-Trump media continues to obsess over Russia-Trump conspiracy theories, the President has made good on his campaign promise to unleash the American worker and get the US economy back on track.

Since the President’s inauguration, Trump has added roughly $4.1 trillion to the nation’s overall wealth, affecting all Americans with a 401k, an IRA, a savings account, loans, stocks; essentially anyone with “a dime in the market.”

President Trump did no such thing. He does not have the power to add $4.1 trillion to the economy. It is possible that the policies he supports will encourage economic growth, but six months is far too early for any presidential policies to take effect. Of course, a good deal of economics is psychology. It is likely that if the president is perceived as pro-business, businesses will be more inclined to expand, believing that the economy will improve, creating a self fulfilling expectation. On the other hand, if the president keeps talking about spreading the wealth around, businesses will play it safe, anticipating an economic downturn, that their actions will help precipitate. I think that if Bernie Sanders had been elected president, we would be going into a deep recession. We can give Trump credit for inspiring optimism, but not for any magical powers.

Here is a more egregious example from a singer named Lana Del Rey

I feel less safe than I did when Obama was president. When you have a leader at the top of the pyramid who is casually being loud and funny about things like that, it’s brought up character defects in people who already have the propensity to be violent towards women. I saw it right away in L.A. Walking down the street, people would just say things to you that I had never heard.

I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing “Born to Die.” It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now—it didn’t feel weird in 2013.

Women started to feel less safe under this administration instantly. What if they take away Planned Parenthood? What if we can’t get birth control?

This is precisely the same country in 2017 as it was in 2015. The only difference is that the person who is president has changed. If Ms. Lane is not as proud of her country now as when Obama was president, than she is not really very proud of her country at all. Trump cannot make the streets of Los Angeles more or less dangerous. He has no control over people’s character defects. He cannot take Planned Parenthood away. Even if Congress should cut Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, which they should, Planned Parenthood has other sources of revenue. Trump cannot ban birth control. She is ascribing to Trump powers that no president has.

Why do we do this, assume that our political leaders have greater power over events than they actually do? Part of the reason must be that this is what they want us to think. How many politicians running for office criticize their opponent’s handling of the economy? How many politicians boast of the economic growth that occurred during their time in office? They might as well be bragging about how good the weather was. Indeed, the whole idea behind the global warming/climate change alarmism is that national and international governments can change the climate.

Whatever the reason for this kind of thinking, we need to get over it. The president does not run the country. We do. . President Trump cannot make America great again, though he can lead the effort. It is up to each one of us to make this country a better place.

 

 

The Timely, Relevant Handmaid’s Tale

June 4, 2017

Hulu has begun airing a series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the critics are falling all over themselves in proclaiming how timely and relevant the program is in Trump’s America.

The Handmaid’s Tale, for those fortunate enough not to have encountered it, is a dystopian novel set in the “Republic of Gilead”, a future North American nation in which Christian fundamentalists have seized power. Naturally women are horribly oppressed in Gilead, since that is what Christian fundamentalists most like to do. Women are chattel who are forbidden to work outside the home or to have bank accounts. There is an epidemic of infertility caused by environmental pollution and those women who are still fertile are pressed into service as “handmaids” compelled to give birth to women incapable of having their own children. As you can see, The Handmaid’s Tale is timely and relevant, for women living in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Since Trump hardly ran on a platform of disenfranchising women, the novel is probably not particularly relevant to the experiences of American women, whatever Atwood and her fans might believe.

An everyday sight in Trump’s America

The purpose of dystopian literature, and science fiction in general, is not to predict the future but to highlight circumstances and emerging trends in the present. If it had been Margaret Atwood’s intention to highlight the oppression of women in the Middle East by portraying a similar situation in a more familiar context, much as George Orwell highlighted Stalinist tyranny by placing it in the more familiar context of England, than her effort would be laudable. That is not what she was trying to do. By her own account, she was trying to show what the “religious right” intended to do to women when they gained power. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, at a time when the Moral Majority seemed to be on the ascendant, so it might have been timely and relevant then; except that not a single prominent figure on the “religious right” was proposing anything at all like the subjugation of women in the book. If treating women like chattel had been on the agenda of the Christian Coalition, I doubt very much if it would have had any influence on politics at all. And again, Trump is hardly a fundamentalist Christian, nor did he campaign on reducing women to brood stock as part of his program to Make America Great Again.

This is where The Handmaid’s Tale falls short as a dystopia. A dystopia works by pointing out the most extreme consequences of existing trends. The resulting vision need not be especially realistic. This is science fiction after all. However it ought to ring true. The setting of a dystopian work ought to at least seem possible, based on things already happening

As a man of the left, George Orwell knew from personal experience the totalitarian tendencies of most left wing movements. He knew what he was writing about when he wrote 1984. He was able to make the setting of his novel match the real life circumstances of totalitarian governments like the Soviet Union under Stalin and Nazi Germany. He believed, with good reason, that Britain was heading towards a totalitarian socialist state. We may not currently be living in Big Brother’s Oceania, but in an age of mass surveillance and bigger, unaccountable bureaucracies, we should certainly be aware of the possibilities.

Aldrous Huxley had considered very carefully the possible changes that advancing technology might bring to society. His Brave New World is a study of how advances in contraception, cloning (though the word hadn’t been coined at the time) might change family life. If we can design each person according to plan would we design different people for different jobs? What would the concept of equality mean if some people are designed before birth to be the leaders while others to be workers? Huxley also explored the implications of freedom of thought in a world in which thoughts are conditioned by persuasion techniques far more advanced than the crude advertising and propaganda of our time. You might not need the Thought Police if every thought in every head is put there by years of conditioning. It is possible that something like Brave New World might really be in our future, perhaps closer than we might imagine.

In contrast, Margaret Atwood knew nothing about the goals and aspirations of conservative Christians when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale and there is no sign that she has bothered to learn anything about them in all the years since. Her vision is one that simply does not match the reality. No prominent Christian leader of any sect or denomination has come out in favor of disenfranchising women. Christianity is not the religion that teaches that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s. Historically, women have generally had a higher status in the Christian West than in any other civilization. It is true that women have often been discriminated against and patronized in the West, but women have rarely been treated as chattel or worse to the extent they have in East Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, and especially the Islamic world. It is in the Christian West that the idea that women ought to be treated as actual human beings, and even protected arose. Only in the West could anything like feminism come to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantasy. I think it is poorly written, but that is just my opinion. Perhaps others may think it a classic. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the literary quality of the work, but please don’t insult my intelligence by saying it is in any way timely or relevant to contemporary America.

You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

October 27, 2016

Chances are, that if you are ever questioned by the police about a crime, you will be eager to tell them everything you know. And, if it turns out that you are a suspect, you will want to waive your rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present, and will want to explain to the police the reasons you couldn’t have the crime. That is a serious mistake according to James Duane, author of the book, “You Have the Right to Remain Innocent” and the YouTube video “Don’t Talk to the Police“. In his book and video, Duane contends that you should never talk to the police or give out any unnecessary information unless you have an attorney present, especially if you are innocent.

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The problem is that while you know that you are innocent, the police do not. They think that you are guilty or they wouldn’t be interested in talking to you. Because the friendly police officer who is asking questions just to clear things up is certain, in his mind, that you are guilty, he feels justified, and is legally empowered to, use any means of deception or pressure to get you to confess to the crime. This means that any discrepancies in your answers (who really can keep every detail of what they did last Thursday evening straight in their minds, especially when questioned by a trained interrogator seeking to trip them up?), any misstatements, any statement taken out of context  can be taken as proof of guilt and used against you in court. Remember that scene in My Cousin Vinny in which Ralph Macchio repeats the statement, “I shot the clerk” incredulously only to have it repeated as a straightforward statement of guilt at his trial. This sort of thing really happens.


Compounding the problem are recent court decisions which, according to Duane, make more difficult for a suspect to use their rights to remain silent and seek counsel. It is far easier for the police to get away with lying to you to induce a confession and they can ignore a request to speak to an attorney, unless you clearly and explicitly ask for one. Taking the fifth to avoid incrimination can be a perilous step, since such a request can not be used to imply guilt. Making matters worse is the problem of overcriminalization. As Duane points out, there are so many federal laws on the books and so many of them are badly and carelessly worded by Congress, that it is no longer possible for any human being to know the whole scope of the laws, much less be in compliance. Any given individual may be guilty of committing many federal offenses on any given day. A clever and unscrupulous prosecutor can find something to convict anyone. Speaking too freely could get you in trouble.

It is not necessary to buy and read this book if you can remember to say only four words when questioned by the police; “I want a lawyer”. But You Have a Right to Remain Innocent is worth reading if you want to get some idea of just how poorly our system of justice protects the rights of the accused. Prepare to be shocked and alarmed.

The Last Battle

October 17, 2016

The Last Battle is the cruelest, and most heart rending of the Chronicles of Narnia, as perhaps is appropriate for the last book in the series. It is set in the last days of the world of Narnia. There is a false Aslan, the Narnian Anti-Christ, abroad in the western woods of Narnia with a false prophet, the ape Shift, to promote his claims. Under Shift’s guidance the Calormen have been infiltrating into Narnia and cutting down the trees, killing their dryads. Tash, the Calormen god has taken up residence in Narnia to be worshipped as Tashlan. The scenes where Tash makes an appearance must be the most terrifying in the whole Chronicles.

Tirian, the last king of Narnia, and the two children sent from our world, Eustace Shrubb and Jill Pole try to save Narnia, but nothing they do works. They try to expose the false Aslan as the befuddled and repentant donkey Puzzle wearing a lion skin, only to have Shift and the Calorman captain announce that there is a donkey pretending to be Aslan and so Aslan will not appear to the animals any more. They await reinforcements from Cair Paravel only to learn that Cair Paravel has fallen to a Calormen army. They rescue Dwarfs being led into slavery, but the Dwarfs decide that they will not be ruled either by Calormen or the King of Narnia. In the end, Tirian and the two children fight a desperate battle for Narnia with the few animals who will fight alongside them, knowing there is no hope of victory with each one thrown one by one into a stable where something terrible, perhaps Tash, is waiting. All throughout  the beginning and middle of the Last Battle the reader’s hopes are raised again and again, only to be cruelly dashed. It seems that all is lost.

But then, Aslan makes his long delayed appearance. The stable turns out to be not the home of Tash, who is promptly banished to his own place, but the way to Aslan’s country where the Seven Friends of Narnia are waiting to greet  Tirian. Aslan is there to set everything to rights, though this means that Narnia must be ended. Yet the end of Narnia is not really cause for grief, for as Tirian and the Friends discover by going further up and further in, that the real Narnia, of which the Narnia they knew was only a shadow, is eternal and everything that was good about the old Narnia, and England, will be preserved forever in the new Narnia.

As I write this, things are looking a little bleak for our country. The frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election is an unprincipled, amoral woman who would gladly sell out they country she aspires to lead for her own profit. This ought not to be at all surprising since she is the nominee of an unprincipled, amoral political party that places the pursuit of political power ahead of honor or decency and has come to have a vision for this country that is sharply at odds with the principles of freedom it was founded upon. Not that her opponent is better. He is a narcissistic con man who tells people what they want to hear and who has somehow become the presidential candidate of a political party that ideologically he has next to nothing in common with, insofar as he espouses any coherent political ideology at all. Neither of the two major candidates seem to have much use for the concept of liberty, particularly religious liberty. Even the Libertarian candidate doesn’t seem to really have much support for the idea of liberty in the abstract. He and his running mate are willing to fight for the freedom to smoke marijuana. They are less willing to fight for the freedom of a person to live a life according to the beliefs of their faith, unmolested by the state. We may be facing dark times in the next decade, whoever wins the election.

It would be easy to feel despair. There seems to be nothing we can do to keep the country from making a disastrous wrong turn. It is not even easy to see what the right turn might be. It is only natural to worry about the future. We shouldn’t worry, all the same. In the end, we are not the ones who will decide what comes next. Not even our leaders, whatever their pretensions, will have the last word. It is Aslan, or Jesus Christ as he is known in our world, who is our king and is the one guiding events according to his plan.  Aslan is the one who has everything under control and he will make everything right in the end. It is not for us to question or doubt him. We are all between the paws of the true Aslan and we must take what adventures he sends us as true Narnians must and have faith that Aslan will guide us.

 

Murder and Magic

September 1, 2016

Writing a detective story in a science fiction or fantasy setting can be a hazardous undertaking because of the temptation for the writer to cheat by having his hero pull out some gadget that will destroy the suspect’s alibi by showing everyplace he’s been for the last twenty-four hours or casting a magic spell that shows the blood on his hands, literal or not. In order for the mystery writer to play fair with the readers and write a whodunit worth reading, he has to set out the rules and limitations of the advanced technology or magic that his world uses to solve crimes. He need not make the rules explicit in the story, but they have to be there in the background, and they have to be reasonably consistent.

Randall Garrett did an excellent job of combining the mystery and fantasy genres in his Lord Darcy series of stories. Set in an alternate world in which Richard the Lion Hearted managed to survive the accidental crossbow shot that killed in real life.  Instead, the near death experience prompted King Richard to settle down from fighting and crusading and seriously try to govern the lands he ruled, resulting in an Angevin Empire that survives into the twentieth century. Richard also patronised scholars and scientists which led to the discovery of the laws of magic. By the time of Garrett’s stories, the Angevin Empire of England and France, along with the Americas and other colonies is the leading world power and magic is used in everyday applications, much as science and technology are used in ours. Magicians can cast spells to preserve food, secure homes, communicate over long distances, and help solve crimes.

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In this world, Lord Darcy is the Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy. In the course of his duties, Lord Darcy solves crimes and untangles international intrigues, assisted by the forensic sorcerer Sean O’ Lochlainn. Despite the fantasy setting, the cases Lord Darcy investigates are mostly the sort that can be found in any mystery story. Magic is not often used to commit the crimes and Sean O’Lochlainn’s techniques are rather like the more scientific procedures that might be familiar to a viewer of a show like CSI. Magic is a substitute for science in Lord Darcy’s world and a forensic sorcerer can no more solve a crime by magic in that world than a crime scene technician can “magically” solve a crime in our own.

Murder and Magic is Randall Garrett’s  first collection of  Lord Darcy stories. The collection includes four short stories with cases involving a supposed suicide, mistaken identities and blackmail, and a plot by the King of Poland, England-France’s chief international rival, to disrupt the Atlantic trade. I found each of the stories to be entertaining and finished the book wanting to read more. I think that anyone who enjoys reading either mysteries or fantasies will find the stories that combine the two genres to be worth reading.

Basidium

July 8, 2016

My favorite books when I was in the fifth and sixth grades were the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. These books were published back in the 1950’s and so were a little before my time, but fortunately the school library didn’t have a lot of new books. I must have checked out each of the books hundreds of times.

The Mushroom Planet, Basidium, was Earth’s second moon, a small asteroid orbiting just 50,000 miles away. Although only an asteroid, Basidium is made of a dense substance called Brumblium so it is able to retain an atmosphere and support life. The predominant form of life on Basidium is various forms of mosses and fungi, particularly tree sized mushrooms, hence the name Mushroom Planet. Even the inhabitants of Basidium are mushroom people, though they are humanoid in appearance.

Mushroom People

Mushroom People

Because Basidium is made of Brumblium, it cannot be detected by telescope without a special filter invented by Tyco M. Bass, himself a member of a race of terrestrial Mushroom people called the Mycetians, descendants of Basidiumites who perhaps travelled to Earth in the form of spores. In “the first book, “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet“, Mr. Bass, with the help of his two young friends David Topman and Chuck Masterson builds a spaceship for the two boys to travel to Basidium and save the natives from a threat to their existence. In later books in the series, Chuck and Dave return to Basidium with a stowaway, meet Tyco Bass’s cousin Theo, and have other adventures.

Tyco Bass

It was a bit silly, I suppose, and the science is woefully out of date, but I really enjoyed reading them and always wished that I could meet Mr. Bass and travel to the Mushroom Planet. For that matter, I still like the books today, though I haven’t actually read them for many years. Too bad there isn’t really a second moon orbiting the Earth, or is there? According to this article in phys.org, maybe there is at least a “quasi-moon”.

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the , this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid—2003 YN107—followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroid 2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

There is no indications that there are any mushroom people in HO3. Too bad. I guess I won’t be meeting the Great Ta, the king of Basidium and his foolish wise men, Mebe and Oru.

Great Ta and his wise men

Great Ta and his wise men

A Maze of Stars

May 23, 2016

I found A Maze of Stars by John Brunner to be an intriguing and slightly unusual book. The book does not seem to read like a novel with a continuous story from beginning to end, so much as a series of short stories or vignettes. The story takes place in the Arm of Stars, the last section of our galaxy to be colonized by humanity. A vast sentient Ship was built to travel along the Arm of Stars, seeding each habitable planet with the colonists who chose to settle there. After its great mission was complete, the Ship was supposed to stand by and monitor the progress of the colonies and rescue any population that was in danger.

Maze of Stars

Such was the plan. Instead the Ship found itself to be cast back and forth through time, compelled to retrace its journey along the Arm of Stars again and again centuries after the settlement of the Arm, observing but not contacting like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. At the end of each journey, the Ship travels through time again, emerging at the first planet it visited at a seemingly random time. In A Maze of Stars, the Ship finds itself at the earliest of its voyages, only 500 years after it seeded the colonies. The Ship travels from planet to planet with some knowledge of each planet’s future history, though there is much that remains hidden from the Ship. Some of the colonies have been successful, with a few even beginning to build star ships of their own. Many more are surviving with difficulty and more than a few are failures, the colonists destroyed by the hostile conditions of the planet they colonised. The Ship can recognise that some apparent successes will falter and fail, while some failures will recover. Occasionally, the Ship is able to exploit a loophole in its programming and take along a passenger on its travels. By the time the Ship reaches the end of its path, it learns why it was built and why it is sentenced to retrace its path again and again.

There is one issue raised by A Maze of Stars that I have not seen anywhere else in science fiction or nonfictional speculations about colonizing extra-terrestrial worlds. No life form on Earth either as an individual or a species exists in isolation. Every type of plant or animal lives in a complex ecosystem, composed of not just the obvious predators and sources of food, but also on a microscopic level with the bacteria than live around us and within us. Every form of life on Earth is to some extent depended on a vast web of interactions that are not always well understood. What would happen if some organisms are removed from that web and transplanted to a world with its own native lifeforms? Would the newcomers compete with the native life. Would alien organisms be toxic to creatures from Earth? What about the ecosystem of bacteria that each of us carries around with us and helps with our digestion? Could we maintain the proper balance in an alien world? Scientists have also recently learned that it is possible for DNA to be transferred between different species by viruses, and that these transfers have helped the process of evolution along. What if human colonists pick up alien DNA? Will they be able to remain human. The attempts of the various colonists to protect themselves against  and adjust to the alien environments they have found themselves in is an important backdrop to the story of each planet the Ship visits and is a major factor in the success or failure of each colony, and the questions raised about the future of human development make the book worth reading.

 

 

The Czars

April 11, 2016

There is a tendency, when writing of the history of a nation, to focus on the actions of rulers of that nation. American history books tend to divide American history by presidents, while British books differentiate the eras of British history by kings and queens, and later prime ministers, Chinese by dynasties, and so on. This approach is understandable since while kings and emperors may not have as much control over the events of the nations they rule as they would like, their reigns do give convenient dividing points between periods and eras. Still, there is often a lot going on that has little to do with the actions of any rulers and a history focused on the ruling class risks overlooking many factors and events in the country’s history.

This approach may be more justified in the case of Russian history, than in the histories of most other nations. For much of its history, Russia has been ruled by a strong, centralised government with political power vested in one man or woman, the Czar. The personality of Russia’s Czar was the most powerful influence on the development of the Russian nation. Russia only became a unified nation when the earliest Czars were able to establish control over the unruly boards and the Orthodox Church, become strong enough to defeat the invading Mongols, Poles and Lithuanians and take the title of Czar. The history of Russia is the history of its Czars.

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The Czars by James P. Duffy and Vincent L. Ricci tells the story of Russia’s czars, from their messy beginnings as the Vikings who raided, traded, and then settled the vast Russian lands to the murder of Nicholas II at the hands of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. It is a fascinating story, well told by the two authors. They give a biography of every Czar, the early and obscure princes of Kiev and Muscovy no less than such titanic rulers as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, giving something of the personalities and lives of each Czar as well as the historical circumstances of their reigns. I found the early history of the unification of Russia to be particularly interesting as this was a period that I didn’t know much about. Most histories of Russia seem to cover this time in the first chapter before quickly moving on to Ivan the Great and his son Ivan the Terrible.

The only fault that I can find with The Czars is the absence of maps. A map of the Ukraine and the European part of Russia would have been very handy, especially if it included all the little principalities and cities that were absorbed by the growing Russian state in its earliest years. I found myself having to consult Google maps to get some idea of where the various regions of European Russia were in relation to each other and where the battles against the Mongols and the Poles took place. A genealogy of the two Russian dynasties, the Ruriks and the Romanovs would also have been useful, especially with the early Ruriks who had not yet established the tradition of handing down power from father to son, and with the more tumultuous times of trouble in which several short-lived and distantly related Czars followed one another in succession. Despite these shortcoming, I still found the Czars to be interesting and informative.

The Rise of Rome

March 3, 2016

If I were to mention the Roman Empire in any sort of word association context, many people might respond with some variation of “decline and fall of”. It seems that every historian or history buff who is at all familiar with the history of the Roman Empire thinks largely in terms of its decline and fall and they all seem to have their favorite theories why the Empire fell; moral decay, economic collapse, climate change, etc. The impression seems to be that Rome was somehow doomed to fail and that the only lessons to learn from Roman history is what great powers ought not to do in order to avoid their own decline and fall.

Yet, Rome was an enormously successful state. For almost six hundred years, 146 BC to AD 410, Rome was uncontested ruler of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, a feat unmatched by any of the many great powers since, and even after the “fall” of the Empire in 476, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantine Empire manager to last for another thousand years. No other, more recent, great power has managed such longevity. Perhaps the question we need to ask about the Roman Empire is not how it fell, but how a small, Italian city-state rose to rule the known world, and how they managed to rule for so long.

This is the question which Anthony Everett seeks to answer in “The Rise of Rome”. In his book, Everett traces the history of Rome from its legendary, even mythical, beginnings to the generation before the rise of Caesar. Everett recounts the legends of Rome’s founder, Romulus, and its kings, the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Republic, and the wars in which the city fought for its life against its neighbors. Everett then considers what truth, if any, may be behind these legends based on the findings of archeology, while noting that the true events are less important than the fact that the Romans themselves believed the legends to be true and were influenced by them.

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The Republic slowly came to dominate Italy, in part because of Rome’s military prowess, Rome was an aggressive, militaristic state, but also because the Romans repeatedly demonstrated a statesmanlike common sense in their relations with defeated enemies and in their own internal politics. Here we begin to have somewhat more reliable historical accounts and we can begin to understand what the Romans were doing right. The Romans did not seek to destroy their enemies once they were defeated, but to have their former enemies join them. Italians could become allies in league with Rome and perhaps even gain Roman citizenship. Rome suffered from the same sort of class conflicts as the Greek city-states, but while the Greek factions usually tried to destroy each other, the Roman ruling class generally managed to find some compromise which kept the city together. More than any thing else, it was the Roman refusal to accept defeat and determination to continue fighting, even when their cause seemed lost, that led to the many Roman victories, as such warlords as Pyrrhus and Hannibal discovered.

The Punic Wars were a turning point in Roman history. For the first time, Rome acquired territories outside of Italy, and by the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Rome had come to dominate the Mediterranean. Rome had become a wealthy superpower. This success was not altogether favorable to the development of the character of the Romans. The Republican customs and institutions which suited an Italian city-state did not scale all that well to a mighty empire and the traditional good sense and willingness to compromise that had been displayed by Rome’s ruling class began to falter in the newly affluent society. Everett ends his account of the rise of Rome with the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies, who, perhaps uniquely in history, did not seek to overthrow Roman leadership, but to be allow to become Roman citizens themselves, and rise and fall of the Roman generals and statesmen, Marius and Sulla, who set the precedents for Caesar’s dictatorship and the end of the Roman Republic.

I can highly recommend “The Rise of Rome” for anyone interested in the history of the Roman Republic, particularly the early centuries that do not get nearly so much attention time of Caesar and the early emperors. Maybe we could learn some lessons in how to manage an empire.

Rise of the Warrior Cop

January 24, 2016

Police officers are not soldiers. Despite a superficial similarity, both soldiers and cops wear uniforms and carry weapons, the skills and attitudes required to be successful in these professions are very different. A soldier is trained to kill the enemy. He often has to shoot first and analyze the situation later if he wants to stay alive. A soldier need not concern himself with the civil rights of his enemies. His job is to destroy them and win the war. A police officer, on the other hand, is trained to keep the peace. For him violence is the very last resort. His job is to protect civilians, not kill enemies. Why, then, are law enforcement personnel increasingly taking on the look and attitudes of soldiers?

A SWAT team is meant to be used in emergency situations, when there is a hostage situation, an rampaging shooter, or a riot. There should be few cases in which a SWAT team is ever used and probably only larger jurisdictions really need one, particularly since small city police forces may not have the resources or personnel or properly train or equip a SWAT team. Why are SWAT teams increasingly found to be necessary by small town police departments and why are they being used to perform what ought to be routine, non-violent duties such as serving warrants or making arrests in drug possession cases or illicit gambling rings? Why are various federal departments using armed agents to enforce administrative regulations?

The fourth amendment to the constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and guarantees that any searches and seizures cannot occur without a warrant issued after a demonstration of probable cause. Generally, this has meant that the police are not to enter a residence without knocking and identifying themselves as law enforcement. Why are no-knock raids complete with flash-bang grenades becoming ever more common and accepted as appropriate procedures? Why are there more and more cases of the police raiding the homes of innocent persons, injuring and perhaps killing people, without a word of apology or accountability?

We are supposed to be a nation of equal justice under the law. How is it that police officers can assault and kill with impunity, can steal under the cover of civil forfeiture, and generally act as if they are above the law they are tasked to enforce? When did the friendly neighborhood policeman become the warrior cop?

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Radley Balko attempts to answer these questions in his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop. Balko traces the history of law enforcement in the United States from the beginning, noting that before the American Revolution and for the first few decades after independence there were no police forces in the United States or, for that matter in Britain. There were country sheriffs, but their role was largely serving court warrants. Law enforcement depended on social pressure in small communities and informal, volunteer town watches and posses. As the population grew and became more urbanized, it became necessary to adopt a more formal approach to law enforcement and the first police departments were organized in the 1830’s. This was controversial, both in America and Britain, as the political cultures of both nations were strongly against having a standing army of soldiers patrolling the streets and care was taken to make a clear distinction between the newly formed police forces and the army.

This distinction began to become somewhat less clear in the twentieth century. Prohibition and later the War against Drugs with fights against well armed gangsters and later drug dealers seems to indicate a need for police officers to be more heavily armed, at least in certain special circumstances. The possibility that incriminating drug evidence could be hurriedly disposed of, seemed to make traditional procedures of knocking and waiting for a suspect to answer a door to be somewhat foolish. The upheavals and riots of the 1960’s showed a need for a heavily armed and specially trained task force, or SWAT agents, to handle extreme circumstances.

Since the 1960’s, tactics meant to be used rarely and under specific conditions have become routine. If one is fighting a war against drugs, than the drug dealers are not simply fellow citizens who have committed a crime, but the enemy who is working to bring down the country. One does not concern oneself too much with the civil rights of the enemy in time of war. After 9/11, terrorism began to take the place of drugs as the enemy and justification for police departments around the country to acquire cool military equipment.

There is much more to be said about this issue, and Radley Balko says it in his book. If you are at all concerned with civil rights, and our country’s slow erosion into a police state, than I highly recommend Rise of the Warrior Cop, though you may be surprised and shocked to learn how widespread and serious the problem of police misconduct has become. Balko lists many, many examples is his book.

Some might accuse Radley Balko of being anti-police. He denies the charge and I believe him. As he notes, the vast majority of police officers are good people. The problem is not really the cops. The problem is that the system we have in place tends to reward the bad cops and to create incentives for even good cops to behave badly, particularly in the sense that often develops in police departments that it is us (the department) against them ( the criminals and increasingly civilians). Balko does make suggestions for reforms at the end of the book, and I hope that someone in a position to do something will heed his warnings.


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