"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Responding to 'The Demon-Haunted World'

This week I guest-blogged at Wheat and Tares. I tried something different. Recently, I read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. In lieu of a standard review, I wrote a letter to the late Dr. Sagan. It was a good writing exercise and a great excuse to reflect. I invite you to read the post in its entirety here:

A Letter to my Almost Prophet

Feel free to leave a comment there or here after reading. As always, thanks for stopping by.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

25 Highlights in the Country of ‘Mudslingers’

Disclaimer: The following preface to my review of Professor Swint’s book includes an instance of profanity.

Preface: I live in a country where the President is accused by Republicans of inciting class warfare because he asks the rich to pay more in taxes. He does this with the goal of achieving decent society for all. Yet, at the same time many of those same Republicans make or accept six and seven-figure donations, often anonymously, to super PACs. These ideological brothels then broadcast manipulative and spurious advertising aimed at the same middle and lower classes that the President is trying to help. In this context, to say that our current President is the main threat to freedom and equality in this country is to insult my intelligence.

So to super PACs—left and right—I say this: go fuck yourselves. I regard you as rich, grumpy cowards. My name is Jake Christensen. And when I make political contributions, I sign my name.

Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All TimeMudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time by Kerwin Swint
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Voters have come to expect dirty politics and negative ads…” reads a line from the back of Professor Kerwin Swint’s Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time. I wonder if it would be more appropriate to say that voters have come to settle for negative campaigning. Such injurious behavior seems to constitute not the underbelly, but rather the bareback of American politics. At any rate, Dr. Swint provides a stimulating highlight reel of sorts with Mudslingers. Whatever spin you take, dirtiness and negativity have been status quo since the founding fathers started bitterly founding alongside each other.

As it turns out, our nation almost foundered while John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fought it out for the presidency. The vicious back and forth of their campaigns culminated in a disputed election. Ever since, the political process has played out in vitriolic fashion. For example, according to Swint the last explicitly racial campaign was just a few decades ago. And implicitly racial campaigning? Turn on your TV.

Mudslingers is not deep scholarship. Doing justice to 25 different campaigns in less than 300 pages takes a lot of summarizing. The upside of this approach is that it results in an accessible and informative work that political laypersons like me can sink our teeth into. Furthermore, the author does not limit himself to presidential campaigns. Campaigns for senate, governor and mayor are explored, including a chapter dedicated to a primary instead of a general election. This gives the reader a chance to peer inside political machines while also getting a palatable dose of American history.

This book isn’t a veritable masterpiece of scholarship. The content is sometimes cursory and in at least one case outright underdeveloped. Swint asserts that the 1934 gubernatorial race for California actually brought the state to the brink of civil war. But his physical evidence for this nearly-martial crisis is lacking. However, by and large I found myself broadening my perspective via a great deal of compelling material. So I do recommend this book. And if you are in the market for well-informed political ruminations, consider looking up @KerwinSwint the next time you are on Twitter.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Harrowing Life in 'Glory for Me'

Glory for MeGlory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. Glory for Me was more than I expected. The content was stronger and rawer. I had anticipated something more restrained and inspirational, something like the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, which is adapted from this book.

The film version was a Best Picture winner in 1946, with a top notch cast including two of my favorite actors of that era: Frederic March and Theresa Wright. It is one of my all-time favorite films. It is also a proverbial old Hollywood offering with tasteful and restrained depictions of sexuality, alcohol consumption, and depression.

Glory for Me, on the other hand, spares the reader nothing. Long before the aftermath of Vietnam popularized the veteran’s plight, soldiers returned home from WWII and found it almost impossible to reacclimatize. Some were amputees. Many suffered PTSD. They found it difficult to function in, or even find, jobs unrelated to killing enemy soldiers. And they were haunted by the ghosts of fallen comrades. This is what Glory For Me depicts in all its pain and personal darkness.

I love the book, though it verges on overstatement in the later chapters as things get more and more hopeless. Still, like the wonderful film adaptation, the ultimate message is one of practical hope. Glory For Me reminds us that for true healing to take place, friends and loved ones play a vital part.

Two final notes:
1) This book is written in blank verse. It is a poem. However, it is written in a contemporary (1940s) voice, very accessible and even a fun chance to enjoy the slang of an earlier generation.
2) You’ll have to hunt used booksellers for this one. But it’s easy enough to find a decent copy online. That’s how I got mine.

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