Sunday Not Quite A Book Review: “The Cultural Revolution: a people’s history 1962-1976”

July 3, 2016

Book Cover Dikotter Cultural Revolution

Since I haven’t been posting much of late, I thought a good way to get back into the swing of things would be to revive the Sunday Book Review series. Great idea!

Trouble is, the book I read is one that I can’t get a handle on the right approach to reviewing it. smiley d'oh! smiley headbang wall

The topic is so large and so complex that I’m left with just one thing to say: if you are ever tempted by the idea that things would be better if we just gave government all the power it wanted, read Frank Dikotter’s “The Cultural Revolution: a people’s history, 1962-1976”. That should slap some sense into you.

The book tells the story of bloody turmoil China was thrown into for over a decade because of the paranoia and whims of one all-powerful man, Mao Zedong. Setting faction against faction, even against his own Communist Party, Mao threw China into such chaos that at times it seemed a second civil war might result — and in some locales, it did.

Fearing that his “comrades” would sideline or even depose him for his horrific errors in the 1950s, worried that a Khrushchev waited in the wings to bring ideological revisionism and a denunciation of Mao’s legacy as Khrushchev did to Stalin in his 1956 “Secret Speech,” Mao and his allies waged war against enemies often made up wholly in Mao’s mind.

The price, of course, was paid by the people. Whether looking for “capitalist roaders,” “revisionists,” members of various “anti-Party cliques” and agents of foreign powers lurking within the Party itself, or merely people of “bad class background” (for example, former landowners under the old regime and their relations), enemies weren’t just found among a few rivals to Mao. Dikotter’s book tells in appalling detail how ordinary Chinese had to suffer because of Mao’s whims: prison camps, “reeducation” centers, thousands of city residents exiled to the country with no relevant skills and yet expected to survive — and never return to the city. People humiliated, driven to suicide or beaten to death by teenaged “Red Guards.” Knowledge, learning, and arts declared worthless, even evil, if they didn’t conform to “Mao Zedong Thought” and serve the class struggle. The horror stories of Lovecraft and King are nothing compared to what really happened in China in the 1960s.

Over and over, we’re treated moments of madness, but also shown how people resisted, or at least tried to survive. When Mao’s insane economics made even basic goods almost impossible to get, many set up secret factories and trade routes, reestablishing an underground capitalism in Communism’s heartland. Secret book clubs meeting to share a copy of forbidden Western literature. Playing Classical music on old phonographs in a closet, hoping no one would hear and denounce you to the authorities.

It’s said that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” China in the Cultural Revolution is a glaring example of this, and Frank Dikotter’s “The Cultural Revolution: a people’s history, 1962-1976” should be part of any “scared straight” program for anyone tempted by statism.

Highly recommended.

PS: “The Cultural Revolution: a people’s history, 1962-1976” is available in hardcover and Kindle format. I’m happy to say the Kindle book was well-formatted and free of any errors as I recall. Fair disclosure, I get a few cents from purchases made through my links.

Sunday Book Review: Paul Johnson’s “Churchill”

January 25, 2015

book cover johnson churchill

It’s less fashionable in the practice of History these days to study the lives of great men, those individuals who by their words and deeds change the course of the world for better or worse. At one time, History was about these men: Alexander, Caesar, Washington, Napoleon, and others. Then that fashion fell out of favor and, in reaction, the role of Great Men was largely supplanted by the study of “impersonal forces,” those societal and intellectual trends that move History along, individuals being less important, often replaceable. This view was popular with progressive historians of the early to mid-20th century, seeing its extreme in Marxist historians.

But the study of Great Men lives on, in this case in the form of Paul Johnson’s “Churchill,” a brief biography of Sir Winston Churchill, the British statesman, soldier, parliamentarian, and his nation’s Prime Minister during most of the Second World War.

Johnson’s biography of Churchill is of an older school, which seeks not just to analyze its subject, but draw from it moral lessons for the reader. In this manner, it is comparable to Plutarch’s “Lives .” As Johnson writes at the start:

Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical , moral, and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency.

Churchill’s life is well-known, and Johnson glosses over the details to cover the important points the reader needs to know: his early childhood with a vaguely disapproving father; his military career , which established the young Churchill as a popular journalist; his political career with his rise to Cabinet rank as First Sea Lord during World War I; his role in laying the foundation for Britain’s welfare state, and his fall from power; his “wilderness” years out of government, when even his fellow party members rarely wanted him around and during which he warned incessantly about the rise of the Nazis in Germany; his return to power when the Nazis started World War II, again as head of the British Navy and then Prime Minister; and his postwar life and career, with one more pass as prime minister, until his death in 1965.

That Johnson can cover all this in just 170 pages while telling a fascinating story and educating the reader is a mark of how good a writer he is. “Churchill,” if it was a joy for him to write, is also a joy for us to read. Johnson’s style is delightful, and he deftly weaves in small details and observations that humanize for us a towering figure who might otherwise be lost behind the noble statues and stern portraits. For example,one that sticks with this reviewer is the revelation that Churchill found happiness in, of all things, bricklaying. So much so, that he tried to join the bricklayer’s union. (He was declined.) Most people know that he was an accomplished painter, but a bricklayer? That such a common, workaday craft should bring satisfaction to a man born in a palace and who dealt regularly with kings and presidents, who commanded his nation’s armed forces in a global war, can’t help but build a bond between reader and subject, reminding us that Winston Churchill, for all the statues and portraits, was still a mortal man.

“Churchill” is not without its weaknesses. A degree of superficiality is inevitable, given the task of compressing so full a life into such a short work. And it touches very lightly on his flaws, such as his Romantic fixations on strategies of dubious worth, for example his attempted defense of Antwerp in the First World War, or his obsession with invading Norway in the Second. A late Victorian in a rapidly changing 20th century, his attitudes toward non-European people were often at best patronizing, sometimes downright bigoted.

But, to dwell on these lacks would be to criticize “Churchill” for not doing what it was never intended to do: to be a “balanced, modern” biography. As much hagiography as biography, Paul Johnson’s goal was to introduce us to the life of one of the greatest men who ever lived and show how it could serve as an example and an inspiration, especially for the young. In this, he has succeeded admirably.

Highest recommendation.

Format note: Churchill is available in both Kindle and softcover formats. I read the Kindle edition and can recall no problems with editing or formatting. And I do get a few pennies from each purchase made through the links in this review.

UPDATE: Catching up on my reading at Power Line, I came across historian Steven Hayward’s post quibbling with the idea of Churchill as “the last lion.” I think what he says about “Great Men” and how they differ from their contemporaries is pertinent to this review:

The tides of history and the scale of modern life have not made obsolete or incommensurate the kind of large-souled greatness we associate with Churchill or Lincoln or George Washington. Of course all of us are powerfully affected by our environment and circumstances, yet the case of Churchill offers powerful refutation to the historicist premise that humans and human society are mostly corks bobbing on the waves of history. Lots of Churchill’s contemporaries were also products of the late Victorian era—many of them from the same schools Churchill attended. But no one else had Chruchill’s courage, insight, and capacities. Why was Churchill virtually alone among his contemporaries? The answer must be that they transcended their environments and transformed their circumstances as only great men can do, and thereby bent history to their will. Which means we are contemplating a fundamental human type. Leo Strauss wrote of Churchill in a private letter to the German philosopher Karl Lowith: “A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of megalophysis [the great-souled man] exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century B.C.” (In other words, as the idea was presented in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.)

Churchill was indeed a “large soul.”




Sunday Book Review: “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century”

January 11, 2015

book cover kengor dupes

Dupes is good book on an important, under-covered aspect of our political history: the relationship over the last nearly 100 years between liberals and progressives, on the one hand, and the communists (big “C” and small “c”) who used them to advance their goals. The book is meticulously footnoted and historian Paul Kengor is scrupulously fair to his subjects, often at pains to point out that the targets of the communists’ most vicious attacks were not conservatives and Republicans, but anti-communist liberals, such as Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson.

On the subject of dupes, Kengor writes:

This is a book about dupes, about those Americans who have unwittingly aided some of the worst opponents of the United States. Misled about the true aims of foreign adversaries, many Americans (and other Westerners) have allowed themselves to be manipulated to serve opponents’ interests.

He rightly notes that for the duped, the main enemy was always to the Right, not the communists who were committing atrocities year after year, to which these dupes were blind, sometimes willfully so. Among the revelations (or perhaps just “arguments settled”) in the book are Senator Ted Kennedy’s clandestine offer to cooperate with the USSR against President Reagan and the truth that most of the famous “Hollywood Ten” really were members of the Communist Party, or at least highly sympathetic toward Stalin.

The book brings the topic of “dupery” into the modern era by connecting the generations of communists and socialists from the 1920s through the 60s radicals (especially the SDS and Weatherman) to those same radicals’ connections to President Obama in his Chicago days. It closes with an intriguing look at whether Humphrey Bogart, who violently denounced the communists when he discovered he had been duped over the Hollywood Ten, was himself a member of the Party or at least very sympathetic toward it at a low point in his life in 1934. Again, Kengor is very judicious in his analysis of the available evidence.

If I have one criticism, it’s that the book seems more a history of the communists and socialists, than of the dupes they played for sometimes-willing suckers. Still, Dupes fills a gap in our country’s recent history and is well-worth reading. The book is available in Kindle and hardcover formats. As for the Kindle edition, I’m happy to say I encountered no typos or formatting problems, which are all too common in e-books. Kengor’s writing style flows easily, sometimes conversational, but is never unprofessional.


RELATED: I earlier reviewed Paul Kengor’s “The Communist,” his biography of Frank Marshall Davis, President Obama’s Stalinist mentor during his Hawaiian boyhood.

Sunday Book Review: The Founders’ Second Amendment

March 24, 2013

book cover founders second amendment

The right to carry a weapon and the efforts to restrict that right, the latter euphemistically called “gun control,” have been much in the news lately. In the wake of horrific mass-killings at an elementary school and a movie theater, the liberal left in America (and other people genuinely appalled at what happened) have called for new restrictions on the kinds of firearms people are allowed to have. Strenuous efforts were made in the federal Senate to reinstate a ban on so-called “assault weapons,” while the states of Colorado and New York have recently passed highly restrictive new firearms laws.

Central to this debate (more of a screaming argument, really) has been the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Since the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are documents meant to limit the power of government, a central question has been “What does the amendment mean, and what does it allow the government to do?”

One would think the question would be an easy one, the phrase “shall not be infringed” being quite clear, but things are no longer so simple. Advocates of strict gun control have variously argued that the Second Amendment refers to a group right, not one held by individuals; that it refers to the right to bear arms solely while serving in a militia, not to have them in one’s home; that the right is limited only to hunting and other sporting uses, thus allowing the government to regulate firearms “not necessary” to that; that the frontier no longer exists, so there’s no need for militia-style defense; and that the progress of technology has made weapons too dangerous for individual use, thus rendering the amendment obsolete and non-operative.

Defenders of the right to bear arms, on the other hand, not only point to the plain text of the amendment, but argue that one must look to the experiences of the founding generation at the time of the amendment’s writing and how they understood the precise words they used in it and other areas of our core documents. In other words, one must consider their original intent.

Stephen A. Halbrook’s “The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms” (hereafter “TFSA”) provides an invaluable contribution to the “originalist” argument in defense of the right to keep and bear arms. Halbrook explains his intention thus:

This work seeks to present the views of the Founders who actually created the Second Amendment. It is based on their own words as found in newspapers, correspondence, debates, and resolutions. Generous quotations from the Founders are used to allow them to speak for themselves, thereby avoiding the appearance of re-characterization of their views.

The “Founders” were the generation of Americans in the eighteenth century who suffered in the final stages of British colonialism, fought the Revolution and won independence, debated and adopted the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and established the republic. The members of that generation passed away by the early nineteenth century, but their constitutional legacy is, if not immortal, a singular triumph in the history of human freedom. (Kindle edition, beginning at location 175)

Halbrook covers the roughly 60 years from 1768 (the British military occupation of Boston) to 1826 (when Adams and Jefferson died) and the Founders thinking on the right to keep and bear arms in great detail, from the colonists’ original assertion of their rights as Englishmen through the writing of the first post-independence state constitutions, the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and the debate over the Bill of Rights. He cites not only the opinions and arguments of the first-tier, well-remembered Founders (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, &c.), but also of nearly forgotten but influential men such as Tench Coxe and St. George Tucker. Quotations come from both those who supported the ratification of the Constitution (“Federalists”) and those who opposed it (“Anti-Federalists”), as well as those who would support it only with a Bill of Rights, with the right to bear arms being primary among their concerns. To make sure we understand the meanings of the amendment’s words as the Founders’ did, he frequently cites from Noah Webster’s “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” (1806).

On reading TFSA, several things become clear:

  • That, as the Founders understood it, “rights” vest in individual people and cannot be taken from them, only suppressed through tyranny.
  • That governments have no rights, only powers, and these powers can be restricted by the People.
  • That the keeping (as in “possession of property”) and bearing (“carrying”) of arms covered everything from hunting to self-defense to defense against oppressive government, and that this was a private right of the citizen, not something granted by the State or to be used only when the government permitted it. Indeed, the bearing of arms was considered the hallmark of a free citizen and necessary to the defense of his other rights, while the banning or restriction of arms in Europe was seen as prima facie evidence of oppression.

In no case, Halbrook avers, did anyone among the Founders acknowledge a government “right” to restrict, ban, or confiscate the arms of law-abiding citizens.

TFSA also spends a great deal of time on the question of a “militia” versus a “standing army,” which was a topic of overriding importance at the time, given the Americans’ experience of tyranny and violence at the hands of British regulars. Halbrook argues, to my mind convincingly, that the militia clause of the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,…” is a statement of purpose, not proscription limiting the right to bear arms to militia service. It is an assertion that the People’s right to keep and bear arms cannot be denied because a militia, composed of the body of the People, is essential to enforce the laws, suppress rebellion, defend against invasion, and as a last resort against tyrannical government, that last being something the Founders had very personal experience of in their own lives.

Regarding style, Halbrook’s writing is straightforward and easy to follow. If the book sometimes seems tedious, it is because the author is making a strong effort to be thorough and to bring home the point that early American opinions on the right to bear arms were remarkably consistent. In this case, this thoroughness is a virtue, not a flaw. However, the Kindle version, on which this review is based, is plagued with frequent typographical errors that look to be the result of scanning from the original without a subsequent editing. While very annoying, this does not detract from the book’s immense value in the current debate.

“The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms,” by Stephen Halbrook, is available in both paperback and Kindle format. (Fair disclosure: Buying a copy nets me a few pennies.)

Highly recommended.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

Sunday Book Review: “The Communist,” a biography of Barack Obama’s mentor

December 23, 2012

book cover kengor communist

Mentors matter. For better or worse, there are people who, in our formative years, influence the way we see the world and how we act to shape it in our adult life. And if the mentored individual becomes a powerful person –President of the United States, for example– then the mentor’s influence affects our lives, too, making it worth our while to know something about this person.

This is the thesis behind Paul Kengor’s “The Communist,” a political biography of Frank Marshall Davis, who Kengor contends was a hugely influential mentor to President Barack Obama. That Davis was also, as Kengor shows, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party – USA (CPUSA), a doctrinaire Stalinist and defender of all things Soviet, and a hater of the Western world, should make us curious about what influence, if any, he had on young Barack Obama.

Kengor traces Davis’ life from his birth in Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1905 to his death in Hawaii in 1987. Along the way, we see the incidents that lead Frank to reject “the American Way.” Living under Jim Crow and in fear of White racist violence (at age five he was nearly lynched by White school children), it’s not hard to see what lead Frank to reject what he saw as fake democracy and exploitative capitalism in favor of an ideology that promised, however falsely, fairness, justice, and and racial equality. Indeed, Kengor admits that he, a conservative Catholic historian, can’t help but feel sympathy for his subject, even while rejecting and condemning Davis’ devotion to a murderous ideology.

The lion’s share is devoted to Frank’s work as an columnist for various newspapers in Atlanta, Chicago, and Honolulu. With extensive quotes from Frank’s own writings, many of which had lain forgotten in archives until recent years, he demonstrates Frank’s devotion to the Soviet Union, his adoration of Stalin, and his propaganda spinning in service of Moscow’s ends.

He also chronicles Davis’ hatred for the colonial powers, Britain and Churchill especially, and for the Democratic Party in the United States. This makes sense when one recalls Frank’s devotion to Soviet communism and the firm stance taken against that menace by Truman and other leading Democrats of the day. Kengor shows that charges of “McCarthyism,” made when Frank came under investigation by the Democrat-controlled Congress and repeated by his liberal and progressive defenders until his death, were ludicrous: not only had he spent his professional career defending and praising the Soviet Union (and Mao’s China and communist Viet Nam), but his CPUSA membership number was part of his FBI file, and the Senator who lead his questioning before Congress was the same man who ended Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting. “McCarthyism” was a smoke-screen, a distraction thrown in the faces of critics for one purpose: to deflect from the fact that Davis (and others) really were Communists.

Davis moved to Hawaii from Chicago, where he had known and worked with relatives of both Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, close advisers to Obama. (These relatives were also either Communists or highly sympathetic to Stalin’s USSR.) In Hawaii, he edited and wrote for the Honolulu Record, a paper funded by the Soviet-aligned International Longshore and Warehouse Union. It was after this, in retirement, that Frank was introduced to young Barack Obama, who had been brought to Frank by Obama’s White grandfather, who wanted a Black mentor or father figure for the future president, whose own father had run out on him.

It is here that Kengor reaches the question that most interests the reader: How much influence did CPUSA-member Frank Marshall Davis have over Barack Obama, the teen who would grow up to be President of the United States?

The answer Kengor gives is “quite a bit,” but the exact influence of Davis’ mentorship on President Obama’s career and policies is left for the reader to decide. Through an examination of Obama’s writings –his memoir “Dreams from my Father” and some poetry he wrote in college– Kengor concludes that Davis was very important influence on Obama’s youth, perhaps the most significant. As for his policies as president, Kengor shows parallels between policies Frank demanded, such as universal health care, first proposed by Senator Claude Pepper in the 1940s (Pepper’s top aide was, it turned out, a paid Soviet agent), and those programs Obama has pursued. Even in targets for disdain, Obama shows Frank’s influence. For example, Frank despised Winston Churchill, and one of Obama’s first acts in office was to remove a bust of the Prime Minister, a gift from Britain, from the Oval Office. While Kengor never says outright that Obama is pursuing Frank’s goals, the parallels, at least in domestic affairs, are striking. And given that Obama, as Kengor points out, has never shown a moment of “conversion,” of rejecting the Far Left and moving toward the Center, it’s fair to assume that whatever Frank taught Obama, he still at least finds much of it agreeable.

Stylistically, “The Communist” is written in a casual, almost chatty manner that does not detract from the seriousness of its subject. The book is well-documented (it has to be, given the rabid reaction one could expect from the Left), and Kengor is fair to his subject. There is nothing sensationalistic or scandal-mongering about the book, and it avoids the lurid rumors about Frank’s sex-life to concentrate on his politics.

Paul Kengor’s “The Communist” fills an important gap in our knowledge of the education of Barack Obama, of the early, important influences on his life and thought. Taken in combination with Kurtz’s “Radical in Chief” (reviewed here) which covers Obama’s career and involvement with Socialism and Socialists from college to the presidency, we have a good, two-volume political biography of the man who would come to lead (and take over much of) the largest economy in human history.

Highly recommended.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Reading this book has reminded me yet again of what a miserable job the mainstream media did vetting Obama prior to the 2008 election. None of the material Kengor cites would have been all that difficult to find for a dedicated researcher. Sadly, they chose to devote their time to shielding him from scrutiny, instead, while covering the things that mattered to them the most, such as Sarah Palin’s tanning bed and wardrobe. Their dereliction is inexcusable.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

Sunday Book Review: “Did Muhammad Exist?”

July 8, 2012

On the surface, this seems a bit of a silly question. According to the accepted story, Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in 570 AD and set in motion events of global significance in, as one writer puts it, “the full light of History.” We know when he lived and when he died. His words and deeds have come down to this day and are held up to billions of Muslims as an example to be emulated in every aspect. Shortly after his death, Arabs inspired by this new faith conquered over half the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire, destroyed the Persian Sassanid Empire, and built an Islamic Empire stretching from Spain to India. Surely, he existed.

Eh… Not so fast.

In his new book, “Did Muhammad Exist: an inquiry into Islam’s obscure origins,” Robert Spencer goes back to sources from Islam’s early days, the 7th-9th centuries, and finds that the evidence for a religion called Islam and a prophet named Muhammad is quite a bit more dodgy than one would think.

Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Spencer examines the literary, numismatic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence from the time, both from the conquerors and the conquered, to argue that there is very little that shows the reality of Muhammad or Islam — at least in the form that we know it. For example, there is no mention of Muhammad or his religion for 70-100 years after the conquests. The conquests themselves are mentioned, of course, but the words “Muhammad,” “Islam,” and “Muslim” are strangely absent. One would think, for instance, that Patriarch St. Sophronius, who surrendered Jerusalem to the Arabs in 637 AD, would mention their religion and the figure who so inspired them and who supposedly had died just five years before. Instead, St. Sophronius calls them Saracens and does not speak of Muhammad at all. Other Christian sources call the Arab conquerors “Hagarians,” a reference  to Hagar, the concubine of Abraham who gave birth to Ishmael, the putative progenitor of the Arabs. (Indeed, another early name for the Arab conquerors is “Ishmaelite.”)

Other items jump out at the reader, too. As one example, coins from the early Caliphate (the ruler of the Arab Empire was called “Caliph.”) depict a man holding a symbol of rulership topped by… a cross. Given Islam’s hostility toward the symbol (Christians are derogatorily called “cross-worshipers”) and their firm belief that Christ was not on the cross, was not resurrected, and was not the Son of God, this is odd.

(Jesus, “Isa” in Arabic, is held to be one of the greatest prophets leading up to Muhammad. But, in Islam, He is held to be just a man, for Allah has no partners or children. To assign such to Allah is a great sin called “shirk.” According to Islam, the Christians just have got it all wrong.)

But what about Islamic sources — the Qur’an, the hadiths (sayings and deeds of Muhammad), and the earliest biographies of Muhammad? Don’t they prove his existence?

Not really. Spencer looks at problems with each and concludes they cannot be trusted as historical sources. The Qur’an, for example, was not gathered into one book until decades, perhaps a century, after Muhammad supposedly lived. Prior to that, even at the time of the conquests, there is no mention of it. The hadiths, even those considered most reliable, rely on long chains oral transmission from one person to another, back to someone who was supposedly there when Muhammad did or said whatever was being attributed to him. And even then, there is strong evidence that many were concocted to serve the purposes of factions within the Arab Empire, or simply to gull the pious out of a few coins, much like what was done with “relics” of Christian saints in the Middle Ages. And the oldest known biography of Muhammad, that written by Ibn Ishaq, was compiled from oral traditions roughly 150 years after Muhammad’s death. All of these present problems of temporal distance and the inherent problems of oral transmission and have to be considered questionable as sources.

Perhaps most telling to me was the linguistic evidence indicating that the Qur’an was not written in Arabia, nor was it a document in “purest Arabic,” as it itself asserts.

Spencer points out that, as a work of Arabic, perhaps one-fifth of the book simply makes no sense. Later scholars may come to an agreement on what a passage means (one often sees clarifying words inserted between parentheses in the Qur’an), but that does not mean the Arabic itself is intelligible.

This is so for several reasons. The first is that there are some words used, the meaning of which are unknown and have to be guessed at. The other comes from the style of writing early Arabic. Short vowels and some consonants were not indicated, so words with very different meanings (for example, “white raisins” versus “virgins”) could look confusingly alike. Later, diacritical marks or dots were added to aid in clarity, But the earliest Qur’ans lacked these marks. Instead of being perfectly clear, much of it was obscure.

Spencer reports that modern philologists have hit upon an interesting theory: that the original texts of the Qur’an were not written in Arabic, but were copied or adapted from Christian texts written in Syriac, a related Semitic language. According to scholars such as Christoph Luxenberg, if one strips out the diacritical marks and reads the text as Syriac, the Qur’an suddenly becomes clear and appears to be taken from several Christian works of the area, such as the hymns of St. Ephraem the Syrian. This makes some sense, as the early capital of the Arab Empire was not Mecca, but Damascus.

What then to make of all this? While the ultimate answer to whether Muhammad existed may be unanswerable (thus begging the question in the title…), Spencer posits that the early religion of the Arab conquerors may have been an extreme monotheism that traced its roots back to Abraham and was closely related to Judaism and especially the Christianity of the region. It then developed into the Islam we know out of the necessity to differentiate itself from these faiths and provide a focus for the unity of the new empire, as opposed to the religion of their great rivals, the Byzantines, and a justification for conquest. In this telling, Muhammad was created (or adapted from a minor figure) to give the evolving religion a heroic founder, and at least large portions of the Qur’an adapted from earlier Christian works to give the religion its own book, all this taking place in a process lasting one to two centuries.

It’s an argument I find plausible, albeit not proven.

But, also, what is the purpose of “Did Muhammad Exist?” One is that it is simply an interesting exercise in historical criticism, subjecting the historical claims of Islam to the same kind of scrutiny that has been applied to Christianity and Judaism over the last couple of centuries. In this work, Spencer collects and sifts through scholarly work and presents an interesting possibility to the general reader.

In other words, the investigation is its own reward.

But there’s another purpose, too: to introduce (or reintroduce) critical thinking about Islam and its origins to the Islamic world, where such investigations are condemned and often lead to violence against the questioner. To that end, Spencer and his publishers have arranged for translations of the book into Arabic and other languages of the Islamic world, which will be made available for free download via the Internet. It’s an intriguing exercise in planting the seeds of intellectual subversion in the cause of free thought, one that I hope bears fruit.

Summary: Robert Spencer has written a fascinating, thoughtful, and, yes, respectful book on the origins of Islam. “Did Muhammad Exist” is written in his usual easy style, is thoroughly footnoted, and comes with an extensive reading list for further research. Highly recommended, it is available in hardback and Kindle editions.

RELATED: Another review at PJMedia, by the inestimable “Zombie.” At The American Interest, Peter Berger looks at “The Koran and Historical Scholarship.”

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

Sunday Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents from Wilson to Obama

March 25, 2012

How do we evaluate our presidents? What criteria do we use to say which are great and which are bad? If you’ve grown up in the postwar American school system, that question has been answered for you. The great presidents (1) are those who were “leaders,” who saw the Constitution as a living document that could be reinterpreted to meet “the needs of the times, and who chafed at the built-in constitutional limitations on government’s power, which kept the president from enacting “needed” reforms. Bad or weak presidents were those who respected the constitutional limits and didn’t follow an interventionist domestic policy. Thus, FDR was “great,” while Calvin Coolidge was “bad.”

But to stop there is to stay within the paradigm of the liberal-progressive historiography that’s dominated in our classrooms for the last half-century or so. Historian Steven Hayward, in his “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents from Wilson to Obama,” uses another standard: how well the president in question met the requirements of his oath of office:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

With that as his starting point, Hayward looks at the conception of the presidency held by the Founders and the 19th-century presidents through McKinley (2): that the president is the Chief magistrate of the nation, there to execute the laws, defend the Constitution, and lead the military in time of war. He was not intended to be a leader or interpreter of the national will; that job was given to Congress as the elected center of our national life. Largely, they met that goal, though I would argue that Andrew Jackson, a charismatic man who often claimed to speak for the nation as a whole, previewed his 20th-century successors.

The key chapter is the next, wherein Hayward examines how Woodrow Wilson, who thought the Constitution was obsolete and held separation of powers in contempt, changed the role of the presidency to that of a “Leader” who interpreted the national will and took the nation where the currents of History were leading it — the “progress” in “progressivism.” Wilson was heavily influenced by the German philosopher Hegel, who was also heavily influential in European authoritarian movements, such as Socialism and Fascism. (This is one of the themes discussed more fully in Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism,” which I highly recommend.) In order to get where he wanted America to go, Wilson had to somehow circumvent the limitations placed on the presidency and government overall by the Constitution, hence, as Hayward notes, Wilson’s development of the doctrine of the “living Constitution,’ something near and dear to liberals today.

With that base –the original role of the presidency and how Wilson changed it– Hayward then briefly examines the administrations of each man from Wilson to Obama. He reviews each for how they saw their role, how they dealt with challenges that arose, how they thought (if they thought) about the Constitution and the meaning of the Founding, and the significance of their Supreme Court appointments (for the “living Constitution” doctrine has turned the Supreme Court into an unending constitutional convention). At the end of each chapter, he assigns the president in question a letter grade reflecting how well he met his oath. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to summarize the list here:

Wilson F
Harding B+
Coolidge A+
Hoover C-
Truman C+
Eisenhower C+
Kennedy C-
Nixon C+
Ford C+
Carter F
Reagan A-
G. H. W. Bush B
Clinton F
G. W. Bush B+
Obama F (in progress)

I’m sure readers can spot the pattern there: presidents who exceeded their constitutional authority, who failed to meet their duties, and/or who disgrace their office fare poorly. Those who show a high regard for our founding principles score well. Most fall in-between.

Like other books in the “Politically Incorrect Guide” (PIG) series, Hayward’s book is a brief overview, not a deep, detailed work. Its intent is to introduce to the reader to another way of looking at a question, a way that sharply and often controversially (3) varies from current orthodoxy — indeed, “politically incorrect.” While reading, sidebars inform the reader of interesting facts about each president, such as Harding being the coiner of the phrase “Founding Fathers,” and point one to “Books you shouldn’t read,” because they too are politically incorrect. So, even though the PIGs give just a brief survey of a topic, the reader comes away with a good reading list for further exploration.

Hayward’s style is very easy to read: straightforward, flowing, witty, but never superficial. While I don’t agree with him wholly in some cases, or at least have some reservations (4), he makes his case well and provides ammunition to conservatives looking for intellectual and constitutional grounds on which to challenge the left-liberal paradigm.

Summary: An entertaining survey of the presidency over the last 100 years that is at the same time thought-provoking and informative. Highly recommended.

(1) Some grudgingly include Reagan, even though they hate his politics, because his accomplishments just can’t be ignored.
(2) TR, one of my favorite presidents, is a transitional figure. And, I have to admit, he did go off a bit of a cliff at the end of his life with his “New Nationalism.”
(3) Don’t believe me? Try telling a committed liberal that the New Deal was an objective failure.
(4) His argument about what really caused Nixon’s fall is new to me, and I’m not wholly sold.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

Sunday Book Review: The Perils of Peace

September 4, 2011

As the years go by, I more and more realize just how poorly History is taught in our schools, both at the secondary and the the collegiate level. As a case in point, take the end of the American Revolution. How many of us still believe what we were taught, that the war was won with the US victory over the British at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 and that the 1783 Treaty of Paris was really just a formality?

Boy, have we got some un-learning to do.

Thomas Fleming’s The Perils of Peace: America’s struggle for survival after Yorktown (hereafter, “Perils”), tells the story of the post-Yorktown years: not only of the travails of the United States to turn de facto independence into internationally recognized reality, but also of the Great Powers that were part of the war, Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, to end it before they all went broke. (We already were. See? History does repeat itself.)

Fleming tells this story as narrative history, relating events through the eyes and personalities of men often in conflict with each other and operating from motives ranging from noble and selfless to petty and base. The author makes it clear in his prose those whom he admires and respects and those for whom he has contempt. At the top of the list of the former are, probably not surprisingly, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who both not only had to carry on the military and diplomatic struggle with London, but often also had to battle generals and politicians on their own side. At the other end are characters clearly low in Fleming’s esteem, such as Continental Congress Delegate Arthur Lee, who for years waged a vindictive campaign to destroy Franklin and the French alliance. Even John Adams, a future president, was too often (in Fleming’s presentation) petty, vain, and jealous of any perceived slight to his honor, but who also in the end played an important role in the final treaty negotiations.

Fleming presents the European actors in a similar manner, though perhaps with less obvious biases. King George III, while adamant about holding the British Empire together and putting down the rebellious colonies, is treated with some sympathy and even a grudging admiration. Far from being the dolt of popular myth, he was a skilled political operator who was long able to dominate Parliament and came reasonably close to making that arrangement permanent. Indeed, Fleming often refers to George III as the “Patriot King,” and I don’t think he was writing that tongue-in-cheek.

There is also the key French player, not King Louis XVI, but his foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, who was determined to restore France’s position as the preeminent European power, which had been severely tarnished after her defeat at Britain’s hands in the Seven Years (French and Indian) War. Vergennes and Franklin formed a close alliance and even friendship, which lead not only to France’s recognition of American independence and her entry into the war, but loan after loan and gift after gift, which the Continental Congress would always burn through and then come asking for more, even after radicals in Congress would belittle and insult France.

Make no mistake, though; France was not doing this out of admiration for America, though that played its part through figures such as Lafayette, but out of  sense of self-interest in the great contests of European politics. And it was that “Great Game” that provided the catalyst for the final negotiations over the Treaty of Paris, as event as far away as Russia and Turkey and near as the emptying treasuries of France, Britain, and Philadelphia (where the Continental Congress sat)  impelled the Europeans and Americans to finally make peace.

In telling the story of the post-Yorktown years, Fleming weaves certain themes through his book. One is the role of the Atlantic Ocean itself, so vast that potentially critical information would reach the people who needed it only after weeks and months. Sometimes this would work in our favor, sometimes not.

There is also the nauseating fecklessness and factionalism of the Continental Congress, riven by ideology between what might be called the “practical politicians” (Madison, Hamilton, and others) and the “True Whigs,” a faction so caught up with ideology that they nearly wrecked our diplomacy in Europe and showed churlish ingratitude toward the Regulars of the Continental Army, even refusing to make good on back pay that was years overdue.

But don’t think the states were much better. Under the Articles of Confederation, even just one state saying “no” could block revenue-raising measures for the federal government. While that might sound appealing these days, it lead us to the edge of national bankruptcy and actual rebellion in the Army, when soldiers demanding their pay marched on Congress. (Leading that body to bravely run away, skedaddling first to New Jersey and then to Maryland.) Individual states were mean-spirited even to the troops who had saved them from the British, as experienced by General Nathanael Greene’s forces in South Carolina and Georgia when they were refused the money to even buy anything other than rotting food.

Fleming’s goal in showing us the small-mindedness of both Congress and the states is not just to make us shake our heads in wonder that we survived at all, though it does that when one also considers British efforts after Yorktown to divide the states and entice some to rejoin the Empire, but it also sets the stage for one of the most important moments in our history, one that helped define our character and set the tone for civil-military relations to this day: General Washington’s retirement and surrender of his commission to Congress, refusing those who urged him to instead march on Congress and even become King of America. This moment, recalling the story of Cincinattus from the Roman Republic, might well have kept the new nation from falling apart in conflict and even civil war.

There’s much more, of course, from the heart-wrenching stories of the slaves who sought freedom with the British and the slave-owners in the southern states who so feared revolt that they refused to arm and free slaves for service in the Continental Army, even though manpower was desperately needed, to the Tories themselves, whom we often think of as traitors, but who really were loyal Englishmen, many of whom bet and lost all by siding with their King.

There was the savage violence of the guerrilla war between Rebels and Loyalists in both the south and in New Jersey, and the strange story of Vermont, whose founders essentially stole the land of Loyalist New Yorkers, fought hard against the British, yet who negotiated both with the Continental Congress and the British commander in Canada to see who could offer them the best deal. (And one can see why, since Governor Clinton of New York was demanding an army be sent to crush them.)

The Perils of Peace, at just over 300 pages, is a skillful telling of a history far too few of us are familiar with; it is a book that truly makes the reader marvel that we not only grew to be the wealthiest, most powerful nation on Earth, but that we survived our birth at all.

Highly recommended.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)