Freiheit! by Andrea Grosso Ciponte

I am not a huge graphic novel reader, but when given the chance to explore an interesting subject or approach to illustration I will pick one up.

Freiheit! by Andrea Grosso Ciponte is a good example.

With an entire nation blindly following an evil leader, where did a handful of students find the courage to resist? The university students who formed the White Rose, an undercover resistance movement in Nazi Germany, knew that doing so could cost them their lives. But some things are worth dying for.

The White Rose printed and distributed leaflets to expose Nazi atrocities and wake up their fellow citizens. The Gestapo caught and executed them. Sophie Scholl was twenty-one; her brother Hans, twenty-four; Christoph Probst, twenty-three; Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, twenty-five.

But the White Rose was not silenced. Their heroism continues to inspire new generations of resisters. Now, for the first time, this story that has been celebrated in print and film can be experienced as a graphic novel. Italian artist Andrea Grosso Ciponte’s haunting imagery will resonate with today’s students and activists. The challenges they face may vary, but the need for young people to stand up against evil, whatever the cost, will remain.

I was intrigued by the description: “The dramatic true story of a handful of students who resisted the Nazis and paid with their lives, now in a stunning graphic novel.”

I found it an odd yet powerful exploration of the underground resistance to Hitler. The art is dark and almost surreal while the text is formal and driven by literature and philosophy.

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Soldiers of a Different Cloth by John Wukovits

Military chaplains—if the person does their job correctly, they are some of the most underappreciated people in the military. John Wukovits brings his superb World War II knowledge to chronicle some of the University of Notre Dame’s clergy who served as chaplains in the U.S. military during World War II in Soldiers of a Different Cloth: Notre Dame Chaplains in World War II.

Wukovits highlights a few of the 35 clergy members from Notre Dame who served during the war. He pays particular attention to Rev. Joseph D. Barry, Rev. John E. Duffy, Rev. Henry Heintskill, and six missionaries caught in the Philippines at the beginning of the war (Sisters Mary Olivette and Mary Caecilius and Brothers Theodore Kapes and Rex Hennel, and Fathers Jerome Lawyer and Robert McKee).

Wukovits’ strength of highlighting the individual is in full display in the book.

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Audiobook Review: Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace

After I heard Chris Wallace on special Dispatch Live event with Jonah Goldberg, I put Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World by Chris Wallace, with Mitch Weiss on my TBR pile.

Not that I am particularly interested in WWI (military history is Jeff’s bailiwick) or the dropping of the atomic bomb, but because I was interested in seeing how Wallace made the subject interesting given we all know what happened and the issues involved have been debated too death.  I was curious to see what an old school, straight shooter journalist made of the history.

It turned out the easiest way to get a copy from the library was to listen to the audiobook narrated by Wallace himself. So when it became available, I grabbed it and started listening.

Not surprisingly, Wallace is a great narrator and the style and focus of the book work well in audio format.  Unlike some more dense and technical history, I found this enjoyable to listen to and easy to pay attention

As to content, I found it to be a compelling and informative look at the events leading up the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in August of 1945. It gives you the perspective not only of President Truman and other larger than life figures but also of a host of minor characters from scientists and military leaders to those who worked at Oak Ridge and Japanese citizens who experienced the destruction of Hiroshima.

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Give Me Liberty by Richard Brookhiser

One of the myriad reasons for the near-death of this blog is that I simply don’t have the time, focus or energy to put into serious reviews of serious books. I read a decent amount of non-fiction but review very little of it. I feel caught in a catch-22, if I could write serious reviews of non-fiction I could get paid to do it and yet I rarely get around to posting quick reviews of the same books because I want to do the book justice.

Well, if this whole #StayHomeAndRead thing is going to work I am going to have to post some short blog reviews of non-fiction books. So let’s start with one of my favorite authors, Richard Brookhiser, and his latest book Give Me Liberty.

There are two things happening in this book: one is a simple history of America through the lens of our pursuits of liberty, the second is an argument about American nationalism.

The first thread creates the structure of the book

This book focuses instead on thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent shots from the album of our long marriage to liberty. They say what liberty is. They show who asked for it, when, and why. Since no marriage is ever simple, they track its ups and downs. These thirteen liberty documents define America as the country that it is, different from all others

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2/100 – Notre Dame by Ken Follett

If you have been following along, in 2020 I am attempting to read 100 books.  I am also going to blog each book.  Hence the 2/100 in the title of this post.  Book #2 was another “hmm, that looks interesting and it has the added benefit of being short” library grab.  And as I often enjoy, and tend to collect, short biographies or histories of people, place and ideas Notre Dame by Ken Follett fit the bill.

But it turned out to basically be a short essay exploring the history of the cathedral in the aftermath of the great fire in 2019 via historical touch points or vignettes. It is a sort of explanation of why the famous cathedral captured our imagination and became such a symbol. It felt, however, too short and insubstantial for anyone with knowledge of the subject. For those new to it, however, may spark interest in further reading. And proceeds from sales are donated to the restoration fund.

Publishers description:

Hardcover Notre Dame by Ken FollettIn this short, spellbinding book, international bestselling author Ken Follett describes the emotions that gripped him when he learned about the fire that threatened to destroy one of the greatest cathedrals in the world–the Notre-Dame de Paris. Follett then tells the story of the cathedral, from its construction to the role it has played across time and history, and he reveals the influence that the Notre-Dame had upon cathedrals around the world and on the writing of one of Follett’s most famous and beloved novels, The Pillars of the Earth.

I suppose we should give marketing a break but “spellbinding” is a bit much.  It is an interesting essay if you have an interest in the famous cathedral and/or the author but if you want to give the restoration fund there are easier ways to do so than buy a book that would be better off as a series of blog posts. The Smithsonian Magazine has a taste.

But on the other hand, if you enjoy this sort of thing, grab a short fast read that illuminates some key historical/literary vignettes that brought us to the that fateful day when the fire started.

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Suicide of the West and Its Critics

The first part of my review of Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg sought to outline the book’s argument (1900 word outline, I know).  In this post I want to address some of the critics of the book and thus explore the tensions noted at the start of my review.

Many of Goldberg’s critics charge that he ruled out the answer that must underlie any true restoration or rehabilitation of our society: God.  I think this is an unfair criticism in a couple of ways; tactical and philosophical.

From a tactical standpoint, they ignore the fact that Goldberg removes God for the sake of argument not because he is an atheist or thinks religion plays no role.  He is aiming at persuasion in a democratic public square where reason and decency are the highest form of argument. To argue from the perspective of faith would be to lose a sizable chunk of his audience from the very beginning.

Philosophically, Goldberg is arguing from a position of pluralism and common ground because he believes it is the best way to defend and shore up the blessings of the Miracle.  The book is full of calls for strengthening and restoring civil society, for creating space for institutional pluralism, for refusing to ground meaning in national political symbols and language.  The place for religious values and faith to flourish is in this system, not in a hoped for near universal faith-based worldview or culture.

Two critiques/reviews are worth noting.  Let’s start with Jonah Goldberg’s Soulless Case for Liberty by Richard M. Reinsch II.  Allow me to quote a section that represents the heart of this critique:

Does the Enlightenment Miracle provide the best understanding of America? And if it doesn’t—if in fact there are better tributaries that nourished the American Founding—does that mean that Goldberg’s diagnosis of what ails America will be similarly off-target?

This is not to affirm Rousseau’s political project, but it is to say that you have to take the rough with the smooth. If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal. If man’s mind constitutes reality, then truly how far are you from arriving at Marx’s famous admonition that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Frankly, I do not have the philosophical or historical chops to untangle the arguments Reinsch makes regarding Locke, et al.  But there are two basic points worth highlighting. One is the argument that the excesses of the Enlightenment are part and parcel of the Enlightenment.  In this view if you are going to celebrate the good, you must include the bad in the accounting; if you accept the blessing of the Miracle you must also accept Marxism, Communism, Scientism and a host of other extremes.

John Daniel Davidson’s review follows similar lines:

The fundamental problem with his argument is that it rests on an incomplete account of the Enlightenment and the liberal order. Yes, the Miracle gave us capitalism and democracy, but it also gave us hyper-individualism, scientism, and communism. It gave us liberty and universal suffrage, but it also gave us abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism. The abolition of man was written into the Enlightenment, in other words, and the suicide of the West that Goldberg warns us about isn’t really a suicide at all, because it isn’t really a choice: we aren’t committing suicide, we’re dying of natural causes.

[…]

If Goldberg wants to preserve the Miracle, he’s going to have to do a better job of explaining how it happened. To do that, he’s going to have to look back further than 300 years and rediscover the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to. Western civilization depends on sturdier stuff than material wealth, or individualism, or even democracy.

First, I think this is a little unfair.  Goldberg is describing the ingredients that led to the Miracle not trying to define and argue the strengths and weaknesses of something broadly termed the Enlightenment.

Second, if you accept what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) as the basis for politics must you then accept any and all of the extremes of individualism, reason and science?  Does an appreciation for liberal democratic capitalism require accepting Marxism, Communism, and Socialism not too mention the extremes of the Progressive Era?

I think Goldberg makes a compelling, if limited, case that the extremes were more outgrowths of romantic and reactionary impulses than simply natural outgrowths of the foundational ideas.  But he understands that history is messy and that ideas are not teleological but interactive and contingent.

Look closely and you will see that both Davidson and Reinsch are putting a greater burden on Goldberg than he seeks to take up.  Goldberg sought not to offer the best explanation for America nor the whole of Western Civilization but rather the explosion of wealth and flourishing he calls the Miracle.  

As was noted in my review, civilization alone is not sufficient to create the Miracle.  The ancient roots of Western Civilization are important but they did not lead directly to the change Goldberg seeks to explore .  The “old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to” can and did exist without the economic explosion that is at the heart of the book.

The irony of many of these critics, in my opinion, is that they are guilty of the very reactionary or romantic nostalgia-based impulse that Goldberg decries.  They seek a return to Christendom or at least a worldview based on Christian infused values. They seek a return to a civilization based on the values of Athens and Jerusalem via Rome.  This may be understandable and even preferable in theory, but, in my opinion, that world is not coming back. Can we use ancient wisdom to chart a better course forward and restrain the excesses of our culture?  Yes, but we can’t return to a pre-enlightenment West or rebuild Christendom.

Goldberg doesn’t deny the role Christianity played in the West and discusses and debates the role it played in the Miracle, but he rightly understands that Christendom alone did not create the prosperous West.  Liberal democratic capitalism did. Discussion of where we go from here must acknowledge where we are, how we got here, and plot a path forward not seek a return to a mythical past.

Other critics have questioned whether Goldberg’s argument can really be called conservative (see Davidson).  Before I get to this larger issue, this Trumpian comment at the end of Reinsch’s review I think it points to something:

Trump’s victory, along with the victory of the Brexiteers in June of 2016, led me to the following conclusion: when something like 90 percent of the smart, rich, pretty people throw it all at you and you still win, then a reassessment of politics in your democracy is surely called for. I’m a conservative after all, there are no formulas or templates. For those, I look to the libertarians.

This is what you might call paleoconservative virtue signalling.  It is an attempt to paint Goldberg with the brush of an out of touch and mistaken liberal elite (and the comments use this as an excuse to dismiss the book and author). Put aside Goldberg’s critique of Trump through the lens of romantic and reactionary ideas, and Trump’s clear lack of philosophical conservatism or knowledge of any of the history Reinsch covers, does the fact that Trump took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s historic weakness to win roughly 40k votes in three states, and thus the presidency, really call for a reassessment of politics in our democracy?  Maybe Trump is not sui generis but part of a larger pattern that Goldberg highlights; maybe he is a symptom rather than a cause.

Again, I think attempts to write Goldberg/SOTW out of conservatism is off for both tactical and philosophical reasons.  Tactically Goldberg is seeking common ground within the broad range of American political history. This might be called “classical liberalism” for lack of a better term.  For Goldberg, American conservatives seek to conserve the genius of the American founding. And he believes it is important, and possible, to find common ground on the values and principles contained therein with those who don’t see themselves as explicitly conservative.

I understand that there are strains of conservatism (paleo or traditionalist) that reject classical liberalism, roughly what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution, as a philosophical or political foundation.  But in my opinion this is not the dominant perspective of modern American conservatism and Goldberg is solidly within the confines of that group; fusionism rightly understood.

Goldberg acknowledges that the ingredients of the Miracle contain within themselves the possibility to undermine the larger project.  Capitalism and innovation are a threat to tradition and stability. Individualism and rationalism can lead to family and cultural breakdown and loneliness and isolation which leads to reactionary and romantic alternatives.  He spends time outlining Schumpeter’s and others arguments on these tensions.

Equally clear, is Goldberg’s rejection of progressivism and its heirs today; those who would overturn the Miracle.  He is seeking, again for lack of a better term, the vital center; a group who may disagree on specific policies and approaches but who share a commitment to liberal democratic capitalism.

While he rejects the romantic/reactionary element of both left and right, he is also deeply conservative and even traditionalist.  Again, he passionately advocates for the rebuilding of civil society, for pushing power down rather than up, and for the institutional pluralism that allows faith, family and community to flourish.  There is a whole chapter on the attack on the family.

The problem is that so many want to nationalize and universalize these battles as part of American politics.  The result is polarizing culture wars that don’t end up strengthening civil society, families or communities.

The challenge is twofold. One is that the mental division of labor critical to the success is unnatural and feels foreign.  Two is that applying these ideas work for the macrocosm but not for the microcosm; they work for the large society and world but not for our families, neighborhoods, and churches.

Goldberg’s answer is not a re-founding of Western thought on Judeo-Christian or pre-enlightenment philosophy  but rather a sort of localist pluralism.  Acknowledging and being grateful for the ideas and principles that allowed for the unprecedented economic growth and human flourishing of the last 300 years while recognizing the constant human temptation to tribalism and romanticism that undermines these values.  But at the same time defending, and at times rebuilding, civil society at the local level. Tending the gardens of family, civic organizations, religious communities, and local institutions.

Goldberg does not deny the tensions involved in this conservative project within a liberal democratic capitalist system but rather accepts it as the challenge we face.  

The question is whether we are up to it.

 

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U Bacon

I am a big military history buff, but I have to admit that I do not recall knowing much about the explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia during World War I. John Bacon’s The Great Halifax Explosion fills in all of the details you may ever want to know about the incident.

Bacon writes about the history of Halifax and its relationship (and greater Canada as well) with the United States. He provides an excellent point of view from a Canadian. Prior to the explosion, Haligonians (and most Canadians) were not too keen on Americans since we always wanted to invade and absorb them into the U.S. This relationship, especially between Halifax and Boston, forever changed after the explosion and Boston’s efforts to assist Haligonians.

Bacon presents a fairly straight forward narrative of the events leading up to, during, and after the explosion. I am particularly struck by his description of the actions of the crew of the French freighter Mont-Blanc. He not only discusses the crew’s abandonment of the ship after the collision, but goes beyond the simple narrative. He asks you to not judge their actions – which partially led to the death of thousands – based on your current position, but to put tyourself in the shoes of the captain and the harbor pilot. Bacon asks if you would do something different in a split second, knowing that your decision could cost you your life.

He juxtaposes the crew’s actions with the actions of train dispatcher Vincent Coleman who sacrificed himself to save hundreds who were on an inbound train right before the explosion. Coleman also had to make a split second decision, but he chose to die to save others. It is a wonderful look at human behavior during a critical time.

Bacon’s writing style is easy to read and follow along with the story. Throughout the book , he points out various decisions and personalities and how those personalities and decisions influenced Halifax and its residents.

A great book on a very unfamiliar subject.

Spies in the Family by Eva Dillon

Eva Dillon’s first book is a doozy – Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War – it chronicles the professional lives of one of America’s greatest Russian assets and Dillon’s father Paul, who was in the CIA.

The Russian asset – Dmitri Polyakov – was a hero of the Soviet Union during World War II who became disenchanted with communism. He did not pass information to the Americans for money (he never wanted any payments), but as a way to get back at the corrupt leaders of the Soviet Union. He spied for the United States for almost two decades. As a result of his work, he helped the U.S. avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union and provided a plethora of information on the inner workings of Soviet intelligence.

Paul Dillon – a career CIA agent who was Polyakov’s handler for a brief time – helped the U.S. navigate the intrigue of the Cold War. He and Polyakov enjoyed a strong bond that developed into deep respect. Of all Polyakov’s handlers, Paul was the most trusted.

Dillon masterfully tells the story of both men simultaneously as they rose in the ranks of the CIA and GRU (Soviet international intelligence). Both men were valued in their respective agencies. I particularly enjoyed reading about the interaction between Polyakov and Paul – they seemed to have a genuine liking for each other.

In the midst of telling their stories, Dillon intermingles other significant events involving espionage between the two countries – particularly the harm done to the CIA by former CIA agent Philip Agee, the glut of information on the MiG-25 fighter provided by Soviet pilot/defector Viktor Belenko, and the disaster that was CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames. Dillon superbly explains the ramifications of each of these events not only on the two countries, but the two men as well.

A well-documented and written account of the Cold War.