Book Review: Salvation Not Purchased by Stephen Finlan

In this well written book, Dr. Finlan takes pains to emphasize the positive. Given his subject, this isn’t entirely possible since he is inveigling against a major pillar of Christianity throughout the world. The most powerful argument against the Atonement is that it is illogical, in fact impossible if God is infinite and changeless (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). Finlan covers this argument but briefly in the beginning of the book. In a later chapter on sacrifice in the earliest Christian literature, he points out how very little of it is present (see review reproduced below). He does note the strong re-emergence of the Atonement idea in the further evolution of Catholicism, and much more so in Protestantism. He explores the psychological roots of this process, something that, as a minister, must interest him deeply. What he does not explore, what he seems deliberately to leave out, are the political and financial implications of the doctrine to the institution of “the Church”.

Finlan points out that sacrifice to propitiate or magically manipulate “the gods” was likely practiced from very early in the human experience. The peoples of Europe and Palestine in Jesus’ time were used to the practice, a part of their “ritual calendar”, and in the Hebrew case recorded in their holy book, and cemented into their experience in both Egypt and Babylon. That such practice was inconsistent with an infinite and changeless God was noted by some of the main Hebrew prophets. The compilers of the Old Testament were liberal enough to include these minority voices in their document, though minority that they were, the practice of sacrifice continued, but at least for the Hebrews transformed from human to animal. Interestingly, while Finlan notes that the earliest Christian writings (sans Paul) had very little of sacrifice, it also had no criticism of Paul’s ideas. There weren’t any “minority voices” challenging Paul’s ideas, at least not in the records that have come down to us.

Paul’s references to ransom and other sacrificial metaphors were not so radical an idea in his time, though they misrepresented Jesus’ purpose. What was radical was Paul’s idea of “last sacrifice”. Thanks to Jesus (according to Paul) no more sacrifice was needed, ever. Jesus’ death ended sacrificial requirements forever! By Jesus’ time, the Hebrew, Roman, and Greek cultures had abandoned human sacrifice and substituted animals. Paul may be credited with ending even this practice as Christianity took root in that part of the world. Of course it did not end elsewhere. Hebrew sacrificial practice did not end until the temple was destroyed and the Jews disbursed some seventy years after Jesus’ death. In Rome, sacrificial practice likely continued until Constantine made the new Christianity the “religion of Rome” in 313 AD. The Aztec practiced human sacrifice until the coming of the Europeans to South and Central America in the 16th century! But rather than eliminate the sacrifice idea altogether, the evolving church transformed it, from an external ritual, innocent animals, to an internal one, the not so innocent human being.

A church is a physical and social institution. It wants buildings and, in the case of Catholicism (most religions though) a hierarchy of priests who must be fed, clothed, housed, and so on. But imagine that the evolving church proclaimed what Jesus actually taught, that God is a “Universal Father” and that all peoples, the men and women of all cultures everywhere on earth, were God’s children and therefore brothers. In a view derived from the infinity and changelessness of God (qualities Jesus understood well though he could not convey them in a way that made them stick) this relationship is true, and has always been true, no matter what one’s intellectual beliefs, culture, race or geographic location. While it is obvious that not everyone on earth in Jesus’ time or today believes this, it remains a truth. Atheists and religionists alike are all children of God!

Jesus tried to make it clear that salvation was tied to membership in this brotherhood. Humans are born into it and are saved by default. You need not even believe in salvation or brotherhood to be saved. All you need do is not screw up the gift which you can do only by freely electing to be evil to such an extent that you eventually lose the ability to tell the difference between good and evil (see “What is the Soul”). What you must do is demonstrate your spiritual (not intellectual) recognition of the truth of brotherhood by acting like a brother, that is by treating others with love, respect, fairness, and so on, that is, “doing good”.

So why have a church at all? The reason is that while religion is individual, your relationship with God, its fruits are necessarily social. You cannot go about doing good unless you are, at least occasionally, around others in social settings. It is natural for people who share beliefs in this vicinity to gather together for social and psychological reinforcement. One can do good and practice the social outworking of one’s religion among people anywhere, but it it is also good to refresh one’s outlook on the process by periodically coming together with others who also come into a fellowship because they share this outlook.

Had such a process been followed out socially and politically, resulting churches would be smallish, local, congregations that support their own physical infrastructure, choose the form of their services, and otherwise have no formal relation to other congregations except those they enter into by their own congregational choice. There would be no priestly hierarchy though individual congregations might choose to finance full or part-time ministers. Creedal doctrine, if there is any at all, would emerge at the level of individual congregations, and individuals would be free to leave one and join another. It should be obvious that under this model no large-scale rich and powerful institutional church could possibly emerge.

Yet men (some men) crave power. Prior to the Gospel message in the Roman world there were religious institutions, Mithra-ism being the dominant one in Rome in Paul’s time. Prior to modern times, members of various priestly hierarchies (and not only in Rome, but worldwide) were among the better off classes financially, socially, and politically. As Paul told it, the Jesus story had many parallels in Mithraic myth. The formal structure of Catholicism, as compared to spontaneous congregations of various Christian (meaning only believers in Jesus) groups, sprang from mithra-ism. The Urantia Book credits Paul with convincing the political powers of the Mithraic cult to substitute Jesus and Peter, “his rock”, for Mithras in exchange for adopting Mithraic rituals (like the winter solstice festival becoming Christmas) leaving the priestly hierarchy in place. If this is the case it means that the nascent core of Catholicism sprang into existence during Paul’s lifetime.

Salvation for all who believed in God and accepted the gift became salvation for those who became members of the Church and did so by accepting Paul’s idea that Jesus’ “sacrifice” was for them, while the sacrificial theme was carried through the believer through his or her dedication of both material wealth (proportional to individual means) and work, to the Church. Universal brotherhood became a brotherhood of believers, and the brotherhood was cemented by acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice for the believer. Sacrifice of wealth (among other things) to “temples of the gods” was common in that day as it remains in ours. Paul’s notion of “final sacrifice” did put an end to the slaughter of innocent animals (not to mention the occasional person) in the Roman world at least, and the sacrificial notions made for a nice segue into a doctrinal pillar of the new Church. No longer was it the literal sacrifice of an animal, but rather a sacrifice of one’s self to the Church whose believers were saved and the salvation made real by Christ’s blood.

Dr. Finlan asks why the sacrificial idea has had such sticking power. He devotes two chapters to the subject, but he ignores this particular reason, the power of the idea as a hook securing the relation between believer and Church. Catholicism of course had more than one hook (the intercession of the clergy being another). But Protestantism abandoned the intercession idea and this perhaps explains why they then put such emphasis on the Atonement. I suspect Dr. Finlan knows all of this, but he elides the political implications of Atonement for the Church out of a desire to avoid unnecessary political antagonism in a book that, in the end, promulgates a positive message of the love of an infinite and changeless God.

 

Salvation Not Purchased (2020) by Stephen Finlan

Stephen Finlan holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Durham (2004) and has written several books on the Christian Atonement Doctrine. His latest effort appears aimed at a lay audience. Finlan’s writing is conversational, not technical. It is almost as if the chapters emerge out of sermons delivered on the subject in the New England church he presently pastors. Not that there isn’t scholarship here. Every page contains biblical examples (spelled out) and references to other authors (in chapter notes) all enhancing and not impeding the flow of his narrative.

Atonement, the idea that Christ died to reconcile God to man (Finlan distinguishes four variations on reconcilliation) is an idea that infuses every branch of Christianity, though I learn from this book that it is not so much emphasized by the Eastern Christian churches (Greek or Russian Orthodox) as it is in Western Roman Catholicism, and especially in Protestantism. He notes, the idea seems to have taken on a life of its own since the Protestant Reformation and on down to the present day, an emphasis that was not nearly so prevalent in the early Christian church, not even in the letters of Paul who Finlan credits with the development of the doctrine. But while Paul surely did lay the foundations of the doctrine as it entered Christianity, Finlan claims Paul did not mean his redemption and sacrifice metaphors to be taken as literally as subsequent generations have taken them. Finlan points out that in speaking of Jesus’s political murder and miscarriage of justice, Paul deliberately mixed up his metaphors suggesting a message about Christ’s forgiveness of our sins even in his death, and not an attempt to forge a salvation mechanism out of Jesus’s brutal murder.

Finlan begins by pointing out that the Atonement, as it has come down to modern times, is inconsistent with the portrait of God Jesus painted in his life. It is, in fact inconsistent with the very idea of an “infinite Father”, and in particular one who is changeless! In his first chapters, he deals with this issue in the abstract. Philosophically speaking, Paul was wrong to go down that path, but to be fair he could not have foreseen how his poetic excess would be crystallized into stifling doctrine centuries later.

Finlan then asks why this sacrificial idea has so much power? He reviews the sacrificial ritual history of the Jews, Romans, and Greeks, noting that while sacrifice was universal in that age, even many of the Hebrew prophets understood that God did not want sacrifice but rather righteousness. Nevertheless, while recorded, the voice of these prophets amounted to minority opinions, the sacrificial practices continuing on down to Jesus’s time. The culture of Jesus’s time and place was steeped in the sacrificial idea.

Next he moves on to an investigation of sacrifice in the early centuries after Jesus, and notes that there is very little of the notion in the earliest writings except for Paul, and the few references that appear in other writings that come down to us were inserted at later dates. They are not present in the earliest surviving [Greek] texts. Even Paul (Finlan points out) wrote much more about love, community, relationship (brotherhood) and faith (God gives salvation freely, one has only to believe it) than redemption by Jesus’s death.

Moving forward in time, Finlan explores how the Atonement idea became crystallized in the later Catholic church and particularly in Protestantism which, even today, preserves it in an extreme form. Finlan follows his historical review with a chapter on the corrosive psychological effects of the doctrine both in the genesis of Protestantism (Calvinism being the most extreme example) and on down to the present day. We are not culturally inured to the idea of sacrifice to propitiate an angry God. As a result, Atonement cannot help but confuse modern Christians who are told that God is entirely good, and yet, in this doctrine, survives the notion of a God whose heart must be softened by the death of his innocent son. Finlan ends the book with a chapter on Christology emphasizing what Jesus did and said in his life rather than putting so much emphasis on his death.

The Atonement idea should long ago have been purged from the Christian faith. It is inconsistent with the goodness of an infinite “Father God” whose changeless attitude toward all of his children has always been love and salvation, eternal life, a free gift requiring only a sincere desire to do God’s will and love others. Dr. Finlan not only gets all the arguments right, his writing is elegant and persuasive. One can only hope that this little book eases the minds of many confused Christians with Jesus’s real message: God is a good and loving Father, and salvation is a free gift to any who sincerely seek it.

Book Review: God’s Grand Game by Steven Colborne

As noted in the review itself (included below) this is the worst theological idea I have ever read. In literally every chapter (maybe but one) there is some contradiction. But all of them, with but a couple of minor variations, stem from the author’s one grand mistake. His failure to recognize that a truely infinite, eternal God is not limited, in creation, to the temporal! Colborne misunderstands the nature of time, that while we, human mind and with particular regard to its creative powers, are stuck in an eternal now of succession, God, who purportedly is the creator of time, is not so limited. As concerns God, the creation of other entities, other creation, that are also eternal with Him, persons who were begat but nevertheless “have, like God, no beginning” are not square circles, not logical impossibilities.

Once that truth (something that must be true of an infinite and self-consistent God) is accepted, Colborne’s entire theological idea falls apart. It is in the creation of such persons, two conjoint eternal persons, that God escapes from the logical trap that Colborne thinks he sets. God can continue to uphold everything. He remains, after all, the only absolute source. But he is able to withdraw from actually having to do everything. By creating others to whom God gives powers to do (and then sharing in that doing) God sets a pattern that imprints itself on the entire universe (the Father creates the Son and together they share in creating the Spirit), including the physical, at least as soon as persons are able to be made within it. Not only does this make the reality of free will possible (in direct contradiction to Colborne), but it inverts everything Colborne concludes. The living universe is filled with various degrees of free will. Free will that has risen to the personal level, partners with God (if it so chooses, the freedom is real after all) in the evolution (in the case of biological humans on physical worlds) of the physical universe itself.

Colborne’s idea is the ultimate skepticism, even as concerns God. Not only can we not know for sure anything about what seems to be our genuine experience (there being after all no real us to know anything), but except for the assumption that one entity (God) exists, we cannot know anything about Him either given that Colborne’s theology makes God a deceiver! I’m not going to use a lot of space refuting him in detail. It should be obvious that if God literally, personally, and directly does everything that is done, and if at the same time God is literally everything and everything is God (Colborne asserts all of this), there is no room for anything else. But why would anyone embrace such an absurd self-negating idea? If Colborne was right, he had nothing to do with his book. God did it all. Nor have I anything to do with this critical essay, God did that too. Why? If none of this is really how it seems it can have no meaning, not only to ourselves (strictly speaking we are nothing but figments of God’s imagination) but even to God! Such a God is if not psychotic, at least very neurotic, and I think that is the clue we need to answer the why question!

Colborne tells us a bit about himself at the beginning of the book. He had a hard growing-up punctuated by psychotic episodes. I’m certainly not qualified to analyze him, but one has to suspect that his whole theology absolves him of something. What? Responsibility. Neither he, nor you, nor I are ever responsible for anything! Further (and Colborne mentions this), if your brain is in some small way defective, you are not responsible for any psychosis anyway, but how much better if not only are you not responsible for the problem, but that God actually wants things this way. He must! After all he could fix that defect right now if he so willed it. You may not know why he wants that defect, but it doesn’t matter because first there isn’t any you anyway, and if something is the case, it can only be God making it happen right now! If there is no free will after all, not only is nothing any of our responsibility, but even better there is nothing any of us can do about it because this is the way God wants things, and this also includes the most depraved evil!

I put this review and commentary up because it so contrasts with a vision of an infinite God who is self-consistent and therefore wholly good. To get an idea of the magnitude of the difference this implies here are some links..

A self-consistent first principles theology: Prolegomena to a Future Theology
On ethics, God as a pointer to the value direction: What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?
On free will and the point of all this creation: Why Free Will?
On mind able to comprehend genuine truth: From what comes Mind?

What is evil and why does it exist if God is good?: Theodicy in the Urantia Book 

Each of these essays contain pointers to many others. On the absurdity of the “no free will” idea for example see: Arguing with Automatons.

 

God’s Grand Game (2019) by Steven Colborne

In this short book, Steven Colborne offers us a complete, if shortened, theology, a “theory of God”. It is, in my opinion, the worst theory of God I have ever read, not merely because it is wrong (no human thinker gets everything right about God), but because its error amounts to God being evil. Why then three stars and not two or one? I appreciate the scope of Colborne’s effort. He covers a lot here, and he writes well. Beginning from reasonable premises he makes one grand logical error and from that he courageously drives his theory to its conclusion. He is honest about all of this effort, carefully distinguishing between what he claims must follow from his idea, and what amounts to further speculation. Mostly, his conclusions (while wrong thanks to the big error) follow from his premises, until the last chapter where he fails to stay consistently within the boundaries he himself sets (see below). The problem is that some of what falls out of his analysis makes God a whimsical child who, for his own entertainment, puts both pleasure and pain into creation!

The theory is not entirely new. It has within it a theological idea called “occasionalism” which holds that everything that happens is “occasioned”, that is made to happen, by God, personally and directly. Colborne also folds in an 18th Century idealism popularized by George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne in the first half of the 1700s. In Berkeley’s idealism, every perception we have of the physical world is put into our mind’s by God. Nothing of the physical world exists independently of God’s keeping it before (or in) our mind’s directly. This includes also all our thoughts, beliefs, desires, and so on. Everything we call consciousness is put there, moment by moment, by God himself. Colborne is not an idealist (if God wants a mind-independent world he can create one), but the way his theory comes out it doesn’t really make any difference. Is the tree we both see in front of us really there or does God put it into both our heads? Given his radical occasionalism we cannot tell the difference.

Colborne begins reasonably enough. God must be infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and possessed of unconstrained free will save for the creation of logical impossibilities (like square circles). He affirms what is called the “doctrine of divine conservation” which means that God must, at every moment, uphold all of universe reality. Put simply, if God blinked, there would be nothing and not something! Colborne errs in assuming that divine conservation entails occasionalism. He goes from “God could do everything that happens” (true) to “God does do everything that happens” (false) and on to “God must do everything that happens”. In this last move, Colborne declares free will impossible, like a square circle, completely forgetting that since God is infinitely free, he can uphold, and he can permit or allow, without actually doing everything. God can be the upholder without being the only doer in the universe. Who are the other doers? Well among others perhaps, at least us!

The evil in the theology really gets going here. To Colborne, nothing anyone does has anything to do with any freedom they think they have. He denies he is a pantheist, but his idea amounts to pantheism. Everything is God and God is everything, not merely in the sense that God everywhere upholds it all, but that he is personally doing it all. If I save a child from drowning, really God did it. If I murder you, really God did it. No matter what, good or bad (Colborne denies God is a source of the moral direction — a pointer to the true, beautiful, and good), physical, or mental (all of your thoughts, pains, pleasures) are really God playing at being a you. Colborne recognizes that human beings appear to themselves to be free willed agents, particularly in the moral domain. We cannot freely fly, but we can choose that which we perceive as more (or less) true, beautiful, or good. Indeed there seems to be no bounds on our moral freedom. But all of this is illusion according to Colborne. God is a deceiver by his lights, itself a violation of the principle of God’s consistency and unity! I have never used the term blasphemy in a review, I don’t even believe in the concept, but I think it might fit this book.

After driving at all of these conclusions based on his fundamental mistake (failing to see that while God could do everything, his freedom permits him not to have to do everything), Colborne offers us an analysis of various world religions pointing out that we didn’t invent any of them, they are all God literally “playing around”, and yes, even contradicting himself! But in a final chapter, he suggests that his idea, it’s all only God, would be a sound basis for inter-faith dialogue. But that inter-faith dialogue has any value at all presupposes free will which Colborne denies exists. If we talk, it is only God talking to himself. If we kill one another, it is only God messing around with his puppet soldiers. God’s whim either way, nothing more.

Unless you are just curious about Colborne’s extreme and morally vacuous theological idea, I cannot really recommend this book!

Review: The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas

Another of my review of Trump books. This one not about the daily doings of the administration, but more a psychological profile of Donald Trump and what he is doing to imitate autocrats and tyrants in an effort to erode American political institutions. Why? Like many autocrats (Trump a wanna-be autocrat, Klaas illustrates with many examples of real ones throughout the book) Trump does not seem strongly wedded to a political ideology. Rather his aim seems to be to keep himself in power as long as possible while enriching himself and his family.

Most autocrats leave it at that, but some become also despots by adding to the mix a fragile ego that thrives on self-aggrandizement, a characteristic of those who commit atrocities.  Trump is, alas, in this group as well, or would be if there weren’t powerful institutions around to constrain him, the very institutions he is doing his best to erode!

Most interestingly, this book was written in 2017, less than a full year into Trump’s first term. Even then, he has exercised (or attempted to exercise) every trick of every autocrat (or despot)  Klaas uses in his examples!

The other book reviews in this series (Trump) are listed a few paragraphs down in this link here.

 

The Despot’s Apprentice (2017) by Brian Klaas

Another in what is now a considerable series of books about the problematic Trump administration. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed, this one is less about day to day happenings in the West Wing, nor any history of how we got here. It is rather a comparison between the sorts of things Trump does personally (berate the media, accuse non-partisan government agencies of conspiring against him, dissemble, amass family wealth, and much more) and the acts of autocrats around the world both past and present. As it turns out, most of the autocrats do most of these things, but Trump does all of them. But Trump also adds in a fragile ego, and relative ignorance of the political process, something even most (though not all) of the real autocrats used for comparison, do not suffer.

The book’s chapters are not divided up by time or crisis, but by type of autocrat-like behavior. For example Trump’s attacks on free press, the politicization of non-partisan institutions (Trump has accused the Office of Management and Budget of conspiring against him), nepotism, personal and family financial gain, misdirection in foreign policy, and so on. Klaas begins almost every chapter with a brief review of one or more famous examples of such abuse either from history or today’s headlines. He does not neglect past American presidential examples either. The amazing thing about Trump is that he engages in all of them at the same time. More unbelievable still, this book was written less than one year after Trump formally took office! Now, almost four years into his term, the most alarming thing is that so many of these abuses are to a great degree taken for granted, or “the new normal” by the institutions that should be calling them out! The free press has stopped beating the drum because their audience has largely dialed out, and what used to be non-partisan institutions (the OMB, intelligence agencies, FBI, NASA [believe it or not]) are largely cowed into silence with “trump loyalists” dominating the upper echelons of their leadership.

To be sure, Klaas notes, America is not an autocratic nation, and Trump is no autocrat. But he does show every inclination to want-to-be an autocrat and that in itself is dangerous particularly when surrounded by other powerful people who want much the same thing. Further, the degree of political polarization in the United States, a social and political phenomenon that began long before Trump, becomes much more detrimental to the survival of a plural society and democratic regime when a want-to-be autocrat comes along and takes advantage of it. Trump has leveraged the polarization for his own personal gain and in so doing amplified it. If it was always difficult to bring both sides of the American polity together, it is rapidly becoming impossible.

Despot’s Apprentice is a short book that says a lot. Unfortunately, those who dislike Trump basically know all this about him already. For them this book will do no more than apprise them of the vast depth and breath of his malfeasance. For the others, the 30% of Americans who now believe (so the polls say) that a free press are the “enemy of the people”, such books as this will not be read thanks to the magnified political polarity Trump has deliberately fostered, and that is precisely the point of it all!

Book Review: The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

Once again, for consistency sake (there being little of additional philosophical import) I include this review of John Bolton’s memoir of 18 months working as National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019 for the Trump administration. It would I think be unfair of me to criticize Bolton on the basis of my politics compared to his. In point of fact I do not disagree with some of his assessment of threat situations. Iran and North Korea will never give up development/possession/proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear or otherwise). Bolton is quite right I think to believe that the only way to stop these developments is with overwhelming military force, but he is far to sanguine about assessments that, in response, millions of people (especially South Koreans) would die.

Is there any other option? India and Pakistan (bitter enemies for 72 years) possess nuclear weapons (Pakistan also a known proliferator) for some decades now and neither have used them (the potential collapse of the Pakistani State being another kind of problem). Perhaps there are sensible means of preventing N. Korea or Iran from ever using their weapons? In this respect, not sanctions, but trade and economic engagement make more sense. Why? Because when you tighten economic and diplomatic screws to the point where a people figure they have “nothing else to lose”, you provoke war rather than prevent it. Bolton knows history well enough to know this. He also knows what happened to Qaddafi in Libya after he gave up his weapons programs, yet dismisses this history as though it mattered not to Iranian, and especially to N. Korean calculations.

So I differ from Bolton on these matters, but I am not sure enough about my own views to say Bolton must be wrong. In any case this chasm between us does not take away from his observations and criticism of Trump’s administration concerning both substance and (more importantly) its lack of consistency, not to mention Trump’s self-serving, ego-maniacal fixations.

Like the other books reviewed in this series (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning” “Devil’s Bargain”, “A Very Stable Genius”,  and “The Despot’s Apprentice”), this is a frightening book and the only one of the six reviewed focused on foreign policy.

The Room where it Happened (2020) by John Bolton

People mostly either like or dislike John Bolton based on their alignment with his politics. I do not see him that way. I have had jobs (never in government) where my role was to highlight and advocate for some specific aspect of a corporate hardware and software infrastructure. Bolton’s job was to advocate for the national security interests of the United States, and of course the recommendations he made (like mine) flowed from his background, experience, and yes, politics.

His experience is the key here, for Bolton has consummate knowledge of the workings of international institutions and also the governments they serve. He has also an appreciation for geopolitical history and isn’t afraid to call out a pointless exercise when he sees it. In part his politics is informed by his historical knowledge, for example the duplicity of nations like Iran, North Korea, and yes also China and Russia, with regard to respecting treaty obligations. But if anything makes Bolton more angry than Trump’s waffling and sometime expressed admiration for tyrants, it is his treatment of our own allies, the EU (NATO), Japan, and South Korea in particular. All this is revealed!

This book is about what Bolton found himself facing from April 2018 until September 2019, Eighteen short (must have seemed very long to him) months in the middle of Donald Trump’s administration. Reorganization of the NSA early in his tenure, the book touches on every new and on-going global threat of the time stemming from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China, and others. Each of these regions is a fount of over-lapping threats.

Bolton is in a unique position to appreciate the complexity of these situations. He castigates the Obama administration on a few matters, but points out, with some irony, that Trump’s instincts sometimes paralleled Obama! With regard to North Korea he is fair enough to note that none of the past four administrations (two Republican and two Democratic) have accomplished anything useful. When he alludes to differences in procedural style between Trump and former administrations, he mentions only the prior Republican administrations for whom he worked.

Very much this book is a detailed account of the operation of the Trump administration as concerns foreign national security issues with an occasional domestic matter (the Mexican border, Russia’s 2016 election interference) crossing the line. Although the NSA is involved in these matters, Bolton does his best to minimize his role in them, preferring the more global threats whether immediate or more temporally distant. As with my own some-time role in corporations, Bolton does not expect his boss to agree with his every recommendation. He notes that as goes national security, Trump’s instincts are often like his own. The problems threaded throughout the book are concerned with Trump’s flip-flopping almost constantly on matters where waffling, with mixed signals sent via tweets to the world, is universally detrimental to the outcome we want, that is a more, and not less, secure United States. There are a even a few examples, (to my politics not Bolton’s) where the President made the right call (even if for the wrong reasons) over Bolton’s recommendation as when Trump chose not to risk Iranian lives (Iranian body bags would make him look bad) in exchange for an American drone!

The bigger problem, as Bolton sees it, is that the decisions Trump does make, whether coming out right or wrong for national security, are made only on the basis of what Trump thinks makes him look good in the press, helps him in the 2020 election, or furthers the enrichment of his family! Along with all of this come also problems with the bureaucracy surrounding Trump. Bolton is an astute critic of bureaucracies in general (see his “Surrender is not an Option” also reviewed) and where warranted, individuals who do little to serve the organization’s purpose. In this regard the Trump administration is no different than others except for the extraordinary number of musical chair events and as consequence the style and substance variations already and still passing through this administration — including of course now Bolton himself.

In only a couple of places in the body of the book does Bolton call attention to what his government book reviewers forced him to remove. In an epilogue he describes a little more of this process but on the whole does not seem too unhappy with its results. He also offers a critique of the House impeachment process that got going after he left the NSA. This short analysis is among the most telling of Bolton’s real feelings about his time as National Security Advisor. He does not say that Trump should not have been impeached. The Ukraine matter over which the House obsessed was, in Bolton’s opinion, only one, and a lesser one at that, of Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses! The House should have taken more time, let the court processes (for documents) complete themselves at their own pace, and evidence of more serious malfeasance would have turned up! By rushing the job for political reasons, the Democrats shot themselves in the foot, and left Trump more unconstrained than he was before. No one, after all, is going to try to impeach him again!

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Some months ago I reviewed Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. I suggested that Zizek’s political projections would have little chance of materializing because economic collapse precipitated by climate mitigation efforts in the rich world would overwhelm everything else in but a few short decades. Next I came across G. Gaul’s “Geography of Risk” which, though focusing on storms and sea-level effects on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, supported my prediction. Now this, “The Uninhabitable Earth” (review & link below), comes along amplifying everything in the Gaul book and laying down an even more frightening picture not only about where present trends are taking us, but the almost certain inevitability of vast tracts of the equatorial and presently-temperate Earth becoming uninhabitable by 2100.

Most of the cascades described by Wallace-Wells have already been triggered and will not stop (though they would slow a bit) even if we ceased all industry-related atmospheric carbon production tomorrow, something that is obviously not going to happen. Technology (as he points out) is not going to save us this time. We do know how to pull carbon out of the air yes, but as Wallace-Wells shows, we cannot afford to deploy enough of it fast enough to block a two to three degree (celsius) rise in average global temperatures over the next 75 years.

Wallace-Wells is (non-optimistically) hopeful that humanity will wake up in time to stop carbon output at least soon enough to halt future warming at three degrees. In fact I believe human industrial carbon output (most of it, globally) will cease in another ten or twenty years, roughly when we are close to two degrees of warming (as of 2018 we were at one degree and some change with atmospheric carbon rising faster now, year on year, than it has ever before). But it won’t stop because humans wake up and do something about the problem. It will stop because all of the economies of the world will have collapsed. Over a few decades, people will starve (or die from disease and war) in such vast numbers that few will be left to put any substantial carbon into the atmosphere more than the cooking fires that could be found dotting the Earth ten thousand years ago. The human population will be about where it was ten thousand years ago. That might be by 2100, likely sooner than that.

Still all of the cascades, devastating forest fires and melting permafrost will yet be releasing billions of tons of carbon even in the absence of human industry, and of course ocean levels will continue to rise utterly changing the geography of the world. By 2200 there will be very few places on Earth where food can be grown or hunted and the human race may be reduced to levels barely able to avoid extinction, if even that. If this isn’t frightening enough, the news gets worse from here. Even if the temperature rise tops out at three or four degrees, the planet will not again return to a cooler, human-comfortable climate regime, for thousands, possibly tens-of-thousands, of years!

Uninhabitable Earth  by David Wallace-Wells 2018

This book opens with what, for me, was a surprise. I know that carbon emissions have, world-wide, steadily increased even since the first international “climate mitigation agreements” of thirty years ago. What I did not know is that since 1990, the world, collectively, has pumped twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as it did in the thirty years from 1960 to 1990. There are other surprises: Bitcoin anyone? Sure there’s some electricity involved but how much could that be? It turns out to be about as much, per year, as one million international jet flights! Our own industrial activity is only a part (albeit still a large part) of the problem now. Other, cascading effects, are now adding their impact. Global wild-fires now consume, on average, ten times as much forest every year as they did thirty years ago. That’s a lot of extra carbon. Even worse, the world’s permafrost is beginning to melt releasing carbon in the form of methane which, depending on whether we are speaking of low or high altitude, has between four and eighty times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The title of the book is prescient. Think of the climatologically worst environments on the Earth today (having warmed a bit more than one degree Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1800. We are on track to hit two degrees by 2050 or so), perhaps the middle of the Sahara, or someplace where it never stops being hot and raining. These are today’s most inhospitable climate environments. By 2100, that sort of place will be among the best and most livable we have on Earth. Large parts of our world will be largely and literally uninhabitable, places where humans die because their bodies cannot cool themselves by sweating unless immersed in cool water, or because there is no water the glaciers being gone, and this at only three degrees of warming (2100).

The first third of the book is about various cascades, most already triggered, some on the verge. Effects of warming that add up both by directly making things worse, and by degrading the planet’s ability to absorb carbon and mitigate the other effects. Wallace’s picture here is very dire. In the rest of the book Wallace deals with the economic, political, social, and psychological future. Here I do not think he is dire enough. He speaks of refugees in the tens of millions (try hundreds), extremist movements on both the right and left, of wars, pandemics, crop failures, of collapsing economies unable to sustain the cost of climate mitigation, and that only the economies that can afford any mitigation to begin with. The rest will have since joined the refugees. Wallace touches on all of this, but I do not think he fully appreciates how quickly and thoroughly human beings can (and will) turn on one another long before this all becomes as bad as it’s going to get!

Technology will not save us. Wallace covers that too. We can desalinate water and even pull carbon out of the air. There will never be enough of either that the world can afford. Besides, both are energy intensive processes and even if powered with renewable energy, that is not easy to do as concerns the chain of activities that must be powered to build and maintain that technology. Rare-Earth mining is a very dirty business.

In the end, Wallace is hopeful, though not optimistic, that the global polity will wake up and de-carbonize the global economy, not in time to halt two to three degrees of warming, it is already too late for that, but in time to prevent it going to four degrees or more. I think he is over-optimistic here too. It is simply not possible, politically, and this for economic reasons, for soon-to-be nine-billion humans to de-carbonize as quickly as needed to hold the line at two to three degrees. What will force the race to de-carbonize will be economic collapse, leading to socio-political collapse, leading to mass death (over some decades) from starvation, disease, or war. I think Wallace sees this grim possibility. He hopes it isn’t inevitable.

This a good and timely book though I doubt it will have much effect on the carbon trajectory of our so-called civilization. It is good to see the ground covered as much as Wallace covers it. He does a good job of showing how the climatological and the political go together (alas perversely). I think he fails to draw some obvious conclusions from his own well-made points. Perhaps it’s for the better. He would be accused of doom saying. I am a doomsayer! Feel free to accuse me! Meanwhile, the book is frightening enough as it is!

Review: A Very Stable Genius by Leonnig and Rucker

selfie

The idea behind these commentaries and book reviews here is that in many cases (whether politics, science, or philosophy), the books themselves leave dangling and potentially interesting philosophical issues un-addressed. Exploration of such issues is not usually appropriate (in my opinion) in a book review, so I bring the reviews over here always attached at the end of these little (and sometimes not so little) commentary essays, along with a link to the book itself on Amazon.

In this particular case there were no dangling philosophical issues that struck me as worthy of an essay. But because this collection of my reviews of books about the Trump administration is growing (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning”, and “Devil’s Bargain”), I’m including this review for the sake of completeness.

A Very Stable Genius (2019) by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

Here we have yet another very carefully and competently written book illuminating the dysfunction in the American Presidency of Donald Trump, addressing both the man and the administration. Journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have done both the Washington Post and history proud with this tale of malfeasance and character disorder in the man himself and the chaos among those who surround him, some trying to moderate Trump’s worst impulses while others encourage them.

This is the fifth book on this subject that I’ve read and reviewed. As each one, all excellent histories, slides into the ocean of non-fiction literature, they seem to have less and less impact on the world, though perhaps that is only my jaded perception. This one is superbly written, told broadly in temporal sequence from the 2016 election up to September 2019 when Trump asked “a favor” on a call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky, witnessed (listening in) by several military and foreign policy personnel. This particular call follows by a few weeks Trump’s “exoneration” by Mueller.

Although it moves along generally from the past towards the present, it preferentially follows subject threads to their conclusion rather than try and document everything that happened on a particular day or week. Sliding as necessary between domestic and foreign policy matters, eventually all the days and weeks are covered somewhere. I can’t remember any of the salient matters reported in the news (not to mention Trump’s tweets) that aren’t in the story. Following the text, there are copious notes and documents listed. Historians will appreciate this.

In the opinion of the authors, Mueller made a big mistake. He treated his mission (the Russia probe and accusations of obstruction on Trump’s part) perhaps appropriately for a normal administration in which the Justice Department and Congress were not prior-determined to “protect the boss at all costs”. Mueller did not feel it was his job to say, explicitly, that Trump should be impeached or indited on the obstruction charge at least, obstruction being more clear cut than any personal collusion with the Russians. Instead, he phrased his report in such a way as to leave it to Congress to decide. Yet even a democratic congress did not begin the impeachment process until the content of the Ukraine call emerged.

The book ends with that call. The book’s authors are at that point sure not only that Trump committed a clear-cut crime, but intimate at least that Congress and the Senate would at last do their job and get rid of this embarrassment to the American presidency. History has shown otherwise, and we are now faced with a president, surrounded by sycophants (most significantly a throughly corrupted Justice department), who thinks (apparently correctly), that he can get away with anything.

Like the other books written on this subject, this one is very scary.

Review: Surrender is not an Option by John Bolton

John Bolton raises no philosophical issues in this book, in fact he elides them where they would naturally emerge. This is a book about events, what happened, what was going on in the U.S. State Department and around the world, and what John Bolton did about it given the role he played at any given time. The philosophical issues arise from the tension between nationalist-oriented “American interests” versus “global interests”, and also between the need for foreign-policy continuity over decades versus the task of executing the policies of the “administration du jour”.

On the first issue Bolton is clearly a nationalist. He is not opposed to working with the international community, even furthering the interests of other nations (usually our allies) provided doing so also furthers American interests. This nationalistic bent reveals itself most starkly in the U.S. (and so Bolton’s) opposition to the ICC (International Criminal Court). The great moral light of the national community, a nation that was front and center in the prosecution of Nazi war crimes, opposed (and still refuses to recognize) an international body charged with prosecuting war crimes and other “crimes against humanity”. One has to ask why? The answer is two fold. First, being the elephant in the room of nations, enemies of the U.S. would be (and are) constantly charging the U.S. with crimes to distract the world’s nations from their own bad behavior. Second, however, the U.S. has in the past, and continues to be at times, guilty of crimes!

Vietnam comes to mind, the Eisenhower administration’s blocking of the 1954 unification vote precipitated 20 years of civil war in which millions died. Today, despite its communist government, Vietnam is an ally and important trading partner. A year earlier (1953) the CIA over-threw the elected government of Iran solidifying the monarchy of Shah M. R. Pahlavi. Then there was, and still is, Cuba. What the Kennedy administration did (or tried to do) to the Castro government (not to mention Castro himself) surely comes under the heading of “crimes against humanity” and if not “war crimes” then at least “acts of war”. A little later (1973) came the CIA sponsored coup in Chile and the murder of its legitimately elected president. All of these crimes reflect irrational American anti-communist panic. The U.S. has never (to this day) been able to distinguish between communism and socialism. Castro was a socialist but not a communist until the U.S. embargo literally drove him into the arms of the Soviet Union!

Such shenanigans go on to the present day as we look aside while right-wing autocratic regimes murder journalists and opposition figures. In Israel today, though its slide to the political right was well along in Bolton’s time at the UN, the farthest right, who also happen to be the settlers in the formerly Palestinian (Jordanian) West Bank are now such a huge voting block, having out-reproduced other Israeli Jews for 3 generations, they either control or have veto power over the national government! Treatment of West Bank Palestinians by the far-right settlers is sometimes akin to the treatment of American blacks in the South during the first half of the 20th century! While perhaps not an Israeli policy, the government’s turning a blind eye to it surely is some part of a “crime against humanity”.

These just a few examples of America or its allies behaving badly. There are others, but the broader problem is how to live in an anarchic world community being the biggest kid on the block and having to fight (often diplomatically at least) to maintain the product and resource flows (both in and out) that maintain your biggest kid status. Bolton repeats several times the mantra that “the [UN] diplomats work for their respective governments, not the other way around”. If one accepts that for a given delegation only the national interest is at stake, then it will be surely guaranteed that nothing will get done. Short of military intervention or economic destruction so thorough it precipitates a period of anarchy, no nation will agree to act against its interests. Bolton is right to complain that far too much of what the UN throws up in the way of opprobrium is so watered down that even to agree to the terms does not much slow the offender down. Even many of the potential “sticks” (and the carrots too) are both ineffective and expensive in global economic or military terms, while accomplishing little but steeling the bad player’s resolve or triggering a hot war.

I agree with Bolton that empty agreements are no agreements, but substance is not easy to achieve unless both sides can give up something substantive. Too often the global community has not sufficient motive to surrender or spend what is necessary to make something substantive happen. Surely Bolton is aware of this. He does not seem interested in reflecting on it, though he is, and especially now (in 2020 after his stint as Secretary of State), in a very good position to say something interesting.

Besides the national-international world tension, there is the matter of U.S. State Department thinking. Some of the dynamics that drive global competition never change (geography) while others change every few decades with broad changes in trade flows and military power. Still others change every few years, especially in democracies having typically short election cycles. Bolton says both that the State Department must “think and act long range”, while also telling us that the job of an employee of State is to serve the policies of the “elected person at the top”. It should be obvious that these two mantras can easily come into conflict. Bolton fails to make any attempt to reconcile them. As I said at the end of my formal book review (attached below), I look forward to what he might say in his new book.

Surrender is Not an Option (2008) by John Bolton

Awaiting John Bolton’s new book on his short stint as Secretary of State in the Trump Administration. I thought it would be good to familiarize with his thought about his efforts in more conventional administrations. I have to wonder, given what he says in this book, if he has at all changed his mind about the proper role of career people in the State Department.

Surrender is not an Option begins briefly with Bolton’s introduction to politics as a 16-year-old volunteering for the Goldwater campaign in 1964. He never really says why he was so drawn to the Republicans, but other than alluding to his dislike for Democrats he doesn’t much compare and contrast them. Obviously a smart man, Bolton got the right education (Yale law) and was at the perfect age to mount the first rung of the State Department ladder under Reagan continuing into the elder Bush (Bush 41) administration. Skipping over Clinton (he went back to law practice) and then again jumping into government with the election of Bush Jr (Bush 43) in 2000.

Bolton seems to have earned each new rung on the ladder through good work for his superiors. He also seems drawn naturally to the neo-conservatives whose broad approach with foreign policy was to engage with the world for the purpose of shaping it to American interests. The first half of the book is about what he did at State from Reagan through the first Bush 43 administration. In the second half, he details his work as UN ambassador during Bush 43’s second term, two plus years, from August 2005 (the Senate never would confirm him, his time spent as a Bush “recess appointment”) until the end of the year 2007. These were all years of constant crisis whether the Iran-Contra scandal, disintegration of the Soviet Union, North Korean or Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, genocide in Sudan, or the mess in Somalia. He mostly skips past the disastrous (Bush 43) debacle of Iraq saying only (in his concluding chapter) that it was right to depose Saddam notwithstanding we mostly botched the aftermath. He is short here on details.

In the book’s first half, he is little critical of the State Department under Baker (Reagan and Bush 41), and even Powell (Bush 43) in his early days, but as his experience at State grows he finds much to dislike about the later Bush years. As UN ambassador he finds a lot to dislike about the UN, and understandably so having become mostly a debating society now and for many decades, something even the liberal “high minded” as he calls them, recognize. In both parts, he bemoans international diplomacy as too much carrot and concession and not enough stick. He says little in the first half about what the sticks might be though he does address this in his conclusions.

He gets into specific recommendations in the second, UN-years half of the book, but here the tendency of others (including Bolton’s superiors at State) to compromise over-much and give away the store (at least as far as American interests are concerned) before real negotiations begin is front and center. Bolton is ideologically far to my right, but his observations, “process over substance” and numerous problems with UN diplomatic ritual (not to mention outright failure and corruption in places) are accurate portraits of organizational dysfunction.

Bolton does his best to represent U.S. interests as he sees them and at the same time be a loyal soldier of the Bush 43 State department. There certainly was enough nonsense going on in the UN to fill several books, and as the second Bush 43 term winds on he finds much to criticize about the Rice State Department as well. No one gets away unscathed here except Bolton himself. He would come across a statesman except he ruins the effect with incessant (almost every page) derogatory remarks targeting both individuals and various collectives.

Time marches on, and much has happened since the end of 2007. Has Bolton learned anything? The international community is less stable than it was 13 years ago, much of this we might say due to American and international failure to take Bolton’s advice. On the other hand, very much might just as easily be laid at the feet of an international community (including the U.S.) too willing to engage in stick-wielding at the wrong time and place. He tells us the job of the people at State is to implement the policies of the big boss, the elected president. Does he still believe this about the current boss? I am very much looking forward to his present thoughts.

Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.

First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.

My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.

The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.

The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.

You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.

In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla (2017)

This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.

In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).

Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.

Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.

The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.

This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.

All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

Book Review: A Warning by Anonymous

What more is to be said about this book (the Amazon review included below)? Its author clearly does not believe, giving good reasons throughout, Donald Trump is fit to be the president of the United States. In his last chapters he (or she) asks what is to be done? He (or she) tells Democrats that their visceral hatred of Trump, their “get him out by any means” attitude, is not helpful to the very process of getting him out. Although this is perhaps technically true the author does not seem to understand the origin of the reaction because he (or she) yet remains a Republican albeit not a Trump supporter. Three options are explored, the 25th Amendment, impeachment, or electoral loss.

The 25th Amendment (majority of cabinet and vice president certify to the speakers of House and Senate that the president does not have the capacity, is not fit, to conduct his duties) route is rejected immediately. Yet despite a whole book of argument that Trump is in fact incompetent (for intellectual and moral reasons), the author believes 25th Amendment criterion are not technically met (Trump is not in a coma). Moreover, it is claimed that the exercise of this amendment would tear the country apart like nothing since the civil war. What are we being told here? Does the author believe that the violent white supremacist cohort who unanimously voted for him would explode into killing sprees across the country? Surely that this particular cohort is so fully behind him is one good reason for the visceral hatred of the man? If you hate Nazis, why wouldn’t you hate a man who gives them rein?

Impeachment the author takes to be a viable and legitimate process, but almost as divisive as using the 25th Amendment. Moreover he accuses the House Democratic majority of being distracted, by impeachment, from real work. But the House democratic majority accomplished a lot prior to beginning the impeachment process, all of it summarily blocked without even debate by the Republican majority in the Senate. If Trump is immoral and broadly incompetent, supporting his agenda must also be immoral at least. Now there isn’t anything particularly new here as concerns congress. Corruption knows no party affiliation. But given that Republicans curry votes of the rich (and most who fantasize about being rich), the democrats must curry favor with the broader swath of the American electorate. As result, the democrats are less likely to be corrupt in the direct and obvious ways true today of most Republicans.

Corporate interests have captured much of both houses of the American congress. This has been true long before Trump. But Trump has poured gasoline on the fire of Republican greed. Today congressional Republicans will vote for anything, even bloated Federal budgets they have historically opposed, so long as it promises to make them richer, not to mention getting them re-elected; hypocrisy taken to extremes! Is this not another reason for the visceral hatred now directed at their ranks?

Finally the author tells us we can vote Trump out and that this is the cleanest and least controversial way to get the job done. But we are cautioned there must be an overwhelming vote against Trump. Why overwhelming? Because, we are told, if the vote is close his (or her) reading of the man is that he won’t leave without challenging it, trying to block it in courts that he himself has packed. Could he get away with this? Not if majorities in both houses (whether democrats alone or a mixture of both parties) opposed it. But if the senate remains in Republican hands, and those Republicans stand behind the challenge, we will be in far more dangerous waters than has ever been the case here in these United States. Seems to me another good reason for visceral hatred!

How did Trump get elected? The Russians did not (as far as I know) hack voting machines and change votes. All they did was flood social media with propaganda. Once Trump became the nominee it was inevitable that registered Republicans would vote for him no matter what the Russians said. Russian propaganda had far more impact on Democrats and Independents. The more ignorant among these, not immune to the propaganda directed against Hilary Clinton, were persuaded not to vote at all, and that is what swung the tide for Trump.

More interestingly, the question is how did Trump become the nominee? It cannot be simply that he supported the traditionally Republican “wedge issues”, pro-gun and anti-abortion. These issues have swayed Republicans against their own economic interests since Reagan. Every other Republican candidate, all universally castigating Trump during the primary process, advocated the same positions on such issues. The answer lies with those white supremacists who never much voted before because no candidate, on either side, gave them a voice. Trump did give them a voice and they voted for him en-mass in primary after primary.

Personally I do fear the Trump administration. Not so much Trump personally but rather the combination of Trump and all the senior White House staff (not to mention Republicans in congress) who appear to be encouraging his destructive behavior. I fear the collection because I think Trump is an evil clown but not a very smart one, except as concerns his instincts regarding his base. I would be more afraid if he was both evil and, like Hitler or Stalin, also smart. Trouble is greatly multiplied when an evil figurehead is supported by others who are not only evil but also smart, or in Trump’s case at least smarter than him.

I do disagree with the author of “A Warning” on this one point. Those who voted for Trump, and especially those who continue to support him (whether in congress or the electorate) now three years into a term in which the U.S. has lost all international good will and generated a ruinous debt, deserve all the opprobrium directed at them! There never were, and are not now (especially) any “good excuses” in the matter. Supporting Trump can only mean outright evil for its own sake, hypocrisy for the sake of personal gain or religious delusion, or willful ignorance.

A Warning by Anonymous (2019)

Each year seems to bring out a new and negative book about the Trump presidency. I’ve read and reviewed now three of them, Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”, Woodward’s “Fear”, and now this one by an anonymous source who claims (at least at the time of writing) still to be in place monitoring the administration from inside the White House. The material is certainly recent. Published in November 2019, it relates episodes that occurred as late as October of this same year! There is good reason to want to rush this out and make sure it is as up-to-date as possible.

A Warning is less detailed than the other two books. The author does not give us detailed time lines and lists of the players involved in specific events except as needed to flesh out what he (or she) really wants to say. To be clear, the author is a republican who began his tenure in the Trump White House with every intention of carrying out the duties of his (or her) office supporting a broadly Republican agenda. What he (or she) discovered, however, is that the president not only doesn’t know the Republican agenda, he doesn’t much care. Nor does he know anything about how the U.S. government works (or is supposed to work), how the three [supposedly] co-equal branches interact, or how America fits into the global system of which it is (or was) a linchpin! I suppose it is still a linchpin, but is quickly breaking down..

The beginning of the real problem as the author sees it, is not that Trump doesn’t know how all these complex entities work and come together. Almost all incoming presidents are less than masters of one or more or these matters. The difference is that other incoming presidents care! Most stay up late reading about these things and get up early to acquire still more understanding. They listen to dissenting voices and factor their views into policy considerations. Trump doesn’t read. He doesn’t want to read, and he doesn’t care for advice from anyone either unless it reinforces his already naive and dangerously simplistic view of every issue including the very laws and principles (and history) that are the foundation of the United States! Trump has, it would seem, only one agenda: to glorify himself in comparison to everyone else. He is, in short, a megalomaniac!

That is, broadly speaking, what this book is about. It sketches Trump’s mania through chapter after chapter on issues ranging from his moral character, the domestic legislative agenda, appointments (the lack thereof) to key departments, his relation to both parties in congress, and on to foreign policy in which Trump appears to be methodically cozying up to America’s enemies while alienating every ally the U.S. has worked with for the past 75 years! Indeed the author appears flummoxed on the matter of foreign policy. Unlike Trump’s domestic problems which might be laid up to ignorance (and not caring) his actions on the world stage (about which he is equally ignorant) appear to be deliberately aimed at denigrating any world leader beholden to his (or her) people broadly conceived; both those who agree and those who disagree whether they are legislators or merely voters. In Trump’s mind, leaders who take dissent into account are weak, while he admires the autocrats who need not care much about what anyone else thinks of them (and we are back to moral character).

In the last third of the book the author turns his (or her) light upon congressional (House and Senate) republicans and looks at how and why most of these folks swung from near universal condemnation of Trump during the run-up to the 2016 nomination to near universal approbation! In the early stages of Trump’s administration, there were voices who all thought would surely help to direct the president towards a steady hand on the tiller of State. Trump named Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Many condemned his choice. “Another member of the establishment Trump promised to dismantle.” I thought: at least Tillerson was a man with years of experience in international affairs, especially in Russia. Mattis (Sec. Defense), after all, was a general. Each was competent in his domain. But to be competent means to disagree (sometimes or often) with a superior who happens not to be competent in that arena. Trump takes any disagreement personally, as disloyalty, an affront. Disagreement, and so competency, is fired from the Trump White House. All the competent people in positions of policy authority are gone.

One might certainly dismiss all of this as fiction even if the so-called source ever did work in the White House. Either that or this individual is one of the new breed of “never-Trumpers”. But I do not buy that. I was born and grew up in New York City. I am only a handful of years younger than Trump. You had to live in a cave not to have heard of his shenanigans. Back then of course nothing he did was any more odious than that done (still done) by wealthy self-important men all over the world. The problem is that what this book claims Trump is doing now is perfectly consistent with his character as it emerged on the local news since the 1990s.

In his last chapter and epilogue he (or she) extols us to do better next time. Good luck with that. What Trump represents did not start with Trump. It began with the turn away from liberal arts in American higher education in the 1970s. Politically it took shape in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and intolerant ideology of the Tea Party. Whether Trump stays or goes, all of that will still be with us. So much the worse for us all!