Friday, August 22, 2014

Edinburgh Underside: A Review of Hide & Seek by Ian Rankin

603678The work of Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin has been a favorite since I first encountered one of the Rebus novels some years ago at ICPL.  (On tape or CD--I'm not sure how long ago I'm talking). Since then, I've decided to go back and follow Rebus through his beginnings, so this is the second in the series (earlier I read Knots and Crosses). In this book, Rebus investigates what seems to be an unintentional overdose of a junkie. But Rebus is a skeptic and a determined one at that. As Rebus digs deeper, he peels back a veneer on top of wealthy Edinburgh that's intended to remain hidden.

The series works because Rankin makes Rebus work as a human being. Rebus is a complex character with a daughter, an ex, and current love interests all muddled together with work, sleep, and life in general. And he has colleagues and superiors, not all of whom help him.

I won't go on because I've praised Rankin/Rebus before, and I suspect that the series (this is my third) will only get better. Now that's something to look forward to.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

All the World’s a Stage: A Review of Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time by Garry Wills

Anyone acquainted with contemporary politics recognizes the immense amount of pageantry, pomp, and theater displayed in political life, from stage-managed political conventions, to inaugurals full of solemn oaths and speeches, to the blare of trumpets announcing the arrival of the president, followed by “Hail to the Chief”. Lesser and innumerable examples abound, even in a day and age when theater is a lesser art (at least measured by the numbers of patrons and artists). But in the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, the play was the thing to capture anyone’s attention, including the English populace that Elizabeth ruled (and that ruled her).

I expected this book (2014) to focus on the works of Shakespeare since Wills has twice before published books on Shakespeare topics: Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1995) and Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater (2011). However, while Wills does spend some time on Shakespeare—including an especially enlightening discussions of Taming of the Shrew and Henry V—this book addresses the wider cultural milieu. Wills explores how the need to hold and wield political power in Elizabethan England uses theater, poetry, and public spectacle to influence popular perceptions. Indeed, entire lives seem dedicated to gaining and maintaining the audience, whether it's the courtiers seeking the approval of Elizabeth, such as Essex, or Elizabeth herself courting her subjects. Wills writes:
A self-dramatizing trait is so common in plays of the time [referencing various rulers portrayed in Shakespeare's plays] that we must suspect it is more than mere personal foible, in the character or the playwright —more even than the convention of theatrical characters being theatrical. The best indicator of this is that the most grandiose self-presenters are men and women who seek or hold power. And power, after all, must always find a way to project its claims onto the people it would control.
Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 94-97). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills notes that “performance theory” now addresses not only the particulars of production, but also the why and wherefore of the efforts. He states:
Performance has become an ever widening and ever -deepening concept. It can indicate all the ways a society enacts meaning. It can apply to speech acts as primarily enacting rather than signifying— the “performative speech” of J. L. Austin. It can mean the achievement of identity by adopting a role— the “performativity” of Judith Butler. There is such a sprawl of performance theory that it is necessary to narrow the focus to see what is distinctive about Elizabethans’ way of dramatizing their culture’s meaning. I will try out three approaches, to see if they help concentrate on Elizabethan self-dramatizations. The three are the theater -state of Clifford Geertz, the emblem systems of the Warburg School, and the process rites of Victor Turner.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 115-122). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Based on these theoretical foundations, Wills considers Elizabeth’s predicament: “Elizabeth was an anomaly— as a female ruler, unnatural; illegitimate by birth; disowned by her royal father; not sure of marriage or issue; not allied by family with other rulers; caught precariously between entrenched religious factions at home and abroad”. Kindle Locations 259-260. Not an easy situation. And one that required her to jealously guard her prerogatives and to cultivate popular support in every way. Wills notes: 
The expenditure of so much effort, thought, and money on these great theatrical enterprises [plays, masques, and festivals] must have seemed justified in the reign of a queen known for parsimony. These were not frivolous games or ornaments. They were the expression of a transition period trying to articulate its own meaning to itself. The communal effort had to mobilize all the resources that are suggested by Geertzian sacred rites, Warburgian iconology, and Turnerian liminality. It was a society’s way of fighting for its life. There are many meanings discoverable in Christopher Haigh’s oracular statement about Elizabeth: “Her power was an illusion— and an illusion was her power.”

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 231-236). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
From these premises, Wills dives into the Elizabethan world that seems quite alien to us, although it continues to intrigue us. From me as a school boy reading about Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake as swash-buckling adventurers to movie-goers intrigued by films depicting Elizabeth, who has been portrayed by actresses from Sarah Bernhardt to a Cate Blanchet, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave (of late!), the public has an appetite for this foreign time. But for all its foreignness—like the plays of Shakespeare that we still devour—it all has a feel of familiarity as well.

Wills is just the person to perform this reconnaissance. His depth of learning from things ancient Greek and Latin to contemporary America, including his ability (and patience) to cull the relevant texts, makes him an expert guide. And for all his worldly knowledge of the intrigues of our lives, he doesn’t play the cynic. Remarking on what seems to us to be the overweening flattering and fawning aimed at Elizabeth, he finds non-trivial ends:
One may think the endless tributes to Elizabeth nothing but an elephantiasis of flattery. But Spenser [author of The Faerie Queene] was using his poem to shape an ideal of the England he wanted to see as the final product of Reformation. England, tested against the template of Faerie Land, should become Faerie Land. Which means the queen should become the Faerie Queene. As A. Bartlett Giamatti put it, “He wishes to influence her as he deifies her, to shape the state as much as to construe the state’s ruler as a model for the individual.”

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 409-413). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills even defends the courtiers, with their literary guides Castiglione and Machiavelli, from charges of simple flattery:

Courtly praise was, admittedly, a pose. Even Castiglione’s courtliest of virtues, sprezzatura, is the ability to conceal effort under a pose of effortlessness. And restraint (Niccolò Machiavelli’s rispetto) is a way to get things by reining in one’s urgency (Machiavelli’s impeto) after them. Thus some New Historicists see “subversion” (their favorite word) under the professed love of Elizabeth’s courtiers. It is certainly true that there was endless jostling of her courtiers for favor, position, property, family advancement, or one’s religious preference, all under the “colour” of ardently professed love. But even in seeking these favors, men strengthened her power to grant them. One does not keep coming back for reward to an enfeebled source.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 413-419). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills continues:
Those who see nothing but selfish interest in all human action cannot explain why, for some causes, good and bad— nationalism, racism, religion, patriotism— people sacrifice themselves. Of course, selfish aims can be masked as all these “higher” goals. But dissimulation of selfishness, faction, or zealotry is a social lubricator, and in some cases an essential one. It must, admittedly be a plausible pretense. To work, make-believe must be believable , and an array of talents, political and poetic, labored the illusion into place for Elizabeth.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 423-427). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Following these introductory observations that set the perspective for Wills’s project, he delves into details, and in particular, into Shakespeare. He writes authoritatively and convincingly about gender, dealing with the problematic Taming of the Shrew in a way that makes sense of it and that is quite contrary to many popular conceptions. He takes umbrage at the treatment given the play in such productions as the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (directed by Zeferelli). Wills notes:

There is nothing more boring than the brute-on-brute wrestling match of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor— as if they were still playing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—in Franco Zeffirelli’s production. Ann Thompson rightly prefers John Cleese’s insouciant approach, all the while blowing Kate verbal kisses in Peter Hall’s version.  The anger Cleese puts on is all directed at others, whom he takes to be insulting his goddess, offering her inferior food or clothes. By doing so, of course , he satirizes her own beating of her sister and her servants— a sign of her changing character comes when she pleads that he stop beating the servant.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 861-866). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills quotes Germaine Greer at length on the character and relative merits of Bianca, Kate, and Petruchio:
Kate is a woman striving for her own existence in a world where she is a stale, a decoy to be bid for against her sister’s higher market value, so she opts out by becoming unmanageable, a scold. Bianca has found the women’s way of guile and feigned gentleness to pay better dividends; she woos for herself under false colors, manipulating her father and her suitors in a perilous game which could end in her ruin . Kate courts ruin in a different way, but she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio, who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping . He tames her as he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. Lucentio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman, who has no objection to humiliating him in public. The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality: Bianca is the soul of duplicity, married without earnestness or good will. Kate’s speech is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend , and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 923-934). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition, quoting Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (Bantam, 1972), 220– 21.
To my mind, Wills’s consideration of Henry V provides the most intriguing insight. Wills counters interpretations of this play running back to Harold Goddard (The Meaning of Shakespeare, in which I’ve found great merit), Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, and the New Historicists in general. In short, the later critics see Henry V as a war-monger. Wills sets out the problem:
Most of Shakespeare’s kings are terrible people. They often attain the crown by murder, then keep on murdering to retain it. When a king like Henry VI is not evil, he is a simpleton . To get sympathy , the arrogant King Lear has to go crazy. Once, Shakespeare did try to create a wise and good king, but critics will not allow him to do it. Audiences in the past used to believe the play’s Chorus when he called Henry V “this star of England,” but now we know better. We see Henry V for what he really is—a cruel and lying war criminal, believing none, deceiving all, cut off from decent human feeling. The king may have fooled his own play’s Chorus, but he can’t get away with it at the Modern Language Association, where convened scholars have spent years peeling away this king’s lies to reveal the cold deceiver under them.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1683-1689). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills notes that those who deprecate Henry (Hal) tend to glorify Falstaff. But to my naïve mind, Falstaff has always, in the end, seemed a lout. Intriguing, but in the way that cynics and manipulators can be—for a while—as comic relief. I’d never really felt that Harold Bloom’s glorification of Falstaff made sense. Now I know I have an ally (and one that I trust). After performing his takedown of the glorification of Falstaff and denigration of Henry/Hal for rejecting his wayward days, others go after Henry as a warmonger, starting with Goddard and moving into the much more recent New Historicists. Wills reminds us that he (Wills) is a pacifist, rather disarming potential critics from labeling him a warmonger, but Wills appreciates that we’re talking about a different world. He writes:
Much of modern criticism is justifiably antimilitaristic. Militarism is an evil in our time, and it should be opposed at any time. But this causes problems in studying a culture that was not only militaristic but monarchical and imperialist . This gives the sixteenth century a number of problems it could not be expected to solve (such as getting rid of monarchs or living with the dream of a United Nations). And it is anachronistic to compare too simply our militarism and that of Elizabethan England, which had no standing army.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1917-1920). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills explicates the place of honor in this society: 
Keeping mutual obligation alive was a matter of honoring honor. This involved dangerous self-importance and boasting in the contenders for honor, which are deplorable . But to empty out the concept of honor would have unstrung every nerve of Elizabethan society. Today’s intellectual class cultivates self-doubt as a virtue. It has difficulty understanding a culture in which that trait was not esteemed. Some cultures, we forget, cultivate self-confidence, and did it productively. Even now we suspect that successful men and women are usually self-confident. A man can be humble like Bach, or bitter like Swift, or pessimistic like Johnson, but retain enough self-regard to fuel creative energies. And whole civilizations— Periclean Athens, Renaissance Venice, and Elizabethan England— were hypertrophically confident. That does not mean they were incapable of self-criticism. It means they were not crippled by it. T. S. Eliot, whatever his other shortcomings, was a great reader of Tudor and Stuart drama, and he said that its basic social commitment was one of affirmation.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1926-1939). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills concludes this section with a quote from Henry’s heart-felt musings on the eve of Agincourt (well presented by Kenneth Branagh in his film, in my opinion). Wills compares Henry’s imperfections with those of Lincoln:
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon. [H5 4.1.303– 5]

But no earthly power is immaculately conceived. America’s birth was flawed by its induration of slavery. Lincoln’s rise was through many compromises with the slave power, including his promise in the First Inaugural not to tamper with its bases in the South. The instinct of most patriots is to deny the flawed beginnings, or to think that a gesture of penitence is sufficient to make the stain disappear. It is a mark of the realism of Shakespeare’s patriotism in this play that Henry does neither. He does not simply throw up his hands and resign the tainted power. But he does not pretend the stain is not there. He will, instead, do all he can to blunt its effects by doing better than his father had the chance to do. It is all that a Washington or a Lincoln could pledge. Shakespeare has not written a defense of brutal imperialism in Henry V. He has made his protagonist a searching king, a self-questioning one, acting in an imperfect world without any illusions about that fact. Yet nothing Hal/ Henry does can find acceptance among his dogged denigrators.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 2486-2495). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Only when we better understand this context can we appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Henry. The critics, in professing their dislike of war and authority must denigrate the whole enterprise of the play, which, as Wills shows in detail, makes no convincing sense. Reading and appreciating this part along (along with his consideration of Taming) makes that book worthwhile. But there’s more.

As Shakespeare wrote, around him great changes in religion occurred. Astrology was a prominent endeavor (reference to the stars can be found in most of Shakespeare’s plays), while some Jesuits and other Catholics were drawn and quartered for their faith. It was not an easy time. All of these changes presented challenges to Elizabeth. As she dealt with these changes in the world concerning religion, war, and profit, she had to deal with the dramatic and capable men who orbited around her. Wills spends time and attention on these men who played a significant role in the era. His consideration of the several of the great figures, Phillip Sidney, Lord Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Prince Henry (son of King James) makes for entertaining reading, as we get mini-biographies of these dashing figures. (I would like to have learned more about Francis Bacon, who remains on the periphery of the stories.) Men like Sidney, Essex, and Raleigh were adept with pens as well as swords and ships.

I’ve discussed only some of what I found to be the highlights of the book. Truly, this was an amazing and intriguing period; a pivot point that allowed England to emerge as a great world power and that profoundly affected Western culture. Wills has provided us with a thorough guide about how the appearances of the day helped create and mold the realities of the day, and his effort proves not only entertaining, but also enlightening.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Still Going Strong: A Review of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: A Hercule Poirot Mystery by Agatha Christie

The Mayfair Auditorium looking smart in its heyday
An image of the auditorium interior, but I not that old!
One of my early recollections, at least in the "I'm a big boy now" category, comes from seeing a production of "Ten Little Indians", a play by Agatha Christie. The Southwest Iowa Theater Group performed the play at the Mayfair Auditorium in 1961 or 1962. This 1920s-era auditorium was built in the early days of radio, when KMA, a radio station in our little town of Shenandoah, was big player in the radio business. The auditorium was a grand affair with ornate decorations. (The owners tore it down a few years later and replaced it with a hideous looking lime green office building. But I digress.) It was a fine night out for a grade-school kid. A  neighbor girl sat beside me. During the play, several (off-stage) murders occurred and a there was even  a gun shoot in the dark. It was all pretty cool.

I think of all this because at Indian bookstores one found rows of Agatha Christie books. And it occurred to me that I'd never read one. I'd seen plays and movies, yes, but I'd never read one of her classic mysteries. Thus did I buy a title considered by many as one of her best and most representative, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1927). The book features her most prominent character, the Belgian detective (here retired to an English village), Hercule Poirot.

The setting is a quaint English village in the 1920's. The characters read like a list from the game of "Clue", and clues are strewn liberally here and there, some red herrings, others of significance. But it's unlikely that the reader will recognize the murderer until the end. In one sense--although probably not at the time of its original publication--it seems almost formulaic, but that only adds to its venerable status. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And for all its recognizable qualities, it still holds a hint of shock. After all, this is murder we're reading about. And while in Christie's world the crooked is made straight, it takes the concerted effort of the hero. In this case, the eccentric but delightful Mr. Poirot.

If you want a whodunit of the classic variety, something different from the gritty world of contemporary police procedurals, one couldn't do better than this classic. It took me back to my roots, and it was a fun visit indeed.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Bone to Pick with Professor McCloskey re Inequality

Professor McCloskey discussing some of her ideas

Professor Deirdre McCloskey gets a lot right. Her “Bourgeois trilogy” (the third volume will soon be published) is an important contribution to current thinking about economics. Indeed, her academic career, including a stint at the high temple of market economics at the University of Chicago, now centers on re-thinking economic discourse and perspective.* Her project of developing “humanomics” (as she has dubbed it) adds another voice to those attempting to bring a new reality to the subject of economics. In this, she joins the likes of Diane Coyle, Eric Beinhocker, and Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu among those whom I’ve read recently that want to change our understanding of the fundamentals of economics. McCloskey’s project in this area merits the highest praise and encouragement.

But I have a bone to pick. In a recent Financial Times article, McCloskey dismisses current concerns over inequality. Diane Coyle (Enlightenment Economics blog) and Evan Davis in The Spectator describe her as taking an anti-Picketty position. McCloskey argues that “the Great Enrichment”, the tide of economic development that has lifted all boats, counts more than any resulting inequality. This Great Enrichment, which comes as a result of changing ideas and practices and not so much as a result of the accumulation of capital, has created the greatest era of human dignity and liberty that the world has ever known. I don’t disagree. I have enough of a sense of history to know that as a Baby-Boomer American I have lived in a unique, golden era of general prosperity and even relative peace. (I was just young enough—and lucky enough—not to have to go to Vietnam or even get drafted.) McCloskey provides a compelling explanation and defense of the engine of material and human well-being that we call “capitalism”. (She and I both have reservations about the usefulness of the loaded word.) People around the world have benefited immensely since thinking about economics and the bourgeois life began to change in the 1600s. (As I write this now living in China, it boggles the mind to consider the speed of change this country has undergone since I first visited in 2004, not to mention since 1979.) She argues that reducing the wealth of “the rich” (however you define them) doesn’t increase the wealth of the poor. It’s not a zero-sum game. Innovation in ideas and institutions create wealth, not exploitation. Thousands of years of exploitation increased the wealth between warrior classes in a zero-sum game involving lands and peoples with per capita incomes that hovered at about $3 a day for about as long humans have lived in civilizations. Nor does economic growth come from mere investment, so we have no incentive—in fact a disincentive—to choke off investment by the rich.

McCloskey argues that the current concern with inequality stems from envy, and to the extent her perception is correct (as it is in some measure), she has a valid concern. Envy is a mental poison. It’s ugly. It’s despicable. Perhaps Rene Girard is correct in identifying it (under his designation of “mimetic desire”) as the root of evil. But perhaps most obvious to me, entertaining envy of the rich is stupid. Why should we envy the rich, the 1%? All the money in the world doesn’t buy you love, respect, admiration, or other things that we value (although it can buy expensive imitations). Do I admire Jay Gatsby or The Wolf of Wall Street? Who admired the lead character in Wolf? I found the movie—centered on this narcissistic, money-intoxicated jerk—too boring to finish. Having a great deal of money and earning respect (for something other than having a great deal of money) are unrelated. Perhaps there’s even a negative correlation. Don’t get me wrong: all things being equal, I’d rather have more money than less. But all things are never equal, are they? For me to have big money—I wasn’t born rich—I would have needed to have been very lucky and willing to trade more of my time, my energy, and my values (family, friends, leisure, community service) to get more dollars. At some point, the marginal cost exceeds the marginal benefit. We all draw that line at different points, as individuals and as cultures, but a healthy individual does draw it. I’m somewhere between Henry David Thoreau and Donald Trump, but I sure as hell hope that I’m closer to Thoreau!^

So what’s my beef with inequality if I don’t think envy worth the coin and the rich don’t create poverty? It’s political. First, in our American political system with its legalized corruption, money buys influence. And lots of money buys lots of influence. Money isn’t speech. The U.S. Supreme Court made a monumental and disastrous blunder in equating speech with money. Money can coerce and seduce, but it does not reason. And with a lot of money, such as Koch brothers-size money or Sheldon Adelson-size money, you can buy a whole lot of scare time (sometimes referred to by the euphemism “air time”). The same is, of course, true of more liberal millionaires, say a George Soros. But either way, allowing any one person or group of individuals to dominate our political discourse (if we can give such low talk a hifalutin name) is anathema to reasoned, democratic discourse.

I realize that my referring to “reasoned, democratic discourse” I have referenced (what can most kindly be labeled) a Platonic ideal. But some conversations are more reasoned than others. It’s an ideal to which we can aspire. I understand what most strongly motivates humans: fear, greed, power, prestige, and sex. These are our base motives. But we want to hide our motives in attempting to convince others. Perhaps we have an innate shame of such animal instincts. So instead, we use reason; that is, public arguments based on shared criteria relevant to the subject. In other words, what should convince a disinterested audience of decision-makers? I realize this is an ideal and not a reality. After over 30 years of practicing law, I know the motivations that lead people into litigation: greed and an aggrieved sense of dignity—although most persons don’t appreciate the prominence of the later. I understand the challenge of trying to convince (what you hope is) a disinterested judge or jury. Of course, they too have their built-in biases and motives, but like democracy as a political system, it’s the worst way of deciding things except when compared with all the others. (Thanks, Churchill).

When we concede the bulk of public discourse to the super-rich, they set the agenda in their favor. They dominate the conversation (to the extent we can call still call our democracy a conversation), and they win the support of the populace by repeating their message over and over again with no practical way to limit or challenge their assertions. (A lie told often enough and sincerely enough becomes true.) Make no mistake: Republicans and Democrats are both beholden to money. Individuals and organizations with big dollars to contribute to campaigns for or against a candidate control the agenda. Fear and resentment (and to a lesser extent seduction) are the current hallmarks of mass-media political advertising. To allow this type of communication to go unchecked, subject only to the checkbooks (and whims) of the wealthiest, is an error of judgment that will long haunt us. Politics is about the future, and a poisoned polity creates a poisoned future.

My other concern with inequality stems from living almost two years in India. Corruption in India isn’t legalized and winked at as it is in the U.S. In fact, I believe it’s comparable to the corruption experienced in the U.S. during the Gilded Age and the era of Tammany Hall. But an even greater problem in India stems from the pervasive and crippling social inequality that has such deep roots there. The caste system is legally abolished, but the social, economic, and political inequality remains. Upon exiting the Rambaugh Palace in Jaipur, once a home to the local maja raja and now a five-star hotel adjoining Jaipur Polo Club grounds, you can walk across the road and find a shantytown slum of the deepest poverty. Between venues in India, one finds an impoverished public space with poor infrastructure and little concern for the shared environment. The rich, as they tend to do around the world, think that they can retreat into their gated homes, their luxury cars, and their guarded, air-conditioned buildings. But each day they have to experience “the real India” of poor infrastructure, poor politics, and poor public spaces. I come from a small town in Iowa where even the kid reputed to have been born a millionaire had to attend the same schools and hang out at the same places as the rest of us, the kids of the encompassing middle class. Based on that experience growing up, I found the staggering inequality of India one of the most shocking aspects of that culture. To the extent that the U.S. moves to increasing levels of inequality—as I believe we are—we move in a way that will denigrate the well-being of all, even the richest among us. If we in the U.S. mimic the inequality found in India, we invite not only an impoverished public space, but also social upheaval. While the poor can suffer from a relative lack of money, no one willingly or happily suffers from denigration of their dignity. This is the repeated lesson of civil rights and human rights movements. Do we want to create a class of second-class citizens? Or rather, perpetuate and enlarge it? I hope not.

Professor McCloskey, who has gotten so much right in her analysis and defense of the innovation economy, the importance of ideas, and the relative usefulness of markets (i.e., capitalism), understates the importance of the growing inequality in America. This growing inequality, as seen in stagnated wages and the decline of much of the white middle class, had given rise an increasing politics of resentment and desperation. The Tea Party and kindred groups, in the weird world of American politics, ally with the plutocrats and free-market ideologues who denigrate government and any intervention that limits business profits and prerogatives. It’s not rational, but it’s real. We don’t have to soak the rich—let them keep their money. I’m not happy when I pay taxes, but I’ve seen what happens without an effective tax and public finance system. I don’t believe that I can buy a private world that will insulate me from the poor, nor would I want that even if I could afford it. I only argue that we not allow the super-rich to skew our system in a way that warps out polity. We need to ponder the inequality that affects liberal, capitalist democracies and not just celebrate the wealth that this system has created.

*McCloskey also held appointments in economics and history at the University of Iowa from 1980 to 1999. I don't believe that we ever met.

^Having said this, I must report that I’m not retired or independently wealthy and that anyone knowing of remunerative work in Suzhou, China that doesn’t involve me teaching English should contact me immediately! Ditto if you know a lawyer who could benefit from my freelance lawyering service (

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Buddhism by the Book: A Review of Foundations of Buddhism by Robert Gethin

Oxford University Press 1998
Robert Wright assigned a part of this book for his “Buddhism & Modern Psychology” course that I took through Coursera. The book serves as an excellent introduction to Buddhist tradition and thought. It addresses the life of the Buddha, the development of Buddhist scriptures, traditions, and lineages, and more recent developments. Through a patient consideration of scriptures and traditions, we gain insight into crucial Buddhist doctrines such as those of anatman (no self) and dependent origination. These ideas challenge our common assumptions and are crucial to understanding Buddhism. Gethin's work serves as an adept guide into this new worldview.

Gethin also spends a good deal of the book addressing the various paths that Buddhist thought and tradition have taken over about 2500 years. He divides Buddhism into three main groups:

  • southern Buddhism (the Theravadan tradition) centered Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos;
  • eastern Buddhism found in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam based on the Mahayana tradition; and
  • northern Buddhism based on the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, and Himalayan India.
Each of these traditions has now planted roots in the West:
  •  S.N. Goenka, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Stephen Levine have taught the Theravadan tradition of insight meditation;
  • D.T. Suzuki, Peter Matthiessen, the Beat Generation writers, and many others have promoted Zen Buddhism;
  • the Dalai Lama, B. Alan Wallace, and Mathieu Ricard are noteworthy proponents of Tibetan Buddhism.
And this is just a truncated list of those teachers whom I've encountered. The list of those now teaching and promoting Buddhism in the West continues to expand.

Gethin serves an important purpose in his academic treatment of the tradition: he allows those of us new to Buddhism to identify and better understand the diverse traditions. This provides us with the background appreciate how the traditions have adapted to their new, Western environments. All religious traditions—or at least those that have spread across diverse cultures and times—have changed and adapted in response to each new culture encountered. The same is true of Buddhism. Yet it’s helpful to take in the story from the beginning to get a sense of the whole. The genealogy of a set of ideas serves a genuine and important purpose, and needn’t make one into a fundamentalist—far from it!

Anyone wanting to gain a comprehensive understanding of Buddhism, its traditions, and development, would do well to start with this book.