Saturday, March 27, 2010

Makers and Takers, by Peter Schweizer

Peter Schweizer might sell more books if he didn't put a summary of the whole on the cover.  The subtitle gives it all away: Makers and Takers: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less . . . And Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals.  Whew!  That's a mouthful.

So I guess I don't need to spend any time telling you about the book, since, now that you've read the subtitle, you know what it's all about!  Schweizer's project here is to debunk popular stereotypes of conservatives.  Using demographic studies, opinion polls, and academic studies, as well as a hearty sprinkling of anecdotal evidence, he demonstrates that the picture of conservatives, or red staters, we see portrayed in the press and popular media are not only untrue, but diametrically opposed to reality.

One of the topics he covers really gets my goat: the assumption that liberals care more about the poor than conservatives.  Schweizer demonstrates that conservatives consistently give more to aid the poor than do liberals.  Many liberal politicians and public figures who set themselves up as defenders of the poor actually give very little of their wealth to help the poor (Hello, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barbra Streisand, Nancy Pelosi).  If they do give money away, it's often either to favorite liberal causes, many of which have nothing to do with poverty, or advocacy groups which never give a dime to poor people.  Many conservatives on the other hand give generously, whether they're wealthy and prominent or not.  In fact, liberals like to deride generosity.  Liberals accused Cheney of getting too big a tax deduction when he gave 77% of his income to charity one year.  How selfish of him!  Liberals seem to equate big government with giving to the poor, so if they promote liberal social ideas, they think they're giving to the poor.  I have never, ever heard of a liberal who, promoting higher tax rates to support social programs, voluntarily paid more in taxes than he or she actually owes.

Another canard is the angry conservative.  But all you have to do is compare, say, the liberals protesting at a World Trade Organization meeting or on a college campus where a conservative is slated to speak, with conservatives at a Tea Party gathering.  Or compare the rants of Michael Moore and Al Gore, or the screaming frenzy of Howard Dean, with the easy-going nature of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.  Schweizer bolsters his claims with opinion polls and surveys which indicate that conservatives also tend to be more satisfied and content with their income, job, and lifestyle than liberals.

One of Schweizer's overall themes in Makers and Takers is his conclusion that liberalism is appealing because "it is a philosophy of lip service to virtuous ideals that demands little if any action from its adherents."  You can say you're for the poor, but charity is replaced by advocacy of government programs.  You can say liberals are smarter, claiming liberal ideals yet remaining uninformed.  You can denounce the pursuit of wealth while you pursue wealth aggressively.

Makers and Takers is worth a read for any conservative who has gotten tired of the portrayal of conservatives in the press, or anyone, liberal or conservative, who is skeptical of the media's straw man, ad hominen portrayals of conservatives.  If Schweizer presented one, or a handful, of the studies or anecdotes in isolation, the reader might be tempted to dismiss his claims.  But the breadth and depth of his research and examples is so comprehensive that even the most hard-core liberal, if he's honest, will have to stop and think.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia

The last golf book I read was The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport by Carl Hiaasen.  Hiaasen, one of my favorite writers, writes hilarious mystery novels.  The Downhill Lie is a funny book about his golfing, but in the end it's a book about golf which is hard for a non-golfer like me to really enjoy.

So when my father-in-law gave me a book about golf to read, I thought, there's no way I'll like this.  I don't mind a day on the golf course, but it's not a game I get very excited about, and certainly not a sport I want to read about.  But Golf's Sacred Journey is really a book about life; it just so happens that the main character's life is all about golf.

A professional golfer, who is actually never named in the book, has a breakdown on the golf course during a tournament in which he was favored to do well.  Despondent and despairing of his future in golf, he wanders into the town of Utopia, where he providentially meets Johnny, a former golf pro who has retired to a quite country life.  Johnny, a Yoda-like teacher, takes the young golfer under his wing and spends a week completely reshaping the way he thinks about the game of golf. 

The largest part of the book is golf instruction.  I know nothing about golf techniques, but, for the young golfer in the book, it seems like the techniques Johnny teaches are nothing short of revolutionary.  I do know I've never seen anyone putt face-on, like Johnny teaches.

If the non-golfing reader can get past all the golf theory and instruction, Johnny spends their last day together sharing the gospel with the young golfer.  It's a strange sharing of the gospel, though.  Johnny pulls out his Bible, tells the story of Peter's big catch of fish after following Jesus' instructions, then talks about putting Jesus in charge.  He has the golfer write down lies he's believed about golf and life and bury them in a grave Johnny prepared.  If I were not a Christian, I am not sure I would understand the gospel after reading this.  It makes following Jesus seem like a path to self-actualization rather than presenting our sinfulness and Jesus' redemptive work on the cross.

That is not to say Golf's Sacred Journey is not an evangelistic tool.  It is, explicitly so.  The book has spread like a virus.  On the author's web site, you can order the book in bulk.  I know he wouldn't sell them in bundles of 100 if no one was buying them!  I can picture people buying dozens of copies and handing them out to their golfing buddies.  I have no doubt that many men will come to know Jesus or follow him more closely as a result of reading this book.

For more on the book, the movie in the making, and the related evangelistic/discipleship tools and programs, go to

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Price of Loyalty, by Ron Suskind

After reading Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption, I decided I ought to read something from the other side of the fence.  (As if Anne Lamott's anti-conservatism wasn't enough.)  The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill isn't completely anti-Bush, but for a former Bush cabinet member, it's not exactly a glowing appraisal of Bush's leadership. 

Paul O'Neill had worked in Washington before, but had been about to retire from Alcoa after several years as CEO when the Bush team called on him to be Secretary of the Treasury.  O'Neill did not know Bush, but he and Cheney were old friends.  He had also worked with Greenspan and Rumsfeld in earlier administrations. 

Throughout The Price of Loyalty, Suskind sets up O'Neill as the brilliant idea man, who has the answers to the nations problems, while Bush is the clueless idealogue, who doggedly sticks by his policy positions even at the peril of the nation.  For instance, in discussions about tax cuts, O'Neill and Greenspan came up with the idea of creating triggers that would put conditional caps or sunset provisions on the cut proposals.  Bush said, "I won't negotiate with myself. . . . it's a closed issue."  Campaign promises trump changing economic reality.  "The President made it clear that this was not about analysis.  It was about tactics."

This theme repeats itself throughout, whether on domestic economic issues, the environment, foreign policy, or the War on Terror.  According to Suskind's account, O'Neill was driven by a pure desire to solve problems and work for the good of the country.  He was not alone.  Christine Todd Whitman, John DiIulio, and Colin Powell were in the same boat.  DiIulio was the first senior official to leave; he called the political arm of Bush's team, led by Karl Rove, the "Mayberry Machiavellis."  He publicly decried the lack of "meaningful, substantive policy discussions" among senior staff.  O'Neill seems to feel the same way, viewing Bush senior staff as uninformed political hacks with an eye on the polls and a deaf ear for alternative views.

This is an interesting insider's story about the Bush administration.  I couldn't help wondering if O'Neill was blinded by his perception of his own moral and intellectual superiority.  His uncomplimentary descriptions of Bush and Bush's circle surely didn't win him any friends, but as he told Suskind when they discussed doing the book together, "I'm an old guy, and I'm rich.  And there's nothing they can do to hurt me."  He thinks he's taking the high ground, but still comes across as someone with an axe to grind.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott

Let me start by saying I would not recommend this book to anyone.  I could see how some people would like it: women who have a bit of depression and self-loathing; who are maybe Christians but don't really think the church and Christian literature, including the Bible, have much to say to them; maybe others who feel stuck being Christians and who enjoy griping about the world over coffee or wine.

I can't really understand why someone would publish this.  Lamott has written several books, and I guess they sell or the publisher wouldn't waste the ink and paper, but this was grueling.  I have seen references to her work by some Christian writers, but those writers are usually also in that category of "disgruntled with the state of things, and determined to remain so."  They, and Lamott, would probably defend themselves by saying they are following the prophetic tradition.  Old Testament prophets were, after all, usually disgruntled about something or other.  But the O.T. prophets had something going for them: they spoke the truth of God, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Lamott usually speaks the truth of her hippie, drug culture roots, with the inspiration of some mystic poets.

OK, maybe that's too harsh. She tells some good stories.  Some even made me smile.  She is refreshingly honest.  Too often, memoirs or devotional books you might pick up at a Christian book store sugarcoat life, and when they talk about struggles they focus on the inevitable happy ending.  Not Lamott.  She lays it all out, and there is something therapeutic in hearing from someone who's been through struggles as well.  I just don't know that we can learn much from her struggles and certainly I don't learn much about living the Christian life.

Aside from the lack of biblical, Christian theology, Lamott also makes her political and social liberalism very clear.  Once, when invited to a panel at a liberal Catholic meeting (which she says she didn't know was Catholic at the time), she defended a woman's right to kill her own unborn baby.  "I said that a woman's right to choose was nobody else's g-d business."  (She doesn't abbreviate.  She has a potty mouth.)  She actually says that "reproductive rights for all women" are a "crucial part" of the message of "the sacredness of each human life."  Unborn humans need not apply.

Besides that, anything that I may have gleaned in terms of edification or inspiration was eclipsed by her occasional uninformed, ridiculous jabs at conservatives.  Here are some examples:

"Everyone is loved and chosen, even Dick Cheney, even Saddam Hussein."  OK, I can see objecting to Cheney's policies, but comparing him to a despot who committed genocide against his own people??  Whatever. 

"Whenever I want to binge or diet, it means that there is some part of me that is deeply afraid. . . . I had been worried sick about Bush for five years now."  Get a grip. 

"I don't hate anyone right now, not even George W. Bush. . . . While I still oppose every decision he makes and am appalled at his general level of malfunction, I no longer want to hurt him." She describes the lengths she went to to "unhate Bush." Looks like she takes Bush's presidency much too seriously. You get the feeling that if George W. Bush found a home for every homeless person in America, raised everyone in poverty to middle class, made peace with every country in the Middle East, and gave Lamott a pedicure, she'd still see him as the devil.

On abortion again: "President Bush . . . signed legislation limiting abortion rights, surrounded by nine self-righteous white married males, who had forced God knows how many girlfriends into doing God knows what."  I think this would be called projection.  Just because her boyfriends may have forced her to do God knows what doesn't mean all men force all their girlfriends the same way.

"George W. Bush and John Ashcroft had tried for years to create a country the East German state could only dream about." 

"George Bush's decisions and movements will take a thousand years to recover from, because his people have done such major damage everywhere."

And these political liberals say that Rush Limbaugh makes baseless criticisms of the left.  Grace (Eventually) is not a political book, and certainly not a treatise on policy, but these screeching remarks distract from any small amount of redeeming value that can be found here.  Don't bother.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Woman Among Warlords, Malalai Joya

The subtitle of this remarkable woman's book, "The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice," does not do justice to the magnitude of the heroism displayed by Malalai Joya in Afghanistan.  Here in the United States, we love to complain about our government, and exposing hypocrisy, nepotism, and corruption makes great sport (see Michelle Malkin's book).  But we live in a blissful political Eden compared to Afghanistan.

Joya's father lost his leg in the fight against the Soviet occupation, so from her earliest memories she was no stranger to sacrificing for freedom.  Much of her childhood was spent in refugee camps in Pakistan. Sharing the love of learning she got from her parents, she began teaching girls in underground schools.  After gaining some noteriety as a teacher, a women's group asked her to return to Afghanistan to teach in secret schools under the nose of the Taliban.  After the Taliban fell and parliamentary elections were held, Joya became the youngest person in parliament.

She quickly gained a reputation as being an outspoken critic of the new government, which, with the strong support of the U.S., was made up of the warlords who had terrorized Afghanistan, and, in some cases, the Taliban itself.  She writes that "intolerance, brutality, and the severe oppression of women in Afghanistan" does not characterize only the Taliban's regime, but that "some of the worst atrocities in our recent past were committed during the civil war by the men who are now in power."  She says that the U.S. "wanted a civil war in Afghanistan, since it was afraid of the huge quantity of weapons in the hands of the mujahideen."  After 9/11, the U.S. supported the Northern Alliance in the defeat of the Taliban, but "Afghan people believed that they were no better than the Taliban."

Given the opportunity to represent her region in parliament, Joya spoke out, criticizing the fact that the government was made up of so many warlords and their supporters.  Rather than sit in a position of power, they should be tried for their war crimes.  The first time she spoke in session, her microphone was turned off.  In two years in parliament, she never spoke without her microphone being turned off.  Not only did she gain notoriety, fame, and the adoration of the common people of Afghanistan, she also became the subject of threats and physical attack, even by her fellow members of parliament, and was the target of multiple assassination attempts.

I have heard the anti-war rhetoric of the American left, and I ignore it.  They so frequently mischaracterize the role of the U.S. abroad that they have not credibility with me.  But Joya, writing from the perspective of a Afghan woman, is highly critical of U.S. involvement--she would say occupation--of Afghanistan.  American officials tout the freedom and education of women, but the plight of women is still as dismal as ever.  Most of the country is not governed by the government, but by warlords and drug lords.  And the Americans are holding up a regime that is tainted by a large number of war criminals.  Joya calls for a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and is optimistic that "democratic-minded individuals and parties" will "fight the influence of extremism and bring real democracy to our country."

I wish I shared her optimism.  The U.S. has badly failed the Afghans terribly, supporting and arming first one group of thugs and now another.  The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has made matters worse for a generation, but, given the current regime, I don't see how getting out will make matters better.  I do find it hard to disagree with Joya when she writes: "For successive U.S. governments, their own military, regional, economic, and strategic interests have been considered before everything else and they have been ready to sacrifice millions of Afghans to meet these interests.  Their nice words about 'human rights,' 'justice,' 'freedom,' 'liberation,' democracy,' and so on are nothing more than lies.  They put no value on the lives of Afghan people."

A book like this makes me happy to be an American.  One representative calling the president a liar draws shock and disbelief in the United States.  During sessions of parliament, Joya is shouted down, called a whore and worse, physically attacked, had her hair pulled out--all by other members of parliament.  My prayer for Afghanistan is that peace and true democracy will come to pass in that country.  I have a feeling that the current generation's grandchildren and their grandchildren will look back to Malalai Joya as part of the answer to that prayer.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Culture of Corruption, by Michelle Malkin

Sometimes the subtitle of a book sums up the whole content.  This one may not sum it up, but it does reveal the direction and intent of Michelle Malkin's book: Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies.  Suffice it to say that Malkin is not a fan of Obama and his appointees and advisors.  If you remember some of the coverage and headlines about, for instance, his cabinet appointees' tax problems, that only scratches the surface of the dirt that Malkin covers here.

Her point is not that Washington culture is full of backscratching, back-room deals, and lots of unaccountable and under the table cash.  That is self-evident to anyone who follows politics.  She does provide endless, sickening examples of that culture in Obama world, and if you're not thoroughly sickened by the filth and corruption of these people, you have thick skin.

Her larger point is the hypocrisy of Team Obama.  For all of his talk of keeping lobbyists out of his administration, they are found in every corner.  For someone who gave campaign speeches about Washington being broken, he has embraced the brokenness.  For someone who claims to speak for the common man and not for the financial elite, he sure seems pour out love (and our money) to Wall Street insiders.

I know this same type of book could be written (and probably has been written) about the Bushes or just about any other administration.  To me, this is more an anti-big-government book than an anti-Obama book.  There is too much power in the White House, and, as Lord Acton pointed out, power tends to corrupt.

I want to make one thing clear: nothing in this book criticizes Obama's political views or policies.  Although I'm sure Malkin would find plenty to disagree on with the president, she focuses solely on the corruption, the big money deals, the borderline legal deal making, and the general stench surrounding Obama and his friends.

By the way, I saw this article on the other day, describing the IRS "report a tax cheat" program.  I think I'll just sit outside the White House entrance and write down the names of everyone who goes in and send the list to the IRS.  Or maybe Malkin should just send the IRS a copy of her book.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem

This is science fiction.  But in the limited sense that it takes place in some near future, in which genetically enhanced animals work as domestic servants, and police, instead of giving tickets and prosecuting crime, deduct karma points from offenders' ID cards.  More than what you might typically picture as sci-fi, this is a private eye story.  (I kept thinking of Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir character: "A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets but on the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man is still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions. Guy Noir, Private Eye." Cue the slow, jazzy sax theme.)

The best part of Gun is Lethem's picturesque phrases.  (Come to think of it, these lines would fit well in a Guy Noir skit.)  Every now and then there will be a memorable sentence or two that makes me smile.  Some examples:

The clouds were still bunched up in the sky like a gang on a street corner, and it looked to me like they had the sun pretty effectively intimidated.

The case [which he was investigating] was like some kind of invasive malignancy.  It filled whatever space it was given, and worse, blended itself into the healthy tissue so you didn't know where to make the cut.  It had blended itself into my life.

It was the kind of neighborhood where you give your car a little involuntary glance back over your shoulder after you park it, and if you have any doubt whether you locked it, and doubt at all, you walk all the way back just to check.

I was stupid enough to think there was something wrong with the silence that had fallen like a gloved hand onto the bare throat of the city.

She [a potential client trying to seduce him] applied herself to the front of my body like a full-length decal, seeking points of pressure all the way up and down, and working them until they responded.

[After getting bashed on the head by his adversary's henchman]  Then the floor peeled up in a curl to embrace the sides of my head, and the weave of the carpet spiraled up to tickle the inside of my nose.

Clever phrases and colorful language aside, there is a story here.  But it wasn't one that enthralled me.  This is one of those books that is somewhat enjoyable for the reading experience, but in terms of story, I was ready to get it over with.  By the time the detective got around to figuring out who killed whom and why, I didn't really care.  Suffice to say that the continual references to "make"--the government-provided blends of drugs with ingredients like addictol, forgetol, and acceptol--ends up not being simply a part of the background of Lethem's future America, but a crucial plot element.

I am sufficiently curious about Lethem's work that I might pick up another of his novels at some point.  Fans of the dark, literary sci-fi of Philip Dick and his ilk might enjoy Gun, With Occasional Music, but Lethem's definitely an acquired taste.