Sunday, November 23, 2008

Books: the Other Form of Reading

One of the things about going on vacation for a week and a half is that you can get some reading done that's of a more traditional variety. I'm not usually inclined to bring along comics, even in trade form, because they're more bulky and because I have a lot of pictureless books to catch up on anyway. With a 5 day cruise, 3 nights in Ft Lauderdale and 2 nights in Orlando, I had a lot of reading time, which allowed me to finish one book I'd started previously and to read one I had received as a Christmas gift last year. You, lucky reader, get my reviews of these two books as a result.

Starting with the second one read (the Christmas gift), is Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Now, I'm a life long atheist as well as being a student of history and government, so this naturally has appeal to me. Starting with the American Revolution, the author, a self declared secularist, author, reporter and columnist, traces the history of the conflict between secular and religious thinkers in America. There's not a pretense that she's taking a balanced approach. For the most part the religious opposition is portrayed as intent on imposing religious doctrine on everyone else. Nonetheless, it's quite interesting in its revelations in light of the current state of affairs.

The church that was bent on imposing its will and obtaining state backing was the Episcopal church, which was the predominant faith at the time. In addition to such secularists as Jefferson, Madison and Franklin, the Episcopal was opposed strongly by Baptists, who were a new group at the time and didn't want Episcopal practices imposed upon them. This is one reason why the Constitution says the US government derives its authority from the people and not god. Even then there was a hue and cry to immediately amend the Constitution to change the language so that god would be the source of authority. Some even opposed ratification on that basis. The irony that today's Baptists, as well as today's Catholics who also strongly supported separation of church and state in the revolutionary period, are now the primary advocates of religious doctrine controlling civil government is not lost on the author. Of the various religious sects in the US, only Jews have consistently supported separation of church and state. Everyone else reached a point where they were the majority somewhere and wanted to impose their brand of religious thought on government.

She continues on through the revivalism in the early 19th Century period, the messianic appeals made during the Civil War, the influence of secularists in the abolitionist and feminist movements, the Golden Age of Secularism in the late 19th Century, the post-WWI Red Scare, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the Sixties, and the Reagan Revolution. Throughout she intersperses deeper discussion of noted secularists such as Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Clarence Darrow. She spends a good chunk of time arguing that Lincoln was also a secularist, despite his frequent general references to a god. Pretty convincingly argued, too.

The impression I have from the book is that she was impelled to write it by the obvious religious fervor of the Bush II administration, including opening prayers at cabinet meetings, government support of religious institutions through "faith based initiatives" and Bush's messianic and crusader appeals in the wake of 9/11. She also takes a little time to address the extremism of Justice Anthony Scalia, who cloaks himself as a strict constructionist, but based on his speech to a Chicago divinity school is much more interested in creating a Catholic state in the US, albeit one that administers the death penalty. His position that the Catholic Church's prohibition on abolition is an absolute requirement of all Catholics while the death penalty opposition espoused by the church is just a sort of policy guideline is exposed for the hypocrisy it represents in the conservative Catholic movement. Of course, there's no shortage of hypocrisy in any of the religious conservative movement, be it Protestant or Catholic.

The book was published in 2004, and there are no references to the 2004 presidential campaign, so I presume it was all ready to go by then. The end result of her campaign here is to lament that there are no current secular leaders who argue the cause with the sort of passion that religious advocates frequently muster in support of their cause. She particulalry wishes for a speaker like Robert Ingersoll who traveled the country making lecture appearances in the late 19th Century. Of course, she recoginizes that radio and TV brought about the end of those sort of speaking tours because there aren't enough people interested in hearing them to make them commerically viable, and there isn't the sort of organized support for secularist that preachers and priests can obtain from churches. I thought it was a rather weak finish as a call to arms. Aside from wanting someone else to step to the mantle of charismatic leader, which really isn't something easily accomplished by people whose philosophy relies on rationalism, her main conclusion is that secularists, agnostics, atheists et al should take to calling themselves Freethinkers, since the religious right has tarred and feathered the term secularist. As history of some lesser known points in the history of the US, and elucidation of some of the better known points, it's an excellent book. As a clarion call for opposition to turning the US government into an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church, it's rather weaker.

The second book was a light and amusing read. Not intentionally amusing, mind you, but amusing all the same. Ecotopia: The Novel of Your Future was written by Ernest Callenbach in 1975 and is set in 2000, more or less. The premise of the book is that a chunk of the northwest US, largely Washington, Oregon and northern California, seceded from the US in 1980 to form a sort of environmental utopia. It's a first person account where the writer is a New York Times-Post reporter who lands the plumb assignment of being the first American to go into Ecotopia to report back on conditions there, as the Ecotopians closed their borders after seceding, though they do engage in some trade with some other countries than the US. The narrator is also on a less than secret mission for the President to determine if there's any chance of re-uniting the two countries.

The idea behind the Ecotopia world is a sort of radical sustainability lifestyle. Cities are being dismantled into smaller, more eco-friendly community units. There are no cars. Short trips are by foot or bike and longer trips are by train. There's a sort of tree worship in the lumber industry, a social safety net that goes well beyond any European socialism we know in the real world, and a general egalitarianism in extremis.

Some of the amusement stems from the author's point of view in 1975. The relations between men and women that he forsees for 2000 are much more akin to the 1950s than what actually occurred. Oddly, though, there's a scene in which the narrator has sex with a woman he starts seeing while in Ecotopia in which the narrator himself basically describes it as a rape, because, while they've had sex on several occasions before, he's angry and forcing himself on her. She seems to accept this as a necessity rather than an assault and it's never raissed again. For a society in which all reproductive decisions are made by women, and child rearing is almost entirely solely determined by women as well, this seems totally out of place.

In fact, sex is a major source of amusement to me in this book. The narrator is a very shallow individual who is divoriced with children in NY and who has a sort of girlfriend, but they both sleep with other people. It seems like such a charicature, it's hard to believe. Anyway, the Ecotopia society is a sort of free love land where hook ups are the name of the game, even if you're in a sort of committed relationship. The woman the narrator falls for hooks up with some guy at a sort of tribal conflict game when she gets turned on by the impending violence, even though the narrator's right there. The narrator hooks up with his nurse at the hospital when he's recovering from a wound he sustains in another of these tribal games. In fact, it appears to be a standard practice that hospital patients have an assigned nurse of the opposite gender to have sex with, if they both want to. Not only is this funny as a health concept, but Ecotopia evidently has no gay people, either.

The other major source of amusement is ethnic relations. Despite the precepts of the enviro society largely stemming from Native American philosophies, there's major ethnic division in Ecotopia. Evidently blacks largely stick to their own areas of the former cities, as do Asians, so that the new, spread out communities are almost entirely white. Again, a product of the 1975 view of the world, I suppose. Equally interesting is that there are no religious differences in this society. With what we know of human history, that's damn well impossible. The sort of blythe explanation is that everyone who disagreed left, but that mostly had to do with professionals and business people who objected to the state taking over everything. It didn't address ethnic or religious differences.

One might wonder how this break away happened without the US taking it back, considering that's what happened in the Civil War. The author makes up a sort of lame excuse that the Ecotopians mined US harbors with nuclear weapons, or at least claimed to have, so the US couldnt' do anything obvious. There was an attempted invasion by stealth that was done with helicopters in the early '80s, but that failed when the Ecotopians essentially used weighted projectiles attached to metal lines to bring down over 7000 helicopters. Both of these propositions are pretty ridiculous if any thought is given to them. The mined harbors threat couldn't last long before they were either found or found to be non-existent. The result would be a heavy armor invasion and not just a Iran helicopter fiasco. It's not like the Ecotopians had any hostages inside their territory or an ally like the USSR that would prevent a direct assault.

On the positive side, the book does present a picture of a more environmentally sustainable society than what we have now. Unfortunately, some of the concepts rely on technology that doesn't actually exist, particulary with regard to waste disposal and biodegradable plastics (more so than what we have). I'd recommend reading it for a utopian view of an environmentalist whose ideas formed in the '60s and '70s. The author was born in 1929 and actually is a film expert, not a scientist, so his ideas of what science can do are a little unrealistic.

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