Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Noble Treason by Richard Hanser

A Noble Treason by Richard Hanser tells the story of a vitally important act of rebellion against tyranny.  The book is a chronicle of what has become known as The White Rose Rebellion. For those unfamiliar with the White Rose group, it consisted of students and one professor who attended and/or taught at the University of Munich during World War II. In 1942 and 1943, the group published a series of anti Nazi protest tracts. They covertly distributed thousands of these leaflets through the University, greater Munich and eventually all of Germany.  The group eventually began to organize a network of resistance groups based in universities and elsewhere. This was one of the few instances of organized resistance within Nazi Germany during World War II. When caught, most of the group was executed. At the heart of the organization were siblings Sophie Scholl and Hans Scholl.

The core members of the group maintained their values up until the moment that they met their deaths on a Nazi guillotine. Even throughout their interrogations, trials and as death’s approached, several members of the group, particularly Sophie Scholl, bravely left us with vital statements and proclamations exhorting the world to fight tyranny and promote decency and liberty. 

There are many striking things about the story of The White Rose. Since most of its members were very literate, most kept diaries. Hanser was able to mine these diaries to paint a picture of the members and their lives, as well as the political and philosophical underpinnings of their movement. One point that stands out is that they were all moderates. This was not a group of radicals. They were not Marxists or followers of any extreme ideologies. They were all immersed in literature, culture and art.  Most were Catholics or admirers of Catholic doctrine. They all looked towards moderate interpretations of Christianity.

Hanser writes,

"They made a highly implausible band of rebels and subversives. All of them came from the same bourgeois background; all of them, in their own idiom, were aus gutem Haus (from a good family); and there was not a political radical among them. They were all well-mannered and properly brought-up children of the middle class, where conservatism and submission to authority were rooted attitudes, especially in the place that bred them, Germany. Yet they had chosen to reject the prevailing values of their society, to cut themselves off from the convictions and enthusiasms of their peers, to make themselves aliens in their own land, and to put their lives in jeopardy rather than accept the mores that a brutal despotism was determined to impose on them. They were oppressed and appalled by the feeling that the Nazi system was robbing them of their heritage, that they were being plundered of their past and their future at the same time.”

In their journals, private conversations, and in their anti-Nazi proclamations, the group continually referenced philosophers, authors, Christian doctrine and Eastern philosophy. 

The leaflets themselves were a condemnation of Nazism and totalitarianism. They often cited literature, history, theology and philosophy. They championed civilization over barbarism. They specifically condemned the murder and oppression of Jews and members of other groups and castigated the German people for being silent on the issue. 

What is also striking is that aside from Professor Kurt Huber, all the group’s members were in their early twenties. The maturity, depth and integrity contained in their writings and public statements reflect wisdom beyond their years. 

An example from the first leaflet, written mostly by Hans Scholl,

“If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass - then, yes, they deserve their downfall. Goethe speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now - the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability - are waiting to be hounded to their destruction….

…if everyone waits until the other man makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon. Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism”

Hanser also builds a stark picture as to what it was like living in Nazi Germany for everyday Germans. He explains what it was like for literate folks who hated the Nazis but who had no recourse to do anything about it. He builds a picture of a police state that tried to impose a state of terror that permeated into everyday life. 

Hanser writes a compelling story. He holds the reader’s interest. He devotes many pages to the philosophical, historical and literary influences of the group. The book has some flaws, however. At times, the author seems a little too enamored with his subjects. He often gushes over their nobility. This is so understandable based on the circumstances of this history. With that, the book would have been stronger had the author been more unbiased.  

One can argue that The White Rose did nothing to hasten the end of the war. They may not have saved any lives. However, at the very least, they have given us a narrative of resistance to tyranny. It is a narrative of courage and basic human decency. It is narrative of reason and literacy in the face of pure evil. It is a narrative that can be deployed against tyranny and one to inspire those who oppose it.  

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II, tyranny or to those likely to be inspired by this story. Even those who choose not to read this book might be interested in learning more about the White Rose Group. The English translations of their leaflets can be found here. Their story is worth knowing. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Love And The Platypus by Nicholas Drayson

This post contains spoilers. 

Love And The Platypus by Nicholas Drayson is a historical novel. It is based on real events. Its main character, William Caldwell, was the real life zoologist who ultimately determined that platypuses lay eggs. This is a quirky, out of the box book that works on several levels.

Set on 1883, it is the story of Caldwell’s expedition to Australia to study the mysterious mammal and to determine if the creature truly does lay eggs. Along the way, the protagonist encounters a host of characters. Among them is Ettie Brown, a blind woman who turns out to be a romantic interest for Caldwell.  Mary Brown is Ettie’s adapted sister who is of Indigenous Australian descent. Ben Fuller is a local outdoorsman who initially seems benign but eventually shows himself to be malicious. 

The early part of the book takes the tone of a light adventure with romantic touches. As the narrative progresses however, this playful mood becomes intertwined with some very dark developments. 

The novel is full of observations relating to the natural world, zoology, evolution as well as animal and plant reproduction. There are multiple passages in the book that depict natural processes, often involving reproduction and often involving references to Charles Darwin or evolution. 

Caldwell is a science and nature enthusiast. He sees great wonder in the natural world. He is a proponent of Darwin as well as the theory of natural selection. 

This book operates on multiple levels. On the surface, and for many pages, it is charming travelogue - like account of a scientific expedition. A little romance is thrown in as are a host of likeable characters. Simultaneous to this lighter fare is an exploration of a natural world and its wonders. The fact that the animals and plants encountered are driven by evolution and reproduction is highlighted. There is an odd symmetry between the book’s many observations of reproduction in the natural world, and the budding romance between Caldwell and Ettie.

However, there is something terribly dark going on. In its quest for knowledge about the natural world, Caldwell’s expedition is slaughtering hundreds of animals, including many Platypuses. The incongruity of all this becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses. This is illustrated in the below passage about Caldwell’s observation of a bird that is then shot. 

“another piece of Rainbow detached itself from a branch high above William and glided towards him on sharp triangular wings. As it banked and turned William could see blues, greens, oranges and yellows…The bird snatched a flying termite from the air with a beak like a pair of fine curved forceps and returned to its perch. Now William could see a long tail and a face masked like a dancer at a fancy – dress ball. The bird tossed the insect back into its throat and immediately flew off, upwards this time, to catch another. William could here the click as the two half’s of its beak snapped together. But before it could regain its perch there was a much louder bang. The beautiful bird fell from the air in a fumble of feathers, and William turned to see Ben Fuller lowering his gun… William was finding it difficult to think of the right words to speak. Only moments ago the bird had been a living miracle of light and color. Now it was a bundle of dead feathers in Ben Fuller’s hands.”

Even worse, the past tragedies of The Brown sisters are very slowly revealed in horrifying detail. Mary’s entire family was brutally murdered by white settlers. Her mother was raped. Ettie’s mother was infected by syphilis that Ettie now carries. Ben Fuller is discovered to be a murderer and a rapist and is now further menacing the Brown women.

The incongruity between different parts of this book is striking.  What is one to make of this? Many of The charming and humorous passages in this book seem genuine and continue to the end.  The wonder expressed at the natural world also is depicted in a sincere way. Yet the horrors that lurk beneath it all are all too real.

I think that Drayson is trying to portray world a where there is a lot of good and joy to be found. However that good and joy exists simultaneously with horrible things. The natural world is a place of wonder where truth, and sometimes wisdom, can be found. Yet, we are reminded that parallel to the good is also malevolence. Much of this evil is deeply ingrained in our belief systems and culture. Our quest for knowledge and our enthusiasm for science is often tied to the destruction of the environment and to cruelty. Underneath our civilization, despite its good points, is something barbaric. There is violent streak that manifests itself in racism, brutality and murder.

Drayson has packed a lot onto this book. Its contrasts are some ways disorientating. It is at times charming and full of wonder. At other times it is shocking. In the end, I found to be an accurate depiction of the real world and its contradictions. I recommend this to anyone who likes original and quirky stories that try to dig into the nature of people, science and culture. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

My Thoughts on The Koran

For this  rereading of the Koran, I read the A. J. Arberry translation. All quotations below are from that version. 

Scholars, politicians, theologians, Muslims and non – Muslims, etc. debate the meaning of the words in The Koran. A look at the way in which this book and other Islamic texts are interpreted by different individuals and groups reveals an amazing diversity of practices and views. Some argue that the Koran is a book of peace and tolerance. Others use it to justify violence and the oppression of others. There are theological disputes that are complex. Both Muslims and non - Muslims have joined in on the discussions. There is a tendency for folks to label interpretations that they do not agree with as “not real Islam”. This argument seems like it is designed to stifle communication and disagreement and to whitewash what are undeniably troubling verses in this book. 

It is common to hear folks tell non - Muslims not to draw their own conclusions about the Koran and to “ask a Muslim”. However, an examination of what Muslims throughout the world have to say about this text reveals vast disagreements. Listening to the views of Muslims is vitally important and useful, but it is not the end of the discussion. 

I am not going to explore the entire cornucopia of views out there.  Instead I am going to paint a picture of my interpretation of this book. Of course I am no expert. But I am capable of reading and drawing my own conclusions. With that, I believe in examining my own conclusions and questioning them based on the views of others, both Muslim and non - Muslim is necessary.

I read the text of The Koran as a particular viewpoint that describes the Universe. Like many other philosophical and religious works, it is an interpretation of reality. It is an attempt to make sense of the world in which we live in.

The ubiquitous underlying message behind this book is that both Old and New Testaments are the word of God. In fact, a large percentage of the Koran consists of a retelling and commentary of Bible stories. There is a particular emphasis on the destruction of cities and their inhabitants.  It is repeated over and over again: the people of various cities and regions were sinful and who ignored the prophets, they brought destruction on themselves. The stories of Lot, Noah and others are referred to numerous times as the text continually to come around to them again and again.

Jesus, who was the product of a virgin birth, was an important prophet but he was not the Son of God. The concept of the Trinity is specifically referred to. Many words are devoted to refuting it. At the same time Jesus is praised as an important prophet. 

It is important to understand the Koran’s view of Christians and Jews. The text refers to both groups collectively as “People of the Book.” 

There is another group mentioned, They are referred to as unbelievers. A simple Google search reveals that there is debate over who should be included as unbelievers. The term clearly refers to people who are neither Muslims, Christians or Jews. But does it also include Christians and Jews? In other words, does it also include People of the Book? 

The text treats unbelievers and People of the Book very differently. Thus I conclude that they are distinct groups without overlap. 

Christians and Jews are usually talked about with some respect, 

“some of the People of the Book are a nation upstanding, that recite God's signs in the watches of the night, bowing themselves, believing in God and in the Last Day, bidding to honour and forbidding dishonour, vying one with the other in good works; those are of the righteous.”

Unbelievers are talked much more negatively. In fact, the text is venomous towards them. Over and over again the text lays out the horrible punishment that they will face on the day – of -  judgment. The below passage is very typical, 

"And thou shalt see the sinners that day coupled in fetters, of pitch their shirts, their faces enveloped by the Fire, that God may recompense every soul for its earnings; surely God is swift at the reckoning."

When not burned in fire the Non – Believers are exposed to boiling water, 

And those who disbelieve — for them awaits a draught of boiling water, and a painful chastisement, for their disbelieving.”  

Muslims are instructed to not even associate with unbelievers,

"Let not the believers take the unbelievers for friends, rather than the believers — for whoso does that belongs not to God in anything” 

The text seems to be somewhat obsessed with unbelievers  They are mentioned scores of times, usually in similar ways to the above. 

A question arises, does this text require that Islam be forced on everyone? A famous quote seems to answer that question clearly,

"No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error."

However, another passage, which refers to adultery seems to contradict this, 

"And when two of you commit indecency, punish them both; but if they repent and make amends, then suffer them to be"

A Google search indicates that there is some dispute in regards to the above words. Some translations specifically call for flogging in the case of adultery. Either way, this is a demand for punishment for cases of adultery. How does this reconcile with the earlier passage that admonishes no compulsion in religion?  It seems that the text is specifying that no one should be forced to be a Muslim, but the rules of as specified in The Koran be enforced throughout society, through coercion. 

So much has been talked about the Koran and women. There are multiple passages that clearly declare that men are superior to women. From inheritance to court cases, women receive less benefits, less credibility and less respect then men. 

Ultimately, men are to rule over women and may use violence to control them as the below passage indicates, 

“Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God's guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; “

Obviously, there is no place for the above in a free and equitable society. 

There are certainly positive moral points about this work. There are numerous admonitions to be charitable. There is a lot of talk about war, but Believers are usually urged to only wage it defensively.  Infanticide, particularly involving girls, was a practice that was apparently widespread in the region in Mohamed’s time. It is mentioned at several points and is condemned and forbidden.

The Koran is a rich work that is well worth reading. It sometimes encourages its adherents to act ethically.  However, it also urges Believers to engage in immoral activity. As I have illustrated above, it is no guide to morality.  

Of course The Koran is a complex work. I have oversimplified it in the above commentary.  A survey of both serious scholarship and more casual interpretations illustrates a wide range of interpretations. Some of these opinions are not congruent with the views that I have expressed above. Thus, while the above the above is analysis of the Koran not an analysis of Islam as a whole. With that, in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, repressive regimes do use some of these morally untenable beliefs to oppress people. 

The theocrats in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran not withstanding, many folks who call themselves Muslims would likely take issue with the above interpretation. Many would disagree with my take on this text. In the end, I urge everyone to read this book and draw their own conclusions. 

Islam is a vitally important force operating in our world. Despite various interpretations of this book, The Koran is the basis of a belief system that billions of people follow.  A reading of this text is vital for anyone who wishes to begin to understand Islam. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Talking About Islam

I have recently reread The Koran. Before I post commentary on the book itself, I wanted to write something regarding some trends that are relevant to the worldwide conversation regarding Islam. 

The main point of this entry is to discuss how folks who attempt to have any intelligent public conversation about anything involving Islam are caught between two irrational forces. 

First, there is anti-Muslim bigotry and violence directed at Muslims. For years, there has been hate and violence aimed at people of the Islamic faith. In the United States, this situation has been exacerbated by the results of the recent Presidential election. At this stage, Trump and his surrogates are talking about Muslim bans and Muslim registries. Mosques are being vandalized, and women wearing Hijabs are being attacked all over the United States (Some cases where reports of anti - Muslim  violence that have been proven to be hoaxes. However, many more instances appear to be genuine). Even before recent developments, those expressing prejudice against Muslims have used legitimate criticism of Koranic text, oppressive Islamist laws, etc. to paint all Muslims in a negative light. This very much complicates genuine conversation and criticism. 

On the other side is a movement originating out of the far Left that demands no criticism of Islam or The Koran in any way. At its worst, this movement has accused the victims of Islamist murder, such as  the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, of bigotry. They have also set their sites on people who are campaigning for human rights in the Islamic world. Amazingly, some folks who are Muslims themselves have been called bigots for campaigning against honor killings, guardianship laws, forced Islamic veiling, etc. In some cases, it can be argued that some extreme Leftist voices have allied themselves with Islamists who have murdered and threatened critics. Though inconsequential in light of the big picture, I have been called a bigot (and a Trump supporter!) for what has been respectful criticism of text in the Koran, as well as when I criticized oppressive practices imposed by the Saudi and Iranian regimes. I only mention my own experiences to help build a picture of what I am referring to. 

Another important point is that this is a not a one-sided argument. Bigots have latched on to all aspects of this issue and often try to insert themselves into real discussions. Some, who critique the Koran and Islam, while not racist, engage in scathing commentary that naturally incites strong responses. Not all emotional responses to criticism are folks trying to impose de facto blasphemy rules, some of the pushback against critics of Islam is just vigorous disagreement in of itself. Many critics, while not bigots, generalize a lot about Islam, which is in my opinion makes no sense directed at such a varied and diverse faith. There is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on many of these issues.

Unfortunately, rational and decent folks, as well as human rights advocates and reformers, are caught in the middle between these groups. This issue is relevant both to people talking about human rights in Islamic societies and enclaves as well as to general discussions about Islam and Islamic texts. 

There is also a lesser version of this trend that is not nasty and uncivil and does not automatically label all criticism of Islam as bigotry. Instead it is a tendency to excuse or minimize harm done by Islamists and deny that there is anything negative contained in The Koran. Some just do not want any Islam and/or any religious beliefs critiqued but argue their case without name-calling. Though I do not agree with this line of reasoning, I consider this as an intellectual disagreement and I welcome conversation on this topic.

I should note that, in my opinion, those who disagree with particular criticisms of Islam are not part of the above. It is those who are irresponsibly throwing out the term bigot or Islamophobe that I am referring to. A vigorous, productive and intelligent discussion of various aspects of Islam invariably will involve those who criticize and those who disagree with that criticism. In fact, I often disagree with the criticism of Islam that I read. 

For those who want further reading on this topic, I have compiled a list of sources and evidence regarding this trend here . In regards to my feelings on criticizing religion in general, my post on the subject is here: Religion and Its Critics

The question arises as to what is the motivation and causes of what I can only describe as a hyper-defensiveness towards Islam. I will speculate based on conversations that I have had as well as on opinion pieces and blogs that I have read. First, there is an understandable reaction to the anti-Muslim Bigotry and violence aimed at Muslims. This has become even more of a concern with recent developments in the United States. 

Second, there is a streak of cultural relativism that is popular in some elements of the far Left. This leads to the belief that that non-European cultures and belief systems should be immune from moral and ethical standards and even the standards of logic and reason. I may explore cultural relativism in another post.  

Finally, there seems to be an extreme form of critical race theory operating. There are those who believe all oppression that exists in the world to be perpetuated by white men and colonialism and that any criticism of culture or acts of non-white men is invalid. 

Readers of this blog know that my criticism of religion tends to be directed at specific aspects of it. I rarely, if ever criticize an entire faith. I find all the major religions to be too diverse to generalize about.  I try to be respectful and try to listen and consider other people’s view. I also tend to praise certain aspects to religion in my commentary. I generally to do the same thing on other social media, particularly Twitter. My commentary on the Koran will not be a scathing attacking on the text. It will not be all negative, nor it will not be all positive.  I will not hesitate to express my opinions of ideas found in the Koran that I find reprehensible. 

As I have recently reread the book, I will be putting up at least one more blog on the Koran. As per the above I will include a combination of positive and negative things about the work. I believe that bigots will not likely be able to use it as a tool. As for folks on the other side, I am not exaggerating that there are some, who will label any talk of Islam or the Koran that is not One – Hundred percent positive as bigotry. Regardless of the terrible atmosphere out there, I will share my thoughts. I hope my readers find them interesting and that they spark some stimulating and lively conversations. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Five Year Blogiversary

Today Babbling Books is 5 years old. The first thing that comes to my mind about this fact is what a wonderful experience that blogging has been. 

In past years I have thanked and praised the book blogging community and all of the wonderful folks who comment on this blog and who I interact with. Once again, you all deserve accolades.

The comments section of this blog has been phenomenal. Folks have consistently left insightful and thoughtful viewpoints on virtually all my posts. A few folks have disagreed and challenged my views. I not only welcome this, but I am delighted that people have done so. The road to wisdom includes the paving stones known as criticism and alternate viewpoints. Though I do not want to be so presumptuous to say that my blog promotes wisdom, I want it to represent a few of the bricks in the road that leads to wisdom. 

Several weeks ago, I expressed some question over what form this blog would take going forward. I believe that there is a good chance that the United States, and perhaps the world at large, is moving into a tumultuous time of the type that the world has not seen in very long time. I am not all doom and gloom, yet I think that we must be prepared for unprecedented developments. As I have always attempted to relate my ruminations on books to the world at large, if this turns out to be true, I will continue to tie my some of my posts to real world developments. If events are as consequential as I expect them to be, I will likely reference them frequently. With that, I am mostly here to talk about books. Thus, the majority of my writing will be confined to the words between two covers. 

Another year begins. Hopefully our shared reading adventures will continue to be both intellectually fruitful and fun. Thanks again to everyone who has shared this experience with me. Happy reading everybody!