Weekend Edition: 8-19

Bulletin Board

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

Blog Headlines of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.

Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

American regression

Every day the onslaught continues, more and more straw falling on the camel’s back. And Trump lending aid and comfort to Nazis and racists is just further evidence that we’re backsliding from decades-old principles. This is especially so when both he and Congress want to deprive millions of health insurance and make sure corporations and the wealthy pay less in taxes. Let’s look at from whence we’ve come.

Throughout World War II, America saw Nazism as a threat to freedom and American ideals. Yet even as the danger increased, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized there were some internal threats to freedom that needed attention. Eleven months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt gave his 1941 State of the Union address, now known as the “Four Freedoms” speech. Yet before enunciating the freedoms threatened by the Nazis and the world war, he detailed the “basic things” that are “the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy”:

  • Equality of opportunity.
  • Jobs for those who can work.
  • Security for those who need it.
  • The ending of special privilege for the few.
  • The preservation of civil liberties for all.
  • Increasing the coverage of Social Security and unemployment insurance.
  • Widening the availability of medical care.

These principles were so fundamental that not even America’s entry into the war undercut them. In his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt said that true American freedom depended on economic security and independence. Echoing his speech three years before, he enunciated the following principles in a “Second Bill of Rights”:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job.
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
  • The right of farmers to raise and sell products at prices that will provide them and their families a decent living.
  • The right of businessmen to be free from unfair competition and monopolies.
  • The right of every family to a decent home.
  • The right to adequate medical care.
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
  • The right to a good education.

Apparently, Trump and the GOP are ignorant of these ideas or reject them. To have moved so far from these principles over the last 75 years is dumbfounding. It’s the antithesis of progress — and our current political leadership demagogues only bring to mind Dante’s “abandon all hope.”

We cannot be content, no matter how high [the] general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944 State of the Union address

Weekend Edition: 8-12

Bulletin Board

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • How America Lost Its Mind (“We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.”)
  • W.W.E. the People (“Trump didn’t create the problem — he exploited it.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

We’re all fucked. It helps to remember that.

George Carlin, Brain Droppings

Book Review: The Irrationalist by Andrew Pessin

Historical fiction is unique in several ways. In particular, while all fiction — at least good fiction — requires imagination and intelligence, historical fiction, according to bestselling author Alexander Chee, deals with “the plausibly hypothetical” and describes “what might have happened within what happened.” The constraints of real events, people and ways of life often mean, to paraphrase Longfellow, that when historical fiction is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it is horrid. Andrew Pessin’s The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of René Descartes clearly is in the former category.

Built around the Thirty Years War and its surrounding religious conflicts, the book is an intelligent and entertaining contemplation of some “what ifs” in Descartes’ life. Pessin, a Connecticut College philosophy professor who’s written or edited several books about philosophy, combines fact, speculation and imagination in crafting the two narratives that culminate in an adeptly crafted revelation. One follows Descartes’ 1650 death in Sweden, where he moved the year before at the invitation of Christina, the queen of Sweden. The other starts with his birth in 1596 and brings the reader to the beginning of the first narrative.

With the latter, Pessin provides insight into the man rightfully recognized as a philosopher (often called the first modern rationalist) and mathematician (introducing Cartesian geometry, among other things) and scientist. By using and examining almost ordinary points in Descartes’ life and his reclusiveness, The Irrationalist humanizes him. “He was,” Pessin writes, “a man who could do a half-dozen calculations in his head simultaneously but he had not yet mastered how to navigate a world filled with actual human beings.” The book also pursues the lingering conjecture that Descartes was associated with the Brothers of the Rosy Cross, a forerunner of today’s Rosicrucians. The secret group sought to synthesize esoteric knowledge and symbols with science and math to gain a complete understanding of nature. Pessin also observes, though, that in those efforts “it was apparently also necessary to say some nasty things about the Pope and occasionally also Luther and Calvin.”

The postmortem tale is a mystery (two, actually) coming on the heels of the Peace of Westphalia, which helped make Sweden a great power. It is told from the perspective of Adrien Baillet, the historical figure with whom Pessin takes the most liberty. The real Baillet was a French priest, scholar and librarian who wrote the first biography of Descartes. Here, he is a rather inept errand boy and assistant for the now-retired rector of the Jesuit college in France that Descartes attended years before. For some reason, Baillet, who is not a priest, is sent to Stockholm to represent the Jesuits at a gala being held by Queen Christina. Descartes dies the morning Baillet arrives.

History has it that Descartes died of pneumonia. More recently, there’s been suggestions Descartes actually was assassinated. In The Irrationalist rumors to that effect surface immediately. The French ambassador to Sweden asks Baillet to investigate, even though he lacks any relevant experience. Baillet’s pursuit of his unwelcome task ultimately provides two twists, one under the surface from the beginning and the other perhaps cognizable only to those with in-depth knowledge of Descartes’ life.

The book is generally well-paced, although there are occasionally scenes that seem superfluous. The writing makes the book a pleasure to read and Pessin avoids obvious anachronisms. The skilled research and writing, though, makes one gaffe almost painfully conspicuous. In the same sentence, Pessin writes that Baillet got a “vibe” from a window, producing a “creepy” feeling. The latter term didn’t come into use for another 140 years while it would be more than 300 years before “vibe” gained the meaning for which it is used.

Regardless, the book is both strong and engaging. Pessin crafts time and place in a fashion that transports readers to and lets them become immersed in the story. His attention to detail in that regard and in drawing the characters — not just Baillet and Descartes — exhibits command of elements that create exceptional historical fiction. A reader leaves not only satisfied but understanding more about Descartes and his time.

…it soon became clear that bringing together large groups of armed men to resolve bitter religious and political disputes was not such a good idea.

Andrew Pessin, The Irrationalist

Weekend Edition: 8-5

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • The Real Legacy of Crazy Horse (“Official high-school graduation statistics for Pine Ridge are hard to come by, but one official estimated that, for every 100 children who enter kindergarten, just 30 will get their high-school diplomas.”)
  • Cogito Zero Sum (“Dangerous and stupid opinions are ‘normalized’ and given an equal footing with others that have substantiated themselves through some agreed-upon criteria of legitimacy.”)
  • Three Trump Speeches and the Death of a Nation (“What’s appalling, Mr. President, is that the moves you envision diminish us as a nation, remove all traces of grace and charity, play to the basest instincts and demean the high office you hold.”)

Practicing Law 101

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

When you have nothing to think about, you can do your best thinking.

Drake Baer, “‘Unloaded’ Minds Are the Most Creative,”
New York Magazine (June 20, 2016)

Weekend Edition: 7-29

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • Donald Trump’s War on the 1960s (“…how nice it was that [religious and ethnic minorities] knew their place, didn’t get too uppity and honored the primacy of Christians and whites who, the story goes, steadied and built the United States.”)

Practicing Law 101

  • If opposing counsel seeks sanctions against you, calling in a bomb threat isn’t good strategy

Legal Irony of the Week

  • The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is deciding a significant free speech issue on the rights of anonymous Internet users in a totally secret proceeding

Most Mortifying News of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Freedom of religion in America is all fine and good until you start believing in nothing, and then it is a crime to be punished.

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour