Sunday, June 28, 2009

Nothing Bad to Say about Benedict Arnold

A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen's Captivity
by Ethan Allen

A seminal work in U.S. patriotism, Ethan Allen's Narrative rings with vibrant ardor for Liberty and the nascent United States. He despises England -- as a country -- as much as he loves the cause of American freedom. Though not without its faults, Allen's tale sheds light on the fervent philosophy which supported many who supported the cause of the Colonies against the British. While he elides over his breaking parole, and losing a command -- he is, after all, quite the egotist -- his fierce determination to maintain his poise while in captivity, and his cunning (no doubt self-serving) tales of oneupsmanship while in gaol both ring true and join a wide literature of American derring-do and cleverness under pressure. His declartion of francophilia is also part and parcel of his times. 150 words for a 124 page book? (I have the American Experience Series edition) Allen's book serves a good immersion in the zeitgeist of the Revolutionary War. And -- even better for a prospective student -- it is fast-paced; a quick read. Beware his egotism, though every factual matter which could be checked has held up under scrutiny. Beware too his naturalistic view of religion, if such be a bugbear for you. But do bathe in Liberty taken at its flood by this true American hero.

(This is my original quickie review for Visual Bookshelf; I've copied over those reviews here, for reasons I may blog about in the future...)

(My Original Review of Secrets of the Tomb)

Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power
by Alexandra Robbins

Robbins's book isn't terrible. She reveals some of the banal truth behind the seemingly sinister facade of the Yale "tombs" in her sometimes rambling work. But her own sips of secret society Kool-Aid are obvious; her stated thesis is that "Hey, Yale's secret societies aren't all that bad" (well, that's how I'll state it for her). No surprise, since she rarely passes up an opportunity to mention the fact that she, herself, has been tapped for (and accepted) membership in another of these most elite groups. Many interesting details are revealed. Former Bones members apparently gave her much information that provides the meat here -- and reveals Skull and Bones to be neither completely sophomoric nor a sinister cabal. But the prose drags often -- especially when she traces the Bones connections of Bush 43, as well as when she can't help but rattle off 29 names in a row while listing the attendees at an Allen & Company 'retreat'. Perhaps that last sentence was written for one of her earlier magazine articles upon which this book is based; it certainly reads like 'by-the-word' writing. But Robbins is most painful to read when she stops reciting facts and tidbits from her interviews, and proffers an opinion or a conclusion. Take for example, this statement from the penultimate page of _Secrets_:
"The secret society allows us to believe that things don't just happen: genocide isn't just caused by one crazy individual, presidents aren't just assassinated, family political dynasties aren't just born."
Belief in secret forces does have the effect of providing meaning in what seems otherwise a chaotic world. Using conspiracy ideas as a lens through which to see all political events does create a simplistic reductionism that is to be scorned. But -- leaving aside the murdered presidents for the moment -- to take Robbins's examples at face value, she seems to say that "genocide is just caused by one crazy man" (I'll assume the individual she's speaking of is male, as are most madmen) and that "family dynasties just happen". This is as simplistic -- moreso! -- than the silly ideas of the weak and deluded that she clucks her tongue at. So, in conclusion, _Secrets of the Tomb_ has some interesting factoids and a little bit of history, as well as much needed anti-venom for the poisonous barbs of the paranoid, but is ultimately a porr substitute for a well-reasoned work on the "Hidden Paths of Power" of the subtitle. Read it for the gossip, not for its absent insights.

Jesuits On The Run

God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot
by Alice Hogge

Alice Hogge's book reads like a hagiography of Henry Garnet -- nevermind that he was never beatified, let alone sanctified. The subtitle both reveals and elides the actual subject(s) of the book. Though indeed _God's Secret Agents_ is the story of "Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests", the Gunpowder Plot is ancillary to the main action. The first two-thirds of the work is a powerful, well-sourced description of The Mission, the Jesuit project to continue Catholicism in England despite the laws that made it criminal and the political opportunism that weakened the One True Faith over the last twenty years of the 16th Century. Though Hogge is careful to portray both the powerful faith of the English Catholics as well as the realpolitik that drove their oppression, her sympathies are obviously on the side of the Catholics caught in a Great Game between Britain and the Spanish, French, and Papal forces. The nobility of her heroes -- Garnet and Gerard and Campion -- is limned in every paragraph, while her objectivity sometimes seems forced as she writes, for example, of Robert Cecil's surprising tolerance in his private letters at odds to his political invective against the Romish Church. The book hits surprising doldrums after Father Gerard's escape from the Tower of London in 1597, as the author has to somehow traverse the next six years to finally arrive at the foothills of the Gunpowder Plot. The death of Elizabeth seems to cast a pall on the narrative as well, and Hogge's lively tale of priests on the run becomes a fairly dry exposition of Catesby's plotting and the tenuous, ambiguous connections of Garnet to the same. The use of these connections by the Government to destroy The Mission almost utterly is a foregone conclusion, and the book limps to a close like Frodo and Sam wending their way to Mount Doom. For all that, this is a very good book; the descriptions of the 'hide holes' constructed for the Catholic 'Resistance' are worth the price alone. Just don't read it expecting to get more than a quick overview of the Gunpowder Plot (which is all it deserves, after all). Hogge's work, instead, portrays the perilous world of the distaff faith, detailing the passions and tough moral choices that created the world in which Guy Fawkes could contemplate his terrible vengeance.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Conspiracy Theorists Believe In God

We take as today's text some sentences from the fourth paragraph from the end of Secrets of the Tomb, a fairly meaningless work (you can read my micro-review here), but in the closing lines the author, Alexandra Robbins makes some statements that illustrate the illogic of most conspiracy theorizing, both pro and contra.

"However sinister the notion of an all-powerful secret society might be, the existence of a Skull and Bones also brings us some measure of relief. The secret society allows us to believe that things don't just happen: genocide isn't just caused by one crazy individual, presidents aren't just assassinated, family political dynasties aren't just born. Even chaos, the society's conspiracy theories tell us, has causality. The secret society -- like the power of the elitist, old-school colleges, the small groups of mogul networks, and the political dynasties -- survives because people like to believe that seemingly random events are orchestrated by someone or something in control. … Perhaps one of the reasons people are so fascinated with conspiracy theories, particularly the far-reaching networks associated with secret societies and old-school power, is that they need causality in much the same way as they need a God. People's need for the Skull and Bones conspiracies to elucidate an underlying order is similar to the need for relifion to explain death and purpose. Underground control suggests order and order implies reason. Explanations, however implausible are somehow reassuring."

I've mentioned in the aforementioned review how distasteful the 'logical' argument being made here that genocide is just caused by one madmen; Robbins replaces the mysterious causality of conspiracy with not only an uncaring randomness in the universe, but a febrile, insanely powerful randomness. "Well, too bad that one guy, all alone and unaided, caused the Holocaust. What can you do?" and the shrugged shoulders get back to their place at the grindstone...

But what really interests me here is the synonymy between Conspiracy Theories and religion. Weak-minded people believe in these crazy things, she seems to say, because it gives comfort and meaning to their otherwise random lives. I can see her point. If I imagined myself a pinball being slapped by the random flippers of chance, I too would search for some explanation, "however implausible", to assuage my fear of the haphazard bolts of force which seem otherwise to lash out at me and my world without cause or reason. These fables (conspiracies and religion) are the solace only of those unable to stomach the harsh, chaotic reality of the world in which all real men and women live. Not only that, but this desperate longing for meaning is the true source of the awful power these weaklings fear: "political dynasties … [survive] because people like to believe that seemingly random events are orchestrated by someone or something in control" (my emphasis). Apparently, if Conspiracy Theories did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

So we are left with Hobson's choice: either we are deluded into believing in secret forces in the universe behind every rock, chair, or tomb; or we rationally realize that the secret forces feared by the masses are actually called into being by the hoipolloi's selfsame fears. The closed universe closes in tighter, as conspiracies provide an order that does not exist, and God explains away death "and purpose"[?]. And, Robbins does not go on to say, belief in the superiority of those who "see through" such chimaeras goes a long way to explain away any disparity in wealth and access to power. Reassurance is only for the weak; if you can live without needing solace, power will surely follow you all your days.