Sunday, June 28, 2009

(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.

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