Archive for January 13, 2013

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

January 13, 2013 Leave a comment


Earlier this evening, I described my New Year’s resolution: read fewer books. The first book I selected for 2013, Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, appears to be a good choice in pursuit of this goal, as I’ll explain in conclusion. First, let me review how I came to read it.

I mentioned Elie’s book last October, in writing about Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful.

Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.

I went on to mention that just two weeks earlier, Elie’s second book had “appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma.” Moreover:

Hours later, at the NYT website, I saw that the subject of the next day’s book review was none other than Reinventing Bach. And a little later, I found that it was the subject of one of the briefly noted reviews in this week’s New Yorker. Moreover, had I only been paying attention, I would have seen a review a week earlier in our local paper, the Seattle Times, by their former music critic, Melinda Bargreen, with Elie scheduled to speak in Seattle the next day as part of his book tour. Someone was trying to tell me something.

I began Reinventing Bach soon thereafter. On finishing it, I considered turning directly to The Life You Save May Be Your Own, but decided I wasn’t sufficiently interested in 470 pages of text (plus notes) on Elie’s Catholic quartet.

The matter might have ended there were it not for the appearance three weeks ago of a cover essay by Elie in the Sunday NYT book review, titled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” In the essay, Elie observes that

Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.

So are works of fiction about the quan­daries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new ­occupants.

It’s a strange development. Strange because the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out for ­dramatic treatment. Strange because upheavals in Christianity across the Atlantic gave rise to great fiction from “The Brothers Karamazov” to “Brideshead Revisited.” Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.

I am the author of a book about four 20th-century American Catholic writers, and I am often asked who their successors are. Usually I demur. I observe that we look in the wrong places. I point out that Graham Greene and J. R. R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time. I cite Matthew Arnold to the effect that ours is a critical age, not a creative one. I reflect that literature is created by individuals, not compelled by social forces.

Inspired by the essay, I thought I should reconsider Elie’s book. Doing a search on it, I was reminded that beliefnet had named it their 2003 book of the year and provided an interview with Elie, adding that

This group biography of four mid-20th century Roman Catholic writers—Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy—explores an era when American Catholicism enjoyed an intellectual high tide. Far from portraying his protagonists as avatars of some vaunted Catholic golden age, however, Elie shows how they worked out their ideas and exemplary lives in a context no less daunting than our own. Elie’s vivid group portrait is a serious work of criticism that can also serve as an introduction to the four writers’ work and lives.

I still wasn’t convinced that I wanted to spend 470 pages with Elie’s chosen Catholic quartet, but I decided to put myself in his hands. I downloaded the book and began. Soon I was drawn in, by Elie’s writing more than the content. I find it unexpectedly beautiful, in his construction of mood and of place. Sometimes I read just 3 or 4 pages at a time, but I immediately settle into Elie’s world.

This approach has its defects. Reading in small bits as I follow the lives of four characters, I struggle to remember details. But I enjoy the book just the same, enjoy immersing myself in the New York of my parents’ youth through which Day and Merton and Percy pass, the Mississippi and Georgia of Percy and O’Connor, the families and friends who shape their lives.

Plus, my piecemeal reading yields a bonus: it contributes to the success of my New Year’s resolution. If I keep it up, I won’t be reading many books this year!

Categories: Biography, Books

The Rule of Law and Foreign Policy

January 13, 2013 Leave a comment


The writer Robert Wright (author most recently of the 2009 book The Evolution of God) was a regular contributor at The Atlantic for the past year. He has now moved on to other ventures, writing his valedictory post a week ago. I wish I read him more consistently.

Wright took advantage of his post to “articulate three beliefs of mine that I rarely articulated this year, but that informed much of what I wrote, especially in the realm of foreign policy.” All three are worthy of reflection. Here’s the third:

If the United States doesn’t use its inevitably fading dominance to build a world in which the rule of law is respected, and in which global norms are strong, the United States (and the world) will suffer for it. So when, for example, we do things to other nations that we ourselves have defined as acts of war (like cybersabotage), that is not, in the long run, making us or our allies safer. The same goes for when we invade countries, or bomb them, in clear violation of international law. And at some point we have to get serious about building a truly comprehensive nuclear nonproliferation regime–one that we expect our friends, not just our enemies, to be members-in-good-standing of.

We learned not to expect sensitivity to this issue during the reign of Bush-Cheney, as they willfully ignored the rule of law. But President Obama would be different, or so I thought on the eve of his inauguration four years ago. Alas, little has changed. Two examples:

1. Drones. I never got around to writing about this at the time, but as Scott Shane reported in the NYT back around Thanksgiving,

Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.


The administration’s legal reasoning has not persuaded many other countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still object to such measures.

But since the first targeted killing by the United States in 2002, two administrations have taken the position that the United States is at war with Al Qaeda and its allies and can legally defend itself by striking its enemies wherever they are found.

Commenting on this story a few days later, Georgetown law professor David Cole wrote:

The real problem is not that there are no guidelines written down—though the administration itself seems now to acknowledge that what it has is insufficient—but that we the people don’t know what they are. The idea that the president can authorize the killing of a human being far from any traditional battlefield without any publically accessible set of constraints, conditions, or requirements is unacceptable in a country committed to the rule of law. In his first and only speech on security and our national ideals, at the National Archives in May 2009, President Obama insisted that adherence to the rule of law is essential in the fight against terror, and to that end, promised to be transparent about his actions “so that [the people] can make informed judgments and hold us accountable.” Yet after four years and hundreds of killings authorized in secret, the most the president has been able to offer us about the scope of his most awesome power is a handful of vague paragraphs in a handful of administration officials’ speeches, which experts must then parse for clues as to what the rules might actually be. This is more akin to what law looked like in the Soviet Union than to what it should look like in the United States of America.

2. Fake vaccination program. Capturing (or killing) Osama Bin Laden was a high priority, but the end didn’t justify the means, or one of the means: fake vaccinations. As The Guardian first reported two Julys ago, “the CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader’s family.” Three days later, The Guardian followed up with objections raised by Doctors Without Borders:

Médecins Sans Frontières has lashed out at the CIA for using a fake vaccination programme as a cover to spy on Osama bin Ladenon Thursday, saying it threatened life-saving immunisation work around the world.

The international medical aid charity said the ploy used by US intelligence, revealed this week in the Guardian, was a “grave manipulation of the medical act”.


“The risk is that vulnerable communities – anywhere – needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid,” said Unni Karunakara, MSF’s international president. “The potential consequence is that even basic healthcare, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it most.”

Tom Scocca reviewed the details at the time, concluding that

Bin Laden had already been found. The vaccination campaign was a matter of bureaucratic self-protection—to get DNA samples from people inside the compound, to confirm that the target that the CIA had identified in Abbottabad was correct, so that the agency wouldn’t embarrass itself. The most that the vaccinations could have done, if the DNA tests had come back negative, would have been to allow the CIA to quietly add this particular house to the list of places in which, over the course of a decade, it had failed to find Bin Laden.

And that assumes the vaccination trick even worked. According to the Guardian, it was “not known whether the CIA managed to obtain any bin Laden DNA, although one source suggested the operation did not succeed.” Yet we got Bin Laden anyway. The necessity that [a “senior U.S. official”] was pleading was fake necessity.

Last month, eight vaccination workers were killed in Pakistan during a nationwide vaccination drive.

Obama’s inauguration is a week away. May he show greater respect for the rule of law in his second term.

Categories: Journalism, Law, Politics

New Year Resolution

January 13, 2013 1 comment


I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution in years. Decades. Come to think of it, maybe I never have. Until this year.

I read 45 books in 2012. Or was it 46? I’m not sure. I do know that the rate was icnreasing: 5 in November, 7 in December. My resolution? Read fewer books. I’ve all but stopped reading my magazines. Newspapers pile up unopened. I don’t even want to think about what else isn’t getting done. With less book reading, I can restore balance. Everything in moderation.

By the way, remember the news a few years back about the book reading competition between George Bush and Karl Rove that evil person whose name I will not speak on this blog? Here, here’s an article the evil person wrote in the WSJ four Christmases ago, in the final weeks of Bush’s presidency. He says:

With only five days left, my lead is insurmountable. The competition can’t catch up. And for the third year in a row, I’ll triumph. In second place will be the president of the United States. Our contest is not about sports or politics. It’s about books.

It all started on New Year’s Eve in 2005. President Bush asked what my New Year’s resolutions were. I told him that as a regular reader who’d gotten out of the habit, my goal was to read a book a week in 2006. Three days later, we were in the Oval Office when he fixed me in his sights and said, “I’m on my second. Where are you?” Mr. Bush had turned my resolution into a contest.


At year’s end, I defeated the president, 110 books to 95. My trophy looks suspiciously like those given out at junior bowling finals. The president lamely insisted he’d lost because he’d been busy as Leader of the Free World.

All I can say is, really? Two books a week? Hey, I did that last month. But I wasn’t busy as the Leader of the Free World. Not that anyone thought Bush ever worked that hard at it. Nonetheless, this just isn’t plausible.

In any case, I plan not to keep pace with my ever growing booklist. Not this year.

How am I managing so far? More on that in upcoming posts.

Categories: Books