Sunday, December 23, 2018

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Source of book: I own this.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book is definitely in that category as I would never have picked it up on my own. 

It would be fair to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the book. I didn’t have that high of expectations since I am not really a pop culture maven, and I’m not really in to genre fiction. First, the bad stuff: there are a number of places where the writing is awkward. The characters aren’t particularly well developed, although that is rather par for the course with most genre fiction, particularly ones centered on action. The interpersonal interactions were particularly wince worthy. Cline doesn’t seem comfortable writing offline dialogue.

On the other hand, the book flows well, and makes for a compelling read. Although I will admit I didn’t get all the references (my family didn’t watch movies hardly at all during the 1980s), I was enough of a computer nerd to appreciate a good number. To a degree, it was a nice nostalgia trip back to the days of huddling over a computer - either our Commodore 64 or our cousin’s Apple - with my brother and cousins playing text-based games or dungeon style stuff like Gauntlet.

The universe in Ready Player One is well thought out. It is a dystopian future (like roughly half of new books these days it seems…), and a rather plausible one. A combination of environmental and economic factors have mostly destroyed society. Fossil fuels have run out, so vehicles are useless for the most part. Most people are deeply impoverished, and jobs are hard to come by. Children, at least, get food credits, so they don’t starve. The protagonist, Wade, lives with his aunt in “the stacks” - large towers of mobile homes and RVs which were created to make easy density within walking distance of public transit. But where Wade - and indeed most people - really live is in virtual reality. A system called OASIS is essentially the world of virtual reality, and contains millions of “planets” with different things to do on them. (To even begin to describe a few of them would take a chapter.) Even schooling for many is done in this reality. As our club - which contains a number of teachers - discussed, a lot of the features in this virtual school sound pretty cool, actually. Certainly, the fact that the student avatars can’t disrupt class or surf on their phones is a nice change from reality.

The creator of OASIS dies, and leaves his vast fortune to whoever can first successfully complete an elaborate quest he has left behind. Because the prospect of becoming the richest person in history has a lot of appeal, millions join the quest. They are hunting for what is essentially, the greatest “Easter Egg” ever. They are dubbed “egg hunters” - or “gunters” for short.

Because the creator was really into the 1980s, the gunters become serious students of 80s pop culture, hoping to find the clues necessary to lead them to the prize. In a very real sense, the creator becomes god, and his followers immerse themselves fanatically in the scriptures - the creator’s journal and those things known to be the creator’s favorite games, movies, songs, and so on.

For five years, nobody makes any progress. Then, Wade is able to solve the first riddle, and the game is on. Four other gunters are successful in clearing the first “gate,” and become the main competition to the IOI Corporation, a sinister global entity intent on taking over and monetizing OASIS. Two of these are particularly central to the story: Wade’s best - perhaps only - online friend, Aech (that’s the screen name - we don’t find out the real name until near the end), and Art3mis, a blogger who Wade has a huge crush for.

The bulk of the book is a fast paced narrative of the quest from Wade’s point of view. It is pretty easy to become immersed in the virtual world that Cline creates - I read through the book pretty quickly.

In addition to the fun of the plot itself, I thought the social commentary was well done. The book wasn’t particularly preachy, but it did gently bring to light some of the troubling trends of our own times, which in the book become even more pathological. One, of course, is growing economic inequality. When you combine this with the lure of affordable virtual reality, it is no wonder most people want to escape their crappy lives and live in a world where things are better and more equal - and meritocratic within the rules of the game. It is, at least, less destructive than drugs and booze. But, as it does for Wade, it becomes his entire life. After his early success, product endorsement money enables him to create his own fortress where he need have no actual interaction with other humans. His eventual liberation therefore requires that he set foot outside of virtual reality and experience real life.

The part about the nefarious corporation seeking to monetize everything was all too realistic. (Hello Facebook and Google...lately particularly?) Also too close for comfort was the idea of slavery as a result of debt. We are not that far removed from the days of debtors’ prison. Or from the days when half the population teetered on the brink of starvation, and lived literally decades shorter lives than the wealthy. It is the natural result of treating human beings as expendable cogs in the machine - and valuing them according to the money they bring.

Ready Player One isn’t a perfect book, but it exceeded expectations. I’m glad I was given a reason to read it.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Christmas Carol and An Amy Adams Christmas (Stars 2018)

Full disclosure: A member of the cast gave me a comp ticket for this show. So assume I am horribly biased and all that. Of course, I always blog about whatever the heck I want, and don’t claim to any sort of objectivity. So take this review with the usual block of salt.


I’m not sure how many of my readers are American Idol fans. I never really got into it, mostly because I just don’t watch much television. (If you want to know how I read over a book a week, it’s because I decompress that way, not with the tube…) But, at least for the first few seasons, I knew enough people who cared, so I kind of at least kept up with what was happening.

For those of us from Bakersfield, California, it was season three that mattered the most, because one of our own, Amy Adams, was a legitimate contestant. Bakersfield is an interesting place. Outside of California, it would qualify as a pretty dang big city. The metro area has over 800,000 people, making it number 62 in the US. (By comparison, the city itself is twice as big as Salt Lake City, and the metro area nearly as large.) But, despite its size, it feels very much like a small town. For example, both the legal community and the music/arts community are close knit and mutually supportive.

 Amy Adams on American Idol

And, relevant to this post, we really tend to embrace our own. Look at Buck Owens, who drew a crowd at his nightclub up until his death. (I had the honor of playing with him as part of a joint Buckaroos/Bakersfield Symphony concert back in the day.) If you are from Bakersfield, and embrace us, we will embrace you. It’s a thing I like about this town. Bakersfield’s Amy Adams should not be confused with the more famous actor, Amy Adams. After some success in Vegas and on tour, our own Adams came back to Bakersfield, had a couple of kids, and got involved in our local scene, teaching and working with youth. Which I think is pretty cool.

 Amy Adams, more recently, with a bit less pink, but still with all the spunk.

I’ve reviewed a few shows at Stars Dinner Theater before - it’s one of the longstanding local institutions that tends to focus on the “usual suspects”: the standards of music theater. Nothing wrong with this, and it has been a fun way for the kids to see some of these live. I tend to be intrigued by the more offbeat productions, and it is nice to see that they have branched out a bit lately.

This particular production was a double bill. The first half was a one act adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Ed Hopkins, followed by a musical review put together by Amy Adams.

Let me start with the Dickens. I have been a Dickens fan ever since my mother read David Copperfield to me and my siblings when I was about 9 years old. Since that time, I have read ten of the major novels, all five Christmas novellas, and a bunch of the short stories. For a decade or so, I read a Christmas novel every year. Although I have a soft spot for The Haunted Man, there is no doubt that A Christmas Carol is in the pantheon of greatest stories of all time. The kids and I watch the Muppet version every year, and it never gets old. (I am also partial to the old Alistair Sim black and white movie. So classic.)

The fun, of course, for the writer and director, is how to stage this story. Dickens is pretty long on description, which is better show than told on stage. On the other hand, there are some amazing zingers in his dialogue, which really should be preserved if possible.

I am happy to say that Ed Hopkins did a fine job of striking a balance between drama and the original. All the lines I was hoping to hear were preserved intact, and the occasional narration by Bob Cratchit was likewise drawn from the original. As a one act adaptation, it was quite enjoyable.

The key to any version of A Christmas Carol, is, of course, Scrooge. In this case, Kevin McDonald played that part. I have mentioned his fine work in previous posts. I was not disappointed in this production. McDonald captured the many moods of Scrooge, from vicious cruelty, to fear, to irrational exuberance in a memorable and riveting manner. I would be hard pressed to imagine a better choice for this role. (Disclosure: Kevin comped my ticket, and is hilarious on facebook, so I am undoubtedly biased. But I did like his work before I actually met him online or in person.)

 Amy Adams (The Ghost of Christmas Present) and Kevin McDonald (Ebenezer Scrooge)

I’ll also note the work of another online friend of mine, Norman Colwell, who played the ghost of Jacob Marley. Norman spent several decades in radio and TV, but really got into the stage late in life. Of his 77 total stage appearances, 71 have come since he turned 70. That is badass. And I loved his portrayal of Marley, with a combination of deadly (or is that undead) seriousness and slapstick humor.

Amy Adams took the part of the first two ghosts. Two real-life couples played the central couples in this work: Peter and Gianna De Keles as the Crachits, and Patrick and Karri McNeal as the Fezziwigs. I find it fun when casting is done this way. The real life chemistry often bleeds into the drama. I’ll also mention stage veteran Paula Einstein and Lindi Pellett as the charitable organization representatives, and Brent Starrh and Elizabeth Mackay as Fred and wife. I am not sure whether it was Peter Antongiovanni or Evan Clason who played Tiny Tim on the night we went, but he got the biggest applause of the night - and deserved it.

I am sure I am missing a number of other fine actors, but such is the nature of a blogging hobby. I enjoyed it, and can’t think of any sour note.

After the intermission, we got what was basically a musical Christmas revue, with Amy Adams’ eccentric family as the subject. It is my understanding that Adams co-wrote and directed this portion of the production. My favorite part of this segment of the evening was the music. With a cast of 20+, the arrangements were much more sophisticated and interesting than a standard SATB pulled off the shelf. It wasn’t clear if Adams did these herself, or just found the arrangements and made them happen, but either way, I was impressed. Stars generally has good quality vocal work (see Caley Mayhall in Ragtime), but the ensemble work was particularly impressive in this case. Adams appears to have a knack for raising the level of performance. Both pitch and ensemble were outstanding - as a musician myself, I noticed.

Let me also mention the fine work of the three piece live band. Piano, bass, and drums. I know musicians are expensive and take up space, but there is nothing like live music. Well done, guys, and thanks for your commitment to art.

In any event, an enjoyable night.

Turning from the specifics of this performance, I want to look a bit at Dickens and a theme that really stood out to me this time.

Anyone who has read Dickens extensively knows that behind all the good humor and optimism lies a deep hurt. Even A Christmas Carol turns out to be a really dark story, if you think about it. But for a bit of supernatural intervention, Tiny Tim dies, Scrooge dies forgotten at best, and the Victorian economic machine continues to grind the poor into dust.

There is a real life reason for this. There is a singular event in Dickens’ childhood which he never really got over, and which keeps appearing throughout his fiction. When Dickens was age 12, his father was arrested and imprisoned for debt, ending Dickens’ education, and forcing him into grinding child labor. In essence, this event broke apart their family, and terminated Dickens’ childhood. Yeah, no surprise he never got over it. His dad was just an expendable cog in the economic machine - never mind he was working. His family was destroyed and his wife and kids thrown on the mercies of a heartless society. Sure, Dickens survived and became a famous novelist. But many more died as children, forgotten, and unmourned.

I was reminded of this at several points in the evening entertainment. The first was when Scrooge himself spoke of his own trauma: his mother died giving birth to him, and he likewise rejected his nephew Fred, because Scrooge’s beloved sister Fan died giving birth to Fred. (One of those mundane commonalities of the Victorian Era we tend to forget…) Soon afterward, Scrooge turns a homeless boy out, scorning his carolling. Even in a Christmas story, the menace of cruel fate and crueler humanity is front and center. (Of his five Christmas novels, I think only The Cricket on the Hearth is mostly good cheer, and even it has an undercurrent of poverty. And damn, The Chimes is so dark.)

Both the left and right have tried to claim A Christmas Carol as proof of their particular politics. I rather used to think both had a point once upon a time. Of course, that was back before the GOP went full social darwinist, so it was... a different time. After more careful readings, though, I realized that the heart of Scrooge isn’t really that of a smug liberal. (Although, to be sure, there is plenty of approbation due to those who prefer their segregated, gated neighborhoods while relying on government aid to assuage their personal consciences.) Scrooge actually is the modern social darwinist in so many ways.

His cure for poverty?

Wait for it...PRISONS. And workhouses, where the poor are put to slave labor for long hours in exchange for starvation food and housing. Seriously, before you compare our modern safety net to Victorian institutions, take a minute to research them. Socioeconomic status translated into literally decades of life expectancy. As Scrooge himself said, “If they are going to die anyway, they should do so quickly and decrease the surplus population.” It was this idea of much of humanity being “surplus” that led to the imprisonment of Dickens’ father. It is this idea of “surplus” which leads to the disdain for impoverished refugees today. And more.

As Dickens points out, we might not really want to categorize humanity as “surplus,” considering that we don’t really know that it won’t be us ourselves who are truly the surplus. There is the strong hint that Scrooge himself is “surplus,” one of those whom nobody will miss.

Two songs in the second half of this production tied in perfectly with Dickens’ theme. The first was one of my all time favorite Christmas songs: “Oh Holy Night.” I wrote about this (and a few other carols) two years ago. Kudos to Amy Adams and company for including those amazing lines from the second verse: “Chains shall he break, the slave is our brother / and in His name, all oppression shall cease.” Let us not forget that, while the American translation was expressly abolitionist, the French original also focused on the oppression of the poor by the powerful. Charles Dickens would approve.

The second song was one sung by Gianna De Keles, “My Grown Up Christmas List.” This modern song, written by Linda Thompson (lyrics) and David Foster (music) was originally recorded by Natalie Cole, although it didn’t really become at hit. As those of us with an Evangelical background remember, Amy Grant’s 1992 version is the one which propelled the song to prominence. Later, Kelly Clarkson (hey, there’s an American Idol reference again) blew it all open in 2003 with her recording. In any event, the lyrics are quite good, and speak to the age-old problem of the way we tend to destroy the families of the poor, then blame them for it. Again, Charles Dickens would approve.

Call me a sentimental fool, but I still wish for this. I wish we would stop tearing lives apart in the name of (fill in the blank: mass incarceration, border “security,” war, hate, racism, you name it.) I wish we would put aside our ideas of what is “deserved” and start really looking at what we do to children in particular. Perhaps, this Christmas, more of us can find some empathy in our hearts and stop building walls - and build a bigger table instead.

I suspect that the theater audience here in Bakersfield skews toward the “liberal” side, for lack of a better term. (I’m still struggling with the idea that I somehow am a Commie because I don’t embrace White Nationalism and Social Darwinism.) But still, there was a certain political component to this production by its very nature. You put that pinko Dickens on stage, and sing about Christmas and the brotherhood of humankind, and, well, before you know it, you push back against hate. It’s a beautiful thing.

Amy Adams has a fine voice. It definitely has a country girl twang, so it is definitely a Bakersfield type. I’m a musical omnivore, so I enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary, depending on if you love or hate country. I appreciated that she didn’t feel the need to grab the spotlight, but let everyone else shine, taking advantage of her moments without acting like a diva. As I mentioned above, it was the work on ensemble singing that impressed me most.

I’m going to go with the Amy Grant version of the song, just for the 1990s nostalgia and my own memories. Long live the electric keys of the era...they take me back whenever I hear them.


Do you remember me
I sat upon your knee
I wrote to you with childhood fantasies
Well I'm all grown up now
And still need help somehow
I'm not a child but my heart still can dream

So here's my lifelong wish
My grown up Christmas list
Not for myself but for a world in need
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown up Christmas list

As children we believe
The grandest sight to see
Was something lovely wrapped beneath the tree
But Heaven only knows
That packages and bows
Can never heal a heartached human soul

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown up Christmas list

What is this illusion called the innocence of youth
Maybe only in our blind belief can we ever find the truth

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown up Christmas list
This is my only lifelong wish
This is my grown up Christmas list

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Radical Meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

I have been meaning to write this post for some time. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Christ’s best known teachings - even outside of Christianity. And for good reason: it is eternally relevant, timeless, memorable, and above all, truly radical in its meaning.

In this post, I want to look at that radical meaning, and why you don’t generally hear about this from the pulpit. (Particularly from white, Evangelical preachers - and that isn’t an accident.) Let me be the first to say that I am not a seminary-trained academic. I also do not believe that there is one “obvious, infallible, clear” meaning or interpretation of scripture. I wrote about that earlier this year. I am not claiming that I know the one true meaning of the parable, or that this is the only interpretation. But I do think that one can learn a lot from the context of the passage. I also believe that we need to take the words of Christ seriously, and not gloss over them because they make us uncomfortable.

Let’s start with the text itself. I’m using the NIV here, but feel free to read it in other translations for comparison.


Luke 10:25-37

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I was told that the meaning of this parable was that we need to love our neighbor, and that our neighbor includes those who are outside our “tribe” - people different than us. Now, this is a perfectly fine meaning. It is a great meaning in many ways.

In fact, if American [white, Evangelical] Christians actually took that meaning seriously, it would be nothing short of revolutionary. If they actually believed that they owed a Christian duty of love and care for the suffering and vulnerable in our world - whether or not those people share their race, nationality, socioeconomic status, religion, or theology - well, the world would be a vastly better place. But that would, of course, require that American Evangelicals rethink their political commitments to the candidates, parties, and policies of cruelty and indifference. So sure, the meaning that I was taught is a good one, and we would all do well to take it to heart.

That said, the meaning given is incomplete, and fails to include the truly radical ideas that Christ is teaching in this parable.

Here’s a hint:

Why is this parable “The Good Samaritan” rather than “The Good Jew”?

Think about that for a minute. And let’s take a look at the context, which is vital to understanding the meaning.

 Parable of the Good Samaritan by Balthasar van Courtbemde (1647)


What is the framing story behind this parable? In many parables, the authors of the Gospels simply state that he sat down to teach, or he told a parable, or something similar.

This one is different.

It starts with a specific person asking as specific question. Both are important.


The person is an “expert in the law,” or a “lawyer” as some translations put it. We aren’t talking about a lawyer like me. That profession as we know it didn’t really come into being until centuries later. Rather, this man was a scholar - an expert in the Torah. He was presumably familiar with every nook and cranny of the commandments - and all the loopholes that the religious leaders had exploited as they oppressed their fellow humans.

This guy wasn’t a true seeker, honestly wanting to know, either. He, like many “questioners” in the Gospels, was looking to argue - and prove Christ wrong. You can see this by his response to Christ’s answer - he wanted to “justify himself.” Christ refused to let him off the hook.

What was the question?

At this point, we Christians should all be riveted to the text: the founder of our faith is about to respond to what is perhaps the central question.

“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

This is important, yes? We talk a lot about salvation, and we have elaborate theological structures - and arguments - over the theology of salvation and eternal life. But for some reason or another, the structure seems rather to be missing something: it doesn’t match what Christ actually said. But let’s actually look at this closely - and take it seriously.

Christ’s response surely should be meaningful to us as we look at what sorts of behaviors are correlated with eternal life.

When we read this parable, therefore, we need to look at it as being first and foremost about eternal life. Who attains it. And why. Who doesn’t attain it, and why not.

Christ’s Response

First, there is a question. Christ loved to answer questions with questions. In this case, the legal expert was asked what the law said. This appears to be a softball question, but Christ is really just setting a trap.

The legal expert answers first. He quotes back what Christ said on multiple occasions was the summation of the Law and the Prophets.

Love God. Love Your Neighbor.

Christ agrees: do these and you will live. You will have eternal life.

It seems that the legal expert wasn’t satisfied with this answer. I suspect it was for the same reason that many I know are uncomfortable when someone (like me perhaps) calls them on actions or advocacy which seems rather opposite to loving one’s neighbor. So he responds like many I know:

Who is my neighbor?

Ah, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? The lawyer, always looking for loopholes. This is still very much happening. I’m not going to dignify them with links, but a number of reasonably prominent Evangelicals, writing in mainstream publications, have made the argument that when Christ talks about “the least of these,” He wasn’t talking about people outside the tribe. He was only talking about Christians. He was only talking about people from your own country, not foreigners. He didn’t mean you actually had duty to care for the poor - just to evangelize them, because they are poor because they aren’t “christian” enough. Just wow. This obviously completely ignores whole other areas of Christ’s teaching - including the parable we are discussing. Like the legal expert of the Gospel of Luke, they are still trying to weasel out of Christ’s commands - because they require an actual change of heart away from a religion of cruelty to one of compassion.

Next comes the part that I think makes this story truly radical.

Why is it “The Good Samaritan” and not “The Good Jew”?

Christ could easily have picked any category for any of his characters. He might have told a story with all Jews. He could have told one with no ethnicity mentioned. He could have made the robbery victim a Samaritan, and the hero an ordinary Jew. All these could have made the same basic point - if the sole point was “love your neighbor - even those not like you.”

Why did Christ choose to make the hero a Samaritan?

Well, to understand that requires an understanding of who the Samaritans were. Way back in the history of Israel, the nation split in two, with the Northern Kingdom taking the name of “Israel,” and the Southern Kingdom that of “Judah.” Because of the political reasons for the split, it wasn’t desirable that all the northerners would have had to travel to the south to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem. So the religious ritual was changed. For those in the Southern Kingdom, this was rank heresy, a violation of the clear command of the Torah. Thus, at that time, there was a religious split. Later there would be a racial split as well. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians. When they were permitted to return, they came along with a number of non-Jewish people, and they intermarried. In contrast, when the Southern Kingdom exiles returned, they kept themselves apart, and those intermarriages were broken up. (See Ezra and Nehemiah) Furthermore, as we humans tend to do, the Jews considered the Samaritans to be devoid of sexual morality. (Let’s just say that the story of the woman at the well didn’t just happen to contain a woman with a sexual past - it played directly to the stereotype - which is why Christ’s response to her was so radical.)

So, there were specific tensions at play. To “true” Jews - such as the legal expert - Samaritans were heretics, race traitors, promiscuous, untouchable, and beyond the pale. To find a modern analogue, I think I would go with “gay, liberal, brown-skinned.” The people who the conservative religious establishment is most certain will not attain eternal life.

So we know the hero is a Samaritan - the untouchable heretic and race traitor. Who are the other characters?

The Characters

The Victim

What we know about him is his journey. He was going from Jerusalem to Jericho. That’s about it. Was he a Jew? Maybe. Was he a Samaritan? Could be. Was he a Gentile? Entirely possible. This too, I believe, is intentional. As the one character who doesn’t have a group identity, he is first, foremost, and crucially this: he is in need of help! His neediness is the part that matters. Again, when modern Pharisees try to claim that we owe no duty of care to those outside our tribe, they are ignoring the point of this parable.

The Priest

Hey, it’s a religious leader! If anyone should be close to God, surely it would be him, right? He spends his life ministering in the temple. And he comes by “by chance.” Again, a small detail which has meaning. The opportunity to attain eternal life happens to the priest in a random way. In his everyday life, he sees a needy person. Not when he had his robes on and was doing his religious stuff. The victim didn’t show up a church looking for help. This was an everyday occurrence, and, like all of us, the priest finds himself faced with a decision. And so do we, whether it is a question of direct aid as in the parable, or in the way we vote to govern our nation. The priest, we may well assume, had all his theological ducks in a row - just like the lawyer. He of all people would assume he was on the track to immortality.

The Levite

The second guy to see the victim is a Levite. Levites were of a particular tribe, and they were given religious, social, and political responsibilities. Some Levites were priests too - but many more were involved in the running of society. They were the political class, the ruling class, so to speak. And again, this was a chance meeting, and a choice. And a chance to attain eternal life. The Levite, like the priest, was one who we may presume had the “right” theology, and fully expected immortality.

The Samaritan

Again, here is the one person in this story who the lawyer would assume to be the last person who might possibly attain eternal life. He was a freaking heretic. A race traitor. Presumed to be sleeping around. The enemy of the “true” Jews. In every possible way, untouchable.

And yet.

What happens.

Most of us know the story. The Priest and the Levite go their own way. The Samaritan takes the Victim to a hotel, sees that his wounds are bandaged, and makes sure he lives through the night. Then, the Samaritan pays the charges, gives the innkeeper some extra to cover the recovery period - and essentially writes a blank check for future costs. And note, unlike the priest and Levite, who just happen along, the Samaritan is on a trip - he has places to be. And yet, he takes the time to make sure the victim is okay before he resumes his travels.


See, that isn’t just doing the minimum. That is taking true moral responsibility for the wellbeing of others. And yes, there is a cost.

Again, I don’t think Christ threw this in for chuckles. He is making a point: loving your neighbor as yourself means going beyond the limits of basic human decency to actually take moral responsibility for the wellbeing of those who hurt and are in need of help. Honestly, if we could just get white Evangelical Christians in America to rise to the level of basic human decency toward those outside their tribe, that would be a phenomenal improvement. Imagine if all of us actually live out this parable - and went above and beyond.

Christ asks another question.

Again, this is an amazing way to respond. The legal expert asked who his neighbor was. Christ flipped this - and asked the right question.

Who was the good neighbor?

See, the lawyer wanted to parse the “who.” Who was he obligated to help? Could he find exceptions? Surely not “those” people, right?

Christ instead turns it around. The “who” doesn’t really matter: it is about OUR behavior toward others. Are WE acting like good neighbors or not? Are we treating people, regardless of who they are, in a way that fulfils “love your neighbor as yourself”? Or not.

Even the lawyer has to admit: the answer here is that the Samaritan (whose name he won’t even say) is the hero - the one who attains eternal life.

Go and do likewise.


The radical meaning.

Here is why this is radical. Let’s look at those key points:

1. This is about eternal life and how one attains it.
2. The hero is the person who has “bad” theology, and is outside of the religious establishment.
3. Those within the religious establishment utterly fail - their “correct” theology doesn’t save them.
4. The issue is whether we act as a good neighbor, not the identity of those in need.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion:

It isn’t about having “correct” theology. It’s about whether we are truly loving our neighbors - and that means everyone, not just those in our tribe. Go and do likewise, and you will attain eternal life.

We forget that the reason that Christ was so offensive to the religious establishment wasn’t primarily that he stole the attention they believed they deserved.

Christ was offensive because he told the religious establishment that their whole theological edifice was a steaming pile of schist. (Pardon my geology.)

They weren’t just misguided - they were evil. They were hurting people, while feeling self-righteous about it. That’s why Christ said that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom - and the Pharisees weren’t. That’s why he said that those who turned their back on the poor, the sick, the immigrants, and the imprisoned would be told “Depart, I never knew you.”

And this is why you don’t hear the true meaning preached – particularly in white Evangelical churches.

Because if the true, radical meaning were actually preached, it would indict the religious and political establishment in our nation. The cruelty and hate would be laid bare. If people were actually told that having their theology all right wasn’t particularly important - but that they are digging their own graves when they vote to exclude immigrants fleeing violence and poverty - people would freak out. (Hey, as it is, I have made some people in my life furious when I do that sort of thing. They want to preserve their image of themselves as good people - while inflicting serious harm on others.)

It’s about compassion - not theological correctness.

This suggests that if our churches and religious leaders really cared about bringing people into the Kingdom of God - and eternal life - they would be doing things much differently.

First, the last thing we need are more “Theology 101” classes. Or, heaven forbid, yet another statement or lecture on patriarchal “biblical” sexuality and gender.

What we really need is “Loving Your Neighbor 101,” or as I would put it, “Remedial Human Decency.”

Because right now, white Evangelicals are failing to rise to the basic level of human decency that others in our society have. Just one case in point, only ¼ of white Evangelicals think we have a duty to take in refugees. No other group takes this position - and it isn’t even close. On pretty much any racial issue, white Evangelicals are the most likely to take the racist and cruel position. I recommend spending some time with William Saletan’s recent article, in which he links extensively to polling and research on the political positions of white Evangelicals. Saletan isn’t religious, but he can clearly see that these self proclaimed “christians” are in fact standing for the opposite of the teachings of their faith.

And it’s worse than that! American white “christians” are actively trying to stop the rest of us from helping the needy. They want to build giant walls to keep refugees out. They want to punish places like my native California for refusing to make ethnic cleansing of immigrants a law enforcement priority. They came within a couple votes of stripping healthcare from the working poor, children, and the disabled. When those outside the bubble think of Christianity, they don’t think “hey, those people are helping those in need.” It is the exact opposite.

Fixing THIS is what American Christianity needs to be doing right now. At least if they truly are interested in eternal life.


When we talk about young people leaving the church - and they sure are - I think we have to look at this factor. When people of my age and younger look at the American white Church, we don’t see compassion. AT ALL. We see White Supremacy. We see Social Darwinism. We see a determination to cling to privilege no matter how many people get hurt.

To quote one of the prophets of our time:

I love Jesus. But fuck that shit.

The world doesn’t need more Priests, Levites, or Pharisees. It needs more Good Samaritans.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Source of book: I own this.

This review is dedicated to the memory of my cousin-in-law Jennifer, English teacher and all around great person. The world is a sadder place without her.

The Great Gatsby is one of those books I really should have read in high school, but never did. If I recall, we had to read an excerpt in 11th Grade, which is often the worst way to experience a novel. I mean, there are some books for which a single scene is enough, but for most, a scene out of context loses so much. In any event, I wasn’t impressed particularly, and never went back and read it.

In my 30s, I did read Fitzgerald’s first book, This Side of Paradise, and enjoyed it more than I expected. Since then, I kept saying I would read Gatsby, but never got around to it. In a way, I was a bit intimidated by it, because it was Jennifer’s favorite book to teach her high schoolers, and I worried I would disappoint her. (I have my insecurities, and have a bit of Imposter Syndrome. It doesn’t help that I was homeschooled and skipped undergrad college.) And then, now, I regret that I will never have a chance in this life to talk with her about it. Life sucks sometimes. So, Jen, see? I did get around to reading it eventually.

The Great Gatsby had an interesting history. Fitzgerald wrote it, and submitted it to a publisher, who suggested some revisions, which Fitzgerald made. The title was a problem for him, and many were suggested. Deadlines (and the fact that most of the titles, quite frankly, were lousy) meant one had to be picked. The publisher went with the title we know today, over Fitzgerald’s objections. I’m voting with the publisher on this one, as the title has turned out to be one of the most memorable and iconic in literature. It also is a reasonable introduction to the topics in the book.

The book wasn’t a total flop, but it wasn’t particularly successful. Critics didn’t like it much, and even the ones who did gave lukewarm reviews. It wasn’t until World War II that the book really caught on. The story behind that is fascinating, and I talked about it in my review of When Books Went to War. Without the Armed Services Edition of this book, it is possible it would still be languishing in obscurity.

These days, Gatsby is considered part of the American canon, even if many probably know the Leonardo Di Caprio movie better than the book. Opinions on the book are pretty polarized - a quick google search turns up both “Why I Despise The Great Gatsby” and “Why Gatsby Is So Great.” I’m more in the middle. It’s a good book. It’s not in my pantheon of greats. But you should definitely read it.

Since this book has been in print, it seems doubtful that anything I say could really be considered a “spoiler,” but consider yourself warned. Plot points are rather important to the book, and this review will contain spoilers.

The plot is thus: the narrator, Nick Carraway, moves from the Midwest to Long Island, and becomes the neighbor of a mysterious and fantastically wealthy man named Jay Gatsby. As it turns out, Gatsby - formerly Jimmy Gatz - was a poor young man who made his wealth by bootlegging, and has purchased this mansion and throws crazy parties for the sole purpose of winning his first love, Daisy. She got tired of waiting for him, and married Tom Buchanan, a scion of old money, and a real prick. Tom is having an affair with a married working-class woman behind Daisy’s back. Nick assists Gatsby in meeting Daisy (who is Nick’s distant cousin), and the two flirt with rekindling their romance. Tom and Gatsby confront each other in Manhattan, and Daisy is torn. She drives back with Gatsby, and hits and kills Tom’s mistress accidentally. She leaves the scene of the accident. The husband, thinking Gatsby is the killer, murders him and then kills himself. Nick is left to pick up the pieces Gatsby leaves behind.

The book is pretty heavy on symbolism, and can be read as a critique of both the Roaring 20s and American materialism in general.

The criticisms of the book are, for the most part, valid enough. The characters are loathsome, yet without the psychological depth that makes one like them as characters. Certain points - and motivations - are simply glossed over.

However, I do think that one objection misses an important point. It is true that Gatsby is morally vacuous in many ways. The title character is intended (I would guess) to be admired, despite his flaws. Sure, he may have made his fortune illegally, attempted to break up a marriage, throws orgiastic parties, encouraged a hit-and-run, and so on, but he is true to his first love. Whatever. And true, Nick, who kind of stands in for the reader and acts as the conscience of the book, is pretty morally questionable himself. After all, he basically stands by and watches Tom’s philandering, and much more. And then, after all is said and done, gets to go back to the Midwest full of self righteousness.

I think, though, that this is indeed missing the crucial truth: because we tend to be Nick, and be like Nick, Fitzgerald is actually implicating us in this vacuousness. To come away with a sense that we are supposed to feel good about ourselves, secure in our righteousness, having just gawked at wealth and moralized against it while admiring it, is wrong, in my view. It is taking the easy way out, one without self-examination. One objection to this view might be that Fitzgerald arguably didn’t intend to implicate Carraway - and by extension himself - in this. So what? Honestly, what my reading of Fitzgerald has revealed is that he very often lacked self awareness - and yet somehow managed to tell the unflattering truth about himself. (The last line in This Side of Paradise is fantastic - and there are plenty of moments like that in both books.) It may have been unintentional, but it is still there and meaningful.

It really is an indictment of many aspects of American character as well. The myth of the self-made man - and the idea that the only thing holding the poor back is their lack of character. In general, the conflation of wealth and privilege with morality. Our fascination with wealth and its trappings. Our alternative morality that we apply to our superstars. (See The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named and Evangelicals…) It is easy to see why this book is a popular one for teachers. There is plenty to discuss, and fairly obvious metaphors. It is also short, which has to be an advantage.

Gatsby isn’t as full of zingers as some books, but it does have some delightful word pictures, and some of the most epic (and understatedly written) party scenes in literature. In particular, the line, “I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited - they went there.” was fantastic. It sounds almost like something Groucho Marx would say.

I mentioned the final line, which is worth quoting. It follows an extended section where Nick (who has basically had to handle the fun of notifying the few relatives and fewer friends of Gatsby’s demise) muses on the fallout of the whole thing, and life itself. Plenty of books tend to either ramble at the end, or come to a close all too abruptly. This one really feels like it is neither too long nor too short, but a perfect and beautiful conclusion.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning --
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


It isn’t too often that a book cover becomes iconic in and of itself. Artist Francis Cugat designed the cover before the novel was completed. Fitzgerald reportedly liked it so much, he claimed that he had written the cover art into the book. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Cedar Breaks National Monument

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

Southern Utah may very well have the most concentrated set of natural wonders anywhere. (If you combine Utah with northern Arizona, I bet you would.) Within a few hours drive of each other are no fewer than five national parks and numerous national monuments. The parks get most of the press - and traffic: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and even Capitol Reef.

But don’t sell the monuments short. They are often less crowded and more akin to wilderness. One great example of that is Cedar Breaks National Monument. I am embarrassed to admit that in 30 years of visits to Utah, it tool until 2016 to finally visit this little gem. I had actually driven by it a few times on the way to Bryce, but had never actually stopped there.

My wife attends the Utah Shakespeare Festival (usually with a friend) every year for the last few, and she actually beat me to Cedar Breaks - she and the friend took a morning trip there, because it is pretty close to Cedar City. Our whole family traveled there in 2016 both for some of the fall plays, and to visit the various parks in the area.

Cedar Breaks is often called a “little Bryce.” It has the same basic features: a canyon system with hoodoos and bright colors. It is steeper, though, and there aren’t really trails down into the canyons except on the one end. It is also quite a bit smaller and intimate. The biggest difference, though, is the setting. The rim of Bryce is at 8,000 feet elevation, which is cold enough during the winter. But at 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks tends to be cold and windy even in the summer - and it closes entirely during the winter season. Because of the altitude, the wind, and the temperatures, visitors should come prepared. Bring a jacket, even in the summer. Just in case.

One thing the altitude does bring is marmots. I see these in the high sierra all the time, but it was nice to see them here too. (For those unfamiliar with them: if squirrels played football, marmots would be the offensive line and the nose tackle.)

The views at Cedar Breaks are fantastic, and they can be reached with a few moderate or easy hikes, depending on how far you want to go. The rangers are friendly and helpful; and, because of the low number of visitors, they actually have time to talk.

If I were advising someone new to the area as to a trip here, I would recommend the following: First, plan on coming during the summer or early fall, when the snow is gone. Cedar Breaks doesn’t open until the roads are clear. Second, plan to catch a play or two at the Shakespeare Festival, which runs (conveniently) during most of the time Cedar Breaks is open. Third, since Cedar Breaks can be seen in one day, plan to visit other nearby places. In cooler weather, Zion and Snow Canyon State Park are lovely. (Try to avoid Zion on weekends, though - it can be super crowded.) If the weather is hot, Bryce will be a cool relief. I also recommend seeking out Kanarraville Falls, a little slot canyon with a beautiful waterfall. 

 There were quite a few wildflowers - even in September. It's a short growing season. 


 Yes, that's a Bristlecone Pine. Not as old as the ones in California or Nevada, but striking nonetheless.

 I love the contrast of colors.

 And, for good measure, here is Kanarraville Falls.
My youngest was age 5 when this picture was taken.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

It’s hard to believe it has been over five years since I read Gold Boy, Emerald Girl - Yiyun Li’s second collection of short stories. Since then, I have recommended them to a number of literary sorts, and I still think they have a unique and moving voice. I grabbed this book, her first novel, on a whim at the library. 

For better or worse, this is a difficult book. It begins with the execution of a young woman for political dissent, and ends with plenty of tragedy and betrayal. But it is also moving - and important - as well as fascinating and well written. Yiyun Li immigrated from China in the 1990s, and her experiences - and those of her parents - shape her writing. The trauma of the Cultural Revolution, the “Great Step Forward,” and particularly Tiananmen Square left impressions on her, and her fiction is set during these turbulent times.

The Vagrants is a novel, but it feels much like a set of interconnected short stories. The execution of Gu Shan reverberates through the lives of various people in the fictional small city of Muddy River, for better or worse. The stories all connect through that nexus (and others) despite their separate threads.

The theme in my view, is the way that a totalitarian society puts ordinary people in impossible situations, so that they predictably betray each other to save themselves. It is Game Theory in action. The game is rigged so that individuals gain - or at least lose less - if they turn each other in, even if that means fabricating “crimes” against the state in their neighbors. By banding together, it is more likely that they could force change, but the risk to any one person is too great, and the likelihood of betrayal practically inevitable.

Yiyun doesn’t write one-dimensional characters. There aren’t many heroes, and few true villains in this book. Rather, people have complicated and ambiguous motives and actions. In what has to be one of the best reversals I have read, the “golden boy” - the little boy with the good heart - ends up with one of the least comfortable futures, with his desire for approval leading to questionable actions and results. The flip side is the malignant idler Bashi, who starts off trying to find a girl he can screw - or rape if necessary. Except that once he finds the vulnerable crippled girl, he finds he can’t follow through on his plans, and ends up discovering a purpose outside his own selfishness. Both of these results are unexpected, and Yiyun makes the changes utterly convincing.

Like in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the overwhelming feeling one gets is one of aching loneliness. The system - particularly in combination with the old patriarchal beliefs that never went away - isolates everyone from each other. When you can’t trust your neighbor or your family, how can you have intimacy? And yet, there are some people and some moments where this occurs, and the scenes are total gems of character writing. The title characters, the two childless old people who take in the infant girls abandoned to die at the edge of town - they are bright spots of love. The moment when old Teacher Gu, whose wife has been arrested, finds an unexpected friend in a neighbor below his social circle. And this, after the man’s wife tries to destroy Teacher Gu.

As fair warning, I do need to say that this book is plenty traumatic. Yiyun throws a glaring light on one of the most sickening human rights violations of the Regime: dissidents would be held in prison, given genetic tests, then executed when their organs matched the needs of a powerful person. In some cases, the organs were removed while the person was still alive. This is pretty well documented, actually. Unsurprisingly, the most common victims were ethnic and religious minorities. (Human nature sucks so much, a lot of the time.) There are also some disturbing sexual elements, such as the creepy old man who saves corpses for burial (rather than cremation, as mandated by the Regime.) And severs the breasts and genitals of female corpses for his collection. But perhaps the worst is finding such a connection with characters that you just know are going to suffer.

Yiyun’s writing isn’t just good, it’s beautiful. I kept going back and re-reading passages just for the loveliness of the phrasing. It seems like a paradox, for the story to be so horrifying even as the writing is gorgeous.

I also want to talk a bit about totalitarianism, as this book really brought together a lot of my own thoughts on the subject.

In the right wing circles I used to run in - and to which a good number of friends and family still belong, Communism is used as a political weapon, a shibboleth of orthodoxy, and above all as a conversation ender when it comes to political discussions. The problem is that the essential core of Communism is misunderstood - or perhaps misrepresented.

In essence, as the argument goes now, the only two options are the totalitarian communism of Stalin or Mao on the one hand; or the anarcho-capitalism, the economic libertarianism (better described as social darwinism) of Ayn Rand. Thus, anything that smacks of wealth redistribution, a public sector, or regulation, is tarred as “Communism,” or at least “Socialism,” and the horrors of Mao and Stalin dragged out as the argument why we can’t have, to choose a common example, single payer health care. (Or fill in the blank with, say, a higher minimum wage, stronger unions, food stamps, or even Medicare and Social Security.) As soon as you start talking about inequality and the common good, clearly the Gulags are inevitable.

Suggest that maybe things might look more like, say, Sweden (or fill in the blank with another first world country…) rather than the Soviet Union, and you get called a pinko rather fast.

The same thing happened, of course, to the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Desegregation meant death camps for whites, right?

Of course, for those of us with a Fundie background, “atheism” (with the biggest of scare quotes) was blamed for both Communism and Nazism. But also in there is the idea that the core of Communism is economic. That is, Communism is synonymous with any attempt to address inequality. Touch inequality, and you end up with the Gulag.

I think this very much misses the point. There is a reason why certain nasty regimes resemble each other so much, despite totally different economic philosophies. To give some examples, Nazism (a nasty right wing movement based on racial hatred, religious supremacy, reactionary gender roles, and militant nationalism) turned out to be strikingly similar to Stalinism (a nasty left wing movement based on class hatred, atheism, egalitarian gender roles, and militant nationalism.) And both are strikingly similar to the military dictatorships of Pinochet and Gaddafi. Or the far-right Islamist dictatorships like the Taliban or ISIS - and Iran and Saudi Arabia. Or the kleptocracies of South America. Or even the Roman Empire. The connecting thread for all of these isn’t economic theory - it’s totalitarianism.

Which is ALL about power.

It is about the power to control people’s lives, and deprive them of human rights. You can see in all of these the naked fact that speaking out against power is forbidden, and results in severe punishment, including death. The central idea is that one must never question authority, and that one should surrender one’s personhood in favor of the whims of those in power.

That’s why both hard right and hard left regimes resemble each other more than they resemble the democracies of the first world. That’s also why life in a fairly right wing democracy like the United States is fairly similar in many ways to life in a fairly left wing democracy like Sweden. Sure, there are differences, for better or worse. But in both, we can count on being able to speak out politically without getting whacked.

This is why it is pretty absurd to say that we will be one step from the gulags if we raise taxes so we can have universal health care. (And for that matter, tax rates on the wealthy are far below where they were in the 1950s, often held up as the zenith of American society by the right.) It’s also absurd to say that expecting employers to pay a living wage and provide benefits (like many of those 1950s corporations did - thanks to unions) will lead to the secret police. And also why it’s absurd to say that regulations keeping large companies from destroying the environment will lead to executions for political beliefs. It’s naked scare tactics divorced from any truth of history or even the present.

The Vagrants really brings this home.

In the Chinese society if the 1970s - after the disaster of the “Great Step Forward,” which led to mass starvation, and after the purges of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution - the economic system actually looks a lot like it did before, just with different people at the top. Class differences haven’t gone away. “Capitalism” still mostly exists in a slightly different form - for the people at the bottom. After all, the upper classes (Communist leaders) are still fabulously wealthy, the middle classes have secure jobs, while the lower classes must find a way or starve. Hey! That sounds not that much unlike, say, every human society in history. Funny how that works. In that sense, Yiyun portrays a thoroughly recognizable society.

But things do look different from another perspective. Because of the totalitarianism, dissent is dangerous at best.

In what has turned out to be an interesting (and to some, surprising) development, modern China has become rather more economically free, while remaining politically repressed. Who knew? You actually can have capitalism and billionaires and stuff - and still have a totalitarian society. It really isn’t primarily about economics...

What struck me most about this is just how right Raymond Aron was. I have mentioned it before, but one of the best books I have read is Aron’s The Opium of the Intellectuals, wherein he points out that both Communism and Nazism are - above all - religions. Sure, they lack the traditional Supreme Being™, but the substitute impersonal forces. In Communism’s case, The End of History™.

In The Vagrants, this really comes out. Early in the book is the “denunciation ceremony” for Gu Shan. Attendance is mandatory for most people - and children. The stadium is filled, and there are hours of motivational speeches (sermons!), patriotic songs (hymns!), and praise of the Communist Party. “Without the Communist Party, we would have nothing!!”

Perhaps the most chilling moment comes in the propaganda delivered by a teacher to the children.

“[O]ur party has never been wrong and will never be wrong.”

That’s a cult.

That’s the sort of shit that you hear from toxic religions of all sorts. “We are always right and have never been wrong and will never be wrong.” The beginning of the end for me with Evangelicalism (in retrospect), came with a smug and self-congratulatory sermon from our former pastor. In which he basically made this argument.

This is how you get to “kill anyone who disagrees.” It’s when your dogma - whatever the hell that dogma is - is viewed as infallible. As Solzhenitsyn pointed out, to kill by the millions you need an ideology.

It doesn’t matter what that ideology is. It could be Marxism. It could be Aryan Supremacy. It could be anarcho-capitalism. It could be religion, whether radical Islam, or radical Christianity.

Steven Pinker, in his excellent book (which has been a huge influence on me), The Better Angels of Our Nature, described how ideology leads to genocide:

Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would only kill one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or - projecting into the indefinite future - infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain. Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a perfect world yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math.

The Vagrants brings this out one hundred percent. Including the part about those opposed to the Communist Party being vermin. In the same section, the school children are instructed that “counterrevolutionism” is a infectious disease, and that it must be cleansed by the strongest disinfectant. Which means killing a few people, but whatever.

You will see this in every totalitarian system. And that includes the white nationalism of Donald Trump, where immigrants and refugees are referred to as contaminants, vermin, disease, and so on.

It ultimately comes down, not to economic theories, but human rights. Do all humans, regardless of race, national origin, religious belief, political belief, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, deserve human rights? Or not. That’s why universal health care, or tax rates, aren’t a slippery slope to the gulags. But calling the press the “enemy of the people” is. It’s why Social Security isn’t some nefarious plot to enslave workers. But eliminating workplace protections is. It’s why telling billionaires that they can’t have an increasing share of the world’s wealth isn’t one step away from show trials for dissidents. But calling for violence against protesters is.

I am a conservative (in the traditional sense) by temperament. I am not a risk taker, generally. I prefer a quiet life, with my books and music and kids and cat. Because of that, I am not at all interested in starting a revolution. I prefer reform and correction and incremental change. I prefer data and facts and evidence over theories, for the most part. Sure, try stuff, but do it carefully, and make corrections as you see what does and doesn’t work.

Yiyun has some similar ideas about revolutions, and I truly loved how she put them. First is what I believe is a Chinese proverb. It is fantastic, if cynical as hell.

“The one who robs and succeeds will become the king, and the one who tries to rob and fails will be called a criminal.”

This fatalistic proverb recurs throughout the book. It guides the actions of many characters - if they can just succeed, whether through theft of through betraying their neighbors, they will be king in their own way. But if they fail, it is catastrophe.

The last one I will mention comes from Teacher Gu when he is talking with his neighbor Guosheng near the end of the book. Liberated from his filters by some booze, he goes on a rant against revolutionaries in general. I don’t agree with all of it - Teacher Gu is a reactionary in his own way, wishing women were more submissive, and that the world was like it was before the Revolution. (I sympathize with him on the second point - life was better for him when he had his freedom, his books, and the respect his intelligence and education deserved.) But this line stood out:

“[B]ut what is revolution except a systematic way for one species to eat another alive? Let me tell you - history is, unlike what they say on the loudspeakers, not driven by revolutionary force but by people’s desire to climb up onto someone else’s neck and shit and pee as he or she wants.”

Dang. That’s both depressing, and all too true. Our current racist right wing movements are driven in some part by legitimate grievances. But they are also driven by the prurient desire to be “better” than someone else. “We may be poor, but at least we aren’t [fill in the blank: n-----rs, immigrants, gays, whatever]”

Ultimately, after reading this book, what I longed for more than anything, is the utopia of what I thought America was. And still is from time to time, occasionally, and with some people. I want the freedom that we (mostly) have. But I also long for the community of commitment to the common good. I know that hasn’t really existed for many in our nation, but the idea has existed for a long time.

And, come to think of it, I long for the utopia promised by the teachings of Christ. A world where hierarchy and power are replaced by mutuality. Where there is true freedom to live our lives, because each of us acknowledges the inherent worth of the other. Where we treat the most vulnerable not as infections to be purged, but as worthy of the love and care we would give to Christ himself.

I have, I suppose, gotten off the topic a bit. But I think it fits. Yiyun’s chilling tale isn’t just about “those Commies over there,” but about us as humans. Our tendencies toward ideological thinking, the ease in which we humans can be motivated to hate each other, and the way that power is a destructive force, no matter what its justification.

Yiyun Li is a great writer - one of my favorites I would say - and although her books aren’t necessarily easy or pleasant, they are important, and give a real insight into our world, and our common humanity.


I’m pretty sure I have posted this before, but I have to do it again here. This has long been one of my favorite Beatles tunes, and not just because of those gorgeous Epiphone Casinos.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right, all right, all right

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We're doing what we can

But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell is brother you have to wait
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right, all right, all right

You say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead

But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right…

And, no matter how “Christian” you call yourself, if you want me to participate in promoting “minds that hate,” well, you can go to hell.