Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Person and the Common Good

Book:The Person and the Common Good
Author: Jacques Maritain
Translated: John J. Fitzgerald
Edition:from the web
Read: January 2, 2014
34 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

The central question Maritain asks is found in chapter I:  Does society exist for each one of us, or does each one of us exist for society? His answer is that the question is too simple. He says: A unilateral answer would only plunge us into error. Maritain's answer will be centered in the dignity of the human person from every social philosophy centered in the primacy of the individual and the private good.

The question which Maritain asks to open his book, Does society exist for each one of us, or does each one of us exist for society? Is central not only to this book, but to the essence of how we operate as a society. He recognizes that while it is easy to ask the question, it is not one which you can answer one way or the other. By coming down firmly on individual rights and freedoms, you see what the French Revolution brought to us. But by going to the side of society, we will meet Hitler and Stalin at the end of that tunnel. But we must still answer that question to understand our relationship within the society we live. Maritain sides with a social philosophy which centers on social philosophy of the dignity of the human person from every social philosophy centered in the primacy of the individual and the private good. 

What does the first statement in chapter II mean? What are the implications?  The human person is ordained directly to God as to its absolute ultimate end. A person is directly and ultimately responsible to God. It is God's commands which I am to respond to. Maritain uses the term created common good. I take this to mean that the good which society creates is not primary law or drive in our lives. But it also is not to be ignored either. God will work through our culture. We ignore whom we live with us at our own peril.   Maritain goes on to say  the personal contact of all intellectual creatures with God, as well as their personal subordination to God, be in no way interrupted.

A series of foundational themes Maritain states:
  1. Man is not just a cog in the mechanism of the world. We are willed into being for our own sakes for our obedience to God. Before even the common good, we are related to the Separated Common Good. We have the image of God intertwined in our whole being. Our purpose is to love God.
  2. A single soul enjoying God is worth more than the whole universe. God and the soul in love is two who have become one. This is an open friendship. One where many are in union with God. Consequently, we are bond to each other.
  3. The speculative vs practical intellect. Maritain says that the practical intellect is needed to cope with our day to day living. But the speculative intellect is what brings us to God. So the speculative is higher than the practical. It is here which the contemplative life resides. It binds us to the divine.
All of this is not to say that only the individual is important. But it does say that the assistance to the common good comes about through the proper placing of the individual above the common good.

In Chapter III, Maritain asks the question, who is the person? What is self? He first talks about false concepts of self by saying ...when we represent someone as "self-assertive", do we not mean that he is self-centered, imperious and dominating--sacrcely capable of friendship? He is refuting Pascal here. He then goes on to say that it is  ...a serious reproach to assert of a man that he has no personality. He notes that saints and mystics have strong personalities and concepts of self, only topped by the Christ in the gospels. He notes the teaching of Thomas Aquinas: whosoever loves God must love himself for the sake of God, must love his own soul and body with a love of charity.

Individuality: Maritain defines as dealing with the material side of life. While personality concerns the spiritual.

Not sure what Maritain was getting at in this one paragraph, but to me it is crucial to my understanding. Maritain said that each soul is intended to animate a particular body. The implications are profound. First, that the soul and body are coupled. Our soul does not develop into a being because of our bodies, but soul and body are like two locking pieces, which would not be ables connect unless they were intended to be together. The other implication is from the word intended. It is not a haphazard arrangement, but a planned out occurrence. It is up to us to fathom the depth of who we are. We will never know that, unless we understand what was intended. In order to know this intention, we need to know who the intendor is. This is a life-long study. Maritain's conclusion is one aspect of this:  Each of us is subject to the determinism of the physical world. Nonetheless, each of us is also a person and, as such, is not controlled by the stars.  (Chp III)

Maritain defines personality as a distinction from the individual. Personality is the subsistence of the spiritual soul communicated to the human composite.  From what I understand, personality is what sets us apart from beasts and from each other. Also this is what allows us to be in relationship with God. The distinction between personality and the individual comes back around to be talking about the same coin, but the two different sides of it.

My wife and I were talking about anger. She had read one of the Psalms which dealt with David in his righteous anger. The question was how does our anger compare to the righteous anger David felt? I think that it has to do with the difference between the hurt we feel on ourselves is what we feel as an individual versus the anger we substain because God has been hurt by going against him, which is our person. As we come closer to God, our individuality and our personhood become more alike.

Starting in chapter four, Maritain starts to explore the relationship between a person and his society. He notes that a person is made for communion and relationship-it is not good that man is alone. As before, with his God, but also with his fellow man. This's not only to procure his physical needs, like food and shelter, in fact, this may be the lesser reason for being drawn into society. But the chief reason is to develop our rationality and virtue. By drawing closer and cooperating with each other, we assist each other to fulfill our purpose.  The end of society is the good of the community, of the social body. But if the good of the social body is not understood to be a common good of human persons, just as the social body itself is a whole of human persons, this conception also would lead to other errors of a totalitarian type. 

So what is the common good? Maritain points out it is much more than just the collection of laws, goods and services, infrastructure, government, .... It also includes the virtues of society, its temperament, the good the society does. But it's most important thing is to develop and perfect the life and liberty of each person.

But are we to go as a person, lock step march along with what a society wants? No. It is only when we serve justice and righteousness do we serve the common good. Dissenting against a society which has parted company with virtue has more to do with the common good, than 100 people obeying rules designed to block out goodness.

What is the extent of the common good? In Aristole's day, it was the city. It has been transformed into the nation, but as nations become more intertwined, it is the whole of civilazation. But we must remember that the common good, is not necessarily the good of the nation, but rather that the good of the individuals within the nation.

A person is to be committed to his society. But no matter how committed the individual is, the  person effort is not the whole of his being. Maritain uses the example of a runner. A runner can stretch with all the muscles he has, yet that is not totally him. There is more to him than running. He thinks, he enjoys, he may meditate. In other words, he has a soul-my words not Maritain.

The person is to commit to bringing the good to his society. But that does not make the person owned by the society. Rather the person had a responsibility to bring justice, good and the right to society, even if the society does not want it. Society is not the arbitrar of what is good for it. In fact, the person may be persecuted for bringing the good to it. There are ways which society tries to bend truth. The person who is committed to his society's common good will have none of that. In the society I live in today, we enjoy pluralism. But the problem is that we do not differentiate between what every one says is their truth and what is plainly truth. We have our own versions of history, of sociology, of psychology, of theology. So we cry with Pilate, What is truth? It is the person's responsibility to cry out on what is Truth itself.

The central reason why we seek the common good is that Man is constituted a person, made for God and life eternal, before he is constituted a part of the city; and he is constituted a part of the family society before he is constituted a part of the political society. This is inline with Jesus' command to love each other, to be great by serving. It also follows that each person in a society is irreplaceable. We cannot be cloned and removed from society without damaging society. This goes with CS Lewis thought that we have never met a mortal, only immortals.

The book points out that Aristotle, and St Thomas, says that the good of the city is more noble, or even divine, than the individual. Maritain, does not dispute this, but shows that this is true only when the City honors it's commitment to protecting the individual-not so much paternalistically, but to bring the individual into maturity. This maturity is to love truth and goodness, appreciate beauty and art and poetry.  In essence, at the end of his arguement, both the good of the individual and the common good of the society are the same. By emphasizing one, you actually do harm to both.

What is extrinsic common good vs immanent common good? Note #42 John Goyette in a piece called On the Transcendence of the Political Common Good, defines the two as:
  • Intrinsic - The intrinsic common good is the form of an ordered multitude, its “unity of order.”
  • Extrinsic - The good of the order is for the sake of the good of the ruler.

There are three materialistic philosophies. Maritain notes that all three of them do violence to the concept of person. All three are prevalent today-communism, totalitaerism, and bourgeois individualism. He goes through each and should why they are anti-person. He notes to the totalitarian, the person as a person is the enemy. But he is no fan of the bourgeois individualismof the West, particularly of America when he says, The moral crisis of our occidental civilization and the disastrous spasms of our liberal, capitalistic economy exhibit all too clearly the tragedy of bourgeois individualism. But Communism also comes under attack with, Communism requires a very powerful and rigorous discipline, which it can generate only through the external processes of thought control and constraint. Where Christianity is talked about in relationship to these three, he points out that all three are resistant to Christianity. Surprisingly, he labels that the  bourgeois individualism the most irreligious. It ignores all religion as irrelevant, not worth persecuting. Communism, he says, is  a heresy of Christianity, the ultimate heresy. It branches out from Christianity, relying on itself to save, rather than Christ to transform.

So if materialism is not the answer for society's ill's, what is? Maritain makes a couple of statements. The first is,   Whoever recognizes this spiritual and eternal element in man, recognizes also the aspiration, immanent in the person, to transcend...  A system cannot be in place which will be satisfying to us, unless it also can minister to the spiritual nature of man. This is one of the reasons why a whole generation dropped out of the American materialistic society.  It is the reason why our young are nihilistic. The church has not provided an alternative to materialism, instead it has been in bed with it. Then he follows it up by saying, an organization of liberties is unthinkable apart from the moral realities of justice and civil amity. A society which does not recognize he spiritual nature of man will lose its moralness and sinks into discord.

 I first heard about this book in an appeal from Mars Hill Audio-these appeals are more like a teaching missive than begging for money. Then seeing Timothy Keller talking about the common good, I thought I really should have better understanding of what does the common good mean.

This book looks at what a person is and his relationship to his society. He concludes that the person is supreme as it is only him who can be in relationship with God. But that does not say the society is there to serve the person. But society is there is build the person. The person in turn needs to contribute to his society-towards the common good-in order to grow in matureity. Still the aim is to increase the dignity of a person.

Maritain does a good job in laying the basis for what is a person, emphasizing the person instead of the concept of the individual. He explores the relationship between a person and his society, while showing the primacy of the person, but still showing the dependency which a person has on his society and it's good in order to mature. It is well worth the two month struggle I had in understanding this short book, 34 pages. But the reader should be forewarned that a good background in philosophy, which I do not have, will not hurt in reading this book.

New Words:
  • philosophic(chp I):  of or pertaining to philosophy
  • fecundity(chp I): derived from the word fecund, generally refers to the ability to reproduce.
  • concomitant (chp II):  existing or occurring with something else, often in a lesser way; accompanying; concurrent: an event and its concomitant circumstances.
  • connaturality (chp II): Innate; inborn.
  • Apposite (chp III):  suitable; well-adapted; pertinent; relevant; apt: an apposite answer.
  • Ineffable (chp III):  incapable of being expressed or described in words; inexpressible
  • Leibnizian monad (chp III): Leibniz defines a monad as a simple substance which cannot be divided into parts. A compound substance may be formed by an aggregation of monads. Thus, a compound substance may be divided into simple parts.
  • Apiary (chp IV):  a place where beehives of honey bees are kept
  • statism (Chp V): the belief that the state should control either economic or social policy, or both, to some degree
Book References:

Good Quotes:
  • First Line:  AMONG the truths of which contemporary thought stands in particular need and from which it could draw substantial profit is the doctrine of the distinction between individuality and personality.
  • Last Line:
  •  Does society exist for each one of us, or does each one of us exist for society? Chp I
  • social philosophy centered in the dignity of the human person from every social philosophy centered in the primacy of the individual and the private good.   Chp I
  • THE human person is ordained directly to God as to its absolute ultimate end. Chp II
  • ... the personal contact of all intellectual creatures with God, as well as their personal subordination to God, be in no way interrupted.  Chp II
  • ... the good of grace of one person is worth more than the good of the whole universe of nature.  Chp II
  • The adage of the superiority of the common good is understood in its true sense only in the measure that the common good itself implies a reference to the human person. Chp II.
  • Matter itself is a kind of non-being, chp III
  • Each of us is subject to the determinism of the physical world. Nonetheless, each of us is also a person and, as such, is not controlled by the stars.  Chp III
  • We love the deepest, most substantial and hidden, the most existing reality of the beloved being. Chp III
  •  love is not concerned with qualities or natures or essences but with persons.  Chp III
  • personality in man seems to be bound to the experience of affliction even more profoundly than to the experience of creative effort.  Chp III
  • the deepest layer of the human person's dignity consists in its property of resembling God.  Chp III
  • ... man will be truly a person only in so far as the life of the spirit and of liberty reigns over that of the senses and passions.  Chp III
  • ...personality tends by nature to communion.  Chp IV
  • The common good is common because it is received in persons, each one of whom is as a mirror of the whole.   Chp IV
  • Only on condition that it is according to justice and moral goodness is the common good what it is, namely, the good of a people and a city, rather than of a mob of gangsters and murderers.  Chp IV
  •  the common good of civil society implies that the whole man is engaged in it.   Chp IV
  • When, against social pressures, the human person upholds right, justice, fraternal charity, when it raises itself above social life to enter into the solitary life of the spirit, when it deserts the banquets of common life, to feed upon the transcendentals, when, seeming to forget the city, it fastens to the adamantine objectivity of beauty and truth, when it pays obeisance to God rather than to men, in these very acts it still serves the common good of the city and in an eminent fashion.  Chp IV
  • the privilege connected with the dignity of the person is inalienable, and human life involves a sacred right. Whether to rid society of a useless member or for raison d'├ętat, it is a crime to kill an innocent man. It is a crime to doom a prisoner to death in order to test some drugs which may save thousands of the sick.   Chp IV
  • Man is constituted a person, made for God and life eternal, before he is constituted a part of the city; and he is constituted a part of the family society before he is constituted a part of the political society.  Chp IV
  • Francis de Vitoria wrote: "In the corporeal organism, the natural part exists directly for the whole. But in the Church, each man exists only for God and himself, ....   De potestate Ecclesiae, II, 5. 
  • the tendency towards the materialism and atheism inherent in the city of the individual appears as one of the absurdities by which it destroys itself. Chp V
Table of Contents:
  •  Acknowledgements
  • Chapter I: Introductory
  • Chapter II: The Positions of St. Thomas on the Ordination of the Person to Its Ultimate End
  • Chapter III: Individuality and Personality
  • Chapter IV: The Person and Society
  • Chapter V: Contemporary Problems
  • Index of Names


Monday, January 6, 2014

The Time Keeper

 Book: The Time Keeper
Author: Mitch Albom
Edition: eBook
Read:  January 9, 2014

271 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

The story, a parable, is about time-the time we have in our lives. There are three main characters:

  • Dor, who is a post flood character who becomes Father Time.
  • Victor, the fourteenth riches guy in the world, who is dying of kidney disease.
  • Sarah, a smart, but ugly senior in high school
Each of these try to control the time around them. One wants to die; one wants to live forever; and the third wants more time to save a person he loves.

There are 81 short chapters in 10 parts. The parts are:
  • Prologue
  • Cave
  • The In-Between
  • Falling
  • City
  • Letting Go
  • New Years Eve
  • Stillness
  • Future
  • Epilogue

The story starts with Albom saying, This is a story of the meaning of time...(16) What does Albom deliver on?Albom's main point is that each of us has a set time to live. We are to be content with the lives we are given and not try to lengthen or shorten them. He points to that each of us has a plan, but does not say what that plan is-we are to find it as we live it.But that in itself is not the meaning of time. It is only how we live out our time. That seems to me to be two different, but connected ideas.

Dor starts the story by measuring time. This is something of an obsession with him. He is pictured as the first scientist, that is an observer of natural phenomenon, particularly of the changes he sees around him. Change requires time. So he starts to measure time with sticks and shadow, then later water. This is what gets him into trouble, on two counts. The first is he starts to ignore his wife which he loves by obsessing after measuring time. The second is Dor trying to control time.  Albom is saying we cannot control our time, either by measuring it or by trying to buy time. This is demonstrated when Dor climbs the Tower of Babel to make his appeal to God for time for his sick wife. God wants to show Dor how come he does not know what he is doing. Isn't that true of what we do when we want things changed from what we see? We think things will be beautiful if only this is changed. In reality, we need to understand how to live in our situations with strength and direction from God. 

When Dor comes out into the time cave, he understands he has lost the attempt to save his wife. But even more, he needs to understand the misery he caused, by listening to the cries about time-too much and too little; not enough and why am I living so long.

Albom states that before Dor, time was not kept. Factually that does not seem right. Genesis says that time was divided between day and night. What difference does this make? Probably none since this is a story. Just a bit aggravating. Also Albom gets caught in a trap of his own making. In chapter 29, he talks about what if you had endless time to learn? ... study it for hours?  To learn, you need time, because to learn is to change and change requires time. Also, hours is a measure of passing time, so it would not be endless. I do think Albom is just using some colloquialisms. Still it is interesting how dependent he is on these figures of speech related to time.

There is a fourth important figure, who identifies himself only as the servant of the most high God. That is an old man who appears early in the story when  he comes and takes Dor's time measuring stick. Later on he comes into the picture when he appears to Dor in the time cave and gives him some loose thoughts about why he was in the cave-that was to serve his sentence-to hear every plea for a difference in time (75). Then he appears to ask the question, "what do you know about time?". This is to have Dor find a way to be a light to two others who are having time issues-Sarah and Victor. He gives Dor an hour glass, containing all the time in the universe, to control the flow of time. Does this servant of God also appear as the proprietor of the clock shop? (138)

This God-servant says that once the desire to count time is started, it does not end. We want to know both larger and smaller units of time. It consumes him. What man loses is the wonder of the world he has.(62). Isn't this the difference between examining and appreciating? We want out scientists to know and examine anything and everything because we hope to gain a better understanding of what is around us. We gain understanding of the stars, of the atoms, of life. But we lose our abilities to enjoy them in the fullest, to enjoy things as a young child might. We see the stars and part of us wonders what gases created it, what life exists out there. We lose the beauty of what we see, even in the smallest details. 

This raises the question, should we stop looking? Ignore what we see and halt our quest for knowledge? This may be the chief ill which Pandora let out of her box-the loss of satisfaction. The old man says to Dor understand the consequence of counting the moments. This is the purgatory which Dor enters into-knowing what his folly is.

Victor, a rich man, Albom describes as someone who thought the world could not live without him-Albom also noted that this is the thoughts of the powerful. But what happens if you come back 400 years later? Will you be rich? Will you be powerful? Will you be useful? This is the fallacy of time jumping or cryonics. The view Albom tells us of cryonics is it is a lifeboat to the future(105). The promise is whatever is the problem now will find a solution when you are brought back. But will you like yourself, or the world around you, when you are brought back? You are only you in your current time and place. Outside of those boxes, you are someone else and that someone else you might not like.

Albom places the words, "It is never too late or too soon. It is when it is supposed to be...There is a plan, Dor." in the servant of God's mouth. As part of this, Dor is to learn how to use time wisely--to be still, to cherish, to be grateful, to lift and be lifted. (101)  This is the part which Albom has the opportunity to talk and show the meaning of time. There is a plan, a plan for each of us from God according to Albom. What is it?

Why did you measure the days and nights? To know.  Sitting high above the city Father Time realized that knowing something and understanding it were not the same thing.  (183)

Confession: I am not a fan of Mitch Albom. Not because he does not write well-he does and he holds my interest. But because he does not deliver on what he says. Consequently, when I have read Albom's books, I find myself downgrading what I will be reading. This affects how I view his books. I am glad that this book is better than most of his.

Albom says he will deliver on is the meaning of time(16). Does he? I do not think so. He makes a good attempt to at least get us thinking about what our days are like and how we live in them. But the meaning of time? I do not think so. I am not sure that anybody could write coherently about it.

Albom's main point is that each of us has a set time to live. We are to be content with the lives we are given and not try to lengthen or shorten them. He points to that each of us has a plan, but does not say what that plan is-we are to find it as we live it.

There are many good quotes, but if you are looking for a shorter statement about time, take a look at Job. It will give you a good sense of what Albom is trying to get at.
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
             and have set limits he cannot exceed.   Job 14: 5

New Words:

  • karst (74) Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It is characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage systems
  • vitrification (105)  To change or make into glass or a glassy substance, especially through heat fusion.

Good Quotes:

  • First Line: A man sits alone in a cave.
  • Last Line: And as that glass is lifted by curious workers, someplace far away--someplace indescribable in the pages of a book--a man named Dor and a woman named Alli run barefoot up a hillside, tossing stones, laughing with their children, and time never crosses their minds.
  •  Try to imagine a world without timekeeping. (17)
  • A fear of time running out (18)
  • Man rarely knows his own power. (62) 
  • Learn what you do not know. (63)
  • He was doing what man does when left with nothing. He was telling himself his own life story. (91)
  • Mankind is connected in ways it does not understand--even in dreams. (95)
  • There is a reason God limits man's days. (102, 254)  To make each precious. (254)
  • He wondered if every clock watcher pays some kind of price. (129)
  • A man who can take anything will find most things unsatisfying. And a man without memories is just a shell. (154)
  • He wondered how It was fair that your dying should depend so much on when you were born. (157)
  • We all yearn for what we have lost. But sometimes we forget what we have. (167)
  • With endless time, nothing is special. With no loss or sacrifice, we can't appreciate what we have. (253) 
  • ...once we began to chime the hour, we lost the ability to be satisfied. ... The simple joy of living between sunrises was gone. (256)
  • When you are measuring life, you are not living it. (256)


    What The Dog Saw and Other Adventures

    Book: What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

    Author: Malcolm Gladwell
    Edition:   Library ePub
    Read: November 2013
    307 pages
    Rated: 31/2 out of 5

    Gladwell is known for looking at a problem from a different perspective. That is where the title comes from. He read a story about Ceasar Millian, the dog whisperer, which was interesting. But what interested Gladwell was what does the dog think of what Millner is doing?  That is what Gladwell does through the book.

    This is a collection of 19 essays published by Gladwell in the New York Times. These essays are published in three parts, each part consisting of a book.
    1. Obsessives and Minor Geniuses
    2. Theories and Organizing Experience
    3. Predictions

     So a couple of general thoughts as you read through Gladwell's books. First, there is a type of thinking which Gladwell has. He talks about it in the Dog Whisperer article. Most of the time, we look at things from one way, usually the obvious way. But sometimes to better understand things,  you need to find a different perspective. That perspective is from the other end of the looking glass.

    But does Gladwell get it right? Such as his piece concerning profiling. They way he describes profiling, it is akin to charlatans and fortunetellers. You give a little information and they make predictions which are broad and general. As I was reading the piece I was wondering if the predictions were made all in one place and time by one person? Or was it made over a time by different people as new information was given. Gladwell just does not talk about the process being used and the factors. This is an example.

    I started reading Gladwell because of a friend liking how the author thinks. Each of the 19 pieces are interesting and Gladwell does give you pause to think about how come we draw certain conclusions, why do experts think in certain ways.

    But what I was seeing  in this book was a sense of disjointedness. These are 19 separate articles put into one book. Even dividing it into three loose parts does not give it a sense of unity. It reads more like the best of Gladwell's writing for the New York Times. Unfortunately what it does is brings out the weakness in his writing.

    The weakness is that many of the articles could use more follow up to support Gladwell's thinking. Such as when he talks about the differences in artists whose greatness is recognized from the start versus those who have to develop their talent. In what ways is the talent developed? What did people see in the developing artist which caused them to continue to support him? This lack of depth undermines Gladwell's analysis.

    Still, Gladwell is very readable and causes the reader to think and re-examine the premise of commonly held assumptions. Other books by him are better.

    New Words:

    • Precocity (Book III,chp 1, pg 18)   exceptionally early or premature development

    Good Quotes:

    • Last Line: It's always easier just to ban the breed.
    •  The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. Book III, preface. Pg 14
    • Self-consciousness is the enemy of "interestingness."  Book III, preface. Pg 15

    Table of Contents

    • Preface
    • PART ONE:
      • "To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish." -Obsessives, pioneers, and other varieties of minor genius.
      • The Pitchman - Ron Popeil and the conquest of the American kitchen
      • The Ketchup Conundrum - Mustard now comes in dozens of different varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same?
      • Blowing Up - How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy.
      • True Colors - Hair Dye and the hidden history of postwar America
      • John Rock's Error - What the inventor of the birth control pill didn't know about women's health
      • What the Dog Saw - Cesar Millan and the movements of mastery
    • PART TWO:
      • "It was like driving down an interstate looking through a soda straw." - Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses
      • Open Secrets - Enron, intelligence and the perils of too much information
      • Million Dollar Murray - Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage
      • The Picture Problem - Mammography, air power, and the limits of looking.
      • Something Borrowed - Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?
      • Connecting the Dots - The paradoxes of intelligence reform.
      • The Art of Failure - Why some people choke and others panic
      • Blowup - Who can be blamed for a disaster like the Challenger explosion? No one, and we'd better get used to it.
      • " 'He'll be wearing a doubled breasted suit. Buttoned.'-and he was." -
        Personality, character and intelligence.
      • Most Likely to Succeed - How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job.
      • Dangerous Minds - Criminal profiling made easy
      • The Talent Myth - Are smart people over-rated?
      • Late Bloomers - Why do we equate genius with precocity?
      • The New Boy Network - What do job interviews really tell us?
      • Troublemakers - What pit bulls can teach us about crime

    Thursday, January 2, 2014

    Charm School

    Book: Charm School
    Author:Nelson DeMille
    Edition:eBook on Overdrive
    Read:December 2013
    847 pages
    Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

    This is a spy vs spy vs spy story. The premise is the question, "what happened to all of the missing-in-action pilots shot down in Vietnam?" DeMille's answer is a school in Russia which teaches Russians to become Americans. Not just to teach them American English, but make them act, talk, be American's. Not only that, but what would America do if it found out about these missing airmen?

    The story starts with an unsuspecting American, Foster, driving across Russia who gets lost. Coincidentally he meets a mysterious American, Dodson,  which he gives a ride to for a short ways. Dodson tells Foster that he and some 300 other MIA's are being held close by to teach Russians to become Americans. Foster gets to Moscow and tells the American embassy this story and then disappears, only to turn up dead in his car, wrecked.

    The spy apparatus at the US embassy-the Air Force attache, Sam Hollis, and the public affairs officer-Seth, a CIA agent, start working on figuring out the truth of the matter. Lisa, who writes press releases, is involved with Sam, but Seth is her old boyfriend. The Russian KGB does their best to stop any investigation, but gradually the Americans realize the truth of the story.

    Then the question is, what do you do about it? This is the time of detente, so no one wants to rock the boat. The Russians take matters in their own hands by removing diplomatic immunity from Sam and Lisa and demanding they leave the country. On the flight out, Sam and Lisa are kidnapped and taken to the Charm School, interrogated by the KGB. They opt to become Charm School instructors. Seth then tries to rescue them. The ending is the rescue, along with what happens to the school.

    This book has five parts:
    I. A lost American stumbles on secret camp in the USSR
    II. Establishes good guys, semi-good guys and bad guys
    III. What is the Charm School?
    IV. Forced removal from USSR and Kidnapping
    V. Charm School Rescue

    Becoming American
    DeMille lays out the crux of the story on page 129 (chp 8). In there Lisa and Sam are discussing who could pass as a Russian? Sam says that there is a saying the "only a Russian can speak Russian Russian." Even with as good of Russian which Lisa and Sam speaks, they would not pass as a Russian born speaker, maybe Seth would (as a note: later in the book, Seth thinks he knows that a real Russian would know he is not Russian because of his limited vocabulary). But Lisa brings up that passing as a Russian is more than speaking flawless Russian. It is how you walk, facial expressions and mannerisms. "To be Russian is the sum total of the national and cultural experience." Then the question comes up, how about the reverse, could a Russian pass as an American? Particularly if there is a finishing school where a Russian could spend a concentrated time acting as an American, mimicking Americans.  The consensus would be if nobody was examining them too closely.

    While the premise is interesting, I do wonder about the practicality. Such as, just trying to imitate another person is hard. Doing it for an hour is almost impossible. But to do it for 20-40 years? I would guess it is impossible. Of course, the idea is not to imitate a particular person, but to act like the type of a particle people. But in some ways, that is even harder. While you do not have to imitate someone else's mannerisms, it does mean that you never can relax and revert back to your own culture, your own upbringing. Even small things, such as how you smoke a cigarette would trip you up.

    The Russian Charm School-the school which trains Russians to act like Americans--goal was not to train people to become part of the CIA or FBI or any of the intelligence agencies. Rather it was to have enough people to be spread throughout the fabric of society. They do not have to become an aide to the President, but just his housekeeper. A friendly reporter may go anywhere and gather information freely--it is part of his job. Becoming the fabric of an open society, such as America, would be easy enough. I worked with a Russian accountant, did not think a thing of it. Our society is diverse enough that most idiosyncrasies would not be noticed.

    Missing Americans
    Is is plausible that Russia could have siphoned off 300 American MIA's from Vietnam? It probably is. Now how to get them out of Vietnam and to Moscow without anybody knowing would be interesting. It would be harder if the Americans had actually gotten to a Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam. How would Vietnam have reconciled this with the memories of returning POW's?  Even more so, how would Russia been able to keep it secret for 10-20 years? Even in a closed society such as theirs, there are defections.

    The flip side of this is a question DeMille raises, Did America desert its MIA's? He points out there were a lot of privately funded ventures to account for them. But how much did the people of the United States fork over? What was America's obligation? DeMille points out that Article I.c of US Code of Conduct for Fighting Forces says: c. Just as you have a responsibility to your country under the Code of Conduct, the United States government has an equal responsibility—to keep faith with you and stand by you as you fight for your country. If you are unfortunate enough to become a prisoner of war, you may rest assured that your government will care for your dependents and will never forget you. Furthermore, the government will use every practical means to contact, support and gain release for you and for all other prisoners of war. DeMille's points out the many times, and in particular in Vietnam, where the US has not lived up to this article. Is it right to prosecute or look down on POW's which have failed in their duty?

    What to do?
    In the era of detente, what would the impact of 300 Americans being held captive do to Russian-American relations? Americans would be howling and saying that we cannot trust the Russians. Detente would go down the drain. Some might say that would make us less safe and more prone to armed conflict with the Russians. That in itself would lead to more than 300 deaths.  But how would our government deal with this? Would it sacrifice their lives? Would it face the consequences? We are taught the importance of the individual in America. Would that hold true if the knowledge of their captivity would potentially lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths? Would it be more courageous to destroy those three hundred lives?

    Who would want to make that decision? If the decision was to destroy those 300 lives, what kind of person would do so? That would be akin to murder. I suspect there is no right answer here from a political aspect. From a moral aspect, you cannot kill even one person without having implications.

    It seems like the quandary here is summed up in the title of a book I have not read yet, but came across during the time I was reading this: The Person and the Common Good by Jacques Maritain. First we must make a distinction which DeMille does not draw--the difference between the Common Good and the Greater Good. The Greater Good deals with numbers is almost a mathematical result. You stack up bodies on one side, bodies on the other side and measure which one is greater. There is no moral dilemma, only deals with which side weighs the most. The Common Good looks at the moral issues involved and says not only who is being harmed and how many, but what good is coming out of this. You top that off by the Person. From a Christian viewpoint, the harm done to a person is harm done to a person created in the image of God. This image is your neighbor and is sacred. In a book I am reading now by Jacques Maritain called The Person and the Common Good, he points out that the person is the most sacred. The Common Good is a supplementary role. It is the individual which worships God, not the masses. So we need to do everything to protect the individual.

    The choice in the book is more concerning the Greater Good choice. Sam Hollis would not look at a person in this Christian view, but only some nebalus morality which says who deserves to be rescued and who does not. I do not know what the Christian choice would be here. But it would be something like what Jesus did and involve self-sacrifice for another.

    How is this book different from Every Last Cuckoo?
    My book group read Every Last Cuckoo last Spring. They did not like it because of the use of profanity, sex and pot. The Charm School is a book where there is little morality presented. And maybe that is the difference between the two books. Cuckoo makes a pretense of morality while Charm School does not. Still I do not think the group will be very enthralled with the sex and profanity.

    There is a subtext in this novel about religion. From the Lisa character commenting how the Communists tear down the old church buildings to Sam noting that the Communists erect their own sanctuaries to their leaders. DeMille takes us inside of a Russian Orthodox Church when Lisa wants to attend one on the Sunday before they leave. It is more of a civil religion to the participants. But there is a note that more young are involved, which surprised Lisa. Also DeMille shows how religion turned a Russian general into somebody who decided to defect, both for his and his daughter's sake.

    But the book is definitely not a moral tract. If anything, it shows that the American concept of religion is not even skin deep. Sam make no attempt to cover himself in any religious aspect, while Lisa is attracted to the faith of her Grandmothers, to the extent she packs around an old Russian icon which belonged to her grandmother. But Lisa's concern with Sam killing Russians is more along the lines of being squeamish rather than moral. She and Sam hop into bed several times during the book. So there is no morality or grace involved with the religion of the novel. More the trappings of religion.

    But DeMille cannot get away from religious issues, anymore than we can. He puts into Lisa's mount, You know, every human life needs a spiritual dimension, or it isn't a complete life. This is played out by Lisa attending church, even if not wanting to believe or follow its tenants. Still there is comfort there.

     One aspect of finding 300 Americans teaching Russians how to blend into American society is that they are traitors. But are the Americans really traitors? They were under the directive, teach them or be killed. Whenever an escape went bad, which they all did, ten of them would be killed. They tried some subterfuge in their teaching. But for the most part they were turning Russians into Americans.

    It is hard to fault them. But you do wonder what would their reception have been if they returned? Hero's? Traitors? Court-Martial? What would have been fair? Also what kind of life would they have had? Had their wives remarried? Would they have been able to assimilate back into American life after being gone 20 years?

     The book is pretty well written, enjoyable to read. There are a few places where DeMille causes you to think about tough questions: is it better to kill a few to save the world from potential destruction, or to save them and face the consequences? How do we know what reality really is? But for the most part, DeMille writes an entertaining spy vs spy, and in some cases, vs a third spy book. 

    DeMille sets a good stage, with an interesting plot. The emphasis is on action and intrigue. But the last two parts to the book, he loses steam and stops riding the wave he built, but relies on active and improbable scenario's to keep the book alive.

    Is this a book which I would read again? I probably would not seek it out, but would not turn away if the opportunity presented itself. Would I read something else by him? Probably yes.   While this may not be a fair comparison, I was reading a different action book, Ben-Hur, at the same time. Lew Wallace's epic story has more staying power, more interest than just a chariot race and leads to more satisfying conclusion. Still The Charm School is a good read.
    Notes from my book group:
    • The premise of the book is that there could be a large number of missing American's in Russian. Is this premise realistic?
    • Does the love triangle between Lisa, Sam and Seth add to the book? How so?
    • When does the book take place(1988)? What was the relationship like with the USSR? Who was president? What was detente?  What place does the large picture have in the book? Is the Spock injunction: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, correct? To what extent? Who makes this kind of judgement? By the way, Kirk's response, in the next movie, was: Because the needs of the one... outweigh the needs of the many.
    • What would the appropriate response  be to finding that 300 Americans were being held in a foreign country?
    • The vocabulary and sexual situations are similar to a book we read earlier, Every Last Cuckoo. We did not like this later book because of this, how does our thoughts about Charm School be affected by its vocabulary and situations?
    • Is the thought that a person can be "in character" for 20-40 years realistic? What kinds of changes would you think would be happening to a person who tried?
    • Sam Hollis figured out a reporter was on the the Charm School Russians. How? What other mannerisms would you expect to see not brought over?
    • If this novel was written 30 years earlier, how would it have been viewed? I am thinking of the Red Scare and McCarthyism.  In 2010, Rush Limbaugh talked about Charm School in relationship to a the NYPD breaking a spy case: Moscow angrily rejected US accusations today that Washington had cracked an undercover spy ring and said the Cold War style cloak and dagger saga seemed time to wreck a recent thaw in relations. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said US police had gone out of control after ten suspected spies were arrested in the US in the biggest espionage case for years.” US police out of control. Well, he would know, he would know if police are outta control. He was the KGB. And don't forget, they may call it the BBD, or the BFR, the BFF, it's still the KGB, and no one, no one ever leaves the KGB.
    • Was there a Charm School? Did we have one as well?
    • Did your view of Russia change because of reading this book?

    New Words:  (There are many Russian words which DeMille uses, but usually does a good job of giving a translation)

    • babushka (140):  1a :  a usually triangularly folded kerchief for the head;  b :  a head covering (as a scarf) resembling a babushka;  2:  an elderly Russian woman
    • Maslo(296)   butter
    • Troglodytes(374)   a person who lived in a cave.
    •  Cordite:   a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom since 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant

    Good Quotes:
    • First Line: You are already staying in Smolensk two days, Mr. Fisher?
    • Last Line: They stood silently for a long time, listening to the sounds of the ship and the sea, feeling the roll and forward momentum of the freighter as it moved westward, away from Russia.
    • You make a distinction between the people and the government here. But I think people get the kind of government they deserve. pg 143, chp 9
    • Bezizkhodnost. Exitlessness;Dead end; futility; hopelessness; going nowhere....that's what's left when you subtract God from man.  Pg 255, chp 15
    • ...justice is done differently here,... The only justice here is revenge.  Pg 300, chp 19
    • You know, every human life needs a spiritual dimension, or it isn't a complete life. pg 401, chp 26