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Book Review: God’s Smuggler

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Just finished God’s Smuggler, by Brother Andrew. What a phenomenal book. Five stars.

The book tells the story of Brother Andrew’s profligate life before his conversion, his conversion, and his years of visiting and encouraging believers in communist nations. It’s a wild and moving story of Brother Andrew’s constant and evident trust in God’s promises and God’s overwhelming and supernatural providence. The story is a living testament to the truth that “all things are possible with God.”

Brother Andrew is in the vein of Hudson Taylor and George Muller. The way he and his wife lived their lives will challenge the individualistic and acquisitive habits we American evangelicals have imbibed.

If you have a heart for God at all, you cannot read this book without being moved to greater prayer and practical confidence in Christ. This is a book I will be reading to my children. Highest recommendation.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

May 12, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Lyndon Johnson…The Best and the Worst

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LBJHistorian Paul Johnson says, correctly, “There was a dark side to [Lyndon] Johnson. He was unscrupulous.” That’s putting is mildly, depending on who you ask. As I’ve said before, I’m intrigued by Johnson because he is at turns inspiring and repulsive. I found myself very agitated today at Johnson’s mafia-like corruption when it came to the press. We are too often reminded of president Nixon’s relationship with the press, but I’m guessing Lyndon Johnson’s despicable stance toward the press doesn’t make too many high school history textbooks.

Shortly after becoming president, Johnson, who was almost surely headed for scandal had not Kennedy been killed, decided he did not like a certain reporter, Margaret Mayer, snooping around his broadcasting interests. So he arranged to have her shut up by letting the higher ups at the reporter’s paper know that he could arrange to bring the power of the federal government against not only the paper, but against them personally (you know, look into your tax records a bit, or some such). As Robert Caro puts it, Johnson wanted the reporter told by her bosses: “We don’t want to spend all of our time inquiring into matters that’s none of our business. They might be inquiring into some of our affairs that are their business.” Hence, according to Caro, “stopping Margaret Mayer had been easy.”

Worse, Johnson wanted a written guarantee, and got it, from the Houston Chronicle, stating that the paper would give him unqualified support no matter what policies Johnson advocated. (Caro wrongly dubbed this a “Texas journalistic enterprise.” Ah no, it was corrupt strong-arming, pure and simple). How did Johnson get such a guarantee? He told the Chronicle’s president, John T. Jones Jr., that he couldn’t have a bank merger he wanted unless the Chronicle pledged its unqualified support for Johnson throughout his entire public life. Johnson held the cards because the merger could not get approval from the Federal Reserve and Justice Department without Johnson’s nod. I suppose Jones could have stood his ground and been willing to lose his merger for the sake of journalistic integrity, but he didn’t. So much for “speaking truth to power.” I am under no illusions that Johnson was unique in using the power of the State to manipulate and coerce people into doing his will, but it’s obscene and reprehensible nonetheless. Here we see examples of some of the worst of Johnson’s power-mongering.

By contrast, on the inspiring end of things, I find myself drawn to emulate Johnson in his ability to persuade people and get things done. I’m not a pragmatist by nature, but I am coming to see the value of developing relationships such that important work can be accomplished. Johnson had a real gift for understanding people, what they wanted and needed, and how he could take that knowledge and use it to accomplish his ends. Now I disagree with many of his ends, but I think one could learn many lessons from Johnson, as I am, about how to accomplish good aims by persuading people to your cause and offering helpful compromises and trade-offs. And Johnson was decisive, too, in many situations. I admire that. He came into situations with a desire and ability to move things forward.

I find myself wanting to act more decisively, to blow off the fog of ambiguity, whether at my job or in my home life with my wife and children. I want to work with people and be proactive with them in getting valuable things done and making my contexts better. Johnson has been helpful in encouraging me toward this end.

So perhaps you see why I enjoy learning about president Johnson. His sins and virtues seem to come forth in bold relief, and I find this engrossing.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

April 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Dependent Upon Dependency

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Kevin Williamson is a journalist whose writing I have really come to enjoy. He’s a roving reporter for National Review and writes on a variety of topics with insight and wit. He has penned a little tract called The Dependency Agenda where he discusses Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and their outworking. At one point he writes:

Under the Great Society and its later permutations, [the poor] became dependent upon a professional class whose highly paid members were themselves dependent upon the dependency of their clients. Dependency became a valuable commodity. At the apex of the dependency food chain are the highest ranking members of a political machine ultimately dependent upon dependency and highly invested in its spread.

I do not think there is something sinister in this truth. I work for the government, and I like having a job. I don’t know that I reflect on how I might perpetuate my own job, likely because I don’t see public utilities drying up anytime soon. But most people are probably interested in the spread of things that will give them job security. Certainly the teachers union is a self-interested bunch, highly committed to preserving the administrative bureaucratic jobs within the public school edifice. Yet Williamson is pointing out the crucial conflict of interest that exists for those whose work is ostensibly meant to help the poor become self-sufficient, but who also know that if they were to actually achieve their goal, it would jeopardize the existence of their work. It’s like certain U.S. farmers. They might like to see poor African nations become self-sustaining agriculturally, but if that ever happened, it would jeopardize the existence of the food aid programs that help prosper those  same U.S. farmers. Thus, how committed will those farmers be to achieving the goal of African self-sustenance? The illustration could be multiplied in other areas as well.

Technology comes to us in various mediums (i.e., audio, visual, musical, type, digital, video, etc), and these mediums are not neutral. The medium itself imposes certain intellectual, emotional and physical adaptations upon us. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium IS the message.” Thus, it not only matters WHAT we watch on TV, but THAT we watch TV at all. The medium of TV changes the way we think and act and affects our attitudes toward life. Or take your ipod. By its very nature it is designed to be a solo endeavor. You put the buds in your ears and you’re in your own world. The unspoken rule for someone listening to their ipod is: “Don’t bug me.” At my old school they used to not allow ipods on the school bus trips, but now they do. Two guesses as to what has happened to conversation between students on the bus. God has spoken in various mediums, but our highest authority is the Word of God. We must conform ourselves to it.

Christians must be discerning in our use of technology, understanding the ways that it benefits us as well as the ways it encourages us away from God. John tells us to “test the spirits to see if they are from God.” We are to seek wisdom and discernment, according to the Proverbs, and “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Storing up God’s commands and promises in our hearts will help us rightly use and appreciate our technologies. Being in fellowship with God’s people will also help us.

Certain technologies work well with habits and attitudes in us that contradict God’s will. Certain technologies encourage us to believe that speed and efficiency are the keys to the good life, but Scripture contradicts this. God is not “speedy” in changing us and He commands us to learn patience and perseverance. Certain technologies encourage us to believe that we can avoid suffering or inconvenience, but God contradicts this. God calls us into suffering for Christ’s sake: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Certain technologies encourage us to believe it is good to avoid personal interactions with people, but God contradicts this. He commands us to have fellowship together and to cultivate face-to-face relationships where we can practically love and serve others. Certain technologies encourage us in our view that we can “have it all” in life, and sway us toward ingratitude when the technology doesn’t “fix” our lives. God teaches us contentment in Christ and the realization that we are “aliens and strangers on earth.”

Technology should point us to God and should advance his kingdom purposes (e.g., listening to a symphony with all the various instruments working together to play a beautiful piece can point us to the wondrous unity and diversity within the Trinity.). Technology should encourage us to think and feel in ways that honor God (Certain movies can direct our affections toward God and get us thinking about His world.). Technology should help us accomplish the purposes of God (e.g., showing the Jesus Film to unreached peoples, traveling to foreign countries to preach the gospel, bringing medical help to the impoverished of the world, teaching farming techniques to the poor, calling friends to encourage them in God, sending care packages to missionaries, writing songs that honor God in composition, style and lyrics, etc.).

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

March 26, 2015 at 3:27 am

Ronald Takaki: Hiroshima

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takakiImagine a man, when it all began, the pilot of “Enola gay” flying out of the shockwave on that August day. All the powers that be and the course of history would be changed forevermore. – Rush, Manhattan Project

[T]he USSR, depending on which historian you believe, would lose at least 11,000,000 soldiers (killed and missing) as well as somewhere between 7,000,000 and 20,000,000 million of its civilian population during the Great Patriotic War. – J.T. Dykman, The Eisenhower Institute

When the subtitle on a book about Hiroshima says, “Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb,” and the book is only 150 pages, one feels entitled to a little skepticism. Or maybe skepticism is not the right word. Suspicion of reductionism is probably more accurate. And I imagine it’s hard for any historian to avoid a certain reductionism when treating the United States’ use of atomic weapons, for it is a subject of momentous import, involving many brilliant, thoughtful, powerful and articulate people, all sinners, all with different influences and motivations which often conflict within the same person. Takaki is no exception. I say this because my reigning assumption about such matters is that the “whys” of it encompass many more aspects than we suppose, even if we are experts in the subject (which I am not; indeed, I’m not even a novice). I take this assumption from my understanding of human nature, such as it is.

Takaki’s answer to the “why” question seems to boil down to this: The United States did not drop the bomb mainly to expedite the end of the war with Japan (the popular/traditional notions of how many men our leaders thought we might lose by invading Japan being a myth); rather, we dropped the bomb because we were wedded to the idea of “unconditional surrender” and would not get off it, we wanted to impress the Russians with our weapon in the hopes that we might intimidate them, we had spent a lot of money on the Manhattan Project and needed to justify that expense by our use of the bomb, we had a unique racial hatred of the Japanese (that we did not have toward Germans) and Pearl Harbor fueled our bloodlust and desire for vengeance toward Japan, the “manifest destiny” idea that ran in our veins had hit the Pacific Ocean and needed a new territory and Japan fit the bill, and finally, President Truman worried that he might be thought a “sissy” and unmanly if he did not act decisively and toughly with Japan by dropping the bomb.

Based on the above claims, one of my good friends suspected I would hate Ronald Takaki’s Hiroshima. On the contrary, despite what I take to be Takaki’s thin support for some of his theses, I found the book to be well-written, very engaging and, as my friend also said, possessed of insight and value. I would recommend it to others. Takaki certainly adds texture and nuance to certain aspects of our decision to “drop the bomb” that deserve consideration when thinking about what Hiroshima has meant for our nation and world.

I appreciated Takaki’s exploration of the various important players’ thoughts, namely, MacArthur, Byrnes, Leahy, Oppenheimer, Churchill, Groves, Stimson, and of course, President Truman himself. The quotes Takaki marshals in support of his thesis provide good material for reflection, particularly as to how human nature and one’s personal history play themselves out when confronted with decisions that will lead to untold human suffering and death. How does one face down the choice of whether or not to vaporize 100,000 people in an instant? Yet at the same time, how does one decide what the true human costs will be on into the future if that course is not taken? Does one retreat into demonizing and “racializing” one’s enemy, as we clearly did with the Japanese? Does one resort to rationalizations because facing the truth is just too much? Does one subconsciously act in ways designed to overcome one’s insecurities or to placate one’s prejudices? Likely the answer is “yes” to all of these, even though this justifies none of them. I particularly liked Takaki’s treatment of Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Stimson had profound and thoughtful misgivings about using the bomb with which I identified, and I think he was unjustifiably marginalized in the decision-making process.

I think Takaki is on to something when he talks about Truman’s desire to engage in what he calls “the diplomacy of masculinity.” Based on Truman’s own words, one sees that he wanted to be tough and decisive. He wanted both the Japanese and the Russians to know he was a “man’s man” and that he was not going to be pushed around. I suspect this motivation has come into play for all of our presidents who have had to confront an overwhelming military situation. No one wants to look weak. Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam come to mind. We may tend to give this short shrift as so much “psychobabble,” but to dismiss it is, I think, error. Pride and self-deception are two big things our Lord Jesus diagnosed about us, and we see them at work here.

Takaki is also right to consider our racial prejudices against Japan and our real fears of the Soviet Union and how those played into the decision. Takaki acknowledges, at some level, the wickedness of the Japan’s actions, but I believe he is right in arguing that part of our motivation for bombing them was our sense of superiority over those we took to be “beasts” and “monkeys.” Regarding the Soviets, we had seen them overrun Eastern Europe and we rightly identified them now as our main rival for world dominance. The Japanese were finished, one way or another, at this point in the war, and so there would be great pressure to make a kind of statement to Russia with our new weapon.

The book had another salutary effect on me, though Takaki may not have intended it. It reinforced for me the reality of our sinfulness and readiness to do evil before God and others, and the massive, unparalleled horror of this reality as it played out in World War Two. There is to my mind simply nothing like the 20th century – and World War Two in particular – in human history when it comes our desires to despise and destroy one another and our ability to carry it out on a massive scale. The barbarism of this war simply defies comprehension, even when we see what happened, for no one can truly see all that happened, much of which is still with us. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a terrifying and unspeakable destruction of human life. If one stops and tries to visualize the effects of that bomb as it incinerates tens of thousands instantly, and leaves untold others – along with buildings, plants and animals – to burn to death, and then the galling aftermath of radiation poisoning and death due to the devastation of the city’s infrastructure, one cannot fully take it in. It’s just emotionally crippling, if we feel in our bones that these are truly God’s image-bearers, as we are.

And yet, these bombings are only a small part of the horror. At the end of the war, practically all of northern Europe lay in ruins, with untold millions dead or maimed. At the least, something on the order of 26 million Soviets were dead. The Japanese homeland lay ablaze in utter destruction with its perished millions. Many other countries felt the brunt of our modern weaponry and vice (China, Phillipines, Australia to name a few), along with the U.S. and Canada. I experience a sick and anxious feeling inside me even as I contemplate it now. I fear we have lost this sense of what the war actually shows us about ourselves and our need for Christ’s redemption (which leads me to anxiously await David Berlinski’s book, The Best of Times, which he says will address something of this penchant for forgetting the bloodshed and inhumanity of the 20th century).

Having said all that, I found Takaki’s thesis wanting at points. He claims that the decision makers knew that Japan was beaten and that their estimates of what the death toll might be should we have to invade Japan was quite low (around 40,000 killed, rather than the oft-asserted 500,000). Yet what our leaders estimated about Japan’s willingness to fight on, and their actually willingness to do so, are two very different things. In my limited experience, military leaders are not very adept at making accurate predictions about future events while in the “fog of war.” Predictions do not show us reality. Further, I doubt that policymakers’ predictions about how many we thought we might lose during an invasion were static. That is, such predictions changed at various points. Indeed, there is evidence that Truman was influenced by the estimate higher losses in an invasion. Takaki simply waives off the generally accepted view without any real refutation of it.

Moreover, even if we were not going to lose half-a-million, what kind of destruction would we have wreaked on Japan had we invaded? Would we have killed another 300,000 to 400,000 Japanese on top of the men we would have lost? Would we have continued our aerial bombings? Can anyone really tell us? In other words, I don’t take it as fact that somehow the human death toll would have been lessened had we invaded. But would we be sitting here talking about America’s moral atrocity had we killed the same number of Japanese, only having done so by invasion instead of A-bomb?

On the point of America’s sticking too hard to “unconditional surrender,” I have to wonder if Japan’s only “condition” for surrender prior to the bomb was keeping its Emperor, as Takaki claims. Were they asking for nothing else? Takaki makes the Japanese sound like they were virtually in full obsequious submission mode, just asking for one little thing, and we wouldn’t give it because we were adamant about bombing them. I cannot sort out Takaki’s claim, because he provides me no good basis for doing so, since he ignores any evidence contrary to his own version. I have to believe that evidence exists, otherwise no one would be holding the traditional line against Takaki’s view.

Further, Takaki’s implication that, had we taken the advice of those who wanted us to share our atomic secrets with the Soviets, the Cold War arms race with the Soviets might have been averted, seems naive. The arms race was already on, and the Soviets apparently already knew our progress on atomic weaponry. I cannot see the two countries coming to some sort of mutual disarmament agreement, or agreement not to develop further atomic weapons, had we only shared with the Soviets. Stalin was a mass murdering, lying, conniving, hideous thug of the worst order, one of the worst men in history. The idea that sharing anything with him would purchase peace is nonsense in hindsight. This seems to be the unfounded utopianism of much modern academic leftism infecting Takaki’s analysis.

I would have liked to see more support for Takaki’s thesis that Pearl Harbor created such a level of bloodthirsty hate for the Japanese that it propelled us inexorably toward dropping the bomb on them. Again, I did not live during that period, and I have not studied it, but if I am to believe that we wanted to “get Japan” as badly as Takaki suggests, I believe I need more evidence than he presents. Yes, the Japanese attacked us, and yes, our military leaders likely wanted to “repay” them in some way, but I don’t think he made the connection between that and dropping the bomb. I am sure it played a role and it is good to consider it, yet it is something I would expect in just about any war. To be fair, the book is very short, but this is a major argument for Takaki.

Takaki’s thinest argument, in my opinion, is his argument concerning race and American’s desire to have a “new frontier” to conquer now that we could no longer conquer any more of North America. Takaki writes: “From the very beginning of what would become the United States, race has been a significant influence.” The problem with this statement is, I’m not sure what it is supposed to mean. Takaki goes into an extended discussion of our history of race relations, mostly by stringing along racist words and actions that dot our historical landscape. But this begs the question, what about this makes our country unique? I would take it to be true at some level that “from the very time of Babel and onward, race has been a significant influence” in war. And undoubtedly I could pull in all sorts of racist quotes from every people and nation under the sun. Does this mean that race had nothing to do with our decision to bomb Japan? I think it likely did have something to do with it. But Takaki has not shown that it was a factor more influential than other factors. His evidence is mostly anecdotal to Truman.

Takaki’s evidence for our need for a new frontier is even more scant. Asserting that the “idea of democracy often embraced an expansionist vision for the new nation” and talking about Matthew Perry sailing his ships into Tokyo Bay is simply not enough to prove that we were looking for new areas of imperialist expansion. Again, I’m willing to believe this played some kind of motivational role, but probably not the one Takaki supposes.

Obviously volumes have been written about the United States’ use of atomic bombs. I’ve read very little on it in my life, but it does not appear to me that Takaki has exploded any myths. What he has likely done, or at least done for me, is to add some layers and additional insight to the terrible events. I am not without my biases and prejudices, and I’m a product of my age, as is anyone. I appreciate Takaki’s helping me look at things from another angle, but I am also wary of historians taking events that are fraught with tremendous emotional, social, political and spiritual freight, who then seem to be overblowing the influence of “racism” on them. In my view, race does not color everything in our decision-making to the extent that 21st century academics and journalists say it does. I would just assume give the total reality (and all the players involved) its due weight when it comes to complex issues like Hiroshima and the Second World War in general. I find it helps me see again the totality of our need for Christ in every way, and it provides the greatest possible moral clarity, which is something of great value today, particularly among university students.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

March 22, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Duenes, History, Literature

You Really Should Read This Other Book

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I’m about half way through Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, by Jason Riley. I got turned on to the author through a regular flyer I get from Hillsdale College called Imprimus, which featured Riley recently. And my recent foray into the life of Lyndon Johnson has also drawn me to issues of race and culture. Please Stop Helping Us is an engaging look at some of the political and cultural trends which appear to stymie the advancement of blacks in our country. As I go through the book, however, it continually strikes me that the reader of this book is likely to be told that reading a book by a black conservative may be fine, but one should really also get himself into some W.E.B. Dubois, Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson or some such, for another view and some perspective. Yet if one tells others that he is reading Dubois or West instead of Riley, he is not likely to be told, “You know, you ought to get yourself something by Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Larry Elder or Jason Riley for another view and some perspective.” I wonder why that is? I think Riley has some ideas.

-D

 

Written by Michael Duenes

March 4, 2015 at 7:43 pm