Tag Archives: politics

World Religions: Islam – Lecture 5: The Muslim Community – Faith and Politics

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 5: The Muslim Community – Faith and Politics

Note: This lecture was quite heavy with lots of detailed history but my real take-aways from it were higher level and more conceptual.  If you want the history, you’ll need to to watch the course.

The Muslim faith is divided into two groups.  The Sunni, which comprise 85% of the population and the other 15% are Shia.  The two only disagree on one key point which pertains to the selection of a leader.  The Sunni believe the most qualified person should lead but that his powers are limited to only the political realm.  Shia believe the direct descendants of the prophet should lead and that this leader should be both a political and a religious one.  Early in Muslim history the preferred Shia leader was martyred by the majority Sunni and thus the Shia have a long-standing feeling of being disenfranchised.

During the first few hundred years of its existence, Islam expanded quickly by assimilating its neighbors and by 750 the Umayyad Caliphate stretched from Spain and North Africa to Iraq and Pakistan.  Rather than destroy culture and infrastructure during conquest, the Caliphate preferred a process of assimilation in which local custom was adapted and the conquered could choose to either convert to Islam, pay a poll tax or if they refused even that they would be killed.  This policy was much less strict than that exercised by the Byzantine or Persians during their conquests of the same area.

The Golden Age of Islam stretched from the 8th century through the 13th and saw a great surge in the development of art, architecture and the sciences.  In fact, during the last half of the era, Europeans gained key knowledge from the the Caliphate including the recovery of some key Greek works that were previously lost and only found again through their Arabic translations.

The Crusades stretched from 1095 though 1453 and represented, among other things, an attempt by the Papacy under Pope Urban II to advance the political position of the church in Europe.  By 1099 Jerusalem is captured and Muslims, Jews, women and children are butchered and much of the city destroyed.  When the city was recaptured in 1187 the proceedings were much less bloody.  The Crusades ended in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople.

Series Guide

IslamView back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam


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Big Fat Beautiful Head – Funny and full of insight but surprisingly short (4/5)

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As usual I received this title for free in exchange for an honest review; this time from NetGalley. Also as usual I give my scrupulously honest opinion below.

This book is in a fairly unique position in that it’s a book of cartoons but also a book about cartoons. It contains 50 of the author’s choicest offerings and each comes accompanied by a 100-word blurb about the cartoon which usually describes the situation portrayed in more detail or the background of what made the author pen this particular work in the first place.

On the positive side, I’m a tough sell when it comes to humor and many of these caused me to actually laugh. I’m amused by much but don’t typically let it out. Heinecke is a surprisingly funny guy even by my standards for the term. The book is also unique in that it does what I always want books about comics to do which is to describe in more detail the background of what’s being drawn. The comic form is so terse by its nature that often I think we all want a few more words than the 10 we typically get and this book gives us that missing detail.

To the negative, this is really short. As I said above it’s 50 comics and at its current Amazon selling price that’s 20 cents per comic. it would be more cost effective to actually subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and just read the comics (which I’m sure happens more than people will admit). The inherent terseness of the comic writer is still evident in the short, large-font blurbs as well. There’s more description but there’s still not everything you would hope for.

In summary, this is a nice offering from a funny author but it’s probably one to pick up on the clearance rack. Its all of a 20-minute read and you should determine the price you would pay based on that.

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Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security

Not a bad little read if you take it slowly.  Free to the first person who asks.  Oh, and vote the review helpful on Amazon if you find it so.

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October 12, 2013 · 5:07 pm

Disappearance at Mount Sinai by Jim Musgrave

Disappearance at Mount SinaiDisappearance at Mount Sinai by Jim Musgrave

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual, I didn’t pay for this book but it came to me through the grace and generosity of the author. Despite this kind consideration, I share my candid feelings on the book below.

Our protagonist is a Civil War vet turned private detective and he navigates a world filled with deep intrigue and diverse characters. Potential readers are warned that the language in this book could be offensive to some as the book deals very honestly with matters of race and Eugenics in the post-war American South. Personally I find this unsanitized rendering of the time and place to be refreshing but the easily offended should make note before purchasing.

To the positive side of the ledger, Musgrave delves honestly and in detail into the oft-forgotten episode of American history in which it was considered a good idea by many to sanitize the human race of anyone who wasn’t white. Those who point with disgust at 1930s Germany are herein reminded that those Germans didn’t invent anti-semitism and Eugenics. Musgrave displays to us through his work that hatred has much deeper roots. In addition to his larger history lesson, the author provides us with hoards of other amusing historical tidbits and isn’t afraid to sprinkle them liberally throughout the narrative and even takes time to explain them in most cases.

To the negative side, the aforementioned tidbits of history, while informative, can at times seem non sequiturs and can go on for several sentences interrupting the narrative flow. Language too is sometimes a problem as characters of various dialects repeat the same characteristic words or phrases over and over in an exaggerated verbal stereotype of a particular demographic. This can get a bit grating, me boy-o! Lastly, the dialog is at times melodramatic with characters proclaiming that they’ll do “something” if it’s “the last thing they’ll ever do!” or phrase of similar hyperbole. One is reminded rather more of Adam West as Batman than a 19th century private investigator. Luckily these occurrences are fairly rare but when they do occur they do tend to stick out. Holy verbal protuberances, oh faithful readers!

In summary, Sinai is an improvement over Musgrave’s previous work. Like its predecessor, it is firmly rooted in real events and expounds upon them in a logical and believable manner. Musgrave’s work is exceptionally well conceived but simply lacks a bit of editorial spit and polish. The occurrence of typographical problems in this book is also less than its predecessor and I have higher hopes still for the third volume in the series.

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Strange Fruit by Michelle Janine Robinson

Strange FruitStrange Fruit by Michelle Janine Robinson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book for free. This time, from a LibraryThing Member giveaway. Despite that kindness, I will give my candid opinions below.

To summarize the plot in a nutshell, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket and an American Apartheid has settled over the country. Terrorism and economic devastation reign supreme and a growing group of racial activists are fighting to stem the proverbial tide.

On the positive side, and it’s a slender one, this book had potential for an interesting story of sorts. If properly done, there was some amount of potential for this but absolutely none of that potential was realized.

The negative side is rather a lengthy ledger, sadly. First, one can’t say enough negative about the writing. It seems to be written at about a middle school level. The author writes in a rather redundant and choppy manner with little regard to transition or narrative. The editing is similarly poor. It’s obvious that the spellchecker has been run but little else; words are often transposed, misused, or clumsily chosen.

Leaving the words themselves aside, the author has made the story utterly implausible. Characters seem to shift in personality rapidly and without cause like they all suffer from bipolar disorder. Anyone trying to read the text will be left in a rather fearsome jumble attempting to keep track of the various goings on since the author doesn’t tie things together in anything approaching a connected narrative. The whole thing is rather a mess.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t touch at least briefly on the content. The main premise in this novel is that white conservatives are going to take over the country and reestablish slavery. While I’m the last person to side with white conservatives about anything, it would seem that if a white guy wrote a book with the premise that African Americans are going to take over the country and enslave the whites, it would be classified as hate speech. This book at its heart just seems to inflame racial tensions. Personally, every demographic in this country has problems and every demographic causes problems. We’re all at fault in one way or another for the problems which plague us. Books like this don’t really add constructively to the solution of any of these issues; they just serve to annoy and polarize readers’ thinking.

In summary, poorly written, poorly edited, socially non-constructive. Might have been entertaining if not for all the previous negatives.

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The King’s Jockey by Lesley Gray

The King's JockeyThe King’s Jockey by Lesley Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firstly, and as always, I received this book via a GoodReads giveaway. Despite the kind consideration of getting the book for nothing my candid opinion follows.

Our story begins with a small boy who has a gift with horses. Even at a young age he seems to understand them better than most adults. For much of his life he’s mucking stalls until he gets the chance of a lifetime to ride one of these fine beasts wearing the King’s colors. The rest, is quite literally, history.

Admittedly, when I first picked up this book I did so with some trepidation and it’s difficult to pin down exactly why. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m not much of a sports fan and particularly not of horse racing. All my hesitancy was pretty quickly swept away once I realized the historical significance of the place and times portrayed. This period in history is rather under emphasized in the high school curriculum here in the States so it was not only entertaining but educational. Ms. Gray does a grand job at giving us a hero we can really root for while painting a historical backdrop that is at once grim and sympathetic. The image of suffragettes being force-fed is not one that’s likely to be erased from recollection anytime soon.

In the vein of historical accuracy, several times I found myself rather doubting some detail but inevitably upon reading the Wikipedia entry my doubts were put to rest. Most assuredly the author has taken some liberty with trivial personal details and in some cases made up events and characters out of whole cloth but she admits as much in her own postscript so she cannot be faulted. The general theme of the times and the recorded historical events are accurate.

Wandering to the constructive side of the argument, the text at times felt rather choppy as if the high points had been taken from a much larger work. I found myself wanting more details that simply weren’t forthcoming. One cannot help but wonder how much of the desired remainder found its way to the proverbial cutting room floor.

In summary, this novel touches on a delightful point of forgotten (or never learned) history. The author’s characters are sympathetic and the story feels very real though perhaps a bit truncated at times. It is a wonderful addition to the genre of historical novels and a cornerstone of the vanishingly small set of books devoted to the ancient sport of kings as practiced by real kings.

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Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Helaine Olen

Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance IndustryPound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Helaine Olen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the second time today I’ll remind readers that I received this book as part of a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind consideration which saved me upwards of $12, I give my candid feedback below.

The simple premise of this little treatise is to tear everything you know about finance limb from limb. All the rot designed to help you with money from self-help to Dave Ramsey to the latest stock market guru is nothing but a fraud designed to get you to pay for something. Anybody who claims to know something you don’t is just selling something. There, now I’ve saved YOU $12.

In greater seriousness, the author has a point and she very skillfully illuminates it for us. She methodically goes from one financial fad to the next and very neatly deconstructs them. She’s even polite enough to tear everything down and at the end NOT really present us with an answer. There are some liberal leanings in which she suggests that government regulation is the real answer to our problems but even that, she admits, isn’t a panacea.

To summarize, since I have little else to say, Pound Foolish happily tells us all what we long ago suspected about the financial services industry. Nobody really knows the answer to how to get rich excepting through an inordinate amount of faith in straight up luck or perhaps getting your own talk show to sell your wares. The book is at times rather ponderous and redundant but ultimately informative with its most important take-away being the attitude of realism which accompanies it rather than any specific detail the author provides.

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Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked UsSalt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To begin with my by-now rote preamble, I received this book from a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind and generous and typical consideration I give my candid opinions below.

The premise of this book can be summed up very simply. Food companies are creating products that while not intended to kills us, nevertheless are doing so. By using science and marketing (in some cases derived from research done by that purest of evils, cigarette companies) big foods can manipulate us into eating more and more of their products until we drop dead. While we think the government is trying to protect us from such evils, in fact most of the time the feds are helping and subsidizing the efforts of food companies to shove more and unhealthier food down our throats to line their pockets. I’d say that about covers it.

Michael Moss’s definitive tome on food marketing is exhaustive, at times daunting and the best book on this topic I’ve read since “Fast Food Nation” so many years ago. Moss has covered the basics with a wealth of detail and reasoning that should be abundantly terrifying to those who find themselves putting frozen pizzas and Hot Pockets into their cart at the grocery store. He paints a picture that is stark and, sadly, a bit hopeless. While our author does spend a tiny bit of time on the efforts of food companies to stop killing us softly with salt, sugar and fat, he doesn’t really seem to hold out much hope. He closes with a chunk on liquid foods designed for people after they have bariatric surgery. The image of people tube-feeding themselves from a plastic container is pretty haunting but that seems to be what we’re coming to.

This book is wonderfully researched, eruditely and well written and I hope against hope that it’s somehow unbalanced. Moss’s picture is grim indeed but his arguments are so well constructed that one doesn’t really have the heart to argue with them. As a book it can sometimes be a bit daunting and is best taken, I think, in 1-hour chunks. On one level this lets the argument settle in over the course of several days and make you subconsciously examine what YOU’RE eating. The book is very helpful and specific in the foods and products it chooses to excoriate. A conscientious reader will find themselves at least slightly changed for the better. On another level, taking the book in small pieces dampens a bit the somewhat repetitive cadence of the whole thing. Here’s a type of food. Here’s why it’s bad. Here’s the history of it. Here’s who I talked to about it and what they had to say. Lather, rinse, repeat. Taken in long sittings this is probably much less effective. I stretched this one out over a week and felt myself well served and well-educated.

In summary, this is the sort of book that leaves you changed at a fundamental level. Like books before it, you never quite see the world the same way again. On the whole, I feel pretty good about my diet even before, relative to how Moss describes the typical American diet but there’s always room for improvement and this book is one that gives a not so gentle nudge in the right direction. It’s also the sort of book you want to pass around to everyone you know; it should be subtitled, “Read this before the next time you open your mouth.”

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Of Spies, Guys and Dainty Pirates

Hard Drive Finger PrintAfter finishing with the scurvy pirates a few days ago I started Sulick’s new book on espionage in America. It seems promising. The introduction informs us that there was no established part of the U.S. Government responsible for counter-espionage until 1939. During times of war, a group of officials was cobbled together to catch spies but when hostilities ceased they were disbanded. This meant that every new outbreak caused the whole department to be recreated from scratch, a very inefficient process. The author goes on to point out that the U.S. has had a rather false sense of security from espionage because of the psychological protection of the yawning oceans that lie between us and our combatants. Add to that the unusual level of personal freedom we enjoy and you get a country very susceptible to spies.

Espionage during the Revolutionary War was rife because, honestly, not everybody agreed with the idea of revolt in the first place. The first convicted spy against the U.S. was Dr. Benjamin Church, a well respected physician and member of the inner circle of the revolutionaries. Even as a surgeon his earnings were a paltry $4 a day but no one found it surprising when he suddenly started living a lavish lifestyle well above his means. He was considered above suspicion until a coded letter to his handlers was intercepted (he had entrusted it to one of his mistresses for delivery) and decoded. When confronted he claimed to be just pulling the legs of the British but was still found guilty. Unfortunately for the revolutionaries there was no law for espionage so there was some legal problem with what exactly to DO with the guy. He was eventually imprisoned and sent to the West Indies.

In the fictional realm, I highly recommend Bernay’s The Man on the Third Floor. Our protagonist is a gay book editor in the 1930s with a wife and family. His male lover lives on the third floor and acts as chauffeur. I think I need say no more.

Finally, a short dangling participle from the land of Pringle’s Pirates. In 1720 a group of pirates was captured, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging (and maybe some drawing and quartering after that). Two of the pirates stepped forward and declared that they could not be executed with the phrase: “We plead our bellies!” Pregnant women could not be executed and Anne Bonny and Mary Read had lived among the pirates and some of the pirate’s kind attentions had taken root. There is some speculation that the entire story may be apocryphal but also a fair amount that it is true and that the women were smuggled aboard as “wives” for two of the male pirates. Unfortunately, privacy is pretty hard to come by on a pirate ship. Once the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, the cat was shared amongst the crew.

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Mitt Romney in his Own Words – Phillip Hines

Mitt Romney in His Own WordsMitt Romney in His Own Words by Phillip Hines

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The standard disclaimer applies: I received this book free as a promotion from GoodReads so I didn’t pay a thing for it. Despite this generous display of largess my typical honest review follows. Further, it is generally difficult when reading a book with a political bent to separate the book and its execution from the content. If the book shares ideas that you agree with then you are automatically more prone to think highly of it. This is an unavoidable reality of humanity that I will attempt to escape the influence of. It’s also difficult to be objective because the return address on the envelope in which I received this book had the author’s name and address. So clearly this isn’t some huge mega-corporation sending me a book but instead some real person who put forth effort to write it.

Sadly, despite all the disclaimers and influences above I was exceptionally disappointed in this offering. It is what it says it is and no more: a collection of Romney quotes. The quotes focus almost exclusively on the last six years which makes them fundamentally all from the context of a campaign whose obvious goal is to appeal to the largest number of potential voters. There’s little of the real man here but rather standard political demagoguery. I didn’t really learn anything about Romney in this book. I learned that the standard Republican platform was phrased in Romney’s words. That’s not especially helpful.

Structurally the book is haphazard. The author has gone to great pains to break the quotes up into very granular categories but there is much overlap and some categories are trivially short. It’s almost as if the author broke down his content into more categories just to make the book seem more substantial since a new category with only one entry allows him to leave three quarters of a page blank.

Most disappointing was the fact that the author didn’t really write anything. There is a brief introduction which I assume to be a product of the author but the bulk of the book is just very loosely categorized quotations, taken from public records and given verbatim without any commentary or editorial oversight whatsoever. I could have written a very simple computer program to do the same job just by looking at key words and putting things into buckets to be printed out by the publisher. That’s not writing; it’s just sorting.

So to sum up, this book paints a poor and limited picture of Mitt Romney as a person. As a work of reference it is poorly and insufficiently organized but perhaps sufficient to serve the needs of some author of the future who will write a real book about the man who may or may not become our next president.

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