My Year in Books – 2021

Another year has come to an end, which means it is time again for my annual review of books I read. As per usual, there is a variety of genres and subject matter included.

Laura Story’s I Give Up recounts Story’s gradual release of her desire to be in charge of her life and her realization that fulfillment comes through surrender to God’s working. Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission emphasizes the importance of discipleship. In Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, Christopher Yuan develops what he calls “holy sexuality,” which includes chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Yuan is probably not as well known as Rosaria Butterfield, but their personal testimonies have some similarities and he, like Butterfield, has written and spoken at length about faith and sexuality. While Butterfield is now married, Yuan remains single. Randy Alcorn calls Holy Sexuality and the Gospel “profoundly relevant in an age of toxic confusion.” I agree with that. I think Butterfield, though, goes too far when she says it is “the most important humanly composed book about biblical sexuality and godly living for our times.”

John Piper’s A Peculiar Glory is an important book about the reliability of Scripture. In The Dawn’s Early Light, an older book byJoe Stowell that I picked up somewhere, Stowell addresses the “deepening darkness” of our times and how to counter that darkness biblically. Impossible People by Os Guinness describes the challenges faced by Christians today and the task they have of continuing to display courage in the face of opposition. Jesus Unleashed by John MacArthur is an overview of the way that Jesus dealt with confrontation during His earthly ministry, providing a clear look at His willingness to stand firm in the face of opposition. (This book is an abridgement of MacArthur’s The Jesus You Can’t Ignore).  

Paul David Tripp’s Sex and Money examines the obsession of current culture with those two things and their inability to bring genuine satisfaction or fulfillment. The Entitlement Cure, by John Townsend, would be a good read for parents but also for anyone who is bothered by the sense of entitlement that seems to pervade modern culture. His recommended antidote is what he calls “the hard way.” Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, by LeRoy Eims, was recommended by another pastor as an excellent book for developing men as leaders in the church. The book was fine, but given that it was originally published in 1975 there are more recent books that are just as good or better and would be more relatable for contemporary readers.

Uncoiling My Corkscrew is a book by a friend and former coworker, Marvin Williams, that recounts lessons he has learned in his life. Henri Nouwen’s Turn My Mourning Into Dancing is a short book with helpful biblical insight for finding joy even in the midst of difficulty. H.A. Ironside’s Full Assurance is probably about ninety years old now. It is a short, easy read, and is certainly of its time in terms of some of the language and illustrations, but it capably explains how and why Christians can have assurance of their salvation.

At some point last year I found myself wondering when African Americans first appeared in Coca-Cola ads. (The answer is Mary Alexander, in 1955). That led me to read Brenna Wynn Greer’s Represented, a fascinating look at the individuals who were influential in bringing African Americans into popular advertising and media and also, in the process, “reimagin[ing] African America citizenship.”

I read Melba Patillo Beals’ I Will Not Fear primarily because I had so appreciated A Mighty Long Way by Carlotta Walls LaNier when I read it five years ago. Both women were among the Little Rock Nine. Beals’ book does recount that experience but goes well beyond it in describing the experiences she has had in her life. There were a few times that I wondered how one person could have so many of the experiences she recounted, given how unusual they seem, and there is never an explanation given for why she moved so many times, but it was a worthwhile read for the most part. I suspect her earlier book, Warriors Don’t Cry, is probably more along the lines of what I expected.

Stephanie Grisham’s I’ll Take Your Questions Now provides a very interesting look at the Trump presidency. Grisham, who worked for First Lady Melania Trump and/or in the West Wing, including a stint as Press Secretary, from the beginning of the Trump presidency until she resigned on January 6 after Melania Trump declined to tweet out a condemnation of the invasion of the Capitol, provides a very different look at Trump and the Trump White House than Sarah Huckabee Sanders did in her memoir. It will be interesting to read Kayleigh McEnany’s recently-released book to see where it falls in comparison to those two, but I suspect that Sanders, who is running for office herself and has accepted the endorsement of Trump, opted not to include some of the less-flattering information that Grisham did not shy away from including.

There were a number of history books. Rosemary Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash offers a look at the role of women during the Revolutionary Era, particularly in the area of politics, and suggests that the women’s rights movement really began during that time period. David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes is an examination of political festivals in early American history and the rise of nationalism. It is an examination of an aspect of American history I had never considered before and has some notable insights.

Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? has some merit, but I found it did not address the subject as clearly and carefully as it should have. Hall admits that it is the first book he wrote for the general public (not, in other words, for an academic audience) and it seems he may have erred to strongly on the side of not getting too deep.

Harold Holzer’s Lincoln at Cooper Union provides a fascinating look at the events surrounding Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in early 1860, as well as the speech itself, a speech that Holzer suggests made Lincoln president. Though it is not well known today, particularly compared to the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address, it was a very important speech for Lincoln. While the Gettysburg Address was supposedly written in haste, the address at Cooper Union was a thoroughly researched and thought-out rebuttal of the expansion of slavery.

Regarding slavery, Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause is an exhaustive look at abolition. It looks beyond the individuals and events usually included in studies of American abolitionism and thus includes valuable new perspectives. Unfortunately, I do not think that Sinha accurately represents the role played by those who believed that slavery was inconsistent with biblical principles. In a book that is just as voluminous, though, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, in The Mind of the Master Class, examine the role that faith played among Southern slaveholders, including their belief that slavery was consistent with the Bible. The book also manages to touch on the impact that Christianity had on slaves themselves. The book does help to understand the worldview of the enslavers even if one does not come away agreeing with them.

Sarah Rose’s D-Day Girls presents the many ways in which women were involved in Nazi-occupied France in helping to defeat the Nazis. Much like books by Erik Larson, among others, this is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. I recommend this book for anyone with even remote interest in WWII history. Similarly, Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret War is also about spying and the Nazi resistance in France, but her book is specifically focused on the story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who held a more influential role among the French resistance than any other woman. Olson recounts the incredible personal sacrifices Fourcade made, including being away from her two children and being captured twice by the Nazis. I recommend this one, as well.

Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave tells the story of the men who were “the first wave” of the D-Day invasion. The book was published in 2019 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I have not read a lot about D-Day, but I am confident that this book belongs alongside any other histories of that day.

Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya is also about a female spy—a Soviet intelligence officer code named Sonya who served in China, Japan and England. It is a pretty incredible story, all the more so since it is true, but I did not like it as well as I liked Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which I read in 2019.

Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War is a delightful look at a very unique aspect of WWII. Specifically, it recounts the efforts involved by the War Department and the American publishing industry to produce millions of small paperback books that soldiers could carry with them throughout the war. The resulting Armed Services Editions, of which 120 million were eventually produced, were beloved by troops who would create waiting lists for popular titles and trade finished books amongst themselves. I have looked, and you can find some of these Armed Service Edition books on Ebay. I haven’t purchased one yet, but I suspect it is only a matter of time.

That makes for a good transition to the fiction I read in 2021, because one of the books I chose was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read it because it was one of the most popular books printed in Armed Services Edition format and I had never read it. It is a pleasant read, and I can understand why Manning reported that it helped soldiers remember “regular life” back home. That is, after all, what the book is about; it has no real plot or climax to speak of—it simply tells the story of the life of Francie Nolan.

I always try to read at least one classic book and this year that was Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In looking at a list of the most banned books during Banned Book Week I realized I had read three of the top five. Now I have read four; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye will have to wait until another year. I have not seen the film, but I can imagine Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. I found it an enjoyable read and Chief makes a terrific narrator. I am somewhat surprised it is in the top five banned books; I can think of others that would seem more fitting for that honor, though I can also imagine why it is in that group. It is said that the book was influential in the closing of asylums, which, if true, could place the book alongside The Jungle in terms of influence, but I do not know enough about whether that is true to make that claim definitively.

Christine Mangan’s Tangerine is set in Morocco in the 1950s, is full of vivid detail and is a well written debut novel. It is not surprising that many reviewers called it “Hitchcockian” or that it has been optioned by George Clooney to become a film starring Scarlett Johansson. The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters, is set in 1920s London. The book’s main character and her mother are forced to rent out part of their home in order to afford to keep it following the deaths of the men in the family. The resulting story is well-written and provides evidence of why Waters is considered an excellent writer of historical fiction, but the book hinges on a lesbian affair that develops between the main character and the wife of the couple that move in as lodgers. The book does do an excellent job of portraying the costs of choices, especially choices that are intended to be secrets.

If you read these reviews annually then you know there are a few fiction writers whose work I read regularly. This year that included Jeffrey Archer’s Turn A Blind Eye and Over My Dead Body, books three and four respectively in the William Warwick series; John Grisham’s The Judge’s List, which brings back Lacy Stoltz of the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct who first appeared in The Whistler and is, in my opinion, the closest to Grisham’s early novels that he has been in a while; James Patterson’s Fear No Evil, the latest Alex Cross novel; and Daniel Silva’s The Cellist, a significant improvement over last year’s Gabriel Allon novel The Order.

At the end of Over My Dead Body there is a conversation with Jeffrey Archer in which he states that Stefan Zweig is his favorite author. I had never heard of Zweig, but I decided to read his novel Beware of Pity. Zweig was purportedly one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920s and ‘30s, yet somehow his popularity has faded. Beware of Pity is the only novel that he published during his lifetime, though The Post Office Girl was published posthumously. In Beware of Pity Zweig tells the story of an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer in 1914 (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurs at the end of the book, though it is not significant to the story). As the title implies, the book is a cautionary tale about how pity can change someone’s life.

The Burglar is the first book I have read by Thomas Perry. I enjoyed it, and Perry does a nifty job of making a criminal—the burglar—a character the reader finds himself rooting for, and he never really addresses any negative to the fact that the main character makes her living breaking the law. Somewhat similarly, Colson Whitehead, in Harlem Shuffle, has a protagonist who breaks the law—willingly in terms of selling some stolen items and serving as a fence for others, and reluctantly in terms of some mischief his cousin gets him into. Whitehead, at least, depicts the negatives associated with criminal activity, and his main character also pursues a mostly honest living as a furniture salesman. Whitehead interweaves storylines about race and social status even among those of the same race in this story set in the 1960s. Whitehead is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, but this is the first of his books I have read.

Sharyl Attkisson’s Slanted is her account of the way in which the mainstream media manipulates and cherry-picks news stories to cover and angles to take. Given that Attkisson is a five-time Emmy Award winner, her insight has to be taken seriously.

During our family vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina I picked up two books primarily of interest to those who live there or who have, like me, spent a lifetime vacationing there. Amy Pollard Gaw’s Lost Restaurants of the Outer Banks and Their Recipes is exactly what the title says. It is also a fascinating look at restaurants that were notable and influential in the area for years, including a bit of history about the local culture. John Railey’s The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks recounts the true story of the 1967 murder of Brenda Joyce Holland, who had gone to the area to work at the long-running outdoor drama “The Lost Colony.” The murder was never solved, and Railey did some investigating of his own, leading to his conclusion about the perpetrator. Since the man Railey thinks was responsible is now dead himself, it seems unlikely anything will come of it, but his theory certainly seems plausible.

Quite possibly in response to my growing frustration with the modern game of baseball (and particularly the commissioner) I found myself reading a number of autobiographies and biographies of baseball players of yesteryear. Say Hey, by Willie Mays with Lou Sahadi, tells the story of Mays’ life and career. Perhaps no greater evidence could be given of the way the game used to be to the way it is now than the fact that Mays used to play stickball in the streets of New York when he first started playing for the Giants, even forgetting about a home game once because he was so into the stickball game. Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is an excellent book and should be read by anyone who wants to know what Cobb was really like. He does not have a great reputation, and while he surely did have a temper, much of what is purportedly “known” about him is inaccurate. Thom Henninger’s Tony Oliva is a wonderful biography of a man who is finally, as of December 2021, getting his due, having been elected to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Era Committee. Oliva was an incredible player—a dominant player for a few years before injuries limited his effectiveness. It was fun to learn, as well, that Oliva, a Cuban, married a woman from a town just about an hour from where I currently live. They have been married 53 years now. Doug Wilson’s Pudge, a biography of Carlton Fisk, is all the more impressive for the fact that Fisk himself never spoke to Wilson during the book’s writing. For a player with the work ethic, grit and competitiveness that Fisk had, it is amazingly sad how poorly he was, in the end, treated by both Boston and Chicago.

There were two other baseball books, Bill Gutman’s It’s Outta Here!, an interesting history of the home run, and Kevin Cowherd’s When the Crowd Didn’t Roar. Cowherd’s book is not purely (or only) a baseball book but it was an interesting look at what, prior to COVID, no one could have imagined–a game played with no fans. Following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, and the unrest in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles played a home game against the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium. The gates were locked and no fans were allowed in the park.

Terry Teachout’s Pops is marvelous biography of Louis Armstrong. The Good Life is Tony Bennett’s 1998 biography and he has since written two more books, but I finally got around to reading this one. Perhaps most interesting is Bennett’s recounting of his battle with his record company over his desire to record the kind of music he liked—classic American songbook—and not to make what seemed popular at the moment. Given that Bennett, who now struggles with Alzheimer’s, just released his final album at the age of 95—recorded with Lady Gaga, whom Bennett influenced significantly—it would seem that he had the stronger argument.

I will wrap this review up with three books that deal with contemporary culture. We Too, by Mary DeMuth, is an effort to address the role that the church needs to play in addressing #MeToo—both in terms of listening to and affirming victims and proactively preventing future victimization. While the book makes some good and valid points, I didn’t really like it overall. I suspect that some other individuals have addressed this issue in ways that I would consider more effective. Because I never give any individual book lengthy space in these annual reviews, I will put additional thoughts on this one in a postscript.

Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is considered must-reading among many Christian thinkers. The book is a thorough overview of the philosophies and worldviews that shaped the thinking and actions that led us to where we are today, looking specifically, but not exclusively, at the sexual revolution. This is one of those books that I filled with highlighting and marginalia as I interacted with the text. It is well worth reading, but I think it does miss in a few areas. A couple of times Trueman seems to overreach, failing to adequately support the conclusion he reaches. I think he ascribes far too much influence to the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley in particular. Oddly, around the middle of the book it almost seems that Trueman learned two new words and wanted to show them off, as he includes “adumbrate” and “lacuna” far more times than seemed appropriate—especially since very few people use either of those words ever. At the end of the book, as Trueman was making his conclusion, he suggested that he could have made the same arguments using art or architecture instead of sexuality and I think that was a significant error on his part. While there are certainly fads and influences that can be seen in those two fields, neither have inherent binary characteristics and neither is inherently moral. As a result, Trueman undermines the importance of the very argument he spent 400 pages making about sexuality—though I am sure he had no intention of doing so.

In part of his book, Trueman addresses critical theory. It is not a major element of his book, though, and it does not as a result, get a lot of space. For a better understanding of both what critical theory is and why it is so dangerous, read Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. This book is all the more powerful because Pluckrose and Lindsay are not conservatives. They fall into the categories that most would expect to embrace critical theory, yet the effectively show why critical theory should be opposed. Rarely will you find a book recommended by such disparate thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It is about fifty pages shorter than Trueman’s book and, while they do not have the same purpose, I would probably have to recommend this one over Trueman if someone pressed me to select one over the other. Both, however, are timely and relevant.

I don’t think I said so at the top so, in case you were not counting, that was fifty-three books for 2021. Thanks for reading my thoughts. Hopefully you found a title or two you now want to read for yourself.

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Postscript: further thoughts on We Too

Mary DeMuth’s We Too is a book that claims to be a “how to” manual for the Church to “respond redemptively to the sexual abuse crisis.” While it has elements of that, I suspect there are other, more helpful books on this subject. I actually found myself liking the book less and less as I read it. DeMuth suffered horrific sexual abuse as a child, so she knows whereof she speaks. At the risk of sounding like I am dismissing that, which I am surely not, she reminds the reader far more often than seems necessary of that fact. At times she comes across as condescending. At other times one wonders why she did not just publish a giant post-it note saying to refer to Boz Tchividjian to know how to effectively deal with abuse. The book is only about 200 pages, so she could probably have taken the time to deal with some matters more carefully. On the subject of forgiveness, for example, she spends about three pages, and as a result does not deal with it in nearly the detail and accuracy it requires. That error is exacerbated by the fact that she spends most of those three pages using Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers as her example. DeMuth also errs in oversimplifying other recommendations that could be valuable. For example, when suggesting that parents and churches place children into potentially dangerous situations by teaching them to respect adults, she says, “We strip children of their autonomy when we insist that they be kind to elders.” Well, children are not supposed to be autonomous. They are children. Effective parenting strips children of their autonomy on a regular basis. There are many ways in which children can be taught what is and is not appropriate behavior, and what to do if something inappropriate happens, while still teaching them to “be kind to elders.”

DeMuth also makes the valid point that those who are informed of abuse sometimes make it about them and thus diminish the victim, but it is important to recognize that someone who learns of abuse will understandably feel angry and guilty if the victim is someone they know and care about—particularly if they think they could have done something about it had they known sooner. It is foolish to suggest that such individuals can simply absorb the victim’s story and not have an emotional response to it. DeMuth references Rachael Denhollander several times throughout the book, including in the acknowledgements, but Denhollander is not the author of any of the more than twenty endorsement blurbs at the beginning of the book. This is pure speculation on my part, but it does make me wonder if that is because Denhollander recognized some of the same issues I am touching on here. The bottom line is that what DeMuth is addressing in the book needs to be addressed, but there have to be more effective books out there than this one.

The Wrong Message

Robert Jeffress leaves the platform at First Baptist in Dallas after introducing Donald Trump.

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, welcomed Donald Trump to their service this past Sunday morning. The church’s website proclaimed: “The focus of the music and message this Sunday will be on the most important event in human history—the birth of Jesus Christ. President Trump is known for his love for Christmas and what it represents. We are thrilled to have him join us this Sunday morning.” Apparently Trump was in Dallas for a rally that afternoon with Bill O’Reilly, but Jeffress seized the opportunity to have him at First Baptist.

Readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of Donald Trump. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say now that I am not a fan of Robert Jeffress, either. To give you an idea why, consider the biography of Jeffress that appears on the First Baptist web site. It begins, “Dr. Robert Jeffress is Senior Pastor of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas and a Fox News Contributor. He is also an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.” It then proceeds to tout his “more than 4,000 guest appearances on various radio and television programs” before listing some of the shows he has appeared on. After mentioning his radio program, TV program and books, it says, “Dr. Jeffress led the congregation in the completion of a $135 million re-creation of its downtown campus. The project is the largest in modern church history and serves as a “spiritual oasis” covering six blocks of downtown Dallas.” Presumably that means First Baptist’s modern church history because if it means modern church history in the broader, worldwide sense then it is an outright lie, but either way…brag much? Jeffress seems to fully embrace the notion of “celebrity pastor.”

Having said that, Jeffress does seem to teach biblical truth. I may not like his personality, his arrogance or his priorities, but I am unaware of any heresy he preaches.

Before preaching his sermon, Jeffress said that Trump’s remarks would be the “climax and conclusion of the service.” While Trump spoke of the biblical account of Christmas, in words he admitted were prepared for him by the church, he added references to Afghanistan, police reform, America first and his never-ending crusade to “make America great again.” He even managed to work in his irritation with the press that Melania Trump received for her selection of White House Christmas decorations while Trump was president. Trump then received a standing ovation that included some chanting “U.S.A.!”

The bulletin at Fist Baptist on December 19

Absurdly, the church’s executive pastor then took the stage and said, “While we were very honored to have the 45th president of the United States with us today, I must remind you that it is our longstanding policy as a church that we do not endorse or oppose any political candidate for public office or otherwise intervene or engage in any political campaign.”

Uh huh…

Interestingly enough, the church’s website even contains a small-print disclaimer that appears on every page and reads, “First Baptist Church of Dallas does not endorse or oppose any candidate for political office. Instead, any information, videos, appearances, posts, etc. related to any political topic are provided for informational purposes only, and represent the personal views or opinions of the individual expressing them, but do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of First Baptist Church of Dallas.”

Trump made it clear that he was going well astray of the remarks that had been prepared for him, but since Jeffress has been an unabashed supporter of Trump all along there is no way he could truly have been surprised. After all, Donald Trump has never stuck to a script in his life and he is not going to pass up any opportunity to make something about him. I am not embellishing here, either; while introducing Trump, Jeffress called him one of his closest friends. He even said that Trump was “the most consequential president since Abraham Lincoln.” After the service Jeffress had the temerity to say that he did not think that Trump had said anything political and that the “full house” at First Baptist was evidence of Trump’s popularity.

Trump’s visit to First Baptist is certainly not the first time a political figure has attended a church service. That happens often and on both sides of the aisle. It is not the first time a political figure has been acknowledged at or given the opportunity to speak at a church service. Again, happens on both sides of the aisle. But a politician should never be the center of attention at a church service. Indeed, no human should ever be the center of attention.

It is incredibly sad that Robert Jeffress would preach a message that was, by all accounts, biblically accurate and invited unbelievers to salvation, yet call Trump’s remarks the climax. That absolutely sends the wrong message. Intended or not, Jeffress essentially declared that the account of Christ’s birth is nice, but Donald Trump is better. There is no greater climax than the birth of Jesus Christ in human form, coming to earth as a baby, knowing He would grow up to die on the cross for the sins of humanity. How tragic that minutes after that truth was proclaimed—and thankfully it was proclaimed—the congregation was chanting about human politics. A church service should never become a political rally. Chants of “U.S.A.!” in a worship service should sadden any true believer.

A Fitting Honor

TIME‘s Athlete of the Year, Simone Biles

This morning, TIME announced that Simone Biles has been selected as its Athlete of the Year. It did not take long at all for the backlash against the choice to begin, particularly amongst the so-called conservative online press. The Western Journal headed its social media post with “’How can TIME choose her over much more deserving athletes?” and linked to a piece by Jack Davis published just an hour after TIME’s announcement was made. And this is how he began his comments:

The old adage was that “winners never quit and quitters never win.”

But in 2021, quitters can be named Athlete of the Year.

This is a ridiculous and, frankly, stupid statement to make. It completely disregards Biles’ own statements made shortly after she withdrew from the team competition in Tokyo that she was experiencing “the twisties,” If you’re anything like me, you had no idea what that was exactly when you first heard it. If you follow the Olympics then you probably know now, but just in case, here is a definition provided in a July 28 Washington Post article by Emily Giambalvo—”the twisties”

describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.

The same article quotes Biles saying, “I had no idea where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself.”

Athletes are not machines that can perform on demand. I cannot imagine that anyone wanted her to dominate the Tokyo Olympics more than Simone Biles wanted it herself. The expectations were through the proverbial roof. I detest the term GOAT, but if there is one in the world of gymnastics, it is Simone Biles. As the commentators never tired of pointing out, Biles does skills that other gymnasts can only dream about doing; she has four skills named after her. That means that she performed those skills, previously unperformed by anyone else, at a major international competition. Prior to the Tokyo Olympics there was speculation that Biles might increase that number to five.

Biles has won 25 World medals in Olympics—19 of which were gold—and both of those numbers are the records for gymnastics. Biles was the first woman to win five World floor exercise titles, to win three World balance beam titles and to win five World all-around titles. Not the first to accomplish that combination, mind you, but the first to reach all three of those levels. She is a five-time U.S. floor exercise champion, five-time U.S. balance beam champion, six-time U.S. vault champion and seven-time U.S. all-around champion. She has seven Olympic medals, tying her with Shannon Miller for the most by an Olympic gymnast. This is not the resume of a quitter.

Why, then, such a negative reaction to TIME’s choice?

Well, back to Davis’s pitiful opinion piece, Biles withdrew from the team competition of the Olympics because “she was not sufficiently mentally focused on what she was doing and could have injured herself had she competed in her condition.” That’s a gross and, I dare say intentional, misrepresentation of the facts. While technically a true description of the twisties, the implication is clearly that Biles was slacking, not giving the competition the attention it demanded and her performance was suffering as a result.

Davis continued with, “Time [sic] explained that those old-fashioned views about athletes achieving excellence in their sports had nothing to do with its decision.” Again, the implication is that Biles has not achieved excellence. Might I direct you back two paragraphs for evidence of the absurdity of that suggestion. Was Biles the best athlete of 2021? Probably not. She certainly did not achieve the level of success expected of her in Tokyo. But it’s not like she was a slouch. She qualified for the Olympics, after all, and at the age of 24. Sixteen is considered to be the peak age for a gymnast. The Tokyo Olympics was the first time since 1968 that there were more non-teens than teens competing in gymnastics, and even in Tokyo the median age was 21 and the average age was 21 years 11 months. Even though every member of Team USA’s artistic gymnastics team in Tokyo was 18 or older for the first time since 1952, Biles was the oldest on the all-around team by three years. McKayla Skinner was on the USA squad as a specialist, and she is older than Biles by just over three months. The other specialist was Jade Carey, who was 21, and who ended up subbing for Biles in the all-around. But the other three original members of the team were 20 (Jordan Chiles) and 18 (Suni Lee and Grace McCallum). Biles returned to the Olympics for the individual balance beam competition and she took Bronze. The winners of Gold and Silver were Guan Chenchen (age 17) and Tang Xijing (age 18) respectively. So you’ll pardon me for calling the assertion that Biles did not achieve excellence nothing but hogwash.

Later, Davis wrote, “The article extolling her selection labeled those who believe dropping out of Olympic events partway through them is not the hallmark of a champion as ‘naysayers.’” Davis pointed this out derisively, but the statement is correct. Athletes cannot be demanded, or even expected, to be super-human. Many athletes—perhaps Simone Biles more than any—do things that the rest of us cannot even comprehend, much less imagine doing. But they are still mortal. They are still human. They still have bad days and struggles and doubts. And that does not even include the fact that doing Olympic-level gymnastics with the twisties is just plain dangerous.

Davis enjoyed pointing out that “many disputed Time’s selection.” Of course, none of the “many” that Davis quoted were gymnasts. As best I can tell, none of them is even an athlete. I am sure I am not the only one who thinks that Biles’ withdrawal from Olympic events—not her quitting—was not only justified but groundbreaking. Her teammate Suni Lee said, “What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.” 1988 Olympian Missy Marlowe said the twisties is “like a nonserious stroke.” 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu, who was only 14 at the Atlanta Olympics, tweeted that Biles’ decision “demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—’a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.” Dominique Dawes, who competed in three Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000) said that she quit during the 2000 prelims but was not allowed to do so. “[I]t was too much on me emotionally,” Dawes said. “However, I was not able to make that decision. It was very much a controlled atmosphere.” Nastia Liukin, who won the All-Around gold medal in 2008 and was a commentator at the Tokyo Olympics, said, “Thank you for creating a safer space for current and future athletes to unequivocally be themselves.” And 2012 Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber said “I never remember feeling like I ever got to make those decisions, even if I had wanted to,” continuing, “the gymnasts don’t have the voice, it’s up to the coaches. And I sometimes describe it as we’re just kind of like robots that do what we’re told.” Wieber, who is now the head gymnastics coach at the University of Arkansas, called Biles “a pioneer,” and Moceanu, who owns and coaches a gymnastics camp, said, “What she did was actually very brave and is a positive sign for the future of the sport.”

All of this would be sufficient to justify the selection of Biles as TIME’s Athlete of the Year for someone who feels such justification is necessary, but there is more. Biles was also one of four gymnasts who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September regarding the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Larry Nassar. While the other three gymnasts—Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols—were all outstanding gymnasts, with Raisman and Maroney competing in the Olympics, only Biles is still actively competing. She had to testify just a month and a half after the Tokyo Olympics—an Olympics at which she was representing not just the United States, but also USA Gymnastics. Of that, Wieber commented, “I can take some guesses and imagine that it’s probably difficult to represent an organization like USA Gymnastics for her, an organization that has failed her so many times and failed a lot of us. I’m just making assumptions here, but I can imagine that it, it adds to the weight of what she carries with her every day of having to represent that organization.” No doubt Wieber is right, given what Biles said in her testimony:

I believe without a doubt that the circumstances that led to my abuse and allowed it to continue, are directly the result of the fact that the organizations created by Congress to oversee and protect me as an athlete – USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) – failed to do their jobs.

Later, Biles said, “We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at the FBI, USAG or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers.” As she also pointed out in her statement, Biles was the only athlete at the Tokyo Olympics who was abused by Larry Nassar.

Put the Senate committee testimony and the impact of the Nassar abuse and investigation together with everything else described here and Biles should be an obvious choice for Athlete of the Year, not a choice that is second guessed and mocked.

And yet, mockery and scorn is exactly what Biles is receiving. Not only did Davis write his absurd opinion piece, but The Western Journal published it. The Independent Journal Review then published it, too. So opposed are some to the Biles choice that one tweet that Davis chose to include suggested four other candidates for the recognition—only one of which is an American! It is true that TIME’s Person of the Year is not always an American, but it is, after all, an American magazine, so I think a Serbian tennis player, Australian swimmer and Russian tennis player should take a back seat in this discussion.

Far worse that Davis’s article, however, are the comments on the social media pages for The Western Journal and the Independent Journal Review. One charming individual, for example, said, “she’s a triple winner in the Victimhood Olympics – Female, Black and suffers from anxiety.” Several people commented that it was a “woke” decision. More than one called her a quitter, including one guy who said, “She quit on her teammates and America,” echoed by a lady who commented, “She let our country down and deserves no recognition!!” Not to be outdone, another lady said, “She is a failure and a crybaby who deserves nothing.” Someone named Joseph Casale probably topped them all, though, calling Biles the “coward of the year.”

One of the wonderful freedoms we enjoy in the United States is the freedom of speech, and that means that people have the freedom to say and write stupid things. That means internationally known companies and publications, like TIME, and a guy in front of a keyboard or pecking away at his phone like Jospeh Casale—or me. But I could not sit idly by and watch Biles’ recognition be trashed as some politically correct participation trophy. She deserves the recognition and I commend TIME for the choice. Should she ever (miraculously) see this post, I want Simone Biles to know that I do not think she let down her teammates or America…and I admire her courage.

Go Away, Brandon!

A “Let’s Go Brandon” flag from Liberty Maniacs

Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, you have heard and/or seen the phrase “Let’s Go Brandon!” The use of the phrase began with a NASCAR race on October 2 in Talladega. Driver Brandon Brown was being interviewed by a reporter who suggested that the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go, Brandon!” That was not at all what the crowd was saying, though; turns out the actual words were far less encouraging. In fact, they weren’t even polite. The crowd was actually saying, “F— Joe Biden!” I did not take long for “Let’s Go Brandon!” to catch on as a way of expressing dislike for President Biden.

The only good thing about it is that it does not contain the actual profanity the crowd was chanting, which, sadly, I have seen displayed numerous times in public, often on flags using the same design as pro-Trump banners but with the other words. It was not that long ago that publicly displaying the “f-word” would have been considered extreme and unacceptable. Now people are literally flying it from their front porches.

In an AP article, Colleen Long called “Let’s Go Brandon” the “G-rated substitute for its more vulgar three-word cousin.” The problem is that despite it G-rating, everyone now knows exactly what the phrase means. And precisely because it is, in and of itself, G-rated, people who would never utter what the NASCAR crowd was chanting or fly profanity from their porch are perfectly comfortable displaying and/or being seen with the child-friendly alternative. You can find it on flags, stickers, t-shirts…even “ugly sweaters.”

In the same AP article quoted above, Long pointed out that Republican Rep. Bill Posey of Florida ended a speech on the House floor with the phrase, South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan wore a “Let’s Go Brandon” face mask at the Capitol, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas posed with a “Let’s Go Brandon” sign at a World Series game and the press secretary for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky retweeted a picture of a sign in Virginia bearing the phrase. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert famously wore a dress with the phrase on the back to meet with former president Donald Trump. (The dress was also a dig at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress worn to the Met Gala). When Boebert tweeted a picture of herself in the dress standing next to Donald Trump giving a thumbs up, she headlined it with “It’s not a phrase, it’s a movement! #LGB”

In late October a pilot for Southwest Airlines concluded his address to passengers with the phrase. Just a few days ago I saw someone wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase at a Christian school. Jim Innocenzi, a founding partner at Sandler-Innocenzi and a prominent figure in political advertising for the GOP called the phrase “hilarious” and said, “Unless you are living in a cave, you know what it means. But it’s done with a little bit of a class. And if you object and are taking it too seriously, go away.”

Well, I have news for Mr. Innocenzi: G-rated or not, that’s not okay. There is no way to say “f—” with class. Not even a little bit. To normalize such a profane insult toward any elected official, much less the President of the United States, is not appropriate or respectful. While it is true that we enjoy freedom of speech in the United States, and the ability to express our displeasure with and dislike of our elected officials should not be taken for granted or infringed, there is still something to be said for basic decency.

Just yesterday Amanda Prestigiacomo published an article on The Daily Wire in which Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame defended the use of the term. Rowe, according to Prestigiacomo, said that the phrase is “a refutation of not only the president, but of the media and the Left’s effort to change the meaning of language.” I am afraid Mr. Rowe is being too clever by half. While he is correct that much of the American public is growing tired of the mainstream media telling them “that what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing is not what they’re seeing and hearing,” he is bestowing upon “Let’s Go Brandon” far more intention and meaning that it really has. There is zero evidence that Kelli Stavast, the NBC Sports reporter who claimed in the interview with Brandon Brown that the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go Brandon!” did so with any intentionality. Bruce Haring, on Deadline, said that Stavast “is either hard of hearing, or a very, very quick thinker.” There were immediate claims that Stavast was gaslighting the public and that the media would do anything to protect Joe Biden. I suspect, however, that Stavast is not hard of hearing and that her misinterpretation of the chant was not quick thinking on her part. She was trying to conduct an interview. No doubt she had an earpiece in, was trying to hear Brown, and was trying to do all of this with a noisy crowd screaming to be heard on the live camera. Stavast certainly could not repeat what the crowd was actually chanting, and it is entirely plausible that she thought the crowd was showing support for Brown’s first victory. It strains credulity to think that Stavast was intentionally, as Rowe suggests, trying to tell the television audience that they were not hearing what they eventually realized they were hearing.

Later in the Daily Wire piece, Rowe is quoted as saying, “I don’t think people who yell it are necessarily enemies of the president. I think they’re enemies of being told that what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing isn’t real, that it’s somehow a figment of their imagination. People are sick of that.”

I am sure they are. But let’s not try to excuse a euphemistic means of saying “F— Joe Biden” by instilling in the phrase something that it is not. To do so is to do exactly what Rowe claims people are sick of—to claim that what people are saying is not what they are really saying. Stavast was in an of-the-moment situation with conditions that were not ideal. Rowe is speaking a couple of months after the fact, having had plenty of time to think through what he is saying. If anyone is gaslighting here, it is Rowe. He makes valid points that are worthy of attention. Unfortunately, he detracts from a valid and important discussion that needs to be had by claiming that those legitimate concerns are encapsulated in “Let’s Go Brandon.”

So, I have a better idea… Go away, Brandon. Please.

Equitable Grading

Paloma Esquivel’s recent article in the Los Angeles Times about grading practices is mindbogglingly contradictory. The headline says that schools are “ditching the old way of grading” in light of skyrocketing numbers of Ds and Fs brought on largely due to COVID-related changes in education. The article begins by referring to a teacher who became increasingly frustrated a few years ago with the fact that grading “had become a points game.” His solution? He “has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.”

This sounds lovely, but it is a false dichotomy. I will not address homework here, because that is a separate issue and one I have discussed previously. To imply, though, that basing grades on what students are learning is a new concept is laughable. Effective grading has always been based on what students are learning. Furthermore, to suggest that using points has nothing to do with what students are learning is equally laughable. If, after all, a teacher gives students a quiz with ten questions designed to gauge the student’s mastery of content, and the student misses three of the ten questions, it is neither inequitable nor unrelated to learning to give that student a grade of 7/10 or 70/100 or 35/50 or whatever scale is used in grading the quiz. In other words, it is quite possible to base grades on what students are learning and still utilize points.

That move away from points is, Esquivel writes, part of a trend of “moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups.” This is both a false dichotomy and an insult to any student considered to be disadvantaged by their racial, ethnic or economic group because the unmistakable implication is that such students are not capable of learning well enough to achieve a good grade.

Esquivel continues, “Los Angeles and San Diego Unified — the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined — have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines.” Again, this is making an unfair implication that utilizing points automatically and necessarily does not result in a grade based on actual learning.

There is another dangerous element to this too, though. Eliminating behavior and missed deadlines from grading serves only to create a false concept among students that those things do not matter. In reality, though, both matter. Or at least they are supposed to matter. That behavior matters regardless of performance is something that our culture is increasingly coming to terms with; thing, for example, of how many professional athletes are now disciplined or even released because of their off-field behavior, regardless of how well they perform during game time. Movie stars and television personalities, politicians, business executives… All are being increasingly held accountable for behavior even when it is not directly related to the performance of their job. It is not, then, inappropriate, nor is it unfair, for bad behavior to impact a student’s grade. And to say that missed deadlines should not apply is truly silly. See how well and how long it lasts trying to tell your employer that deadlines shouldn’t apply to you…for whatever reason. The notion that allowing students to revise essays or retake tests means deadlines have to be eliminated is simply not true.

Esquivel quotes Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer, as saying, “It’s teaching students that failure is a part of learning. We fall. We get back up. We learn from the feedback that we get.” Again, this is true. Again, it is not new. And again, it does not negate a points-based grading system. But Yoshimoto-Towery claims that traditional grading systems have been used to “justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class.” This is patently false, and again such an implication serves only to insult students and their families by implying that some students just cannot succeed without “the system” being manipulated in their favor.

The COVID pandemic, Esquivel writes, gave teachers a new insight, as teachers suddenly “saw how some teenagers were caring for younger siblings while trying to do their own work and witnessed the impact of the digital divide as students with spotty internet access struggled to log on to class.” Do some teenagers have more responsibilities than others outside of school? Of course. Does that impact the amount of time those students have to do homework? Certainly. Does it mean that those students do not need to master content at the same level as other students? No. Internet access is a valid concern, but one that serves only to reinforce the importance of in-person learning, not one that means that grading scales and systems need to be chucked. Carol Alexander, director of A-G intervention and support for L.A. Unified, said that the pandemic heightened awareness of such differences, “but those different circumstances of learning have always been present.” Quite right. And despite them, students of all ethnicities and socioeconomic classes have always found a way to succeed if they—and their parents—prioritize their education.

The West Contra Costa Unified district, which is majority Latino, issued a memo last year encouraging its secondary teachers to give a five-day period to turn in work. Makes sense amidst COVID. The memo also said, “Assignments, exams, quizzes, or projects will be marked ‘Missing’ until completed” rather than be given a zero. Missing assignments would “not be given a zero, but rather a failure to turn in or F in the gradebook to maintain the relative mathematical validity of the gradebook.” This is nothing more than fancy footwork; an assignment that is missing is still missing, and therefore ungradable, regardless of what it is called or how it is entered in a gradebook. Presumably if that assignment were never turned in the student would never receive a grade for it—or for the class.

Next Esquivel cites Placer Union High School District, which directed its teachers “to base grades on ‘valid evidence of a student’s content knowledge and not…on evidence that is likely to be influenced by a teacher’s implicit bias nor reflect a student’s circumstances.’” If that’s a novel idea, that’s terrible. Of course student’s grades should be based on evidence of content knowledge! There is no place for teacher bias in grading. Notice, though, that the statement also says that grades should not “reflect a student’s circumstances.” Exactly! Grading systems should be fair and consistent across the board—regardless of any extraneous factors (including ethnicity, socioeconomic status or any other circumstances). Esquivel, and the memos and directives she cites, like to use the word “equity.” Equity means “fairness or justice in the way people are treated.” That means treating all students fairly and not treating them differently based on any factor other than mastery of content and completion of course assignments. The Placer board policy says, in part, “A teacher shall base students’ grades on impartial, consistent observation and evaluation of students’ learning and their proficiency in Essential Learning Outcomes.” Again…duh!

Shockingly, Esquivel writes that prior to the pandemic, “In Los Angeles, the district had begun to train teachers on practices including basing grades on whether students are meeting academic standards.” Whatever else student grades had been based on before I would love to know. If grades were truly being given on the basis of something other than meeting academic standards then there was a real problem. “In the recent guidance,” Esquivel wrote, “teachers were directed to base final academic grades on the ‘level of learning demonstrated in the quality of work, not the quantity of work completed.’” I do not understand the idea that a grade would be based on a quantity of work completed. Presumably all students would be assigned the same work. If some completed all of it, but did so poorly, that should be reflected in their grades. If some completed only a little of it, that too should be reflected in the grades. Even if 15% of assigned work was completed perfectly, that leaves 85% of the work undone. Unless work is being assigned purely as busywork, no one could demonstrate mastery of a course by completing only 15% of the work assigned.

Esquivel quoted Yoshimoto-Towery as saying, “Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to learn it tomorrow and retake a test. Equitable grading practices align with the understanding that as people we learn at different rates and in different ways and we need multiple opportunities to do so.” This is both true and false. Answering a question incorrectly today does not mean the one answering could not learn the correct answer and get it right tomorrow—or next week—or next year. That’s true. But if the standard or expectation is that you should know it today, and you do not, it is not unfair or inequitable to tell you that you got it wrong today.

Incomprehensively, Esquivel says that “shifting away from traditional grading to basing grades on whether students have mastered standards is not easy.” I would love to know what Esquivel, or any of the Los Angeles area educators she references, think traditional grading was based on. To her credit, Esquivel does quote Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute as pointing out that telling students that deadlines do not matter does not prepare students “for successful careers or citizenship.”

Thomas Guskey, author of On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting, told Esquivel that reforming the grading system is “not about watering down expectations; it’s about ensuring that grades are meaningful and fair.” With that I can agree. Grades need to be meaningful and fair. If they have not been then that needs to be fixed. Let’s just be careful that in the process of pursuing that meaning and fairness we do not achieve the opposite.

My Year in Books – 2020

It is difficult to say that much good came out of the worldwide disruption caused by COVID-19, but I am sure that I am not the only one who found that I had more time to read in 2020 than I had for quite a while. In fact, I read 61 books in 2020, the most since 2012, when I also had 61. So, here is my annual review of those books…

I will start with fiction. I cannot remember a year when my reading did not include one or more of James Patterson, John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer, and 2020 was no different. I read James Patterson’s Criss Cross and Deadly Cross, the latest additions to his Alex Cross series. These were what you expect from an Alex Cross book, but I have to say that the timeframe covered by this series is not very realistic. Deadly Cross is the twenty-eighth book in the series. If anyone in real life experienced what Alex Cross has in those twenty-eight books, in the time period covered by those books, well…let’s just say it’s not possible, let alone plausible. I also read Patteron’s co-authored Lost and Blindside (both with James Born) and Princess (with Rees Jones). Lost is a stand-alone book (at least so far); Blindside is the twelfth installment in the Detective Michael Bennett series and Princess is the latest in the Private series.

Camino Winds by John Grisham is his second book featuring Bruce Cable and Mercer Mann and the eclectic group of friends Cable has accumulated on the island. It is not what I would call a typical Grisham read but it is no doubt exactly what people have in mind when they think of the term “beach read” and it does include an ingenious murder. The backstory about a prescription drug and nursing homes is completely fictional but raises some alarms of what could be possible, too!

John Grisham’s A Time for Mercy is his third book featuring Jake Brigance, who first appeared in Grisham’s debut novel. I was not the only person, based on Amazon reviews, to get a copy of the book that had major printing errors. It was fine until page 69 or so and then it became truly unreadable—missing pages, duplicated pages, etc. I had to return it and get another, which was correct. I was shocked, though; Doubleday is no fly-by-night publisher and Grisham is one of the best-selling authors in the country; that such a book could get out with such incredible errors is rather surprising. The story itself was what you would expect from Grisham; or, more precisely, from classic Grisham. Jake is, again, defending someone no one else in town would want to touch. It is not a pleasant story—but neither was A Time to Kill. Grisham manages to use a stereotypical presentation of rural, Southern Christians without belittling or mocking them, which I appreciated.

Jeffrey Archer’s Hidden in Plain Sight is the second in the William Warwick series, which is a spin-off of the Clifton Chronicles. It follows an Archer pattern of having a nemesis that just won’t go away, but it does also take a slightly different tack by having Warwick transferred to the drug squad when he gets promoted.

Mark Pryor is another author who has appeared regularly on my reading lists in recent years. In 2020 I read The French Widow, his ninth Hugo Marston novel. Marston, of course, seems to do surprisingly little in his actual job as head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris, but he does manage to help the French police once again solve a tricky crime. The book again includes transgender French police Lt. Camille Lerens, which I could do without, but Pryor seems to include her primarily to be able to say that he does so—or to be cutting edge—since her transgenderism has absolutely nothing to do with the story. This book does take the approach of, at times, speaking from the perspective of the killer, which is a unique twist, and Marston does a good job—in my opinion—of keeping the reader guessing until near the end of the book.

I actually did not finish a fiction book until April of 2020, when I completed The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I try to include at least one classic work per year, and this was the one for 2020. I enjoyed it. I have actually not seen any of the various theatrical versions, so I cannot comment on those, but D’Artagnan and his three pals are not necessarily, or certainly not always, admirable individuals. If I was going to recommend one Dumas book it would be The Count of Monte Cristo, not this one, but it is worth reading.

This may be a surprise to some, but The Last Trial is the first Scott Turow book I have ever read. As the title suggests, it is the end of the career of a character that I now know has appeared in other Turow novels. I suspect that some of what this book includes would make more sense or be more meaningful to those who have read others in the series, but I found it an enjoyable read–but then I enjoy courtroom dramas.

Daniel Silva’s The Order is the third or fourth Gabriel Allon book I have read. I enjoyed the others much more than I did this one. Suffice it to say that this book presents the theory of a missing “gospel” that the ultra-conservative wing of Catholicism will literally do anything to prevent coming to light. The papacy is also connected to a far-right political group in Europe. And never mind the unlikelihood of the now-dead pope’s private secretary asking the head of Israel’s security service to help investigate; after all, in his last book Silva had the prince of a Muslim nation doing the same thing. I haven’t read or seen The DaVinci Code, but I suspect that this book has a lot of similarities. I wouldn’t recommend it.

I do not remember how Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching even got on my radar. I almost put it down after the first page because of the language, but I didn’t. The frequency of obscenities decreased, but there is plenty of foul language and—shocker—it adds nothing to the story. From what I can tell from what the book includes about Cole’s other works she usually writes romance novels, but this one was supposed to be a thriller. And it was, but I think Cole tried too hard. There are elements of reality in the book but in her effort to deal with issues of racism she takes a far-flung approach that is unrealistic. And then the ending is even more unrealistic than that. So again, I wouldn’t recommend.

Probably the biggest departure from my usual fiction reading was Asha Lemmie’s Fifty Words for Rain. First of all, this is Lemmie’s debut novel, and I think that bodes very well for her future. It is the story of a girl, Nori, who is the daughter of a Japanese woman of aristocratic lineage who had an affair with an African-American man who was in Japan because of WWII. The story touches on the importance of honor and tradition in Japanese culture but also touches on racism—realistically, unlike Cole’s book—and, most of all, about the power of sibling love. It is a richly told story and I found myself really invested in it, but I was, I confess, disappointed in the ending.

That was it for fiction in 2020. So, moving on…

Jon Bloom’s Not by Sight is an interesting read. It is, by its own description, “the imaginative retelling of 35 Bible stories,” and it does provide the reader with a new perspective on some very familiar passages of Scripture.

Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity examines twelve questions that most Christians have either asked or been asked—or both. Questions like, “doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?” or “doesn’t religion cause violence?” Perhaps the most timely questions were those on taking Scripture literally, whether or not Christianity is homophobic or denigrates women and how a loving God could allow suffering or “send” people to hell. John Lennox calls it “compelling reading” and I agree. It is well-written and thought-provoking.

The subtitle of David Jeremiah’s Reset—“Ten Steps to Spiritual Renewal”—gives you a good idea of what to expect. I am not a huge fan of “steps to…” books, but this one does have some good insights. It is what you would expect from David Jeremiah in terms of style. Jeremiah’s What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do is a good overview of the epistle of James. John MacArthur’s Only Jesus is essentially a significantly condensed version of The Gospel According to Jesus. The book begins by asking, “What did Jesus mean when He said, ‘Follow Me’?” and then proceeds to answer that question. MacArthur’s Stand Firm is a short book that addresses how Christians are to live in a post-Christian world.

Charles Bordonaro’s Free to Be Me is a good book for anyone who wants to understand what “security” really means for the believer apart from the strict Calvinist interpretation. It highlights the freedom that believers have in Christ without ever suggesting that such freedom is a license for ungodly living. Suffice it to say that it also presents a very different view than R.C. Sproul’s Willing to Believe, which is solid, as Sproul always is, but which comes down in a very Calvinistic conclusion. It is an interesting book for understanding more about Pelagius, Augustine and Arminius in particular, but also Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Finney and Chafer.

J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness is subtitled “The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life” and it looks extensively at the writing and teaching of Baxter, Edwards and Owen. It felt appropriate to read something by Packer since he passed away in 2020 and it is valuable introduction to Puritan thought.

John Piper’s Coronavirus and Christ is a small book and obviously put out hastily in order to respond to the pandemic, but the truths that the book contains apply far beyond COVID. The back cover of the book is headed with this from Piper: “This is a time when the fragile form of this world is felt. The seemingly solid foundations are shaking. The question we should be asking is, Do we have a Rock under our feet? A Rock that cannot be shaken―ever?” That is a powerful question and, like I said, it applies far beyond the current pandemic.

The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess is her first book. She is a graduate student at Dallas Theological Seminary and she completed her undergraduate degree at Liberty University. I did not agree with everything that she wrote, but she did do an admirable job of addressing how our political views and our understanding and interpretation of Scripture are likely more intertwined than we realize. I told someone recently that I would read the book again, so perhaps that is the best compliment I can pay to the way that the book makes the reader think.

Pulpit Aflame, edited by Joel Beeke and Dustin Benge, is a collection of essays in honor of Steven Lawson, and is one of the best books I have ever read on sermon preparation and delivery and the ministry of preaching.

As I always do, I read a significant amount of history in 2020. Andrew Lawler’s The Secret Token is another book about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Lawler spent significant time in Outer Banks communities around the colony’s location and he investigated every possible lead he could find. I do not think he leaves the reader with any new conclusions, but that’s probably because—in my opinion—we will never really know what happened.

I intended to read extensively about women in American history in 2020—historically and contemporarily—given that 2020 was the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers and Nancy Loane’s Following the Drum both provide great insight into the roles that women played in the American Revolution—Berkin’s more broadly and Loane’s specifically at Valley Forge. Melissa Lukeman Bohrer’s Glory, Passion and Principle examines eight women of the revolutionary era, some of whom are familiar (Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and Phillis Wheatley) and others who should be (Sybil Ludington, Lydia Darragh). She gives a better understanding of who “Molly Pitcher” was and she selects one woman (of a number of them) who dressed and fought as a man (Deborah Sampson). Karin Wulf’s Not All Wives focuses on women in Philadelphia during the colonial era in order to explain the law of coverture and the way that women who were no longer, or who had never been, married were able to survive.

Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming is the first in a projected trilogy on the Revolution and, despite being about 800 pages long only gets to 1777. Perhaps most interesting to me about the book was the re-introduction to me of Dr. Benjamin Church, a leading figure in the Massachusetts patriot movement who was convicted of spying for the British. That led to me reading John Nagy’s Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy, which I would love to write a rebuttal to someday since I do not think that the evidence that Church was indeed a spy is sufficient to warrant his conviction.

Like Atkinson, Alan Taylor is a Pulitzer Prize winner. But his American Revolutions covers fifty more years in one hundred fewer pages. To be fair, he and Atkinson have different goals in their works, and Taylor provides much more insight into what led to the revolution and then also describes the first years of the newly-independent nation.

Edward Larson’s Franklin & Washington is a fascinating dual-biography about two of the most famous Americans ever, examining how the two men worked, often together, to pursue American independence.

It is important to get the full title of Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality because the subtitle is exactly what the book is. Allen, a Harvard professor who has recently announced her candidacy for governor of Massachusetts, takes the Declaration line by line to examine what it meant—and means—and particularly to understand what equality really means vis-à-vis that founding document. I highly recommend this one.

Of course, at the time the Declaration was written, the founders removed the attack Jefferson originally penned against slavery, and it would not be until a Civil War more than eighty years later that slavery would finally be abolished. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning has perhaps been one of the most talked-about books in the past year or two and it makes for itself an audacious claim—“The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” If for no other reason than that Kendi has become so influential it is worth reading. Kendi does offer some valuable insights, but I cannot say that I agree with all of his conclusions or assertions.

James Gorman, Jeff Childers and Mark Hamilton edited Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity, and the essays it includes are worth reading. Some are more denominationally-specific than some readers might care for, but those could certainly be skipped. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Richard Hughes, a Scholar in Residence in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University, begins his essay “Resisting White Supremacy” by asserting that the “heart of Jesus’ preaching was his concern and compassion for disenfranchised and oppressed people” and that “to listen carefully and attentively to what those people wish to tell us about the contours of their lives” is the first step to becoming a disciple of Christ. The gospel is not a social justice message and any attempt to make it one distorts who Jesus was and why He really came.

In When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War, John Patrick Daly suggests that Christians “interpreted the Bible and Christian moral dictates in light of individualism and free market economics” and that interpretation is what led to some Christians using the Bible to oppose slavery while others used it to support it. The use of Scripture on both sides of the slavery debate is a subject of great interest to me, and thus I found Daly’s book worthwhile, but I would not suggest reading it and only it on this subject, as it needs to be balanced out with other perspectives.

Back to the fight for women’s suffrage, Catherine Clinton’s The Other Civil War examines the efforts of women in the 19th century to achieve equality. They were generally unsuccessful, of course, but their efforts are worthy of study. Lisa Tetrault’s The Myth of Seneca Falls explains that the well-known Seneca Falls Convention was not necessarily the starting point for the suffrage movement that it is so often presented as—and that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked so hard to make it. Combining those two books with Susan Ware’s Why They Marched gives readers an introduction to many other suffragists they might want to read more about, such as Lucy Stone, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Julia Ward Howe, Ida Wells Barnett, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and more. Vanguard, by Martha Jones, looks specifically at the efforts of black women in the fight for equality—including, but not limited to, the right to vote.

Shifting gears, Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear was a fascinating look at the New Deal and gives valuable information about Frances Perkins, Raymond Moley and Henry Wallace in particular.

The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis and Historiography: An Introductory Guide by Eileen Ka-May Cheng are good for those interested in historiography, but would not likely be of much interest to others.

2020 was certainly marred by racial tension and plenty of authors have attempted to address that subject over the years. But Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness has to be one of the stupidest books I have ever read and my copy is filled with marginalia expressing my thoughts on Metzl’s arguments. Those arguments can essentially be summed up this way: if you favor anything that would be considered politically conservative then you are “white”—regardless of your race or ethnicity—are you are not only what is wrong with the country but you are actively opposing your own best interests.

Another book that has received a lot of attention is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. It contains some personal accounts that are both sad and inexcusable, but overall I cannot agree with her attempt to equate the caste system in India, Nazi Germany and the racial issues of the United States.

Interestingly, the best book that I read on the subject of racial tension was written a half-century ago—Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans. Perhaps this line will suffice to provide an idea of what Murray spent the book arguing: “The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people…. Any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.” In his forward to the anniversary edition, Henry Louis Gates asserted that Murray had a unique ability to argue all sides of any issue and to point out that which was not necessarily clear or even desirable to those dominating the conversation. I would agree, based on this book. And for this book, I am indebted to Wynton Marsalis, who wrote of Murray in his book Moving to Higher Ground. Marsalis spoke specifically of Murray’s Stomping the Blues, which I have not yet read, but he still made the introduction. As for his book, Marsalis proves to be a terrific teacher about what jazz really is. While the book’s subtitle—“How Jazz Can Change Your Life”—might be an overreach, I would recommend this book specifically, and Marsalis in general, for anyone who doesn’t really get jazz.

This Is Your Time is a short little book by Ruby Bridges, who, at just six years of age, was the first to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. The book would be a great introduction to Bridges’ story for anyone who does not know it, and it is worth getting just for the photographs that it includes. It is sad, though, how far we have not come in the nearly sixty-years since Bridges’ experience.

A couple of baseball books in 2020—Ron Snyder’s A Season to Forget tells the story of the truly awful 1988 Baltimore Orioles, who started the season 0-21, and in The Lost Memoir Alan Gaff assembles into one volume the syndicated newspaper column Lou Gehrig wrote in 1927 for Christy Walsh’s papers, telling his personal story and also giving an inside glimpse into the Yankees’ season.

In the genre of memoir and autobiography, I tended mostly to women in 2020. Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl is powerful and should be read by anyone who wants to understand (and can stomach) what ISIS did to Yazidis. Likewise, Rachael Denhollander’s What Is a Girl Worth? is powerful and should be read by anyone who wants to understand (and can stomach) what Larry Nasser specifically, and any sexual abuser generally, does to the victims of their actions. Denhollander’s book also makes her statement to Nasser at his sentencing all the more incredible. I read those books back-to-back. Both stories are sickening and heart wrenching but both women also have incredible stories of resiliency.

Nikki Haley’s With All Due Respect is an interesting look at her life, including deeper looks at her time as governor and UN ambassador. If I had to select a woman to run for president in 2024 I would have a hard time picking between Haley and Kristi Noem. But since I hope that Noem will be re-elected governor of South Dakota in 2022 and will finish out her term, I will have to go with Haley in 2024. I enjoyed Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Speaking for Myself, and while I understand that she desired to present a side of Donald Trump that she thinks too few people know, I think she may have been overly kind to him despite her effort to be balanced.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming was a well-written autobiography. I do not understand why she has become so reviled by the political right. I do not agree with her on much politically, there is no doubt, but I do not think that she is the horrible monster she is so often portrayed to be. Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold is well-written, too, and Harris has quite a personal story. She has had some tremendous accomplishments and some interesting ideas, particularly when it comes to criminal justice, but the book also reinforces why I would not want her to be the president.

Alex Trebek’s And the Answer Is… was a unique memoir in its structure but it does give the reader a great glimpse into the life of one of the most famous game show hosts in American history. It would seem that Trebek was a nice and truly decent guy…though I have to hope that he changed his thoughts on God before he passed away.

If you want an easy and light-hearted read, and you enjoy musical humor, Victor Borge’s My Favorite Comedies in Music fits the bill—but the book is not nearly as funny as Borge’s live performances.

And there you have it, another year in books. Feel free to comment with book recommendations—I have plenty of books on my list, but am always looking for suggestions. Happy New Year…and Happy Reading!

All Aboard the Hypocrisy Train

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

To the astonishment of…no one…Mitch McConnell announced within hours of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that a nomination from President Trump to fill the seat “will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.” No surprise here. The Republicans wouldn’t consider an Obama nomination eight months before the 2016 election, but they’re determined to get Trump’s a month and a half before the 2020 election. Shameful. Embarrassing. Partisan nonsense. No one should be proud of this. Mitch McConnell needs to go.

It is not just Mitch McConnell, though. John Thune, the Majority Whip, echoed his leader, saying, “As Leader McConnell has said, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Not wanting to be left out, Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn promptly jumped on board Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy train. According to the Texas Tribune, Cruz announced on Friday that an “urgent confirmation” was needed. In an opinion piece for FOX News on Sunday, Cruz insisted that Trump “must nominate a successor next week and…the Senate must confirm that successor before Election Day.” His reasoning? It is why the American people elected President Trump and a Republican Senate, there is historical precedent, and, given the possibility of a contested election in November, America cannot be left with an eight-member Supreme Court.

A few thoughts here…

First, using George Washington’s election-year nominations as an example doesn’t even really count. His two nominations in 1796 were both confirmed the very next day. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both made election year appointments too, and their nominations were confirmed within a week. But politics have changed so drastically since then that those examples cannot really be considered fairly.

In an article published last month in the National Review, Dan McLaughlin made the same point, insisting both that “History supports Republicans filling the seat,” and that doing so “would not be in any way inconsistent with Senate Republicans’ holding open the seat vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.” Really? Let’s see…

McLaughlin makes the same point that Cruz did, citing “twenty-nine times in history” when there has been an election year or lame duck session appointment. He names Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Then he mentions Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln nominated Salmon Chase as Chief Justice, to replace Roger Taney, on December 6, 1864. Four things about this appointment are noteworthy. First, it is a real historical travesty that Roger Taney was ever on the Supreme Court, given his decision in the Dred Scott case. Second, Chase was confirmed the same day that Lincoln nominated him, beating even the quick confirmation that Washington received for his nominees. Third, as I mentioned, Lincoln appointed Chase on December 6. The election took place in November, and Lincoln won. Given that as far as anyone knew at that time Lincoln would be president for another four years, any delay would have been pointless. Fourth, however, and perhaps most importantly for this discussion, Taney died on October 12, 1864—four days shy of one month before the election. But Lincoln did not appoint Chase until two days shy of one month after the election. If Cruz, McLaughlin and Company want to use Lincoln as a precedent, it is not one in their favor.

McLaughlin also points out Ulysses S. Grant as an example. But, like Lincoln, Grant appointed Ward Hunt to the Supreme Court during an election year, but after the election—he appointed him on December 3; it was after Grant had already won re-election; and Grant appointed Hunt to replace Samuel Nelson, who retired from the Supreme Court on November 28, 1872, twenty-three days after the election—meaning that there was no vacancy prior to the election, and the appointment was not during a lame duck session.

Taft’s nomination was in February of the election year. Wilson’s were in January and July of the election year. Hoover’s was in February of the election year. FDR’s was in January of the election year. These would have been terrific precedents in support of Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016, but they do not do much to help McConnell and friends in this instance.

Oddly, McLaughlin claims “Dwight Eisenhower did it” but he didn’t. Eisenhower made appointments in 1955 and in 1957, but not in 1956, which was the election year.

LBJ nominated two in June of an election year and both were withdrawn–one due to a filibuster of the nomination to move Abe Fortas to Chief Justice, and the other because Homer Thornberry had been nominated for the Associate Justice position Fortas would have been vacating. Ronald Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy one year before the 1988 election, but he was confirmed in February of the election year–by a Democratically-controlled Senate. (And any true conservative now wishes that the Democrats would have declined!)

Second, the Republicans put themselves in the position they are now in. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland in March 2016. That means Obama still had 20% of his term remaining. But the Republicans refused to even consider the nomination; they wouldn’t even allow it to come to a vote. Even if Trump were to make a nomination tomorrow, he has only about 7% of the current term remaining. Outside of Washington, Adams and Jefferson, there has never been a nomination made later than July of a presidential election year and before the election, with one exception. That exception was Millard Filmore’s nomination of Edward Bradford on August 16, 1852—and there was no action taken by the Senate. So, Cruz’s appeal to historical precedent falls woefully flat. Even John Tyler, who nominated three men a total of five times in the first six months of 1844 quit in June and did not act again until after the election, when he tried twice more in December.

The bottom line is that if Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans would have allowed the Garland nomination to proceed in 2016 this would be a completely different situation. But they did not, and now they find themselves faced with waiting or becoming guilty of obscene hypocrisy…and I think we all know which they are going to choose.

President Trump should absolutely make the nomination. Indeed, doing so could even help the Republicans in the November election, and he has every right to do so. But the Senate should not act on it. In fact, acting on it could well come back to bite McConnell and friends. As Russell Berman wrote last Friday in The Atlantic, “A number of Republican senators have already said they’d want to fill a Supreme Court vacancy while Trump is still in office. But McConnell would need the votes of 50 out of his 53 members to allow Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie (assuming all Democrats voted against Trump’s nominee), and the numbers may not be on his side.” In reality, Berman was being kind. Republican senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are already on record opposing a confirmation at this stage, and just about everyone knows that Mitt Romney is not going to support Donald Trump on this one.

Ironically, McLaughlin states in his article, “Norms are crucially important. If parties cannot trust that the other side will abide by established norms of conduct, politics devolves rapidly into a blood sport that quickly loses the capacity to resolve disagreements peaceably within the system.” He’s right, of course—only he is not right in the way that he thinks he is. He thinks history is on his side, and that that Senate should act to confirm. As we have seen, though, he is wrong about that. The norm of conduct that the Republicans established in 2016 is simple—no confirmation during an election year. No amount of foaming at the mouth or attempting to stretch historical precedent to fit their narrative will change that. The Republicans set the precedent, now they need to follow it. If they do not, they will have only themselves to blame when the tables are turned—which eventually they will be—and when voters express their displeasure—which at least some will.

Additional irony for the fire – since 1981, the only SCOTUS nominee to be appointed and confirmed within the amount of time that is available now before the November election was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore, with the conductor cap added by Jason Watson.

Hypocridity

1024px-The_'No_Cop_Co-Op'_in_CHAZ

I have seen quite a bit of hypocridity coming out of Seattle lately. You may be thinking you have never heard of hypocridity, and that’s true—because it is a term I just made up. It is a blending of hypocrisy and stupidity, and it is a dangerous combination.

More than a week ago the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, was “formed in the wake of police giving up the week-long blockade of the East Precinct,” according to a June 9 post on the Capitol Hill Seattle blog. Per a tweet from Mayor Jenny Durkan, the abandonment of the precinct wasan effort to proactively de-escalate interactions between protestors and law enforcement outside the East Precinct.” She went further than that, however, saying, “Keeping demonstrations peaceful must be a joint effort between our community members and law enforcement. I am hopeful that tonight, with these operational changes, our city can peacefully move forward together.”

Here is a beautiful example of stupidity. According to Durkan, the “joint effort” necessary to maintain a peaceful demonstration is the evacuation of police so that the protesters can do whatever they want. But that is not a joint effort. That is total capitulation. Just imagine what would happen if the world was suddenly full of “joint efforts” in which one side caved completely to the other!

Per the same blog post, Seattle Fire Department personnel “removed ‘many personal effects of the officers normally stationed in the East Precinct’ as part of a ‘proactive effort to guard against potential damage or fire.’” That doesn’t sound like they were anticipating a peaceful demonstration, does it?

An update to the blog described Tuesday morning, June 9 this way:

The first morning brought a new configuration to the streets. The police barricades and walls left behind have provided protesters the resources they need to create their own path through the neighborhood. Barriers have been dragged into a zig zag maze to block traffic from passing through 12th Ave or up and down E Pine with a steady stream of cars and trucks performing u-turns and three-point turns to avoid the blockades. Tent shelters have been put up to help keep volunteers dry at the edges of the core around 12th and Pine. At one on the southeast corner of the intersection, a few people sat around while one approached CHS and encouraged “white people” to come to the scene and help them hold the block. Above the walled-off entrance to the building, the sign has been spray painted to now read “SEATTLE PEOPLE DEPARTMENT EAST PRECINCT.”

In other words, the peaceful demonstration had tuned into a takeover.

Evan Bush wrote a piece for the Seattle Times on June 10 that said, in part, “A new protest society — centered on a handful of blocks in Seattle’s quirky, lefty Capitol Hill — has been born from the demonstrations that pushed the Seattle Police Department out of its East Precinct building.” The same article quoted protester Sarah Tornai saying that people desire to be “autonomous from the way the Seattle Police Department has been policing them.”

When CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Jenny Durkan on June 11 how long the autonomous zone situation would continue, Durkan replied, ““I don’t know. We could have a Summer of Love!”

Seattle’s KOMO news reported that Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said, also on June 11, “There’s no game plan for this. This is absolutely unprecedented. I’ve never seen people force a decision to be made to move officers out of this facility in this manner. So, there is no game plan, there couldn’t be, because it’s unimaginable, what’s happening to us right now.” Best added that police response time to priority calls inside the zone had more than tripled, from five minutes to eighteen, while the response time to secondary calls was nearly an hour. “There are people’s lives who are affected,” she said. “Emergency calls, which often means somebody’s being assaulted, sometimes it’s a rape, sometimes it’s a robbery, but something bad is happening if it’s a top priority call, and we’re not able to get there….”

That doesn’t sound much like a summer of love…

In a June 16 piece for Slate, Jane C. Hu wrote that after hearing rumors and seeing reports that there were ID checks and armed individuals patrolling the streets, she went to check it out for herself. She reported barricades, but no ID checks. She also reported, “it’s obvious to anyone in Seattle that the zone is not autonomous.” The people inside the zone are still using water and electricity, for example. This may be why the preferred name was switched from CHAZ to CHOP—the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.

Hu added that while there were no armed guards or ID checks, “if people recognize you and they’re not fans of your work, there is a chance you’ll be confronted by a crowd asking you to leave.” In other words, anyone and everyone is welcome…as long as the crowd does not dislike you.

Hu also described the No-Cop Co-op. “The ‘No Cop Co-Op’ had piles of bread, jam, oats, and peanut butter, with a sign encouraging people to avail themselves: “Do not take one granola bar—take the whole box. Take an entire case of pop. You do you. Just stop looking and start shopping,” she wrote.

Hmmm. You do you…but if people recognize you and don’t like you, you will be asked to leave. Makes sense….

Then, also on June 16, FOX News reported between the city and the CHOP protesters that would “remove temporary roadblocks and replace them with concrete barriers.” The barriers would be installed by the Seattle Department of Transportation and would be placed in such a way that emergency vehicles would be able to access the area.

So, Seattle city services would install the barricades, and Seattle emergency vehicles would be able to provide services in the area… Not much autonomy in that arrangement, is there?

Nevertheless, Mayor Durkan still thinks its all great. “Seattle is the best city in America. Don’t let Fox News distort the truth. And take a look at the real truth of the ‘nation formerly known as downtown Seattle,’” she tweeted on June 17. That was two days after a crowd broke down a fence and demanded that the owners of an auto repair business release a man they had caught after he broken into the business and tried to start a fire. More than a dozen 911 calls were placed by the business owners, but no emergency personnel arrived. The Fire Chief later visited and said he was looking into why fire personnel had not responded to the calls. The answer later emerged; per FOX News, “the fire team was waiting on a police escort to the business, but police did not want to enter the area to escalate tensions. Seattle police took a report of the incident and sent officers to the periphery, but did not engage with the business owners or protesters or take the suspect into custody.”

Ami Horowitz, who says he calls the CHAZ/CHOP group the Confederacy of Dunces, produced a digital short (available on YouTube) in which he conducted interviews on the street inside the zone. One masked individual told him, “If there is no change, there might be a lot more destroying until there is.” This individual went on to say that he thinks some “some destruction and looting kinda sends the message to the people. And breaking their sh*t is justified.” Indeed it does send a message… This individual was accompanied by a woman who said, “I mean, white people owned slaves, so fu*k them.”

Both of these folks were white, by the way….

Jaiden Grayson, identified as one of the leaders, said that she does not show up to peacefully protest, but to “disrupt until my demands are met. You cannot rebuild until you break it all the way down.” She continued, “Respond to the demands of the people, or prepare to be met with any means necessary. By any means necessary.” When Horowitz said, “That’s not just a slogan…” Grayson replied, “No. It’s not a slogan. It’s not even a warning. I’m letting people know what comes next.” Horowitz pressed Grayson further, and she said “absolutely” the police, the courts and entire criminal justice system needs to be abolished.

“And then what?” Horowitz asked.

“Again, you’re asking a question that cannot be answered,” Grayson answered. “The unraveling that happens to that system is also exactly what will fuel the black minds in the black bodies that will recreate a new world.”

Let’s ignore the fact that you cannot recreate something new. Grayson clearly has a vision for a “new world” that goes beyond what most of the folks in CHOP have in mind. Anyone happy to live in a place that has, as NPR News reported today, “established a food co-op, a community garden, medical stations, a speaker’s stage, movie nights, book exchanges and round-the-clock security patrols” in a week’s time is simply living out a silly dream and abandoning reality. There seems to be plenty of talk, but none of it addresses work, income, ownership or responsibility. Indeed, according to Hannah Allam’s NPR report, many black activists—like Grayson—are now concerned that CHAZ/CHOP is now “a majority-white protest movement whose camp has taken on the feel of a neighborhood block party that’s periodically interrupted by chants of ‘Black Lives Matter!’”

Let’s stop the hypocridity and get serious about problem solving. An autonomous zone or occupied protest is not going to accomplish that.

Silence Is Not an Option

SilenceI know I am not the only one that has continued to read and think about the death of George Floyd and the protests that continue to spread around our nation. Just about everyone has had something to say and you cannot spend any time online at all without encountering something related to Floyd’s death and /or the protests. But in the past 24 hours I have been intentionally seeking and reading what African Americans have to say about it all. I have been doing that not because I think they have a monopoly on offense at the actions of Derek Chauvin, because I do not. Nor have I been doing it because I think that African Americans somehow have a more valuable or more relevant perspective or insight on the tragedy of Floyd’s death. I do, however, recognize that many African Americans have a different perspective and different insight into the situation than I do, and considering them has value.

Herman Cain began his May 31 commentary with this statement:

Everyone who saw the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is right to be incensed by it. It’s one of the worst and most obvious instances of police brutality we have ever witnessed as a nation.

I agree with Mr. Cain completely and I specifically appreciate his use of the word “everyone.” There is no way that anyone, regardless of skin color, could watch what happened to George Floyd and think it is possible for it to be justified or necessary–or that it should not result in the full punishment the law allows.

Also on May 31, Ben Carson’s Facebook post began with this: “The blatant callous murder of Mr. George Floyd is one of the most heartless acts of cruelty ever recorded.” Again, I agree.

Senator Kamala Harris, who is at the other end of the political spectrum from Cain and Carson, released a statement on May 29 that said that the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are “the result of broader systematic racism that exists in our country.” Her statement concluded,

Police brutality is a matter of life and death for Black people in this country, and we have to be clear about the injustices within our criminal justice system and demand accountability to the communities law enforcement are sworn to protect and serve.

Do you notice a difference in what Cain and Carson said and what Harris said? Cain and Carson addressed the death of Georg Floyd as a terribly evil act without any reference to race. Harris made race and racism the foremost issue in her comments.

Oprah Winfrey posted a statement on Twitter on the same day that Harris released her statement. Winfrey pointed out what was going through her mind as she went through the motions of her day, “I think: he doesn’t get to do this.” She concluded her statement:

#GeorgeFloyd, we speak your name. But this time, we will not let your name be just a hashtag. Your spirit is lifted by the cries of all of us who call for justice in your name.

There was not a single mention of race or racism in her post. There was no mention of a Black community or any institutional racism. Instead, she used the words “all of us.” That is as broad and as inclusive as Herman Cain’s “everyone.”

On June 1, Dawn Staley, the women’s basketball coach at South Carolina, posted on The Players’ Tribune an editorial entitled “Black People Are Tired.” With a title like that, it is hard to interpret her us of the word “us” as meaning anything other than African Americans. And that is unfortunate, because I agree with much of what she has to say. Staley shared a very personal story about her mother having to leave South Carolina as a thirteen-year-old because of her grandmother’s concern that she might be lynched. Staley said that happened about sixty years ago. That is tragic and there is no excuse for it.

That’s why I both appreciate Staley’s post and dislike it. She says that Black people are angry. They should be. But all people should be angry. Being white does not give me a pass on being angry about George Floyd’s death or about the fear of Dawn Staley’s grandmother.

Staley goes on to write:

When you are privileged — when you are the privileged race, you don’t have to think about what we think about daily.

You just see the world through your own eyes. And it’s a lot different than it is through a black person’s eyes. A lot different. Say what you wanna say, but it’s a lot different.

I cannot dispute that. I have only ever been white and I will only ever be white. Accordingly, I can never experience life through a black person’s eyes and can never approach life with the experiences and history of a black person. And while it may be appropriate and helpful for me to understand and acknowledge that, it is not helpful for Dawn Staley or anyone else to suggest that because of that I cannot contribute to the solution. Staley writes,

That’s why I have to constantly ask myself: Am I doing right by our players?

Are they learning? Are they understanding? Are they being equipped to navigate the world as a black woman in our society?

That’s a problematic line of thinking. First of all, as she acknowledged earlier in her piece, Staley does not coach black women only. Thus, to equate doing right by her players with being equipped to navigate the world as a black woman is drawing an unhelpful line on her own team.

She seems to recognize the problem there, because she immediately writes this:

And that’s not to divide our team by race. It’s just a statement of reality that as human beings, we see color. Yes, we see color. We feel color. Without a doubt. And it’s a shame, but that’s how we have to navigate the world.

This is the second problem with her line of thinking. It is not how we have to navigate the world. To suggest that it is is to suggest that we cannot do better. Early in her piece Staley says, “People are mad because NOTHING HAS CHANGED.” Saying that continuing that way is “how we have to navigate the world” is to assert that nothing can change.

I may not be able to agree with him on much, but Mokokoma Mokhonoana was spot on when he said, “Racism is one of the most common results of the combination of stupidity and the ability to see.” We do not want to deny people the ability to see. Not literally, anyway. A world full of blind people would have quite a few problems. What we need to do, then, is try to fix the “stupidity.” It’s been widely said—and I’ve said it myself—that you can’t fix stupid. But that is not really true. Racism is a learned behavior and any learned behavior can be changed.

Herman Cain wrote,

…we make a mistake if we see this entirely in the context of race. Statistically, black-on-black crime is a much bigger problem than white-on-black crime. Statistically, police officers are much more likely to be victims of deadly violence than they are to be the perpetrators of it.

None of that gets better if we view each other with suspicion and hostility.

That’s another way of saying that we cannot see and feel color…and he is right. What we must learn to do is see human. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing and taking notice of skin color. In and of itself, it is no more wrong than noticing if someone has brown, green, blue or gray eyes or blonde, black, brunette or red hair. The problem is not in the noticing. The problem, rather, is in the notion—the belief—that skin color matters.

It is not wrong for there to be genuine and healthy differences of opinion. It is not wrong for me to think that the comments by Kamala Harris and Dawn Staley are not all that helpful. It is not wrong for me to think that Sarah Parcak was in the wrong when she tweeted instructions designed to help rioters know how to tear down monuments or that celebrities paying bail for “protestors” is not helping address the real problem. It is not wrong for me to think that Billie Eilish’s Instagram rant was a waste of cyberspace or for me to think that Reese Witherspoon’s use of Instagram to urge parents to talk to their children about racism was worthwhile and helpful. It is not wrong for me to find some of Natasha Cloud’s piece “Your Silence Is a Knee On My Neck” to be offensive while also agreeing wholeheartedly with her conclusion that “if you’re silent, you are part of the problem.”

I am not going to stop intentionally seeking to hear, read and understand the black perspective. I do hope, though, that there is also an intentional effort for all of us who are furious about what happened to George Floyd to seek to understand each other and to work together to achieve real change. The collective “we”—all of humanity—will never agree on everything. Nor would we really want a world in which we did all agree on everything. What we must do, though, is agree that all human lives matter and every human being deserves to be treated with respect. That the problem can be resolved peacefully. And that silence is not an option.

Truly Haunted

800px-Wandbild_Portrait_George_Floyd_von_Eme_Street_Art_im_Mauerpark_(Berlin)
Mural portrait of George Floyd by Eme Street Art in Mauerpark (Berlin, Germany)

A week ago I, like thousands of others in the United States, saw, for the first time, reports that an African American man had died in Minneapolis while a white police officer was kneeling on his neck. My initial reaction was probably somewhat numb. The stories of African Americans dying at the hands of, and/or in the custody of, law enforcement have become too common. Too, I am reluctant to jump to conclusion, especially when it seems that maybe I do not know or understand the full story. Furthermore, I am a relative of a police officer and a friend of a number of others, and I recognize that their jobs are often thankless—that they have to make difficult decisions every day, often without the time and the privilege of thinking through every possible option before acting.

When I saw the video footage of the police officer kneeling on George Floyd, though, I was confident that, whatever the further details of the situation may be, the matter was not handled properly and there was no reason for Floyd to have died. I could not imagine any scenario in which the officer would not be charged with murder. When Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, said that Floyd “should not have died” and that the officer involved had “failed in the most basic human sense,” I had to agree. Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, said that the cell phone footage of “a defenseless, handcuffed man one of the most vile and heartbreaking images” he had seen. I had to agree. When Senator Amy Klobuchar said, “Those involved in this incident must be held accountable,” I had to agree.

Less than thirty minutes ago, as I write this, the results of Floyd’s autopsy were released. The finding was that Floyd died as a result of asphyxiation from sustained pressure.

The New York Times has put together a video that resulted from “combining videos from bystanders and security cameras, reviewing official documents and consulting experts.” It is an interesting video. It makes valid and significant points. For example, the police officers who responded to the scene were expecting, based on the 911 call they received, to be dealing with a man who was “awfully drunk” and out of control. No doubt that influenced their attitude and mindset before they even encountered Floyd. It also states that Floyd told the police officers who tried to put him into their vehicle that he was claustrophobic and unwilling to get in. I am sure that police officers hear excuses on a regular basis, and I cannot fault them for not putting much stock in that statement from Floyd. It goes to explain that nine minutes into the arrest, officers Tou Thao and Derek Chauvin arrive together. Apparently they are partners. Assuming the Times report that Thao has had six complaints and been the subject of a brutality lawsuit, and that Chauvin has had seventeen complaints and been involved in three shootings is correct, one has to question why these two men are partners—if not why they are still on the police force at all. Why Chauvin gets involved in trying to get Floyd into the vehicle, and why he then pulls Floyd all the way through and onto the road, is unclear. What is clear is that he puts his knee on Floyd’s neck and it remains there. According to the Times, it remained there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Someone is heard telling Floyd to get up and get in the car. Whether or not that is Chauvin, I cannot tell, but obviously Floyd could not get up or get in the car while Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck.

According to the Times, Floyd tells the officers at least sixteen times in less than five minutes that he cannot breathe. To be fair, the first time I watched the footage of the incident I was skeptical of Floyd at first. After all, if he could continue to say that he could not breathe, he was obviously breathing. My thinking changed, however, when Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck even after Floyd stopped saying anything and appeared to be either unconscious or dead. Bystanders repeatedly asked that Chauvin get off of Floyd or that he at least check Floyd’s pulse. Again, I am sure that police officers hear many things from the public in the midst of an arrest and no doubt tend to ignore them, but it is clear that both Chauvin and Thao can hear them because Chauvin appears to draw mace from his belt and Thao is interacting with the bystanders and trying to position himself to block their view. Chauvin keeps his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly a minute after EMS personnel arrive, and while Floyd is put into the ambulance and the ambulance drives away, he is pronounced dead at the hospital.

More than likely, you know most, of not all, of the above. There is nothing that can be done to change any of that, but there is much that can be learned from the incident. There are many questions to ask and attempt to answer. And then, of course, there is the reaction that is spreading across the country in the form of riots and looting. I would naïve to think or suggest that I have all of the answers or even that I have much to add to the discussion that is unique or new. But I am going to share a few thoughts regardless.

First, as I have already mentioned, law enforcement is a difficult and often thankless job. It is also a necessary job. As long as human beings are the ones serving in law enforcement, there will be mistakes made. There will be “bad apples.” There will be individuals who misuse and abuse their authority and their power. That is not a racial issue, it is a human issue. No race or gender or ethnicity is exempt from flaws. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there are more than 800,000 law enforcement officers currently serving in the U.S. I am confident that many of them do their very best every day on the job and that they are just as upset over the death of George Floyd as anyone else. According to the same source, there has been an average of one law enforcement officer dying in the line of duty every 54 hours over the past ten years. That is a startling number, and a great reminder that law enforcement officers literally put their lives at risk to do their jobs.

Second, while it is clear that Chauvin needed to be both fired and charged, not much more than that is entirely clear yet. I read person comment on Facebook, of Chauvin’s charges, “Never seen a charge this fast with peaceful protests, all I’m saying.” Well, there is no way to know if the charges would have come that quickly without protests, though I cannot help but think that they would have. And if the point of the protests was to get Chauvin charged then the protests should stop. Is a third degree murder charge too lenient? My inclination is no…unless there is more to the story that we do not yet know. Multiple news sources, for example, are reporting that Floyd and Chauvin worked at the same night club in Minneapolis, El Nuevo Rodeo, and may have known each other. That needs to be investigated. If there was some personal motive behind Chauvin’s actions then the charges need to be increased and the protests against police discrimination and brutality are off the mark. Specifically, as The Western Journal noted, “that should give pause to those portraying law enforcement and the criminal justice system as being inherently biased against minority Americans.”

Third, cooler heads really do need to prevail. Saying something that captures headlines but has zero basis in reality is nothing short of stupid. Leslie Raymond, the president of Minneapolis NAACP, called Floyd’s death a “cruel display of the state-sanctioned murder.” That’s absurd, and not even remotely helpful. Raymond went on to say, “Their actions represent a dangerous precedent set forth by the racist, xenophobic, and prejudicial sentiment in our society against Black people.” Again, both absurd and unhelpful. Floyd’s death was wrong and that would be true even if the perpetrator were black and the victim were white. It would be true if the perpetrator and victim were both white. Or both black. Or both blue. That is a deeper truth that needs to be grasped. The taking of a life is wrong. Period. That’s not a racial issue.

In today’s issue of The Briefing—which is excellent in its entirety—Albert Mohler writes,

Every single human being is of the same dignity and of the same worth and have the same value, precisely because we are made by the same Creator equally in his image. And thus, every one of us bears the same dignity and that dignity must never be denied. It must never be slighted. It must never be reduced. It must never be hidden.

Mohler is correct, and that is why the death of George Floyd must not go unnoticed or unpunished.

Yesterday Wynton Marsalis wrote a lengthy post on his Facebook page addressing Floyd’s death and the deeper issues surrounding it. About halfway through, Marsalis wrote,

The whole construct of blackness and whiteness as identity is fake anyway. It is a labyrinth of bullshit designed to keep you lost and running around and around in search of a solution that can only be found outside of the game itself.

Excuse his language, but Marsalis is spot on. The problem is not racism and the solution is not eliminating racism. He continued,

Our form of Democracy affords us the opportunity to mine a collective intelligence, a collective creativity, and a collective human heritage. But the game keeps us focused on beating people we should be helping. And the more helpless the target, the more vicious the beating. Like I was trying to explain to my daughter, something just feels good about abusing another person when you feel bad about yourself.

I do not know if Chauvin felt bad himself, or somehow felt bigger, badder and tougher by kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, but the temporary good feeling that comes from abusing another is not a racial issue. It is human issue and a heart issue. It is, in fact, the very issue at the root of the current riots and looting. No one in their right mind thinks for a second that the destruction and violence we are seeing around the country will bring back George Floyd, make law enforcement officers act differently or improve race relations in the U.S. There is nothing constructive or helpful about the riots and looting. It is, quite frankly, part of the labyrinth of bovine feces Marsalis referred to in his post.

Earlier in the post, Marsalis describes a conversation he had with his eleven-year-old daughter about the death of Floyd. She asked him why “that man” would “just kneel on him and kill him like that in front of everybody?” Like a good parent in a teachable moment, Marsalis responded with an illustration and asked his daughter to come up with the answer herself. She gave some good ones, but she never quite got to where Marsalis wanted her to go, prompting him to—at her urging—just tell her. What was the deepest reason he had in mind? “Because he enjoyed it. For him, and for many others, that type of thing is fun.” He elaborated, saying, “this type of fun is much older even than America itself.”

I do not agree with everything that Marsalis said in his post. I do agree, however, that the death of George Floyd is not fundamentally a racist issue. That Chauvin enjoyed it—assuming he did (and there is no evident hesitance or concern on his face in the video)—would likely have been true if almost anyone had been under his knee. I do not know, of course, but I suspect that if we ever find out for sure, we will discover that Floyd said or did something to Chauvin that upset him—either when they worked at the club or just before Chauvin pulled Floyd through the vehicle onto the road—and Chauvin wasn’t going to put up with it.

This is a human flaw illustrated perfectly by Haman in the Old Testament book of Esther. Haman was a Jew and he refused to show Haman the physical homage he felt he deserved. Esther 3:5 reads, “And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him, Haman was filled with fury.” So full of fury was Haman, in fact, that he had a 75-foot gallows constructed and devised an elaborate plan to get the king to let him execute Mordecai—all because he got on his nerves. If you are not familiar with it, you can read the book of Esther to see how that worked out for Haman. Unfortunately, Derek Chauvin succeeded in killing George Floyd. Whether that was his intention or not I do not know and I doubt anyone ever will truly know. But, in the words of Max Lucado, here is what we do know: “the heart of the human problem is the heart of the human.” Why would Lucado say that? Because Jeremiah 17:9 says this: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable” (HCSB). That is true of Derek Chauvin. It was also true of George Floyd. Whether we like it or not, it is also true of you and me.

Seemingly everyone, everywhere, is saying something about how wrong the killing of George Floyd was, and that’s fine. Within the past couple of hours I have seen messages from two of my alma maters condemning the actions of Derek Chauvin. One was headlined, “University condemns racial injustice and senseless violence.” The other included the statement, “Justice demands that we all do our part to confront and overcome the legacy of bigotry….” I suppose it is good that these schools, and others, are making such statements but they do not really do much.

Fifty-seven years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Sadly, our nation is still not that place. The color of one’s skin still matters far too much. No murder sentence for a police officer will change that. No riots will change that. No university announcements or presidential proclamations will change that. Nothing will change it until we realize, as Wynton Marsalis said, “The whole construct of blackness and whiteness as identity is fake anyway.” Or, as Albert Mohler said, “Every single human being is of the same dignity and of the same worth and have the same value….”

Maybe Nkwachukwu Ogbuagu said it best: “I have this feeling in me that those who continue to see race and color in everything must be as miserable as those who continue to see ghosts in every nook and cranny. They have no peace of mind because they are truly haunted.”

 

Photo credit: Singlespeedfahrer / CC0