Monday, December 30, 2019

"Educated" by Tara Westover

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“Educated” by Tara Westover
December 30, 2019

I am not the child my father raised,
but he is the father who raised her.”
                                                                                            Educated, 2018
                                                Tara Westover (1986-)

Because of a snobbish belief that most people are not discerning in their reading, I tend to shun books that have spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, feeling they are there because of Herd Mentality Syndrome. Consequently, I miss some good books. Fortunately, my daughter urged me to read this one. It was purchased a year ago and marinated on my bedside table for months. A few weeks ago, I picked it up and was blown away by the story Ms. Westover tells.

The author is a remarkable young woman, the youngest of seven, born in 1986 to anti-government survivalists. She had no birth certificate, until issued a Delayed Birth Certificate at age nine. Her Mormon parents lived in the shadow of Buck’s Peak, part of the Teton Range, in Franklin County, Idaho, about an hour’s drive north of Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah.

It is difficult to imagine what growing for Ms. Westover was like. Her father was both demonic and charismatic. He became the central person in her young life. He believed that government and institutions, including schools and hospitals brainwashed students and patients, part of a conspiracy to lead youth away from God. They represented the “Illuminati.” As a young girl, he forced her to work in his junkyard. He was not, she writes, “…a tall man but he was able to command a room.” He believed the Apocalypse was coming, so prepared for the end by storing food, ammunition and gasoline on his property. Tara’s mother, a midwife and herbalist, produced remedies for every conceivable disease or accident, including over the years, two of her badly injured sons and her once horribly burned husband.

Tara never went to school. Her mother taught her the basics of reading and arithmetic, and she studied algebra on her own. She was obviously intelligent and curious. She was also musical. As a child, she had listened to her brother Tyler’s recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She joined her church’s choir. She had talent; the pastor told her parents that “she sang like one of God’s own angels.”

But her home life was impossible. Her father, she later concluded was probably bipolar. Her singing led to musicals, which meant she spent time with other young people, denigrated by her brothers and father. Her brother Shawn (all of the names in the book have been changed) called her a whore and beat her. At the same time, Tyler told her she reminded him of “the greatest prophets of all.” Remembering Tyler’s words, but having suffered from the bruises Shawn had imposed, she reflected: “Suddenly that worth felt conditional, like it could be taken or squandered. It was not inherent; it was bestowed.”

Tyler went to Brigham Young University, so encouraged Tara to apply, which she did. Her dream was to teach music. The second two-thirds of Tara’s story take the reader through her gradual escape from Buck’s Peak to Brigham Young University, Cambridge University, Harvard University and back to Cambridge for a PhD. Her horizons expanded, as did her interests, but the trip was not easy. When still at BYU, having won a full scholarship, she learned her father had been badly burned in an explosion of his own causing. She drove home, anxious for her father, but still frightened of Shawn: “This remembered world was somehow more vivid than the physical world I inhabited, and I phased between them.” Her father survived, but the ties binding her to her family and their way of life had begun to fray. While a graduate student at Harvard, her parents visited. Her father wanted to visit Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, where God had appeared to Joseph Smith: “My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man…” She had changed; he had not. She recalled the words of Sancho Panza: “An adventuring knight is someone who’s beaten and then finds himself emperor.” Later, she wrote in her notebook, and then wrote it everywhere: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies.”

Writing this memoir, she tells us, was therapeutic: “We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories. Nothing has revealed the truth to me more than writing this memoir – trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words…” Tara Westover has invited us along on this personal pilgrimage in a search for herself, and, while her experiences were far more extreme than what most of us have experienced, she reveals universal truths – the complication of families, the search for  one’s self, and for truth, love and respect.

And I have learned not to look down on books simply because they have spent weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Sometimes there is a gem. This is one.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

"Phineas Redux" by Anthony Trollope

Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
“Phineas Redux” by Anthony Trollope
December 30, 2019

“The parliamentary acquaintance looked up at the unparliamentary man with
that mingled disgust and pity which parliamentary gentlemen and ladies always
entertain for those who have not devoted their minds to the constitutional forms of the country.”
                                                                                                            Phineas Redux 1873
                                                                                                            Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

Trollope was a satirist as well as a novelist. Phineas Redux is the fourth in a series of six Palliser novels. Like all his books, these satirical stories poked fun at the aristocracy and the upper-middle class of England’s Victorian age. Whereas the Barsetshire novels targeted the Church of England, the Palliser series focused on Parliament and its members. There are, of course, other vignettes, like fox hunting, a favorite sport of Trollope, and of the social life of the myriad people he portrayed, the pomposity of some, the intrigues of others, and the nastiness and kindness of a few.

After an absence of four years, Phineas Finn returns in this novel[1]. Over differences with his Party regarding Irish tenant land reform, Phineas Finn had resigned his seat in Parliament, returned to Ireland where he had accepted the post of Inspector of Poor Houses in Cork. There he married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. Mary died in childbirth, along with the baby. As this novel begins, Phineas is lured back to the London (and the Parliament) he had missed. “Like the warhorse out at grass, he remembered the sound of battle and the noise of trumpets. After five years spent in the heat and full excitement of London society, life in Ireland was tame to him, and cold and dull.”

Almost a third of Phineas Redux is devoted to the trial of Phineas for the murder of a fellow Parliamentarian, a conniving politician, Mr. Bonteen, with whom he had argued publicly moments before the latter was slain. Finn was arrested. In relating the story of the investigation and trial, the reader gains insight to the role of 19th Century police, lawyers, courts and the media. We learn of those friends who abandoned him and of the loyal ones who stayed true. The trial ends with Finn’s acquittal. While the trial provides most of the suspense and action, the principal theme is politics. They dominate the story, and Trollope, a self-professed Liberal, reminds us in his words that today’s vitriol is not unique: “Never within the memory of living politicians had political rancor been so sharp…” He could be brutally frank: “A drunkard or a gambler may be weaned from his ways, but not a politician.” His candor extended to those who have left government. “When a man has come to the end of his influence, as the Earl had done, he is as much a nothing in politics as though he had never risen above the quantity.”

A principal issue of the day was the disestablishment of the Irish Protestant Church, a costly enterprise in Catholic-dominated Ireland, and one urged by William Gladstone. Disestablishment of the Irish Protestant Church was, in fact, passed by Parliament in 1869. The historian G.M. Trevelyan, in his 1926 History of England, wrote: “The disestablishment and partial disendowment of the Irish Protestant Church was carried out in a masterly and sympathetic manner by Gladstone, whose position as an enthusiastic Churchman stood him in good stead during the negotiations.” In Trollope’s novels, the role of Gladstone is played by Mr. Gresham. On this subject, unsurprisingly, he is supported by the Irishman Phineas Finn: “…he thought, nay he was sure, that Church and State, as combined institutions, could no longer prevail in this country.” In Trollope’s telling, Mr. Daubeny (who is based on Benjamin Disraeli) tried to seize the issue: “If there must be a bill, would you rather that it should be modeled by us who love the Church, or by those who hate it?” Another national issue that persists throughout the Palliser novels is decimalization, a cause championed by Plantagenet Palliser, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and later, after his uncle died, as the Duke of Omnium. The issue must have been important to Trollope, but it did not become law in Britain for a hundred years, in 1971.  

In novels written before the age of film, characters had to be fully drawn. In Trollope, readers know that a principal character in one novel is likely to make at least a cameo appearance in a subsequent one. We watch these people, some marrying and maturing, others not. An advantage in a sequential reading of this series is that the reader comes to know the players – their loves, their losses, their fortunes, their misfortunes. Meeting them again is like a return to a familiar place: the old Duke of Omnium; the rich and beautiful widow Marie Goesler (Madame Max); Lord Chiltern and his wife, the former Violet Effingham; Lady Laura Kennedy, her estranged husband Robert and her father Lord Brentford; Lizzie Eustace and Joseph Emilius; Plantagenet Palliser and his wife Lady Glencora; Gerard Maule and Adelaide Palliser, and the obnoxious Quintus Slide of the People’s Banner. The latter is a reminder that an unprincipled, obsequious, biased press is nothing new: “In the storm of wind in which he rowed it was necessary for him to defend his own conduct.” Repetition, whether in characters or ideas, is a continuing theme of Trollope. In the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Phineas Redux, University of York (England) Professor John Bowen wrote: “Novelists and politicians both know that if people hear things repeated over and over, they can sometimes be persuaded to think that they are true.”

Phineas Redux is considered one of Trollope’s finest novels. The story ends with Phineas marrying and with Trollope writing of his hero: “Of Phineas, everyone says that of all living men he has been the most fortunate. The present writer shall not think so unless he shall soon turn his hand to some useful task.” Two sentences that give this reader the nudge – not that he needs it – to continue on, to read the penultimate novel in this series, The Prime Minister, a book already packed for our trip to Florida on Friday.


[1] Phineas Finn was published in 1869. During the four years between the two novels, Anthony Trollope ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament. I wrote a review of Phineas Finn on January 14, 2019, which can be accessed on the Websites indicated above.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

"A Middle Way - Is It Possible?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Middle Way – Is It Possible?”
December 18, 2019

“Medio tutissimus ibis”
(You will go most safely by the middle way)
                                                                                                Ovid (43BC-c.17AD)

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (“I’m Partial to Impartiality,” December 12, 2019) Joseph Epstein wrote, “I happen to be someone who, in politics, yearns for impartiality.” I suspect that that desire for impartiality is common to most Americans – in the current environment, it “is a consummation devoutly to be wished,as Hamlet would say. Most recognize we live in a pluralistic society, comprised of people from every nation on earth, representing all religions and races. In our homes, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, we speak 350 languages. Nevertheless, we have in common a love of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We favor a middle road, which accommodates all travelers. But, in recent times, with our biases, real and imagined, we struggle for a common purpose and a common morality. Where I disagree with Mr. Epstein, whose mind and writing style I admire and envy, is that he puts principal blame on Donald Trump for the discord that has disrupted our lives. I would certainly agree that Mr. Trump has accentuated the divide, but real blame is more widely distributed.

Politicians have compartmentalized the electorate – youth versus age, urban versus rural, rich versus poor, people of color versus Caucasians, immigrants versus nativists, gays versus straight, globalists versus nationalists. As well, there are those in the industrialized (and former industrialized) parts of the Country who have seen coastal elites become wealthy, while their incomes have fallen or grown stagnant. There are a few immigrants who have chosen not to adapt to the culture of their adopted country, and there are people who have been here for generations who fear a breakdown in the social unity they have enjoyed. A culture of victimization, identity politics and moral relativism accentuates these divides. There are secularized elites on the coasts who cannot understand why folk in rural areas cling to religion and guns. There are those who have hated Mr. Trump from when he first ran for the Presidency, people who will do anything to remove him from office. (Last week, Nancy Pelosi, in a slip-of-the-tongue, said she had been working on impeachment for two-and-a-half years. Yet, hypocritically, she claims it is with great sadness she has advanced articles of impeachment.) And, of course, social media allows factions to gather in greater numbers, with more intense focus. And there are those like me who fear that the decades-long tilt in Washington toward statism, with the acquiescence of mainstream media, risks the fundamentals of personal liberty and economic liberty on which this nation was founded. In good conscience, I cannot remain silent.

So, how do those of us who fear the loss of individual liberty compromise with opponents’ intent on subjecting the people to greater regulation and governance by the State? How do we stay midstream? If we do not, will we rip the nation apart? We recognize that the natural path of government is toward more regulation, greater power and, of course, higher taxes to support its bigger size. And what should the role of government be? We wonder, are we correct to worry? Illumination is found in a 1787 letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison: “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

The process of governing is never as smooth as it seems in retrospect. Violence erupted on the floor of the House in pre-Civil War days. Reconstruction wasn’t much easier. Roosevelt’s New Deal created anguish, among conservatives, as did the Civil Rights riots in the 1960s and among progressives during the Reagan years. Differences are a hallmark of a democratic system. Most people prefer a centrist approach to the extremism of today. But that requires political objectivity, a characteristic foreign to most of us, including many of those in government.

Recent events have given confirmation that fears of an imperious government are justified. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in a report written by Clayton Thomas of the Congressional Research Service, claimed that American military and national security leaders have been lying about progress in Afghanistan for eighteen years and across three Administrations. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report showed that FBI agents methodically lied about the Russian collusion, asserting, as Newt Gingrich recently wrote, “…that everything Congressman Devin Nunes had reported about the FBI’s activity was true, and everything Adam Schiff had said was a lie.” While Mr. Horowitz’s report suffers from double-speak and government gobbledygook and could use Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for clarity, he ends his section on the four FISA applications: “We concluded that the failures described above and in this report represent serious performance failures by the supervisory and non-supervisory agents with responsibility over the FISA applications.”  And we have yet to hear from John Durham, the special prosecutor appointed to look into the origins of the Russian investigation. Richard Jewell’s lawyer’s summation, in the eponymous movie directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the jurors a truth, that his client’s accusers were “two of the most powerful forces in the world, the United States government and the media.” It is the willful use of government power for personal or Party purposes that we should fear. On the flip side, the UK elections last Thursday saw a democratic expression of the will of people. In Boris Johnson’s election, socialist and anti-Semite Jeremy Corbyn lost, and the electorate voted for Brexit – the nation state of Britain was deemed to be a greater protector of individual sovereignty than the multinational European Union.  

The challenge for republican democracy is accommodation – how do we access the middle way – without abandoning principles. The United States is a hundred times larger, in terms of population, than it was in 1776 and far more diverse; yet the principles embedded in our founding documents are ageless. Democracy is hard work and includes an acceptance of accountability. We are a nation where the people – not elected leaders, bureaucrats or military leaders – are sovereign. Sovereignty is a privilege that presumes responsibility and requires an educated electorate. It feeds on free markets. It demands impartiality on the part of government servants. It calls for unbiased reporting by the media. Yet, both government leaders and the media have failed. We have seen their bias and how they have been used – both bureaucrats and reporters – to try to unseat a duly elected President. We need government to provide communal services like schools and roads; we need a government of laws that is a guarantor of property and human rights; one that is an arbiter of disputes and that protects the cultural cohesion of society. We need a government that is accountable to a sovereign people, people who must be responsible and accountable citizens. E Pluribus Unum tells us a middle way is possible. But we cannot abandon liberty.

It is easy to slip, Eloi-like, into the comfort of permitting the state to assume responsibility for more and more aspects of our lives. That is the promise of socialism, which is sold most easily to those forgoing the dignity that comes with hard work, who lack aspiration and personal responsibility, to those without knowledge of our civic structures and economic history. The dream of socialism may sound enticing, but the reality is servitude. A middle way, even when deemed safe, only works when we understand the stakes.