Four Books Battle for Belief

Which camp do you fall into?
a) "I ran right out and got Bill O'Reilly's CULTURE WARRIOR" because it's by Bill O'Reilly and therefore it must be good"
b) "I wouldn't read that book with a right-wing gun to my head"
c) "Why bother all pundit-written books are garbage", or
d) "Sure, I'll read it, along with every other agenda-driven book on the market. I want to understand all sides of current issues!"

In case you haven't guessed, I'm in D camp.

When I was a grade school child, I was so enamored of the fact that I could read a book and be transported into another world of ideas and activities, the notion that a book had an "agenda" didn't concern me. (Though, in retrospect, even NANCY DREW books had subtle messages to deliver about wealth, status, men and women, good and evil.)

In high school, I realized that our teachers were leading us toward ways of thinking, both by their choices of the books we read, and by what they had to about them. At the time, I did understand that I was being exposed to "big ideas," but it wasn't clear to me that these ideas might fall into ideological groupings - or that my teachers might not just want us to be exposed to ways of thinking, but to embrace ways of thinking. I do recall having sometimes heated arguments with teachers about "the meaning of it all," but we never discussed the notion that there were forces at work (right/left, progressive/traditional, religious/atheist, for example) that were struggling over one's ideological soul.

Only much later did I become politicized to the point where I started to see that pretty much everything written has an agenda. Some books are simply written from a point of view, with a tacit understanding of "how things are." Some have the hero or heroine punished or rewarded in such a way that we can't miss the message - Anna Karenina throws herself under a train for her sins, for example. Others, like 1984, actually get right down in the dirt and argue philosophical points of view - in the case of 1984, for example, making it clear that the socialist point of view is NOT the one the author embraces.

Recently, in my peripatetic literary meanderings, I read four books that made me realize how vital and insistent that struggle for your political, indeed, philosophical, heart and mind really is.

In fact, Bill O'Reilly's CULTURE WARRIOR is all about that very subject. It is his thesis that there is a war going on in modern America, and that we should both be aware of it, and be aware that he is charging into the fray in our defense.

Granted, Bill can be a bit overbearing, but what he is saying is nothing but what culture observers have been arguing for years: the "left" and the "right," the "progressive" and the "traditional," the "liberal" and the "conservative" are squared off in a desperate, perhaps life and death struggle over what becomes of the ideology of Americans, and by extension, the philosophy and values that inform our politics.

For many years, it was popular wisdom that the "pendulum" of public opinion would swing: first we would be moral/religious/conservative, and then we would grow tired of the restrictions, punishments and limitations of such a philosophy, and swing toward the open/secular/progressive approach. Eventually, that mode of life would become too uncontrolled, expensive and offensive, and back we would swing.

So when, in the 60s, a hard left turn was taken, my parents' generation just nodded sagely and figured that sooner or later, we'd veer back right again. National elections in the ensuing years did seem a bit confused, swinging as they did from a Jimmy Carter to a Ronald Reagan, from a Bill Clinton to a George W. Bush. The center did not seem to be holding. But more importantly, public discussion, in the form of books, movies, and television - even television news - became more and more pointedly agenda-driven, the side out of power (the Republicans during Clinton's administration, and now the Democrats during Bush's) absolutely screeching with anger and frustration that American public discourse and American thought were being co-opted by the other side. Oh, and by the way, the "other side" is not just against us, it is actively EVIL.

It is, of course, Bill O'Reilly's position that what he calls the "secular-progressive" element in our country is evil, and is out to take over the American scene, and if we're not careful, that is just what's going to happen. He is leading the charge to let us know how and why this assault is being brought, so that we can defend ourselves, or better yet, fight back.

Well, he is right (no pun intended). I have to hand him that. (What he doesn't say is that the right is just as frantically, and underhandedly, fighting for a piece of your mind as the left is!) It's hard to watch any TV news, or read any news magazines, without being aware that there is an OPINION behind the reporting. Today, it's more a matter of choosing the TV station that least offends you with its implicit "take" on the stories it reports, than it is of choosing a station for its good reporting and pleasing talent. Yep, CBS news has, for years, reported with a left-friendly bias. And no doubt about it, Fox News is blatantly conservative.

And in a way, Bill has less to fret about now than he did, say, 15 years ago, when most of us blithely went on our ways, not looking too deeply into reportage, not questioning why one story was aired, and another spiked. Now, at least, the conflict is out in the open. I remember mentioning to a friend, long ago, that when TIME MAGAZINE wrote about someone it disliked (typically a Republican), it would have that person "simpering" or "shouting" a comment, whereas someone it liked (more typically a Democrat) would "stride" (manfully, one assumes) into a room, or "command" an audience. What I was pointing out, even back then, was the idea that the magazine was not using neutral words to describe an event: we don't think well of a simperer, and we assume a strider has purpose and strength. But back then, you had to keep your eyes open for such "attitudes" buried within a story. Today, it's right out in your face: "George W. Bush is dumb and he lies." "Bill Clinton is a womanizing murderer!" Well, OK. You don't have to tell me twice!

Back to CULTURE WARRIOR. Nothing Bill O'Reilly says in this book is news. He has a point, and he makes it (praising himself for his perspicacity and bravery along the way). The right wants a nation in which traditional values are upheld, marriage is one man one woman, people are free to express religious beliefs in the public arena, Judeo-Christian morality informs public law, and personal achievement is valued above community largess. The left wants a nation in which diversity and openness are valued above a single tradition, marriage and other estates are as we choose to define them, secular humanism informs public law, and the good of the community is valued above the merit of the individual. Other than that, the book reminds us of the ways in which the left is trying to sell us its agenda, and the ways in which Bill O'Reilly has exposed their ulterior motives.

Now, you may not think a Vatican pot-boiler has much of anything obvious to do with CULTURE WARRIOR, but in a way, the book WINDSWEPT HOUSE is a fictional - though, interestingly, much more well-documented - and Catholic version of CULTURE WARRIOR. Written about ten years ago by priest Malachai Martin, the book goes behind the scenes in the papacy of John Paul II, the pope who inherited the legacy of Vatican II and the turmoil that resulted in the church. Martin, a one-time Vatican insider, packs his book with details that are so specific you can't help wonder if they are more fact than fiction - and in fact, his writing style is more reportorial than fictional: there is nothing particularly graceful or literary about it.

His thesis is that there is a war in the heart of the Catholic Church between secular progressives (in the form of a Freemason infiltration of the hierarchy of the Church), and the traditionalists, who are trying to maintain the Church as it had been for nearly 2000 years. (Sound familiar?)

Martin is a traditionalist, and he paints the bad guys (liberals) with a broad brush. Their object is nothing less than a "New World Order," in which all are united under the common flag of humanism; where there are no differences among races, nationalities, religions, even behaviors. Good and bad are erased, and tradition is replaced with a sort of vague, non-sectarian, non-hierarchical Utopia in which we all live happily and at peace. (Without the supernatural aid of Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead, of course.)

In other words, the Culture War in which Bill O. is engaged has been going on in the Catholic Church for a while now, too!

Amid this peaceful reading, I turned for relief to Joseph Campbell. Known as a Jungian mythologist, I should have realized something was up when I saw that a video series on him had been done with Bill Moyers (whom the right claims is a leftist demagogue). The particular series of lectures I listened to were MYTHOLOGY AND THE INDIVIDUAL. The idea of the lectures is that we humans are convinced that there is something "other," something beyond ourselves, and it is the representation of that "other" that structures our personalities, cultures, and daily practices. (Campbell assumes this need for an "other" is born out of fear and ignorance, rather than perhaps out of an innate understanding that there IS something beyond us in the universe.)

He points out that the Western mythos has God being something outside of us, and different from us, whereas Eastern mythology represents us as particles of God, ultimately indistinguishable from God. These two different approaches to the numinous lead to very different modes of behavior: for the west, the struggle is to submit to God and God's will; for the east, the struggle is to cast off the prison of the body and return to unity.

All well and good. But now that I was in my "see what is written between the lines" mode of thinking, and since I had the advantage of hearing the lectures delivered by Campbell himself, I realized that he is not an impartial observer of humankind. He begins with (or has perhaps reached through his studies) the position that there is no God, the west in particular is wrong, believing in God is actually intellectually immature, and that we should laugh indulgently at people who do so. The Eastern mystics are less amusing because they have not personified God, though we can be pretty sure there is no point in stripping off all your clothes and trying not to hurt the air you breathe, as some Jains do.

He makes condescending remarks about the religious, at which the audience politely titters, and we are assured that if we are educated and intelligent, we would never stoop to something as "superstitious" as religion or belief in a deity, and we certainly would not rely on such a deity for guidance in our day to day lives and moral behavior. (The obvious other choice is humanism, in which the needs and wants of the human community become the guiding force behind social behavior. And this obvious other choice is the one Campbell embraces, implying that to do other would be, well, silly.)

Not a lot of objectivity there! So I thought I'd try a history book. This particular volume is called DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY, by Kenneth C. Davis. The book is subtitled: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AMERICAN HISTORY BUT NEVER LEARNED. It was supposed to be the "story behind the story" of American history - the parts that got left out in our high school history classes.

A few chapters in, and I had "discovered" that our much-lauded Constitution was actually an elitist document which "assumed only rich white men would ever vote;" that the Indian "removals" of the 1800s could be likened to the 3rd Reich's Final Solution; that the United States habitually followed a pattern of "aggression" and "greed;" that prohibition (read: restrictions on vice) was in all ways bad; that Hoover's administration was not just inept but worse, downright Marie Antoinettish about the plight of the poor during the Great Depression (and that government sponsored social programs are positive and progressive); and that Joseph McCarthy was a drunk, a liar, and an hysteric (there were never any Communists in this country, all "evidence and charges (were) fabricated by a desperate man.").

Well, I see! Though I'm not exactly sure how this is insider information that has not already been hashed over dozens of times.

But here, let's let the first few reviewers from have at this book:

"Davis is very opinionated in his writing of history and furthermore, I happen to be politically conservative and he is very liberal. However, I nontheless really liked the book. "

"This was absolutely the funniest parody I have ever read. The eager repetition of "The Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment to give civil rights to Corporations" as the SINGLE WORST argument to ever come forth from that body was one of the funniest lietmotif's in this hysterical parody of US History told from the standpoint of an over-the-top Marxist. Worse than cowboys were BUSINESSMEN!! Eugene Debs and WEB Dubois were the ONLY white americans who were not evil! "

"I'm glad to see I'm not the only one to notice the anti-White preaching in this book. Not what I expected at all because this is how History is taught today and this is supposed to be an answer to that. I was expecting to learn a lot more - most of the things mentioned I already knew. I graduated from high school in '89 and then got a Bachelor's degree from a state college that wasn't in History. Perhaps this book would be useful to those who have less education. "

"Davis's treatment repeatedly tells us how boring other histories are until we are bored with the repetition. Then he gives us the thinnest liberal telling. White men were all bad, indians were good. Women were brave. Conservatives are anti-semites. Republicans are bad and pro business. Anti-communism was silly. And all history is filtered through the vietnam protestor's filter. Mr. Davis is boring and totally predictable and has sacrificed accuracy for liberal orthodoxy. This is offensive when it neglects Margaret Sanger's racism, and communist depredations."

In other words, Mr. Davis was writing with a not-so-thinly-veiled AGENDA! In the Battle of the Books, he is on the left side of the front. Nothing wrong with that (as Bill O'Reilly might say), but I'm also very glad that, as one of the reviewers above noted, I have enough education to realize that what I'm reading is skewed and only PART of the story.

Perhaps the title was more accurate than the author intended: after reading this book, I still "don't know much about history." What I DO know is a great deal about Mr. Davis, and his point of view.

It can be both a frustrating, and tiring experience for the reader to be constantly looking for the infamous "rest of the story." Still, I suppose that at least we have this much going for (or against, depending on how you look at it) us: long gone are the days when subtlety might have actually allowed us to entertain new ideas, encouraged us to explore and experiment with old patterns, and might indeed have swayed our opinions. Today, if you are not in complete agreement with the speaker, you're simply an idiot. At least you always know where you stand!

So much for the old idea of "friendly persuasion!" You think Richard Scarry books have a hidden political message??


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