Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Spy Among Friends

For some time Ben Macintyre has been one of my favorite history authors. With books such as Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal (excerpt here), Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, and Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (review here, excerpt here), he has written several books now on the absurdity that took place during WWII British spycraft.

His most recent book takes a step forward in history. In A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Macintyre moves on to the Cold War. As highlighted in the previous books, British counterintelligence was so strong that they were able to capture every last German spy in the country. Yet during this same period, it was a virtual sieve for the Soviets.

Many of the British intelligence officers were in the pay of the Soviet Union both during and after the war. Most famous among them was Kim Philby, the agent who for a time served as the head of the division responsible for spying on the Soviet Union.

For decades, Philby lived a double life, deceiving even his closest friends, most notably MI6's Nicholas Elliot and the CIA's James J. Angleton. And that is the angle that Macintyre takes in this book: how Philby deceived his friends and, even more broadly, how the good old boys friend network within MI6 shielded him from suspicion.

These British operatives all grew up together. They went to school together. They knew each other's parents. They were all good British stock. Many were fools, most were alcoholics. But they were fellow aristocrats, and because of this, their trust for each other, and their continued employment, was based on cultural elements deeper than job performance. It was simply unthinkable that one of them could be a spy, so for a long time it was unthought regardless of the evidence. The very people Philby was deceiving provided his strongest shield.

This is what makes this book so different from the other three Macintyre has written about the British intelligence agencies. In Zigzag, Mincemeat, and Double Cross, the British are the sharp and intelligent heroes hilariously exploiting the cracks in the strict yet bumbling German hierarchical system where no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Those stories are great fun, where the British keep pulling off greater and greater capers and the Germans keep falling for them.

A Spy Among Friends inverts that narrative. Here is an agency so welded to its aristocratic classism that it cannot see its own weaknesses. And although his writing is once again excellent, this book has a decidedly different tone. In contrast to the prior comedies, this story is a drawn out tragedy as again and again Philby escapes detection. Where the prior books exposed British culture's superiority to the German system, this one zeroes in on its weaknesses. One could almost say that the common theme through all these books is never underestimate the power of office culture. The very same loose camaraderie that helped win WWII proved to hamstring the agency during the Cold War. And that is what made Philby's betrayal so great--more than being a spy, he had been a friend.

Click here for more book reviews.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Best George Washington Quotes

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
Today is Presidents Day and therefore George Washington's birthday. In honor of the day, I have compiled my favorite quotes attributed to America's first president. I hope you can appreciate the wisdom here and are inspired by this great man.


“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” ― George Washington

Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. - George Washington

True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity, before it is entitled to the appellation. - George Washington

Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distress of everyone, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse. - George Washington

I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent. - George Washington

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze
“To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.” ― George Washington

“Real men despise battle, but will never run from it.” ― George Washington

“Be not glad at the misfortune of another, though he may be your enemy.” ― George Washington

George Washington by Robert Field
“The hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding Country depend. Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are free men, fighting for the blessings of Liberty -- that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.” ― George Washington

“I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” ― George Washington

“LIBERTY, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.” ― George Washington

Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light. - George Washington

It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a Free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it. - George Washington

While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case they are answerable. - George Washington

Signing of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy
Post by Jeremiah Lorrig

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fifty Shades of -- Oh You Know

So. Fifty Shades of Grey. If I am to believe all the Christian blog posts I see, every Christian woman in America is being tempted to go see this film. And if they do it is going to bring on the apocalypse. It all seems a bit overblown, doesn't it? I mean even if this film is as depraved and wicked as the bloggers would suggest, how is it worse than the googlebytes of pornography and erotica already created and seemingly all around us? Will seeing this one film, unless perhaps you are in that group that has never once indulged in pornography or lust, corrupt you that much more than whatever your normal life routine involves?  Let's not forget that Jesus condemned looking at a woman with lust in your heart long before the technology existed to capture that woman's image in a photographic reproduction. Lust predates the cinema by far.

Yet something about the warnings and the pleadings rings true. Unlike most pornography, which is still heavily stigmatized in our culture, Fifty Shades of Grey, especially among women, seems oddly acceptable. Partly this is because Fifty Shades was seen as made primarily for women. In our society, we primarily think of sex as a male pursuit, and not as a particularly wholesome one. In fact, much of what passes for sexual content these days is so much about men oppressing and possessing women, that any sexual content created for women that attempts to cater to their desires seems like some sort of relief. Also, since it is largely women that have stigmatized pornography, and have generally held men in contempt for using something so wasteful and self indulgent, the idea exists that anything women can enjoy must be superior, morally and spiritually,  to male-centric pornography and fantasy. This grows out of both christian fundamentalist and secular progressive assumptions about the superiority of women (when appropriately exercising their femininity) to men (when over indulging in their masculinity).  

And so, the Christian bloggers warn, don't see this film! We know you are sexually unhappy! That your husband's beer belly isn't as nice looking as Christian Grey's chiseled abs! But that's exactly why you mustn't see it! It will destroy your marriage! It will make you discontent! It will alienate you from Christ!

And I suppose it might. Anything might, really, because anything in life can become an "idol" (as the Bible would describe it) and do all those things. But that warning is misleading to those who will inevitably see it, because, to them, it may not do all those things. It might be an exciting movie and lead to an even more exciting night at home with your lover and that might be it. This might lead you to think those bloggers were full of themselves and lead you to disregard more of their beliefs. Make no mistake, some of them are hypocrites who will see the movie even though they told you not to. But overreacting to the film is a disservice to all involved.

You see, for humans, sin is like an addiction. (I can’t claim this analogy as my own, as best as I can tell, Dr. Timothy Keller originated it in a 1999 sermon, though I suppose he might say he got the imagery from the Bible). Some addicts — drug addicts, alcoholics, sex addicts — are what we call "functioning addicts," which means they can maintain their addictions while carrying on their lives in a seemingly normal and healthy fashion. I think the majority of humans are functioning "sin addicts." They have it under control. They have their indulgences but they keep them manageable so they don't interrupt their ambitions and plans in life. It's only the ones that lose control and see their life spiral into chaos and destruction that we collectively pity or otherwise condemn as a cautionary tale. The rest we usually admire.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, is now an international joke, not because he is a sexually promiscuous predator, but because he lost control of his habits. He acted out one time too many and lost control of his narrative, and now, people who probably knew about his proclivities and envied him, laugh at him. Even if he survives prosecution he will never again command public respect.  

So the most dangerous thing that might happen if you see Fifty Shades of Grey is not that you might cheat on your husband; it's that you might not. It's that you might enjoy it at no harm to yourself, and that enjoyment might send you searching for other highs that maybe you'd been told would be disastrous for you, and your continued success at beating the odds would become so intoxicating that it would become its own drug. Because the worst thing about drugs is not that you might get in a car accident or hurt someone you love; the worst thing is that you give over control of your life to a substance and lose yourself. That is not a guarantee that something cataclysmic will happen to you; its just a bad way to live.

Likewise, sin is a bad way to live. Nothing in the Bible promises that your sin is going to destroy your life. It certainly can; but it is possible to sin safely. It is possible to keep it under control. But God wants you to have more than that. He wants you to have peace.

The film's stars looking... perplexed? Rumors persist that neither particularly enjoyed making the film.
Ultimately, if I'm to believe what I've read, seeing Fifty Shades of Grey probably isn't good for you. But it also isn't going to kill you. It's probably not going to destroy your life. And telling people it will do worse than it actually may is as devastating as when Eve believed she would die just from touching the fruit in the garden. She touched it, and nothing happened. Cling to what is true, and make your best judgments from there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Jeremiah's Letter to the IRS

I finished my taxes last night and was quite frustrated with the process. So I decided to write this letter to the IRS and also send it to my elected officials to just remind them that someone is willing to say something.

This idea came from reading an article several months ago about how Donald Rumsfeld sends an incredible letter to the IRS every year. So to follow in his footsteps, I just dropped my own letter into the mail, but I thought I'd share it with you too.

What would you say to the IRS?

Post by Jeremiah Lorrig

Thursday, February 5, 2015

FDR's Supreme Court

In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced Herbert Hoover as President of the United States. At that time, the progressive democratic movement had hit a barrier in the Supreme Court. A number of progressive legislative initiatives had been declared unconstitutional, as were significant portions of Roosevelt's first wave of New Deal legislation. To counter that, Roosevelt sought judicial appointments who were more sympathetic to his legislative ends.

This is the story Noah Feldman, professor at Harvard Law School, addresses in his book Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices. Specifically, Feldmon focuses on four particular appointments: Hugo Black, William Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson. These four men would influence the legal system for decades--Justice Douglas served until 1975.

As Feldman shows, however, each of these four men solved the issue of disliked Supreme Court precedent in his own way--and by so doing laid the foundation for nearly the entire spectrum of what we now consider judicial philosophies. Black took an originalist route, focusing on ideas such as historical research and original intent to correct the errors that had crept into the Court's jurisprudence. Douglas ended up taking a rights-based tack, using the court to further individual rights (more liberal than libertarian, although Feldman conflates the two). Jackson (who took a break from the Court to be a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) took a pragmatist approach, using the balance of powers as his guide in determining disputes between the governmental branches. And finally, Frankfurther took a position of deference to the legislature--a position that guaranteed liberal outcomes when a liberal legislature was in power yet ended up affirming much more conservative outcomes as the makeup of the legislature changed (allegations that he was inconsistent reveal more about the changing political landcape than his own changes in philosophy). So although they were all appointed by Roosevelt, and although during Roosevelt's administration they were all fairly reliable votes for him, after his death their various strands of jurisprudence diverged. One of the Justices' clerks referred to them as scorpions fighting in a bottle (hence FEldman's somewhat odd title.)

What was most surprising to me (well, besides the fact that neither FDR nor Jackson graduated from law school) was that although all four were deemed "liberal" in their day, in hindsight they largely encompass the entire spectrum of judicial philosophies used today, be they liberal or conservative, activist or deferential. In this sense, then, we are all "liberals" now in our thinking about judicial philosophy at all.

Yet this reveals one of the key elements missing from the book. Although Feldman does an excellent job of tracing the constitutional legacy of these Justices, and of introducing the reader to their individual histories, he does not nearly pay enough attention to any judicial philosophies that existed prior to their appointment. One is left with the impression that Black invented originalism, or that Frankfurther was the first to view judicial review through a lens of deference to the legislature. However, as the Court was over 150 years old at the time of their appointment, there were plenty of prior Justices who had also left their interpretative mark. Yet Feldman leaves the impression that (apart from Holmes and Brandeis) FDR's Justices largely stepped into a vacuum. In short, while he is quite insightful of the downstream effects of the FDR Court, he could have spent more time developing the upstream influences.

Be that as it may, it was not the emphasis of the book, and is only a side critique. Apart from that, Feldman's book makes a good guide for anyone seeking an introduction to the constitutional thought of the FDR Court and its lasting legacy. It also reveals the individual personalities of the various Justices and lets the reader see past their judicial opinions into how they thought.

Click here for more book reviews.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Rendezvous with Destiny

I am always surprised at how easy it is to think of the outcome of historical events as somehow foregone conclusions. Of course, the Allies won WWII. Of course, the Civil Rights movement succeeded. Of course, Abraham Lincoln held the Union together. Of course, a handful of colonists successfully threw off British rule. They happened, therefore they were inevitable.

Part of that is that we look back with clearer vision. But another part is that we determine what is significant from the outcome. Those living before the outcome, however, had no such guide.

So of course, it is tempting to say that Ronald Reagan had to beat Jimmy Carter in 1980. Carter was weak, Reagan was, well, Reagan. But to say that would be to let the outcome determine how we view the campaign.

This is where Craig Shirley is helpful. His book Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, gives a blow-by-blow of Reagan's 1980 campaign for the White House. Shirley, a former Reagan aide and campaign worker, has done extensive research into the details of the Reagan, Carter, Bush, Kennedy, Anderson, Connally, and others' campaigns for President that year. This is his second book on a Reagan campaign, the first being Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All, about Reagan's failed 1976 primary challenge to President Ford.

If detail on the politics and maneuvering of this monumental election is what you are looking for, this is probably the definitive source. Shirley captures both the high-level rhetoric and the daily grind of politicking. In fact, the level of detail is one of the greatest drawback of the book. At 600 pages, it includes so many asides and secondary stories that, at times, the overarching narrative disappears. It would have been a better book had a hundred or so pages been edited out.

Nonetheless, it is the story of what happened. The story of how an campaign that had been a toss-up all summer, and which one week before looked tilted in favor of the incumbent, ended up being a landslide the other direction. It's a story of strategies, victories, errors, and bungles on both sides. Of the confusing muddle of elections. And most of all, how little in history is a foregone conclusion. This is an important volume to add to the library of anyone seriously interested in significant historical campaigns.

In closing, I'll leave you with clips of the NBC and CBS election night coverage. Although all the networks had anticipated it being a long night, the election was called for Reagan at 8:15 p.m. EST, before the polls were even closed in the western states. Reagan went on to win the electoral college by a margin of 489 to 49. Carter only won the states of Minnesota, Georgia, West Virginia, Maryland, District of Columbia, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.

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