Posts Tagged ‘books’

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on October 5th, 2014

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is the finest book I’ve read in some time.

It’s tells an engrossing and true World War 2 story about Louis Zamperini, who started out in life as a steal-and-run trouble-maker. He was a kid who’d try the patience of Job. His mother tried to reform him to no avail. His father administered spankings, but physical punishment seemed to have no effect. Louis was constantly in trouble with neighbors, school mates, cops, teachers, store owners.

Louis’s older brother thought Louis would succeed if he were to just receive some positive attention. He thought track, a very popular sport at the time, was just the ticket. Louis loved his brother. In 9th grade he tried running, but the workouts chafed, and then one day he had an altercation with his parents. Louis figured the train would take him away from all his problems. So he ran away, hopped a boxcar, and very quickly learned the freedom of the rails wasn’t freedom at all. It sucked.

When he returned home, defeated, he decided to submit to his brother’s plan. This time it was just what the doctor ordered. Louis ran like mad. He broke records. He got a scholarship to USC and broke more. Louis ran in the 1936 Olympic Games. He didn’t win, but he would the next time they came around. However, the world was in turmoil back then, and Germany and Japan had their own plans which changed Louis’s life forever. He became a bombardier in the Pacific theater.

And that’s where I’m going to stop. The story that awaits you is truly amazing. And Hillenbrand brings it to life with surprising and powerful details. From start to last, I was enthralled. And towards the end, just when I thought the story was over, it took a turn that lifted it from being just another WW2 story with plenty of action to a tale that goes right to the heart of what it means to live. I wept, not for Louis’s pain, as awful as that was, but for something far more vital.

When I first saw the book, its sepia-washed cover turned me away from the tale. But with so many folks talking about it, I thought I’d give the first pages a go. I was delighted, but didn’t make it a priority. Not long after that, my 10th grade nephew told me how much he enjoyed it, and that prompted me to go back (and I’m so glad I did). It’s not that this is a kid’s book or that my nephew has the maturity of an older man. He’s definitely got some reading chops, but it’s not about an advanced writing style either. What is enthralling old and young alike is Zamperini’s story and Hillebrand’s skills in telling it.

How much do I like this book? I’m reading it again, slowly this time, so I can savor every word. Let me recommend you do yourself a favor. If you read one book this year, make it Unbroken.

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Murder, Courts, and Bart D. Ehrman

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on April 6th, 2014

I’m going to talk a bit about some murderers in Detroit, Jesus, and a couple of books I recently read that I think are just awesome.

MURDER

Highers BrothersSo, the murderers.

Let me start by asking this question: can you establish the truth in a court of law?

Is that what the judge and jury are deciding? The Truth, with a capital T?

Think about Tommy and Ray Highers, brothers from Detroit. They were convicted of murder. Open and shut case. No parole. They were two nasty buggers who shot a man down over some dope.

But then twenty-five years later (last year, in fact) they were back in court because new evidence had come to light that undermined the original conviction. For the curious, this awesome Dateline episode reveals the amazing way the evidence came to light and what happened because of it: http://www.nbcnews.com/dateline/full-episode-graduation-night-n72666. Watch it. You’ll be happy you did.

So the Truth. Capital T. Can you establish that in a court of law?

No.

What the justice system does is try to determine which story about the evidence available is the most convincing.

It’s about telling and judging stories.

There are many types of evidence folks use when telling their stories. Some of it is very strong. Some is so unreliable, like hunches and hearsay, that the court won’t even allow it to be presented.

Whatever the evidence, the fundamental nature of this is that you can often tell a number of different stories using the same set of data, the same evidence. Sometimes the stories are variations with minor differences. Sometimes the stories are radically different.

It’s like having only some of the pieces of a 100 piece puzzle. You look at the four, twenty, or thirty pieces you have and imagine what the rest of the puzzle looks like. And then you invent something that seems reasonable.

You invent it.

And if that story meets certain standards of proof, then our system allows the authorities to take certain actions. If the standard of a “reasonable suspicion” is met, it allows a police officer to stop someone. If the standard of “probable cause” is met, a higher standard than reasonable suspicion, an officer can arrest you. If a jury in a criminal case decides the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” an even higher standard of proof, then the justice system authorizes the authorities to sentence the defendant.

But at no time does the system seek to establish the absolute truth, the truth with a capital T. It only seeks to establish some level of probability that the story being told about the evidence is true.

All of this is made more complex because what’s “reasonable” is based on other people’s opinion. We have guidelines and rules to help folks be “reasonable.” But reasonableness is still affected by culture, background, history, etc.

It’s still opinion.

OTHER PUZZLES

What other realm of knowledge works like the justice system and consists of inventing stories about missing parts of the puzzle?

Well, history does.

In fact, if you think about it, history is what courts do. The processes and principles of our justice system guide everyone involved in how they go about telling the stories that make up that specific type of history.

And all historians (lawyers, judges, and juries included) have no means of establishing the absolute truth.

They can’t use science. Science requires you conduct experiments and reproduce results. But how is a historian going to reproduce the same events? What, they’re going to get Lincoln shot all over again and let the rest of us watch it? Dang, John Wilkes Booth did shoot the man. We all saw it happen down in the lab.

Sure, they can use science to date a manuscript, or determine what something is made of, or establish some other fact. But all science is doing is providing facts about the pieces of the puzzle you have. About the claims the evidence makes.

But science can’t fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. It can’t tell the story. The historian has to invent the story that makes the pieces all make sense.

And then the rest of us determine if that story, that sketch of the full puzzle, is reasonable.

But that isn’t all there is to it.

STANDARDS OF PROOF

Think about conspiracy theories like the ones that claim that the US government perpetrated the 9/11 bombings. Conspiracy theorists are practicing history. They are inventing a story that seems to fit the evidence available to them.

But what happens when you have only five or ten pieces of a 1,000 piece puzzle? What happens when you don’t thoroughly vet the evidence? What happens when someone screws around with the evidence? And I’m not just talking about tampering or invalidating it by thoughtless handling (contaminating DNA, for example). Folks with the best intentions have biases. In fact, we all have biases that lead us to include and exclude various pieces of evidence based on whether they support or oppose the ideas we want to believe.

Jonathan Haidt explains these biases in his excellent book The Righteous Mind. He explains that with things we want to believe, we often use the standard of “Can I Believe It”?  We look for anything at all that would allow us to believe our position. If we find it, even if it’s flimsy, we discount all the other evidence that may point another way and conclude we have met the burden of proof for our view.

For things that we don’t want to believe, we often use the standard of “Must I Believe It”? When falling prey to this bias, we look for anything at all that would undermine the thing we don’t want to believe, even if that evidence is flimsy. If we find it, we ignore all the other evidence, even if there’s a mountain of it pointing another way, and claim we have met the necessary burden of proof.

In court there are all sorts of procedures and standards that need to be followed to help us avoid invalidating evidence or falling prey to our biases. Those procedures and standards don’t remove all risk. But they do remove a lot.

Which court system would you want to be processed through? The current American justice system or the medieval witch trials?

Oh, for sure I’d want to be someone accused of witchcraft back when a claim of “I saw her as a witch in my dream” was admissible, as was the test of poking a mole on the accused’s body with a needle to see if said witch flinched enough. I’d be so happy to go back to the days when a confession obtained by torture was incontrovertible evidence.

So when practicing history, it’s important to have some guidelines, some rules to establish which bits of evidence are more likely (not guaranteed, but more likely) to be reliable. And it’s important that when folks tell their story, they not only share the evidence, but also all the assumptions they’re making.

JESUS

Where does Jesus of Nazareth come into all of this?

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D Ehrman

Well, Jesus has affected the world more than any other person who has lived on it. The stories we tell about him (the history we have practiced about him for the last 2,000+ years) have changed the world. And those stories will continue to affect us, especially folks in Western cultures, on everything from foreign policy to which clothes think are fit to be worn in public.

Who was Jesus? Did he really exist? Was he a god? What did he really teach? Have his teachings been changed?

These are all fundamental questions. And for the last two-hundred years historians have been re-examining the pieces of the puzzle, finding new pieces, and telling new stories to explain it all.

Some of these historians believe in Jesus as a god. Some don’t. Either way, the conversation is fascinating.

Jesus Interrupted  Bart D Ehrman

I just read three historical books about Jesus that were awesome. AWESOME. Not because I agreed with all of the author’s conclusions, i.e. his stories. I don’t. But because of the way he practiced his history. The way he told his stories. And because what he shared gave me new insights to my stories about Jesus.

The three books, all by Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, are:

  1. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
  2. Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)
  3. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

I’ve read the Bible many times, and I’m a believer. Of course, the question is a believer in which story?

Did Jesus Exist Bart D Ehrman

What Ehrman so engagingly makes clear is that there have indeed been many stories about Jesus. In fact, the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the writings of Paul (most of the rest of the New Testament) seem to all portray a different man and message. Not only do they say things that flat out contradict each other on some details, but if you look at each book separately, each author seems to have a slightly different take on Jesus.

Furthermore, it appears that what we now have has changed over time. For example, it seems the last twelve verses of Mark were not in the oldest manuscripts. There have been other changes. One of the more notable ones occurs in John 5:7-8.

Our earliest texts say:

“For there are three that bear record, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

But later texts say:

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

Nowhere else in the New Testament do we have anything that states that creedal doctrine so explicitly. Did John write that? Or was the extra material added to make the idea of the trinity scriptural?

And what do we make of the fact that we have no manuscript that dates to anywhere close to when Jesus lived? We have some small fragments of manuscripts with a few verses of John, Revelation, and Matthew dated around 150 AD. But the oldest manuscripts we have that contain the majority of any of the gospels are for the gospels of Luke and John, and these are dated around 200 AD. The oldest manuscripts with the full New Testament are dated around 350 AD.

That’s more than 300 years after Jesus died!

Have you played the game of telephone? Are we sure that the oral traditions that were written down weren’t changed? What happened to the books mentioned in the Bible that we don’t have now? For example, Jude mentions a prophecy of Enoch that we don’t have in our current Bible. Are we sure that the copyists didn’t add to the text like it seems some did to John?

And what about the term “Christ”? It’s actually the Greek word for “messiah” which just means one anointed with oil to perform a special service for god. Christ wasn’t Jesus’s last name. It was a title: Jesus the anointed one.

The anointed ones in those days were kings and prophets and priests. It appears most of the historical sources suggest that a “messiah” to the Jews of that time was someone who would throw off foreign rule and establish the kingdom of Israel as David had. In fact, there were a whole bunch of people who claimed to be messiahs. Here’s a nice list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Messiah_claimants.

Judas Maccabeus was considered a messiah because he threw off Greek rule in 164 BC. But then around 63 BC Israel was taken over by Rome. And Rome wasn’t too keen on revolts, so around 4 BC they crucified Judas the Galilean for claiming to be the messiah, the king of the Jews. Crucifixion, it seems, was the punishment reserved for seditionists. They crucified Jesus and a whole bunch of other guys claiming to be the king of the Jews. And their crimes were written on a board above them, which is why they hung the words “King of the Jews” over Jesus’s head on the cross. Here’s the criminal, and here’s his crime. These other messiahs were not claiming to be a god that came to earth to atone for sins, but anointed by God to throw off foreign rule and establish his earthly kingdom again.

Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of God. Was Jesus just another one of the seditionists?

Ehrman examines these and many other questions as a historian, providing all sorts of insights.

But the fabulous thing is that he doesn’t just tell his story. He gives his evidence. Exposes his assumptions. And in all three books he explains the guidelines or “rules” historians use to when trying to determine which stories are more likely and which evidence is more reliable.

I was enlightened, challenged, and delighted. I learned things about Jesus’s life and times that have helped me understand what I read in the Bible better.

LIMITS

Of course, the historical method has its limits.

Historians, because they are looking for explanations (stories) that are more probable, automatically select against things that are improbable. They exclude miracles. They exclude any story that says Christ was actually resurrected.  They may establish that a lot of folks thought he was resurrected, but they don’t have any methods to establish something like a resurrection actually occurred. And so they ignore it. Historians exclude modern revelation. If someone today were to have a visitation from Jesus as Paul did, the historians would exclude that.

But we all know that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. We all know that sometimes the less likely thing is exactly what occurred.

Historians are looking for what is most probable. Not what actually happened. Because they can’t go back and time and verify their story.

Excluding “improbable” things changes the types of stories the pieces of the puzzle support. For many of us, me included, we do accept evidences many historians don’t as pieces of the puzzle. And because we have these pieces, we’re able to tell different types of stories.

The cool thing about Ehrman is that he explains this. He’s not trying to hide anything. Instead, he’s explaining how to approach the Bible from a historical point of view, and where the principles of the historical method lead him.

And I have found that those methods in his hands have a lot to offer.

If you’re someone who is interested in religion–as a believer, agonistic, or atheist–you will love these books. Ehrman himself was once an ardent believer, but is now agnostic. However, his respect for believers, including other scholars in his field who believe in the divine Jesus, comes through loud and clear. Ehrman has no axe to grind. He is simply sharing the stories of Jesus that make sense to him and many other historians. And he does it in a very interesting and easy-to-read style.

If these books sound like something you want to try, I’d start with Misquoting Jesus, move to Jesus Interrupted, and then finish with Did Jesus Exist? And if you enjoy those, let me recommend two more of Ehrman’s books. The first is The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed, which looks at the discovery and content of a very ancient manuscript that calls itself The Gospel of Judas. The second is Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, which explores the variety of Christian faiths that existed in the few hundred years after Jesus’s death.

Happy reading!

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Shadow and Bone

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on August 28th, 2013

Last year someone recommended Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo to me. I noted the recommendation and then promptly forgot it because my reading queue is two years long. But this last week my wife brought some books home from the library, and there, sitting on top, was Bardugo’s book.

I opened it. Page one listed the orders of magic. I was immediately drawn to the names. They were Grisha, “soldiers of the second army, masters of the small science.” They had divisions of corporalki, etheralki, and materialki, who are the order of fabrikators.

I don’t know what it is, but I love, not steampunk (well, I don’t know if I don’t love steampunk because I really haven’t read any, but I do think dirigibles are vastly overrated), but the mixture of machinists and engineers and magic set in the late 1800’s, the time period when Sherlock Holmes was running about. It’s something I can’t resist.

And “fabrikators”? Russian? Oh, baby.

Most epic fantasies are set in some kind of old German or English medieval setting. Nothing wrong with that. We luvs them, Precious. But something different is nice as well. Recently, Peter V. Brett and Saladin Ahmed have given us fantasies with a Middle Eastern flavor. But I haven’t read an epic fantasy with a Russian flair since C. J. Cherryh’s Rusalka series. And here on page one I’ve got magic and machinists and all these Russian sounding terms.

Awesome.

I turned the page. The opening paragraph of the prologue pulled me right in, and I was off and running, soaking up this little snippet about an orphaned boy and girl who, fast-forward in the next chapter, are now in the army. Not the second army that’s made up of Grisha, but the first army that’s made up of soldiers with rifles who have to slog through mud and march while a handful of Grisha of the second army roll by in a carriage.

Alina, the girl who is now working with the army’s cartographers, and Mal, who is a tracker, are heading with the troops toward the Unsea, the Shadow Fold, this darkness that cuts the country in two and is full of these horrors called volcra. They enter the Shadow Fold, are attacked, and Alina unconsciously calls forth a powerful magic.

Of course, she can’t reproduce it, but it’s a magic that might be used to banish the Fold forever. The rest of the book is about Alina avoiding assassination, trying to learn how to summon her magic, and being pulled into a surprising and terrible plot. It’s also about her and Mal. Yes, there’s a love story here, but this is NOT a romance where everything focuses on her feelings and his feelings and touches and sighs and unbounded quivering.

This is an epic fantasy, remember? Those books that delight readers with dark lords and magic? Well, there’s plenty of that here, plus secrets and a number of delicious plot twists. There are escapes and chases and battles. And, yes, that love story that isn’t overblown but feels very real indeed.

Epic fantasies come in lots of different sizes. This isn’t one of those huge doorstop epics with twenty sprawling plotlines. This focuses on one point of view and one storyline, which means you are able to enter the story very quickly, much like the epics by Hambly and McKinley and so many others.

It’s a terrific read. Give it a go. If you enjoyed Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Cinna and Katniss in Hunger Games, then I think you’re going to love Shadow and Bone. I’m certainly looking forward to the next volume.

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The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on January 3rd, 2013
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The Drowned Cities by Paolo BacigalupiI just finished The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, and, holy cow, folks—this story rocked.

It’s set in the future in the area around Washington D.C. which is the titular drowned cities. They’re drowned because the climate has gotten warmer, the seas have risen, and D.C. is half under water, permananetly flooded. It’s more like Georgia or Florida—gators, kudzu, the works. But this is not another dumb book about global warming. If it were, I wouldn’t be writing this.

No, the United States has fallen apart. Up north there’s some alliance with money and power and the ability to keep those in the Drowned Cities out. South, who knows? West? Don’t know. But right around D.C. everything has gone to hell.

It’s like Mogadishu, Somalia in the 1990’s (Blackhawk Down) with warlords fighting each other, tearing the place apart.

It’s like Sierra Leone at the end of that decade with different factions butchering locals and forcing kids to fight as soldiers.

Except instead of the U.S. or Europe or the U-freaking-N sending in peacekeepers to stabilize the situation, it’s China. And just like the U.S. in Somalia, the warlords send the Chinese peacekeepers packing. And so now it’s just chaos.

Talk about a setting for a story. But Bacigalupi doesn’t stop there. He adds in genetically modified creatures. He starts the book with one named Tool. A creature that’s got the DNA of humans, mastiffs, tigers, reptiles and who knows what else all combined to make him smarter and stronger than humans ever could be—a monster that’s the ultimate killer, the ultimate soldier, the ultimate war machine. One that was bred to submit to a master, but something went wrong with Tool. And he was able to break free of that bond.

Tool is trying to escape prison and death. But as mighty as he is, he’s weak and injured. And then two kids from a village run into him while in the jungle. He knows they’re going to reveal his whereabouts to the warlord searching for him. In his weakened state, Tool is only able to grab the small boy named Mouse.

Mahlia, the girl, promises to bring medicine if Tool will only spare the boy. He knows she’s lying.

And so starts a rich tale of the monster, the boy, and the girl: a tale that is filled with friendship, triumph, loss, heroism, cowardice, and earthy sci-fi coolness all set in the midst of a guerilla war. The beginning sucks you in. The ending leaves you breathless. Along the way you get to see into the character of all three plus some of the bad guys. In the end you get a story about sacrifice and love.

If you liked A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his time as a child solider in Africa; if you liked The Hunger Games, and not primarily for the romance; if you like person in jeopardy fiction or war flicks where a small group has to fight for its life, I think you will love this book.

This is the second book set in the same world. The first was Ship Breaker. Tool, one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across, is in that one too. But you don’t need to read that to enjoy this. And I wouldn’t put this read off to do so. Go give The Drowned Cities a try. Three or four pages in, I suspect you’ll be completely lost in the wondrous tale.

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Witchbreaker by Author James Maxey

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on December 28th, 2012
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I’m supposed to do this tag thing where one author tells about his or her latest project and then tags other authors to tell about theirs and so on and so on until we turn into some weird internet author borg and eat your brains out. 

Heck with that.

I want to simply share something cool with you instead. James Maxey (who tagged me in the borg fest) writes stories with lots of action, fun, and character that also make you think. They always start with a bang and never let up. For example, look at how GREATSHADOW, his last book, starts.

When Infidel grabbed me by the seat of my pants and charged toward the window, I didn’t protest. Partly this was due to the speed of her action, but mostly due to my inebriation from the sacramental wine we’d stolen.

If an opening like that isn’t going to make you want to read more, I don’t know what will. Especially when the wine was stolen from a lava-pygmy temple carved into the sheer cliff face of a volcano.  I’m not alone in my appreciation of Maxey’s writing. Orson Card wrote this glowing review of GREATSHADOW earlier this year.

Here is the opening to Maxey’s “To The East, A Bright Star” which was published in Asimov’s.  It has one of my favorite beginnings.

There was a shark in the kitchen. The shark wasn’t huge, maybe four feet long, gliding across the linoleum toward the refrigerator. Tony stood motionless in the knee-deep water of the dining room. The Wolfman said that the only sharks that came in this far were bull sharks, which were highly aggressive. Tony leaned forward cautiously and shut the door to the kitchen. He’d known the exact time and date of his death for most of his adult life. With only hours to go, he wasn’t about to let the shark do something ironic.  

Which brings us to the fact that Maxey has another book out called WITCHBREAKER. That’s such a cool title I wish I could off Maxey and steal it for myself. The book has, as you have seen to the right, a fabulous cover as well. About 5000% better than the horrid thing Solaris put on GREATSHADOW.

Maxey talks about what inspired WITCHBREAKER in this blog post, which I recommend you read in full. But just in case you’re a lazy son-of-a-gun like me, here’s the meat of the thing. WITCHBREAKER is about a woman named Sorrow. Says Maxey:

Her father was a judge who hung his own mother after she was accused of being a witch. Sorrow rebelled by becoming a witch herself, but her hatred isn’t directed directly at her father, it’s directed at the religious and political institutions that empowered him. So, Sorrow’s life mission is to overthrow that system. She’s one woman against the world, fighting to make it a better place even though everyone she meets keeps insisting that the world isn’t so bad. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for characters locked into a lifelong battle against forces more powerful than they will ever be.

Blast that dang Maxey and his character genius. I’m not envious at all. No, sir. Which is why I suggest you give Maxey a go. Maybe you’ll appreciate him as much as thousands of other readers do. Read the first few pages of WITCHBREAKER here with Amazon’s look inside.

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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on December 15th, 2012

After this year’s presidential election I emailed my sister, a smart, super-competent, true-blue, bleeding-heart, save the weeds and snails liberal, who volunteered to do campaign work for Hilary Clinton in Colorado during the 2008 Democratic primaries and, of course, voted loudly for Obama in this last election.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “How can anyone who doesn’t have a carrot for a brain want more of the same? I don’t get it. Obama? How can so many Americans be that gullible? I’m totally baffled.”  And that puzzlement wasn’t rhetorical. I was seriously baffled.

“Are you kidding me?” she replied. “Mitt Romney? How could anyone vote for Mitt Romney?  Talk about baffled.”  She went on a rant listing all of Romney’s supposed deeds and positions of sooper evil and stupidity. Then she questioned how anyone could support that Hitler in his Mormon clothes.

Okay, she didn’t say “Hitler,” but she did claim he was “evil” and “despicable.” And when I think of evil, my first thought is always of folks like Mitt Romney.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez drug cartel, which is responsible for hundreds of gruesome murders each year and . . . Mitt Romney. Oh, yeah. They’re like brothers. In fact, wasn’t Romney’s dad born in Mexico? And, hey, one of Romney’s sons even knows Spanish. That boy wasn’t on a church mission there. No, he was making connections with the jefe!

Sonia Montoya-Cadena, the one who ran a human trafficking ring in Denver exploiting young girls for sex and . . . Mitt Romney. Yeah, Romney’s just like that. If he could run slave brothels, he’d do it in a minute to make a buck. In fact, doesn’t Bain Capital own a couple of slave brothels in Greenland?

I wanted to unload. I was prepared to destroy her with fiery analysis of the first order.

Thundering analysis.

Mountain crushing logic.

She was so freaking blind.

Except,

She had never actually considered what I had to say in any of my previous emails. It never mattered how powerfully vast my brilliant logic was. She’d demonstrated wax ear time and again. All of my intellectual might never made a dent in her liberal force field. I brought blood and thunder, and it always seemed to bounce off her like bullets made of styrofoam.

Nevertheless! Clinton? Obama? Save the gerbils?

I made a comment that sent Smart Sister into DEFCON 5. Foolish me. Eventually, her liberal ire cooled and she decided to order comrade Putin to stand down and not push the big red button.

Meanwhile, I started to think.

I noted that if things didn’t change, the Republicans wouldn’t be winning the presidency any time soon. If they couldn’t beat Obama when the economy was in the tank, then there really was no hope. Which meant we are going to end up like Greece, with continuing inflation (which is not only an intentional, government-led annual pay cut on the disgustingly rich, filthy rich, and annoyingly rich, but also on the middle class, poor, destitute, and various and sundry hoboes everywhere), huge debt, stupid taxes, ridiculous health care, Soviet-style redistribution, blah, blah, blah.

I asked myself, like all Republicans did, what could we conservatives do differently? Follow Obama’s example and improve our operations to get the vote out? Build up a conservative La Raza? Do the right thing with the children of illegals? Get someone willing to land more blows on the opposition (Romney could have decimated Obama in debates two and three, but he didn’t; he totally failed to define his opponent).

Maybe it was in the messaging. Maybe what we needed to do was develop something that actually changed minds.

At this point a faint ding sounded in the distance in my mind. A small light bulb suddenly flipped on and illuminated a dark cubby of my mind.

Hadn’t I just read about studies showing how a soap opera in Mexico, a radio play in Tanzania, and sitcoms in America actually changed viewer attitudes and behaviors about literacy, HIV, and abortion? Didn’t I already know about the power of concrete and vivid storytelling? Not sermon-telling, but storytelling.

Why, yes. Yes, I did.

Had I not witnessed the use of storytelling on U.S. television for, what, fifteen years by those wanting to build sympathy for homosexuals? (A good thing, even if I disagree with some of the gay agenda.) And the cheapening of sex by others? (A bad thing.) And the clearly conscious promotion of many other attitudes and beliefs via various media programs?

I determined there was something to this.

If people were going to vote for fiscal responsibility in Washington, something like this was going to have to be done. It wasn’t going to happen in flame wars.

About this same time I was browsing through the recent Radio West programs. I saw one called “The Righteous Mind.”  It was an interview of Jonathon Haidt about his new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Hey, wasn’t that addressing my question?

The program blurb states: “Monday, our guest is the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose latest book sets out to explain the root causes of the divisions in our society. At the heart of his argument is the idea that the human mind is designed to “do” morality. But when we separate into tribes – say political affiliations or religious denominations – we focus on different moral foundations. Haidt joins us to explain why he says we need the insights of liberals and conservatives to flourish as a nation.”

I listened. And loved the program.

Haidt shared a number of deliciously insightful things about how our mind works and how we choose our affiliations. He shared so many insights that I immediately requested his book at my library. The library ordered a copy for their collection. I, of course, was first in line to read it. I just finished the book.

It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Haidt explains why my sister and I were both baffled by people who voted for the opposition candidate. He explains how human morality works. How our reason does not lead us to make the judgments we do, but instead more often acts like a lawyer to justify our positions to others.

As soon as he explained that I saw how I had done that time and time again. For example, in this election cycle I blamed Obama for the economy. In the Bill Clinton re-election I vigorously argued that the President doesn’t have any effect on the economy and is lying if he takes credit for it. I’m not saying that Obama didn’t do things that might have hampered the recovery, but how did I know his actions exacerbated our problems? What evidence did I really have?

Haidt explains that there are six basic moral bases then points out which ones drive liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, and how we can use that knowledge to disagree more constructively. He provides strong insights into how our reason and intuitions and judgments work, the evolutionary function of our morality, and how our wiring for group affiliation affects it.

I didn’t agree with some of his conclusions. He sometimes takes his points too far. For example, he seems to suggest that people in cities are pre-disposed to be liberal. And that’s why they live there. Um, no. That’s not why they live there. They live in cities because that’s where the jobs are. The agricultural revolution made sure of that, remember? In his effort to explain the smaller biological basis of our beliefs, he also downplays the larger effect our families and groups have. But despite these excesses, he shares so many fresh and exciting ideas that they don’t matter. And he shares them all in such a fun and clear way that I couldn’t help but stay up late a number of nights reading this book.

Do you know how much I wanted to trash Obama to my sister?  That Soviet-style central planner.  That drunken sailor spender.  That choom wagon pot head.

And yet, you and I also know that will never work. I now know better why. Because of Haidt, I think I see a better way. I certainly see how I have done exactly what drives me mad about those who have drunk the opposition candidate’s Kool-aide. I see that I have my own conservative force field that deflects liberal bullets (and perhaps even blinds me to the truth sometimes). And why I need to watch my reason, that cunning lawyer part of my brain, as well as my intuition.

Haidt, a liberal, has given me, a conservative, a great gift. I intend to use it. If you are interested in the two taboo topics of politics or religion, if you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink or the Heath brother’s Made to Stick, if you want to find a better way to influence than flame wars (as fun as they can sometimes be), then I think you will enjoy the wonders Haidt shares in his fine book.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to the Radio West program http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/righteous-mind for a taste of what awaits you.

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