Make America Read Again: Way Behind Edition

Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to hit my reading goal for the year.  Nevertheless, I still plug away.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi

This book by Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi seems appropriate for our age a decade beyond the massive financial meltdown of Wall Street saw people lose their homes and retirement savings among other financial calamities.  The focus of Taibbi’s book though is less on the instruments of destruction that paved the way for the Great Recession and more on how a growing wealth gap in America enacts a completely different justice system for the rich and poor.  When we factor in race to that equation, the result is something even more lopsided in our court system.

Frankly, this book is infuriating and it is supposed to be.

As a columnist, Taibbi can be occasionally knee-jerk liberal reactionary to my taste.  The same style and tone is found in “The Divide” but it is a testament to Taibbi how heavily sourced this work is and how much is based on his actual eyewitness accounts in courtrooms as well as interviews with citizens who have found themselves on the wrong end of the law (by a lot of his telling, for dubious reasons).

Taibbi, of course, discusses the financial meltdown, offers evidence of massive amounts of mortgage fraud and tax evasion from top players at banks and other mortgage industry businesses and…hardly anyone went to jail.  Taibbi actually poured through public records where rampant fraud and other crimes by the wealthy are hiding in plain sight.  No prosecutions and little confrontation.  The author’s ire is often turned toward President Barack Obama and attorney general Eric Holder for being too chicken to go after the Wall Street buccaneers who devastated our economy and society.

A reader also gets a street-level inside look at New York City’s “stop and frisk” law which gave law enforcement tools to stop anyone and frisk them seemingly for any reason.  As one can imagine with little effort, this law disproportionately affected African-American citizens as well as Hispanics at very high levels.  Taibbi recounts cases of police officers planting drugs on people so they could arrest them.  The people affected by this law, often times being poor, would not have access to good lawyers and would, most of the time, cop a plea to a judge rather than plead innocent (and they may well be innocent) because this was the path of least resistance in our system.

“The Divide” takes a hard look at our immigration laws and immigration court system to reveal how much of a mess that whole system is as well.

One of the main takeaways from this book is the cultural assumption about rich and poor that Taibbi paints.  The rich are viewed as the moral upstanding citizens in the eyes of the law and being poor is criminalized in and of itself.

I took in the audio book of “The Divide” which was probably good because I could see myself with a physical copy throwing it up against my wall in anger and frustration related to the topics and themes.  The book gets under your skin and yet, on this topic, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no felony cases. But when the stakes are in the hundreds of dollars, we kick in 26,000 doors a year, in just one county.”

“Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization. There are more people in the United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak.”

“It’s become a cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth. Even now, after JPMorgan Chase agreed to a settlement north of $13 billion for a variety of offenses and the financial press threw itself up in arms over the government’s supposedly aggressive new approach to regulating Wall Street, the basic principle held true: Nobody went to jail. Not one person.”

“More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not.”

“Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.”

“We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. It isn’t just that some clever crook on Wall Street can steal a billion dollars and never see the inside of a courtroom; it’s that, plus the fact that some black teenager a few miles away can go to jail just for standing on a street corner, that makes the whole picture complete.”

Did Jesus Exist?  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman 

This is the third book I have read by Bart D. Ehrman, an agnostic who is a chair of he religious studies department at the University of North Carolina.  Like ‘Jesus Interrupted’ and ‘God’s Problem’, ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ is meant for a wide audience.  Ehrman is a scholar and has written collegiate textbooks but switched gears in 2005 when he published ‘Misquoting Jesus’ for a wider audience and became a New York Times bestselling author.

While he has drawn the ire of many Evangelicals and other Christians for his critical takes on the New Testament, he has particularly annoyed me with ‘Jesus Interrupted’ where he presented contradictions in the gospel as discrepancies that, at least in my view, are easy to explain as non-contradictions.  In other words, he greatly over-exaggerates his case.

‘Did Jesus Exist?’ might be viewed as an attempt at bridge building to the Evangelical world.  The main point of the book is proving the existence of Jesus of Nazareth using historical methods that include the gospels.  Ehrman aggressively defends Jesus as a historical figure against mythicists who believe that Jesus is fictional having been conceived from other deity stories or the cult of mithra.  Dispatching various books by mythicists convincing, Ehrman dives into historical methods that determine who Jesus was and what He did.

Now, before Christians get an overwhelming sense of ‘what the hell’ here, Ehrman is still an agnostic and he rejects the miracles in the New Testament.  Valuable to Christians in this work though is obtaining an understanding of how secular historians dialogue and debate about which accounts likely happened in history which is often based on how many independent sources could collaborate an account and how similar they may be in their descriptions.  Ehrman reminds his readers that there are at least 7 different independent accounts of Jesus existing- indeed a staggering collection of records for a homeless Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine 2,000 years ago.  The evidence, as Ehrman goes in to, even goes beyond that.

As a Christian who believes in he inspiration of the gospel accounts and thereby the miracles, I do not share Ehrman’s worldview but I do think his work here is good to have a working knowledge about and to dialogue upon.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Most televangelists, popular Christian preacher icons, and heads of those corporations that we call megachurches share an unreflective modern view of Jesus–that he translates easily and almost automatically into a modern idiom. The fact is, however, that Jesus was not a person of the twenty-first century who spoke the language of contemporary Christian America (or England or Germany or anywhere else). Jesus was inescapably and ineluctably a Jew living in first-century Palestine. He was not like us, and if we make him like us we transform the historical Jesus into a creature that we have invented for ourselves and for our own purposes.”

“Jesus would not recognize himself in the preaching of most of his followers today. He knew nothing of our world. He was not a capitalist. He did not believe in free enterprise. He did not support the acquisition of wealth or the good things in life. He did not believe in massive education. He had never heard of democracy. He had nothing to do with going to church on Sunday. He knew nothing of social security, food stamps, welfare, American exceptionalism, unemployment numbers, or immigration. He had no views on tax reform, health care (apart from wanting to heal leprosy), or the welfare state. So far as we know, he expressed no opinion on the ethical issues that plague us today: abortion and reproductive rights, gay marriage, euthanasia, or bombing Iraq. His world was not ours, his concerns were not ours, and–most striking of all–his beliefs were not ours.”

“One of Jesus’s characteristic teachings is that there will be a massive reversal of fortunes when the end comes. Those who are rich and powerful now will be humbled then; those who are lowly and oppressed now will then be exalted. The apocalyptic logic of this view is clear: it is only by siding with the forces of evil that people in power have succeeded in this life; and by siding with God other people have been persecuted and rendered powerless.”

God Country by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw

So refreshing to go from my non-fiction reading to a very good graphic novel published by Image Comics.  “God Country” is a story written by Donny Cates and had a lot of the artwork done by Geoff Shaw.  The books looks amazing and the story is a compelling read.

We find ourselves in rural eastern Texas where Roy is caring for his family which includes his aging father.  The father is Emmett Quinlan whose mind is rattled by Alzheimers.  He will occasionally have violent outbursts which causes a problem for his grandchildren and also the local police.  When a tornado ravages through town, a new Emmett emerges with a sword (Valofax) which restores his mind and turns him into a badass.   Of course, there are other gods who are looking for the sword and obtaining its powers.

This story does what good comic books do.  A lot of comics seem to be a rehashing of elements of Greek mythology- the interaction of gods and human beings.  This story keeps things personal and grounded.  We find clashes of gods here for sure but the center of the story is about a family dealing with a beloved family member suffering from a horrible disease.  As a matter of fact, the tornadoes and gods from other words that come to battle can be interpreted as metaphors of the difficult and painful journey of a family dealing with a crushing disease afflicting their loved one.

My maternal grandma died of Alzheimers disease so much of this felt pretty personal to me.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

 

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About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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