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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 15, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Churchill Factor, Burning Room, Defending Jacob

It's a shame that Barack Obama really doesn't understand foreign policy. When he first took office, he went around apologizing for America's history -- America, the great power with the least to apologize for in our admittedly imperfect history.

What was the result of all this confessing? Of his bowing before the misogynist, hate-sponsoring king of Saudi Arabia? Of his winks and nods to Chinese and Russian dictators, assuring them that he'd soon be able to give them all the things they wanted and deserved?

The result was that in country after country, both Obama himself and the U.S. along with him had plummeted in public opinion. Because now, under Obama's apologetic rule, our enemies despised us even more, and our friends knew they could not trust us because Obama was not going to live up to America's previous commitments.

And now he has shown that he really is completely tone-deaf. Heads of state of many nations gathered in Paris to show solidarity with the murdered cartoonists and editors of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo -- and the Jewish grocery shoppers who were kidnapped and murdered.

But Obama was not there. He didn't even send Joe Biden or Fightin' John Kerry. Heck, Obama could have taken part by allowing himself to be photographed holding a "Je Suis Charlie" sign to show that at least he had a clue.

None of the above.

Officially, we were told that he didn't go because of "security concerns." But come on. Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel attended -- and his security concerns in traveling to Europe are about ten times more serious than Obama's.

What does "Je Suis Charlie" mean? It's "I am Spartacus" -- it's the refusal to run and hide when someone is murdered for exercising the fundamental liberal value of free speech.

The magazine Charlie Hebdo attacked everybody -- every religion, every political party. Unlike them, I believe that there are sacred things that you don't attack. I don't like Charlie Hebdo -- but I'm delighted that their first issue after the murders had a picture of Mohammed on the cover, wearing a "Je Suis Charlie" sign.

The thing their staff was attacked for was depicting Mohammed in a satirical setting. I think they have decided not to back down. Talk about defiant! Talk about courage!

One of the things I regard as sacred is the right to be rude and offensive in political print and speech. But apparently that aspect of liberal democracy isn't sacred to Obama. At least, not enough for him to make even a tiny gesture in its support.

Why has he backed away from showing solidarity with the victims of Muslim terrorism? Because he and his America-hating Leftist friends decided, fifteen seconds after 9/11, that the worst danger was for Americans to get angry at Muslims in general.

Therefore he cannot bring himself to do anything that would look as if he held Muslims responsible for the monstrous crimes against humanity and against freedom that are done in the name of Islam.

There are times when good people must get angry. There are times when good people must make a public statement. And Obama agrees -- after all, he went to Ferguson to show his solidarity with rioters and his contempt for policemen. He understands the importance of gestures.

So when he refuses to join many other heads of state in standing up for freedom of speech and against terrorists who want to force their Muslim beliefs on other people -- including the belief that they have the right to kill anybody who offends them -- Barack Obama is making a statement. It can be interpreted only two ways.

Either the official position of the President of the United States is that we don't care about freedom of speech and press, or the official position of the President of the United States is to show support for the terrorists who murder cartoonists and editors for crimes against a religion they don't believe in.

Because sometimes saying nothing is not silence at all -- sometimes it is a shout. Obama showed his defiance of the world leaders who were standing up for freedom. He bravely stood tall against those who would resist Muslim terrorists. By making no gesture of support for freedom, he made an eloquent gesture in support of freedom's enemies.

We get it, Barack Obama. We know what you stand for.

Note to Congress: With a President determined to acquiesce to rioters and terrorists, it is now required that Congress send delegates to such events in the future -- or at least wear "Je Suis Charlie" signs to repudiate the President's stand against defending freedom.

Show us that a change in party in the White House in 2016 will mean a return to a pro-democracy foreign policy.

*

One of Obama's most outrageous signs of contempt for the values of western democracy was when, in February 2009, as one of his first acts of foreign policy, he returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the Brits.

It was a completely unnecessary act -- one that showed not only his contempt for our once-special relationship with Britain, but also contempt for the democratic values that Winston Churchill led Britain in defending, alone, after the surrender of France in 1940.

Why would Barack Obama have repudiated Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest human being of the twentieth century?

Because Winston Churchill committed the unforgivable sin of having fallen out of fashion with the historical obliviots who dominate our "intellectual" elite.

Churchill isn't just a dead guy with a cigar. He truly changed the world -- and for the better. But don't just take my word for it. Boris Johnson has written a book called The Churchill Factor, powerfully performed as an audiobook by Simon Shepherd.

The Churchill Factor is not a biography. Instead, it's a candid and mostly accurate treatment of all the attacks that Churchill's modern detractors make on him -- the kinds of ideas that Barack Obama undoubtedly believed when he sent back that statue.

Johnson accepts Churchill's errors -- or at least admits the ways that this man of the Victorian era didn't quite anticipate the full range of political correctness in the twenty-first century.

In fact, the only real historical error was that Johnson accepts the idea that Churchill was culpable for the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, which is simply not true -- his plan was working and, if followed, probably would have shortened World War I.

But even with Johnson's acceptance of the standard line, he measures all the other attacks against the achievements that no one can deny, and in the end, leaves the reader wishing that our political system made it possible for anyone of Churchill's stature to rise to power in the United States today.

Compared to a giant like Churchill, Obama is, of course, a moral and political dwarf -- but so is practically everybody else.

We do have leaders who, though not Churchill's equal, at least show his balance and his courage -- but when a Paul Ryan or a Joe Lieberman manages to demonstrate both courage and competence, the extremists in their own party are quick to try to destroy them.

When loyal Republicans are savaged as "RINOs" (Republicans In Name Only) because they compromise in order to get part of the Republican agenda passed, and when loyal Democrats are savaged for insufficient political correctness as Joe Lieberman was in 2006, the message is clear: If you want to get party endorsement in American today, obey the extremists or be cut off.

Greatness of mind and heart are not useful in current American politics. But reading The Churchill Factor is a wise reminder that there are standards by which politicians can and should be judged, and blind obedience to partisan demands is not one of them.

So even if you aren't particularly interested in Churchill -- and especially if you have heard the scurrilous attacks on his reputation by people of surpassing ignorance and arrogance -- read The Churchill Factor in order to gain a standard for measuring all candidates for political office today.

If nothing else, The Churchill Factor will show you what it means for a politician to have a spine, to stand up when it is not politically advantageous to do so.

*

If you see the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, by Andrew Zolli & Ann Marie Healy, with a ball of rubber bands on the cover, you might assume that it has nothing to offer you.

But you would be mistaken. Because Resilience deals with principles at the heart of the survival of any and every community, from huge corporations to small startup companies, from relief efforts to churches, from great nations to small families.

Any human organization is under constant threat of destruction. Not usually the literal destruction of the lives of the individual members, but the destruction of the community's collective existence.

Communities can die in either of two ways:

1. They are so rigid that they cannot adapt to changing circumstances, so they break under the stress.

2. They are so flexible that they change with every wind that blows, so that it doesn't matter even to their own members whether they exist or not.

Thus some companies die because they fail to adapt to competition and lose their customers. Others die because they can't decide what they are, and are so busy adapting that they neglect their core business. They, too, lose their core customers.

The image of that ball of rubber bands on the cover is exactly right. Human communities are not one solid, continuous thing -- they are made of many individuals, all of whom have to be able to adapt to the needs of the community while still protecting their own interests.

By sacrificing some of their interests for the good of the whole, they acquire the strength that comes from many people working together, sharing rules and values that allow them to create value that benefits them all.

Within a few pages, Resilience has made its case: For a community to survive, it must be able to find out what adaptations are needed, and then change quickly to meet a need.

The book starts with the tortilla riots in Mexico in January 2007, when a rise in the price of corn brought many poor families to the brink of starvation -- or over that brink.

Zolli and Healy trace those riots to their real cause -- not a government or business conspiracy, but an unforeseen consequence of the rise of oil prices after Hurricane Katrina.

With oil prices expected to reach a record high, it became economically plausible to devote vast acreages in the United States to growing, not food corn, but corn to be turned into ethanol.

With this sudden drop in the supply of food corn, the price of corn on the world market rose sharply -- and thus the corn-dependent poor in Mexico (and many other countries) were suddenly stricken with famine.

The authors' point is not that the free market is evil, but rather that the world economic system did not have safeguards built into it. Nobody could see the disaster coming until it had already happened. There simply wasn't enough information to allow the system to be resilient enough to absorb the shifts and shocks of fluctuations in the economy.

They make the key point that resilience is not robustness. The pyramids of Egypt are robust -- they have already stood for thousands of years. But they are not resilient -- if you knock them over, they will not repair themselves.

A resilient human community, on the other hand, will create itself using patterns and principles that allow the community to absorb shocks and losses, respond quickly, and repair damage or adapt to new circumstances.

And most of the book is devoted to providing examples of how to make resilient systems that promote the survival of communities.

This isn't a book about quick fixes or new organizational charts. Quite the opposite. Resilience is designed to help its readers see the world differently so that resilient practices become a part of our thinking everywhere and all the time.

The book is highly readable, and the concepts, though they are important, true, and sometimes complex, are so clearly explained that you really do emerge with real understanding.

Yet the subject is so intricate that if you started reading the book again immediately, you would find new understanding on the second reading, and reinforce what you had learned the first time.

When Chaos Theory first reached the public consciousness in the 1990s, it offered a world view but not any kind of plan of action. It's like gravity: Yes, we can all see that it's happening, but that doesn't tell us how to overcome gravity well enough to fly.

Resilience is a good start at trying to create organizations, communities, societies, families that are designed to adapt to this chaotic world without losing coherence.

Chaos Theory gave us the ingredients. Now Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back gives us some recipes.

*

I just finished listening to two very good mystery novels.

It's no surprise when a Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly is excellent. In The Burning Room, Bosch, officially retired, is working under contract with the LAPD in their cold cases unit.

He's working with a hotshot young detective, Lucy Soto, who has her own agenda -- her reason for becoming a cop was to try to solve the mystery of a terrible arson fire that killed most of her friends when she was a child in an unlicensed daycare in an apartment building.

Officially, they're supposed to be working on a very different case -- one with huge political implications. Many years ago, a mariachi musician was shot by what seemed to be a stray bullet from a gangland shooting. The musician survived for ten years, during which time he became a vital political symbol for a popular hispanic mayor of Los Angeles.

But at the beginning of The Burning Room, the musician has just died and the medical examiner determines that the cause of death was that original bullet. So now this ten-year-old case is a murder investigation. And Bosch and Soto soon find out that the shooting was not a stray bullet. It was a professional hit -- but one in which the real target was missed.

There would be no point in a mystery novel if the case were not solved -- there are plenty of unsolved cases but it's the solution that makes them worth reading about. So it's no spoiler to say that after many surprising twists and turns, both cases -- the mariachi musician and the burning daycare -- are brought to satisfactory conclusions.

That is, we know who did what ... even if they don't always get to be processed through the judicial system.

That judicial system is exactly what is in question in William Landay's third novel, Defending Jacob. Andy Barber is the highest non-elected lawyer in the district attorney's office when he assigns himself to supervise the investigation into the murder of a boy from the same middle school as his own son, Jacob.

But we realize, right from the start, that things did not go well -- because we cut back and forth between Barber's investigation of that crime and his own testimony in a grand jury hearing in which he is the defendant, under fire for the way he conducted that investigation.

The heart of the story, though, is what the evidence and criminal charges against Jacob do to Andy and his wife, Laurie -- not to mention Jacob himself. They become pariahs in their neighborhood, and Andy's career as a prosecutor is effectively over. But all that could be dealt with -- if Jacob is not convicted.

Author Landay was himself a prosecutor for years, and so he knows what he's talking about. I've never seen prosecutorial politics and strategies so clearly and entertainingly presented as in this book.

Yet the question of whether they'll win the case is trumped by a much deeper question that both parents have to deal with in separate ways: Is it even possible that our smart, decent boy might have done this crime?

Meanwhile, Barber deals with even more troubling personal issues, because his own father is still in prison for the murder of a young woman many years ago. Barber has never told Laurie or Jacob about his father's violent crime -- or that his male ancestors for generations were dangerously violent men.

Andy himself has a strong temper, but he has always kept his emotions under control. Perhaps too much under control, since it often seems to other that he has no emotions.

Jacob has the same kind of rigid self-control; but has he also inherited the family tendency toward violence? As the evidence against him mounts, Andy is forced to face the possibility that Jacob is so drawn to violence that he deliberately set out to kill the boy who has been bullying him at school.

We are kept guessing right to the end, but Landay never cheats. This is a good storyteller working at the top of his game, and if this is only Landay's third novel, that just means it's going to be easy to catch up with him and read each new book as it comes out.

One oddity in the book is that a major character, the prosecutor who is trying to convict Jacob and, later, Andy, is named Neal Logiudice. In Italian, that name would be pronounced "low-JU-dee-che." But most Americans won't know that, and besides, the name has been anglicized. The first time the name is mentioned, we're told to pronounce it "la-JOO-dis."

Now, this wasn't a problem for me in listening to the audiobook, expertly read by Grover Gardner, because I never had to deal with the difficult spelling.

But that also meant that to me, the name sounded like "La-Judas." And that's not an accident. Landay clearly meant us to think of this prosecutor as a Judas -- a traitor.

Yet Logiudice did not make up any of the evidence he used, and it points at Jacob quite compellingly. Issues of guilt and innocence are definitely grey here -- so it's just a little annoying that the author takes sides by naming the main antagonist "Judas."

But that's a quibble. The story works. And it forces readers who are also parents to face this terrible question: What do you do if your child really is guilty of doing something awful? How much responsibility do you bear for what your children become?

This is a book well worth reading -- and even more worth listening to. I don't think Landay is indicating that all of Andy Barber's choices are morally right. That's because issues of right and wrong get all messy when they come up against parents' love for and loyalty to their children.

Even the love and loyalty of Andy's convict father come into play before the story ends. And more than that I dare not say, lest I really spoil some cool events.

Here's the remarkable thing. Most contemporary mysteries -- even those involving lawyers rather than cops or private eyes -- rely on putting the hero in personal jeopardy. And there are hints of that in Defending Jacob -- moments when Andy expects to have to act with violence to protect his family.

But this novel does not rely on forcing the hero to be a hard-boiled detective. No bone-breaking, no gunfire. Just courtroom maneuvers and powerful scenes within the family and with unforgiving neighbors. Good storytelling, without cheats or tricks.


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