Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Reviews

i'm reading a number of books right now. technically, i'm probably in the middle of 20-30 books. some of which i started a year or more ago and still plan on Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (5 years ago), They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima (3 years ago), or Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer (1 or 2 years ago). but then theres many that i check out from the library on a monthly basis that i check back in, but plan to finish. i thought i'd share a few i'm reading right now. when/if you're bored...

Black Rage Confronts the Law by Paul Harris.
the sleeve says this:
Harris here traces the origins of the black rage defense back through American history, recreating numerous dramatic trials along the way. he recounts in vivid detail how Clarence Darrow introduced the notion of an environmental harship defense in 1925 while defending a black family who shot into a drunken white mob that had encricled their home. the black rage defense forces us to grapple with questions the criminal justice system simply does not want to hear. why does a person commit a crime? what is soceity's responsibility for shaping a nonhabitual offender? if societal factors such as class, poverty, and discrimination do shape us, does this in any way mitigate an explosive, uncharacteristic crime of violence?

i've only gotten through the introduction and the first chapter, but i think it'll be a thought-provoking read. as of yet, he's gone into a trial in 1874 in which a man named William Freeman was charged with the murder of a couple, their young son, and an associate of the family. the story is truly tragic.
Bill, as his family and friends knew him, was a typical black man living in America in the 1800's. his father died while he was young (having bought himself out of slavery), making poverty for Bill almost guaranteed. he worked for white families, being beaten often when he was disobedient or friendly with other black children. when he was 15, he was charged with stealing a horse from a white family, and found guilty, even though there was little evidence to support it. while he was in the midst of being transported to prison, evidence was found that he was at another place at the time the crime, making him innocent. either his lawyer, or the judge didn't care enough to go through the procedures to get him out of jail, and he served all 5 years he was sentenced. while he was in jail, he was regularly beaten-once by a guard that broke a wooden post on his head, causing him to lose hearing in one of his ears as well as brain damage. prison life was basically a catalyst for his deteriorating mental state. when he was released, he looked for lawyers to help him get some sort of retribution for serving 5 years for a crime he never committed but no one agreed to help him for one reason or another. he found who he thought were the individuals who aided in getting him convicted of this crime (that were supposed witnesses) and killed them. he waited outside their house, stabbed the woman as she come out the back door to empty trash, stabbed her husband when he came to her aid, went into their home and stabbed their 2 year old son who was asleep, stabbed a man that was at the home helping the family, and injured the mother in law that was armed by that time. he then stole one of their horses to get away and killed it when it gave out from exhaustion.
his lawyer, Willam Seward, raised the "black rage defense", although never going near the actual words. however, he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. his conviction was overturned due to issues with the judge instructing the juror inappropriately and prohibiting doctors to testify on his mental state during the murders. he died in a jail cell awaiting his second trial due to complications from a cold. he was 23 years old. TWENTY-THREE years old. i am 23 years old. how is it possible to live a life like this and do anything but kill someone? its really disheartening to think of what his last thoughts would have been before he died.

so what about this defense? is this defense a legitimate argument to explain the violence that occasionally is produced by blacks or others that have lived lives full of oppression or is it simply yet another excuse a creative lawyer has pulled from the limitless spectrum of the insanity defense? how much is society to blame for the outcasts and criminals? doesn't society, in a sense, produce these individuals? if one has lived in a society that makes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness nearly impossible, due to circumstances they have no control over, how can anyone expect that person to be an upstanding, contributing member of society? in the west (or rather, capitalistic countries), it seems as though we all like to think of ourselves only as individuals, and embrace independence and sovereignty, and think of society as some separate political system, but at what point do we have a duty/obligation/responsibility to take care of all of our members of society?
knowing the history and the reality of being black in America during that (or even THIS) time, i think black rage was a more than justified reaction to oppression, outright hatred, and degradation blacks had to experience on a daily basis. its almost harder to understand why there weren't more instances of killing sprees (like the one Freeman committed) and riots than colleges and progressive organizations.
bell hooks talks about this topic in her book, Killing Rage, in which she opens the book up saying how she wanted to kill a white man sitting in the seat next to her on a plane. she says its okay to feel enraged-that it is a completely justified emotional reaction as an oppressed member of society. however, you have to acknowledge that rage and own it; control it.
on another note, what does it say about this defense/argument when most black people don't commit crimes like these? black on black crime is often, but black serial killers are rare. and if this is a legitimate defense, then cannot every black person that has lived a tumultuous life arguably due to the obstacles of racism be excused of any wrongdoing they've committed or will commit?

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart.

i won't post the little quotes on the back of the book because they're almost laughable to me. i think you can surmise what the book is about from the title.

books like this don't usually interest me. they're ubiquitous, have elementary arguments at best, and usually stereotype atheists and non-religious people alike, while whitewashing the bible's moral code and disregarding much of the history of Christianity. however, this book so far (SO FAR. i'm only in the first chapter) hasn't gone into those issues. he's an impeccable writer, though.
so far, Hart has only gone into criticizing the atheists writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel well as the writer of the Da Vinci Code, whom he calls a "borderline illiterite". ha. his style is definitely like that of the atheist writers i've read.

from what i've gathered, i think the book will be about the lack of knowledge (on the part of atheists that criticize it as well as Christians) concerning the history of Christianity and different or new arguments concerning the amount of violence that has been produced by religion as a whole. he brings up some interesting questions though, which is why i checked the book out and decided to read it.
"what i find most mystifying in the arguments of the authors i have mentioned, and of others like them, is the strange presupposition that a truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith. given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) on incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds for their is not even especially clear why these authors imagine that a world entirely purged of faith would choose to be guided by moral prejudices remotely similar to their own...

while i probably would more and likely conclude that a society free of religion would be a more tolerant and progressive society, i do think its good to raise this question often and see the arguments on each side. its a pretty relevant and important question, which isn't talked about enough. though, i think he's wrong in noting the level of violence in our supposed "secular societies" because, while most western countries have secular governments, the citizens under those governments are usually overwhelmingly religious, as i the case in most countries in the Americas.
so what about the arguments that these prominent atheists make? has Christianity and religion as a whole been more destructive than progressive? bred more intolerance while claiming to teach the opposite? what would a society free from religious conviction actually look like (Norway, i think...)? and would it be a more progressive society than our country at this moment? even if one can show that there is a conection between a war and poverty infested country, time-period, or group of people....can one then estimate that a country, time-period or group of people without religious conviction would be non-violent, free from war, and successful in the health and well-being of the majority of the individuals involved?
so far, however, Hart has not tackled theology.

theres conclusions i've come to concerning Christianity and religion as a while, and its relationship with society, and i think its always good to re-engage myself with my arguments. i think its good for everyone to do this-either to renew their thoughts on the subject or to gain knowledge and form new opinions.

think. criticize. comment. learn. read.

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