Book Review: Against Our Better Judgement

I picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about the history of the geopolitical clusterfuck that is the Israel/Palestine issue, but never did I expect to find a history so deep, so bloody, and so one-sided in the treatment it receives by the world as that of Israel. In my case, Weir did exactly what she set out to accomplish: she hit me over the head with a series of truth bombs and left me dumbfounded in stupid shock. Against Our Better Judgment is the abridged history of the Zionist movement, but don’t mistake its brevity for banality. In an exhaustively well-researched book whose footnotes section is twice as long as the actual text, Alison Weir will tell you things about Zionism that you won’t want to believe. It’s outstanding to me that so much knowledge could be so unknown. How, as a historian, have I never come across the history of Zionism before? This major movement, stretching back to the nineteenth century, which permeated American politics and managed to create a nation which now receives more funding from the U.S. than any other country on earth, is somehow never spoken of in classrooms (and certainly not in the media).

I don’t want to give too much away, because I think everyone ought to read this for him or herself. All I can say is: read it; it will challenge your view of the world. It’ll take about an hour to get through (unless of course you have to take a break between chapters to have an emotional reaction like I did). I highly suggest this for everyone, especially the citizens of America and Israel.


Book Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley

I didn’t know much about Malcolm X before reading this book. After reading it, I honestly wonder if I knew much about anything before picking it up. That’s the kind of novel we’re dealing with here. Written in dictatorial style reminiscent of Comentarii De Bello Galicum, the great general of civil rights shares his beliefs, insights, fears, and regrets in what stands as the most honest and candid biography I’ve ever read.

Firstly, of course the FBI had something to do with the assassination of Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam, that spurned cult responsible for pulling the actual trigger, had information that they simply could not have been privy to. The number of Malcolm’s hotel room at the Audubon Hotel, for instance (who called him the morning before the assassination, said “wake up brother,” and hung up?). Besides, Malcolm suspected it himself. He told Alex Haley, ghost author of the book, that he was going to “stop saying it’s [the party making threats against his life] the black Muslims,” shortly before his death. Oddly enough, the events leading to his murder parallel Martin Luther King’s almost exactly: the harassment, the bugging and wiretapping, the stalking, the bombing of his home – all of these fear tactics leading to the final climax, the planned shooting in organized, summary execution style. I won’t say more about it here for the sake of brevity, but I’ll link to further reading at the end.

All I really knew about Malcolm X’s came from the short paragraph allotted to him in my AP American History textbook from high school. In the corner of the page, situated under the lengthy section on Martin Luther King Jr., I read that, once upon a time, there existed an angry black supremacist named Malcolm X, who hated white people and preached hatred and violent dissent. There was no mention of his past, no mention of his faith, no mention of the incredible hurdles he overcame to become one of the most eloquent and effective advocates of racial justice in America. I won’t go into detail, but nothing about the conditions of this man’s childhood and early life was conducive to survival, let alone greatness.

The fact that my textbook failed to mention Malcolm X’s Islamic faith perplexes me, because one cannot understand his life without it. Islam was Malcolm’s great catalyst; his conversion in prison proved the single most important event of his life. “Any wings I wore,” he wrote, “had been put on by the religion of Islam” (287). Reading his book, I’d say that it gave him few things in particular which contributed greatly to his success. Firstly, Islam demanded a high moral standard, which transformed his restless energy into formidable discipline. He quit drugs, gave up hustling, and got shit done, in no small part thanks to the rigorous standards of his newfound community and faith. Second, it gave him a family. It was through the NOI that Malcolm met his wife who (despite Malcolm’s somewhat personal prejudice against women that he carried to the end of his life), built him up and supported him with the unfailing constitution of a saint. Lastly, in religion Malcolm found redemption, which I understand as the courage to look backwards at his past mistakes, and the motivation to move forward. The twelve years Malcolm spent with the Nation of Islam was a second life for him. In his own words, he rose from the life of a beast, to that of a man. I’m no theologian, but I can recognize grace when I see it, and Malcolm X’s autobiography, for everything else it might be, reeks of redemption.

Despite his crimes, despite his sexism, and despite his racist views, which did not change until the last two years of his life, I cannot help but admire Malcolm X. As a leader, his transparency, his courage, and his determination make him worthy of admiration. As a human being, his insatiable curiosity and stoic self-discipline merit veneration. Today, I find great cause to lament his death. With everything that is going on in the year 2015, with the latest resurgence of old racial divisions in the form of protest and riot boiling over in Missouri and Baltimore (the old south and the old north, the same old battlegrounds as before), I can’t help but wonder what Malcolm X would do if he could see the scene. Strength like his might do us good today, and not just with racial issues. The voice of Islam is small in the West. Malcolm notes it himself in a side note made at the end of a chapter: “Elijah Muhammad’s tales…infuriated the Muslims of the East. While in Mecca, I reminded them that it was their fault, since they themselves hadn’t done enough to make real Islam known in the West. Their silence left a vacuum into which any religious faker could step and mislead our people” (168). Malcolm X’s voice was a force against Islamophobia, which has only grown since the 21st century, especially 9-11. Then, as now, Islam lacks leadership in America. Where is the Muslim voice who can dissipate American misconceptions and separate true Islam from the extremist groups who would make a mockery of a rich and complex faith? Forty years after his death, we still search for the heirs of Malcolm X.

Many champions of civil rights over the years have stressed the importance of education, but of course it was Malcolm X, the man who told truth at all cost, who put it in the bleakest, most realistic of terms: “The young whites and the young blacks are the only hope that America has. The rest of us have always been living in a lie.” For Malcolm, the present, not the past, is prologue. We as adults may be doomed to live among our prejudices and fears, which our ancestors have passed to us from an early age, but the future remains uncertain, and it is the children, not us, who will decide it.

Malcolm X, the self-made man. The rugged individual who overcame personal hardships to fight for justice in a corrupt and unjust society. Funnily enough, when put in these terms, Malcolm’s life sounds a lot like the American Dream.


Further reading:

Book Review of “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

Author: Jack Weatherford

Publishing Date: 16 March 2004

The point of this book is to tell the story of Genghis Khan, fully and truly. Jack Weatherford covers the Khan’s life, his rise to power, his consolidation of the Mongolian tribes, his expansion of the Mongolian empire, the impact of his legacy (that being the rise of the modern world as we know it), and his often unfair remembrance in the centuries following his death. Weatherford travelled through the Khan’s homeland for over five years, travelling, researching, and translating The Secret History of the Mongols, a text which, like Genghis Khan’s place of birth, had been hidden from the world first by fierce Mongolian tradition and then by Soviet Russia.

Knowledge about Genghis Khan remained scarce in the centuries following his death; rumors, hearsay, and prejudiced opinion dominated the identity of a man who once united the largest empire in human history. Weatherford covers the rise of Genghis’ Mongolian empire, but his work is primarily an investigation into the man himself. What Weatherford found contrasted starkly with common knowledge: Genghis Khan was not the red-eyed, bloodthirsty overlord that popular culture painted him as. He was an outcast nomad with limited ambitions, driven throughout his life by the need to defend his family and an inherent inability to take orders from anyone. As a man, he was illiterate and uneducated. As a leader, he commanded fierce loyalty from his followers. As a general, he innovated military travel, developed a new hierarchical system of command, and established effective means of communication which put him one step ahead of his foes. Fiercely loyal and capable of holding a grudge over many years, Genghis Khan was a wonderful friend and a terrible enemy. Perhaps his most advantageous trait was his ability to delegate; he had a remarkable proclivity for recognizing and utilizing the talent around him, adopting new technologies, methods, and strategies and making them his own.

The Mongol empire under Genghis and his successors allowed complete religious freedom and unprecedented autonomy. Subordinates had only to recognize Mongolian rule and pay tax to the Khan. The alternative to this unprecedented mercy was swift and complete destruction, and though some vassals suffered this fate, most seemed content to live in peace under Mongol rule. By 1287, Mongolians had sent envoys as far as England and had established trade across Europe. Through an accurate portrayal of the Mongol empire’s rise and fall, Weatherford shows how Europeans did not always harbor animosity for the Mongolians. In fact, in the thirteenth century Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in praise of them, considering the Mongolian empire with admiration. By 1345, however, opinion shifted as the Black Plague gripped Europe. Frightened masses blamed foreign traders, and the Mongol’s extensive trade system broke down, followed by the empire itself. The Mongolian empire and its dynamic leader faded into legend, and by the eighteen hundreds Genghis Khan’s name synonymized death and brutality, an opinion which pervades in modern times. Nevertheless, the rise and fall of the Mongol empire remains one of the most remarkable chapters in world history. Mongolians today revere the great Khan, constructing monuments which rival the state of liberty in size and imposition. Whatever one’s opinion of the controversial figure and the empire he built, the scope and magnitude of his legacy cannot be put aside.

The Mongol empire began as a collection of incongruent tribes led by an ostentatious vagabond, and grew into a massive state which connected Europe and Asia, connected the east and west, and in so doing set the stage for the modern world.

Book Review of “Silence” by Shusaku Endo

Author: Shūsaku Endō

Publishing date: 1966

“These Japanese Christians are like a ship lost in a storm without a chart,” writes Portuguese missionary Rodriguez soon before arriving in Japan. Presumably, Rodriguez sees himself as the missing chart which the Japanese lack. One cannot help but suspect that Rodriguez fancies himself a shepherd, one who will gather the stray Japanese and lead them with triumph into the kingdom of God. Rodriguez and his friend and missionary companion are on their way to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed by the government. Initially his motivation is to find his long time mentor  Ferreira, who purportedly apostatized, but as the above line suggests, Rodriguez’s ambitions go beyond Ferreira. Indeed, the line suggests something about how the young missionary views himself in relation to the Japanese, and it also betrays a large amount of unbounded optimism. When Rodriguez discovers the true state of Christianity in Japan, however, he realizes that his hopeful outlook is misplaced.

Silence is, though not exclusively, a story of one man’s disillusionment and disappointment. A man raised and educated in Jesuit background, Rodriguez’s foremost desire is to sow the seeds of Catholicism wherever they can grow. He dreams of conversions and baptisms, the multitude of Japan’s poorest and most destitute finding God and receiving salvation. Instead, he comes ashore to a country which has thoroughly rejected the gospel. The government has shut down contact with the outside world and cracked down on Christianity with cruel and efficient vindication. Those few Christians who do exist live a fearful and endangered life, and Rodriguez soon discovers that his arrival only aggravates the precarity of their situation. When his presence inadvertently leads to the execution of two peasants, Rodriguez questions his purpose in Japan. Furthermore, in answer to his doubts, God answers in resounding silence. Japan proves too great a challenge for the missionary, and his faith becomes perverted by the “swamp,” of Japan.

This book is wrought with torturous emotion, provoking deep and unanswered questions about faith and apostasy, as well as Christianity’s place in a culturally distinct and isolated Japan. Garrpe prefers death to apostasy, but Rodriguez chooses to follow Ferreria’s footsteps and renounce his faith in order to spare the Japanese Christians who are being martyred on his behalf. He tells himself that he has renounced his faith in order to spare the lives of the Japanese Christians, yet a sense of deep shame permeates his thoughts. I am left uncertain as a reader. Martyrdom is inseparable from Christianity’s historical and spiritual narrative, and in many ways it is a Christian’s highest privilege to die for the savior (what better way, after all, to emulate Christ?), but the Japanese officials know this, and they deny Rodriguez the chance to suffer. When he seeks God for an answer, he is met with deafening silence, and is this not a faithful Christian’s greatest fear? Perhaps this novel is a cathartic exercise on part of the author, who faced his fair share of frustrations as a Japanese Catholic, or perhaps Japan is truly not conducive to Christianity. For a Christian, and indeed for anyone who has ever borne faith like a burden in a hostile atmosphere, Silence is a chilling tale, one which questions the glory of martyrdom, the role of organized evangelism, and the obligations that religious leaders have not only to their God, but to their disciples as well.