Monday, March 31, 2008

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: RICHARD DAWKINS' THE GOD DELUSION

There has been a great deal of noise over this book. To my mind, it mostly amounts to the proverbial tempest in a teapot.

First, despite the right of religious liberty people in advanced countries supposedly enjoy, we are regularly immersed, willy-nilly, in religious muck. The last couple of decades in America, the nightly news has featured everything from endless demands for prayer in public institutions and the creation myth being taught in schools to attacks on doctors doing legal abortions and silly fights over displaying the ten commandments in public courts. What’s so terrible about the other side getting a little publicity for a change?

Richard Dawkins is a pleasant and clear writer. The first part of his book is genuinely funny, hilarious in places, as he pokes fun at the absurd stories and rules of the Bible. At his best, he reminds me of Mark Twain in Letters from the Earth.

I think he is much less successful in the middle part of the book in trying to establish a logical framework for thinking about religion. Religion simply is not logical, none of it, ever, and just as the scholastic fathers tried over and over to “prove” the existence of God – Dawkins entertainingly goes through some of this – this effort seems futile.

There is an aspect of religion that I believe Dawkins misses. It is the cultural dimension of much of religion. We know many Jews, as in Israel for example, are quite worldly and not believers, yet something binds them to the heritage of their religion. That something is what Dawkins misses.

Religion works very much like prejudice: there are simply attitudes and perspectives that groups of people share together as a cultural inheritance, and the attitudes are generally detrimental to, and disparaging of, others.

I share the belief that religion has been responsible for many of humanity’s miseries. The record of Christianity has likely been the bloodiest of any religion, despite all the blubbering today about Islam. Christianity has been at the root of crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, mass murders, civil wars, torture, destruction of aboriginal people, slavery, and countless other horrors and abuses.

But I do not believe for an instant that religion and its abuses will stop any time soon, and I certainly do not believe that any words I can say will change the views of the religiously-minded. But Dawkins does appear to believe this, which I think is a little naïve for a man of such exceptional talent.

I believe it quite likely that we inherit our tendency for religion, just as we likely do for our politics. If that is true, we will only see the superstition and prejudice of religion disappear as humans evolve.

Most people who do not take their religion too seriously will enjoy at least a good portion of this provocative book, but the seriously religious would best avoid it.

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: THOMAS DILORENZO'S THE REAL LINCOLN

Let me say, right off, that this is not a biography of Lincoln. It is not even a character study because most of Lincoln’s character is never touched here. This is a study – I think it fair to call it an attack - of one aspect of Lincoln, his ideological purpose in fighting the Civil War. However, it is a determined, fact-filled attack, worth reading.

I have always believed, on the basis of my own studies, that the American Civil War was unnecessary, but this is a view that arouses hostile feelings in Americans as it runs against the public-school civics course beliefs around that conflict.

There is definitely an American Civic Religion with a set of tenets and sacred writings and a cast of mythically-endowed characters comparable to the chief figures of the Old and New Testaments. Many well-known American historians, some quite eminent, are conscious or unconscious proponents of the Civic Religion, not such a difficult thing as you might first imagine because history, just like good police detective work, involves interpretation, judgment, and instincts. The raw facts, when they are even known, are always susceptible of emphasis and interpretation.

So it was refreshing to find a serious writer who also believes that the war was unnecessary.

However, Dilorenzo’s reason for saying the war was unnecessary is different to my own. The author believes that Lincoln consciously used the war to impose the so-called American System of the Whig Party and Henry Clay, destroying the powers of the individual states and centralizing government in the United States. I believe rather that this was one of the unavoidable effects, wars always and everywhere being far more revolutionary events than people generally recognize.

There can be no doubt that Dilorrenzo marshals a strong case, but I believe that he largely fails to prove his main thesis. Lincoln, although not the sentimental figure of American text books and the Lincoln Memorial, was not America’s Joseph Stalin.

Most of his fact-marshalling is impressive, but when he goes off on a tangent to give a background on the basic political split between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, he actually gets it rather wrong. Jefferson was anything but the kind of figure he is in the eyes of libertarian devotees like Dilorenzo. He was hungry for power, hungry for empire, and ruthless to those who opposed him. He bent or broke laws many times and never was bothered about rights of others where they stood in the way of his vision. Jefferson was, in short, everything the author claims Lincoln was.

The tone of this book becomes almost oppressive as the author hammers away with citations and anecdotes tending to support his view – in other words, the author is guilty of overkill.

The sense of oppressiveness is increased by the fact the author writes from an ideological viewpoint, not many pages convincing the reader of the author’s pronounced libertarian attitude. In general, I do not like histories or biographies written with an ideological perspective, but here the fault is compounded by the author’s narrow focus.

I don’t think anyone with a fairly open mind can study Lincoln and come away with a view like Dilorenzo’s. Lincoln himself was a victim of believing in the American Civic Religion of his day. He genuinely believed in The Union as a semi-mystical concept. Lincoln was a genuine skeptic with regard to conventional religion and the existence of God, and the feelings that might have had an outlet there attached themselves to “The Union.” He was tough and hard-headed in many respects, but he would have been, in this writer’s judgment, temperamentally incapable of launching and continuing a vast war for the purpose of installing Whig policy.

For those interested, the reviewer believes the Civil War was unnecessary because most great wars are unnecessary and rarely solve anything. For example, World War I only created the foundation for World War II. The American Civil War, which was not fought over slavery, solved little about the ugly institution of slavery. The South went on for about a century afterward with a new set of arrangements for its black citizens hardly better than the previous institution.

The Civil War did establish the anti-democratic principle that no state can separate from the United States, hardly an admirable or advanced attitude. The Civil War is also the tipping point in America becoming a world power with fervent imperialistic views (demonstrated earlier in a more provincial theater of operation in many policies such as the Mexican War), again hardly an admirable outcome.

I believe too that the angry, long-unforgiving South actually dragged the United States backward in social progress over the next century. The United States might have become a better, more decent place without the South and its superstitious religion and traditions of personal honor, much resembling the blood-feud attitudes of backward places like Armenia. And slavery itself would have naturally died out even in the South in a few decades as it did in so many places like Brazil.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S VERSION OF GENERAL TSO'S CHICKEN

I love Chinese food. This recipe is my version of a classic.


CHUCKMAN’S VERSION OF GENERAL TSO’S CHICKEN

INGREDIENTS

Chicken – Use either traditional cut-up Chicken Breast (about a pound – cut into bite-size pieces) or Drumettes or Drumsticks – drumettes or legs are unconventional but delicious – you need a greater weight to compensate for bones.

Broccoli – One medium head

Canola or Peanut Oil for frying

Dried crushed Chilli Peppers

Garlic – 1 medium-to-large clove, finely chopped

Ginger – a good-sized chunk (about the size of an average thumb), finely chopped – fresh is valuable for this recipe for its aromatic quality, but in a pinch, use bottled

Chicken Broth – 3 Tablespoons

Rice Vinegar – 2 Tablespoons

Hoisin Sauce – 2 Tablespoons (available in any Asian market and many supermarkets)

Sesame Oil – 1 Teaspoon

Sugar or Sugar Substitute – 2 Teaspoons Sugar or equivalent Substitute - the Substitute works nicely in this recipe

Dark Soy Sauce – this is the thicker type that has molasses in it

Cornstarch – a few Tablespoons

Dry Sherry – a good splash


METHOD

Spread Chicken pieces on a plate or platter and sprinkle lightly with cornstarch, a generous splash of Sherry, and a smaller splash of Soy Sauce. Toss lightly together and let stand briefly.

Blanch broccoli in a Covered Saucepan with a small amount of water on bottom. Bring water to a rapid boil, continue a minute or two, remove from the heat, and cool with cold running water. Broccoli will be bright green and par-cooked. Chop into florets and thin stalk slices. Set aside.

The sauce consists of 2 Tablespoons of Rice Wine Vinegar, 2 teaspoons of sugar or equivalent of sugar-substitute, 2 Tablespoons of Hoisin Sauce, 1 Tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce, a large clove of Garlic finely chopped, a chunk of fresh Ginger finely chopped, 1 Teaspoon of Sesame Oil, 3 Tablespoons of Chicken Broth, and a generous sprinkle of crushed Chili Peppers. Set aside.

Mix about 1 Teaspoon more of Cornstarch and a splash of cold water. This will thicken sauce when cooking. Set aside.

GENERAL NOTE ON STIR-FRYING

This ingenious, fuel-saving method of cooking is done in a hierarchy of cooking times, the ingredient requiring the most time being first – when all ingredients are together, they are cooked with the sauce briefly.

In this case, start with the Chicken. Saute the Chicken pieces lightly (do not overcook or flesh looses its succulence).

If you are using drumettes or legs, you will need a more substantial cooking time, especially legs – they should become golden and no blood should run.

Add blanched Broccoli and stir briefly.

Add Sauce ingredients. Add thickener.

Let simmer together a few minutes.

OPTIONS

Make the flavour very hot with plenty of chili peppers or use a Teaspoon of genuine Chinese Hot Chili Oil (this is very hot stuff, available in any Asian market). Or add Whole Dried Chilis (a dozen or so) to stir-fry after Chicken – this is a traditional ingredient.

Sprinkle servings with finely-sliced green onions and/or crushed peanuts.