28 December 2010

Weekly Book Review: "The Yiddish Policeman's Union", "The Stars My Destination", "The Postman", "Breakfast at Tiffany's", "The Last Lecture", "The Game", and "Technology: a World History"

This is the first of what will be a series of book reviews, written every week or two.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon

The label "science fiction" is a scary one, because genre fiction is frequently held in faint sort of contempt by some of the literati. Calling something a "romance" or "sci-fi" or "fantasy" leads to stereotyping as bodice-ripper, space opera, or holy-crap-look-some-pretty-dragons. So don't be scared when I say Union is science fiction, because it's also a heavy hitter in the general literature department.

Union follows Chabon's previous smash hit, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Kavalier and Clay is a hard book to follow. It told the story of two friends during the Golden Age of comic books, and managed to sound both genuinely appreciative of the genre without losing sight of the world outside. It was involving and interesting and funny and sad, and it rightfully put Chabon in the top ranks of modern authors. The Yiddish Policeman's Union should assure that he remains there.

Union takes place in a slightly alternate version of the present; in this version, the Jewish peoples of Europe were given sanctuary in Alaska before World War 2. But the sixty-year grant of sanctuary for the millions of Jews who have lived in the Yiddish-dominated city of Sitka is going to end soon, leaving them with an uncertain fate and threatening yet another diaspora. In this precarious situation, an alcoholic detective tries to solve a murder mystery that's stocked with chess grandmasters, Orthodox gangsters, and some pretty nasty intrigue.

In its best moments, Union mixes the feel of a hardboiled detective novel (think Chandler) and an obvious glee in extrapolating an ancient Yiddish culture into the present day. Chabon is a disciplined writer, though, and he never sinks into self-indulgence by trying to be absurd for absurdities' sake. It's easy to follow the story and we're drawn in - rather than held back - by the clever use of his setting. I highly recommend this one.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

It was almost funny to follow Chabon's taut and serious effort with this sloppy piece of work by Bester. It falls prey to the cardinal sins of science fiction, immediately and fatally: it is much more in love with the weirdness of its future than with anything going on in the book. It's a widely-read landmark of the genre, and that's a sad thing to say.

Set in the distant days of the twenty-fifth century, Stars is essentially a revenge tale. A madman on a boat is wronged, and never forgets it. The Count of Monte Cristo provides the spine of the plot, crammed into the shapeless flab. All the rest of the book is just a crass exercise in Bester's thought experiments.

In the world of the book, people can teleport at will. There are rules for the process (not through space, have to be able to visualize your destination, etc.) but I won't go into them, because I'd have to write a whole book about them... which is exactly what Bester did. The idea of people being able to teleport raises a lot of questions, after all: How do they stop robbers? How do they imprison people? A good book would have answered these questions while telling you a story. Instead, the storyline Bester gives us seems like an obvious excuse.

It's not that nothing happens to the protagonist: he kills and rapes and flits around in an unlikable manner. But we never care about him, because he acts in an irrational manner that's clumsily justified by a badly-written madness. He has the madness of wildly rolling eyes and sudden shouting, and it's boring to read.

It's not that clumsily-written books about ideas can't be amazing. Kurt Vonnegut has made a career on his beautiful ideas. But Vonnegut's books go somewhere and say something. Bester's book goes nowhere and says nothing: it's a guy running in a circle shouting about the economic implications of teleportation. Skip it.

The Postman, David Brin

Concluding my brief jaunt into science fiction, The Postman is the basis for the terrible Kevin Costner movie of the same name. I'm not sure I'd recommend either, but if you get into one, make sure you pick up the other. They complement each other in a strange way.

In The Postman, a series of disasters (nuclear war, bioterror, domestic terrorists) have reduced America to a feudal society. People scrabble to survive in small isolated settlements, while groups of bandits prey on travelers and the unwary. Caught in a bind, an itinerant con-man (with a heart of gold) decides to start pretending to be an emissary of an imagined "Restored United States" as a postman. His ruse snowballs until eventually he wholeheartedly commits to it, but at the same time he clashes with a cartoonish bandit chief. There are no surprises in this book.

The grim pragmatist starts off making a lot of "smart" decisions, but eventually lurches into idealistic heroism while chiding himself for being "stupid". It's a well-worn and much-loved shtick, and David Brin does it well.

It'd just be another mediocre sci-fi thing if it weren't for the movie, which took some elements and sketched them into a whole different thing. The skein of broader themes that threads through the latter portion - a nation restored, a way of life revived - is caught up and woven much fuller in the film. Maybe this is a factor of the transition between the two media, but I actually think someone else, a screenwriter laboring somewhere, saw a larger story moving behind Brin's book. They saw it and tried to grab it, even if they failed. When you read the book, sometimes you can see it, too.

But mostly they're just mediocre. Neither the movie or this book are any great shakes, but they suffice to pass a few quiet hours.

Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote.

A book about a girl who hides from life, Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's was tamed and adapted into a wonderful film. The difference between the film and this book is an interesting one. The film is a little more obvious in the parallels between the narrator and his flighty neighbor, Holly Golightly, but it also expresses with greater feeling the cowardice of Holly's nature: she is always running away from real affection, using idealism and dreams as an excuse rather than a goal. Perhaps the perfection of Holly is thanks to the performance of Audrey Hepburn, whose careless smile and stormy scowl matched the tone so well.

The book is bigger in many ways, roaring out with a verve that's tamed in the film: the vice of Holly's seedy "trips to the powder room", the sad infatuation of little men, and the splashy events at the conclusion are all more vivid in Capote's book. It's good, and well worth a read.

The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch

Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But, unwilling to give in to despair, he went on to deliver a lecture that captured the world, about how to really achieve your childhood dreams. You've probably seen it; if not, watch it.

Well, after the runaway success of the lecture in 2007, Pausch had enough time to write a book on the same theme before his expiration the next year. He dictated it as he was doing the exercises necessary to prolong his life.

It's sad to say, but the book is not a good one.

Pausch was a great lecturer, as you have seen. He's funny, interesting, and he has a gift for public speaking. He must have been a great professor. But this book was dictated while exercising and then reworked by another author, and the results show in the thirdhand results we can see. There is a rough sort of overall theme, but it skips around from narrative to background to moral lessons. The clever bits spark a chuckle or smile, but mostly because they remind us of the spark shown in the video lecture - seldom because of their own virtue.

The book has been a grand success, staying on the bestseller lists for almost two years, so I guess a lot of people disagree with me. But I advise you to avoid the book and just watch the lecture again. There's more heart and brilliance packed into that hour than you will find in the whole of this book.

The Game, Neil Strauss

Imagine if someone wrote a story about how they became an expert thief. They had begun as a journalist, writing a story on safecrackers, but they got involved with the whole world of robbery and eventually became a leading thief - an authority on a certain special method of stealing. They'd crash parties, distract the hosts with mind games, and then slip upstairs under false pretenses to pocket all the jewelry. And they had an easy way to do it! It was foolproof.

This journalist-turned-thief tells about how they become widely respected and earn millions of dollars. Women want him, and men want to be him. He describes in detail about how he lives the fantasies of so many men. Everything goes right and almost nothing goes wrong - except in the lives of his fellow thieves, who are always screwed up. But the journalist helps them out and keeps living the life.

Then he finishes off with telling about how it wasn't really so great, and he actually was much happier when he worked for his money. And he was bored with all the threesomes with gorgeous women and the adulation of people around the world and with the hordes of young men who came to study his techniques. But nothing's wrong with stealing. It's fine.

Would you believe his conclusion? Would you think, "Wow, it wasn't really worth it, huh?"

No, probably not. You'd probably think, "Well, it may not work for you. But I bet I would like it." And then you'd attend a seminar to study his method of thievery. And who could blame you?

Well, this is essentially the problem with Neil Strauss' story.

Strauss became an expert in the art of picking up women. Using a variety of clever mind games and tricks, he learned from "gurus" how to fool women into liking him and get them into bed. At no point in the book does he stop to seriously muse about the morality of what he did. It doesn't seem to have been an issue.

Let me scuttle one excuse right away: he wasn't just a guy overcoming his shyness. He started off like that, like a lot of guys do. But these weren't self-help seminars to teach men how to talk to women and be themselves. Those seminars exist and they're great. Instead, these gurus taught Strauss a series of elaborate ploys to force women to have emotions they wouldn't have, take actions they wouldn't take, and generally just fool them into getting into bed. And eventually Strauss become such a master that he started teaching others. Every night, a different girl was tricked.

One guru tells Strauss, early on in the game, that women want to have sex just as much as men. The implication is that they're just helping cross that gap and get things done. But the obvious reply is never brought up: they may want to have sex, but they don't want to have it with just anyone. They don't want to sleep with any guy who paid for a seminar.

Don't get me wrong: the women in the book aren't puppets. The Game apparently didn't work on all girls, and there was no violence involved. But the malevolent discipline and careful study used in the techniques go right up to the line. Hypnotic techniques, "neurolinguistic programming," and other such tools play with the mind towards a crass goal. Strauss and his compatriots made a science out of manipulating women into bed. It is disgusting.

So when Strauss claims to be bored with the legions who come to worship and study under him, and with the endless army of women tricked into his bed, it's hard to believe him. Throughout the book, he's the slightly-skeptical and detached hero, escaping all of the dire character flaws detailed in all the other PUAs (Pick-Up Artists). They're suicidal, sociopathic, and disgusting; Strauss is bemused, helpful, and introspective. He never regrets his actions, and we never see any aftermaths: these women pass through his bed and out of his life, and oddly - for a journalist - doesn't bother to watch the results.

When Strauss meets a woman he loves, he can only "get" her by abandoning all his tricks and leaving the Game. But he decides that he became a better person and so he doesn't regret it. He learned self-confidence and how to understand people, he says. It doesn't seem to occur to him that he could have learned those things without tricking hundreds of women into sex. The lesson that he didn't need the Game to get the love of his life - indeed, that the Game got in the way of real interaction - is not one Strauss ever learns.

Read this book, but do so with caution and a strong stomach. It's an abject lesson in manipulation and the ability of man to justify his actions to himself.

Technology: a World History, James McClellan

McClellan aims at a wide-sighted view of man's use of technology, starting at the beginning with hand-axes and coming right up to the present day. He is matter-of-fact and calm in tone, seldom venturing into tangents or trying to impose themes. He might even be a robot himself, I'm not sure: it would certainly be a fitting topic, and his careful details of how advanced was Mesoamerican technology reads like an obligation more than anything else.

I can't say he's ever wrong and there are no serious flaws in his writing or pacing. But neither are there any revelations or insights.

Technology is a sturdy history that puts on no airs. The best and worst that can be said about it is that it is a great resource if you want to know about the history of technology. It's a plain brown boot of a book, and very serviceable.

23 December 2010

Alan Caruba does not know how treaties work.

So Alan Caruba has a column about the lame duck. Let's start off by playing Caruba BINGO!

The so-called Stimulus Act... government seizure of General Motors and Chrysler... voters took away the Democrat’s control... Obamacare... North Korea has nukes ... Iran is desperately attempting to make its own nukes... grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens... Environmental Protection Agency to do an end-run around the Constitution to impose an utterly false regulation of carbon dioxide emissions in the name of a global warming that has been exposed as a hoax and fraud... Obama has stopped any exploration or extraction of oil... Federal Reserve is printing money... worst President in the history of the nation.

I win!

Not that it's a challenge. But one bit of his nonsense did catch my eye: his arguments against the just-passed START treaty.

Crowing about the passage of the “Start” treaty with Russia ignored the fact that both signatories to the treaty can withdraw at any time that circumstances require it. Looks good on paper, but it is essentially meaningless in an era where North Korea has nukes, Pakistan has nukes, and Iran is desperately attempting to make its own nukes. It does little to ward off the potential use of nuclear weapons at some point and limits U.S. defensive measures.

I would like to also note that START does not prohibit China from nuking America, or Nigeria from grossly manipulating its currency against the USD. START does not restrict Antarctica from mailing us letter-bombs, and it does not enact border security to stop the flow of Canadians into Greenland.

START does not keep your bread fresh. It will not repave your driveway with those fancy new scallop-shaped paving bricks. START cannot watch over your children tenderly in the wee hours of the morning, stroking their foreheads with the back of its hand. START does not remove rashes or relieve itchiness. START can neither slice, dice, or julienne.

All START does is keep an eye on Russian nuclear weapons, because it is a treaty with Russia. Not North Korea, Pakistan, or Iran.

Alan Caruba is a fabulous geode, unearthed and cracked open to reveal a glittering treasure of stupid.

Am I missing something here?

George Will writes:
[It is a] perennial mischief - using the tax code not simply to raise revenue efficiently (with minimal distortion of economic behavior) but to pamper pet causes, appease muscular interests and make social policy. Since 1986, the tax code has acquired more than 15,000 complications.

"Targeted" tax cuts are popular complexities because they serve a bossy government's agenda of behavior modification: You can keep more of your money if you do what Washington wants. The tax code, says Camp, "should not be a tool of industrial policy" or of "crony capitalism": "Politicians should not pick the industry of the day."

One of [Congressman] Camp's objections to the health-care law is its obvious design to cripple health savings accounts. With HSAs, an individual who buys high-deductible health insurance becomes eligible for tax-preferred savings out of which he or she pays routine health expenses. (No one expects auto insurance to pay for oil changes or new windshield wipers.) This gives consumers of health care an incentive to shop wisely for it. Camp says the health-care law will make HSAs less attractive because "a qualified plan will be defined by the government rather than the market." And government will make HSAs unnecessarily expensive by requiring them to have "all the bells and whistles."
Am I not right in thinking that these same HSAs are "behavior modification?" The government gives certain savings accounts generous tax breaks if those accounts are used for certain expenses, "giv[ing] consumers of health care an incentive to shop wisely" - is this not a very clear example of what the preceding paragraph was condemning as "bossy?"

20 December 2010

America by Heart: Wherein I attempt diagrams.

Okay, you know what? Let's go into the writing in America by Heart by Sarah Palin. We're still not even out of the introduction, but this ideological stuff is boring.

The writing is terrible.  It is terrible in a sweeping, grand way not accessible by most mortals.  She has tapped into some kind of miraculous divine power, channeled its might through her moosemeat-laden frame, so that she can express herself through these mightily mangled glomptions of folksy metaphors.

No, "glomptions" isn't a word. Sufficiently hateful words do not exist. I must coin new ones to convey my displeasure with prose of this caliber:

I think I've figured out the reason why [audiences love the Constitution]. I have a kind of internal compass that keeps me sane and grounded when the media attack dogs bark and the days on the road get long. No surprise, I keep my internal compass pointed due north, to where my roots are. My family and my faith are my greatest sources of support. They are my true north.

So Sarah Palin has a compass that keeps her grounded at those times when dogs bark and days get long. The compass points due north to some roots.

This sentence is insane.

I have taken the liberty of illustrating it for you.  Here is what she is saying.

You may have thought you knew how bad a mixed metaphor could get. You were wrong. Sarah Palin is teaching us a master's level course in how not to write.

That's not an isolated incident, either. Palin regularly indulges in metaphors whose quality ranks just slightly below Chinese drywall. It seems like she just grabs a cliche and crams it in there, no matter what's in the way. That's why a path is a symptom.

But Americans are coming to understand that the irresponsible fiscal path we're on is just a symptom of a more serious disease.

Her authorial sins are more than just a dangerous addiction to metaphor. She also has no idea how to compose a clear idea. Her writing flows about as smoothly as year-old yogurt.

In short, the people holding the uniformly printed signs have their hands out; Washington is spending away our kids' future and they still want more. But the people holding the homemade signs are the ones paying the bills.

Wait, who is what?

Palin can't make her sentences anything less than elaborate Chinese puzzles, that snag your attention like a finger-trap.  When she gets another idea halfway through or during a later revision, she just adds in a comma and chucks it on there.  Look at this!

Truth be told, they're old ideas, not just the notion that our government should be limited, but also that all men and women are equal before the law; that life is sacred; and that God is the source of our rights, not government.

What the hell?! What is this nightmarish monstrosity?

Sarah Palin, there is nothing that can't be forgiven in writing.  ee. cummings abandoned stylistic conventions, Gertrude Stein derided the idea of allusions, and James Joyce pretty much just ground a handful of dirt in the face of a linear narrative.  But you have to be good to do that.  Not a half-crazed comma-spewing natterer.  Stick to simple sentences, because your complex ones read like someone lost a game of Jenga.

This is my America, from my heart, and by my heart. I give it now to my children and grandchildren, and to yours, so they will always know what it was like in America when people were free.

Sarah Palin is a bad writer.

America by Heart: Let's get it started.

There's a lot to say about America by Heart. I mentioned before how I thought it was shallow and poorly-considered, but sometimes had a depth of feeling. But I've realized that above all, this is a very easy book. The prospective conservative will not find any uncomfortable truths, and very seldom anything that deviates from the strict party line. Every single chapter invokes Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of conservatism, and offers up countless platitudes and cliches. Palin likes nuclear families, the Second Amendment, American exceptionalism, and veterans. There is little subtlety, and almost no deep thought. The book is larded with lengthy quotations from unobjectionable sources.

In short, America by Heart is a book by an author who has pandered a lot, written little, and thought - well, not at all. It's evident from the very first words.

"Do you love your freedom? !"
The words rush out of me. It's a rhetorical question, of course.
Of course.

Today we will take a look at the Introduction, which is titled "An American Awakening."

The title is a good choice by Palin. It evokes right from the start the message she is trying to convey: the American people have been asleep, but now they're rising up from their slumber to assert their values and take back America. It's an image that has been used countless times in the past - most famously by Nixon in his "silent majority" speech - for the excellent reason that it tends to varnish over the sins of the past.

The Republicans have had a fairly consistent set of policies over the years. Their first priority is always tax cuts, followed closely by banning abortion and a militant foreign policy, and joined lastly by a host of well-known policies based around social conservatism. Another claimed priority, fiscal conservatism, generally falls by the wayside when it comes to actual governing. Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated that they don't care about the size of government, only the size of taxes - that's why GOP administrations tend to run up huge deficits (Bush I excepted).

But then you get someone like Bush II comes into office riding on that message, and enacts it in flashy and obvious ways. Huge tax cuts, foreign invasions, and so on. Now maybe the GOP policies are a failure or the Bush II implementation is a failure (depending on your view) but however it happens, the plain fact is that a GOP President and Congress administered the things they always said they wanted to do, and the people hated them for it.

This is a dilemma: now the next wave of GOP spokespeople have to decide whether they want to reverse course away from the unpopular past and change their policies (and risk losing the base of their party) or continue the same message - a message the voters now associate with a disastrous couple of terms.

The best solution is the coat of varnish offered by the "sleeping masses" metaphor.

The tactic goes like this:
Listen, folks. In the past we actually failed to live up to our rhetoric. We promised fiscal conservatism and we gave you a massive debt. We promised free markets and instead we let them regulate our banks into a corner. But now we've listened to you - the common people - and you have let us know what you want. You're waking up, America, everywhere around the country, and we hear you.
That's not a quote from Palin's book, but it's not far off. Palin trumpets the "mama grizzlies" who feel threatened by government, the people who are threatened by how Obamacare was "forced down their throats." By invoking these masses, she immunizes her message from the failures of the past.

Palin relentlessly hammers this theme: it is I, she says, who am the voice of the real Americans. I'm just like you, and here is the proof.

That proof is this volume of pablum. Nothing uncomfortable, nothing challenging, nothing threatening to the demographic middle. It waxes smooth, sealing over the rough surface of the past.

The introduction begins with Palin at one of her rallies. A bit of research informs me it was this one, but it might as well have been any of them.
"Do you love your freedom?!"
The words rush out of me. It's a rhetorical question, of course. No one could look at this crowd of rowdy patriots waving American flags and chanting, "USA! USA!" and not know the answer. What's most amazing is that it's April 14, the day before Tax Day. We're in Boston, the home of the original American tax revolt. And everyone is in such a good mood. The crowd roars in the affirmative in answer to my question. And I look out on a sea of my fellow Americans: grandmas, college students, moms, dads, kids, veterans, people in business suits - even an aging hippie or two.
The mainstream media has been working overtime to portray these Americans as angry and bigoted. But I look out and see happy faces - faces of all ages, genders, and hues. The Stars and Stripes is everywhere, rippling in the spring breeze from outstretched arms and attached to wheelchairs and strollers. Dozens of yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags glow in the morning sun.

With your powers combined...
I guess we've gotten used to the television shows and advertisements that labor to display diversity, taken to its extreme in children's cartoons that have a "one of each" approach. It's not exactly a bad thing, but it gets a little silly if carried to extremes. And Palin starts to get a little silly.

This crowd includes everyone, and they're all being patriotic, and they're all overwhelmingly positive. All genders, ages, creeds, and colors support Sarah Palin are part of the rally.1 Everyone loves freedom. It's a huge love feast.

But it's the hand-painted, homemade signs that say it all. They're everywhere. I see a young girl holding one that says, "STOP Spending Money I Haven't Earned Yet!" I see a
young man holding a placard that says simply, ''I'm Privileged to Be an American." One guy's sign jokes, "I Can See November from My House!" And an older lady holds up a copy of the Constitution with the message "When All Else Fails, Read the Instructions."

Just in case we didn't get her point about diversity, we have "a young girl," "a young man," "one guy," and "an older lady." Palin's really hammering it home. She doesn't want to be appealing to any one demographic. This is what I expect next:
After the speech, I smiled and joined a group of patriotic Americans having an old-fashioned picnic. One girl, a Hispanic lesbian in a wheelchair, offered me a slice of pie. I accepted it with my warm thanks, and asked the elderly black civil-rights advocate to hand me a napkin. He did so eagerly, not out of a desire to impress, but just thanks to that common courtesy all Americans hold dear. Before we ate, we paused to let a Native American rabbi say grace, giving thanks to God for the food. It was the kind of scene that makes America great.
Sadly, it's not to be.  We get inner monologue instead.
What honest, heartfelt sentiments, I think. These people aren't an angry mob - they're Americans. Why do some feel the need to demonize them?
Have you stopped beating your wife?
And then I see them, on the fringes of the crowd: the professionally printed signs held aloft by a few counterprotestors. What a difference. Unlike the humor, color, and variety of the hand-painted signs, the printed signs are all the same (with the exception of one guy, who, in an attempt at humor-or at least distraction-is holding up a lifesize photo of Levi Johnston's centerfold). Written on those signs are the gripes of Washington special interest groups. The signs are held up by their hired stooges. And suddenly it comes to me: This is the central political struggle facing America today, being played out right here. With the exception of a few crackpots, the professionally printed signs all want something more from government -more for their union bosses, more for their special interest group, more for this government program or that.
In short, the people holding the uniformly printed signs have their hands out; Washington is spending away our kids' future and they still want more. But the people holding the homemade signs are the ones paying the bills. If the mainstream media wasn't busy insinuating that they're all racists and haters, it would have to acknowledge this fact. So the media keeps the coverage based on these patriots' motives. But what these good, honest Americans are asking for isn't ugly and dangerous. It's right there, on their signs and their flags and their faces, young and old and black and white: They want their country back.
When Palin looks out on this Technicolor crowd that represents everyone in America, she can immediately tell who's real. She can pick out who pays the bills and who spends the money. She knows the hired stooges of the unions or special interest groups at a glance.

The "good, honest Americans" are her supporters and those who echo her message. They don't want anything from the government. They're not racists (how could they be, when they're all colors?) They never bring up her ugly personal life or family history. They're patriots.

So if you oppose her or her policies, what must that make you?2

What I've learned from all this traveling and meeting and talking and reading is this: the spark of patriotic indignation that inspired the Americans who fought for our freedom and independence has been ignited once again! Americans are reawakening to the ideas, the principles, the habits of the heart, and disciplines of the mind that made America great. This isn't a political awakening. It's an American awakening. It's coming from real people - not politicos or inside-the-Beltway types. These are the Americans who grow our food, teach our children, run our small businesses, help out those less fortunate, and fight our wars. They've seen what is happening in America, so they've decided to get involved. They feel like they're losing something good and fundamental about their country, so they've decided to take it back, because they love this country and are proud to be Americans!

There are problems here, but the biggest is that there is not an ounce of subtlety in this paragraph.  It reminds me of this Married to the Sea cartoon:

Another problem is that the above paragraph is kind of Newspeak-ey. What does it mean to say that the Tea Party is not "political," but rather "American"? It's clearly - blatantly - just an attempt to make this particular political movement somehow better than predecessors in an undefinable way. Guys, we're not just a political movement - we're an American movement. How does someone write that without blushing?


A friend sent me a perfect illustration of this mind-set. It was a copy of the U.S. Constitution that was purchased with this warning label printed on the back: "This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work."

That's right: a warning label attached to the Constitution of the United States! It's outrageous, but in a sense it's a perfect reflection of the thinking of those who believe America needs a "fundamental transformation." They believe that the ideas of limited government and personal liberty that are contained in documents like the Constitution are dangerous and outdated. They honestly believe that our founding ideas and documents are obstacles to their vision of America. The Constitution doesn't reflect their values because it is a document that fundamentally constrains government. So they work to get around those constraints. They put warning labels on those constraints.

Wow, that's pretty crazy. And this dastardly publisher represents liberals like me, you say?

Wow, this publisher must be pretty major.  Let's see who he is. Ah, here we go: Wilder Publications. Clearly a major publishing company, selling such books as Leviathan by "Thomas Hobbs" and The Great Book of Tarzan by "Edgar, Rice Burroughs".

What's that? You say this publisher has a Livejournal?3

It seems that our edition of the U.S. Constitution has conservatives up in arms. We have a generic disclaimer on all of our PD books that points out that values have changed since the book was written. Back when we first started we got a lot of letters from people who were pissed off by some of the language and values that were presented in the classic books that we were publishing. So we put the disclaimer together and placed it into our template. The letters stopped coming and we forgot about it.

To give a bit of background. Wilder is not the actual publisher of the book. A&D Books is, we just distribute it. The reason this matters at all is because the publisher of A&D Books is a card carrying member of the NRA and quite conservative. So despite what Fox News and the conservative blogs want to say about this it's not really a liberal Vs conservative issue.

I'm not sure what's stupider here: making a guy who seems to operate out of his garage into a bogeyman of liberal malevolence, or drawing the conclusion that liberals think "personal liberty" is dangerous and outdated.

So then Palin spends a while talking about how great the Constitution is, another dangerous radical position that is sure to strike analysts as insightful. Her bold and innovative position will stagger the world. We can imagine the news reports from Tokyo:

アメリカのニュースでは、今日の知事、サラペイリン氏は、新しい本の中で発表 彼女が憲法を憎んではいませんでした。この驚きの発表がある の新しいアメリカの優位性を見越してNikeiの急落を送信 イランのアハマディネジャド大統領は強制的に市場では、とに頼る 自殺。 [In American news, today former governor Sarah Palin announced in a new book that she did not hate the Constitution. This surprise announcement has sent the Nikei plunging in anticipation of a new American dominance of the markets, and forced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resort to suicide.]

Palin goes on about the Constitution:

When we take the time to actually read them, the instructions for America are pretty straightforward. They are the truths of our founding and more. They are the principles that have made our country great - keeping our government limited, our markets free, and our families strong. But the thing is, these principles, like all fundamental human truths, are not self-reinforcing. They have to be remembered, cherished, and taught to new generations of Americans.

Really? It seems to me that if they were pretty straightforward, then there wouldn't be any problems. The problems mostly arise where reasonable people can differ, like with the Second Amendment. That text clearly says that everyone has the right to bear arms, but it also strongly implies that it's for the purposes of a well-regulated militia; that caveat is so strong that it's actually the primary and initial clause of the sentence. Reasonable and intelligent people can and do disagree on what that means.

But not Palin. There's no subtlety, and no question of meaning shifting between the time they wrote and we read. To her, the very minds of a committee that met and hashed out a document 223 years ago (then sent it out to be ratified in thirteen areas, individually) are transparent and straightforward. It's simple: the Founding Fathers agree with her.

When I was preparing for my debate with then-vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden during the 2008 campaign I came across a quote from Ronald Reagan that perfectly expresses our need to preserve and protect American values. I quickly memorized it so I could use it for my closing statement, knowing that seventy million viewers would listen and learn from Reagan's wise words:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States when men were free.

It's true, Reagan said that. Do you know when? In an ad attacking the pending passage of Medicare! Medicare, now one of the most sacred cows of the GOP! Remember that whole "death panels" thing about Medicare rationing and how terrible it would be?

Deep thinking here.

President Reagan's call for us to fight for, protect, and pass on to future generations the sources and meaning of our freedom is both a political and a personal call; it is a challenge, both for our country and for us individually. I take this challenge seriously. Passing on peace, prosperity, and liberty to the next generation requires a strong military, a free market, and a healthy constitutional order. But none of that will be sufficient if our children are not taught to have a reverence for the ideas, ideals, and traditions that are central to the American experiment.

This is my America, from my heart, and by my heart. I give it now to my children and grandchildren, and to yours, so they will always know what it was like in America when people were free.
This sort of rhetoric is consistent throughout the book, and as much as I make fun of it, it is probably the most well-crafted part of the work.  Palin is unobjectionable, rabble-rousing, and yet obviously patriotic.  She may not be thinking very much about these things she believes, but there can't be any question that she does believe them.

But it's very clear that Palin has no policies or ideas to offer.  There is not a single original thought in the book, and the introduction just serves to set the standard.  This is in keeping with her message ("We just need to return to the true principles of yesteryear!") but not in keeping for someone who wants to be taken seriously.  The whole book is a brainless puff piece for shallow reactionaries.  The introduction has given us a taste of the vapidity.

And there's a lot more of it to come.  Stay tuned.

1. As it happens, the tea party movement is generally reflective of one demographic in particular - conservatives - and to some extent older, male, wealthy, and rural voters. It's not especially representative of the public at large.

2. You must hate America.

3. Livejournal: hallmark of all great publishing houses.

17 December 2010

Vulnerable Obama?

Roger Simon has a column at Politico. It is terrible.

There is now so much room to the left of Barack Obama, it is becoming increasingly possible that some Democrat will challenge him in 2012.
Those who say they currently have no interest in running against Obama — Russ Feingold and Howard Dean to name two — could change their minds if polls show Obama losing to Republican challengers. (A Quinnipiac Poll last month showed Mitt Romney edging Obama by a single percentage point in a hypothetical 2012 race.)

This is published just hours after a new WSJ poll.
Overall, the survey indicates that, for all the criticism the president is taking in Washington from Democratic leaders and liberal activists, he is shifting in a direction supported by many Democrats outside Washington and by the public in general.
On the political front, Mr. Obama faces a mixed picture as he considers his re-election. Only 42% said they would probably vote for the president if he ran again; 39% said they would probably vote for a Republican.

But putting a specific Republican name into the question changes the picture. Mr. Obama leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by seven percentage points, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by 22 points, and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota by 20 points.

I'll say this right now, flat out and without hedging: Obama will not face any kind of serious primary challenge in 2012.

15 December 2010

Trim the budget! Just... you know, somehow. Do it. It's easy!

For some reason, a lot of commentators think that it's easy to trim the budget and eliminate the deficit. For example, here's a video from Reason, a libertarian magazine, about how easy it would be to balance the budget without raising taxes.

See? It's so easy! Look at how easily I trim this metaphorical budget! I just have to cut off pieces! It's a breeze!

If you go to the related article by Nick Gillespie and Veronique de Rugy, where the "plan" is laid out, you get the least-specific course of action imaginable. 90% of the article is elaboration of a standard Laffer-curve argument ("If you raise taxes, people will work less and so we still won't raise more revenue!") and only the very end of it is tagged with their "plan" for cutting spending:

Are our leaders willing and able to identify and cut just $25 billion in waste and excess out of more than $700 billion in non-defense discretionary spending? Is reducing the $714 billion the Department of Defense received in 2010 by a paltry $25 billion impossible? Can Medicare and Medicaid, two programs that are infamous for waste and fraud and cost well over $720 billion in 2010, find $35 billion in efficiences? The specific cuts should be open to negotiation, but the historical record shows that the available level of government revenue is fixed.

Thus far, the answer to their initial question is, well - no, our leaders aren't willing to cut $25 billion from discretionary spending or $25 billion from the DoD. If they were willing and able, they would have done it already and become budget heroes. The problem is that it's kind of hard to identify programs that should be cut.

To wit: if it was so easy, why didn't Reason do it? You'd think they'd be able to spot many of those wasteful items from atop that high horse. Or even, y'know, just one specific thing.

The fact is that there just isn't the money in discretionary spending to make these cuts. You have to cut defense or entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. But no one wants to do that for very good reasons.
  • If you cut defense and anything happens, then you get blamed. You are an immediate and obvious target for an attack ad declaring that you failed to keep America strong. You will be gone from Congress so fast you won't have time to grab your coat.
    But if you keep defense spending at its current levels and just add another few billion to the deficit - well, it's already a huge number, so it can't be put on you. And what's debt compared to human lives?
  • And if you cut entitlement programs, then the hordes come knocking. Remember "death panels?" And that wasn't even a real cut to Medicare, it was just a ridiculous lie. It's really tricky to make these sorts of cuts without being seen as deliberately harming some very large segments of the electorate: the elderly, the poor, etc.
The comments to the articles and videos, of course, are filled with the programs that libertarians think should be cut. And as an example of their vacuity, a major target is foreign aid. Buergs323 suggests:

There are so many unnecessary and immoral spending programs out there that really must be abolished. The one thing you list that MUST go is foreign aid. None of it actually serves the people in need; it and it merely fills the pockets of corrupt international politicians.

Let me borrow Ezra Klein's graph to describe why this is such a misinformed suggestion - the idea that our foreign aid is in any way substantial.

Other suggestions in the comments for some programs to cut have some money behind them, but... well, Thomas Hart suggests:

You could start by making cuts that wipe out whole departments.

1. TSA is worthless, and has not prevented a single terrorist action. 70,000 TSA employees is about 5 divisions in the Army. Draft TSA and put them over in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq doing the work of catching terrorists.

2. Eliminate EPA.
3. OSHA.
4. Dept of Education
5. Dept of Agriculture
6. Dept. of Commerce, except for Census.
7. Dept. of Labor
8. FCC
9. Dept. of Energy
10. HUD
11. Freddie, Fannie, Ginnie & Sallie.
12. NEA, NEH

Eliminating the Dept of Education alone is worth 90 billion per year.

Yes. I suppose if we eliminate almost all functions of government, we will not have to pay for them. Do I even have to go into why this insanity is not a useful or reasonable plan? Almost all Americans support these programs either in theory or practice. A senator suggesting the elimination of the TSA would probably get a lot more laughter than support.

Really, lots of people have radical ideas that might help the country. And some of them might even work. After all, once upon a time Social Security was a radical idea.

But these radical plans are not usually things you can just enact today - no one would ever vote for it. So when you talk about practical solutions to balancing the budget, you have to mix your ideal sweeping changes with at least a pinch of pragmatism. Otherwise it looks like what it is: a facile and impractical exercise in sneering.

Still, I have to give commentators Buergs323 and Thomas Hart some credit, since they were willing to propose the specific cuts that the authors of the article couldn't come up with. Cutting foreign aid would save a little money, and cutting the EPA would save a lot (even if we'd end up drinking toxic waste and breathing soot). No matter how infeasible those ideas are, they're still better than a vague "just cut spending."

So I guess what I'm saying is that there's no easy set of solutions to balancing the budget, unless you're laughably ignorant or spectacularly radical. And for Reason to pretend otherwise just adds to my perception that they're a crew of slipshod louts.

09 December 2010

The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever

Created by George Boolos and seen on its Wikipedia article (don't click unless you want the solution spoiled for you).

Three gods A, B, and C are called, in some order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for yes and no are 'da' and 'ja', in some order. You do not know which word means which.


From "Oku no Hosomichi", by Bashō


Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.

Future of Newspapers

There has been endless hand-wringing over the future of the newspaper industry. Seldom a month passes with a major new column or editorial, trumpeting the importance of a free press and wailing about the trends.

Make no mistake: a free press is vital and the trends are dismal. But I so seldom see something new in the mix; it seems every time Columbia Journalism Review highlights another of these columns, they say the same thing. "Who watches the watchmen? Ad sales are falling. The Internet is the future, but how?"

John Lanchester's column in the latest London Review of Books, titled "Let Us Pay," is no exception. But he says it succinctly, and offers the most persuasive case for the future I have heard.

Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 per cent of its readers; the UK industry lost 22 per cent. Since then, the speed of the downturn has increased. In the last 12 months alone, seven broadsheet titles in the UK have seen their sales decline by more than 10 per cent. In the US, in the first six months of this year, the Chicago Tribune lost 9.8 per cent of its remaining readers, and the Los Angeles Times 14.7 per cent.

The trends in newspaper advertising have, if anything, been even worse. When circulation goes down, ad revenue goes down too, because the ads are reaching fewer readers and are therefore worth less. Compound this effect with a general advertising recession and the numbers are horrible. In the US, advertising revenue declined for six quarters in a row through mid-2009: in fact, it not only declined, but did so at a rate which increased every quarter. Total advertising dollars fell by 19.9 per cent, on a year-to-year basis, in the quarter to March 2009. Even online advertising fell. And things continued to get worse. In the next quarter, advertising fell by another 28 per cent, year-to-year. In the quarter after that, it fell by another 27 per cent. In the quarter after that, by 23.7 per cent.

This skewed and unusual arrangement reflects the fact that in the US, the newspaper business is a local one, with a strong tendency towards de facto monopoly. Most of America’s cities have (or had) a dominant newspaper, and that paper had a monopoly of classified advertising. During the long years of the 20th century’s newspaper boom, that monopoly was the proverbial licence to print money. It was this gushing faucet of classified revenue which allowed the elaborate superstructure of American newspapers to develop. The well-staffed offices, the air of self-conscious seriousness shading into pomposity, the tendency to file what from a British point of view always seemed several hundred words too much – all these features of American papers were underpinned by the easy money of monopoly-based classified advertising. It is one reason lessons from the US are not instantly generalisable to the UK, where the newspaper market is national, and as competitive as any equivalent business anywhere in the world. It is also the reason US newspapers are for the most part more fundamentally serious than British ones. In Britain, the papers have never been able to forget for long their close proximity to the entertainment industry.

With the arrival of the internet, in the form of both specialist job-search sites and free advertising outlets such as Craigslist, the fountain of classified ad revenue simply stopped. It is this more than anything which underlies not just the desperate financial condition of the US industry, but also one of the most obvious symbols and symptoms of the decline, the sudden physical shrinking of American newspapers. The Washington Post was once a behemoth, so big it could be physically hard to get to grips with. Now it feels like a freesheet.
So, now what? Is that it, Game Over for print media? I don’t think so, not quite yet. Just as one of the industry’s biggest strengths, classified advertising, turned out to be a hidden weakness when that business simply upped and left, now there is a similar paradox, but the other way around: one of its greatest weaknesses may turn out to be a potential saviour. That weakness is simple: it is the cost of physically producing a newspaper. The production and distribution of newspapers is fantastically, outlandishly expensive. Everything about it, from the paper to the newsprint to the presses to the maintenance to the distribution infrastructure, costs a bomb. In OECD-speak: ‘On the cost side, costs unrelated to editorial work such as production, maintenance, administration, promotion and advertising and distribution dominate newspaper costs. These large fixed costs make newspaper organisations more vulnerable to the downturns and less agile in reacting to the online news environment.’

Why is [the huge cost of printing a paper] a good thing? Because the internet can make all those costs go away. If newspapers switched over to being all online, the cost base would be instantly and permanently transformed. The OECD report puts the cost of printing a typical paper at 28 per cent and the cost of sales and distribution at 24 per cent: so the physical being of the paper absorbs 52 per cent of all costs. (Administration costs another 8 per cent and advertising another 16.) That figure may well be conservative. A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’ Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing.

At some point, the economic logic of this is going to become irresistible. To my certain knowledge, some newspapers have been discussing moves along these lines. In the meantime, one crazy visionary is already giving it a go, by developing an iPad-only daily newspaper which employs more than a hundred journalists but (or maybe that should be ‘and’) has no print edition. The name of this fantasist, this dreamer, this desperado? Step forward again, Rupert Murdoch. His new online-only paper is going to be called the Daily. (There’s a rumour that they wanted to call it the Daily Planet, the paper that Superman worked for, but DC Comics said no.) The project is a joint venture with Apple, and is going to cost 99 cents a week. That is a very tempting price indeed, and when you compare it with the cost of a single day’s access to the Times – £1 – it makes the point about what you can do with the economics of the business once you stop printing papers.

So this, I think, is the future of newspapers. Their cost base will force them to junk their print editions.

It's long and the above are the highlights, but it's a good commentary. Check it out.

08 December 2010

From "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek", Annie Dillard

I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’

(via Futility Closet)

07 December 2010

Left Behind: Kingdom Come

Read all my reviews of the Left Behind books!
1. Left Behind, 2. Tribulation Force, 3. Nicolae, 4. Soul Harvest,
5. Apollyon, 6. Assassins, 7. The Indwelling, 8. The Mark,
9. Desecration, 10. The Remnant, 11. Armageddon,
12. The Glorious Appearing, and 13. Kingdom Come

Warning: This one is a long one.

When I finished my review of the twelfth book, The Glorious Appearing, I had been unable to find a copy of Kingdom Come. In fact, I was so frustrated that I even started on the only available copy of the thirteenth book I could find: the audiobook, as performed by some magnificent character called Steve Sever.

It must be heard to be believed. Here's the first sample, from the beginning section of the book that's actually a copy-and-paste from The Glorious Appearing. In this clip, Rayford and his two wives are chatting.

And here's a rather representative passage from later in Kingdom Come. Rayford asks a question and receives a laborious pseudo-Biblical answer. You'd think he could just pray and ask Jesus about it, since Jesus is ever-ready to burst in on your thoughts, but he has to put the good Pastor Tsion to work still.

Thankfully, I eventually got a text version of the book, and could get to serious work.

The basic rules of the Millenium of Jesus' rule on Earth, the period covered in this book:

  • If you are a believer, you are immortal and invulnerable. You are a vegetarian because you do not kill animals. If you need to know how to do something, Jesus implants that information in your brain. Everyone speaks Hebrew.
  • If you died, then at the start of the Millenium you are restored to an "ideal body" at an "ideal age." You never age or change during your thousand years of new life. You cannot have children and feel no desire for sex.
  • If you were born after the Rapture, then you age, but very slowly. If you do not accept Jesus as your personal savior, then you die at the end of your first hundred years.
  • The sun and moon are both super-bright, so much so that everyone has to get used to sleeping in powerful light.

There are a lot of weird other rules and things that pop up, but those are the basic rules. And of course, there are a lot of problems with them. For example, what form of Hebrew is spoken? It apparently has the divine approval, but was it the Hebrew of Noah? King David? Modern Hebrew? Jesus spoke Aramaic, so the easiest answer isn't available. It seems weird that Yahweh loves this one little culture and people so much, and kind of insulting - but we'll get to that in depth later.

Another problem with the rules is the "ideal age" thing. What is the ideal age? I like the way I look now, but I bet when I get older I am going to be a distinguished-looking fellow. The way this works is never explained.  Some people look about twenty, others thirty, others forty.  Why?  Who knows!

Really, this lack of elaboration is bizarre. Did the authors find such questions silly, or just too difficult? These are the truly interesting things here, but there is a complete lack of curiosity. The people of these books are soul-less sheep.

It's not like they were short on room. In addition to the copying of the last chapter of The Glorious Appearing, they find space for a retelling of the flood story at great length and vast reams of Biblical quotes, including all of Revelations 20 and the whole story of the flood and the exodus and Jericho and David's whole life, and they even retell some of the stories from the earlier books (like Tsion's escape from Israel). These copied sections don't add much, and it seems like the authors were just out of ideas. Explanations of some of the weirder aspects of the Millenium could have filled up this space into which they so desperately copy-and-pasted.

The plot of the book certainly isn't crowding anything out. Jesus rules the planet directly, and strikes down with lightning people who sin badly anywhere in the world. So the "threat" is a pretty harmless group of young people who choose not to follow Jesus. In the book, Rayford is captured by one group, but an angel rescues him. Abdullah ministers to another group, and converts a leader. And Kenny has a false email sent out about him by an infiltrator, who is exposed. These short elements of actual writing are a minority in the book, swamped in quotes and retellings and endless prayers.

You might think I'm exaggerating, but as we have established in the past, no exaggeration is necessary with these books.  Here's a representative passage.

Rayford still had questions, of course, but he was speechless as the glory of the Lord entered the temple by way of the gate that faced east. Jesus said, “This is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever. No more shall the house of Israel defile My holy name, they nor their kings, by their harlotry or with the carcasses of their kings on their high places. When they set their threshold by My threshold, and their doorpost by My doorpost, with a wall between them and Me, they defiled My holy name by the abominations which they committed; therefore I have consumed them in My anger. Now let them put their harlotry and the carcasses of their kings far away from Me, and I will dwell in their midst forever. Now that I have judged those who rejected me, those who remain shall keep the temple’s ordinances and perform them. This is the law of the temple: The whole area surrounding the mountaintop is most holy.” The altar hearth had four horns extending upward from it. And Jesus said, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘These are the ordinances for the altar on the day when it is made, for sacrificing burnt offerings on it, and for sprinkling blood on it. A young bull shall be given for a sin offering to the priests, the Levites, the seed of Zadok, who approach Me to minister to Me. They shall take some of its blood and put it on the four horns of the altar, on the four corners of the ledge, and on the rim around it; thus they shall cleanse it and make atonement for it. Then they shall also take the bull of the sin offering and burn it in the appointed place of the temple, outside the sanctuary. On the second day they shall offer a kid of the goats without blemish for a sin offering; and they shall cleanse the altar, as they cleansed it with the bull. When they have finished cleansing it, they shall offer a young bull without blemish and a ram from the flock without blemish. When they offer them before the Lord, the priests shall throw salt on them, and they will offer them up as a burnt offering to the Lord. “ ‘Every day for seven days they shall prepare a goat for a sin offering; they shall also prepare a young bull and a ram from the flock, both without blemish. Seven days they shall make atonement for the altar and purify it, and so consecrate it. When these days are over it shall be, on the eighth day and thereafter, that the priests shall offer their burnt offerings and their peace offerings on the altar; and I will accept you.’ ”


As to the young rebels against God, who provide the lame excuse of a plot in this book: I'll say it right now, flat out, that these young people are completely heroic, and I am totally on their side. In the previous books, I rooted for the Antichrist just because he had some good arguments and the good guys were insufferable. But these rebellious young people in Kingdom Come, who call themselves the Other Light, are full-out heroes.

“The Other Light is, in essence, a secret society within our own. It is spreading worldwide, largely through computer technology and encrypted messages. The bushy-haired one, Ignace, and the redhead, Lothair, are slowly bringing me into their confidences. I feared at first they would make me prove myself by coming to Paris and engaging in some debauchery, but that—so they claim—is beneath them. Their current deal is a missive called ‘If It’s True . . . ,’ which they send to carefully selected dissidents. The gist of it is that if it’s true that the opponents of Jesus die at age one hundred, the efforts of all must be redoubled before they die off, in effect martyring themselves for the sake of the final effort at the end of the Millennium.”
“That makes no sense,” Bahira said. “If it’s true that unbelievers die at one hundred—and we know it is—it proves everything we believe about Jesus, everything that is obvious. I don’t understand why this doesn’t spur them to repent and save themselves.”
“I know what you’re saying, Bahira,” Raymie said. “But like my brother-in-law said at Cendrillon’s funeral, these people already know who Jesus is. They don’t doubt His deity. They don’t like it. They oppose it. That their comrades are dying at one hundred only convinces them of the rightness of their cause. So, Kenny, how do they plan to overcome the ultimate prophecy, the final reward for their leader at the end of the Millennium?”

I have long said that even if Yahweh of the Bible did exist, he would have to be the grimmest kind of bully and I like to think I'd have the moral fortitude to oppose him, even if he did have the power to punish me for my freethought. So many of his previous actions were so immoral and vicious that he deserves to be opposed, no matter his power. Well, these young people are living that glorious adherence to righteousness.

God has said that he must be worshiped or you will suffer for it. The Other Light says that they know he's powerful and that they will suffer, but they won't be forced to laud anyone. They're staking their hopes on doing the right thing, even though the odds are spectacularly against them - fighting a deity of enormous power - and they pay the highest cost. Jesus is revered for suffering for part of a day and dying, but he was restored to life and health. These kids are laying down their lives for eternity, risking an eternal torment they end up receiving - all for the sake of the good.

The examples we are shown are fairly typical straw men, if not egregiously so, but the romance of their heroism has won me over. I'm reminded of the old questions about Satan's role in Milton's Paradise Lost, a work in which Satan often appears magnificent and admirable.  Rising up from his damnation, Satan roared glorious defiance:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall.

This magnificence was so obvious that Blake would later famously comment that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." And by the same token that we must marvel at the dignity of Satan in the face of doom - when he rises from a great fall with a full heart and puissant leadership - we have to admire the Other Light for facing the same odds.

Alas, they're doomed. On with the show.

The worst problem of the previous books remains in this one. The authors just don't like to describe things happening. When possible, they instead have a character remember it, instead, in a vague manner. So it is with Rayford.

RAYFORD STEELE had to admit that the first time he saw a bear and then a leopard moving about in public, something niggled at him to keep his distance, to not show fear, to make no sudden movements.

See, now that Jesus is back, the lion lays down with the lamb and all animals get along. This is one of the clear prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, but weirdly - even though Jesus was supposedly the Messiah - I do not think zoos are so peaceable. But wait! The prophecy actually meant the second time Jesus would come. Never mind. Totally reasonable.

But when he saw the bear and the cat cooperate to climb a tree and make a meal of leaves and branches, he was emboldened to trust God for the whole promise. It wasn’t just he who had become a vegetarian. It was true of all former carnivores.

This reminds me a lot of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. At this wonderful testament to human ingenuity in the face of implacable fact, you can see depictions of the Garden of Eden filled with dinosaurs, and descriptions about how the Tyrannosaurus Rex used to use its massive sharp teeth to open coconuts. For serious.

Also you can see an example of how a riding dinosaur, such as Adam probably used, must have looked.

But this whole vegetarianism thing raises a lot of questions. None of them are answered. Are the internal organs of these animals all revamped, since so few carnivores could digest cellulose? And what about those creatures that are far removed from our scale, like bacteriovores - do those count? How about viruses, by their nature predatory - do they just cease to exist?

We never get the answers to any of these questions, and in fact the whole thing about animals never comes up again after this first page.

Rayford moved quietly to the trunk of the tree and watched the animals cavort and eat. And when a branch fell, he himself tasted the leaves. He enjoyed fruit and vegetables more, but he could see what the creatures found in the plants.

What?! So now are humans also able to eat previously inedible things? To what extent is this true? Why don't you answer the exceedingly obvious questions of your readers?!

As it turns out, everyone eats essentially the same thing all the time.

Irene had made butter from milk she had collected from a cow, so when everyone had assembled, they were met with steaming piles of fresh produce, drenched in butter.

“We are honored, sir,” Rayford said. “Would you join us for fried vegetables and fresh fruit?”

It seems as though the food culture of the world has been eradicated. This was perhaps to be expected, considering how meat-dependent it was, but it still seems odd that an immortal people are content with such boring meals. You have eternity, you don't want to whip up something a little more interesting? Not that buttery or fried vegetables aren't good, but I don't think I would want to eat that all the time. And we pretty much have to assume that they do, since every time anyone eats, it's this sort of meal.

How about some dal, guys? Or kimchi soup? Herb french fries? When I think about a thousand years of the same food every day, it makes me a little sick. But not the passionless Jesus-robots of the future!  This is because the man of the future is the most boring person on the planet. Even the characters seems to subconsciously realize this:

Now he anticipated the special dinner where his mother-in-law was to tell yet another story of Jesus.

Every day they talk about Jesus. It's all they really talk about. They gather together to praise him, and he makes them fulfilled. They pray to him, and he gives them a boost of peace. They feel uncomfortable with thoughts he wouldn't want them to have.

All individual cultures have been wiped out. Every historical building, monument, or artifact has been swept away by Jesus during the last battle. Jesus rules as a dictator from Israel, with Jewish lieutenants who command larger groups of Jews, who in turn each govern part of the world as the undisputed ruling elite. If you're not Jewish, you're not special and cannot rise in government, because Jesus is crazy-racist.

We see some sad attempts in this book at revivals of individual culture...

On the other hand, despite the anxiety over working undercover, Kenny had found Paris interesting. None of the historical landmarks remained, of course, but attempts had been made to reproduce some of the more familiar—like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and even some of the great cathedrals.

...but for the most part it is only Jewishness that is sanctioned and rewarded. And why shouldn't that be so, because the omnipotent God has decreed it?

The Jesus-robots certainly don't complain. This is mostly because they're not really human anymore.

And strange about Cameron and Chloe’s relationship was that they still loved each other, but not romantically. Their entire hearts’ desires were on the person of Jesus and worshiping Him for eternity. In the Millennium, they would live and labor together with Kenny and raise him, but as there would be no marrying or giving in marriage, their relationship would be wholly platonic.

“It’s bizarre,” Chloe told Cameron. “I still love and admire and respect you and want to be near you, but it’s as if I’ve been prescribed some medicine that has cured me of any other distracting feelings.” “And somehow that doesn’t insult me,” Cameron said. “Does my feeling the same offend you?” She shook her head.

What sad shades of people! Romance and passion have been crushed out of them like juice from an orange, and - what's worse - these shredded rinds have been made to be glad of the loss! A major part of what makes them human, and what defined them as individuals, has been stripped away, and in its place is the same numbing happiness and love of Jesus that everyone else feels. I was immediately reminded of another scene, a very similar one.

'They can't get inside you,' she had said. But they could get inside you. 'What happens to you here is for ever,' O'Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out.

He had seen her; he had even spoken to her. There was no danger in it. He knew as though instinctively that they now took almost no interest in his doings. He could have arranged to meet her a second time if either of them had wanted to. Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind. He was hurrying along with frozen hands and watering eyes when he saw her not ten metres away from him. It struck him at once that she had changed in some ill-defined way. They almost passed one another without a sign, then he turned and followed her, not very eagerly. He knew that there was no danger, nobody would take any interest in him. She did not speak. She walked obliquely away across the grass as though trying to get rid of him, then seemed to resign herself to having him at her side. Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection from the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm round her waist.
'I betrayed you,' she said baldly.

'I betrayed you,' he said.
'And after that, you don't feel the same towards the other person any longer.'

'No,' he said, 'you don't feel the same.'

There did not seem to be anything more to say. The wind plastered their thin overalls against their bodies. Almost at once it became embarrassing to sit there in silence: besides, it was too cold to keep still. She said something about catching her Tube and stood up to go.

'We must meet again,' he said.

'Yes,' she said, 'we must meet again.'

It's a grim future in both cases. And perhaps we must pity even more those Raptured as children, now never to know what they had lost.

While Raymie wondered what a normal life might have been like, with dating and love and marriage and parenthood, he found it convenient to not be distracted by such things while immersed in a life of service to Christ.

To paraphrase: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a divine sandal stomping on a human face - forever.

So the Jesus-robots are all assigned tasks. In the case of Buck (sorry, now he's Cameron - "There's nothing to buck, guys") and Chloe they get put in charge of educating the children of Israel about Jesus.

In a flash it came to Cameron to call this group COT (Children of the Tribulation), and as negative as the name sounded, it didn’t grate on him. It was merely fact. Here were representative children born after the Rapture who had survived to enter the kingdom. As the thousand years progressed, of course, kids would be born who could still be called children of the Tribulation, because someone in their ancestry had to have lived through it.

Really? These kids will be stuck with this label for a thousand years? I don't think they're going to be unhappy because it's negative, I think they'll be unhappy because it sucks. And everyone born during this time will be called that, just because their ancestor was one? Yeah, they're going to love that.

Is it any wonder these kids rebel?

Let's take a break here and listen to a few more segments of the audiobook. We deserve it.

Here's Tsion and Rayford strolling along, discussing the new race-based regime.

And here's a conversation between some of the major characters after a young girl dies, the first person to do so in one hundred years. Chloe is filled with Christ's love.

What a pip!

So anyway, let's return to the "literal" interpretation of the Biblical end times.

Actually, wait. A note on that "literal" thing.

When the authors say they're being literal, they usually mean they're being literal in the sense of being completely metaphorical. Revelations 12:3 says "And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads." But there is no dragon at any point in these books - instead this dragon is held to represent the United Nations. Literal!

Actually, come to think of it, the only literal parts of the series come from Revelations 8 and 9: the pretty straightforward series of disasters. Meteors, poison, etc. But every other piece of imagery from Revelations is treated as a metaphor. The four horsemen, the lady with a crown and stars on her feet, the four creatures, etc.

Interestingly, the authors don't even appear to realize what "literal" means. One of the two, Jerry Jenkins, even says:

I know one of the secrets of the success of Left Behind is that Dr. LaHaye interprets most of Revelation as literally as he can. If it doesn't say it's symbolic, then he takes it literally. With Glorious Appearing, when Jesus comes back and there is no battle of Armageddon—they all marshal to have this battle and never have it—he wins and slays them all with the sword from his mouth. We know that it's not a literal sword; he's not going to come with a big sword hanging out of his mouth and kill millions of soldiers. But we also know that it says that in the Word—it's a novelist's dream.

So... it's not literal? What makes it a metaphor for a sword - is it just that you don't like the idea? Jesus is already levitating and slaying an army of millions single-handedly - but a mouth-sword is too far a stretch for you?

This is particularly a problem when it runs in the reverse: on the rare occasions when the authors do take something literally, it's frequently something that is obviously a metaphor. The whole thing is a metaphor, of course, but some passages more so. Such as the ones that have the rivers turning to milk.

They left the route to the causeway, and many followed them to the foothills, where the streams had become pure white milk. Having only half finished his meal, Rayford knelt and cupped both hands in the white cascade, the icy flow hitting his taste buds like nectar.
Again Chaim pointed, this time past the new foothills and to the rocky elevations that surrounded the city. There, gushing down the mountainsides were deep purple channels, collecting in great, beautiful pools below. “Do you believe this, Chaim?” Rayford said. The older man stood staring, then quietly quoted: “ ‘And it will come to pass in that day that the mountains shall drip with new wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah shall be flooded with water.’ ”

These are some dumb writers. Do they think that when the Jews crossed into Israel, they also found a land literally "flowing with milk and honey," as it says in Exodus? No, it's outrageously obvious that the rivers did not turn into a gloppy flow of magical honey. It's a metaphor for an abundance of food. In the same way, it's profoundly stupid to think that the predictions of mountains dripping with new wine means that the springs will be magically changed into ever-flowing boxes of Franzia blush.

Think about how disgusting a river of milk would be. Even cold, it would have a powerful smell. As it soaked into the soil and became warmed mud-milk, it would start stinking. In a day or so of the Israeli sun (particularly the new super-powerful sun) it would curdle and draw insects. Not the kind of miracle we want, seriously.

Returning to the book...

As the renovated earth took spectacular shape over the next forty-five days, Rayford found himself curious about the upcoming opening of the new temple.

I think the authors are just teasing us now. They know we are curious about things like this spectacular shape and how Jesus is renovating. But they won't describe it to us, just to bother us. I bet they like to bake delicious chocolate cakes, and then put them in locked cages on the kitchen table. Hey kids, I made this amazing moist cake... ooh, but you can't have it because you're a sinner.

I like to imagine Jesus' world renovation works like SimCity. He selects the leveling tool, raises up the land, then makes some water tiles. But for Rayford to watch mountains rear into the sky, waterfalls bursting to life, and forests erupt from the ground... well gosh I sure wish someone would write a book about it, maybe they'd describe it. Or maybe not.

One thing they will describe, and with enormous gusto, is the construction of a new temple.

Only from this perch could Rayford take in the wall that extended all the way around the temple, its width and height equal. The gateway that faced east lay at the top of a set of stairs that was also the width of the wall. Each gate chamber was the same length and width, as was the vestibule of the inside gate. The eastern gateway bore three gate chambers on one side and three on the other; again, all the same size. From the front of the entrance gate to the front of the vestibule of the inner gate were beveled window frames in the gate chambers and in their intervening archways on the inside of the gateway all around, likewise in the vestibules and all around on the inside. On each gatepost were palm trees. In the outer court, thirty chambers faced a pavement that extended all the way around. These same features appeared on all four sides of the temple. Gateposts faced the outer court, and palm trees stood on its gateposts on both sides, and seven steps led up to it. There Rayford saw a chamber that appeared to have been equipped with tables on which to process offerings.

I like to imagine Jerry Jenkins writing these books. He has a mental checklist: "Okay, I described the temple... okay... and then I filled up that space with some more Jesus talk... mm-hmm... well, guess I'm done with this time period. Let's seamlessly transition to the future. It won't seem discordant at all."

BACK FROM Indonesia for a week, Rayford sat in a rocking chair on the rear deck of Tsion Ben-Judah’s tidy estate in northern Israel. “I had always wondered what that prophecy meant, about God’s people moving about with walking sticks by the end of the millennial kingdom. But I’m over 140 years old now, and I’m beginning to feel it.”

Whoa! 97 years into the Millenium, I guess it kind of sucks to have survived the Tribulation after all! If he feels this bad after less than a century, imagine how ol' Rayford's going to feel after a thousand years! I hope Jesus provides a magical bounty of Depends Adult Undergarments.

What might aging for so long be like? I am put in mind of Petronius' Satyricon's section about dinner at Trimalchio's, when one guest describes seeing the immortal but aging Sibyl:

Then the Sibyl! I saw her at Cumae with my own eyes hanging in a jar; and when the boys cried to her, ‘Sibyl, what would you?' she'd answer, ‘I would die,'

Poor Rayford, fated for a jar!

"Excuse me, Tsion.” Rayford stood and moved away as the cellular implant in his inner ear sounded and Chloe spoke.

What?! Cellular implant? Why is this the way we find out about this? Also, why is the only time it's ever mentioned in this book?! Technology has developed to the point that people have inner-ear phone implants, but this isn't important enough to spend even a sentence of explanation on?

The books have always kind of eked along technology. Buck starts off on a plane splicing his laptop into the on-board phone and using his dial-up modem, and then a few books later he's using his smartphone to surf the web through a scrambled satellite feed - with almost no acknowledgment of the crazy shifts in technology (Left Behind was written in 1995). The only time they really get into technology is when it comes to guns - the authors have lavished countless pages on describing the power of a .50 cal rifle.

Now we're a century into the future. Ordinarily, I would say that we'd have robots and flying cars, or maybe some sort of technopunk alternative like street samurai or whatever. But these being the books they are, I was perfectly willing to accept the world abandoning technology and reverting to an agrarian utopia. They got rid of all political advances (like democracy) and eliminated all schools and research labs, so it made sense to me that Jesus just doesn't care very much about cellular towers. But it seems that instead technology has continued unabated.

Let's consider what this means: all mining industries must have been rebuilt, with surveyors locating the new mineral deposits in the reshaped earth and mining teams excavating to them and starting extraction and refinement. The manufacturing sector must have emerged as well, with new factories being built to process the raw materials into plastics and wires and whatnot. Additionally, dedicated teams of scientists have rebuilt sterile laboratories and research centers in order to recreate the techniques for creating high technology - building from very little, since almost all scientists would presumably be in Hell. And then fabrication firms have churned out new devices. But not only do we never hear about any of this, we never even hear about whether or not thing like money even exist! Everyone picks their food from a nearby tree and scoops a glass of wine from the ground, and God implants knowledge and skills of how to build houses or the like, so theoretically there's no need for money. Is it a socialist utopia?

Here's a question: who's mining coal? It's a terrible job, dirty and unpleasant (even if immortals don't have to worry about the danger). Why would anyone do that, if they don't have to do it to put food on the table?

Who's handling the sewage? No, I bet Jesus just makes some unlucky guy want to fix a feces-clogged sewer pipe. It fulfills him, and he sings God's praises with blank eyes and a taut smile. Creepy.

But back on track: why is it we only hear about the high-tech inner-ear phones once, and why is this the only advancement humankind apparently makes in a hundred years?

...oh! That's right!

The authors needed phones, so they could get back to their normal routine of having characters make frequent phone calls. But detailing how society works, how industry was recreated, how technology has advanced - well, that would require creative writing. And that's not the author's strong point. Okay, this makes sense.

Anyway, it turns out that someone has died, for the first time in a century. She was apparently not a true Christian, even though she was a wonderful person in every way.

“The Jospins want me to speak at her funeral, Rayford,” Cameron said. “They know the truth, and yet still that’s what they want. Whatever would I say? She seemed a wonderful girl, and had her death been the result of an accident back in previous years, I’d have been able to rhapsodize about her. She was a dear friend, a valued coworker.”
"And an unbeliever,” Chloe said.

Yeah, that's real nice, Chloe.

So the Other Light are recruiting people away from Jesus, perhaps uncomfortable with the zombified Jesus-robots they see everywhere.

“Cendrillon acted as if she were teasing, but she talked of visiting France or Turkey to see for herself if the nightlife rumors were true.”
"They are true, Bahira. My dad checked it out. It basically consists of kids in their eighties and nineties who crow about having not yet become followers of Christ. They call themselves the Other Light and say their study of the ancient Scriptures makes them fans of Lucifer and not Jesus.”
“But they’re just doing this for attention, aren’t they? Jesus lives beyond the Scriptures. He’s the Living Word. Surely they can’t claim not to believe in a God who has again limited Himself to human form and lives and reigns among us.”

As I said above, I seriously admire the Other Light. They're heroic beyond all measure, giving their lives and gambling at high risk their souls for the hope of a better future, even against an enemy that seems all-powerful and controls every aspect of society and the minds of his subjects. And who can blame them, when the alternative is this:

Kenny had been ten and living in the kingdom a few years when his mother led him to Christ and prayed with him while putting him to bed one night.
“I don’t feel like a sinner,” he had told her. “I hardly remember doing anything wrong.”
“Sin isn’t necessarily just things we do,” she had said. “It’s what we are and who we are. We’re all born in sin and need forgiveness.”

You didn't do anything wrong. You were born wrong, and you need Jesus to graciously forgive you for having the audacity to be born. Now smile. SMILE, DAMNIT!

At Cendrillon's funeral, we finally meet some people from the Other Light. The authors try to make them out to be as personally repellent as possible, and also artificially stupid and offensive. It's supposed to make us dislike them and root against them, but instead it just seems pushy. After a sermon by Chloe about Cendrillon's evil failure to repent for emerging from a birth canal, one of the Other Lighter's speaks as if the sermon is unusual.

Lothair, a redhead, was the thinner and taller of the two. He snorted. “That crackpot sure made her sound like a loser. Don’t know who he thinks he is.”

Really, she's a crackpot? This guy has lived almost a hundred years in a world personally run by Jesus and a cadre of resurrected Jews, where almost every other person he ever meets is a devout Christian with a personal mind-link to the Jesus hivemind - and he thinks a woman giving a sermon is a crackpot?

These characters are only passingly acquainted with being human, perhaps, because no real person could ever be so stupid. Trying to make out the heroic "villains" of this book as such idiots makes the authors seem rather desperate. Fortunately, a conversation with Chloe's son, Kenny, goes better.

“Then you know she wasn’t some big sinner. She hadn’t even been outside Israel since she was a little kid. We couldn’t even talk her into having a little fun.”
“Yeah, you know. Fun. Something other than singing songs to Jesus to make sure you live past a hundred.”
“I wouldn’t mind living past a hundred,” Kenny said.
“Then you’d better get saved, don’t you think? According to this guy, that’s the only way to make it. Unless you got a pass by coming straight here from heaven. You didn’t, did you?”
“Me? Nah. Do I look like it?”
“You don’t, actually; no offense. Those glorified people all look the same, like porcelain dolls. Hey, anywhere to have fun around here?”

See, this sounds like a real person. In fact, he sounds like the first real person in the book. The authors have always had a hard time writing characterization, so almost all people speak with the same voice unless they're cartoonishly villainous or some stereotype ("Y'all ain't from around here, is you?"). Chloe talks like Rayford talks like Buck talks like Bruce. But here we get someone who they accidentally give a real voice, and a decent outside perspective on the Jesus-robots. It's a surprisingly effective image: porcelain dolls. We can see them in their ranks, frozen smiles and delicate preserved skin. All in a row.

I am starting the Other Light fanclub.

Okay, so to "fight" the Other Light, a group of the younger generation gets together.

[H]e said, “I want to be cautious, but I’m struck by the makeup of our little band here, compared to the original Tribulation Force. You’ve all heard the stories. There were three men and a woman when they started too. My father and my sister and her husband were three of the original members.” He glanced at Bahira and Zaki. “Your father came along later and served several years. Who would have dreamed another effort like that might be needed during these times?”
“The Millennium Force,” Bahira whispered.

But you know what? I'm not going to talk about them. I find their very existence to be personally offensive to my intelligence.

See, basically the whole world is on the "good guys" side. An omnnipotent and omniscient deity rules the world directly, all of the world leadership is divinely ensured to be obedient, and almost every single person is a devout Christian. But the problem is that the overwhelming odds make the "bad guys," the Other Light, seem heroic. It's hard to feel threatened by a group so hugely outgunned.

So in order to artificially make it a tougher fight, the authors have a very small group come together in secret. Why in secret? Why not go to Jesus and get his support? Is it really so difficult to believe he'd be able to help them evangelize these Other Lighters? He's Jesus, I'm sure his disguise kit is pretty good.

But no, it has to be a plucky underdog group.

This is like a small group of police officers getting together in secret and saying, "Okay, guys, we've got to do something about this group of twelve drug-running pedophile Neo-Nazis in town. We can't tell the chief or the mayor, because of... ummm... anyway, here's our cool name."

So I find this offensive, and I will not further acknowledge their gimmick. It's stupid. Especially in light of what is revealed in this conversation:

Kenny bore the only nonglorified body among the four, and that had given him entrée to a world in which the others would never be welcomed without suspicion. “Ignace and Lothair Jospin are deep into the Other Light,” he reported, “but the underground nightclubs in Paris and elsewhere are merely a front. They are frequently raided and revelers arrested and imprisoned. Those who commit actual crimes have been known to be put to death by lightning, God dealing with them immediately as He did to Ananias and Sapphira of old.”

Jesus is personally destroying the Other Light with lightning! How can we possibly see them as a threat!?

“Some of them moved to other parts of Europe so they could join that. They not only chose against Christ, but they also chose for Lucifer. It was as if he became their hero, like a martyr who wasn’t dead but only temporarily bound.”
“But don’t they know his destiny?”
Ekaterina stood and paced. “That’s just it, Mr. Williams.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. If I’m going to work for you . . . I mean, not that I’m saying I know I’ll get the job . . .”
“It’s all right. Call me what you wish.”
“I’ll tell you what: if you call me Kat, I’ll call you whatever you wish.”
“You’re on, Kat.”
“Anyway, that’s just it. They have delusions of grandeur. They actually believe they can become so organized and widespread and strong that they can change the course of history.”
“Even if they die hundreds of years before the final conflict.”
“Imagine that,” she said. “But again, this is where they’ve become so idealistic. They want to be martyrs to their cause. They find that glamorous. One told me she believed that if they did their jobs and passed down through the generations their doctrines and their war plans, Satan would actually win and have the power to resurrect them so they could rule with him.”

I am thinking about getting an Other Light armband to show my support.

While this half-hearted attempt at intrigue is going on, we find out that Rayford and Tsion have been dispatched to Egypt, where they have had the gall to disobey Jesus and refuse to send representatives to a festival in Israel. Jesus doesn't like this, and turns off all springs and rivers to afflict Egyptians with thirst.

A neighbor man about Rayford’s age wandered over to the Al Jizah construction site one afternoon. “You the ones the Lord sent?” he said.
“That would be us, sir.”
“Can you do anything about getting Him to turn the water back on?”
“That’s why we’re here, but as you can imagine, the leadership of this nation is going to have to get in line.”
“I hope you’re not expecting a warm welcome in Cairo. Those young men who talked the other leaders out of going to the feast are dead, slain by lightning in the very presence of their colleagues.”

Egypt has got Tsion so mad he won't even let them keep their name. Plus, it appears they're still holding a grudge about that bondage thing back from the time of the Pharoahs.

“Woe to you, says the Lord God of Israel, for helping to scatter His people throughout the generations. He healed your land and reestablished you, populating you solely with believers until your offspring were born. Yet you kept the name of your nation, a stench in the nostrils of God. Egypt: ‘temple of the soul of Ptah,’ indeed! Ptah, a pagan deity from generations past. Where is he in your time of need?"
“But, sir, that is precisely our point. What kind of a loving God is so capricious that He would—”
“Demolish this building!” Tsion roared. “Rebuild it as a temple to the Lord. Delight in His ways. Seek His face. Follow His statutes. Never again disobey His commands. And henceforth this land shall be known as Osaze, ‘loved by God.’ Lest you fear that His wrath evidences something other than His love, imagine what He could have done in the face of this ultimate insult.

It wasn't too long ago that Tsion was strolling along with Rayford, chuckling about his friend's uncertainty at the new Jewish global regime and at the idea that the Jews might be unjust in some way. Yet here he is, deciding that Egypt's name - a truly old name and arguably rather important to their culture - is no longer proper. No, this Israeli guy gets to rename their whole country because he is ethnically Jewish.

With God striking down dissenters with lightning, things go rather predictably and soon Egypt - sorry, "Osaze" - is dancing to the Jewish tune.

Back in Israel, the authors write a lengthy three-part lecture series conducted by famous Old Testament figures for the benefit of the Children of the Tribulation in Chloe and Cameron's care. The first speaker is Noah, the second is Joshua, and the third is David. They tell very long stories that do not deviate significantly from the Biblical accounts. This takes up a lot of space, so that the authors can take a break from creative writing and count their money.

Curiously, they actually recount Joshua's attack on the cities of Israel. Joshua drily recounts about how "[w]e had been in the wilderness for more than forty years by now, and it was time to possess the land," and how they put Jericho "to the sword, and spared no one." No attempt is made to justify the fact that Yahweh ceded to the Jews a big tract of land where people already happened to live, and then commanded them to exterminate those people. It's just skipped past.

Afterwards, there's some more boring intrigue. Kenny is... wait, a second, what's this?

He arrived home that evening to a computer message from Ignace Jospin. Oh, great!

Ah, so here in another offhand way we discover that computers are back and some form of the Internet has returned. Curious about that in any way? Want any details? Too bad! Kenny has to talk to his boss about some bad reports on his girlfriend at work!  No time for details or description or serious attempts at a readable book!

“That’s good. But I do need to talk with you about a work report on you from your supervisor.”
“Mattie? She sent a report on me? A good one, I hope. We’ve gotten along great.”
“Actually, it’s a troubling one, Ekaterina.”

I'll save you the breathless suspense: it turns out that an agent of the Other Light has been forging reports at the Children of the Tribulation compound. This deception is discovered within a minute, and no harm is done - no one's feelings even get hurt. It's the saddest attempt at sabotage and utterly ineffectual - probably because the Other Light are trying to fight heroically against a united worldwide regime and interfering omnipotent deity.

It's hard to say why this "intrigue" is even put in here. It's boring, obvious, and doesn't advance the plot. There's no drama, no loss, no victory. It has about the same impact as a scene where Ekaterina restocks the staples. Even if the deception hadn't been discovered literally the next minute, it wouldn't have been much more than inconvenient. Here are the dastardly charges.

“Now, Ekaterina. These are summaries of your discussions. About your being tardy, taking too long of breaks, leaving early, being hard to find when team chores are scheduled, sitting with Kenny at the Noah appearance without permission, disagreeing with her in front of the staff.”

This is like discovering that someone has been planning to replace the regular non-dairy creamer with hazelnut non-dairy creamer: why do we care?

Shortly, we're given some insight into the reason why the Other Light is investing its time in creamer-quality capers: they're not evil, no matter how much the authors try to depict them as such. When Abdullah (formerly a pilot for the Tribulation Force but reinvented as a preacher) wants to help put a stop to the Other Light, he goes to one of their headquarters and simply demands to be allowed to have a seat and work at one of their desks. He wants to help provide an opposing voice ("of reason") to their arguments against God.

They let him.

“Yeah, yeah, save it. If you’re camping out in here, you’ll get plenty of time to spew your platitudes. I’ve got a newsletter to get out, so you’re going to stay out of my hair for the rest of today. Got it?”
“Certainly, but know that I am willing to proofread that for you and make sure you’re on track. I mean, you wouldn’t want to be guilty of raging against straw men, would you?”
“Sarsour, get him set up in there, and then shut his door.”
“Thank you, friend,” Abdullah said, offering his hand. Mudawar gripped it lightly.
“Yeah, yeah.”

How could we ever hate these people? They truly do just want the freedom not be a Jesus-robot. They want honest dialog about the alternatives so badly that they'll even let one of their enemies have a desk in one of their headquarters, to listen to all their efforts and argue against them.

“Listen, let’s say you’re right. Let’s say that despite all you TOLers dying off at the end of your hundred years you are somehow able to keep this torch burning down through the centuries as the population expands. By the last century of the Millennium, you have amassed this great army, and all right, let’s say that against all odds and logic and prophecy and the very Word of God, your side prevails. Let me postulate that those of you who thought this up and schemed and strategized are still dead and still in hell and that your leader does not have the power to resurrect you. Convince me I am wrong.”

The tolerance of these Other Lighters is astonishing.

Returning to Egypt, we're given a brief glimpse of what it is to live in this new world.

For some reason, despite how long Rayford had lived in this new world, it still surprised him to emerge from the heavily curtained mobile hotel to a moon brighter than the sun had once been. But with a wide-brimmed hat and dark wraparound sunglasses, he could pretend. And an hour’s amble at midnight often cleared his head.

Imagine a world of continual daylight, only brighter. Never a quiet moonlit walk along a dark path. Never an owl hooting in the dimness of twilight. All is light, all the time. It would be maddening - hellish. It would be like an episode of the Twilight Zone - wait, it was and episode of the Twilight Zone! It's pretty much just like "The Midnight Sun"! Only everyone also has to pretend to be happy about it, or else Jesus will send them to the cornfield. Terrifying.

So anyway, Rayford is kidnapped. He could easily get free, but God tells him not to. Because... um... well, because the authors need to create a dangerous situation, and that's hard with an immortal protagonist. Like a comic book about Superman in an arm-wrestling tournament, they need to stretch our credulity to come up with a difficult problem.

Still Rayford waited. “You could shoot me through the brain or I could leap from this car and still God would spare me,” he said. “Surely you know that.” “Risk it then,” Ishmael said. Rayford considered it. What a message that would send! He could envision himself tumbling and rolling in the dirt, then jogging unharmed back to the others. But the Lord suddenly spoke quietly to his heart. “Comply. I am in this.”

Anyway, Jesus destroys the bad Egyptians with lightning and fire or something, and Rayford wins.

Time to flash forward again!

So we jump ahead nine hundred years. We are briefly told that every member of the Other Light we've encountered died in the meantime, but they still managed to recruit a lot, and that everyone else was happy.

Just as we thought, Rayford appears to be pretty much jar-worthy these days, at the age of over a thousand.

By the end, the ministry was maintained by the glorifieds, as the naturals finally saw the ravages of time catch up with their bodies. When the naturals reached ages higher than about seven hundred, they began to slow and notice the diminution of their senses, particularly hearing and sight.

Here is the final battle.  It is only lightly abridged.

THE EARTH teemed with billions of people, and the end of the Millennium was vastly different from the beginning. That was no surprise to Rayford, who kept up with the news, often sitting before the television with Chaim Rosenzweig.
“We don’t have one trained soldier,” he said. “And we don’t need one. Not a hair on the head of a believer will be harmed by the biggest fighting force the world has ever seen.”
Daily for the past three years, the news had abounded with stories of millions of adherents to the Other Light, growing bolder by the minute. Their printing presses and electronically transmitted messages blanketed the globe, recruiting new members, amassing a weapons stockpile and training a fighting force a thousand times bigger than had been aggregated for the Battle of Armageddon a millennium before. Rayford was amazed that God allowed such a brazen, wanton act of defiance on the parts of so many as they symbolically thumbed their noses at Jesus and the earthly rulers He had chosen from the ages. Even in Israel, tanks rumbled through the streets, uniformed soldiers marched, and missiles and rockets were paraded before the faithful.
Television broadcasts from around the world showed the same and worse—what seemed like entire people groups dressed in the all-black uniform of the fighting forces of the Other Light. Of course they were all younger than one hundred and thus relegated to the status of children— rebellious, articulate, passionate, defiant, furious children. But they were also brilliant and had written songs and poems and speeches anticipating the day their leader, the Other Light personified, would be — in their words —“foolishly released” by his captor.
“The so-called God Almighty will rue the day He returns to us our leader, for it will mean the greatest comeback, the most decisive defeat, the most gargantuan victory of any foe over another in the history of mankind.”
Warships, tanks, personnel carriers, bombs, rockets, launchers, and all manner of battle paraphernalia from tents to food and medical supplies had been arriving at Holy Land ports daily for months, vast encampments growing around the entire expanded city of Jerusalem. Rayford was stunned that even many of the faithful were outraged and terrified by this. Oh, it was awful, terrible and disconcerting to see the plains filled with warriors and their tools of war. But the only reason the government allowed it was because they knew—as did Rayford and his friends—the schemes of the marauding invaders were futile.
“All this time, Rayford,” Chaim said, his voice weak. “All this waiting. And the prophecies are clear that this will be entirely anticlimactic. Think of the irony of that.”
Rayford remembered when the airwaves had been full of praises to the Lord Christ, who ruled the earth from His throne. Now it was as if people on both sides of the conflict had forgotten that He was still there, still sovereign, still destined to triumph. Debates, speeches, charges and countercharges filled the airwaves now. And the enemy continued to arrive. Every nation on earth sent fighting forces. And while many believers fled the Holy Land, others vowed to fight the Other Light to the death.
Despite all the attacks of the evil one throughout the aeons of time, his efforts were doomed to an ill end. And as Rayford Steele and his compatriots looked on—all of them sinners redeemed by the blood of the Lamb who sat on the throne—Jesus rose to face His challenger for one last time.
The Alpha and Omega, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Lion of Judah, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the Rock, the Savior, the Christ stood in the courtyard of His temple.
Satan, silenced for a thousand years, shrieked, “Charge!”
Jesus responded quietly, “I AM WHO I AM.”
And with that, the clouds rolled back and the heavens opened, and orange and yellow and red mountains of white-hot, roiling flames burst forth. Satan’s entire throng — men, women, weapons, everything — was vaporized in an instant, leaving around the holy mountain a ring of ash that soon wafted away in the breeze. Satan looked about him and slowly lowered his sword. He appeared to have something to say and even drew breath to say it, but he fell silent.

I mourn the Other Light, so enamored of freedom and the human spirit that they dared to defy a deity. And to be wiped out in such a badly-written and cursory manner! -  it's unworthy of characters who stood up against not just God, but their own writers, to become heroic figures of inspiration.

The denouement is pronounced in typical passive-aggressive manner.

Rayford had the feeling that the many verdicts he had just heard would have horrified him in the old days. And yet now, hearing the offenses of those who had rejected and rejected and rejected the One who was “not willing that any should perish” and seeing Jesus’ own tears as He pronounced the sentences, Rayford understood as never before that Jesus sent no one to hell. They chose their own paths.

They certainly did. They chose freedom. That was unacceptable to a tyrant God, and so he sent them to Hell.

The only residents of the new heaven and new earth were those written in the Lamb's Book of Life.  And they would reign forever and ever.

And thus concludes the Left Behind series.

This is a series based on questionable interpretation of scriptures. Despite claiming to stick to literal interpretation, they make wild leaps into metaphor to justify their timeline.

This is a series of grim theology. Monstrous violence is justified because it's done by or in the name of God, and heroes are cast as villains.

But most of all, this is a series of terrible writing.

  • Characters are indistinct and have no personality, unless they are silly stereotypes.
  • Everyone is on a plane or on the phone, whenever possible.
  • Extraordinary effort is spent on describing the mundane, but world-changing events slip by without comment.
  • No one behaves the way a normal person would under the circumstances, reacting woodenly to criticism or becoming superfluously gullible.
  • Whenever possible, a stock character or a stock phrase is used rather than an original idea.
  • The words are poorly chosen, the sentences are poorly constructed, and the chapters are poorly paced.

We finish our journey with Left Behind now. I'll leave you with one final thought from the pages of Kingdom Come. Let it take you back to a time long ago, before we knew the petty madness of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Cameron sat in the grass, and two youngsters immediately climbed into his lap. Others leaned against Chloe.
"I had heard about God and Jesus all my life," Cameron began, and he was struck by the lack of fidgeting and distraction. These kids hung on his ever word. "But I never really gave faith a serious thought until seven years ago, when I found myself on an airplane bound for England in the middle of the night..."