February 11, 2006

Literary Salon

Two good Salon book reviews: one on Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and one on Leonard Steinhorn's The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy.

Dennett, who has a habit of taking on impossible tasks—"explaining" both consciousness and free will, for instance—is attempting with this new book to make a case that religion must be studied scientifically, that "we break the spell that creates an invisible moat around religion, the one that says, "Science stay away. Don't try to study religion." But if we don't understand religion, we're going to miss our chance to improve the world in the 21st century."

Something else he says is particularly apposite for the present moment:
We cannot let any group, however devout, blackmail us into silence by their expressions of hurt feelings whenever they feel that we are getting close to the truth. That is what con artists do when their marks begin to get suspicious, and that is what children do when they can't have their way, and it should be beneath the dignity of any religious group to play that card. The responsibility of science is to safeguard the well-being of those it studies and to tell the truth. If people insist on taking themselves out of the arena of reasonable political discourse and mutual examination, they forfeit their right to be heard. There is no excuse for deliberately insulting anybody, but people who insist on putting their sensibilities on a hair trigger demonstrate that they prefer pity to respect.
The other book, Steinhorn's, both exonerates and exalts the Baby Boom Generation for exceeding their fathers' generation in both moral courage and dedication. Their fathers—and mothers—fought the battle they had to against fascism, but shirked their duties at home in fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The boomers, however, took up the challenge wholeheartedly.

Of course, the boomers' accomplishments cannot really be measured solely by what they did in the '60s, and Steinhorn realizes this. Faced with an enormously divided nation and some undeniable backsliding on many of the key fronts of the '60s Revolution(s), Steinhorn sees merely the death throes of the Greatest Generation's morality, to be replaced forever by Boomer morality. Wait, boomers voted for those Bush guys too, didn't they? And that Reagan fellow?

The reviewer questions Steinhorn's chronological reasoning—many of the greatest "heroes" of the post-WWII movements for equality were not, in fact, boomers at all. And many of the movements boomers credit themselves for were simmering for a long time before they got out of their cribs. I would add that the shifting attitudes toward Judaism right after WWII—represented in movies like Gentleman's Agreement—actually got the ball rolling.

Actually, it's a really good review. Just read that.

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