Presidential Biographies: George Washington, #1

I begin my quest to read at least one biography per President at, well, the beginning: George Washington. After carefully perusing reviews online and discovering a pretty cool website in which some guy is reading enormous amounts of biographies of each President (My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I settled on the massive (800+ pages of text, more than 900 pages overall) Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the inaugural DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I settled on this biography because it seemed to be the right balance between comprehensive and readable. Apparently, multi-volume biographies (with 4 volumes, in one case!) of Presidents exist. Not for me. Yet, anyway. Chernow starts with a rather brief section about Washington’s early life, covers rather extensively his adult life pre-Presidency, segues into an overview of the first Presidency, and closes briefly with a look at the life and legacy left behind.

I found this biography to be quite fascinating. Though the details on Washington’s early life were fairly skimpy, they did help set the stage for the rest of his life. It was very interesting to read about how Washington felt like an outsider regarding the elite among whom he often walked, even practicing his penmanship to try to blend in better.

The story of Washington as soldier and, eventually, revolutionary shed much light on him as a person. He constantly strained against the confines of being a Colonial vs. a British Regular soldier and searched for more pay. He was quite proud. The image we get in school of Washington as invincible is very different from the Washington who suffered numerous bitter defeats in the Revolutionary War. Washington’s interactions with Native Americans and slaves were quite revealing, showing that he was far more brutal than even he wished to paint himself.

The Washington Presidency is unique in that it, perhaps more than any other term, helped shape the idea of what a President of the United States ought to be. He defined the role during his time in office, for better or ill. From what I could tell through the biography, he helped balance a fine line of asserting the power of the executive branch while also balancing partisanship. A great many accomplishments can be set before the Presidency of Washington, perhaps none so important as the peaceful ceding of power to the next President. But apart from that, he helped establish the national bank, bolstered the economy through increased trade, worked to restore American credit, built relationships with other countries, opened the Mississippi for more expansion, and more. It was a highly productive Presidency and he should get the credit that is his due.

That said, we should also not get into the realm of hero worship. As noted, the picture we get in schools in the United States is a kind of invincible lion who was simultaneously beastly in battle and the picture of peaceful rightness when it comes to the moral sphere. But Washington owned slaves (see more on this below), brutalized Native peoples, was full of pride, made wrong choices, lost battles, and pursued a married woman early in his adult life. It is vastly important to have a realistic picture of the man rather than an invented one, and Washington: A Life gives that.

None of this is to say the biography was perfect, however. Though Chernow doesn’t seem to pull punches in showing the ills that Washington committed himself to, he also acts as an apologist at points, particularly in regards to slavery and the First Nations. For example, he writes that “Washington was never sadistic or abusive toward slaves…” but then immediately goes on to discuss how he saw slaves as being in a fair economic exchange with their masters, how Washington mocked a slave who had injured an arm and demanded he still work, and more (495). Moreover, though Chernow continues to object that Washington even knew some of his slaves by name, he also allowed overseers to beat some to death or kill slaves through neglect. He was an absentee owner during his years at the White House, but did nothing to forestall ill treatment of the slaves. Though he wished to free slaves, allegedly, he continued to prioritize his economic well-being over that of other human beings. Indeed, even Chernow comments that Washington hardly saw slaves as truly human; he saw them just as most others of his era did: as property.

Chernow’s irksome comments regarding slavery are mirrored in his discussion of Washington’s treatment of Native Americans. Though Washington allegedly wished for more peaceful relations with First Nations peoples, and apparently understood why they may be angry enough to kill European “settlers” who were stealing their land, he did very little to actually offset these atrocities and showed no hesitation in executing them or burning their crops when it suited him as “just punishment.” The comments about Washington’s desire for peaceful relations ring rather hollow here.

All of this is to say that Washington was a deeply imperfect man. He had a great number of faults. Though it would be unfair, perhaps, to judge him by 21st century standards of morality, a strong corrective to our image of Washington as perfect, peaceful, and the like is also much-needed. I learned a great deal from Washington: A Life and recommend it highly. Be aware of some of the remaining apologetics of Washington, however.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington: By default, he ends up at the top of the list for now, but that’s not to downplay the greatness of his Presidency. For one, Washington basically defined the office. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 3 “Civil Defense” and “Meridian”

Oh…. you want me to turn this off?

I’ve completed my re-watch of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Now it’s time to start Deep Space Nine! I am much less familiar with this show, though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen about 80-90% of the episodes. It’s been so long that I’m sure it will all feel brand new. My wife has never seen the show. She and I will go through, review every episode, and give commentary and a grade from A-F. There are SPOILERS for each episode below. Without further adieu, here’s:

“Civil Defense”

Synopsis

O’Brien and Sisko accidentally set off an old Cardassian security system on DS9, triggering a series of events that leads to the station going to war against its inhabitants because it thinks they are Bajorans in revolt against the Cardassian overlords. Gul Dukat himself shows up in a twist, offering to disable the station defenses if they allow a permanent Cardassian presence back on the station. When he tries to leave to give them time to think on his offer, however, he himself is trapped on the station by a layer of security he didn’t know about. Dax manages to shut down part of the station security, and Sisko manages to reroute power to prevent the station from blowing to bits. High fives all around.

Commentary

I don’t know what to make of this one. If this kind of episode showed up on TNG, it would be yet another in the slew of “everything manages to go wrong, somehow, on the Enterprise” episodes. I mean, really, how do they even allow them to use holodecks with all the nonsense they cause there? Anyway, because this is DS9, everything going wrong has a built-in way to make sense: namely, the station used to be Cardassian. And because we all know the Cardassians are nefarious, devious, and probably don’t have much concern for safety standards, the idea of everything managing to go wrong and the station beginning to wage war on its inhabitants is much more believable than it was on TNG.

That is exactly what happens here, too. DS9 begins to wage war on those living within it. O’Brien manages to trigger a security system, and from there things snowball until the station goes into a timed auto-destruct unless the Cardassian overlords override it. Then, Dukat shows up. Having Dukat arrive was pure genius, even if it seemed a tad contrived. Sure, Dukat was just patrolling nearby and got the distress signal and decided to violate Federation/Bajoran space. Right. But having him do so makes for a ridiculously entertaining piece in which he goes from lording everything over the current inhabitants to himself being trapped on the station. That was gold.

Of course, they manage to get everything figured out just in time. But along the way, Sisko had to leave O’Brien for dead to save the station. That little scene managed to show a few things. First, that Sisko is hardcore. He made the right decision, even if that meant leaving a friend for dead. That kind of decision is one that you often don’t see Starfleet people making the right call on. Second, Jake managed to get a time to shine multiple times in this episode, giving him broader capacities than he had before. It was a good development for him.

Grade: A- “A disaster scenario that gives room for both humor and great character development.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A “I give this an ‘A’ solely because the part with Dukat when it activated the super, super, super defense was hilarious.”

“Meridian”

Synopsis

While out for a pleasure cruise or something, the Defiant discovers a planet that just pops into existence. It’s a pleasant enough place, so the crew goes down to the surface. Turns out the planet shifts between dimensions at a somewhat predictable interval in time, though the stability is now threatened. Dax finds one of the inhabitants particularly alluring and she quickly falls in love. Meanwhile the crew figures out a way to keep the planet from shifting out of existence, allowing the inhabitants to stay in the “real world” permanently. The implementation of this plan will not, however, take place before the next phase shift, meaning that Dax and her love will be separated. Initially, he decides to leave to come with her. Then, Dax realizes the world’s importance to him and decides to go with him. Unfortunately, her presence on the planet interferes with its dimensional shift and she must be beamed back to the Defiant before everything goes wrong. She is forced to leave her love for 60 years. He may as well be dead.

Commentary

Can we talk about the weird inconsistencies in this episode for a minute? First, why couldn’t they have babies? It specifically said that they turn up exactly as they were before the dimensional shift, so why wouldn’t they continue to be pregnant? Why would the 60-year interval in mindland prevent them from procreating when it doesn’t impact their physical bodies. Second, what the hell happened to Dax? She just happens to fall head-over-heels in love over the course of like 4 hours–to the point where she’s going to take the Symbiont into a probably dangerous situation for it? Uh, sorry…. no. She wouldn’t do that. And that guy was kinda creepy too, the way he asked innuendo-laden questions almost immediately. “Do those spots go all the way down?” *wink wink.*

Despite all that, I somehow didn’t hate the episode, and as I’m sitting back pondering how to score it, I find myself wondering why. I don’t know if it was some of the sets I enjoyed, or if I just thought that Dax having a love interest she was serious about–however implausible–was a good development. Nevertheless, the episode managed to grab my attention, however implausible I thought the whole thing was. I feel like I should dislike it much more than I do. But I don’t. Maybe that speaks well for something about it–maybe I was captured by the allure of the planet and its mysteries as well. I don’t know. But if this is a “bad” episode for DS9, we have a really awesome show here.

Grade: C+ “Implausible, ridiculous premise with Dax acting very contrary to her own established personality. Yet somehow not terrible.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: C “It just seemed so out of character for Dax. Also it was predictable as the end approached.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Star Trek: DS9– For more episode reviews, follow this site and also click this link to read more (scroll down as needed)! Drop me a comment to let me know what you thought!

SDG.

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books – #36-40

With a classic book like this it was difficult to find a book cover. I use this under fair use.

I’m a huge science fiction fan, but realized I haven’t read a lot of those works considered classics or greats. I decided to remedy that, and found a list online of the Top 100 Science Fiction Books. The list is determined by vote from sci-fi fans online, so it may change over time. I am going off the order of the list as it was when I first saw it. Each book will receive a grade between F and A+ as well as very brief comments. I’m interested to read what you think about these books as well. There will be very minor spoilers in some of these.

36. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne Grade: A-
“At times it is a little wordy, but this classic has all the trappings needed for an adventure to the depths that remains as enthralling now as I suspect it was then. Quite different from popular portrayals in a few key ways, it is exciting as a stage-setter. The characters are stronger than in Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and this, I think, should be known as his masterwork.”

37. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton Grade: B+
“It lacks that certain something that the greatest science fiction has–whether it be a stunning way to look at the world, a stirring vision of humanity, or something else–but is nevertheless a thrilling ride all the way through. Crichton is a master at using believable science to create cutting-edge science fiction, and The Andromeda Strain is no different. It gives a warning, once again, about the dangers of the unknown, a recurring theme in Crichton.”

38. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Grade: D+
“It is difficult for me to process this as a novel. Like ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’ this book has as bare-bones a plot and characters as are as thin as possible. Unlike that horrendous nightmare, here Vonnegut manages to grab some interest by making up a kind of Gnostic vision of religion. It’s certainly not a good book, by any stretch, but it isn’t as abysmal as that most hated book. The primary difficulty is that, once again, Vonnegut apparently felt the need to couch his political and metaphysical commentary in what some people take to be a novel. But really, this is just a series of barely connected vignettes written in a kind of vomiting of consciousness. It would be like me writing down every thought I had on religion, politics, and the like all day and then inserting those thoughts into the mouths of poorly-constructed characters to push my ideas onto you. It doesn’t qualify for a good read, in my opinion, but at least I see where some pleasure might be derived from his work.”

39. Ubik by Philip K. Dick Grade: B
“It’s a kind of surreal, science fiction horror story where you’re never totally sure what is going on. It reads quite a bit like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ I enjoyed it, though it never quite reached top-tier level of excellence. A fast, thrilling read.”

40. Contact by Carl Sagan Grade: C+
“Here’s the concept: SETI, the search for extraterrestrial life, actually finds something! I really liked the idea of this book. The problem was that Sagan did too, so instead of actually writing the novel, he spent about 60% of it telling me about the idea. Thus, as a reader, you must slog through pages upon pages of background explanation for why SETI matters, what kind of cool things might be found, whether or not there might be intelligence ‘out there’ or ‘behind it all’, etc. The somewhat tired and oft-violated maxim ‘show, don’t tell’ shouldn’t be a rule at all times for all places, but it is a ‘rule’ for good reason. Sagan flaunts it throughout this novel, which could easily have been a novella.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books– Check out more posts in this series as I continue.

SDG.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 3 “Second Skin” and “The Abandoned”

Well, this is awkward.

I’ve completed my re-watch of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Now it’s time to start Deep Space Nine! I am much less familiar with this show, though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen about 80-90% of the episodes. It’s been so long that I’m sure it will all feel brand new. My wife has never seen the show. She and I will go through, review every episode, and give commentary and a grade from A-F. There are SPOILERS for each episode below. Without further adieu, here’s:

“Second Skin”

Synopsis

Kira gets kidnapped by Cardassians. She wakes up with Cardassian skin and is told she’s been an undercover Cardassian agent for more than a decade. Her Cardassian “father,” Ghemor, is brought in and seems genuinely concerned for her and upset that she doesn’t remember him. As the days go on, she continues to believe that the Cardassians are trying to pump her for information, a feeling that is only confirmed as the Obsidian Order presses her for information from her alleged undercover operation. When her father finally comes up with a plan for sneaking her out, the true plan of the Obsidian Order is revealed. They were trying to trap the man who thought he was her father in a betrayal of Cardassia so they could arrest him and get information about more dissidents from him. Thankfully, Sisko and crew manage to save Kira and her Cardassian “father.”

Commentary

I thought this was a great character piece. It reminds me quite a bit of “Face of the Enemy,” the TNG episode in which Troi ends up as a Romulan. Here, though, Kira is not only placed in enemy hands, she also has very little control over the situation. Watching her deal with that, and try to figure out what exactly is going on, was rewarding.

What really elevated this episode, though, was the revelation that the Obsidian Order was using Kira, not to try to convince her to give up valuable information, but to nail her “father” on his political leanings. When Ghemor tries to help Kira escape, he is outed as a dissident and the Order is about to take him into custody when Sisko et al. rescue them. It’s a twist that I didn’t expect, because they’d sold the notion of it being Kira everyone was interested so well.

Grade: A “It was an excellent episode for both character development and overall plot.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A “I just thought it was really well done throughout. Good job. Also, double undercover agent Kira!”

“The Abandoned”

Synopsis

Quark buys a ship in a shady deal. What he didn’t know is that a baby is on board. As the station’s crew cares for the baby and speculates about his origins, he continues to grow at an alarming rate. It becomes clear the child is a Jem’Hadar. He sees Odo as his ruler, just like the other Jem’Hadar. Odo partners with the boy to try to teach him to control his violent impulses and overcome his genetic programming. All his efforts are in vain, however, and he ultimately satisfies himself with helping the Jem’Hadar return to his people, where he can live out the life of violence and other-hating he was designed for.

Commentary

Hey look, Star Trek can pull off a baby-to-adult transition without having to resort to the creepiness that was TNG’s “The Child.” I thought the best part of this episode was actually how it developed Odo. Odo was trying to go against the way his people had oppressed the Jem’Hadar and show that the latter were more than the product of their genetic modifications. Chalk that one up as a failure–for now, anyway. Who knows if the Jem’Hadar will have more to them later. But again, Odo’s own insistence on his not being somehow better than everybody else showed his coming to terms with his own place in the universe. He is an outsider, but one who still makes a difference wherever he is.

The problem with this episode is just how swiftly the Jem’Hadar developed. I guess they may have decided to go from baby-to-adult so quickly to try to show that developmentally, the Jem’Hadar change massively and perhaps the aggression manifests itself later, but I think the episode could have been more powerful if Odo had simply been interacting with an adult Jem’Hadar the whole time. That way, we’d have been able to get into more discussions of the Jem’Hadar philosophy, etc.

Still, this was a decent development piece for Odo, and whenever a main character gets some major character development, I am pleased.

Grade: B- “It’s like ‘The Child,’ but not creepy or terrible.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B “The sheer implausibility of the Jem’Hadar kid is hard to overcome, but it was a good look at Odo’s character.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Star Trek: DS9– For more episode reviews, follow this site and also click this link to read more (scroll down as needed)! Drop me a comment to let me know what you thought!

SDG.