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This is a scholarly biography, but the word “scholarly” shouldn’t scare readers away. While hundreds of books have been written about Betsy Ross, mostly for children, no one until now has seriously attempted to separate fact from fiction and place the woman and the legend in context.

Marla R. Miller writes a book that presents Betsy’s Ross’s life and legacy in as accurate a manner as historical evidence allows. She respects the woman and even the myths that have grown up around the story of the origin of the nation’s first flag. In other words, this isn’t a book with an agenda aimed at trashing a cultural icon. That said, Miller doesn’t back away from citing what we don’t know, what we likely will never know, and what we do know that doesn’t match or corroborate certain iconic interpretation.

One reason Miller doesn’t write fluff is that she’s a recognized professional historian. Another reason is that early on she understood that, though the historical record is often sadly slim or silent, what we can know for sure about Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole is interesting enough.

The woman subsequent generations came to know as Betsy Ross did live in a unique time and place at this nation’s genesis, she did play an entrepreneurial and artisanal role as a woman with courage and resolve in early American life, she did make if not the first flag (we still don’t know for sure) than certainly hundreds of US flags in the first decades of the nation’s existence, and she became the beloved matron of a large and loving extended family. So we can remember, respect, and enjoy Betsy for what we know she did, not just for what we wish or think she did.

Not much about Betsy’s personality survives. But Miller believes what evidence we have suggests a woman that was decisive when necessary. She was a person who took considered risks, like marrying a second and third time when her first two husbands died young. She was apparently a woman with an admirable work ethic, and she was clearly a woman with compassion, for time and again she took down-and-out family members into her home, sometimes for years. She was a woman who knew her own mind and made decisions accordingly with respect to religious conviction. She married outside the church when she felt it right, and she became a key and long lasting part of the Free Quaker movement of her day.

Miller celebrates Betsy Ross as an early American woman who was what we’d call today a survivor. She didn’t give up, she didn’t fall apart, she didn’t run away. She did what she had to do to get through, and this she did until death claimed her as a woman full of experiences, full of the love of family, and full of days.

Betsy Ross and the Making of America is an interesting, well-written, and enjoyable book. I recommend it highly.

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Few non-fiction writers have caught the public’s attention in the past few years like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born in Somalia, educated but coming of age in a family with a strange mix of love and abuse, living in four countries mostly without a present father, an unwanted arranged marriage at 22 years, and a run for freedom to Holland, this is Ali’s background.

Then add a remarkable story of fortitude, resilience, and drive for independence that leads Ali from scared immigrant to Member of the Dutch Parliament to death threats by Islamists for producing a controversial film questioning the Koran. Ali is a rather amazing individual who by any reasonable guess should be a victim of her upbringing and circumstances. But she’s overcome them all to become an internationally recognized women’s rights advocate, writer, and speaker.

This book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, is a collection of essays, Ali’s first book. Since this book was published in 2002, she’s written two more books, both international bestsellers: Infidel and Nomad.

Since I read her later books before reading this one, it was easy to catch the differences in the writing and the yet-maturing nature of Ali’s thinking and social analysis, all of which are so evident in the later books. Don’t get me wrong. In this book Ali offers an hard-hitting evaluation of what she believes are the backward values embraced by so many followers of Islam.

She points to mental stagnation, repressive regimes, rejection of reason, and a collective mentality that suppresses individualism, sacrificing all to absolute obedience and a drive for “honor” and avoidance of “shame” at all costs. Ali believes Islam offers no credible political model, that Islamic societies are characterized by the lowest economic growth of any in the world, and that such societies are fueled by aggression, distrust, and fatalism.

Islamic culture is, Ali contends, obsessed with virginity, therefore turning girls and women into chattel of the men of the family and clan. This twisted view of sexual morality makes women invisible, figuratively and literally. They are persons for whom both external and internal freedom are inhibited. They are in the virgin’s cage, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Ali argues for an Islamic Enlightenment, an openness to self-reflection and criticism, a willingness to consider new ideas, attitudes, and behaviors. Islam, she believes, is static, and it's not being held hostage by terrorism but by itself.

These are powerful insights and allegations, ones that have earned Ali the continuing condemnation of Islamic leaders and even, incredibly, the criticism or disdain of some in the Western Left. The Left doesn’t like Ali’s comments not because they don’t see that female genital mutilation, for example, is a serious issue, but because the Left has bought into the Kool-aid of multiculturalism, i.e., cultural relativism, i.e. moral relativism. In its zeal for tolerance and freedom from judgment the Left has steered itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac in which it cannot offer credible critique of anything because anything goes.

This is perhaps Ali’s greatest contribution thus far. Not simply an able defense of women’s rights, though her words carry passion and power on this important issue. Not simply questioning Islam, though she is noteworthy for her combination of personal experience, hurt, and educated social sophistication, all of which she turns on a religion too long without evaluation.

No, perhap’s Ali’s greatest contribution thus far is simply to call boldly and articulately for freedom of inquiry based upon intellectual honesty. She wants to know the truth and to work with the truth. She wants others to get their heads out of their self-delusional sand and see for themselves. Just answer the question, she says: What set of values best advances individual life, liberty, and wellbeing? What moral framework actually works for the good of one and all? What set of values is better?

While this book, collected essays as it is, seems a bit choppy at times and doesn't give us the mature thinker we later read, it is nevertheless worth reading. I highly recommend this book.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Nomad is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s third book, the second that is autobiographical.

This book retells some of her family and remarkable personal history. But Ali focuses most of the text on immigrating to America, Islam in America, her description of Islamic religious teaching and cultural perspectives on sex, money, and violence, and finally her recommendations for preserving and developing free societies.

Ali is an excellent and engaging writer. Her vocabulary is impressive and her social and political analysis more so. In American political culture she’d be called a conservative for many of her views, yet she is liberal in her attitudes toward sexuality and religion. She embraces and propounds Enlightenment thought and yearns for a world where women especially would be liberated from male, religious, and cultural masters. Most of all, she wants people to be free to think, to learn, to decide, and to do as they independently wish to do in the pursuit of happiness.

Ali is an atheist, having rejected Islam during the last two decades of her geographical, spiritual, and intellectual journey. Yet she does not trash Christianity as some atheists do. Rather, she says “The Christianity of love and tolerance remains one of the West’s most powerful antidotes to the Islam of hate and intolerance.”

Ali considers the Muslim veil in all its gradations simply a form of mental slavery. She says, “The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, nonpersons.” Islam, Ali says, takes girls and “grooms them for docility.” They live in an “apartheid of sex” that is legally and culturally enshrined. Even in the West, Alia says, Muslim women are “conditioned to live in a prison within a society that is free.”

Ali is also strongly critical of Islamist schools and what she labels an authoritarian and rote approach to learning. She contends students are brainwashed with no exposure to any ideas conflicting with Islam and students are cut-off from society, and that schools perpetuate misogyny under an arbitrary god of fear. She argues this approach to education ruins girls, if they attend school at all, by making them subservient, compliant, and unable to think for themselves. She believes this education ruins boys by developing in them an arrogant sense of entitlement and lack of curiosity dampening their creativity and ability to be as productive as they could be in a free economy.

Ali is understandably extremely critical of practices like female genital mutilation or “brutal excision,” which pre-dates Islam but is embraced by many within Islamist culture. Ali says this egregious offense to girls is happening daily in the West—as is honor killing, albeit less frequently, and child-brides in arranged marriages, quite frequently. These offenses, along with other debasements of femininity, are why she says, “I believe that the subjection of women within Islam is the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West.” She goes further in answering her critics, arguing that to claim oppression of women has nothing to do with Islam and only a traditional custom is intellectual dishonesty.

As in her bestselling autobiography, Infidel, Ali argues strongly against the cultural relativism behind “multiculturalism.” She believes multiculturalist attitudes undermine assimilation, progress, and wellbeing among immigrants whose cultures are protected by Western governments as untouchable even when they perpetuate the subjugation—or “gendercide”—of women. She calls this the “racism of low expectations,” noting that “Every important freedom that Western individuals possess rests on freedom of expression.”

Ali also believes the Christian Church has bought into multiculturalism and its morally relativistic outlook. She believes Europe, especially, is “sleepwalking into political, cultural, and ideological disaster” because the Church is neglecting immigrant neighborhoods. At the same time, she says it is naïve to think inter-faith dialogue will bring Muslims into the fold of Western Civilization. She thinks governmental or ecclesiastical multiculturalism aimed at “respect” becomes just a “euphemism for appeasement.”

What’s most interesting is to hear Ali, an atheist, encourage Christians to be more evangelistic in reaching out to Muslims. She acknowledges that the Christian God of the Bible is a loving, forgiving God of redemption and hope, something even she says Muslims need. She urges Christians, as well as Western governments, not to bow to the politics of intimidation.

There are other experts emerging who speak to the “clash of civilizations,” but few if any bring to the discussion the personal experience, visceral depth of understanding, and gifted intellect as does Ali. Agree or disagree with her arguments, but do Ali and the principle of freedom of thought the respect they deserve by doing due diligence on her views. Ali is influential because her experience, talent, and critical thinking have earned her influence. I highly recommend this book.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

This is a book about survival against all odds. On nearly every page of the book a story is told that makes you wonder, “How is this woman still alive?” The book is the incredible autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian woman who escaped her family, clan, culture, and religion in search of freedom.

Let me say at the top that I highly recommend this book for several reasons. First, it provides a view of clan culture in East Africa that for me at least was new, informative, and enlightening. Second, it helps you understand the ways in which Islam works itself out in different cultures, the political ideology the religion demands, and the manner in which the theological system and traditions that have built up over centuries regard people, girls and women in particular, and life itself.

Third, the book is simply compelling. It’s different, relates familial or religious practices that are astounding for their disparagement of human life and individual value, and provides a social analysis at once winsome and courageous. Fourth, the author Ali was always smart but is by now a well-educated woman who can write. I’d even say gifted as a writer. I was hooked in the first few pages. Fifth, Ali is a political scientist by education and profession so her political and cultural analysis is as good as any you’ll find dealing with the topics she addresses.

Ali made her escape from Germany by taking a train to Holland where she found a kind people and a welfare state especially prepared to receive and nurture a scared but strong Somali woman who wanted nothing but to be independent, to live freely. She made this bold run for freedom at 22 years of age after her father had arranged a marriage for her with a Somali man living in Canada, a man she did not choose. Her father had put her on a jet to Canada but she bailed during her layover in Germany.

The book relates with amazing memory formative events from her childhood spent in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. She describes her religious odyssey, one that eventually saw her reject Islam and embrace atheism. (Ali at least in this book is not an “angry atheist” and she does not attack Christianity. She simply no longer believes in God or an afterlife.) She speaks knowledgeably and movingly about female genital mutilation—which she endured, the sexual paranoia of her religion and culture, and her later experiences with love and sexual maturity. And she shares her feelings and concerns for family members who, though often hateful and abusive, she still loves.

Eventually, through what can only be described as a process of pluck and passion she becomes an elected Member of Parliament in the Netherlands, makes a controversial short film (Submission, Part 1) with a Dutch producer about the plight of women under Islam, loses her Dutch citizenship only to have it restored, and finally immigrates to America.

In the meantime, the Dutch producer is brutally killed on a Holland sidewalk by an Islamist murderer who leaves a note pinioned to the dead man’s chest with a knife, a note to Ali. She then becomes the focus of Islamist assassins and now requires constant security likely for the remainder of her life. As a result of all this she becomes a personality lauded worldwide for her beliefs and actions in support of freeing women and girls from religious suppression.

Ali is especially articulate and passionate about multiculturalism, which she believes allows cultures to perpetuate evil in the name of moral relativism. She believes most European countries have made a huge mistake in adopting a multiculturalist attitude toward immigrants, which she contends delays their assimilation and adoption of the new language and new values in their new homeland. This, she says, perpetuates poverty, isolation, ignorance, and suppression of creativity and independence in women, thus denying the economy productivity it and the immigrant group could enjoy.

As I said, I highly recommend this book because it is well written and because I believe Ali offers so many sagacious lessons. The West would do well to listen and to learn.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

If you’re interested in China or the interplay of atheism and Christianity this book is a nice starting point. If you’re interested in the attitudes and insights an experienced Christian evangelist, in this case Luis Palau, might bring to a relationship with an atheist you’ll find this book intriguing. If you want to learn how to convey respect and intellectually engage with an atheist this book is a primer.

Luis Palau, an Argentine-American known the world over for preaching Christ and Christianity via huge public “festivals” visited China and specifically Zhao Qizheng in 2005. They conducted a dialogue on a series of religious and philosophic questions.

The book also contains pictures of Chinese sites, art, and artifacts, partly in an effort to make Chinese culture more accessible to American readers.

Palau does a good job of sharing the fundamentals of Christianity. In his comments Qizheng comes through as the highly educated and intelligent man he is.

The book isn’t long enough or intended to be an in-depth analysis of the issues dividing Christians and atheists. But it summarizes an all too rare exchange. Would that more believers and non-believers would talk.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Robert Morgan’s historical narrative of the massive land expansion that became the American West is well written and interesting. Since I like history, especially 17th and 18th Century American history, I thought this book was a winner before I opened the cover.

Morgan tells the story of the exploration, early settlement, and acquisition of the West—in that order by the way: note that acquisition generally came after Americans were already there—through the lives of major figures who played key roles. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Nicholas Trist, Kit Carson and others stand tall (even the relatively short in stature Carson) in this incredible saga of how vast acres, environmental riches, and beauty became the American West.

Manifest Destiny, that ambition that captured the national consciousness in the 19th Century, made its mark. So did a desire for Pacific harbors, river routes to the sea, furs, gold, and other commercial inclinations.

Morgan doesn’t sidestep or gloss over less attractive parts of the story: slavery, Native American displacement and extermination, greed, and self-aggrandizement. All made an impact and all follow us to this day.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, British cession of parts of northern North Dakota and Minnesota in 1818, Spanish cession of Florida and parts of Louisiana in 1819, Texas War for Independence in 1836 and annexation in 1845, British cession of Oregon Territory in 1846, Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ceding millions of acres of territory, including California, ending the Mexican-American War in 1848, Gadsden Purchase in 1853. The fledgling United States acquired every acre from the Mississippi River to the Pacific in 50 years. It’s an astounding record of toughness and tenacity, tragedy, some travesty, and triumph.

I can think of no better wrap than to say this book is “A good read.”

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.