Review: The Education of an Idealist

The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power. New York: Dey Street Books, 2021.

Summary: A memoir on immigrant-American, war correspondent, human rights activist, and diplomat Samantha Power.

Samantha Power has led an interesting life, by any measure. Born in Ireland, she emigrated with her mother Vera to the United States as a young girl, leaving an alcoholic father who eventually drank himself to death at a young age. She and her mother became naturalized citizens and Vera married Eddie, who provided not only the love but the stability she needed. She played basketball and ran cross country in high school and is an avid baseball fan. After graduating from Yale, she ended up as a freelance war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, where she encountered the genocidal efforts against Bosnian Muslims, culminating in Srebenica. Returning to the U.S. she plunged into law school while doing the research on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, (review), a history of genocide in the 20th century.

She returned to Harvard, teaching at the Kennedy School for Government and serving as Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She left Harvard in 2005 for a one-year fellowship with then-Senator Barack Obama, helping shape his efforts to press for American intervention in Darfur. She campaigned for Obama, resigning at one point, when what she thought was an off-the-record conversation about Senator Clinton was published. She later joined his administrator on the National Security Council, where she served as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. In 2013, she was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, where she served until January 2017.

Leaving public office in 2017 afforded more time with her husband, legal scholar at Harvard, Cass Sunstein, and their two children, Declan and Rian as well as resuming teaching duties at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy. She returned to government in 2021 as the Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development.

The Education of an Idealist covers everything except for that last sentence. Fitting for an interesting life, Power tells an interesting story, an un-put-downable story at least for me. Beyond the curriculum vitae outlined above, we come to understand the shaping of a woman passionate in the pursuit of human rights and how she persisted when her passion ran up against political realities and limits. This is a woman who first of all knew both love and loss, and understood both the pain of feeling she’d abandoned a father, and the flourishing she experienced with her mother and step-father who were for her every step of the way. I was fascinated to learn that until about mid-way through her time at Yale, she was more interested in sports than international affairs. A European trip awakened her to genocide, oppression, and the fissures that would eventually erupt in Yugoslavia. An internship with Mort Abramowitz where she researched the Bosnian conflict led her to the adventure of trying to see that war up close as a war correspondent–setting the precedent for her commitment to get “on the ground” whenever she could to understand a crisis–whether the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the Ebola crisis, or even the missions of other U.N. ambassadors, who she visited rather than making them call on her.

The narrative is a story of a passion to save human lives, and to stand up for human flourishing, where ideals often ran up against reality. She learned how hard it is to do better. One senses her frustration when she thought she had a commitment from the President for U.S. intervention in Syria after Assad’s nerve gas attacks, only for him to backpedal and fail to secure Senate support. She learned to do what could be done, negotiating protocols with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons. We see her frustration when political realities with Turkey prevent Obama from naming atrocities against the Armenians a century ago genocide. And we see how hurtful accusations against her could be when she had fought for the very things she was accused of not doing.

Part of the narrative is how she found strength in fostering community with other women both in her own government, and with women ambassadors at the UN. One of her last acts was to call attention to twenty women being held as political prisoners. Her efforts, and the political pressure applied, resulted in the release of 14 before she left office. They also, along with her live-in nanny, Maria, help her wrestle with the tension of high-level government service and parenting, and the unavoidable tradeoffs this involves.

Perhaps in light of the present situation with Russia and Ukraine, Power devoted her last speech at the UN to warning the world of the efforts of Russia to sow havoc, whether supporting Assad’s genocidal efforts to eliminate his opposition, the ruthless annexation of Crimea from Ukraine (bite by bite?), and the interference in American elections. I admire the fire with which she spoke:

“Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”

Power also reminds us of the difference immigrants make in our country, whether herself as an Irish naturalized US citizen, or the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani Yogurt or her nanny Maria, to whom she administered the oath of citizenship. Her passion for refugees energized her efforts to get those “in the pipeline” settled as the doors were closing.

The one question that Power fails to wrestle with is the tension between human rights advocacy and the question of whether there are limits to what any given government can or should do. These are the realities her idealism bumps up against. Given the unique place of America in the world, should vigorous international human rights advocacy be a cardinal doctrine of our foreign policy, and should this be backed with American military force if necessary? This seems implicit in Power’s advocacy, but this is not defended, and so foreign policy seems to end up a patchwork of idealism and realpolitik. Power’s resort at the end is that if we cannot change the world, then we change the smaller and individual worlds we can. That may be a good personal response, but is it sufficient for governments?

That said, this is a memoir and not a foreign policy treatise. In addition to a riveting read, I am grateful for the example of someone who does not give way to cynicism or despair, who works for the possible when the ideal eludes one. The importance of bedrock convictions, the support of a strong, loving family, and finding community are lessons from Power’s life in how to sustain one’s ideals, even as one is “educated” to the realities that bump up against the ideal. Hopefully it will help inspire a new generation, including many women, to the public service for the common good which has always been vital to the health of our country and our world.

Review: The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity

The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity
The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.

Os Guinness has penned this extended argument as both defense of and elaboration of how this statement passed in the United Nations in 1948 might shape the public squares of our countries nearly 70 years later, in a climate where this “first freedom” may be less enjoyed now than in 1948. Guinness argues here not for the privileging of any religion, or merely for religion at all. Rather his basic argument is that freedom is conscience is one of the things that defines us as human beings. He would argue this applies equally to the atheist and the materialist, as it does to any religious believer and that the compromise of this freedom, by the state or by competing belief systems, weakens this freedom not just for those immediately attacked but for all. Therefore, Guinness argues for neither a sacred public square, privileging a particular religion, nor a naked public square, banishing all religious belief from public discourse, but rather a civil public square where diverse beliefs, religious and secular, might listen and seek to persuade one another with regard to the well-lived life and the well-ordered society.

Guinness expresses grave concern over the impairing of the freedom of conscience in various parts of the world. His concern is not simply the forced conversions of religious believers in parts of Africa and the Middle East or the continuing persecution of religious believers in Communist countries. He equally, and especially has concern for the West, and what he sees are incursions on the singular freedoms of speech and conscience enshrined in documents such as our Bill of Rights. He would argue that mandates in health care laws that force religious organizations to provide abortion and other medical benefits contrary to their faith are such an infringement, as are the bans of religious groups on university campuses who “discriminate” because they require leaders (not participants) to affirm the religious beliefs of the group. He argues that while such impairments of liberty may not affect most of us, we may be witnessing a “death of a thousand cuts.” Each chapter concludes with this peroration:

It is time, and past time, to ponder the question. What does it say of us and our times that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be passed today? And what does it say of the future of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief if it can be neglected and threatened even in the United States, where it once developed most fully–that it can be endangered anywhere? Who will step forward now to champion the cause of freedom for the good of all and for the future of humanity?

Guinness has not left this task to others. In addition to this book, and his recent A Free People’s Suicide which I reviewed earlier this year, Guinness helped draft the Global Charter of Conscience, published in Brussels at the European Parliament in June of 2012. It articulates both the inherent rights of freedom of conscience and the necessary responsibilities any society must undertake to sustain that right.

Some might think this either unnecessary fear-mongering on one hand, or impossible idealism on the other. My own sense is that it is a clarion-call alerting us to not take for granted the singular freedoms we have enjoyed in the west and a well-thought out proposal for extending these freedoms in contextually appropriate ways throughout the world.

A friend of mine who is an ancient historian observed that violence, the execution of enemies of a different faith, and the forced conversion of women and children has been the way of the world throughout most of human history. The experience of freedom of speech and conscience of the last few centuries in the West, with all its problems and limits, has been a singular space of civility in a brutal world. If Guinness is right (and I think he is) the choice before us is whether to protect and seek to extend that civil space or to revert to the brutality that is characteristic of most of humanity through most of history that quashes the very thing that makes us most deeply human, our freedom of thought and conscience.

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Review: The Humanities and Public Life

The Humanities and Public Life
The Humanities and Public Life by Peter Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is no question but that the humanities are under fire. Budgets are being cut, sometimes whole departments. How then to justify the humanities within the university, without accepting “instrumentalization”, a term thrown around much in this book, which means roughly, being able to demonstrate some “deliverable” or bottom line worth.

Peter Brooks, the editor of the book,and organizer of the symposium from which the articles and discussion in this book was drawn, starts with the “Torture Memos”, a series of Justice Department documents from the second Bush administration that justified waterboarding and other forms of torture against detainees deemed to be “dangerous” to national security. Brooks believes this to be the result of poor and unethical reading by those who formulated these memos (an assumption I question), and something that the humanities fundamentally address.

Following his introductory essay which overviews the symposium, Judith Butler talks about the instrumentalization of the humanities and uses as a case in point the term “deliverables”. Her contention ultimately is that the humanities equip one well to deconstruct the use of this term and to engage in resistance to its application to the humanities.

Three panels follow, each with two presentations followed by two or three responses and further discussion. The symposium and book conclude with a general discussion with a number of the presenters and respondents participating.

The first panel explores the question closest to Brooks’ heart, “Is there an ethics of reading?” Both presenters basically say yes, with Elaine Scarry arguing that reading literature and poetry can develop empathy for the human condition. Charles Larmore explores the act of interpretation and taking the author or communicative act serious in how one reads and derives meaning from a work.

The second panel considered the ethics of reading and the professions with Patricia Williams exploring the challenges of the vagaries of words and language that is often overlooked in various “legal fictions”. Ralph Hexter explores similar challenges in the life of a university administrator.

The final panel took on the relation of the humanities to human rights. Jonathan Lear’s essay, perhaps the most eloquent recounts living among the Crow Indians, not as a sociologist but as a story-teller listening to their words. A group that had been studied to death came alive when Lear simply expressed interest in their stories of identity lost and re-established, going so far as to adopt him into the tribe. Paul Kahn considers the broader domain of human rights and the ability of the humanities to interpret the languages of power governments use in human rights discussions, or evasions of those rights.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of ethical reading, something most readers don’t think about, yet which is vital for those who study the works of another and review or criticize those works. Equally, as Brooks and others would maintain,it can represent the vital difference between careful adherence to versus distortion of the law. (And yet I wonder whether those who created the Torture Memos were in fact excellent readers who were looking for ways to deal with the vagaries of words to distort laws to justify their ends. Not ethical, but it may not be for the lack of “ethical reading skills”.)

Much of this had for me the feeling of a “rear guard action”, the tactics of a retreating force. Perhaps at times, the use of critical skills can indeed be used to resist authoritarian, or simply pragmatic forces. This quality, and the often jargon-laden character of presentations hardly seem adequate for a spirited public argument for the place of the humanities in higher education. For that, I might direct the reader to Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End. The title of this work suggested an elevated and challenging public argument but delivered nothing more than a refined academic discussion that seemed to me to offer little to check the erosion of the humanities in either public life or higher education.

(This review is based on an electronic version of this work made available compliments of the publisher through Netgalley.)

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Freedom of Worship = Freedom of Religion — Not!

Have you noticed lately how the language of “freedom of worship” has cropped up in our political discourse? That sounds like a good thing, something Americans have always stood for. Actually, it represents a shift in our rhetoric from the language of freedom of religion, which is a much broader concept. Why does this matter?

It matters because the concept of ‘freedom of worship’ has to do with simply protecting what one does in religious assemblies and that the state won’t intrude on these or on one’s private practices of religious expression. What it does however is represent a movement toward confining religious protection to religious assemblies and one’s private life. It does not protect the freedom of conscience of religious people (or for that matter those who embrace any philosophical view) in their public life or protect the expression of points of view that are religiously grounded in the public arena.

Progressive evangelical, Jim Wallis, has noted on various occasions, including this interview, that the gospel is personal, but never private. To confine religious expression and practice to houses of worship or one’s private life is essentially to say that in other realms, the state is supreme and that in these realms allegiance to the state, its laws, practices, and ethical standards, transcends one’s religious beliefs. It makes the state, rather than local communities and marketplaces of ideas and commerce, the final arbiter on a whole array of matters. In the past, we have described other societies who do so as tyrannies who violate fundamental human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights  does not similarly confine religious expression and practice to a merely “private” sphere or speak merely of “freedom of worship”. Article 18 states:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This declaration argues for freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It recognizes that to ask people to act in ways that violate conscience is a fundamental infringement on human dignity and freedom. It allows people to change their religion or belief without fear of reprisal. And it allows for the public as well as private manifestation of belief not only in teaching and worship, but in practice and observance.


I am not arguing for the establishment or privileging of any religion, least of all my own. Whenever this has occurred it tends to be to the detriment of the religion! Rather, I am contending for the protection of religious conscience, religiously grounded expression of ideas, and religiously informed ethical practice in public life. I would contend that all humans are “religious” in some sense and all have basic worldviews that frame their thinking, expression and ethical practice. Actually, I think the religious versus secular distinction to be false–secularism is also a religious point of view and equally should not be privileged.

What it all comes down to is that language matters. We have enjoyed a rare and wonderful expression of religious freedom and recognition, at least in principle, of the dignity of people, regardless of their beliefs, or other attributes. But such a freedom is not inevitable or inviolable. It can be eroded, redefined, and limited. Those who would use language to do so should be watchful because in this and so many other things, there may be others who use the same tactics even more skillfully. Protecting freedom is messy because it means protecting those we don’t like or agree with, not just ourselves. Yet it seems to me that the alternative is even messier…

Why Isn’t This an Ethical No-Brainer?

There is a group of people who live in fear of violence or violation every day. They are exposed to jokes, gestures, innuendos. In some cultures they can be beaten, assaulted or even killed without legal consequence. They are even accused of “wanting it” or “deserving it.” And this group makes up more than half the world’s population. They are women.

Stop Gender Based Violence

In the last day, I saw a report of a 23 year old woman who as she is dying in her mother’s arms in India is apologizing because she was gang-raped–as if it were her fault. Reports of rape have tripled in Delhi in the past year. Closer to home, someone is sexually assaulted in this country every two minutes and 95 percent of rapists in this country will not go to prison for their offense. Roughly one in four women have survived rape or attempted rape.

In the sexually enlightened EU, things are no better. Twenty-two percent of EU women surveyed report having been assaulted by a partner. In Scandinavian countries according to the same report, the incidence is closer to 50 percent.

Roughly 80% of the victims of human trafficking are women and of those roughly 70% are trafficked into commercial sex industries. There are an estimated 27 million people in some form of involuntary servitude today according to the Polaris Project, from which these statistics come.

I could go on and talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, hookup culture and the dangers women face here or even the sometimes (not always) subtler abuses of women in the religious context where the exercise of their gifts and the expression of their love for God and humanity is limited.

What continues to trouble me as a man is that the vast majority of the perpetrators of these crimes are men. And the question that baffles me is, why are we at war with those who are someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s wife?  What troubles me is that my wife, my daughter-in-law, my sister, women who are my colleagues have probably not been able to live a single day of their adult lives without this lurking wariness of men.

I’m troubled that I cannot do more. I champion the gifts and skills of the women I work with. I try to model and teach respecting the dignity of the women in our Christian communities with the men I work with. I’ve participated in anti-trafficking efforts. What the pervasiveness and stubborn persistence of this stuff tells me is that human evil goes deep in our souls and as wide as the world.

But I am aware that there is also a community of men who recognize that the following are ethical no-brainers and I hope we will speak up and speak into this culture of violence against women that:

  • Unwanted flirting and propositions and sexual innuendo aren’t cool–they are threatening and in work contexts may be illegal.
  • “No” means “no” and is not a license to use alcohol and drugs to overcome lack of consent. Sex without consent is rape. Period.
  • Violence against a woman is never justified, never deserved.
  • Those in power who abuse women or children must never be protected by our structures, whether those are businesses, churches, or political offices.
  • Real manhood is never proven through domination of women. This only shows how little of a man you are.
  • Real men see women not as parts but as partners–partners not only in marriage, but in the workplace, in public life, in our churches–using our skills and gifts together to seek the up-building of the body of Christ and the body politic.

I don’t know whether we will ever achieve a time where our sisters will be able to live without wariness, which grieves me deeply. I do hope that we might see a movement of men who at least provide moments and glimpses of safety, of care, of affirmation that provide hope for a better day.

Review: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The reigning perception of Christianity in the academy is of a faith that is the enemy of reason from which enlightenment humanism liberated us. Rodney Stark would contend that this is a characterization without basis in fact. In The Victory of Reason he argues that the distinctive progress of the west in science, technology, commerce, human rights, and democratic institutions can be traced back to the distinctive character of Christian belief.

What is more intriguing is that he argues that this emerged during what is often called “The Dark Ages” following the decline and fall of the Roman empire. Stark argues that it was the fall of the empire that in fact liberated Christian thought in ways that led to the progress noted above. During this period, free market commerce emerged in enclaves free from state interference in both Italy and parts of northern Europe. Technological innovation drove improved productivity. And the universities arose out of church cathedral schools to promote higher learning. All before the Renaissance or the Reformation, which he would argue were merely the fruit of the ground prepared by the church in the preceding millennium.

But what is it about Christian belief that fosters such openness to reason and its applications and to progress? Stark’s primary argument is that Christianity is not a static revelation fixed for all time, but an evolving understanding of truth that is open to discursive reason and to progress over time. His case study for this is the church’s response to usury and the creation of lending vehicles to fuel the growth of commerce without violating sacred teaching.

He goes on to argue that what hinders the victory of reason translated into material and technological progress is the presence of tyranny–either governments or guilds which restrict economic incentives or rob people of the rights of the fruit of their work. He contrasts Spain and England and their respective colonies in this regard, finally concluding with the connection between religious faith and the profound economic growth witnessed in pre-and post-revolutionary war periods in this country.

There is much in what Stark argues with which I agree. I wholly agree with his contention that Christianity provides the seedbed for the rise of reason and the scientific enterprise as well as concern for human rights and democratic institutions. I suspect, however, that his thesis is open to criticism on several fronts. One is the rise of authoritarian church institutions–is Christian belief too weak to prevent these. The second is the rise of tyrannous rule in “Christian” countries and the use of Christianity to justify tyranny. Finally, there is the question of Christian responses when revelation and reason appear to conflict–particularly efforts seeking to suppress free inquiry. I do not see Stark addressing these “counterfactuals”, and perhaps he could not in a work of this size for an educated general audience. I think all of these objections can be met in a way that do not detract from his thesis, and because of this believe this a valuable addition countering popular misconceptions of Christian faith.

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