Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fiction and Non

In Reconstruction-era history, "the Redeemers" were conservative-thinking, pro-business Democrats in the South who worked to defeat Republicans and African-Americans who had taken political office immediately after the Civil War. Although Ace Atkins' stories of ex-Army Ranger Quinn Colson share a locale with those folks -- rural northern Mississippi -- the redeemers of his book's title are probably two men who look to gain some redemption from a man they believe cheated them.

The pair, Mickey and Kyle, seek revenge against Larry Cobb, a man who sued Mickey almost out of business and stiffed Kyle on a large contracting job. Mickey knows how to get into Larry's safe and recruits Kyle along with a professional safecracker to commit the robbery, which nets far more money than it should as well as some incriminating evidence Larry probably shouldn't have committed to paper. That evidence helps to point the finger at Tibbehah County crimelord Johnny Stagg, who had thought he solved his problems when his hand-picked candidate defeated Quinn in the sheriff's election. But the robbery goes bad, Johnny's partners want assurances Larry's evidence will go bye-bye and Quinn as a private citizen is no less of a pain than he was as a lawman.

Redeemers is the fifth Colson book and allows for some payoff to several storylines that have built over the course of the earlier novels. Atkins maintains his sharp character development and careful plotting, but this fifth book is well under the standard set by earlier ones. Atkins is a southern native and current Mississippi resident, so he has an edge on a lot of writers in offering authentic rural southern flavor. He's employed that well for an air of realism in the Colson books, but for whatever reason in Redeemers he sets his Faulkner to stun and layers the rural color on so thick his readers have to mentally stop and cough every few pages. Nearly every character at one point travels to some rural chain restaurant or independent convenient store with some semi-illiterate cutesy name for a meal that would make the First Lady's eyes roll back into her head as she swooned 'pon the fainting couch. There are daddies, mamas, granddaddies and whatnot every time you turn around, and although I didn't literally count I'd be surprised if the book goes 10 pages without Atkins writing the word "titties." And of course there is a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, which is without fail referred to as "the Piggly Wiggly."

It's hard to say what prompted this spate of terminal Tennessee Willliamsitis; perhaps Atkins saw the praise of the authenticity of earlier books and thought he should double down, or perhaps he was worried that his continuing the Boston-based work of Robert B. Parker's Spenser would cause his kudzu gland to atrophy.

But it's not hard to say what the choice does to Redeemers. It wrecks it, and gives Atkins a lot of ground to make up if there is to be a sixth Quinn Colson novel.
Almost 30 years ago, economist and Stanford professor Thomas Sowell published a book outlining what he sees as some of the reasons we have different political views in society. The 1987 A Conflict of Visions was reprinted in 2002 and revised in 2007, but the basic thesis remains the same.

Sowell believes that the root of political differences can be found in ideology -- which is not by itself a new claim to make. His identification of those ideologies, however, is not exactly the same as we often see in fights between conservatives and liberals or progressives. Sowell sees one group as holding what he calls an "unconstrained" view of human intellect and ability, which means that they believe people -- some of them, anyway -- are smart enough to figure out the best answers to all current problems and make them happen. The other group holds a "constrained" view of human intelligence and nature. These people think that attempting to address problems without paying attention to the accumulated wisdom and understanding of preceding generations is a bad idea. Human beings can't know everything and can't necessarily find the perfect solution to any problem, let alone all of them.

Generally, folks who operate with an unconstrained vision of humanity fall into the liberal or progressive camp. Those who hold to a constrained vision will tend to be more conservative. Sowell points out that very few people hold to pure views at either end and are more likely to have a mix of beliefs.

Having laid out his understanding, Sowell then goes on to address a few of the social and political questions usually on our mind in terms of these competing visions. Anyone who reads him regularly knows he holds to the more constrained vision of human capabilities, but he generally does a pretty fair job of explaining both sides. The book tends to drag as Sowell gathers perhaps too many different examples of the two visions, but overall it's a good way to start thinking about our modern political differences and where they come from.

Those who share much of Sowell's thinking can obviously benefit from his discussion of different political and social arguments, but even people who disagree with Sowell about which vision is a more accurate description of the world would be well-served to take some time to explore one way of understanding why they believe what they believe. After all, taking a long-held belief out for a spin and seeing what it may or may not still have under the hood is rarely a bad idea.

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