Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Books on Sign Language

When I taught in public school I had a number of deaf children in my classes. This piqued my interest in sign language and I began to teach myself how to sign. I found a free online site http://lifeprint.com/ which had lessons and I bought books that showed through photos and illustrations the signs for various words. After awhile, though never fluent, I was able to sign basic sentences to my deaf students. To me sign language is fascinating and like any other language offers insight into my own native language. Here's a couple of books that I recommend.

Webster's American Sign Language Dictionary by Elaine Costello, Ph.D

 Signing Everyday Phrases by Mickey Flodin

If you just want a basic dictionary with illustrations, these two books offer a good resource for vocabulary.

Talking With Your Hands, Listening With Your Eyes: A Complete Photographic Guide to American Sign Language by Gabriel Grayson

This next book was made by a man who is an interpreter for the deaf in the New York City Circuit courts. Although hearing himself, both of Grayson's parents were deaf. His book contains photographs of different signers that, with the exception of him, are all deaf. Each person is introduced at the beginning of the book, with a brief but interesting biography.

Also included throughout the book are little vignettes of trivia about famous deaf people, the origin of sign language and other interesting tidbits of information about sign language.

All three books and the online course are worth buying and having more than one book is necessary because none of them have complete vocabularies.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Putting Faith in a Man Made Ideal: The Whisperers by Orlando Figes


What we overheard the adults say in a whisper...we knew we could not repeat to anyone.

We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbors, and especially of the police....Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear....

(In the introduction of The Whisperers)

The Whisperers is a fascinating account of Stalin's rise to power and the devastating impact his oppressive regime had on the people of the Soviet Union. Instead of giving a dry account concerning how the communists were able to come into control of Russia and the purges under Stalin that were to rid the Soviet Union of “enemies of the people”, Figes focuses on individuals and their families. This up close sampling of specific persons brings to life how Soviet people were affected by the “reign of terror” that sent millions of Soviet Citizens (especially those even remotely related to the old Russian aristocracy) into slave labor camps during the thirties as Stalin, with almost schizophrenic paranoia, sought out anyone who might be a threat to his rule.

One can't solely blame Stalin, however. Countless people took advantage of the situation by turning in their neighbors and even their own family members. Everyone's word was believed. No proof was required. One simply accused another of being an “enemy of the people” and they were never seen again. People did this to co workers they had a grievance against. They did it to neighbors whose rooms in the same house (nobody could have an entire house to themselves) they coveted. They did it to a spouse they wanted to conveniently divorce.

If that is not appalling enough, what is even more so-if not simply confounding- is the passivity with which people accepted intimate friends and loved ones being taken away and sent to camps to pay for “their crimes”. A typical response was, “I didn't know they were an enemy of the people but since they are being taken away it must be so.” Many of the people who were arrested wouldn't fight their sentence, especially the hard line communists. Their belief in the socialist ideal was so great that a number of them would shout, “Long live Stalin!” as they were being executed by a firing squad.

Figes takes you inside the households of different families who lived during Stalin's time. He interviewed thousands of people who were still alive in the eighties and nineties to give a first hand account of what happened to them and their families personally. Because of this, one is drawn into a vicarious experience of what these people endured so many years ago. It was often with relief I quit reading a chapter and reminded myself that I do not live under that kind of regime (not yet, anyway-it seems that there are certain ideologues in this country and in our government who are working hard to take away as much of our individual liberties as possible.)

Still, The Whisperers leaves me with some questions. Is it possible for an entire population to be so completely deceived by an individual leader? Figes doesn't record any dissidents. At least they weren't dissidents during Stalin's regime. In retrospect, many (but not all) saw that Stalin was a despot. At the time, however, according to Figes, the Soviet Citizens firmly believed in the Communist ideal and justified any oppression, even genocide, as a necessary means to an end. A common saying was “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

Another question: where was the church? Was it rendered so ineffectual that it offered no solace, no amnesty? Had absolutely everyone become an atheist? Was Russia truly devoid of Christians back then? I'd like to investigate more into this matter.

In conclusion, The Whisperers is a captivating book filled with the whole colorful spectrum of different people's lives, their emotions, how they survived wondering if they or another family member was going to disappear, how they coped with parents in prison-leaving them as orphans; how spouses endured forced separations and how they themselves survived being a prisoner in a slave labor camp. It's a book that not only will hold you spellbound but one that will leave you seriously thinking about the fragility of democracy when people put their faith in a man made state rather than in moral foundations grounded in Christian principals.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review of Books by Modern Christian Philosophers: Technology and Justice; In American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile; How Should We Then Live

Every person who wants to objectively analyze why our culture and society is shaped the way it is should read three very impressive books.:  Technology and Justice by George Grant; American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile by Richard John Neuhaus; and How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer.

It is hard to review all the depth and detail these books provide on a subject that is so relevant for today. So in a nut shell: all three provide an outline of the progression from Western Society's ability to think from a Christian base to thinking from a secular base. Each author in his own words detail how the “Enlightenment Thinkers” from the Renaissance turned the tide from using a belief system that was grounded in the fact that there is a God, that He created the universe for a purpose and He is reasonable to our modern mode of thinking that asserts there is no God, there is no purpose and it is impossible to reason.

George Grant (1918-1988), the author of Technology and Justice, taught religion and philosophy at McMaster University and Dalhousie University in Canada (according to the back of the book he was considered one of Canada's leading political philosophers). His book focuses on how the above mentioned evolution of western society's beliefs produced modern technology and how this technology influenced society's values. His last two chapters, dealing with abortion and euthanasia, are especially worth reading.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a Catholic Priest of the Archdiocese of New York.  In American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, he follows along the same line of thought as Grant's book but centers his book on the modern day Christian and how he has to live swimming upstream in order to maintain Biblical beliefs in a society that is now blatantly predjudiced against those beliefs.

                                        Finally, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) is considered one of the greatest
 Christian thinkers of this century. In his wonderful book, How Should We Then Live? he follows along the same lines as the other books but with an emphasis on the impact the Reformation had on the sophistication of society and contrasts it with the secular humanists attempt to create “progress".  He vividly describes the impact  the aetheist viewpoint has had on our society (producing leaders and thinkers like Nietszche, Hitler, Stalin et al). Schaeffer also works more from the viewpoint of how our value systems are reflected in fine art. (i.e. When man believed in a reasonable God, his art reflected rational, understandable paintings and music. When man turned away from God he concluded that it is impossible to reason or understand anything-hence art without form or structure).

All three of these reviews are bare bones because there is so much meat in each book that I don't feel that I can adequately describe them in a blog. All I can do is highly recommend that you read all of them. Each book, though written by different men at different times, support each other's premise and if you read all three you will find yourself familiar with names such as Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietszche, as well as many other philosophers and scientists that have impacted our modern society. These books are also valuable to the Christian because they articulate so clearly why it is far more reasonable to believe in the Chrisitan God than to reject Him.

One final thought: after reading these books, especially Schaeffer's, I realized that our public school system, in order to teach from a secular outlook on history, science and  socio-political events must give an inaccurate view of those subjects. In other words, in order to leave out God, educators have to cut out huge chunks of historical events-such as the Medieval Church and the Reformation's impact- very positive impact, I might add, on our society. To me this renders education sterile. How can one come to a correct conclusion about our life, where we came from, and why we think the way we do if a major component (Christian thought) is excluded?