Most helpful critical review
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Clever at times, but mostly trite
on December 20, 2011
The premise of this book struck me as promising when I picked it up, as I am a great lover of both bumper stickers and philosophy (which I teach, along with literature and history at the college level). Sadly, the book failed to deliver. Indeed, before halfway through I thought about putting it down for good, but chose to finish it for the sake of writing a review.
The book does not really do what the jacket blurb purports it does -- "dissects and reassembles the bumper-sticker 'wisdom' on passing cars." Rather, it uses bumper-sticker slogans as points of departure for (in the manner of the mechanicals in "A Midsummer Night's Dream") a sequence of brief, tedious musings that largely present center-left conventional wisdom. Being somewhat center-left myself, I didn't see terribly much to disagree with, but the fact is, I learned nothing new -- nor was any new light shed on old truths. In the end the clever premise for the book was rendered trite.
At first I imagined that my reaction stemmed from the fact that I was not the intended reader of this book, that it was aimed more at the young who are still forming their ideas about life and so on. But the further I got into the book, the more I wondered who the intended reader might be. The writer's voice is initially genial in this book, and charming at times, but it too often descends into glibness and mockery, the sign of someone less interested in persuading others than he is in asserting his own intellectual superiority. It's clear the writer has a quarrel (as do I) with Christian fundamentalists, but does he imagine that taking such a stance is going to change any of their minds? In my experience, it only hardens them. Hence, I think the book is mostly aimed at folk who already agree with the writer, in which case, what's the point? (I would add that the book at no point engages the stronger Christian thinkers or apologists, who are serious and sometimes rather formidable thinkers; Bowen largely contents himself with shooting at easy targets like Creationism, healing prayer, and popular superstitions, often conveniently oversimplified.)
Likewise, the mini-essays in this book largely lack rigor (there are no citations or notes for anything quoted or alluded to) -- I would even say they border on sophistry of the easily detectible sort, certainly on par with what one finds in partisan op-ed pieces in good city newspapers. There's a place for that in public discourse, but to call it "philosophy" is what Huck Finn calls "a stretcher." To be sure, Bowen quotes philosophers, but I remark he mostly approvingly quotes chaps like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, John Dewey, and others of their camp as if they were unquestionable authorities rather than contentious public intellectuals. Catholicism (I am not Catholic) gets routinely thumped; Buddhism always gets an affirming nod. This smacks of a smug, conventional contemporary prejudice. I'm wondering if the author, if gravely ill, would rather go to St. James hospital or the local Qi Gong healing center?
Bowen's stance toward Utilitarianism is quite confused -- at times he seems to condemn it; at times to embrace it (subtextually and overtly).
I was disturbed to see factual problems. For instance, on p. 147 Bowen claims that "since 1900, the United States has executed twenty-three innocent people." He offers no source for this, but I take it his source is Radelet et al (1992), a study that has been seriously disputed by legal scholars and law-enforcement researchers. I take no position here whether Radelet is correct or not; my point is that to simply assert this as an uncontrovertible fact (and to offer no citation) is beyond tendentious. Further, in the section on torture, Bowen asserts that waterboarding was a crime that "the U.S. prosecuted in war crime trials following World War II" (p. 144). Not so: the Japanese method of water torture involved the forced ingestion of water; waterboarding used by the CIA involved the kind of simulated drowning that U.S. Navy SEALS (and other military personnel) experience in SERE training (I would add that war-crimes prosecutions against the Japanese involved POW abuses that went well beyond this). I can attest that it isn't fun, but it also isn't fatal: forced ingestion is. On the matter of education, on page 190 Bowen points out that "In 2008 the Department of Education had a budget of $80 billion dollars, while the Department of Defense had eight times that," conveniently ignoring that education is largely a state and local expenditure, and according to the Statistical Abstract of the U.S., in 2008 total education spending was around $900 billion.
Now let me be clear that I'm neither a fan of capital punishment nor waterboarding. The problem is that one weakens one's ethos (see Aristotle's treatise on Rhetoric) when one presents as facts things that are not facts, and thus becomes less persuasive. Hence, Bowen undercuts his own cause with these tactics. And the sad thing is, I believe on re-reading this book I would easily find many similar tendentious constructions. This book almost amounts to a bad case for mostly good things, which makes those good things less likely to come about.
And here's the really sad part: philosophy has a lot to consider in bumper stickers. There are some incredibly witty bumper stickers out there (my favorite: "God is coming, and She is pissed!"). Really great bumper stickers are rife with irony and paradox, and Western Philosophy has a hard time still with irony. The Western tradition is one of rational discourse and ratiocinative thinking; even quirky characters like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche follow the Cartesian pattern of starting from a premise and reasoning onward. Irony and paradox tend to deflate that enterprise, as they remind us that we embrace within our minds a host of contradictions. Perhaps this is why I've come to prefer literature to philosophy, as novelists and poets and playwrights seem more alive to that human condition than do philosophers.
Maybe the first Eiron, Socrates, would have liked bumper stickers more than we would have guessed. I'm not sure we'd know that from this book.