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October 01, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

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Radical Hope

Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation

Jonathan Lear

Harvard University Press: 208 pp., $22.95

PLENTY COUPS, "the last great chief of the Crow nation," had a vision that spared his tribe many (not all) of the humiliations suffered by other tribes at the hands of the American government and from environmental degradation. Jonathan Lear believes that all Westerners face similar threats of cultural collapse and resource scarcity.

Lear begins his book with Plenty Coups' words as told to his friend, trapper and cowboy Frank B. Linderman: "When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere." Lear ponders the words "nothing happened," and takes them to mean the point when, for the Crow Nation, "history came to an end." What interests Lear, a philosophical anthropologist, is how a culture lives on in the face of its own vulnerability. Lurking behind every child's fascination with dinosaurs is the possibility that we too, body and soul, could someday be extinct.

To understand the Crow approach, Lear explains the sources of their courage. He analyzes Plenty Coups' dreams (as recorded by Linderman) and finds in them the efforts of a leader to imagine, beyond mere biological survival, "a radically different set of future possibilities." There is so much to learn here; Lear parses the differences between mere optimism and radical hope, as it is manifest in Plenty Coups' "fidelity to his prophetic dream." It's one of those books you want to put in the hands of leaders the world over.

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The Dalai Lama

at MIT

Edited by Anne Harrington and Arthur Zajonc

Harvard University Press: 274 pp., $24.95

THIS book is based on a 2003 conference in which leaders and thinkers in the worlds of neuroscience and Buddhism came together to discuss what Buddhism might have to offer Western science and its approach to the study of attention, mental imagery and emotion.

The conference was presided over by the 14th Dalai Lama, who told the conferees that if he hadn't become a monk he would have liked to have been an engineer. The conference was full of practical applications for researchers. The differences in the two approaches are most pronounced in the area of emotion, a concept entirely absent from the Buddhist vocabulary. The practical applications of this meeting are fascinating; something whole is created from these conversations that leaps off the pages and gives a reader new reason to remember that science has more to do with life than with destruction and death.

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Not One More Death

Brian Eno, Harold Pinter, John Le Carre, Richard Dawkins, Michel Faber, Haifa Zangana

Verso: 80 pp., $8.95 paper

THIS collection gives even more reason to hope for the future. It begins with the fear generated by Sept. 11, the Bush-Blair "betrothal" and the creation of the Iraq War. Brian Eno implores readers to stop "this corrupt administration and its colonialist project" and its effort to "tyrannize and maim an already suffering country." John Le Carre writes that this period of historical madness is the worst that he can remember, worse than McCarthyism. Harold Pinter meditates on how we can know what's true from what's false in political language, Richard Dawkins takes on the absurdity of seeing the world using the religious terms of good and evil, Haifa Zangana makes the case for a dialogue with the Iraqi resistance and the immediate withdrawal of troops, and Michel Faber writes about the powerful role to be played by writers and artists. "Then I remind myself," he writes. "Words don't stop wars. Words are there to bring us back to an illusion of sanity after wars have done their worst. I am both proud and ashamed to be in the business of articulating that illusion."

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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