Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for December, 2017

March

Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2017

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions 2013 (Book One), 2015 (Book Two), and 20  (Book Three).

The three volumes together comprise this graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Book One opens in 2009 as the congressman prepares to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first black President. A woman brings her young sons to his office, and he begins to reminisce…. He recalls his childhood on his family’s farm in Alabama, going to school, hearing about the outcome of Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott, enrolling in a seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, meeting Dr. King and others in the nascent civil rights movement, and learning about and practicing non-violent resistance in workshops which they then applied in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. They were arrested and jailed, but they were finally successful when Mayor West recommended the desegregation of the lunch counters in the city. This was in 1960.

Book Two picks up the story at the end of 1960 and takes it to the March on Washington in August, 1963, through sit-ins at Nashville cafeterias and fast food restaurants, non-violent attempts to integrate movie theaters, and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Lewis describes his involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which he was chosen to lead in 1963. He talks about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who did not believe in non-violent resistance, as well as the leaders of the non-violent movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Farmer; Diane Nash, and other well-known figures of that era. Of course, the racist southern politicians such as George Wallace and Bull Connor figure as well, and so do the Kennedys and federal agent John Siegenthaler, to whose memory this volume is dedicated.

During one of the Freedom Rides, Walter Bergman, a college professor,  was beaten so badly that he was paralyzed for the remainder of his life. Once, during a sit-in at a restaurant, the staff turned off the lights, locked the protesters inside, and fumigated the restaurant, as if they were exterminating bugs. Lewis writes simply, “We did not die that day, but it was not the last time I thought I saw death.” The courage it took to confront racist hatred, knowing that one could not meet violence with violence, is astonishing. Yet they kept going back for more, and Lewis played a major role in both protesting and in training the protesters.

The last pages of Book Two recall the cowardly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls, and Book Three (which, inexplicably and by itself, is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland) opens in the chaos of the burning church (prologue) and then moves on to the other major events of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the fight for voting rights, culminating in “Bloody Sunday”, the terrible March 7 attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which the marchers  had to cross to continue on to their goal of the capital of Alabama, Montgomery; the symbolic march to the bridge on March 9; and finally the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, March 21-25 1965. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law less than six months later; the rest of the country was appalled at video of the vicious attacks on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.

2017 is a strange vantage point from which to reflect on those long-ago events. Last year, the Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court, and Republican states have already implemented new laws which result in severe restrictions on the ability to vote for citizens of color. Did the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers offer their bodies to be beaten for this?

I guess that making this a graphic novel makes it more appealing to younger people, but frankly, I would have preferred a traditional prose memoir with photographs. I don’t have the patience to try and figure out what the pictures supposedly show. I couldn’t tell the various characters apart–not Lewis, not John Kennedy, not Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody was recognizable to me, so it was hard to figure out who was speaking. The action wasn’t clear to me, either. For example, on page 121 (Book Two), did a pick-up truck actually hit a child during a protest at the swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois? (I had to google that one.) There are a lot of confusing scenes of mayhem and beating, fire hoses and billy clubs and guns, with onomatopoeia like KRAK, KLOP KLOP KLOP, CL-CLANK, VR_VRMMM, WHAP, KRUNCH, ERT, WHUMP, BLAM, VOOSH, SCREEEEEE, which I guess is appropriate for comic books (but I don’t understand why they have to mangle the spelling)I impatiently read through the text and hardly looked at the illustrations, which were mostly inscrutable to me anyway. I suppose had they been drawn differently, they might have supported the text more, but as it is, it just made me anxious to read Lewis’ more traditional memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) or Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (2017). I assume that March may appeal more to younger readers who are unaccustomed to reading an actual book (how snarky of me).

Advertisements

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

If I Stay

Posted by nliakos on December 26, 2017

by Gayle Forman (SPEAK/Penguin Group, 2009)

Vicki and I watched the movie of the same name that was based on this novel, which made both of us want to read it. I consumed it in a couple of days. Both the movie and the novel made me cry.

If I Stay is the story of 17-year-old Mia Hall, a promising young cellist living near Portland, OR. In her final year of high school, Mia is dating Adam, a young man a year older than she who is a guitarist in a punk band. She is very close to her parents, who also frequented the rock music scene–her father was the drummer in a well-regarded band–and her younger brother Teddy. She has applied to Julliard, which would mean moving across the country away from her family and Adam, but other than this her life seems quite charmed. . .  until the family is in a terrible accident on a snowy road. Mia’s mother is dead on the scene; her father and brother make it to the hospital but ultimately do not survive. Mia herself is gravely injured and comatose, but her spirit watches over the family in the hospital, including her own unresponsive body and the people who keep a vigil at the hospital: Adam, her best friend Kim, her grandparents and other relatives. Mia’s spirit is devastated by the loss of her family, and she dreads waking up without them. One of the nurses keeps telling her that whether she lives or dies is up to her, and that if she wants to live, she must decide to live. Mia seems reluctant and readies herself to die–but Adam refuses to let her go without a fight.

The novel does not proceed chronologically but consists of time snapshots of the day of the accident interspersed with flashbacks to Mia’s childhood and adolescence; these include scenes without her, such as her parents in their bedroom listening to a very young Mia practicing her cello obsessively late into the night. The flashbacks flesh out Mia and Adam’s loving relationship as well as Mia’s family life.

I must be showing my age, but I was kind of amazed that Mia and Adam quickly become intimate, and no one seems to think it strange for high school kids to be sleeping together. This is, after all, 2017 (well, 2009, when it was written)!

Music is integral to the story. In the edition I read, there is an addendum by the author explaining her choices of both popular and classical pieces that she wrote into the novel.

If I Stay is a love story, tender and passionate. Adam and Mia, like Romeo and Juliet, love deeply and intensely, despite their youth. But will their love be enough? You can probably guess the answer–but this book is followed by a sequel which I have not read, Where She Went, which takes place three years later. Apparently there is no happily ever after–at least not immediately.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2017

by William Easterly (Basic Books 2013)

This is a book about development economics, the branch of economics that deals with guiding poor countries out of poverty, and about how its practitioners have consistently trampled (or allowed autocratic leaders to trample) on the political and economic rights of the people in those countries, while throwing money and “expertise” at those same autocrats and dictators. Not only that, but these “technocrats” and the governments and organizations (such as the World Bank and the United Nations) that sponsor them have not led a single country out of poverty and into the elite club to which belong the world’s “developed” nations.

In Part One, “The Debate That Never Happened”, Easterly begins with a comparison of economists Friederich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal, who shared the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974. Myrdal espoused the version of development economics that still exists today and which Easterly criticizes here, while Hayek held the opposite views, setting them out in his book The Road to Serfdom (1944). Hayek was never given the opportunity to argue for his point of view; instead, he was ignored by the development economics community and then forgotten. You have probably never heard of him. I hadn’t. Not an accident!

Hayek and Myrdal disagreed about three basic things, around which Easterly has organized his book:

  1. The Blank Slate vs. Learning from History
  2. The Well-Being of Nations vs. the Well-Being of Individuals
  3. Conscious Design of National Economies vs. Spontaneous Solutions to Economic Problems

In Part Two, “Why the Debate Never Happened: The Real History of the Development Idea”, Easterly uses China, Africa, and Colombia to illustrate how the concept of helping nations to “develop” economically got its start during an era of empires, colonialism, exploitation, and unmitigated racism. Development was conceived as a way to continue the status quo, to benefit the imperialists. Even though the “Western” nations’ economic power had come about in an unplanned way, these nations’ “experts” prescribed “technical” solutions and scientifically planned economies for the poor nations, and they were happy to support the authoritarian rulers who promised to work with them, and to overlook the unpleasant fact that these rulers caused more suffering than they alleviated. Development economics presumes the leadership of a “benevolent autocrat” who institutes “technocratic solutions” to improve the conditions of the people, but in truth, once given absolute power, autocrats were never and are still not benevolent. In China, Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek alienated the population they claimed to lead. In Africa, Great Britain wanted to justify its own exploitative empire; Kwame Nkrumah was the first home-grown autocrat to lead a former colony (Ghana) there. In Colombia, where the first survey mission of the young World Bank was begun in 1948, Laureano Gomez presided over an 8-year reign of terror known as La Violencia without losing World Bank support.

In Part Three, “The Blank Slate Versus Learning from History”, Easterly writes of the importance of understanding a country’s culture and history when trying to end poverty. He compares “collectivist values” (trust only members of your own group; it’s okay to cheat outsiders; hierarchical; the state’s role is to force the individual to behave) with “individual values” (written laws and contracts make it easier to trust people outside of your group; equal rights under the law; free cities and states). Easterly disposes of the benevolent autocrat idea, saying “Neither Europeans nor non-Europeans can be trusted with unconstrained power against the rights of individuals.”  Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi, the geographically unlucky Aja people of West Africa, how under-development was the logical outcome of slavery in Colombia, and the success of the people of one block on Greene Street in the free city of New York are the extended examples Easterly uses to bolster his claim that countries with the rule of law and economic and political freedom outperform economically countries under totalitarian or authoritarian rule.

In Part Four, “Nations Versus Individuals”, Easterly examines the role of migration in the world. He ponders the question of why we think it is okay for people in rich countries to go wherever they have the best chance to earn and live well, while at the same time accusing the citizens of poor countries of selling out their countries if they migrate to find better opportunities. He shows how migration can actually alleviate poverty (such as in the case of Haiti), and how migrants contribute to global development because of the increase in their earning power. The examples he uses are interesting: the Mourides, a group of Senegalese small-businesspeople who help each other to flourish in many different parts of the world through an astute use of micro-finance and mutual support, and the Fujianese, who form the majority of “overseas Chinese” who have been the drivers of the economic powerhouses of countries like Malaysia and Singapore. These success stories are disregarded by development economists, who have no way to look at (or advise) economic life that crosses national boundaries.

Easterly uses Chapter 10, “How Much Do Nations Matter?”, to explain that the way we measure growth through Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is extremely unreliable (which reminded me of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, which said essentially the same thing), so we shouldn’t take it so seriously: “We assume national growth performance is measured with precision–a precision that does not exist and that is sometimes based on numbers that do not exist.” He states that no one can prove that anything the experts recommend has ever caused economic growth or lifted a nation out of poverty (except perhaps temporarily), but that the one thing that is a good predictor of growth is geography: what region a nation is part of seems to matter a lot, and economies rise and fall together with others in their region (e.g., the “Asian Tigers'” boom and the “Lost Decade” of Latin America).

The last part, “Conscious Design Versus Spontaneous Solutions,” begins with a defense of Adam Smith’s ideas. Smith is thought by many today to have espoused the idea of pure laissez-faire in economics–a totally free marketplace in which companies can do whatever they wish to succeed. In fact, says Easterly, Smith deplored greedy business owners and decried monopolies; his concept of a free market was a way to protect consumers against unscrupulous merchants. When individual consumers choose freely, they naturally choose to buy from the best and most efficient producers, and/or for the best price. Easterly writes, “Freedom to choose is a powerful engine in rewarding the world’s best problem-solvers in each area, while getting rid of the inept problem-solvers.” Not knowing much about economics, I don’t know if Easterly is correct in his assessment of Adam Smith, but his argument makes sense.

Chapter 12, “Technology: How to Succeed Without Knowing How” considers how new technologies (both invention and imitation of new inventions) drive growth. Different from a good, which can be consumed by one consumer, an invention or idea can be exploited by many (“nonrival” in economists’ terms). It can fuel economic growth, population, and standard of living in a “bottom-up” way. We can see that wherever there are more people, we also find more technological innovation. Isolated groups of people, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, still carried or dragged their burdens when all of Eurasia had wheeled vehicles. But innovation requires the right of an individual to think for herself, or to question authority. Then, for a new idea to spread, people need to be free to move to different places, taking their technology (or their ideas) with them (technological transfer, or diffusion).  New technologies cannot be predicted; they always surprise us. Examples include cars and cell phones. To succeed without knowing how, people help to solve each other’s problems, but for this to happen, knowledge must be decentralized.

In Chapter 13, “Leaders: How We Are Seduced by Benevolent Autocrats”, Easterly examines the human tendency to attribute effects to a single person, even when there is no evidence for this attribution. He considers autocrats such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and the last several autocratic leaders of South Korea, who presided over stunning economic growth, and concludes that the growth occurred despite, not because of, these leaders. Korea is an economic powerhouse not because it was ruled by dictators; “The idea that autocracy was necessary for progress in Korea was contradicted by its own later experience,” after the advent of democracy. Sustained economic growth requires lucky circumstances in addition to skills and technologies. People look for heroes of economic development because we have a psychological bias toward individual power, but the data do not back this up. Easterly writes, “The data show little evidence that leaders matter for growth rates.” And if this is true, there is no justification for supporting autocratic leaders in the name of economic development.

In this book, William Easterly makes a powerful case for political and economic freedoms for everyone around the globe. Is anyone listening?

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »