Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for May, 2018

Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Posted by nliakos on May 28, 2018

by Ari Berman (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015)

Despite all the recent GOP squealing about imagined, unproven voter fraud, I guess I thought the problem of voter suppression was mostly solved by the Voting Rights Act back in 1965. Wrong. This carefully documented history of the VRA showed me how the GOP, having lost the battle to legally deprive African-Americans of their right to vote with absurd literacy tests and poll taxes, set immediately to finding other, more creative ways to suppress the minority vote. During the Reagan and G. W. Bush administrations, they received a lot of support from the Executive Branch in their fight for inequality; and Reagan was able to tilt the Supreme Court so far to the right with his conservative appointments that it became more of an adversary than an ally (and still is!).

My state, Maryland, generally makes it easy to register and vote. Marylanders can register to vote at MVA offices and in schools. They can vote early, absentee, or on Election Day, as they choose. Even if their legitimacy as voters is questioned, they can cast provisional ballots, which are counted after being validated. But residents of many other states (in particular, states of the former Confederacy) are not so lucky. For them, ground gained in the late 20th century is being lost in the 21st.

After describing how President Johnson managed to get the VRA passed in 1965, Berman walks his reader through the various reauthorizations of the Act (1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006) and the landmark Supreme Court decisions which either strengthened or weakened the law:

  • Allen v. State Board of Elections (1969) – this challenge to election laws in parts of Mississippi and Virginia raised the question of whether Section 5 of the VRA might be used to prevent states from setting district boundaries in such a way that African Americans never constituted a majority, effectively barring them from winning elective office, since whites in the south did not vote for persons of color–in other words, rendering racial gerrymandering illegal.
  • White v. Regester (1973) – This decision found that at-large elections discriminated against black candidates, who were more likely to be elected when they ran in smaller districts where they constituted a majority (aka minority-majority districts).
  • City of Mobile v. Bolden (1979) – This decision essentially reversed White v. Regester, reflecting the more conservative makeup of the Supreme Court.
  • Thornburgh v. Gingles (1986) –  prevented minority vote dilution by racial gerrymandering.
  • Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008) – allowed states to restrict voting in response to the “threat” (as opposed to the actual existence) of voter fraud
  • Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 (NAMUDNO) v. Holder (2009) – did not actually change the VRA but encouraged further challenges
  • Shelby County v. Holder (2013) – This shameful decision essentially gutted Section 5 of the VRA by invalidating Section 4 (I did not understand well how one thing led to the other), thus removing the teeth from the law; states/counties with a history of vote suppression no longer have to have all changes to their election laws pre-approved by the Justice Department. By making it impossible to prevent abuse, this decision has undone much of the progress made possible by the VRA. As a direct result of this decision, voter turnout in 2014 plummeted; the number of voters turned away at the polls for failure to comply with some obscure procedure (or because the lines were too long) skyrocketed; and the GOP increased its stranglehold on state governments. Shame!

Berman explains the crucial importance of Section 5, which forced sixteen states (or counties within those states), mostly in the former Confederacy, to have any changes to their election laws “precleared” or pre-approved by the Department of Justice, giving the federal government the ability to block so-called second-generation voting restrictions which these states liked to use “to subvert the power of the growing minority vote”. Southerners hated being singled out for preclearance, even though relatively few abuses occurred elsewhere in the country. (Presumably, requiring preclearance in all fifty states would be prohibitively expensive, but it might have shut them up.)

Other concepts discussed in the book include voting rights versus states’ rights (to control their own elections); and simple ballot access vs. the right to be represented by someone like you. (The original VRA focused on access; subsequent reauthorizations added prevention of voter dilution, or representation.) Ballot access can be suppressed with tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes, which were outlawed in the original VRA; in addition, measures that increase voter access, such as opportunities to vote early or by mail, adequate equipment and staff at the polls, sufficient hours of open polls, convenient locations of polls, use of provisional ballots, same-day registration, and no need for special identification which voters are unlikely to have, can be manipulated or gotten rid of (in areas where there are many minority voters), thus effectively suppressing the minority vote. Representation is mainly a result of racial gerrymandering.

The cast of characters includes the good guys (such as John Lewis, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Lani Guinier, Nicholas Katzenbach, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, James Sensenbrenner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a lot of poor, black, and elderly voters) and the bad guys (such as Strom Thurmond, John Roberts, Brad Reynolds, Abigail Thernstrom, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, William Rehnquist, Richard Nixon, Hans von Spakovsky, and Brad Schlozman).

I was appalled at the tactics employed by many Republican politicians and others to deprive minority voters of their most precious right in our democracy. I wonder, how did they justify these actions to themselves? Or maybe they truly believe in white supremacy.

During the Reagan administrations, the people appointed to run the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (Schlozman, von Spakovsky) were precisely the people who did not wish all Americans to have equal civil rights. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse! I was reminded of the EPA under the leadership of EPA-hater Scott Pruitt, who has turned the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Destruction Agency. In both cases, many career civil servants working in those agencies, who believed in the mission of those agencies, resigned or were reassigned. Ugh.

Berman ends on a hopeful note–young activists inspired to fight on by past activism. But we shouldn’t have to fight this battle anymore. It was supposed to have been fought and won in 1965. I am thoroughly ashamed of my country.

 

Advertisements

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

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Posted by nliakos on May 10, 2018

by J. D. Vance (Harper-Collins 2016)

Those of us who consider ourselves part of the “resistance” to Donald Trump and his GOP supporters often wonder why Trump’s “base”–those voters who are faithful to him, no matter what he says or does–continue to stand by their man–and whether we can bridge the divide between Us and Them and perhaps help them to see reason. Before we try to convince them that they are wrong and we are right and Donald Trump represents a disaster for our country, we should read this book about hillbillies–the “white working class” folks who live in (or originate from) the Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States. And getting our message across to them won’t be easy, because as described by J. D. Vance (who considers himself a hillbilly although he was mostly raised in southwestern Ohio), they are more different from us than the most exotic Asian or Middle Easterner, African or European.

According to Vance, their honor code of protecting their family above all seems more like something you would find in Sicily than in America. If you insult a hillbilly’s family member, s/he would consider it normal to beat you up or shoot you. Rather than trusting the justice system, hillbillies mete out a harsh justice themselves. And if they criticize “welfare queens”, it’s because abuse of government assistance is so widespread among them that they assume everybody does it.

Vance is of this culture, but he was able to escape the poverty he grew up in and join the educated American middle class. He calls himself “a cultural emigrant.” He joined the Marines (which forced him to grow up and learn to take care of himself) and then went to college and Yale law school. But before that, he gives most of the credit to his grandparents, especially his grandmother “Mamaw”, who partly raised him and always gave him a place to escape to when things got too hard or stressful at home, where his mother alternately fought and then gave in to drug addiction and presented young J.D. and his sister Lindsay with a never-ending parade of boyfriends and husbands. His grandparents pushed him to do well in school and constantly assured him that he could succeed. But he confesses that without them and the safe haven they provided, without his older sister’s loving care, without his four years in the Marines, without any of the many factors that conspired to help him succeed, he couldn’t have done it. His present-day comfortable life would have been out of reach. Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch. Yet despite all the negative things he sees in his culture of origin, Vance harbors a real appreciation for these people, and a desire to see them do better, as he himself proves is possible.

I always enjoy reading books about foreign cultures, and this culture certainly qualifies, despite its being embedded in the heart of the United States of America.

 

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

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

Posted by nliakos on May 8, 2018

by James Comey (Flatiron Books 2018)

If you have been paying attention, you already know that James Comey did not unveil any deep dark secrets or smoking guns in the memoir he published after being fired from his position as FBI Director by Donald Trump, four years into a ten-year term. But the reader will learn much about Comey’s own life and career, which touched some of the most notorious cases of the past thirty years (including Whitewater, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Edward Snowden and “the collision between privacy and public safety”, Marc Rich, Abu Ghraib and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture), David Petraeus, and of course, the notorious Clinton email investigation. As Assistant Attorney General of the Southern District of New York (the ones who are suing the Administration to prevent them from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census), as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan under Rudy Giuliani, as Deputy Attorney General and later Acting Attorney General of the U.S., Comey has had a front seat to many if not most of the big cases we’ve all heard about. He dealt with the Mafia, and he dealt with George W. Bush’s barefaced attempt to coerce John Ashcroft, Attorney General and Comey’s boss, to approve extensive surveillance of American citizens by the NSA. It was fascinating to read his retelling of these events.

The book is essentially an autobiography; after an initial chapter on his encounters with La Cosa Nostra, it begins with his childhood (when he was the target of bullies in his Allendale, NJ elementary school (I used to ride horseback in Allendale!). He spent years doing his utmost to avoid those bullies. He credits his parents (“tough, but kind”), some of his teachers, and an unforgettable boss named Harry Howell, with giving him the support and guidance which helped him to become the person he is. There is a marvelous story about how he once spilled 24 gallons of milk on the floor of Howell’s supermarket. He explains, “I stopped abruptly and pushed the hand truck hard upright, heedless of the basic laws of physics. The universe and the milk, of course, were not heedless.” Howell’s low-key reaction to the catastrophe (“Have you learned something? . . . . Good.  Clean it up.”) exemplifies Comey’s idea of “great leadership”.

But Comey was not only the target of bullies; he describes a memorable time when he participated in the humiliation of a nerdy classmate at the College of William and Mary when he was a freshman. But he learned from that experience, too: “Four decades later, I’m still ashamed of myself.” Despite his own experience being bullied and despite the teaching and examples of important adults in his life, he gave in to the temptation to belong to “the group”. Still, he concludes that being bullied made him a better person and instilled in him a hatred of bullies and sympathy for the victims of bullies. (Of course, the reader thinks of Donald Trump, Bully-in-Chief.)

Comey describes his career in public service and his family life. The Comeys had hoped to settle permanently in Richmond, where he worked as Assistant U.S. Attorney under another memorable boss, Helen Fahey. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, he returned to New York as U.S. Attorney.

Comey writes intelligently and thoughtfully about lying (in a chapter mostly about the Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby cases) and leadership. He writes that he spent a lot of time during his first year as FBI Director traveling around the country and abroad to every field office, where he met and listened to special agents and other employees. It was very important to him that each employee knew how much he valued him or her. Reading about his views on good leadership and how he tried his best to be a good leader, I thought that he must be a fantastic person to work for, able to get the best out of each employee.

Chapter 6, “On the Tracks”, is one of the most fascinating, describing the struggle between the Justice Department and the (second) Bush administration over Project Stellar Wind, a program of citizen surveillance which required the Attorney General’s approval before it could be implemented. Both Comey and Ashcroft opposed the project because they felt it was not within the law. With Ashcroft desperately ill in intensive care at GW Hospital, two White House staffers rushed to the hospital to get him to sign off on the program, but Comey and several of his staff beat them there and in the end, Ashcroft refused to approve it. I remember reading about this in the Washington Post when it happened but not understanding well what had happened. Comey’s chapter explains everything in great detail. It reminds me a little of what happened during the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, and of what could happen if Donald Trump were to fire Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein. In such blatant power grabs by a President, the DOJ must function as a check on the White House. If not, then Congress must explore the impeachment option. I never realized that the Card-Gonzalez-Comey-Ashcroft situation very nearly precipitated that kind of crisis in 2004.

Of course, what most readers are itching to get to are the sections which describe Comey’s relationship with Donald Trump, Trump’s attempts to get Comey to pledge loyalty to him, and the horrible way in which Trump fired Comey. This was interesting, but these were also the parts that were quoted and summarized extensively in the media when the book came out, so there was less to learn that was new. However, I was impressed by the detailed description of Comey’s emotional reaction to having to leave the FBI and a job that he loved, just when he was hitting his stride as Director. I was amazed to learn that Trump was nasty enough to want Comey, who was in Los Angeles giving a speech to staffers in the field office there when he learned of his dismissal on TV (he thought it was a joke at first), to have to pay his own way back to Washington while the FBI plane he had flown out on flew home empty. It was Andy McCabe who authorized Comey to return on the FBI plane, and Trump was furious. Not satisfied with dismissing Comey in a horrible, public way, Trump wanted to humiliate him as much as possible by forcing him to fly back on a commercial flight, at his own expense. The mean-spiritedness of the man is astounding.

A few favorite quotes:

Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear–like a Cosa Nostra boss–require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice.They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations–to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration–“love” is not too strong a word–that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.

I say this as someone who has worked in law enforcement for most of my life, and served presidents of both parties. What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake, It is not okay.

There are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle. . . . But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars of democracy? Their silence is complicity–it is a choice–and somewhere deep down they must know that.

The situation offers an opportunity to rebalance power among the three branches of our government, closer to the model the founders intended.

Far from creating a new norm where lying is widely accepted, the Trump presidency has ignited a focus on truth and ethics.

I choose to be optimistic.

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