Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by nliakos on November 19, 2018

by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow Publishers, 2015)

Having recently seen the documentary based on this sort-of-biography (three times! And I could easily see it again), I decided it was high time I read the book. The book did not disappoint. It’s not exactly a biography in the sense that it’s not a chronological narrative of RBG’s life. Instead, the chapters each focus on a different aspect of that life, such as her family background, her education, her marriage,  her early work as a professor and ACLU lawyer leading the Women’s Rights Project (WRP), her friendships, her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, her best-known opinions and dissents (helpfully annotated for better appreciation), and so on. There are plenty of photos of the justice as a child, a (beautiful) young woman, and an older woman, as well as images of drawings and other art depicting her, documents and letters, memes, even a couple of pages of various women (and one baby) dressed up to look like her, with her iconic glasses and lace collars and (sometimes) a crown. It was an entertaining and informative read (even though not much was new to me, as I had seen the CNN movie and read so many reviews and articles about her). I guess RBG is such a hero, and her story is so amazing, that I never tire of hearing it/reading about it/watching it. A new biography by Jane Sherron de Hart has just come out, so I will probably eventually read that as well. (The WaPo review of that one indicated that RBG’s official biographer is still at work on the official one.) And there’s a biopic called On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder with Felicity Jones as a young RBG, that also came out this year. Lots to put on my to-read and to-watch lists!

Advertisements

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

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Posted by nliakos on November 15, 2018

by Deborah Blum  (Penguin 2018)

The “one chemist” of the title is consumer advocacy pioneer Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who headed up the Bureau of Chemistry at the Department of Agriculture from 1882 to 1912. Wiley fought to protect American consumers from mislabeled, adulterated, dangerous foods and medicines for his entire adult life. But The Poison Squad is not just about Wiley; it is also the story of his many allies (e.g., Willard Bigelow, lead chemist for Wiley’s early research into common food additives like sodium benzoate; and Henry J. Heinz of ketchup fame, who was an early advocate of preservative-free foods) and enemies (e.g., John Queeny, founder of Monsanto and a staunch defender of the unlabeled use of saccharin in food; and James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and Wiley’s boss, who often caved to industrial demands and suppressed Wiley’s findings and reports). (Blum helpfully provides a 9-page alphabetical cast of characters at the beginning of the book–I wish that all non-fiction writers did the same!) Scientists and journalists, novelists and cookbook authors, politicians and suffragists and consumer advocates on the one side, and industrialists, bureaucrats, different politicians and even presidents on the other–a great battle was waged for many years over the regulation of America’s food and drug supply. Interestingly from our perspective, around the turn of the 20th century, Democratic and Republican roles were reversed. The Democrats were the bad guys, supporting industry demands to be able to freely adulterate foods to cheapen production and increase profits, while the (progressive) Republicans were on the side of consumer safety.

Though the politics has changed, that battle continues today. Just one example is saccharin, one of the deleterious additives targeted by Wiley a century ago, which is still readily available on supermarket shelves now despite the finding that it “has a physiologic effect . . . in every place, in every cell.” (It was briefly banned in the 1980s but was unbanned in 2000.) Despite convincing scientific evidence, the food industry has continued to fight for the right to poison the public, as long as it increases their profit margin.

Wiley focused both on banning harmful substances in food, drinks, and medicines, and on truthful, complete labeling and advertising, so that consumers could know what they were buying and ingesting. He was also a dedicated feminist. He married late in life (not for lack of trying, but his wife, Anna Kelton, refused him when he first proposed, when she was in her late twenties and he about twice that). He was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s political activism in the suffragist movement. (Favorite quote, when Anna was arrested and jailed for political activity: “He had fought all his life for a principle and hardly could deny her the same privilege.”

Wiley was uncompromising in his zeal to clean up the food supply and get rid of false claims about medicinal properties. Time and time again, he courageously stood up to his boss (and to his boss’s boss, the President) and to his numerous detractors and opponents. One cannot help but admire him.

Reading about the long years of struggle before the first Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the ensuing struggle over writing and enforcing the regulations, I was reminded of the seemingly never-ending struggle for gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association plays the role of the food industry executives who shamelessly attacked those who were trying to protect the public. Organizations like MomsRising and Every Town for Gun Safety and individuals like Jim Brady and Gabby Giffords and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students play the roles of Harvey Wiley, Alice Lakey, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens and so many others who refused to admit defeat despite numerous losses. The only way to combat this incessant greed, it would seem, is to persist, no matter how long it takes. Once the legislative battle is won, however imperfectly, we must gear up for the regulatory battle. And with Donald Trump in the White House, even regulations that have long been in place to protect consumers are being rolled back to the detriment of consumer safety and to the delight of the  industrialists (such as gun manufacturers and food/beverage/drug industry tycoons). The fight against the food and drug industries is never over, as Blum shows in her Epilogue. We must be forever vigilant.

This book is a fascinating and educational read. I highly recommend it, but I would advise you not to read it over lunch!

Posted in Biography, History, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Fear: Trump in the White House

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2018

by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster 2018; Nook format)

By the time I read this, there were no surprises, but Woodward includes minute details from conversations (via extensive interviews) between with a conversation between David Bossie and Steve Bannon about the possibility of Donald Trump running for President (Bannon scoffed: “Of what country?”), jumping six years ahead to 2016 and the campaign and election, and ending up several months into 2017 , for no particular reason that I can see except that while every single day has brought new horrors from this White House, Woodward had to stop writing and publish the book at some point, or he would still be writing. He probably is still writing (Volume II).

I am quite put off by the frequent use of fucking as both an adjective and adverb. It’s as if the English language has no other modifiers. Just a few examples: Bannon: “I don’t have time for fucking nonsense.” (adjective) Bannon again: “Twelve million fucking dollars in cash out of the Ukraine!” (adjective) and: “Fucking absurd” (adverb).   Trump : “That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made.” (adjective) and: “I always knew Gary was a fucking globalist. I didn’t know you were such a fucking globalist, Rob.” (adjective) and: “If it weren’t Sunday, you’d shut the markets down, that’s how fucking hard you fucking go!” (adverbs)  Well, you get the idea. Just the men. Do they really talk like that? Woodward dutifully records every “fucking” that was ostensibly uttered. . . . It reminds me of the Nixon tapes. Presidents and their staffs, unedited.

In fact, I have somewhat more respect for Trump than I did before I read the book. In the reported conversations, he often seems more aware of keeping his campaign promises and the potential consequences of various actions than I gave him credit for. Not all the time, but sometimes.

The book is about 100 pages shorter than one expects, with the last 80 pages or so given over to voluminous notes and an index. I thought I had a few more days of reading, but then suddenly, it was over. The final sentence: ” . . . (John) Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying ‘Fake News,’ the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.'”

As the future unfolds, we will see if this “tragic flaw” will be the undoing of this president. One can only hope.

Posted in Biography, History, Memoir | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Posted by nliakos on September 20, 2018

by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad/HarperCollins 2018; manuscript completed in 1931. Edited by Deborah G. Plant)

Zora Neale Hurston trained as an anthropologist under Franz Boas, “the Father of American Anthropology”, but she is known as a novelist for her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, among others. In Barracoon, Hurston steps back and lets her subject, Oluale Kossola/Kossula, aka Cudjo Lewis, tell his own life story in his own dialect, spelling his words to reflect his pronunciation and copying his syntax. The effect is of reading a primary source, although I guess the living Kossola was the primary source, making Hurston’s work a secondary source.

Whether primary or secondary, Kossola’s story is unique in that there are no other similar narratives of capture, slavery, liberation, and persecution quite like his. However, it is also representative of the hundreds and thousands of narratives that we will never know, because the people that lived those lives could not write about them, and no one who could write cared to ask them what they had experienced and to set it down for posterity.

Kossola lived in a village in West Africa called Banté until he was nineteen years old, when Glélé, the king of neighboring Dahomey, sent warriors to destroy the village, capture people they could sell into slavery and massacre the rest, wiping out the village. This was done; and Kossola found himself a captive, marched to Dahomey and from there to Ouidah (Whydah) in present-day Benin, where he was confined in the barracoon, the building used to keep the prisoners until a ship arrived and they could be sold. The ship which Kossola was loaded onto, the Clotilda, was built especially for this purpose by William Foster and the Meaher brothers. Transporting captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to sell them into slavery had long been illegal, and the Clotilde would be the last ship to complete its journey from Africa to the United States. It was 1860, and the Civil War was about to begin.

Kossola, now known as Cudjo, was enslaved in Alabama by one of the Meaher brothers, Jim, where he worked on a river boat carrying freight between Mobile and Montgomery, loading wood and freight, pumping bilge, and doing whatever needed to be done. He relates, “Oh, Lor’! Oh Lor’! Five year and de six months I slave. I workee so hard!” Cudjo and his fellows were freed by Union troops in 1865. Emancipation for them also meant homelessness and poverty. They were free, but they had no house, no land, no money. Somehow, they formed a community of mostly African-born freedmen and women, and after some years were able to purchase a piece of land from the Meahers (Cudjo commented, “Dey doan take one five cent from de price for us. But we pay it all and take de lan’.”) This became “Affican Town” (Africatown, now the town of Plateau, AL).

Cudjo met and married Seely (Celia), and they had six children together, most of whom died, some in suspicious circumstances, as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow in Alabama and the rest of the former Confederacy. Cudjo and Seely bore the grief of losing their children as best they could. Seely passed away in 1908. Their surviving son had married and moved away, so Cudjo spent the rest of his life alone with his memories. As Hurston tells it, he never stopped grieving for his homeland, which he called “de Afficky soil”. African-born people suffered discrimination not only from white people, but also from African-Americans. Though a pillar in his own tiny community, Cudjo never felt accepted in American society, even though he had nothing to return to in Africa, his entire family having been wiped out in the raid on Banté. The reader is saddened by Cudjo’s solitude. When Hurston conducted her interviews, he was in his eighties, already the last surviving person from the Clotilda. Apparently, those who suffered the Middle Passage together formed strong bonds among themselves. Of course, they were separated from each other upon arrival when they were sold to various people, but following the Civil War, Cudjo managed to be reunited with some of the same people he had been with in the barracoon and on the Clotilda, and it was these people who founded Africatown.

The book is 171 pages, of which only 70 are devoted to the narrative of the life of Kossola/Cudjo Lewis. An appendix including descriptions of games and transcriptions of Cudjo’s stories and parables take up another 17 pages. The remaining 84 pages are taken up by a preface by Alice Walker, a lengthy introduction by Hurston, and following the appendix, an afterword, acknowledgments, a list of the founders of Africatown, a glossary, notes and citations, and a bibliography.

Posted in Autobiography, History, Memoir | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

Posted by nliakos on July 25, 2018

by Dame Daphne Sheldrick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

I had never heard of Dame Daphne nor of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, but apparently, in the community of advocates for African wildlife (and in particular, elephants and rhinos), they are very well known. Following a harrowing accident when she failed to recognize one of “her” grown-up orphan elephants and instead got too familiar with a wild elephant, Dame Daphne decided to write her memoirs: “This will be my legacy. I will set down everything I have learned in my efforts to contribute to the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife in this magical land.”

A native white Kenyan (her grandparents immigrated from South Africa, though her family originated in Scotland), Daphne grew up on a farm where she already showed an inclination to love and care for the wild animals that were so numerous, in addition to the dogs and cats and other domesticated animals on the farm. At seventeen, she married a man who worked for the Kenyan National Parks as an assistant warden. His assignment to Tsavo National Park put Daphne in close contact with Park Warden David Sheldrick, who was to become her second husband and soulmate.

For me, by far the most interesting parts of the narrative, however, are the parts about the many orphaned animals that Dame Daphne (with her husbands’ and daughters’ help) rescued and returned successfully to the wild. I think it is well known that wild animals who are reared by humans have a hard time surviving with their own kind in the wild; many never make it. But Dame Daphne’s orphans, time and time again, given the freedom to decide when and how they would rejoin their wild cousins (with some limitations due to age), were almost always able to reintegrate successfully (although they were of course subject to the same dangers and risks as their wild cousins once they had reintegrated). One important factor in this success for the many elephant orphans she raised is that when they were no longer dependent on milk, they were given over to the care and tutelage of the elephant cow Eleanor, herself a former orphan, who raised and returned so many orphans to the wild that I lost count.

Along the way, Dame Daphne was the first person to figure out what kind of formula could be used to save infant elephants. She also raised many other kinds of orphaned animals, including rhinos, warthogs, and many different types of antelopes, from the tiny dikdiks to elands and kudu. Amazingly, Eleanor accepted all of these different animals into her motley family. A lot of cross-species friendships were formed–not only humans with wild animals, but rhinos with zebras and water buffalo, antelopes with elephants, and more. There are photos showing Dame Daphne’s young daughters feeding the orphans and riding on a rhino. She tells of welcoming the orphans into her house and sometimes actually in her bed! Having believed all my life that wild animals can never be trusted, I was astonished at how gentle these animals were with Sheldrick and with her children (although they were often mischievous, especially when they were young). Her deep love for all animals and the special bonds she cultivated with her elephants are a joy to read about. Elephants are amazingly similar to humans in so many ways, especially when it comes to their emotional lives. They seem to lack our penchant for violence, though–at least among their own kind.

In addition, she explains the Mau Mau revolution in Kenya in the fifties, the issues related to Kenyan independence in the sixties (included the impact on the National Park system), and the ongoing fight to save African wildlife from poaching. An absolutely fascinating read.

Update: I googled Dame Daphne Sheldrick and discovered to my sadness that she passed away only a few months ago, on April 12, 2018. I also found this documentary, which tells the story of both Dame Daphne and her elephants and of Birute Galdikas and the orphaned orangutans that she raises in Borneo. Unfortunately, the video is full of annoying ads, but if you can ignore them, it’s really interesting to watch.

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

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.

 

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

Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation’s Capital

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2018

by Christopher Buckley (Crown Journeys 2003)

Even 15 years later, this little gem will appeal to both visitors to and residents of Washington, D.C.  In a series of four walks, Buckley (who worked for Vice President Bush in the 1980s) regales the reader with fascinating (and often funny) details of the history and background of the various sites, memorials, monuments, government buildings, and more.

Walk One covers Union Station, the Capitol, the Grant Memorial, the National Gallery, and the major Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. Of course, it would take you weeks to really see what’s in all those museums (plus the ones that have been added since the publication of the book, like the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery (Asian art) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So if you were really making the walks, you might want to break this one down into about ten walks. But as someone who has lived in and near DC for many years, I was happy just reading about places I have already visited. Something new I learned: Alexander “Boss” Shepherd was appointed by President Grant to govern D.C. in the 1870s, and it is Shepherd who filled in the stinking open sewer that was Tiber Creek and installed new (covered) water and sewer systems, who paved and lit the streets, and who built parks and planted 60,000 trees, among other achievements. I wonder if Shepherd St. N.W. was named for him. He deserved something grander, if so.

Walk Two: the major memorials and monuments on the west end of the Mall, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Interesting factoid no. 1: The Washington Monument was supposed to have been built on a north-south line running from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial, but the ground there would not have supported it, so the site had to be moved slightly south and east. (I wonder how they figured this out, exactly.) Interesting factoid no. 2: Prominent Washington women had chained themselves to some of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin to prevent their being cut down to accommodate the Jefferson Memorial, so Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had tea and coffee delivered to the women  so that they would have to pee, and when they left to pee, the trees were cut down. (Sounds suspect to me: not because tea and coffee don’t make people need to pee, but all at the same time? And they didn’t think to take turns, leaving somebody there guarding the trees?)

Walk Three: the area around the White House, including Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot. Interesting factoid: Daniel Sickles, a congressman from New York, who lived next to Decatur House on Lafayette Square, killed his wife’s lover, pled (or pleaded, which I understand is more correct) temporary insanity (the first time the insanity defense was used) and was acquitted, and later lost his leg at Gettysburg; it was put on display at the Army Medical Museum, where he used to go and visit it.

Walk Four: Arlington National Cemetery. I learned a lot that I didn’t know, like the re-interment of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of the capital city, who died in poverty and disgrace (after being fired for his “bad attitude”, apparently) and was initially buried in Bladensburg, Maryland. Interesting factoid: Clinton’s Ambassador to Switzerland had to be dug up and re-interred elsewhere when it was discovered that he had not, in fact, been a veteran, as he had claimed. And Joe Louis, the boxer, wasn’t eligible for burial at Arlington either, but Reagan made an exception for him, and so he is there.

 

Posted in History, Travel | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2018

by Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press 2017)

Constitutional law scholar Cass R. Sunstein has written a book about impeachment for everyone who is feeling the need to understand this process a little better as we head into 2018 after the tumultuous first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Sunstein never mentions Trump by name, but it is very clear that he is thinking of him.

The book begins with a brief history of impeachment first in English and then in American jurisprudence. Sunstein summarizes the discussions among the framers of the Constitution concerning impeachment (which is front and center in Article 1, Section 2) and trial (Section 3) and then moves to the debate by those who ratified the Constitution in the different states, because those debates (unlike those of the framers) were public and thus representative of what citizens knew about impeachment.  He spends a lot of time examining the concepts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” and what those might be. He presents actual cases of impeachment (of presidents and judges), in particular the most recent cases of Nixon (never actually impeached because he resigned and was then pardoned before he could be indicted) and Clinton (whose impeachment was purely political) and then, in Chapter 7, “Twenty-One Cases,” he presents hypothetical cases of impeachment: first, two sets of “easy cases”, in which impeachment is obviously called for (first set of nine), or obviously not called for (second set of five). The final set of six consists of “harder cases” where the path is not clear, and reasonable people could disagree. In each case, Sunstein explains why the case is obvious or not. I found this chapter very enlightening.

The first easy case (“impeachable”), interestingly, seems very obviously to be based on Donald Trump’s behavior with Russia: A president has admiration and sympathy for a foreign nation that wishes to do harm to the United States. While in office, he reveals classified information to leaders of that nation, with the clear intention of strengthening it and of weakening his own country. The president can be impeached. He may have committed treason. . . . The only thing is that we cannot be sure of Trump’s intention when he shared highly classified information with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in May 2016. His “admiration and sympathy for” Vladimir Putin was well known; but it is not clear whether he actually understands that Russia “wishes to do harm to the United States”, so his intent is unknowable (or so it would seem to me). (This is like trying to prove corrupt intent in a case of obstruction of justice. Not easy to do.)

There is also a chapter on the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the removal of the president from office, temporarily (as when he becomes too ill to do his job, perhaps during a hospitalization and surgery) or permanently, in the case of permanent disability, either physical or mental. The president can temporarily transfer his power to his Vice President; or if the President is incapacitated, his cabinet can transfer the power. Sunstein shows how the 25th amendment differs from impeachment in terms of when it would be applied.

Chapter 9 is a quick-and-dirty guide: “What Every American Should Know”. Some of the information here repeats that which has already been said, but in a more concise form. He also includes information that he has not already presented, such as Can federal courts–or the Supreme Court–stop an unconstitutional impeachment? (No) Must representatives impeach a president who has committed an impeachable offense, and must senators convict him? (Yes?) Can a president be sued for official acts? (No) Can s/he be sued for reasons other than official acts? (Yes) And so on.

It is not impossible that we will witness the impeachment and trial of Donald J. Trump during the next three years. While it is not likely that this will happen as long as the GOP retains control of the Congress, that situation could change; midterm elections are coming up in just over ten months, with the victors beginning their terms at the beginning of 2019. So it is a useful exercise to review the impeachment process, and Sunstein’s guide is a good place to start.

Posted in History, Non-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 »

Nanjing Requiem

Posted by nliakos on November 18, 2017

by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2011)

The publication of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997) put the brutal Japanese occupation of China’s “Southern Capital” on my radar. I don’t believe I knew about it prior to that time. Reading the reviews of the book, I was appalled at the cruelty of the atrocities described. I couldn’t bring myself to read the book itself. But the events of 1937 and after stayed in my mind, like the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, as something I ought to educate myself about. When I saw Ha Jin’s novel about these events on the library shelf last week, I decided I would try a fictional account as a way to learn more. Fiction can be more difficult to digest than factual prose, since it puts the reader into the mind(s) of the characters as they struggle to survive against seemingly impossible odds, so I was cautious as I began to read the story of Minnie Vautrin, principal of Jinling (Ginling) College, and her heroic fight to protect the thousands of women and children who took refuge on the college campus in 1937, narrated by the (presumably) fictional Anling Gao. But I was not swept up in the story of men and women fighting against insurmountable odds. I felt like I did when I read the reviews of Iris Chang’s book: appalled, but not personally involved.

The novel reads like a diary. (Indeed, Ha Jin used diaries kept at the time as some of his sources.) Horrific events, like murder and rape, are relayed in the same dry tone as what everyone had for dinner. It’s terrible, but you don’t want to cry. Anling’s voice is cool and calm, whether she is describing the campus ponds polluted with dead bodies or meeting her half-Japanese grandson for the first and only time. The reader has to infer her pain; Jin does none of this work for you.

I also noted Jin’s odd use of American and English idioms, which also seemed awkward to me in Waiting and War Trash, two other Jin novels which I have read. The idioms often don’t seem to fit into the context he uses them in. I suppose he is trying to convey the use of colloquial Chinese expressions in at least some cases, but the expressions just don’t seem natural in his prose. They seem more like the tortured sentences my students used to write when told to use an idiom in a sentence–or when they tried to pack as many idioms into one sentence as possible, as in this instance from page 276: If they got on my nerves, I didn’t hesitate to give them a piece of my mind to let off some steam. I knew they would bad-mouth me behind my back, . . . . There is nothing actually wrong about these sentences, but for some reason, they seem more like a language learning exercise than natural prose. They stand out in a way that seems awkward. That said, Ha Jin is on a short list of major authors writing in a second language (others that come to mind being Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov), and I have enormous respect for his ability to do it at all.

In conclusion, I guess I am going to have to read The Rape of Nanking after all.

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