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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre

Posted by nliakos on October 17, 2019

by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt 1993)

This is the story of young Rachel Marsh, an indentured servant working as a nanny in the home of John and Abigail Adams in 1768-70. Well-researched, with most of its characters based on actual people, The Fifth of March provides a front-row seat to the events leading up to and following the Boston “Massacre”, which is widely seen as a crucial factor in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As Rachel narrates the story, we gain an understanding of how some of the colonists began to see themselves as just plain “Americans” rather than subjects of the British Crown, as the concept of individual liberty began to take root.   Along with her friends, her employers, and her employers’ friends and associates, Rachel must decide whether to cast her lot with “the rabble” or with the soldiers sent to keep the peace in a turbulent time. We come to appreciate the British side of the story: how the British Captain Preston tried valiantly to avert violence while the Americans insulted, cursed, lobbed objects at, and otherwise provoked the young British soldiers.

Rachel’s choice is complicated by the fact that she has befriended one of the soldiers, Matthew Kilroy (also a historical figure), thereby jeopardizing her relationship with the Adamses. This is the fictional story woven into the historical events. Even Rachel Marsh’s fictional character is based on an actual person of that name whom the Adamses employed. Rinaldi takes this character, about whom essentially nothing is known, and creates her protagonist.

I found this to be a balanced description of what it might have felt like to live in Boston during this period a few years before the Revolutionary War.

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, History | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the randomhousebooks.com electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).

 

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics, Religion, Philosophy, Culture, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein–Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

Posted by nliakos on August 25, 2019

by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster 2013)

I’m a little confused by the title of this book. It is about mistakes made by great scientists, but it was the scientists who were brilliant, not the mistakes. And I don’t see how the mistakes changed our understanding of anything. They were just mistakes. Scientists are human beings, after all; they do make mistakes. Isn’t that how the scientific method works? Scientists learn from their mistakes. In some cases, maybe they didn’t, because they died before the knowledge they would have needed not to make the mistake became available.

Anyway, that’s just the title. The book is pretty clear that it’s about mistaken ideas of various scientific heroes:

  • Charles Darwin, who failed to take into account Gregor Mendel’s ideas about heredity (of which he was apparently unaware, and according to Livio, incapable of understanding the mathematics involved in any case). He “made do” with the wrong concept of “blending heredity”, even though he was not satisfied with it.
  • Sir Charles Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who believed that the Earth could not possibly be as old as geologists of the time claimed it was, and he stuck to that story until the end of his life, even though his own calculations were pretty effectively disproved by then.
  • Linus Pauling, whose faith in his “alpha-helix” model of DNA led him to reject the double-helix model of Francis Crick and James Watson, which turned out to be the correct one. One reason for this was that he never saw Rosalind Franklin’s “photograph 51”, which revealed the double-helix quite clearly. Also, he stubbornly ignore the fact that his nucleic acid molecule wasn’t even an acid, revealing a “disregard for some of the basic rules of chemistry”.
  • Fred Hoyle, who supported the concept of a steady state universe over the Big Bang Theory which is now I think universally accepted. Again, a lack of exposure to the thinking of another scientist, in this case the Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaître, who had the misfortune to publish a seminal paper in an obscure Belgian journal. Had Hoyle been aware of Lemaître’s paper, he ostensibly would not have made the error that he made. Again, a lack of crucial knowledge resulted in a mistake.
  • Albert Einstein, who added a “cosmological constant” (Λ) to his Theory of General Relativity, then rejected it as unnecessary, while physicists around the world refused to allow it to die a natural death.

What struck me the most while reading the stories of these scientists and their mistaken ideas was how little scientists work in a vacuum. Rather, they are constantly in touch with one another, using the ideas and calculations of others to inform their own. I knew this in the abstract, but Livio’s book provides countless examples of interactions among scientists without which fundamental scientific ideas would likely never have been conceived, and several of the “blunders” were caused by a missed interaction: a paper not read, a photograph not viewed.

Livio makes a valiant attempt to explain the science to a lay person, but I still found a lot of it incomprehensible. This is not the author’s fault; the concepts (in biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology, and geology) are difficult, and I don’t have even a basic grounding in them. (Well, I took high school biology and an introductory geology class in college, so I understood those a bit better, but the physics, astrophysics, and chemistry had me flummoxed.)

He also speculates about why these brilliant scientists made the mistakes they made, whether due to denial, lack of information, over-confidence, reluctance to embrace something new, or sheer stubbornness.

The book is well-researched and interesting (to the extent that I could understand it), although not a page-turner.

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

Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election

Posted by nliakos on July 10, 2019

by Robert Mueller (and presumably other unnamed writers from the investigation staff) (The Washington Post, 2019)

I read the Washington Post e-book, which includes an introduction by Post writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky and concludes with Marc Fisher and Sari Hornstein’s Feb. 2018 article comparing and contrasting Mueller and Trump. In between is over 500 pages of report: Volume I, on the actual Russian interference (brazen and well-documented), and Volume II, on Obstruction of Justice, on the various ways Trump and his underlings sought to fire the Special Counsel, impede the investigation, and keep what was done from seeing the light of day. Each volume has its own Executive Summary, and there are lots and lots of notes, timelines, lists of characters, legal explanations, glossaries, transcripts of interviews, emails, and letters, etc. There are also lots of redacted parts, sometimes just a few words, and sometimes several pages in a row. We don’t know what we don’t know, and I wondered as I read whether other, more knowledgeable readers can make educated guesses as to what is hidden underneath.

The prose is lawyerly, clear and precise, but not scintillating, and often repetitive. (What did I expect?) There was not much that did not have a familiar ring to it; I’ve been paying attention (listening to the news, reading the newspaper), and most of this stuff has come out in one way or another. But the report puts it in chronological order, relates actions to other actions, and in so doing, makes its case. It does not come out and say that Donald Trump masterminded a conspiracy with Russian bad actors to rig the 2016 election in his favor; Mueller and his staff were unable to prove conspiracy on the part of any Americans (only that they were eager to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and didn’t care who was offering it to them). But the case for obstruction of justice is clearer. In each case, Mueller presents the evidence and then analyzes it in terms of three requirements: Was there an obstructive act? Was there a connection (nexus) to an official proceeding? And was there an intent to obstruct justice? Intent is the most difficult to show. Mueller often confesses that the investigators were unable to establish intent. Trump’s refusal to be interviewed or to give real answers to Mueller’s written questions made this more difficult. Mueller was working under very difficult conditions. He did the best he could, and then handed the baton to Congress, which continues to dilly-dally when it should be firing up an inquiry into the case for impeachment of this President.

Every American should read this book. But it’s long and tedious, so for Vol. II, I recommend watching The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts, written by Robert Schenkkan and produced by Law Works. It is also very helpful to watch the videos at the Mueller Book Club, which feature interviews with major players, like Rep. Jerrold Nadler of the House Judiciary Committee and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

You can buy it (amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com), download it (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/18/politics/full-mueller-report-pdf/index.html), donate a copy (or several) to your local library, community center or senior center, do group readings or watch parties of The Investigation with friends or family, or watch Robert Mueller’s live public testimony before Congress on July 17. Then call your Member of Congress and tell him or her that the Mueller Report is just the beginning, and that it is past time to launch an impeachment inquiry into the unprecedented corruption of this administration and this president.

Robert Mueller ended his report with the words,”While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”  Mueller was unable to reach that conclusion because it is Congress alone that can hold a rogue president accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors like corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power. Congress must act, but they won’t, unless and until enough constituents demand it of them.

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

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2019

by Sebastian Junger (Twelve/Hachette Book Group 2016)

This little (136 pages not counting the notes) book examines the proposition that modern “Western” society runs counter to how human beings have evolved to live and is detrimental to mental health.

In the first chapter, “The Men and the Dogs”, Junger compares Native American tribal society with European “white” society. He notes that thousands of white people joined Indian tribes (some as captives who opted to stay, some voluntarily), whereas there is not one documented instance of a Native American voluntarily wishing to join white society, and he asks what might make Indian society so appealing to us. Speaking of the period of Western expansion, he notes that both societies were characterized by (to us) abhorrent cruelty, but that Indian religion was less harsh, and the Indian lifestyle was more interesting (hunting vs. agriculture) and included more leisure time and more control over one’s own life. He quotes a white woman who lived among Indians for many years: “No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace. . . Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.”

Junger alludes to the theory of self-determination, which holds that people’s three most essential needs are autonomy (or being authentic in one’s life, whatever that means), competence, and community, or connectedness. Indian tribal life tended to fulfill these needs much better than white society did, and white societies were (and are) characterized by higher rates of suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses. He postulates that our wealthy modern life style deprives us of what we need to be happy. Our children are forced to sleep alone, we are subject to more authority and have a lesser sense of well-being, there is more dishonesty and fraud (and the perpetrators often get away with egregious dishonesty that would be unthinkable in a Native American tribe–e.g., the bankers and traders that caused the Great Recession, who were never held accountable for the vast damage they inflicted on the country and people).

The second chapter, “War Makes You an Animal”, considers the dual nature of war (and other calamities as well)–for participants, it is both the best of times (increased sense of community and opportunities to prove oneself) and the worst of times (physical and mental trauma, witnessing and causing death). Junger notes that both combat veterans and residents of cities under siege miss something about their wartime experience when it is over. He writes, “Large-scale disasters produce. . . mentally healthy conditions,” and provides numerous examples (the London Blitz, the Allied bombing of Dresden, the Springhill Mine Disaster, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 1970 Chilean earthquake) to prove his point.

In European societies, people rarely have the opportunity to exhibit courage because only certain segments of society (police, firemen. . .) are involved in rescue work and the protection of civilians. But that deprives us of something we have evolved to do and even to need. Junger writes, The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger–or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for–and for whom–is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

The third chapter, “In Bitter Safety I Awake”, continues to examine the conundrum of why people who have survived catastrophe miss something about that catastrophic experience afterwards. Junger also considers the different leadership qualities that are needed in times of peace and war (and how the Iroquois Nations had two kinds of leaders to respond to these different requirements), and he focuses on post-traumatic stress syndrome (the kind that resolves and the kind that persists) and points out that what most veterans really need is jobs (= a sense of self-worth because they are contributing to society)–not lifetime disabilities payments. Part of the problem, Junger suggests, is that civilians are typically far removed from the war experience, so they cannot understand what the returning veterans have gone through. Returning to Indian tribes of the 19th century, the entire tribe underwent the trauma of war together, so returning warriors had no sense of alienation.

The final chapter, “Calling Home from Mars”, considers what we who live in modern societies have given up in exchange for modern conveniences and comforts, and how making real sacrifices for our community could gives us a greater sense of safety, self-worth, and yes, happiness. Junger writes, There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce the new rules far more effectively than even local government. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works. But this made me think of something Yuval Noah Harari said in the MOOC we did with him a few years ago: human beings evolved to trust the individuals in the small community they lived in, up to maybe fifty people (“us), and to distrust everyone else (“them”). When the “us” consists of people of different races, religions, political and sexual preferences, native languages/cultures, and levels of education, it is not a given that they can actually build that sense of community that Junger is talking about. I would like to believe that they could, but this adds a major complication that was not there when the race was evolving.

Anyway, Junger’s book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I do agree that when we traded communal responsibility for hierarchies where only some individuals are responsible for the safety of the group, we gained something but lost something also, something important for us as human beings.

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

Fascism: A Warning

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2019

by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward; HarperCollins, 2018)

Madeleine Albright sets out to define and describe fascism, to follow its history since its inception in 1930s Italy, and to consider whether the United States, under Donald Trump, is now flirting with fascism as a replacement for our democratic government based on the law. She begins with her own personal history as a refugee from Czechoslovakia after it fell to the Communists. She asks why we are where we are, twenty-five years after we “won” the Cold War, and answers herself: One reason, frankly, is Donald Trump. If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab. No confusion about where she stands on that issue!

According to Albright, there is no single definition of fascism agreed to by all. She suggests that “Fascism should perhaps be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power.” It is neither right nor left; it is a tool. It draws its energy from the anger and resentment of people who have lost something (a war, a job, respect, confidence. . .), who are guided by a (usually) charismatic leader who  brings “deep and often ugly feelings to the surface”–Albright calls such a leader “a secular evangelist” who channels people’s desire “to be part of a meaningful quest”. Fascism is “an extreme form of authoritarian rule”, usually characterized by extreme nationalism; in a Fascist state, citizens have no rights; their mission is to serve, while the government’s mission is to rule. Albright winds up her introductory chapter with this definition: “A Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary–including violence–to achieve his or her goals.” (As I write this, I wonder why she capitalizes fascism. In fact, I don’t think that is correct; see the answer to this question on Quora.com. This makes sense to me, and I will not capitalize it in this post, unless I am referring to Mussolini’s Fascist Party.)

Most of the other chapters concern specific cases where fascism has reared its ugly head, beginning with the first instance when the word was used in this way (In 1919, “a few dozen angry men” began a political movement and chose a bundle of elm rods (fasces) together with an ax that had been a symbol of a Roman consul’s power; their movement became known as the Fascist movement.). Albright writes, “This was how twentieth-century Fascism, began: with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things.”

I was struck by several eerie similarities between Mussolini and Trump: it was Mussolini who first promised to “drain the swamp” (dranare la palude). He trusted himself absolutely, feeling no need for advisors; he thought his instincts were always right. He thought shaking hands unsanitary, and he had little interest in what other people had to say.

The next two chapters focus on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain; other chapters deal with  the British fascist movement of Sir Oswald Mosley, American and European fascist movements, Hungary, Stalin’s USSR, Perónism in Argentina, Omar Torrijos of Panama, and Bosnia’s Milosevic. Then Albright brings us into the present: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro,  Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Duterte of the Philippines, and the Kims of North Korea. “The President of the United States” gets his own chapter, and Albright is polite but damning. She doesn’t hesitate to call him out for favoring autocrats over democrats, for undermining the freedom of the press and American institutions like the courts, the FBI, and the electoral system. She notes how Trump’s bad behavior serves as a model for autocrats everywhere and gives them license to turn back democratic reforms in their countries. “His approach is that of a demagogue,” she writes. Nothing new there.

Albright includes many anecdotes from her time as Secretary of State. These are interesting, but I don’t think they add much to her argument.

As you would expect, the final chapter suggests what we might do to counter the rise of fascism in our time. She raises the following questions, and more, about political leaders:

  • Do they suggest treating people who are different as being less valuable as human beings?
  • Do they inflame the anger and resentment of their core supporters?
  • Do they encourage contempt for government, elections, the press, the judiciary?
  • Do they use patriotic symbols to turn people against each other?
  • Do they accept or contest political defeat?
  • Do they claim to be able to solve every problem? . . . .

You get the idea. . . . a good description of 45 and his authoritarian buddies around the world. The answers to such questions, she says, “will provide grounds for reassurance or a warning we dare not ignore.” There is little question as to which of these Americans will discern if they answer these questions about the current occupant of the White House. We aren’t ignoring her warning, but Trump and his hypocritical Republican enablers in the Congress will not easily give up the power they have already amassed. We are living in a perilous moment, and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Posted by nliakos on December 30, 2018

by Richard Rothstein (Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W. W. Norton & Co., 2017)

Color of law refers to an act done under the appearance of legal authorization, when in fact, no such right existed. It applies when a person is acting under real or apparent government authority. The term is used in the federal Civil Rights Act, which gives citizens the right to sue government officials and their agents who use their authority to violate rights guaranteed by federal law.  <https://definitions.uslegal.com/c/color-of-law/> 

In this book, Richard Rothstein argues that segregated neighborhoods all over the United States resulted not from de facto segregation (incidentally, due to the decisions of millions of individual private home-buyers), but from de jure segregation: racist governmental policy. As such, it violates African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and we now have the exceedingly difficult task of remedying the situation.

Chapter 1, “If San Francisco, Then Everywhere?” – examines how the federal government segregated the northern California city of Richmond during the Second World War. It looks in particular at the life of Frank Stevenson of Louisiana, who came to northern California to work in the shipyards and other war industries. Richmond, supported by the FHA, built whites-only housing for war workers; African-American workers were not permitted to take advantage of this housing and instead were forced to find shelter wherever they could. This usually meant sub-standard housing, over-crowding, and very long commutes.

The story of Ladera, where my aunt and uncle raised my two cousins, illustrates what happened in many places. A cooperative of mostly white Stanford faculty purchased a tract of land next to the campus, intending to develop it with affordable housing. But because there were a few African Americans in the cooperative, banks refused to lend them the money to develop the land because the FHA refused to insure the loans. The cooperative eventually admitted defeat, and the land was sold to a private developer, who built the whites-only subdivision where my relatives lived.

Chapter 2, “Public Housing, Black Ghettos”, tells the sorry story of public housing projects, originally conceived during the New Deal to house white people. Public housing was segregated from the beginning, and black people were only allowed to live in segregated housing, which was never adequate and, being separate, was never equal (after Brown v. Board of Education, the general counsel of the Housing and Home Finance Agency claimed that the decision was not applicable to housing).  As the suburbs were developed and white people moved out of public housing projects, black people were slowly permitted to move in; the projects were never built in majority-white communities to begin with, as it was easy for anyone who disapproved to stop construction. So after a while, public housing only existed in black communities, and only served black people–and served them poorly, with few services and poor upkeep.

Chapter 3, “Racial Zoning”, describes the development of Jim Crow in the South following the end of Reconstruction, as well as the increasing mistrust and hatred of African Americans which developed in other parts of the country. Woodrow Wilson, who grew up in the racist South, then segregated the federal workforce when he became president in 1913. Examples of early government-sponsored housing segregation include Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis, and many others. During this period, blacks were not permitted to live on majority-white blocks, and whites were forbidden to buy on majority-black blocks, so over time, these blocks, and later neighborhoods, became more and more segregated. Then the resulting majority-black neighborhoods were rezoned for industrial use, and they turned into undesirable, unhealthy, over-crowded, poorly served places–slums, where African-Americans were stuck.  The 1917 Supreme Court case, Buchanan v. Warley, ruled against racial zoning laws (not because the justices found segregation to be wrong but because they believed white owners should be able to sell to whomever they pleased) but was widely ignored.

Chapter 4, “Own Your Own Home”, examines the push by the Hoover administration to get white Americans to buy homes in the newly developed suburbs rather than rent them, subsidized by HOLC (Home Owners Loan Corporation), FHA, and VA loans, which were unavailable to African-Americans. Not only that, but the FHA refused to insure loans in African-American or integrated communities. If they could qualify for loans at all, African-Americans were eligible only for installment plans known as contract loans, which did not let the borrower accumulate equity and enabled the lender to evict a family for missing even a single payment. In this way, white people were on their way to accumulating wealth as their property values rose; African-Americans were excluded not only from white neighborhoods but from this opportunity to increase their worth. The discriminatory policies were clearly laid out in the FHA underwriting manual. Rothstein points out over and over that these and other indications of racist guidelines in government agencies constitutes a clear violation of African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the 13th and 14th amendments.

Chapter 5, “Private Agreements, Government Enforcement”, considers federal government tolerance of exclusionary practices such as restrictive covenants, which prohibited sales of homes in certain neighborhoods to people of color. Though these covenants were already illegal, neighborhood associations, realtors, and local governments figured out ways to get around the law. Those blacks who bought in segregated white areas were forcibly evicted. In 1948, another Supreme Court ruling, Shelley v. Kraemer, held that the enforcement of restrictive covenants by state courts to be unconstitutional. As with Buchanan, this decision was widely ignored as government at all levels continued to turn a blind eye to violations. For example, if covenants did not contain explicitly racial language but effectively excluded African-Americans from moving into majority-white areas, the FHA continued to approve loans for white buyers and to finance new segregated developments, while “redlining” other neighborhoods zoned for African-Americans where loans would never be approved.

Chapter 6, “White Flight”, is about the self-fulfilling prophecy that people of color moving into an area inevitably caused property values to decrease, and how unscrupulous speculators called “blockbusters” callously and deliberately panicked white homeowners into selling their properties at below-market prices so that the speculators could later sub-divide the properties and rent or sell them to African-Americans at inflated prices (because housing was at a premium in African-American neighborhoods, they routinely paid higher prices for comparable dwellings). If property values fell, it was due to the FHA’s prejudicial policies. Rothstein writes, “In the end, whites fled these neighborhoods, not only because of the influx of black families, but also because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools and crime. . . . But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving a declining neighborhood before their properties were paid for in full–if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date. Whites could leave–blacks had to stay.” (p. 97)

In Chapter 7, “IRS Support and Compliant Regulators”, Rothstein says that the IRS was complicit in the segregation of America because it continued to grant tax-exempt status to institutions (churches, universities, hospitals. . .) that “promoted residential segregation”. In addition, government regulators tolerated racial discrimination in the banks and businesses that they supervised. Many examples are given of church officials and others who actively promoted racial segregation, but the IRS routinely ignored these cases. Banks had discriminatory loan policies through much of the twentieth century, but the FDIC under Eric Cocke and others declined to intervene. Some discriminatory activities have persisted into the present century; for example, the preponderance of subprime mortgages in African American communities, which were the hardest-hit when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Homeowners of color who lost their homes were forced back into slums. Rothstein writes that “borrowers should have been more careful before accepting loans they could not understand or reasonably repay, but they were victims of a market that was not transparent–in some cases deliberately not so.”

Chapter 8, “Local Tactics”, focuses on “the extraordinary creativity that government officials at all levels displayed when they were motivated to prevent the movement of African-Americans into white neighborhoods.”  They denied access to public utilities, suddenly decided to zone housing sites for parks, built highways through and around African-American neighborhoods to isolate them, condemned properties, manipulated zoning designations, and more. Examples in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina support this claim.

Chapter 9, “State-Sanctioned Violence”, describes how white mobs rioted, burned crosses, vandalized homes, threatened bodily harm, firebombed homes and otherwise violently resisted African-American encroachment into segregated white areas while police looked on or actively aided and abetted the perpetrators. Rothstein pointedly remarks, “During the mid-twentieth century, local police and the FBI went to extraordinary lengths to infiltrate and disrupt liberal and left-wing political groups as well as organized crime syndicates. That they did not act similarly in the case of a nationwide terror campaign against African Americans who integrated previously white communities should be deemed, at the least, complicity in the violence.” (p. 148)

Chapter 10, “Suppressed Incomes”, considers all the governmentally-supported ways in which African-American incomes were kept low, resulting in less accumulation of wealth and a resulting inability to buy into the housing market. These included denial of access to free labor markets in the post-Reconstruction South, exclusion from most labor unions and subsequent inability to apply for many categories of jobs because they were not union members, discriminatory hiring practices during both the Second World War and the New Deal (e.g., the TVA, NRA, and CCC), keeping workers of color in menial positions without possibility of advancement (even when they had acquired skills in the  military that should have made them eligible for higher level jobs), lack of enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board and the Fair Employment Practices Committee (whose first chairman, Mark Ethridge, was an avowed segregationist–kind of like putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA).  In some cases, African-Americans fought back, but the discrimination was so widespread that it was very difficult to make real progress against it. Furthermore, HUD over-assessed the value of African-American homes and under-assessed the value of white ones, effectively subsidizing the white homeowners on the backs of the black ones; and blacks routinely paid higher rents than whites, with the result that they needed more wage-earners per unit to pay the high rents, another factor in over-crowding.

Chapter 11, “Looking Forward, Looking Back”, contrasts the relative difficulty of desegregating public transportation and accommodations, workplaces, and voting with the more complex task of desegregating neighborhoods: “Ending de jure segregation of housing requires undoing past actions that may seem irreversible.” Reasons for this include multi-generational poverty (the concept of American upward mobility is a myth, but even more so in the African American than in the general population), injustices in the tax code (e.g., homeowners get tax breaks, but renters don’t), and federal subsidies for low-income housing that perpetuate segregation.

Chapter 12, “Considering Fixes”, suggests more or less feasible ways to get ourselves out of the mess we have created with de jure segregation (“Many of our serious national problems either originate with residential segregation or have become intractable because of it.”). First, Rothstein considers it imperative that all Americans understand the role that governments (federal, state, and local) have played in this debacle, starting from the history books our teenagers learn about our history from, two popular examples of which barely mention the government’s role in creating and sustaining our uniquely American form of apartheid. Other suggestions include a ban on zoning ordinances prohibiting apartment buildings in suburban neighborhoods, encouraging “inclusionary zoning” ordinances such as the one we have here in Montgomery County, Maryland; loss or decrease of homeowner tax deductions in communities that are not actively working to encourage integration; increased housing subsidies for lower income families that choose to move to integrated areas; and expanding the Section 8 voucher program. (“The housing subsidy that the federal government gives to middle-class [mostly white] homeowners is an entitlement; any homeowner with enough income to file a detailed tax return can claim a deduction both for property taxes and mortgage insurance. The government does not tell homeowners that only the first few who file can claim the deductions and the rest are out of luck because the money has been used up. But that is how we handle the Section 8 subsidy for lower-income [most African American] renters.” (p. 209) But Rothstein does not minimize the difficulty in setting right this enormous wrong that has been done in our name, by our elected and appointed officials, to a group of citizens whose only fault was to be of African descent.

Rothstein ends the last chapter as he began the first one: with the family of Frank Stevenson. He muses, “What might have become of these Stevenson grandchildren if their parents had grown up and attended school in an integrated Milpitas, not in a de jure segregated Richmond? . . . How much farther on the socioeconomic ladder would they have been able to climb if they had grown up in a well-educated household as a result of [their mother] and her sisters being permitted to attend a high school that was designed for students ‘who can profit from the academic program’, rather than one that instead offered manual training? How different might the lives of the Stevenson grandchildren have been were it not for the federal government’s unconstitutional determination to segregate their grandparents, and their parents as well? What do we, the American community, owe this family, in this and future generations, for their loss of opportunity? How might we fulfill this obligation?”

In the Epilogue, Rothstein opines that as a nation, we (whites) have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are not responsible for these patterns of segregation. He observes what might have been had government acted differently and promoted integration rather than segregation. He believes that before we can begin to remedy the problem, we must first accept responsibility for it.

Finally, in the “Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions:, Rothstein responds to some of the questions he has been asked since he began his research into this topic. For example, How can you hold people today accountable for what happened in the past? Why do you want to force people to integrate? Shouldn’t African Americans take responsibility for their own success? What about Hispanics and other minority groups who have suffered from racial prejudice? To each question, he gently but firmly reiterates his position that a great wrong has been done; we are responsible for that wrong whether or not we participated actively in it; and it is up to all of us to fix it as best we can.

This is an important book. Every American should read it! Certainly, it should be in the library of every Member of Congress, every Supreme Court justice, every federal and state judge, every state senator and delegate, every county executive and council member, and every mayor and city council member. To say nothing of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet members. (Not that this President would every read a book.)

N.B.: The current issue of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance magazine features an interview with Richard Rothstein entitled “Segregation by Design”. You can read it here.

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Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2018

by Shirin Ebadi (Random House 2016)

Judge, lawyer, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi tells the story of her attempts to get the Iranian government to uphold their own laws, first in Iran (even after many of her compatriots had fled abroad), and subsequently from outside the country, where she now lives in exile. Believing that her status as a Nobel Prize winner will keep her safe, she takes many risks to help those who had been unjustly arrested or imprisoned. In response, the government targeted her sister, her husband, and her two daughters; her daughters had to leave Iran, and her husband left her (a heart-breaking tale of persecution, entrapment, blackmail, and imprisonment that eventually broke his spirit). Ebadi refused to give in, knowing that if she allowed herself to be silenced by threats to her family, the threats would only escalate. She and her husband lost their property in Iran, the place Ebadi still sees as her home and which she swears she will return to some day. And they lost their 35-year marriage.

Along the way, we get some basic information about Iran’s recent history and politics. Ahmedinejad, Rafsanjani, Rouhani, and others are differentiated and fleshed out a little. We are also introduced to some of the many courageous activists working within and outside of Iran to resist against the excesses of the regime, such as Noushin Khorasani,  and Haleh Esfandiari. And there is the Ministry of Intelligence  officer Mr. Mahmudi, Ebadi’s “nemesis”, who hounds her and her family mercilessly, trying to get her to stop speaking truth to power, as they say.

Sometimes she begins a paragraph by describing a particular day, a place, the weather; the reader tensely awaits something awful, like an attack on her life or the arrest of one of her daughters. These things usually don’t materialize. But the cloud under which she herself lived in Iran and the arrests of so many of her colleagues and staffers, as well as the description of her husband’s treatment in prison, is horrible enough and constitutes the most powerful aspect of the book in my view.

Ebadi discusses elections,  women’s rights, the plight of the Baha’i religious minority, the so-called Arab Spring, Iran’s support of Shi’a rebels in countries such as Syria and Yemen, and more, and describes how her views on Iran’s right to develop its nuclear power program changed after she spoke at length with Rebecca Johnson and other anti-nuclear activists at an international conference she attended in Belfast.

For American readers, it is a chilling reminder of what can happen under a dictatorship that cares nothing for the basic human rights of the people, where there are no free media or elections, no women’s or individuals’ rights, no freedom of expression–none of the freedoms and rights we in the U.S. take for granted, but which Donald Trump and others would like to take from us.

 

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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!

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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!

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