Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2019

by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner; Forward by Nicholas Kristof (HarperCollins 2015)

Kennedy Odede grew up dirt poor in the teeming Nairobi slum of Kibera. Jessica Posner grew up in Colorado, privileged by her family’s comfortable economic situation and her white skin. They met when Jessica spent a semester in Nairobi, volunteering with SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), the youth group Kennedy founded. This book tells the story of how they met, fell in love, and married (as well as the story of Kennedy’s life) in alternating chapters. What drew me to the book was the cross-cultural aspect of Jessica and Kennedy’s relationship. I was astonished by Kennedy’s frank description of the squalor in which he lived (in which people in Kibera continue to live). I wondered how he could possibly survive, despite the severe hunger endured over years, lack of basic hygiene and medical care, abuse and violence. Not only did he survive; he thrived,  became educated, and returned to Kibera to extend a helping hand to others. It’s really an inspiring story. One is not surprised that Jessica fell for Kennedy, but she does not make light of the challenges she faced living in the same conditions that Kennedy had known his entire life.

You can watch a nice TED talk that Jessica and Kennedy gave about the stages of forgiveness here.

This is an awesome book. In addition to the love story, the reader will be amazed at how Kennedy and Jessica managed to establish a free school for girls in Kibera. You can watch a short video about it here. To donate, go to https://support.shininghopeforcommunities.org/give/177552/#!/donation/checkout

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

From “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley

 

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

On Two Feet and Wings: One Boy’s Amazing Story of Survival

Posted by nliakos on April 19, 2019

by Abbas Kazerooni (Skyscape 2014)

From the front matter page: “This book is based on real events that happened to me a long time ago when I was a child. To write it for you I have simplified some events and changed some details.”

Abbas Kazerooni is a California lawyer, actor, writer, and producer. Born in Iran in 1978 to formerly wealthy (under the Shah) parents, Abbas was nine years old when the regime, at war with Iraq since 1980, lowered the age at which boys could be drafted into the army (to serve as cannon fodder, basically) to eight. Terrified, the family decided to leave Iran. Abbas’ father’s passport had been confiscated, so they determined that he would stay behind, and Abbas and his mother would travel to Turkey and eventually to the U.K., where they had relatives.

But at the last minute, Marzieh Kazerooni was denied permission to get on the plane. Desperate, the parents let Abbas fly by himself to Istanbul, where they promised he would be met by a friend who would take care of him. The man did indeed meet the plane, but he did not take care of the boy. Instead of taking him home as he had promised to do, he handed Abbas a list of cheap hotels where Farsi was spoken and left. Abbas was alone in Istanbul, where he would live for several months until he finally received a visa for the U.K.

Abbas was very young and frightened, but he was also cautious, resourceful, and very lucky, He was lucky in that he happened to meet some very kind people who helped him (the taxi driver who helped him find the least unsuitable hotel that night; the hotel receptionist, who took a liking to him; some kind compatriots who translated for him at the British Consulate; and a consulate worker who took an interest in him.  He was cautious in that he carefully hid the money his parents had sent him with, eating only once a day, spending as little as possible, testing out the hotel receptionist and maid until he felt sure he could trust them not to rob him. And he was resourceful in that he had many great ideas about how to save, and eventually how to make, money. He ran errands in the marketplace and found various jobs for himself in the hotel (where he preferred to stay, feeling unsafe on the streets of Istanbul)–as the “tea boy” who served the other guests glasses of tea, as the shoeshine boy the hotel had never had before. Through it all, he hid his fear and distress from his parents; when he spoke to them, he intimated that he was staying in a better hotel than he was actually in and that everything was fine. But he shed many tears.

Abbas’ story reads like a novel. One can’t imagine how this little boy managed on his own for so long in a strange city where he knew no one and did not speak the language. But he did, and his story makes a great read.

Unfortunately, once he reached England, his trials continued. These are recounted in another book, The Boy with Two Lives. But eventually, he made his way to the United States, where he has apparently done very well for himself–no surprise, considering how resilient and clever he was at the ago of nine.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 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 »

There Will Be No Miracles Here

Posted by nliakos on April 9, 2019

by Casey Gerald (Riverhead Books 2018)

I apparently placed a hold on this book, but I can’t actually remember placing it or why I wanted to read it. Nevertheless, when I was notified that it was available, I duly went and picked it up and read it. And it was interesting. . . . I just couldn’t figure out exactly where it was going or what Casey Gerald’s significance is.

Gerald had a difficult childhood, growing up poor in Dallas; his mother suffered from mental illness and abandoned the family when he was twelve; his father, a former college football star, spent time in prison. Casey was partly brought up by his grandmother and older sister. But he was a smart kid who wanted to please, and he was a good athlete; graduating from high school, he was selected to play football for Yale, which he had never heard of, and felt disrespected when it was suggested to him: Here was my own coach, saying in so many words that I was such a pathetic football player that he’d send me halfway around the world to play peewee football for a team nobody knew anything about. Yale changed his life’s trajectory forever.

He is black; he is gay; he is a Yale man; he graduated from Harvard Business School; he led a black men’s group at Yale, traveled and gave speeches within and outside of the U.S., worked for a Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C. during the Obama administration, attended a CPAC convention to see if he wanted to become a Republican, and considered a run for Congress. Lots of interesting stuff to write about in his young life.

Gerald’s style of writing is unique. It’s not dialect, although there are dialectal elements in it; it’s not intellectual, although there are big words, complicated thoughts, and references to literature and history. There is a kind of dry humor to it as he pierces through the shield of white complacency, but there are passages that break one’s heart, as when he writes about his friend Elijah’s suicide. He is unflinchingly honest. He writes about racism, and friendship, and mentoring. He writes about manipulating the system where who you know is more important than what you know and people are easily fooled by one who has a command of the language of the ruling elite. (This reminds me of Jamila Lyiscott’s wonderful TED talk about being articulate.) I liked the book, and not knowing anything about Casey Gerald before I read it, I never knew where it was headed, so it was full of surprises for me.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | 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.

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

A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa

Posted by nliakos on February 17, 2019

by Tony Bartelme with Catharina Hoek-Ellegala (Beacon Press 2017)

Dilan Ellegala is a Sri Lankan-American neurosurgeon. In this engaging narrative, Tony Bartelme tells how Ellegala escaped the craziness of an academic superstar neurosurgeon career to spend six months in a small village hospital in Tanzania. What he finds there changes his life, his career focus, and his priorities. He realizes early on in his time at Haydom Lutheran Hospital that the constant stream of visiting foreign doctors and medical students has the unfortunate consequence of teaching the Tanzanian staff to doubt their own abilities, to depend upon outside help to do their jobs. Ellegala had an idea: he would teach one of the staff, a young man named Emmanuel Mayegga, how to do simple brain surgery. Mayegga was not a doctor, just an Assistant Medical Officer (AMO), so this might seem overly optimistic, but in fact, he did learn to do brain surgery from Ellegala, and he later taught a young Tanzanian doctor fresh out of medical school what he had learned. The young doctor, who eventually became the hospital’s director, taught a second young doctor. Ellegala had not only succeeded in replacing himself; he had launched a chain of teaching surgeons at the hospital, where surgery had never been done before except by visiting “medical missionaries”. He then became infused with the desire to start an NGO devoted to sending Western surgeons to teach African doctors to perform surgery, rather than sending them to do the surgeries that the African doctors were unable to do. Thus was born Madaktari Africa. Hundreds, then thousands of babies, children, and adults, who would have died without surgery, could now be saved.

This forced me to think about the down side of modern medicine. It works too well. People who would have died instead survive and go on to have children. Earth’s population explodes. People accustomed to having large families to ensure that enough children would survive to adulthood to carry on their genes (and farm their land and take care of their elderly parents) now find themselves struggling to support all those surviving kids. Food, water, and jobs are all in short supply. Of course, I speak from a position of huge privilege; who am I to say that I should live and Tanzanian children should not have the same chances that I had? I cannot say that, yet whenever I read or hear of how many deaths have been averted by this or that medical technology or wonder drug, I cannot help but think that what seems like a good thing can have unintended negative consequences. Sure, if modern medicine went away and antibiotics no longer worked (something that is already happening anyway as bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics that we have) and surgery were no longer an option, we would all live shorter lives. As it is, we are crowding out other species (both plants and animals) and are already starting to see the effects of over-population: wars and massive refugee crises.

What is the answer? Is there an answer?

 

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

Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel

Posted by nliakos on February 7, 2019

by Jason Padgett with Maureen Seaberg (Houghton  Mifflin Harcourt 2014)

Jason Padgett was a mediocre student and a 31-year-old party boy who went to a karaoke bar with some friends one night and was violently assaulted by several thugs hoping to rob him. The traumatic brain injury (TBI) that he sustained that night left Padgett with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), synesthesia, and savant syndrome. It took him ten years to really understand all of these diagnoses; that journey is the subject of this book. But immediately following the attack, Padgett already experienced the visual “disturbances” that were to change his life and how he sees the world: “The world looked different: off-kilter, dreamlike. Everything that moved had trails of colored light following close behind it. There were triangles and squares in repeating patterns wherever I looked, from the windows to the lampposts to the street signs. . . . The glow of the streetlights seemed amplified. I could see the cars going by, little chipped shapes bouncing off their hoods.” Padgett never stopped seeing the underlying geometry of everything, even after his brain had healed. But he suddenly found himself fascinated by, and good at, mathematics, although he did not have the vocabulary to discuss it. Instead, he learned to draw exquisite copies of what he saw–pictures that helped him to understand and explain mathematical and physical concepts.

After a 3 1/2 year self-imposed exile from society during which he confined himself to his home, Jason Padgett bravely returned to the world and to school, taking classes at the local community college, where he was viewed as an eccentric. Little by little, he met people who recognized his newfound genius, and he learned about synesthesia and savant syndrome. He learned, among other things, that being born with one of these abilities, though rare, is more common than acquiring them, as he did. Jason Padgett is the only person in the world known to have acquired both synesthesia and savant syndrome as an adult.

It’s a fascinating story. You can also watch Padgett’s two TED talks: How Math Saved My Life and Alternate Realities from Relativity (TEDx Tacoma).

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

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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The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2018

by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (William Collins 2015)

Born Kim Ji-hae in Hyesan, North Korea in 1980, Hyeonseo Lee had a happy childhood, despite her parents’ divorce when she was a baby. She was adopted by her mother’s second husband and was given a new name, Park Min-young, the second of the seven names of the title. She only learned of her true parentage when she was a teenager. Sadly, this knowledge resulted in her alienation from her (step-)father, who had raised her lovingly as his own child. He died before she was able to reconcile with him–the first of many heart-breaking losses and misjudgments that plagued her young life.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, The Greatest Nation on Earth, describes Lee’s early life in North Korea, when she never questioned what she was told by her parents and teachers and actually believed that North Korea was the greatest nation on earth, that it was the South Koreans who were suffering and starving, and that all Westerners were ruthless devils. Chapter 4, “The Lady in Black”, describes how as soon as they start school, North Korean children are taught to worship the Kim family: The teachers read us stories of child heroes who’d fought the Japanese during the period of colonial rule in Korea, and legends from the boyhood of Kim Il-sung–of how he’d suffered for the people’s happiness even as an infant, giving away his own food and shoes to children less fortunate. Whenever the leaders were mentioned, the teachers adopted low, tremulous voices, as if they were intoning the names of living gods. The walls displayed photographs of Kim Il-sung as a young guerrilla; Kim Il-sung surrounded by smiling orphans; Kim Il-sung in his white marshal’s uniform, as the father of our nation. He was tall and striking, and his brave wife, Kim Jong-suk, who had fought alongside him, seemed like a lady from a folktale. It was not difficult to adore them. . . . Yet alongside the brainwashing is a widespread tolerance of smuggling, black markets and bribes, and Lee’s family benefits from this lax enforcement of the laws; her mother, in particular, does illegal business with Korean-Chinese on the other side of the Yalu River. The China-North Korea border, at least in this location, is as porous as any other border around the world. This surprised me. (Although I knew that many North Koreans escaped over that border, I guess I thought it was harder than it in fact is. For small children, especially boys, it is particularly easy, and according to Lee, there are no repercussions for crossing the Yalu to play with (Korean-)Chinese kids on the other side, and when done playing, the children simply return to their homes on the North Korean side. In fact, that is why Lee herself crossed just before reaching the age of majority; she knew she would not be punished.)

In Part Two, To the Heart of the Dragon, Lee, now almost 18, the age of adult responsibilities, thoughtlessly decides that she wants to see China, just across the river from her home in Hyesan. One December night, she walks across the frozen river and knocks on the door of one of her mother’s business contacts. From there, on a whim, she decides to go and visit some unsuspecting relatives in Shenyang, a large city eight hours away. One thing leads to another, and Lee realizes that she cannot go back home. She stays with her aunt and uncle in Shenyang for two years, and almost marries a Korean-Chinese man named Geun-soo, but she runs away before the wedding. Astonishingly (due to a combination of dumb luck and quick thinking), Lee manages to avoid the awful fate that entraps so many female North Korean defectors, learns to speak fluent Chinese, finds well-paying jobs, has a serious relationship with a rich South Korean businessman, and flies to Seoul to ask for asylum in South Korea.

Part Three, Journey into Darkness, chronicles Lee’s introduction into South Korean society and her risky, expensive rescue of her mother and brother. Again, a combination of quick thinking and extraordinary good luck results in eventual success, but there are moments when the reader is sure that this is going to end badly–only the photographs of the mother and brother visiting Chicago remind one that they must have prevailed. The story of their long journey through China, to a Laotian prison, and finally to South Korea is a fascinating one. But a more profound struggle awaits once they are “free”–discriminated against by South Koreans and ill-equipped to function in that fast-paced, ultra-competitive society, they both contemplate repatriation, despite its risks. Meanwhile, Lee’s relationship with her South Korean boyfriend ends, and she begins speaking out publicly about life in North Korea and her own personal story, culminating in a TED talk in 2013.

Years ago, I taught a student from North Korea. She was a rank beginner in English (a rare occurrence in today’s globalized world), so she was unable to tell me much about her story, but she did give me a short written biography that someone had translated into (poor) English for her. Like Hyeonseo Lee, she too was able to get her daughter out to join her in South Korea. When I asked how, thinking of the dangers for young women who escape to China and end up being trafficked as prostitutes or brides of poor Chinese farmers, she dismissed my question with one word: money. And Hyeonseo Lee’s story also shows that with enough money, one can do pretty much what one wants.

A really fascinating book. I tore through it as if it were a novel.

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One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported

Posted by nliakos on December 9, 2018

by E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann (St. Martin’s Press 2017)

The authors claim that this book will leave the reader feeling more optimistic about our country’s future. I’m not sure that I feel particularly optimistic after reading it; the fixes they offer seem very daunting to me (e.g., strengthening civil society in America). But their basic premise, that the election of Donald Trump and the ensuing chaos have politicized a lot of people to fight to save the country, is certainly true for me. From a passive (and mostly uninformed) voter, I have been transformed into an activist. I am a more or less active member in many progressive groups. I regularly contact my Members of Congress to urge them to act one way or another on legislation and appointments. I have marched and rallied and protested at the White House, at the Capitol, in downtown Rockville and Frederick, and in Annapolis. I have signed hundreds of petitions. In the run up to the 2018 midterm elections, I canvassed, phone banked, led phone banks and canvass launches, and wrote postcards to voters. I have attended meetings and made donations. I can hardly recognize myself, but I know I am a better citizen now than I was. But are there enough of me, and can we maintain our outrage and energy for another two years? Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann are hoping that there are and that we can. I hope they are correct. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.

Quick chapter summary:

Introduction: When a Crisis Is an Opportunity: The Perils of Trumpism and the Call to Engagement – The purpose of the book is to encourage citizen engagement in the resistance to Trumpism. There is an overview of the coming chapters.

Part One: Trump and Trumpism

  1. Trumpian Misconceptions: What Trump’s Election Meant, What It Didn’t, and Why Trumpism Doesn’t Own the Future – The election was extremely close, and the majority of Americans do not like or support Trump. The support of the fabled base is diminishing (in early 2017). As the American population becomes more (sub)urbanized, the Electoral College system negates our 1-person/1-vote democracy by awarded more power to rural voters in more sparsely populated areas. (Ditto for the Senate)
  2. When the Truth Doesn’t Matter: The Crisis of the Media and the Rise of “Alternative Facts” – “In the battle against Trumpism, the fight for truth may be the most important struggle of all.”  They discuss the issues surrounding the state of the (mainstream) media and point out how the idea that the mainstream media are not objective but “liberal” is not new but began in the 1960s. They mention false balance, the idea that media outlets must give voice to an equal number of conservative writers, commentators, and panelists who do not share professional journalists’ dedication to objective reporting. The rise of FM radio left AM stations without programming, a dearth that was quickly filled with conservative talk shows. These people eroded the public’s trust in the media, until we reached the point where we are now, when Americans get their information from entirely different news sources. The Internet offered expanded options and put traditional television stations and newspapers and magazines on the defensive with shrinking funds to pay for the kind of reporting we depend on to get the facts. Opinion is much cheaper than the “journalism of verification and fact.”
  3. Bad Behavior: The Disappearing Norms of American Politics” – How Trump personifies the loss of civilized behavior and tolerance of opposing views. Violations of uncodified norms (expectations of social behavior), like Trump’s constant lying and name-calling, inspires others to adopt the same behaviors, but the norms were already being violated before Trump came to power. The authors quote Rod Dreher: “George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and movement conservatism bulldozed the field for Trump without even knowing what they were doing.” They discuss the role of parties in American politics and party norms; Newt Gingrich and the rise of tribalism; Mitch McConnell and his breaking of Senate norms; and the unprecedented attacks on President Obama as the GOP sought to delegitimize his presidency. All these contributed to the belief of many citizens that our democracy was broken. Then Trump came to power and magnified all these negative things.
  4. A Penchant for Authoritarianism: How Trump Intimidates Opponents, Promotes Kleptocracy, and Challenges the Rule of Law” – Name-calling, tweeting, admiring autocrats and strongmen, denying facts, attacking the media and the intelligence community, violating the Constitution and other laws (explanation of the famous emoluments clauses), conflicts of interest, judicial responses, responses to judicial responses: how Donald Trump “combines incompetence with autocratic instincts”. Musings as to whether our institutions can survive this.  The authors are hopeful that the resistance to Trump, which began so forcefully the day after his inauguration with the Women’s March, will contain his worst abuses and will be supplemented by a quiet show of resistance from within his administration (e.g., leakers, which we have already seen in the months since the book came out)
  5. Phony Friend of the Working Class: Trump, “Populism,” and the New Politics of the Far Right – Trump the campaigner vs. Trump as President: “true to his nativist promises” but not to his promises on trade and the economy: “Where money was concerned, his populism was bankrupt.” Details of the #TaxScam, rolling back of rules and regulations constraining big industries from maximizing profits to the detriment of public health and safety, the fight to repeal the ACA.  Musings on populism (“a philosophically slippery concept”): its history and Trump’s use of it as a marketing strategy. Breitbart and Steve Bannon (“Trump used the Bannonites and the populist nationalist right to win the election. They used him to get to power.”).
  6. Race, Immigration, Culture, or Economics? The Complicated Motivations of the Trump Voter –  addresses the legitimate gripes of the white working class and reminds us that we cannot ignore them. Increases in immigration have historically been accompanied by increased anti-immigrant policies. The authors examine the reasons for the decline of the Rust Belt and American manufacturing. Trump’s use of racism, immigration backlash, the fears of older voters, and his astonishing popularity with white Evangelicals, who relinquished their focus on morality to support Trump. Much of Trump’s support came from people motivated by economic distress.                                                                                                                 Part Two: The Way Forward
  7. With Opportunity and Justice for All: Building a New Economy Here the authors admonish the American “governing class” that  their past behavior brought about the disaffection of a large number of Americans who have been “left behind” in the era of globalism, and they challenge us to use our ingenuity to better distribute the benefits of the wealth of this country (“the challenge of shared prosperity”). Social mobility is way down; inequality has reached a new high. Conservatives don’t want to acknowledge that there has never been a time in our history when government was not involved in/did not constrain business at all. (We saw unprecedented growth between 1940-1970 despite increased government involvement to protect workers’ and consumers’ rights.) Corporations need to realize that increasing value for shareholders is not their only concern, because social capital is necessary if democratic capitalism is going to survive. While we cannot recreate the past, we can restore the public-private partnership we once had, if we are realistic about what government can achieve. The authors suggest a Charter for American Working Families (decent jobs and housing, health care coverage that includes treatment for mental illness and addiction, education, reasonable working hours, freedom from discrimination, fair and efficient law enforcement, security in retirement, opportunities for career advancement), with a GI Bill for American Workers (protection, training, education) and a Contract for American Social Responsibility (new standards for corporations). Supporters of Clinton and Sanders, moderate Republicans and Independents, whites and people of color, and younger and older people must unite in coalitions to fight against Trumpism and for what is right. “Progressivism without a robust economic agenda will be neither attractive nor credible.” There is some discussion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) but the authors doubt that it could replace programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They mention some proposals that have been put forward already.
  8. Yearning to Breathe Free: Discovering a New Patriotism – It’s important to be clear about our vision for our country (diversity, shared values and ideas) and to distinguish between that patriotism and Trump’s nationalism (blood, soil, ethnicity). Trump’s disdain for America and for our best and brightest is contrasted with his adulation of dictators and demagogues. The important role immigrants have played in America’s success throughout our history is emphasized, We need to have “a new patriotism built on a capacity for empathy” (“a mutual, universal obligation to try to understand the situations in which others find themselves and the complexities of their thoughts and feelings”).
  9. Our Little Platoons: The Urgency of a New Civil Society –  This chapter talks about the importance of community in people’s lives (and the nation’s life) and how it has deteriorated since the 1970s: fewer people belong to a church, a union, a league, a club–leading to a “weakening of civic culture”. This civic culture must be rebuilt somehow if we are to regain people’s trust in our institutions. On a positive note, organizations play a major role in the resistance movement; religious institutions, law firms, scholars, environmental organizations, etc. have all stepped up to meet the challenge in different ways. The authors propose more place-based policies to help Americans in need because these help to maintain community ties. Service programs like AmeriCorps can play a vital role in developing empathy and understanding. Schools, community colleges, colleges and universities should double as community centers/”hubs of local engagement”.
  10. What “Draining the Swamp” Really Looks Like: Bringing a New Democracy to Life –  The right to vote is the most basic part of a representative democracy, so our most urgent task right now is to fight efforts to suppress voting rights. Besides updating and strengthening the eviscerated Voting Rights Act, we should schedule Election Day on the weekend and making it a national holiday, facilitate early voting, offer online registration, update our voting hardware, and consider universal or mandatory voting (like in Australia). One section focuses on the Electoral College and the challenge of getting rid of it when the low-population states it benefits would surely refuse to pass a constitutional amendment. Lacking an amendment, the authors suggest two possible ways to cripple it: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact  and the enactment of “instant runoff” systems. Another section discusses gerrymandering and proposes several possible ways to solve this problem. Another talks about reforms to the Congress and the Supreme Court. Finally, executive branch challenges like protecting the integrity and autonomy of the civil service must be tackled. Finally, the problem of too much money in politics could be dealt with by requiring full disclosure, empowerment of small donors through a 6-to-1 matching system or providing each voter with an amount of money to assign to political campaigns (I am proud to note that two Maryland lawmakers, Chris Van Hollen and John Sarbanes, have sponsored legislation to do just that.)
  11. “Show Up, Dive In, Stay at It”: Building One Nation After Trump –  The final chapter focuses on the various elements of the resistance movement: the Women’s March and the other marches of 2017 (Tax, Climate, Science), all of which I participated in; the Indivisible Movement; Daily Action; and Eric Liu’s Citizen University. The necessity to unite behind the Democrats to defeat Trump and Trumpism is noted, not because the Democrats are always right or deserving but because the Republicans have abdicated their right to be part of the solution. But the authors hold out hope that conservative voters and thinkers, if not for their present representatives in the Congress, will join the rest of us in standing up to Trump and Trumpism. The authors advocate “a new politics. . . that takes seriously the need to solve the problems that Trump has exposed. It will reclaim our country’s faith in the future and its natural inclination toward hope. And it will nurture our dedication to the raucous but ultimately unifying project of democratic self-government. For it is our shared commitment to republican institutions and democratic values that makes us one nation.”

 

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