Wednesday, August 23, 2017

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub April 18th 2017 by Pantheon Books (first published 2014) Orig Title Kissani Jugoslavia ISBN13: 9781101871829 Literary AwardsHelsingin Sanomien kirjallisuuspalkinto (2014)

Years ago I remember wishing I could experience a bit of what immigrants experience, or that some could communicate their experiences in ways I could understand. They’d started out somewhere I’d never been, and they’d arrived somewhere they’d never imagined. Like Finland. Cold, white, communal, with few racial or religious tensions. I was eager to hear it all, but such stories, if they existed, were rarely published in the U.S. All that has changed now and I couldn't be happier.

This remarkable debut by the 27-year-old Statovci gives us that strangeness, familiarity, differentness, and similarity in a wild ride from Kosovo to Finland, from traditional society to an open society, from cultural acceptance to social ostracism. See how the arrows in that sentence seem to point in opposite directions? Therein lies the tension.

Two seemingly unrelated stories, one featuring a talking cat, twine and twist through the first part of the novel, both stories engrossing: a woman describes the lead-up to her traditional marriage…the clothes, the gold, the mother-to-daughter secrets, the preparations. The other thread features the cat and a snake, neither of which we want to take out eyes off for very long. They are both dangerous.

As readers we don’t object to the fact of the cat, though by rights we should. He is thoroughly obnoxious, insulting his host and then being falsely obsequious. He comes for a tryst and stays for meal, which he then refuses on the grounds such food would never cross his lips. He insists on eating meat in a vegetarian’s house, and he takes long, splashy showers…he is your worst nightmare, the height of self-regard.

The snake—I’d like to hear your take on the snake. A boa constrictor. He’s a wily one, seems to have formed a kind of attachment to his owner, in that he doesn’t threaten him, but he does threaten a guest…Throw a dangerous animal into a story and see if your attention flags. It’s a old trick that works every time. We don’t take our eyes from him whenever he appears from behind the couch.

But it is the story of the wedding that grabs us by the balls, as the expression goes. We are shocked, distressed, angry. We try to imagine how we would handle what comes up, both as a young person, and as an adult. We think over decisions we make so quickly, painlessly in adulthood that are so tortuous and fraught in youth.

All this is overlaid with the portrait of a family of seven living in one room provided by the Finnish government to refugees. The bunk-beds squeak so cannot be used. Mattresses cover the floor. Four or more families share a kitchen, a bathroom. It is nearly intolerable until they remember what they left, native Albanians in a Kosovo run amok. The Bosnian War was brutal beyond all imagining. There is that.

The stories twist and twine through one another like the loops of a snake, another of which, a poisonous viper, makes an appearance later in the book. The viper is only a meter long, and is captured in a plastic bag. It doesn’t provoke as much anxiety as it should. When a plastic bag reappears later in the story, holding not a snake but a book, The White King by György Dragomán, we wonder…can the snake represent his father, the bully whose influence stays around, silently inhabiting the places we live? Deadly, but sometimes ineffective, who might be deflected or exorcised with understanding and effort.

And the cat? There is more than one cat. The first cat talks. The second cat was abandoned, uncared for, unloved in the native country until rescued and restored to health. And finally, there is the black cat in a litter, “just normal, mongrel kittens,” in the author’s words, to distinguish them from the black and white cat who speaks, and the orange cat who doesn’t. The talking cat so full of himself could be the author himself, and the follow-on cats could be those who’d suffered during the war, coming finally to the children, those ‘normal’ integrated ‘mongrels’ who’d adjusted to their new environment in their adopted country and married with locals.

The disturbing shifting sexuality throughout this novel, in a person from a traditional culture with unresolved parent issues, has a touch of intimidation and coercion about it, in the beginning at least. By the end I am much more comfortable that our narrator’s sexual choices are healthy ones, and begin to wonder…is this one of the things that caused the rift between his father and himself?

Statovci succeeds in capturing our attention with this debut, recounting an agonizing childhood and an adulthood filled with sudden emotional traps. His use of a female point of view is extraordinarily effective in making us inhabit her choices. He shows us the distance an émigré may feel from his host country, no matter how conflicted these feelings are with gratefulness and surprise and ordinary, daily joy at being alive. He shows us the pointed, hateful bullying in town—a step up from ordinary schoolyard bullying—that may provoke withdrawal rather than a healthy resistance and reliance on home-grown values.

This is a thrilling debut. Bravo!

Below is a clip from the Penguin Random House audio production:

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Monday, August 21, 2017

City on a Hilltop by Sara Yael Hirschhorn

Hardcover, 340 pages Pub May 22nd 2017 by Harvard Univ Press ISBN13: 9780674975057

For the past couple of years a Goodreads friend, David, and I have had a running commentary on liberal and conservative views on issues at home and abroad. One of these issues concerned the rightness or fairness of Israeli settlements on disputed land, now called the Occupied Territories. The settlements have been pronounced illegal by the United Nations, but settlers continue to develop that seized land, claiming some religious right to it that legally they do not possess.

This title just published by Harvard University Press describes how a disproportionately large number the original settlers in these disputed areas were in fact American Jews, middle-class, educated, left-leaning Democrats. This was startling information to me. Although my perception of the liberality or conservatism of America Jews has been shifting with the times, I never expected that essentially left-leaning liberals from the 1960s U.S. would become the symbol of what appears to be now essentially oppressive, entrenched right-wing privilege.

Hirschhorn is clearly seeking answers to that very conundrum herself, and very carefully unpicks the origins of several settlements with an academic’s detailed forensics. What she finds is a kind of pioneering energy and fighting spirit, but also a kind of selective deafness and willful delusion. Each settlement came at a different time for a different reason, but those who chose to live on undeveloped “empty” land had their own impetus and intention, mixing up their defense of Judaism with a distinctly American notion of manifest destiny.

Citing a 1984 empirical study of American Israelis in Judea and Samaria by Chaim Waxman, Hirschhorn tells us that though many emigrating settlers in the 1960s considered themselves left liberals, the majority felt “Blacks in America have gone too far in their demands.” So maybe these individuals were not as liberal as they considered themselves, but under the surface were deeply conservative. The pioneering aspect of making settlements was so reminiscent of America’s founding that individuals felt some connection to debates about values that occurred at that time. It is worth noting that native Israelis felt American settlers were racist, even fascist.

Hirschhorn highlights Sandy Susan at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and Miriam Levinger at Hebron to illustrate the intensity with which they struggled through the early days of deprivation and camaraderie. The Levingers were so sure they were entitled to the land “We see ourselves in a link in the chain of return…this site is biblical…we are sovereign…[in the Middle East] there’s no such thing as compromise.” Settlers often opposed the Oslo peace process which would return disputed territories to the Palestinians and as a result were often at the center of a cycle of violence.

The Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Brooklyn played an important role recruiting for a new camp at Efrat, which today is a high-middle class municipality composed of families whose adults often work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Riskin had trouble finding a job in Israel, despite great success in growing his synagogue in New York, and when approached about establishing a new settlement in Israel, he did not hesitate. He believed the whole land of Israel belongs to the Jews, but that “It’s very important, very, very important” that the land be unclaimed. While in later interviews Riskin says the land of Efrat was “completely empty,” contention and resentment dogs the gated settlement which has seen terrible violence.

The point is that thirty years ago there were dirt roads and pioneers who thought they were doing something difficult but worthwhile. Now the municipality is no longer temporary and is instead considered prosperous and even a little luxurious. It is normalized, and no longer something that one can be imagine giving up. Hirschhorn suggests Riskin paid lip service to “talking to everyone” and “every nation requires independence,” as he gradually crept rightward in his politics and religious teachings. In her conclusions, Hirschhorn suggests we can view American Jews in Israel within the larger category "Americans abroad:" liberal at home, illiberal abroad. The reality on the ground, they claim, changed them.

Efrat was a center of opposition to the Oslo peace accords because, in the words of native Israel settlers
“Efrat has a large number of Anglo-Saxons…who understand democracy. They understand civil disobedience. They understand that the citizen has certain rights that can’t be trampled on…[they had] the fury of moderates who feel that they are betrayed [and the land taken away].”
So, here is that basic contradiction that Hirschhorn set out to unravel. “Rights” and “freedom” are two words that have different meanings depending on the context. Though Americans used to think those words applied to all within its borders, the camp settlers had narrowed that meaning to exclude Palestinians, just as today in America certain far-right groups believe their “rights” cannot be abridged but they are not so sure about the rights of brown-skinned citizens.

“Americans…we just ran life in Tekoa,” a settlement in the West Bank. “Living here reminds me of what America was like two hundred years ago. Here you have the spirit of just starting, of being a pioneer.” Except that one isn’t just starting. There is history to contend with, land rights, and Palestinians, who are growing increasingly agitated.
“It was clear from the origins of Tekoa that its Jewish-American founders and Palestinians rights did not have coinciding interests when it came to the land. Tekoa’s leaders did not—and do not—recognize Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, nor do they honor local territorial claims to their settlement or its surroundings. However, evoking their U.S. heritage, many American-Israelis in the settlements do envision a hierarchy of citizenship rights (emphasis my own), especially if Israeli sovereignty is extended to the West Bank…[West Bank] Arabs must have personal rights—due process, even voting and representation if this comes with duties like some form of [nonmilitary] national service.”
Hirschhorn shows us what led individuals and groups to cross the Atlantic and shows us how, despite their claims to democracy, freedom, and fairness, they have exhibited something less than those ideals, sometimes far less.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

Hardcover, 320 pgs Pub March 2016 by Pantheon (first pub May 2015) ISBN13: 9781101870693 Edition Language English URL Literary Awards Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction (2016), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia, Best Publication Design, and Best Writer/Artist (for Sonny Liew) AND nominated for Best Graphic Album—New, Best Coloring (for Sonny Liew), and Best Lettering (for Sonny Liew) (2017), Singapore Book Award for Book of the Year and Best Book Cover Design (2016)

For graphic artists, there are must-reads of the genre that direct the eye to advances in the art, and Sonny Liew’s contribution may well be one of those. Liew shows us many types of comic book art, discusses their genesis and early creators, but also seamlessly melds the story of an artist, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, with the story of the political and economic development of Singapore. It is a masterful work of enormous depth and sensitivity that answers questions I’d had when contemplating the entwined histories of Singapore and Malaya.

I really went down the rabbit hole with this work because it has so many layers and levels of reality and history that I immediately wanted to talk to someone about it or hear an interview. I had been constantly walking way from the piece, trying to realign my thinking about who was telling the story. Sometimes it seemed like it was written from the point of view of this artist and comic-book writer, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, born in Singapore in 1939, and all his life aspiring to be Singapore’s own greatest graphic artist and political commentator.

Sonny Liew was merely republishing, or publishing for the first time, Charlie’s work, including a graphic autobiography begun late in his fifth decade of life and left unfinished until his seventh decade. But occasionally Liew would pop in and add commentary since he was showing us only representative pieces and scraps of Charlie’s body of work. Charlie took the writing of episodic and serialized comic novels to the pinnacle of political commentary, making such astute analysis that he was having trouble getting his work published in the conservative political environment of a colonial city-state and its aftermath.

A high point for me was the RoachMan comic series which imagined a man in 1950s Singapore whose back-breaking job it was to collect honey pots of night soil from houses in traditional neighborhoods. One day on his rounds he is daydreaming about the resilience of cockroaches when—suddenly— he is bitten! Over the next days and nights he feels delirious and tingling sensations only to discover when he is nearly mowed down by a car at night that he has acquired new physical abilities…

Of course, it did occur to me to wonder about the choice of a cockroach as a hero, but Liew tells us that Charlie’s idea was picked up and changed slightly for the Spiderman comics that were popularized in the English-speaking western world the following decade. What looks like formerly scotch-taped examples of his pages are reproduced for us to judge, the artwork changing and so amazingly similar to famous Marvel works that we wonder which came first.

All the while, we are experiencing Charlie’s day-to-day reality finding a publisher, and creating characters that reflect the city’s struggle for political leadership. This is no ordinary comic. It is dense with history, drama, commentary, humor, and art. When Liew pops up again to provide commentary—we can tell it is Liew who sometimes writes captions—we need to slow down and ask ourselves which person is talking because it matters to the interpretation—one is concurrent with events and one is long afterward.

Spoilers won’t ruin this piece for you, but I just want to say that the ending is terribly poignant and meaningful; we feel as though Liew has given us a great gift to have introduced us to this unknown cartoonist, who finally finished his autobiography. He’d travelled to Comic Con in San Diego in 1988 after an entire career in comics, bringing with him representative samples of his work. That episode is included in the final pages. I won’t tell you how it turned out—what Charlie saw or who saw him—but suffice it to say it provided grist for mill.

Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s story feels like it has burst onto the scene with the power of a neutron bomb, laying all other artists flat because of its virtuosity and depth. We are intensely curious about how Charlie could escape attention for so long, but also wonder about the connection between Sonny Liew and Charlie. The book won three 2017 Eisner Awards at this year’s Comic Con, for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design Winner.

Read the book first, and then get a taste of how it has been received in the U.S. by checking out the Comics Syllabus 008 podcast produced by Paul Lai who interviews Sonny Liew about the book. Also, below I have posted a short Epigram Books clip of Liew talking about the book’s conception and execution. But read the book first. Get the whole experience.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Don't Be A Jerk by Brad Warner

Paperback, 328 pgs Pub March 15th 2016 by New World Library ISBN13: 9781608683888

Those of us who have looked at the precepts of religions from around the world are often intrigued at how similar they can be across religions. There is something ultimately freeing in realizing that the roots of goodness, happiness, and wealth are not based, as is imagined by some unenlightened and unlucky sods, in what we can accumulate but in what we can utilize.

Some things about Buddhism are so attractive in their attention to simplicity that one cannot help but be drawn to understanding a little more. Warner does a wonderful job of sharing his realizations with us, in several steps. He paraphrases the first twenty-one chapters of Shōbōgenzō: The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, written by the Japanese monk Eihei Dōgen, who explains the philosophical basis for one of the largest and influential sects of Zen Buddhism. Warner tells us it’s a classic of philosophical literature, revered the world over, but that few have actually read it due to density, complexity of concepts, language and length.

Warner does not translate the work, but speaks in language common to modern Americans about how he comes to understand the work. In each chapter he gives us a sense of what the chapter header means, then paraphrases generally those pieces of the work that will aid our understanding of the precepts. Finally he gives us once again a few lines in colloquial English which aid absorption of the notions into our daily life.

I skimmed this work, and feel richer for it. Warmer tells us that one of the things about Dōgen’s writing that stumps modern readers is his use of contradictions. He’ll say one thing and a short while later will say an opposite thing. This is explained by Nishijima Roshi, a recognized acolyte of Dōgen, by understanding that Dōgen adopted four points of view when considering any particular subject: Idealism/subjectivism, materialism/objectivism, action, and realism. Depending on the lens one uses to look at something, the object will have a different appearance. Westerners generally are confined to two lenses: idealism/spiritualism and materialism.

One of the first chapters is entitled “How to Sit Down and Shut Up” which tries to explain the concept of zazen. One of the most important takeaways from this chapter is that the practice is as physical as it is mental, a process Dōgen calls “getting the body out.” Warner compares it to one yoga position held for a very long time. Zazen is not meditation or concentration but instead is ‘thinking not-thinking’ with your eyes and mind open, goal-less. Anyone can do this, “it doesn’t matter if you are smart or dumb.” Warner writes: “Since the entire book is ultimately about practicing zazen, you really need to know what he is talking about right from the outset or you’ll be lost later on.”

One of my favorite chapters is “Note to Self: There is No Self.” Warner talks about how we might have a notion of self kind of like a house with things in it. All the things in the house are what we believe, what we've learned and kept. One well-respected Buddhist practitioner, Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said you should have a general house cleaning of your mind when you study Buddhism. Warner tells us this tradition is like that of osoji, a once-a-year house cleaning during which everything is taken out of the house, cleaned, and considered. If it is not necessary, it does not go back into the house. The notion is terrifying, but if you allow yourself to contemplate it, completely freeing.

There is more. Much more. I like the chapter called “List of Rules.” In it Warner paraphrases the Dōgen
“People who have a will to the truth and who throw away fame and profit may enter the zazen hall. Don’t let insincere people in. If you let somebody in by mistake then, after consideration, kick them out. Nicely.”
The rest of the list of rules teach consideration and concern for one’s cohort. “Work on your behavior as if you were a fish in a stream that was drying out.” That sentence will require some contemplation.

In the chapter “Don’t be A Jerk,” we get the feel of the Netflix series Sense8 and perhaps even an explanation of it. Don’t-be-a-jerk is comparable to do-the-right-thing, which Warner tells us is the universe itself.
“When you yourself are in balance, you know right from wrong absolutely. The state of enlightenment is immense and includes everything…

When jerk-type actions are not done by someone, jerk-type actions do not exist. Even if you live in a place where you could act like a jerk, even if you face circumstances in which you could be a jerk, even if you hang out with nothing but a bunch of jerks, the power of not doing jerk-type things conquers all…

At every moment, no matter what we’re doing, we need to understand that not being a jerk is how someone becomes enlightened. This state has always belonged to us. Cause and effect make us act. By not being a jerk now, you create the cause of not being a jerk in the future. Our action is not predestined, nor does it spontaneously occur…

Doing the right thing isn’t something you can understand intellectually. It’s beyond that. Doing the right thing is beyond existence and nonexistence, beyond form and emptiness. It’s nothing other than doing-the-right-thing being done…

Wherever and whenever doing the right thing happens, it is, without exception, doing the right thing. The actual doing of the right thing is the universe itself. It doesn’t arise or cease. All individual examples of doing the right thing are like this.

When we are actually doing the right thing, the entire universe is involved in doing the right thing. The cause and effect of this right thing is the universe as the realization of doing the right thing.”
And so forth and so on. You just have to go with him on that one.

If you want to know more about the author, David Guy's review here is beautifully written and explains why Brad Warner is such an unusual interpreter of Dōgen.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Hardcover, 790 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Penguin Press ISBN13: 9781594205071

Whatever your discipline of study, this book has some degree of relevance, considering as it does human biology. I wish to convey that this book is aspirational for everyone, even the author himself. He readily admits to gaps in his/our knowledge about human biology, but he tries to give us, in this mighty interdisciplinary work synthesizing a lifetime of observation and thought, the current state of knowledge and points to areas for further study.

Don’t be intimidated by its size or erudition. The author is amazing but he has always been approachable. Just flip through, stopping where something catches your eye. You will find yourself absorbed, amazed, provoked. Notice the chapter headings: the last several chapters are about humans doing the right thing…or not. The first several chapters reference those later chapters, showing how what he is telling us is related.

What we do and how we act is related to our biology..all of it…like neurobiology, endocrinology, genetics, the relevance of which he attempts to be very careful and specific about explaining. He goes back in time, bringing in examples from our ancient history to show how things have changed and how culturally conditioned our reactions and responses are to stimuli. Each chapter ends with a summary, and the book ends with insights he has developed over years of study.

Skim these to see if there is something more you wish to pursue. The studies he discusses in each section are referenced by authors focusing on different aspects of human knowledge and you may already be familiar with them. The concepts explored underpin much of what we understand about human behavior and morality. The work of Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and currently professor of psychology at Harvard, is described by Sapolsky as “monumental” and is given its own critique late in this book.

Sapolsky is not arrogant. He writes this book not to show off his knowledge, but to share his knowledge, which is why he tries to make it as readable as possible without dumbing it down. It is a work to be grateful for. One of the more moving moments in the work comes near the end, after over 600 pages of science and Sapolsky is talking about doing the right thing. He introduces us to Anglican cleric John Newton, born in 1725.

Newton composed the hymn “Amazing Grace” but that is not what Sapolsky wants to tell us. Newton is remembered as an abolitionist, mentor to William Wilberforce who worked through parliament to outlaw slavery in the British Isles. But he didn’t start out that way. Read the story for yourself--plan to read the whole back-end of the book because you won’t be able to stop with Newton—about individuals, ordinary individuals making a difference and doing the right thing.

Sapolsky may be a great scientist, but he is great writer and a great teacher. He makes us think and challenge our own assumptions. He tries to answer questions as they arise and he does not intentionally obfuscate. He does not dodge and only occasionally dismisses, and only then when an argument falls of its own weight.

If you wish you had the background to soak up everything he says but do not, go for one of his earlier books which he wrote as a younger man, less burdened by all he has studied. They display his trademark intelligence and humor and are as much fun as a barrel of monkeys book on baboons.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

The Chickenshit Club by Jesse Eisinger

Hardcover, 400 pgs Pub July 11th 2017 by Simon Schuster ISBN13: 9781501121364

Eisinger explores “Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives” in this book that introduces us to the heyday of criminal prosecutions for white collar crime to its nadir, Eisinger argues, today.
“The Department of Justice is a loose federation of ninety-four offices around the country, each a realm unto itself, run by a U.S. attorney who is almost untouchable by headquarters in faraway Washington, D.C…The [SEC] has civil powers and must team up with various offices of the Department of Justice when a securities law violation turns into a criminal investigation….Of all of these offices, the Southern District of New York, located at the bottom tip of Manhattan, has the smartest and ablest prosecutors in the land. Any alum of the office will be happy to verify that.”
Eisinger’s detailed introduction to the men and women of the Southern District of New York begins with the Enron investigation, and later he tantalizes us with early peeks at the careers of Comey, Chertoff, Holder, Ruemeller, Weissmann, Breuer. There were plenty of folks who tried going after the big guns, Paul Pelletier, Jim Kidney, and Jed Rakoff for a few. There is a reason these last three men’s names are not as well known as the others. It’s not because they were less able. It’s because they dared to challenge powerful forces in business and government. They didn’t lose so much as get sidelined and discredited. They weren’t part of the cabal using the revolving door from government to business and back.

The title of this book comes from a statement James Comey made in an early speech to lawyers in the Southern District when he was appointed head by George W. Bush in 2002. He exhorted the prosecutors to bring cases whether or not they felt they could win. “If it’s a good case and the evidence supports it, you must bring it,” he said, otherwise you would be a member of the chickenshit club, cowering before powerful forces arrayed to stop your investigations.

What Eisinger tells us later is that many prosecutors working during the financial crisis of 2007-08 never even looked for evidence of wrong-doing. Lips and teeth, I think to myself. The chief financiers responsible for the toxic asset meltdown and the chief prosecutors responsible for bringing them to justice are like lips and teeth.

Seeing early glimpses of now-famous actors in our government drama is informative for what we didn’t know when we were reading laudatory newspaper articles about what they accomplished in the past. Eisinger has long shed his rose-colored glasses and is critical of how the Department of Justice leadership evolved into a group who was reluctant to bring cases, cases that had merit and enough evidence to expose and shame these organizations in public, even if the U.S. government never got a cent of ill-begotten gains back. The public might be able to handle some portion of the payback--witness the difficulties Bank of America experienced for years after its thievery, lies, and overextension became daily news.

Much is made of the headliners like Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney of the Southern District until fired by D.J. Trump this year, but Eisinger deconstructs his cases and finds him wanting as well, eager to go after the “easy” cases involving insider trading. Eisinger goes further, showing us how difficult and unsure major fraud cases against, say, the head of Goldman Sachs, but how necessary if the public is to have any faith in the fairness of the system.
“The Southern District [under Preet Bharara] did not bring criminal charges against big investment and commercial banks. The office did not take on the power structure of American finance. Bharara did not charge top executives at the biggest companies. After the biggest bubble and financial crisis in generations, bankers at the biggest institutions sold defective products, misrepresented them, played games with their own finances, and almost crashed the global financial system, save for a multitrillion-dollar taxpayer bailout, the most important prosecutorial office in the country took on hedge funds. It was a prosecutorial non sequitur.”
The Obama administration “engineered preventive measures to stave off similar future crises” or, in the words of Brooklyn Law School scholar K. Sabeel Raman, ‘prioritizes “good” government over “democratic" government.’ There would be no feeding the populist thirst for blood, but neither did we see justice.

In 2005 the Supreme Court took up mandatory sentencing in United States v. Booker, giving judges more latitude in sentencing, the result of which executives are more inclined to take their chances than to plead guilty or plea bargain. This appears to be a corollary to the notion that corporations can police themselves. What has become glaringly obvious in the past twenty years is that corporations serve themselves.

Eisinger, whether or not you agree with him, is a terrific read. He gives a level of granularity that many will not have heard in alcohol-fueled late-night back-slapping sessions. It is useful for proponents of his tough-on-crime stance to see how we got to this point where it can appear corrupt business has government regulators over a barrel. And it can be useful for opponents of this view to see what is getting the public mad as hell.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Straight White Men: A Play by Young Jean Lee

Paperback, 96 pages Pub May 16th 2017 by Theatre Communications Group ISBN 155936503X (ISBN13: 9781559365031)

This comedy by Young Jean Lee has been making the rounds for the past couple years in theatres in major cities, and I believe it has come up for a major award(s) recently, which is how it came to my attention.

Lee looks into the heart of a family of white men at Christmas--their strange rituals, their familiar cruelties, their tendency to coordinate attacks, their blind support for one another. A father and three college-educated sons meet to share the holiday, eating take-out Chinese in new flannel pajamas, sitting side-by-side on a too-small couch, and teasing one another mercilessly. They are so white.

Young Jean Lee examines how aware these men are of their whiteness, privilege, and opportunity in their own society by having one of the brothers, Matt, not fulfill what the others think is his role, but also, we discover, his birthright.

Having someone look closely at white ritual in America could be a harsh experience but Lee makes it silly, funny, and mostly non-threatening while raising important questions around what constitutes privilege and how far each of us as individuals should go to erase, ignore, eliminate those special rights enjoyed by the majority class.

Matt is smarter than the others, has the best education and had the most promise. He is the one doing the least 'moving and shaking' amongst the brothers. We are a little surprised to find they resent that pulling back, and insist he carve a productive role for himself in society. But Matt feels he is being productive, live-in companion to his father, and is troubled by all that he sees and knows and tries everyday to find his way in a society that doesn't make much moral or ethical sense.

As a theatre piece, the play runs about an hour and a half. Most of that is taken up with the weird behaviors of white American men display in exclusive and close proximity to their families. But there is some discussion of larger issues. We know there is something we are meant to see because of the starkness of the title and because one of the men begins to cry less than halfway through the play. This can't be right, we think. Not all is well here.

The ending and the final pages come as a shock after the foolishness, they are so profound. "There is nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence," the youngest and brightest among them claims their mother would have said. "Do not despair, and keep searching for answers" is the advice from one who has loved them. It seems like very good advice indeed.

If this production comes through your city, it may be worth finding the time to attend. Like I say, the ending came at me with enough force to make me gasp and left me feeling something important had been said.

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by John Haidt

Hardcover, 318 pgs Pub Mar 13th 2012 by Pantheon Orig Title The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion ISBN13: 9780307377906

Ordinary people like myself occasionally glimpse pieces of truths we believe are important to explain how we live and understand the world but we never seem to get enough distance, or time, or examples to really state definitively what it is that makes us happy, or contentious, or willing to put ourselves out for another. Jonathan Haidt, fortunately, knows how to excavate the origins of our value systems, and has worked with colleagues to theorize and test what we believe and why and to discover the origins of those beliefs. I am thrilled this information is ready for us to use, allowing us to leapfrog decades of daily lived experience.

Best of all, Haidt writes in a clear but casual and unstudied way so that the information is easier to absorb. He does not compress all the studies he is telling us about to the least number of syllables or conclusions, but writes as though he were speaking in a spirit of open enquiry. This is particularly important because he is examining the roots of our belief systems, those things that may lead us to diametrically opposed political points of view. At the very end he answers a question I’ve had for quite some time—about the differences and similarities between the liberal and libertarian points of view—that I have never been able to grasp.

This book came out in 2012, so anyone who hasn’t had a chance to look at it is placing themselves at a disadvantage in today’s world of political discourse. Haidt freely admits that he is a liberal, and that before he published this book he wanted to put his learning as a social psychologist to use giving liberals insights into their political opponents, so that they might structure liberal arguments to appeal more broadly. He discovered something he didn't expect. He discovered that liberals can be handicapped in their presentation politically because they do not place much emphasis in their thinking on certain foundations of moral thought more commonly used by conservatives.

Perhaps more importantly from my point of view, is that in his explanations Haidt shows us the way liberals can move closer to conservative viewpoints without sacrificing the essential contribution progressive thinking makes to a well-balanced society. I firmly believe that neither side on their own has all the correct answers and we need some diversity of thought to innovate at the rate we need to succeed in the future. But we will also need a level of social cohesion or hive mentality which is not available to us at the moment with all the political disagreement.

In his concluding chapter, Haidt reminds us that his work shows us that “there is more to morality than harm and fairness….the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” Because not all of us use them all the time doesn’t mean they are not there. Those receptors can be used to construct a moral matrix which will differ with political viewpoint. Conservatives use more moral foundations than do liberals (or libertarians), including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. Both sides of the political spectrum use Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, Fairness/cheating, but to different degrees.

That is to say, liberals define their morality mostly using Care/harm and Liberty/oppression rather than the other dimensions of morality, while conservatives use all six dimensions. Libertarians mostly use Liberty/oppression and Fairness/cheating and only a little of the other four dimensions. Therefore, liberals and libertarians, as you may have noticed, have many overlaps in political goals and tactics that conservatives do not share.

Haidt praises early conservative thinkers (Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell among them) for expressing the importance of social capital as opposed to financial capital, physical capital, or human capital. “Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: The social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors…”

This just sounds right, and has been backed up by a number of observations and studies by folks looking at the issue, not from the morality standpoint, but from the competitiveness standpoint. It meshes with something that has been niggling in my mind, around notions of diversity, inclusion and exclusion, nationhood, immigration, bilingual schools.

Diversity is fine, good, and necessary for a healthy and inventive society but in the end we have to come together around some basic principles and if we don’t, we have very little indeed upon which to build a nation. Language helps. Social agreement around common tasks is also necessary. I make a distinction between morality as taught in churches by organized religions and moral man, but there is some overlap. Personally I question whether indoctrination by religious groups can get us to social cohesion, but it did work for hundreds of years. The leadership of some churches has been shown to be corrupt; I think religion can work to create social capital, but on a case-by-case basis.

Haidt says:
“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”
Apparently conservatives are more clued into this than are liberals, so liberals among us best take some of Haidt’s lessons to heart. We can’t all do whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want without sharing some responsibility for/to our social group. The good news is that this connectedness is one of the richest experiences we will probably have in our lifetimes.

Get this book. It is packed with insights. So many I could write for weeks and not touch all it raises. But it is extraordinarily helpful in sorting through things one may have observed in one’s lifetime, but were unable to substantiate, or formulate into conclusions. Haidt and his group have created the studies, looked at the data, and come to surprising and useful conclusions about our political differences and moral man.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

The Fall Guy by James Lasdun

Hardcover, 256 pgs Pub Oct 18th 2016 W. W. Norton & Company ISBN13: 9780393292329

Ever since I read It’s Beginning to Hurt, a collection of stories by James Lasdun, I have eagerly picked up any writing of his I could find. He comes from a long line of self-aware male novelists who point to themselves, the human condition with its male inadequacies, and laugh with us, e.g., Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and further back, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse. That Lasdun is not as broad as these last two, matters not at all for what it is he perceives and is able to convey.

Lasdun may be one of the most underrated novelists of whom I am aware. A new novel of his should be an event, and widely heralded. Instead I came upon this novel published last year in a library display. All my other reading had to wait until I had a chance to see what he was doing in this extraordinarily chilling horror novel in which the unspooling of mystery is embedded in the comfort the characters enjoy.

There is a threesome: a wealthy banker, his beautiful wife, and a talented cousin. There are some stressors: the banker has been laid off, the wife has an artist’s eye but not an artist’s income, and the talented cousin lost his last investment in a restaurant of which he was chef. However, it is summer, and the three escape city heat to enjoy the cool of the summer house in the Catskills, time to refuel one’s energies for the stretch ahead.

The vacation idyll has a butterfly garden, a pool house, privacy hedges, large airy rooms, and a fully stocked kitchen. The chef shops for local produce using the banker’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of funds to prepare gorgeous meals of diverse and exciting courses, accompanied by wines from an extensive cellar that the banker enjoys replenishing in his free time. Everything is lovely until, suddenly, one character in the piece appears in town outside of the role assigned them…

On one foray to the tiny shops in town servicing the vacationers, the chef sees the wife driving to an apparently secret assignation. Lasdun cleverly constructs this novel so that whatever happens after, our sympathies are at war with our understanding. Tiny, shocking revelations mentioned almost as afterthought set alarm bells clanging, turning around hours of conclusions we have already made from the details Lasdun gives us.

This is a deeply disturbing novel, perhaps the more so because we are lulled into believing that none of these likable and ordinary-seeming characters can harbor dark secrets. But, we discover, one of the three is indeed twisted, and even when we get an inkling of the truth, we are not willing to completely believe the evidence of our eyes. After all, Lasdun did leave out something crucial when we were first constructing our own narrative.

Tell me the following passage, which comes late in the story, isn’t calculated to give you chills. Can we even trust the author?
“It was still raining when he went to bed. The pines stood dripping behind the guesthouse, dark and immense. Glittering strings ran from the unguttered octagonal eaves. He opened the door and slid the suitcase out from under the bed, half expecting, as he always did, the things inside to have rearranged themselves, so bristlingly volatile had they become in his imagination. They lay exactly as he had left them.”
Loved it. To me this is a perfect summer read—drifting in and out of consciousness by the water—one instinctively feels something is wrong, but a stray sentence jolts us awake, sending heart rate pounding. Terrific little psychological thriller.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Kill 'Em and Leave by James McBride

Hardcover, 256 pgs Pub April 5th 2016 by Spiegel & Grau (first published February 2nd 2016) ISBN13: 9780812993509

It looks like McBride did his interviews for this book about music phenom James Brown in 2012, long before this book was published in 2016. In the Foreword McBride crankily reveals he was being taken to the cleaners in a divorce settlement and he needed to write this book—any book—to bring in a little money.

Any flaws this book contains then become perfectly understandable, and McBride keeps up that level of honesty and casual explanation all the way through. This is no stilted celebrity biography covering well-trod ground. This is down home and personal, gentle conversations with the men (they were mostly men) and women who knew most about James Brown and his life.

At the end of his story, McBride highlights the 62-year-old grandmother journalist Sue Summer who, writing for the financially strapped Newberry Observer in South Carolina, has kept in the public eye the disgraceful carnage made of James Brown’s $100 million estate. Brown’s will stipulated the bulk of his estate should go to educate poor children in Georgia and South Carolina, the states where he grew up, but within days of his death on Christmas Day in 2006, his family had arrayed a bevy of lawyers to contest the will citing ‘undue influence.’

That ‘influence’ would have been the South Carolina lawyer David Cannon who had been hired by Brown to extricate him from IRS charges of underpayments. Cannon and Buddy Dallas, a Georgia lawyer, were white men who had never worked for a black boss before. They brought Brown back from destitution when his act suffered the toll performers experience when they age, and when the IRS realized they’d been robbed. They set up what they’d thought was an unbreakable trust serving poor children and then suffered personal attacks and rake-backs as the trust was contested.

James Brown played a role in McBride’s youth—in every young black man’s youth, is McBride’s contention—being a role model and human divinity of soul. His concerts and records made a difference in how the world turned. The 1960’s-70’s were the height of his popularity, but he made a mark that lasted to his death, and McBride argues, will long after. “Kill ‘em and leave,” Brown exhorted the younger men he mentored. Don’t hang around after a concert for folks to pick your carcass clean. Make ‘em wait.

McBride spins his story out slowly, the way he collected it, through innumerable interviews with band members and managers, friends, and family. He is conversational and not cruel when he tells us the plain facts of James Brown’s lonely upbringing, early incarceration, exceptional singing talent, and enormous drive. Brown never wanted to be hungry or lonely or dependent ever again, especially to the white man, who he feared.

There was a moment near the end of McBride’s story about Brown that widened out for me into a real down-home truth we all learn eventually: “there’s talent everywhere.”
“I remember having lunch years ago with a legendary record executive in L.A., bending his ear about a great unsigned singer I knew. The guy listened, nodded, yawned, reached for his triple-decker sandwich, and took a bite. ‘Great singers,’ he said between chews, ‘are a dime a dozen.’”
That’s right. That’s right for every field. If they don’t have ‘em, they’ll make ‘em. But more importantly, and listen to this: those executives—they aren’t so special either. They do a job, but somehow we’ve allowed them to capture an unnatural percentage of the take. They have nothing without the talent and the rest of the organization, but you wouldn’t know it talking to them. But there is a truth in that it takes more than talent to be a great star, if that is where you are aiming. It takes more determination than talent.

Brown had determination. He wanted to present his best side to the world, so no one would have cause to put him down. After shows he would sit through 3 hours of treatment under the hair dryer to get his pompadour back in shape…and then he would leave without seeing the fans waiting for him. Kill ‘em and leave.

I loved the way McBride told this story, mixing a little of himself in there. He’d gone to Columbia Journalism School in 1980, so was undoubtedly aware that the reporter should scrupulously keep himself out of the story. But his ease with the scene and his knowledge of the backstory, his understanding of the silences between questions and his sense of the real meaning of James Brown gave us the mystery of the man and a deep sense of his place in pantheon of black culture. I loved hearing the familiar names, Rev Al Sharpton and Michael Jackson among them, and seeing how they fit in this picture.

It’s a comfortable, unstrained telling of a difficult life built on success. Race is everywhere in this book, though it is rarely mentioned. The fact of America’s race situation both made James Brown who he was as a performer, but it constrained him as a human being. McBride gives us that, shows us how that was. A book by McBride is cause for celebration, no matter that the editing was a little off, or he repeated sections. This is a story you won’t want to miss.

It was fine to look back at James Brown at his peak, singing "It's a Man's World" in Paris in 1967. And McBride mentions the legendary 1964 TAMI concert in Santa Monica , a warm-up slot for a Rolling Stones performance that Mick Jagger forever after regretted because James Brown & The Famous Flames burned the place down, making the Stones look like a high school band. Below find a link to the full concert that night:

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Easternization: Asia's Rise and America's Decline by Gideon Rachman

Hardcover, 320 pages (Orig pub Bodley Head, London August 2016) Pub April 4th 2017 by Other Press (NY) ISBN13: 9781590518519; due out in paperback by Vintage Sept 2017 Literary Awards: Orwell Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017)

Easternization turns out to be one very interesting book. I doubt Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for London’s Financial Times, expected Donald Trump to win the American presidential election in November 2016, but he doesn’t miss a beat. This book, published at the end of 2016/beginning of 2017 adds a Preface which addresses the expected focus and personality of a Trump presidency and addresses Trump’s impact on American influence in the world. Rachman looks at the world through a reducing glass and illustrates how much of what has happened and will happen over the near term in world relations has been “baked in.”

There are various measures used to illustrate China’s rising strength, but Rachman believes the balance has already shifted east. American and European military influence is definitely contracting as China increases its spending and the centrality of the needs of its billion people in Asia is drawing other economies into its orbit, creating spheres of influence. However, the population in China, as a result of the one-child policy, is aging. China will be dealing with this legacy well into the next thirty years when it is expected India will become the world’s largest economy. India’s population in 2015 was 65 percent under the age of thirty.

For the most part, countries in Southeast Asia have been unable to resist the temptation of China’s development aid and trade. One exception has been Vietnam. Encroachments from the sea by China testing coastal boundaries has so alarmed Vietnam that they apparently asked the United States if they wanted to establish a base at their old wartime location in Cam Ranh Bay.
"For the Vietnamese…the offer made perfect sense. In its thousands of years of history, Vietnam has found only one war against the United States—but seventeen against the Chinese."
China decided in the 1990s that it would pivot to Africa, and since has become Africa’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade exceeding $200 billion in 2010. Apparently India, watching China make great gains in Africa, stepped up its own investment there, where it is historically positioned to be at home. Africa, like India, has a large proportion of its population under the age of thirty, and some development specialists suggest that the Indian Ocean will become the next growth center of trade and development, when the Pacific Rim economies and growth has slowed.

China recently began purchasing Russia’s gas reserves in a win-win for both countries, though Rachman believes the Russians suffered a very difficult negotiation. Many Chinese have been moving northward, legally and illegally, to set up business distribution networks in the less populated regions of eastern Russia. China watchers wonder if China will eventually move to take the east back from a too-large-to-govern Russia. There are also signs of cooperation, if not alliance: On July 4, 2017 Russia and China together signed an agreement to sanction North Korea after their successful ballistic missile launch, and to warn the U.S. and South Korea of the provocativeness of joint exercises. The closeness of any relationship between these two goliaths is a new feature American and the Europeans have not had to consider for many years.

Latin and South America, both in America’s backyard, in the new millennium suddenly discovered it had options, and in 2011 Brazil’s largest trading partner was…China…who imported twice as much soy, sugar, meat, iron, and copper as did the United States. Japan, watching China, stepped up its aid and investment as well, creating life-giving competition in Mexico and Colombia. The formerly ignored BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) may become a economic fulcrum to edge any power discrepancies into the Asian sphere.

One aspect of Obama’s pivot to Asia was intended to engage and contain China’s influence in Southeast Asia, though the pivot started to come undone almost as soon as it began. Events in the Middle East and his own intransigent government effectively kept Obama from erecting anything on the pillars of doctrine he might want to call his own. What we noticed instead was a gradual drawing away from involvement or intervention in the Middle East except in where others are willing to come in with us or in cases and places where surgical strikes might achieve an outcome without loss of life or treasure.

The West is still struggling to adapt to low growth and unemployment as a result of China’s low cost production, but Europe and America are still the desired destination of the world’s migrant peoples, make no mistake. China is able to make great investment of human resources into Africa’s infrastructure development because their own level of development is not so distant from what they find in Africa. The technologies used in both align.

Rachman makes clear that the West still holds the institutional advantage: many of the key institutions that allow smooth communication, banking, and trade were created by and situated in the West. Sanctions are suffocatingly effective on excluded countries, cutting them off from many life-giving international exchanges. Until changes are made to the centrality of these internationally-recognized bodies, and challenges are on the horizon, the West is still central to the aspirations of the world.

There is a huge amount of fascinating discussion and no-fat detail in this worthwhile read and Rachman has gotten a good deal of attention: check out the WSJ review, those of you with subscriptions, as well as the following links NPR interviewed Rachman, The Atlantic’s Uri Freidman interviewed Rachman, and the NYT published in April an article by Rachman about his premise. This is a marvelously readable ‘catch-up’ volume for those of us who took our eyes off the ball occasionally in the past ten years, but those who have been watching with undivided attention will be grateful for his overview and his discussion of where it is leading us. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader by Matthew Qvortrup

Hardcover, 376 pages Pub July 12th 2016 by The Overlook Press (first pub June 7th 2016) ISBN13: 9781468313161

Angela Merkel is a terrific politician. Even those who don't agree with her policies admit to her skill in making space for her own ideas. But we could say that about Donald Trump, too. What makes Merkel an extraordinary, groundbreaking leader is what is in her personality that is opposite to Donald Trump: Merkel isn't in it for the glamour, fame, or money. Ten years ago, she claimed she had no intention of staying on as Chancellor beyond two terms. She is currently running for her fourth term at the end of this year. Why?

Merkel’s desire to stay on as Chancellor of Germany has something to do with legacy and with current danger. Anyone can see the threats in the national and international environment. When one spends many years leading an electorate and shaping a worldview that strengthens one’s country vis-a-vis outside threats to stability, one wants to leave it in safe hands. Qvortrup doesn’t tell us, at the end, whether or not Merkel, unlike Hillary, has groomed a successor who can take over her role should she decamp. Merkel is still young enough to see Germany through another term but then a successor should emerge.

Germany in the late 20th and early 21st Century was as tumultuous as any other nation, resembling the child's game of Chutes & Ladders. Political parties fought for ascendency at the time of the fall of the wall, and Merkel, through luck and instinct, rose within a year to a place in national politics. People liked her. She was unthreatening to higher ups and she was willing to do anything in an organization. She used every opportunity; even handing out leaflets gave her access to voters. She honed her instinct for what was needed, learned what voters wanted and would accept, and was courageous in accepting opportunity and responsibility. Later some would question: Merkiavelli?

Merkel was, and is still, resolutely forward-looking, unlike the kind of national figures in Russia, where Putin wants a return to Tsarist times and America, where Trumps seeks a return to early 20th Century oligarchies. When former Chancellor Helmut Kohl lamented that ‘She is destroying my Europe,’ Merkel responded, “Your Europe, dear Helmut, no longer exists.’ Finally, someone who gets it.

What I find most intriguing about Merkel is her political expediency. Qvortrup makes the point that in politics one doesn’t make ‘friends’ like one does in other fields, but Angela made friends easily compared with her colleagues. She was a little frumpy, clever, kind, generous, unthreatening, and…a brilliant political statistician. During her tenure as Chancellor, she had several cabinet-level ministers, party leaders, and government heads resign in disgrace. She shuffled the deck, calculated odds, sacrificed some appointments, and very shrewdly chose replacements who could strengthen her party's ascendency. She could work with anyone, her listening demeanor polite and cordial. Qvortrup is particularly good on the details here. Merkel’s office was never implicated in any of the scandals, and she never defended those who came under attack. It is said she urged more transparency. Her careful composure under pressure will become a trademark.

Merkel could not afford the distraction of making a scene over news that broke late in 2013 that the United States was monitoring her private telephone. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. She needed American support to counter the Russian encroachment into European sphere. Qvortrup says Merkel “always considered Obama a lightweight,” which runs counter to impressions the American press has broadcast that the two got along famously. She apparently idolized Reagan, I wonder whether for his politics or for his famous charm and political skill at changing the frame of any discussion. Qvortrup also says Merkel was not enthusiastic but not overly alarmed at having to deal with Putin, who was a known quantity to her. This again is counter to previous analyses I have seen. Merkel is able to confound watchers in this way.

Handling the sanctions regime against Russia at the time of the Ukraine invasion and the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 took nerves of steel. Putin was desperate and threatening, but all Europe was suffering under the sanctions, particularly France. Qvortrup goes through this and the Greek financial crisis in detail. Merkel manages, in the summer of 2015, to get Greece to agree to allow the EU to control the money earned from privatization of Greek assets, barring 12.5% for the Greeks to decide how to use. The solution required throwing her Finance Minister under the bus. Qvortrup compares the period to a Greek tragedy with an unanticipated solution, or deux ex machina. This magic trick, pulling the rabbit out of the hat as it were, will need to be unpacked in greater detail in future examinations of this period.

I watched most of Merkel’s first two terms with half-an-eye, but when the Syrian war crescendoed into a full-blown refugee crisis, I turned my gaze full-on Europe. Merkel’s strength of character and leadership skills took my breath away. She'd found an issue more important than her own career and she did not back down. This woman, this frumpy pant-suited attention-sink, did more to embody Christian values than any other European leader while serving the needs of her country and leading Europe by forging an alliance among nations.
“Germany under Merkel became a social liberal state based on ecumenical values.”
Merkel was not an ideologue, but pragmatic. Having lived under communism, she took what was best from it and left the rest. Brexit must have been a terrible disappointment to her idea of a united Europe, and the election of a right-wing nationalist in America threatens Germany’s economic stability and security. Merkel’s expected retirement no longer seems a foregone conclusion. The current threats will require unique responses. Mütter Merkel’s calm and compromise may require a change of pattern. Do Germans think she can do it? Can anyone do it if she cannot?

Qvortrup is admiring of Merkel, as has been every other journalist who has written a biography that I have seen. He is not sycophantic: he tells us when Merkel was perceived as Machiavellian and other criticisms. But to date I still do not have a good sense of why her approval ratings fell, reportedly below 50% in 2015, and what the objections are in Germany to her leadership beyond fear over the influx of refugees. A situation like the refugee crisis needs the whole nation pulling together to make it work. Germany could be a model for those of us who will need to do the same. Migrants and refugees--I doubt I'm breaking news to most of you--is going to be a constant for all of us living in temperate zones in the future. Best we think ahead.

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

Paperback, First Edition, 144 pages Pub September 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing ISBN13: 9781931498715

This slim handbook subtitled “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives” was originally published in 2004. It is slightly more than one hundred pages that recaps the large ideas Lakoff had written about in his role as cognitive scientist, in a book called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, first published in 1996 by the University of Chicago Press. Moral Politics is on it's third edition (ISBN-13: 978-0226411293), published in time for the 2016 election. Last year Lakoff also published an essay on his website called "Understanding Trump" subtitled "How Trump Uses Your Brain Against You." Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972.

While I read this book published shortly before the 2004 election, I am astonished Lakoff’s brilliant insights are not better utilized by the Democratic Party. Bernie took the lessons to heart and started pounding out a new single-note message so that we couldn’t miss it, but why was he out there alone? Why didn’t the entire liberal left start with reframing—we had a handbook after all—and completely change the way business was done?

One could argue that Hillary did use Lakoff’s cognitive science approach by allowing the ‘Stronger Together’ message to express her values. I vaguely recall hearing also “This is not who we are,” when Trump said or did something particularly egregious. I was paying attention, but it seems to me Hillary’s team could have been A LOT more explicit about the ideas in Lakoff’s book, reframing arguments and changing the discussion. She just couldn't manage to relinquish control and involve us.

Bernie just had one message and he said it loudly and often, and even if we didn’t know what he would do in different situations that arose in foreign affairs, we knew his basic playbook: Man is basically good. Citizens working together unleash the creative potential in the population. Who wants to be rich when people are starving next door? We have some big problems but we’ll get there together.

This book is a series of conclusions and so reading it is a little like mainlining information if you’ve never seen it before. It may take reading it a couple times before the information sticks in your head, and before you are able to apply the techniques he shares with us. Many of these ideas probably seem familiar if you have been thinking about what happened in the last election. I hadn't been able to articulate my own thoughts but the instant I saw what Lakoff wrote about conservatives and the ‘strict father’ way of looking at the world, it sounded so right (see Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land).

One thing Lakoff points out is that when conservatives start using Orwellian language—language that is the opposite of what they mean—they are weak. And just as they are vulnerable on their position on environment and global warming, they are weak on the ‘healthcare’ bill. We should take these issues and run with them, turning every argument into a referendum on what they are not doing to solve these problems. We own the moral arguments here. They have nothing. Be smart. Be smarter. The far right has appropriated the word “freedom” if you can imagine.

The far right uses “freedom” to mean “freedom from coercion from others,” which at first blush sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want that? But then they go on to express the need to "save capitalism from democracy," so that laws won’t constrain their money-making and power consolidation. They object to paying taxes in excess of the amounts one would voluntarily contribute. Why should one pay taxes for schools if one does not have children oneself, is one common argument. They are being coerced to pay for social welfare.

Conservatives are also very big on ‘tort reform,’ or putting limits on awards in lawsuits (like for exploding products, leaking barges, or environmental catastrophe). “If parties who are harmed cannot sue immoral or negligent corporations or professionals for significant sums, the companies are free to harm the public in unlimited ways in the course of making money.”

Liberals look at freedom in a different way: freedom to express one’s creativity, to pursue one’s interests; or freedom from anxiety, from hunger, exploitation, environmental degradation. To achieve these freedoms, we need groups of people working together, doing what they do best.

Last night I briefly watched Charlie Rose interview the president of Princeton University, Christopher L. Eisgruber. He confirmed something I'd noticed but wasn’t sure was a blip or a real, observable phenomenon. Eisgruber said that the students at Princeton gave him enormous hope for the future. They are engaged, and their values are right side up. I only hope they continue to exhibit those values at the ballot box in the years to come, and perhaps even help other people understand the ‘strict father’ (I can’t help but think of a spanking father and all that connotes) model is an unsatisfactory way for adults to engage with their world.

Read this book. It’s important. It’s short.

Tavis Smiley interviews George Lakoff (about 23 min):

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Burma Chronicles & Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub April 1st 2009 by Jonathan Cape (first pub 2007) Orig Title Chroniques birmanes ISBN13: 9780224087711

Delisle manages to capture for us what a non-working foreigner not proficient in the local languages would perceive during his/her time in Rangoon. The heat. I'd always wondered about it. Delisle said his level of tolerance improved over the year he stayed there, so that he could stand up to 90degF before turning on the air conditioner, while when he'd arrived, 80degF was his limit.

Delisle's wife works as a physician for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International as a physician, and this time we learn a little about how the process of country-siting is chosen, what kind of conditions employees endure as condition of their employment, and a little about the different roles sister organizations have within the same country. One can actually use this as a window into the work of the organization as well as into the country.

All of Delisle's graphic memoirs are interesting. This one made me laugh when he showed a picture of a pen and ink drawn made during 'the wet,' or the rainy season. The lines were all running and blurred, as though it had been dunked in a barrel of water or as if one had spilled water onto it. The rest of the year is 'the hot.' What else is striking is at that time (2006-07), permits were required for foreigners to travel around the country, due to a great deal of internal unrest.

Some of the physicians are stationed at remote outposts, and even though the organization is permitted to operate, getting permission to travel to and from those outposts is difficult and can be dangerous. But here the usefulness of having an artist making the trip is apparent. We envision the enormous ancient teak house in Mudan that is rented by MSF, and the local translation of a British village complete with fenced front gardens. You will remember Orwell was stationed in Burma between the world wars.

Anyway, Delisle is not a political writer, nor a journalist, but he adds a heck of a lot to our understanding nonetheless. I'm now officially a big fan.


Hardcover, 184 pages Pub September 1st 2005 by Drawn and Quarterly (first pub October 2003) Orig Title Pyongyang ISBN13: 9781896597898 Literary Awards Urhunden Prize for Foreign Album (2014)

Delisle's Pyongyang experience is a little different from his other books because in the case of North Korea, Delisle is here to work on animation studies for a film. Apparently most major animation studios find animation devilishly expensive to produce in the home country and so go to lower-wage countries to do the in-between frames in a storyline so that the work is smooth and not herky-jerky.

Foreigners are asked to come for short periods of time to keep an eye on the project and get the work done on time and with the proper standards. While he was there, Delisle came across a not-insignificant number of people living in Pyongyang or passing through, on their way to remote outposts for different reasons. I'd always wondered about that, but wasn't sure if it actually happened. Must be pretty grim work, considering Delisle's experience ensconced in a big, empty, cold & impersonal hotel in the city...surely as comfortable a place as can be found.

Anyway, one gets a very good sense of what his days were like, what the city looked like, how fun was to be had, if it was to be had at all, but very little of the inner lives of residents, which is to be expected. Delisle's work again adds to the richness of our understanding of the world.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Dry by Jane Harper

Hardcover, 320 pages Pub January 10th 2017 by Flatiron Books (first published May 31st 2016) Orig Title The Dry ISBN13: 9781250105608

This debut novel won the 2015 Victoria Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Can you imagine the fantastic possibility of that? Harper explains in an interview with Bookpage that she began writing the novel as part of a 12-week online novel writing class. It must be like getting blast out of a rocketship.

Americans have no doubt heard of the bushland fires Victoria state has experienced in the recent past. Weather patterns that leave huge portions of the Australian countryside water-starved can kill communities even before fire removes all signs of human habitation. People therefore rely on one another and suffer together when some members of the community experience hardship.

This fiction takes place in a country town experiencing drought conditions. Families as well as government-provided services and facilities are experiencing enormous stress. Author Harper brings Aaron Falk, a former resident, now a federal agent responsible for financial crimes in Melbourne, back to the bush to attend the funeral of a once-friend. His presence reminds townspeople of the reason he left so abruptly twenty years previously.

Two stories, one a long-unsolved cold case, are worked in this novel. The more recent crime is a spectacular triple murder-suicide of a family, sparing only an infant. The presumed killer is thought to be the father of the family unit, who died of a gunshot wound. Experienced crime readers will find small inconsistencies in what the characters reveal which can give clues to outcome.

I listened to the Macmillan Audio production of this mystery, very successfully read by Stephen Shanahan. Shanahan’s accent was very Australian but perfectly understandable, reminding readers that the setting is significantly different from an American experience. He managed to convey a wide range of emotions by both sexes without straying from a straightforward script. Good job all round.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves

Hardcover, 240 pages Pub June 13th 2017 by Brookings Institution Press ISBN13: 9780815729129

At first Reeves’ argument, that the upper middle class should voluntarily give up their advantaged place in society, sounds virtuous if a little unlikely. But gradually, listening to his arguments in this slim book of charts, graphs, and statistics, we remember what we don’t like about America: how our segregated neighborhoods bear little resemblance to what we see on the news every night. We sense a dislocation so strong we know it could come back to bite us, or more importantly, our children. Using beneficial social and tax structures to advantage our children and perpetuate class division may ultimately work to their detriment, and is certainly skewing the competitiveness of a large proportion of our working class, and therefore our nation as a whole.

First, Reeves posits that real advancement for most people in our society is predicated on access to knowledge and information, i.e., “knowledge is power.” Right away we realize that access to information has never been equally distributed in this country, and that many of us have considered attainment of an IV-league education for ourselves and our children the highest goal. Virtuous in itself, one could say. But, Reeves points out, who is actually able to attend the IV-league is skewed by a few factors which can ultimately taint the achievement: access is unequal and not as competitive as touted. One reason is inequality in preparing for admission, and another is legacy admissions for relatives of graduates.

Reeves suggests we protest legacy admissions until they are denounced publicly as discriminatory like they were in a strongly class-based society like Britain in the middle of the last century. Inherited admissions clearly work for the benefit of the landed class alone, and are therefore something which perpetuates inequality. For greater equality of opportunity, one has to look at lower schools, and who has access to the best schools.

The best schools often go along with the best neighborhoods, the most nourishing family environments, opportunities for exposure to both nature and culture, music, art, etc.…and these are circumscribed, Reeves tells us, by zoning restrictions disallowing multi-family dwellings, low(er)-income high(er)-rises in desirable suburbs.

I had a harder time reconciling this argument of his. In the United States, despite laws forbidding discrimination in real estate, there was demonstrable race-based discrimination in real estate throughout the twentieth century. Races were segregated beyond what would occur naturally—that is, races seeking to live with others of their culture. The idea is to allow access to desirable suburbs with good schools, nature, etc. If we stop discrimination on the basis of race, that will take care of some of the problem. Then, if we can add low(er)-income high(er)-rise buildings without changing the essential benefit of desirable suburbs (leafy, green, quiet, beautiful), I’m all for it. Let’s do it everywhere.

For those that cannot escape poor schools in the inner-city, Reeves suggests we offer our best teachers the hardest jobs: teaching in low-income neighborhoods downtown. These excellent teachers would be offered the best salaries. I have no objection to this, but I fear it will not produce the outpouring of talent that Reeves is anticipating. Teaching is a profession, and we have learned anything about professions, it is that money is not always the strongest motivator. At the margins, a certain amount of money can induce some individuals to take on difficult jobs, but the inducements must quickly become exponential after a certain level of difficulty, saying nothing about the kinds of returns one would be expected to produce annually. But big challenges can be an inducement and the money will help make sense of it. It’s absolutely worth trying. Let’s do it everywhere.

Among other things that would flatten the playing field is to eliminate our most beloved tax breaks which, Reeves explains, are in effect subsidies for the wealthiest among us: College savings 529 tax havens, and the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners. Eliminating these two loopholes would add hundred of billions to government coffers, while disadvantaging those in the upper 20% income bracket very little indeed while flattening the playing field for the rest of us.

Lastly, Reeves suggests that internships during college are often distributed not on merit, but on the basis of class, familiarity, or favored status. Since jobs to which many of us aspire are often awarded on the basis of experience, internships, which deliver a certain level of confidence to applicants, can be extremely useful in bridging the gap from childhood to adulthood within the target job area. While favored distribution of internships seemed somewhat trivial to me and other critics Reeves mentions, he counters with “If it is trivial, you won’t mind then if we eliminate/outlaw it.” So be it. All “merit” all the time, if we can be reasonably expected to perfect that little measure.

It is not going to surprise me when liberals discover status and wealth do not necessarily translate into greater life satisfaction or happiness and therefore decide to voluntarily give up certain advantages that perpetuate their inherently unequal class ranking for the greater benefit of the society in which they live. It is conservatives in the ranks of the well-to-do that may hold back progress. According to Nancy MacLean’s new book called Democracy in Chains, which paid some attention to the basis of far right conservative thinking, the wealthy feel they deserve their wealth, even if it is inherited, or even if it is made on the backs of exploited labor. It may be more difficult to get past this barrier to change.

On the basis of the statistics Reeves shares about the stickiness of class status among the top 20% of income earners, he writes persuasively about different individual things we can do to alleviate huge class disparities in opportunity. Reeves addresses the experience of J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy) explicitly in the book, and indirectly in the first of the short video links given below. It is difficult and uncomfortable to move up the ladder but people with exceptional skills are not going to be discriminated against: “The labor market is not a snob.”

Below, please find two very short videos in which Reeves simply and easily explains the concepts in his book.

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