Category Archives: Social History

Review: The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century

The Future We Want

The Future We Want

“The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century” is a collection of essays from an eclectic group of young writers and activists. They look at all the problems we normally think about, education, inequality, racism, a justice system that lacks justice, and societal bias over sex and gender. As an example of that last I need to point out that on the book the authors are listed as Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara. The online citation I found for the book, “Sunkara, Bhaskar. The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century. City: Henry Holt & Co, 2013.”, lists Sunkara, the male, as primary author. The book did open my eyes to a few problems that I have just begun to notice, “bad science”, the way financial interests are twisting what research we do as well as the outcomes of that research. .

As a lifelong liberal I wanted to like this book and, for the most part I did. Almost every goal mentioned in the book has my full support but, unfortunately, the book offers little, almost nothing, in the way of a roadmap to achieving these goals. We need a color blind justice system? Duhh. We need a justice system blind to color and wealth but how do we get there? A book I reviewed earlier, “Unfair: the new science of criminal injustice”, explains the problems in detail and gives a list of very doable corrections. Perhaps the problem is that each of these problems needs a full length treatment by an expert in the field to offer sufficient insight to allow a vision on solving them.

The one glaring problem I had with the book was its naive view of economics. Yes, today’s economy needs major reform but capitalism, Adam Smith’s capitalism not the “Free Market” Ayn Rand God is Greed, Austrian and Chicago school capitalism, is still the least bad of all economic systems. People do really work the best when they are working for their own improvement. That means that poverty wages do not inspire the best work, even with the whip of homelessness and starvation driving the workers. Regulating for living wages and safety nets for the calamities that naturally befall everyone are needed to, frankly, benefit the employers to ignorant or greedy to act in their workers and their own best interests.

The book is a good examination of what young liberals see as our current problems but it lacks any reasonable ideas to fix them. For that we have to look elsewhere. At least for ideas on repairing the broken criminal justice system I can recommend Adam Benforado’s “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book review, Education, Politics, Race Relations, Social History

Review: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

over The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

“If not for Mrs. Parks nobody would have ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr.” – E.D. Nixon

After reading Jeanne Theoharis’ “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” I have to say that if not for Mrs. Parks there is a lot we never would have heard of and the world today would be a worse place for it. Growing up, and well into adulthood all I knew about Rosa Parks was the popular myth, she was a tired seamstress who was tired and refused to give up her seat. Earning a degree in history I learned that that story was a simplification of the real story. Reading Theoharis’ book i discovered that what I learned in college was a simplification of the truth.

I don’t know why some books are harder for me to review and with other books the review almost writes itself. This is one of the difficult ones. It is a great book. I think it could be the best book I read this year and I read some very good books this year. That could be part of my problem. It is good on many levels. I learned Mrs. Rosa Parks life story as well as can be written until the last archive of her papers is opened to researchers. I also learned about classism and the power of showing up.

I have to recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement or American culture. It is well written, well researched, and well reasoned. I hope it gets wide exposure, the country could use some of Mrs. Parks tenacity and hope.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book review, Gender studies, History, Politics, Race Relations, Social History

Review: Democracy in Black

Democracy in Black

Democracy in Black

Eddie Glaude’s “Democracy in Black” convinced me of one thing I have long suspected. The best decision I ever made was to be born white and male. Except that I never made that decision, no one does, so why on Earth should I profit from it? Why in a nation formed from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” argument that heredity proves nothing, not even the son of a King can be counted on to be a good leader, or even a good man. But it does. Thanks to my fortuitous choice of parents I can drive a little sloppy, I have been able to count on finding work when I need it, I can be disrespectful to a police officer and live.

Although when I requested to review this book I expected more of a history than an essay it was definitely not a disappointment. Glaude exposes the way things are in a blunt manner that I think we should hear more. He explores enough modern history to make it clear who he means when he discusses black political leaders and how they have allowed their focus to drift away from improving the community to self improvement and ego building. Then he exposes, explains, how the black community has disintegrated. Thanks to this there is no training ground for new leaders to develop who can unite the community and lead them to rise to the challenges of our times. I would point out that the same community disintegration has happened in the white community but that is not the topic of this book.

The main topic is what I alluded to in the first paragraph. The unfortunate fact that in the United States white lives are believed to matter more than the life of any person of color, most obviously the lives of black men and women. I understand the history of how our color, or lack of it, has been used from Colonial times to divide and control the work force but I am always amazed at how many people that look like me buy into it. I am not rich and I am not good looking but the (lack of) color of my skin is not the only thing I can be proud of. How pathetic are those who only have that lack of color as evidence of their own worth?

Glaude was adamant that the attitude that white lives matter more needs to change but he was relentless in pointing out the failures of past attempts to change America’s attitude on “race”. When he pointed out that the leaders of Ferguson’s protests had no faith in the power of the vote I started to lose hope. Thankfully he managed to find some reason to be optimistic by the end of the book. Unfortunately it will not be easy to finally get to where all Americans act as though they believe these words from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”

Leave a comment

Filed under Book review, History, Politics, Race Relations, Social History

Review: Encyclopedia of asylum therapeutics, 1750/1950s”

Book Cover

Encyclopedia of asylum therapeutics, 1750/1950s

I have been fascinated with medical history for nearly a decade now so when I saw a chance to review Mary de Young’s book “Encyclopedia of asylum therapeutics, 1750/1950s” I jumped at it. By the time it arrived I was having second thoughts, I have not read anything about the history of psychiatry, the book is an imposing 353 pages of double column text, and I had just struggled through a book that failed to catch my interest at least in part because I felt it lacked organization. This book was obviously organized, as an encyclopedia. I was concerned about its readability, how many encyclopedias compel you to keep reading? This one.

I should have expected that the early treatment for various real and imagined mental disorders would have been based on the same Greek theories of humoral balance as physical medicine was up until the middle of the 19th century. Even the same players were showing up, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a founding father, medical advisor to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and professor of medicine at the College of Philadelphia Department of Medicine turns up in more than a few entries. Benjamin Franklin came up with an electricity based treatment and, when it seemed to work, he wrote that it could have been her faith in the treatment that cured her, not the treatment. This was decades before the term “placebo effect” was even coined. So many of the “treatments” documented here by de Young were also used to treat physical illnesses and she explains them so clearly that this book is a valuable resource for any student of medical history.

If you have ever questioned why so many horror movies are set in asylums this book holds the answer. Bethlem Asylum, also known as Bedlam, and its treatment regimens are frequently discussed and they, and the rational for them, are fascinating. If someone is manic, they need a calming influence, try music, try putting them in a pink room*, try bleeding them, try bathing them in static electricity.** If they are sullen, refuse to interact with the world, raise their spirits, try music, try a green room, try bleeding, try a cat piano, a cat piano is a box containing a number of trapped cats and is equipped with a keyboard that cause a nail studded hammer to hit a cat’s tail. It is believed to be imaginary but imagine the cacophony it would create. I can imagine it would wake the dead as well as get the attention of any mental patient.

In another book that I read recently it was pointed out that in the late 1800s there was a movement painting masturbation as both evil and very dangerous. I noticed in this book a change in the language, before the late 1800s it was very possible to be institutionalized for “excessive masturbation” but then the explanation of a patient’s madness became simply “masterbation”. The extreme range of treatments for any madness that the doctors associated with sex was frightening. “Wiring”, surgical implantation of a wire into the end head of a man’s penis to stop, well, you know what it was intended to stop. This was about the same time that male babies in the US began to be circumcised, not to “prevent disease” but in an attempt to make masterbation less appealing.

More modern treatment are covered, transorbital lobotomy is accompanied by a photograph I found a little disturbing outside of a zombie movie. There is also enlightenment for social commentators on current causes. Ritual clitorectomeys are desturbing in other cultures but before we demonize them maybe we need to understand the use of the procedure, and other sexual surgeries, in our history.

The writing is clear, as clear as the topic permits anyway, and very well documented. The citations are at the end of each section, a system I find much easier to use than crowding all of them in the back of the book. As much as I enjoyed the book it is a very specialized topic. I doubt it will become a bestseller but if you are interested in medical history this book is indispensable.

* As I write this, belittling chromotherapy, the color cure, I see this article about current experiments with using colored light as a treatment. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01782378

** I have to wonder it the ozone produced by the static electricity might have had some effect on the patient, possibly a mild euphoria from the oxygen boost?.

1 Comment

Filed under Book review, History, Medical History, Science, Social History

Review: The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell : sex in the Civil War.

Book cover

The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell

Dr. Thomas P. Lowry’s 1994 book, “The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell : sex in the Civil War” is still, as far as I can see, the primary book on its topic. That is not bad for a 21 year old history text, but then it is about sex, a topic Americans seem to deny exists. Lowry is a great writer, he controls the scholarly temptation to rely on a multitude of polysyllabic verbiage and keeps it simple and direct. He even manages to keep it light sometimes he is almost funny. He also is a good historian and I expect a good medical doctor. The book is well organized, he makes sure to show us what we need to know before we need to know it. the first two chapters, “Our Founding Fathers” and “The Birds and the Bees” set the stage by showing us what the relationship was between the male armies of the Revolution and the females of the era and then what Americans knew or thought they knew about sex.

General Braddock starting out on his march to Fort Dunquesne limited his army to six women per company and the British arrived in America with one woman for each ten men. Officially the woman were not there to serve the carnal desires of the officers and men but to cook and clean to remove men from those duties. Some were wives of the men or officers. The number of women following the troops as they moved from encampment to encampment and battle to battle grew. Wives and families who still depended on their men for sustenance and protection, women needing paid work who would cook and clean. Doing what men and women do they formed relationships and had sex. Some of the camp followers were willing to have sex for money.

Lowry assumes that people’s behavior and biology don’t change much is a few hundred years so he says that he expects that what Kinsey discovered in the 1940s and 50s was true in the 1840s and 50s. Then he goes to the sources to show us that maybe the people of the 19th century were the reason that Americans are still so ashamed and afraid of their biology. The Church of the Latter Day Saints and their “sister wives”, John Humphry Noyes’ Oneida Colony and its “Complex Marriage”, then there was Sylvester Graham’s views on sex, I will never look at a graham cracker the same way.

Using the soldier’s own words from letters written to home and to friends Lowry shows that the young men in the U. S. Civil War behaved like young men always have but, using statistics on the ratio of couples marrying while already expecting a child he does show that during times of unrest “illicit” sexual activity, sex outside of marriage, increases. Regardless of the praise Mark Twain and other writers gave to the originality of 19th century cursing the remaining letters and court transcripts prove otherwise.

Some of the most interesting revelations Dr. Lowry uncovered concerned venereal diseases, the medical topic that brought him to this subject. In two occupied southern cities the military officer in control set up systems of licensing prostitutes who agreed to submit to weekly medical checks. If they were found to be sick they received free treatment and were isolated from their occupation until a doctor cleared them. Both cities saw a remarkable drop in the rate of disease among the troops and the working women. I am not a student of the U. S. Civil War but apparently the Army of the Pacific, the federal troops from the Pacific area who fought against tribal nations during the war performed very poorly. Apparently many military historians have speculated why that was but Dr. Lowry may have come across the answer, very nearly half of the troops, and officers, suffered from VD during their deployments. As Lowry points out the symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhea do not make riding and fighting any easier.

Lowry gives a full chapter to love and romance, looking at the letters of longing between soldiers and their partners at home. He examines evidence of rape, officers, and clerics, who were not gentlemen, possible transvestites, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, a term that was not invented until a generation after the war although the term “sodomy” had been in use since the late 13th century. He examines the question of Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality and comes up with what I feel has to be the final answer on that question, there is evidence to support both sides of the argument but nothing to prove either.

“The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell” was an interesting and entertaining read and with it Lowry opened a window into a seldom investigated are of American history. This is one of the better books I have read so far this year and may be the best.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book review, Gender studies, History, Medical History, Social History

Review: Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

Book Cover: Household Workers Unite

Household Workers Unite

I love labor history. I find learning about how the underdog resisted and, sometimes, triumphed over adversity exciting. You can imagine how I felt when I was selected to review Premilla Nadasan’s “Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement” I was overjoyed. That joy faded soon after I started reading.

I expected a scholarly work of history., something that started with a detailed look at the conditions that lead to the early attempts at organizing household workers. Then I expected to learn, step by step, how the movement progressed and changed and suffered setbacks through the decades. All that should have been, in my expectations, stuffed with details that many people would consider to be dry. What I found was a disjointed collection of micro-biographies that, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, seemed unstuck in time.

Like any scholarly writer Nadasan repeats points. I am used to seeing controversial points the author is trying to prove whenever they provide fresh evidence. Here the points are that household workers work in intimate settings with their employers and unlike factory workers they are dispersed from each other. Are those controversial points? Do they need repeating? Another repeated point is that organizers cannot reach household workers congregated in one spot like factory workers are. I shook my head every time I read that. No factory, no shop, no mine ever allowed union organizers on the premises to talk to workers. Every union organizer had to come up with ways to find workers and bring them together. Nadasan points to several strategies that organizers of household workers used to find them, often more that one at a time, on the bus, in church, and by talking to local businessmen.

I confess I had to give up on this book about fifty pages shy of the end. I just could not force myself to struggle on to the end. I hope my opinions are not from some personal bias of mine, some readers and writers just do not suit each other. I don’t think that is the case here. Nadasan’s writes well and she makes her points are clear. She picked an interesting topic but somehow turned out a disappointing book. I hope I will be able to find other writings on the attempts to organize household workers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book review, Gender studies, History, Labor History, Social History

Review: One Righteous Man, Samuel Battle, shattering the color line in New York

book cover: One Righteous Man

Samuel Battle and the shattering of the color line in New York

Samuel Battle led an interesting life in interesting times. Arthur Browne’s, “One Righteous Man” a biography of Battle, the first African American on the unified greater New York City police department impressive even though I had a few reservations about it. Born one generation away from slavery Battle grew as a bit of what would later be called a juvenile delinquent but managed to put that behind him as a young adult when he traveled to New York in search of opportunity. He found that the color of his skin meant that doors were shut to him in the north just as they were back home. Battle makes his own opportunities and after several underpaid dead end jobs he finds opportunity as a porter at Grand Central Station. With a secure job he finds a wife and starts to build a life. When the community comes looking for a candidate to become the first black man on the city police force he risks his security and takes the challenge. What he managed to achieve was so incredible that Langston Hughes was commissioned to write his biography.

Browne’s writing is clear and easy to read, like a popular history should be. My biggest concern was, is, could this be more memoir than history? The wealth of Browne’s sources seem to be Battle’s own words, Langston Hughes’ unpublished manuscript and an oral history project a graduate student recorded with Battle. Arthur Brown makes good use of these resources along with Harlem and city newspapers to flesh out not just Battle’s story but it seems, sanitized. It strikes me as disingenuous that the biggest problems Battle had integrating the police force was the silent treatment and sleeping in the attic. I suspect that the baton swinging cops of the 1910s would have been more actively outspoken. Browne includes the story of integrating Harlem and the New York City fire department along with Battle’s story. He also gives us a look at the wider story of African American history in the early 20th century whenever it is needed to fully comprehend the times.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the name dropping, if it is fair to call it that. If pressed I could come up with some people that don’t show up in Battle’s story but he managed to meet and get acquainted with such a range of celebrities and power brokers, from heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who did not tip, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who deeply impressed Battle by simply giving a glass of water to a black woman speaker at a benefit. That insight into the impact a small kindness can make alone made the book more than worth reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book review, History, Social History