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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”.

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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.

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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”

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Review: Wall Street Under Oath

book cover "Wall Street Under Oath"

Wall Street Under Oath

Years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 banking disaster, I first heard of Ferdinand Pecora, the lawyer that led the Senate investigations into the shady dealings that brought on the 1929 crash and the Great Depression, and the book he wrote about that experience, “Wall Street Under Oath: the story of our modern money changers”. Pecora’s name popped up in another book I read recently, “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, he was the New York prosecutor sent after the Minsky brothers. I tried to find a copy of this book when I first heard of it, I like to own the books I read, but I only found two copies and they were offered at $500 each. Even though it was reissued in 1973 no other copies turned up. With the “Great Recession” stirring interest in the banking wrongdoings I would have expected that every dusty copy sitting on a shelf somewhere would come on the market. It did not happen so when I was reminded of Pecora and went looking again I compromised and, with a friend in a university and interlibrary loans I managed to get a copy.

Trial lawyers seem to be good writers. Pecora is no exception. The introduction is a little stuffy but it still floored me. Here are the first three short paragraphs.

“Under the surface of the governmental regulation of the securities market, the same forces that produce the riotous speculative excesses of the “wild bull market” of 1929 still give evidences of their existence and influence. Though repressed for the present, it cannot be doubted that given a suitable opportunity they would spring back into pernicious activity.

Frequently we are told that this regulation has been throttling the country’s prosperity. Bitterly hostile was Wall Street to the enactment of the regulatory legislation. it now looks forward to the day when it shall, as it hopes, resume the reins of its former power.

That its leaders are imminently fitted to guide our nation, and that they would make a much better job of it than any other body of men, Wall Street does not for a moment doubt. Indeed, if you now hearken to the oracles of The Street, you will hear now and then that the money-changers have been much maligned. You will be told that the whole group of high-minded men, innocent of social or economic wrongdoing, were expelled from the temple because of the excesses of a few. You will be assured that they had nothing to do with the misfortunes that overtook the country in 1929-1933; that they were simply scapegoats, sacrificed on the altar of unreasonable public opinion to satisfy the wrath of a howling mob blindly seeking victims.”

Pecora organizes the book according to the nature of the “crimes”. I use the quotes because although some of the practices were not technically illegal they are definitely a violation of any fiduciary responsibility the bank officers had to their customers and stockholders. Almost ninety years later the amount of money they mercilessly extracted from the trusting public is still staggering. Even more impressive than the amount of money is the arrogance of the bankes. Pecora illustrates this with a nice selection of transcripts from the testimony bankers gave under oath. If we are to believe that they were as ignorant of basic banking practices and of what was going on around them then we have to believe it was God’s work that they made so much money when the nation went broke.

The only thing that bothered me about the book had to do with the passage of time since it was written. When Pecora wrote that it was unnecessary to detail a person’s story because it was in the headlines for the last few years I wanted pull him out of his grave and tell him that I never heard of the guy. I needed to know details of the story. Since I could never get it from Pecora now I have another bit of research to distract myself with.

The official report from the investigations are online at

http://www.scribd.com/doc/73235213/Pecora-Commission-Report-Stock-Exchange-Practices-Report-1934

It is much dryer than Pecora’s book but so much easier to find.

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Review: Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past

Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

Book cover Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

“Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past” is the second middle school history plan I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I have to repeat that I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I do have a degree in history, I have been studying American history for a long time, and have grandchildren, children, and personal experience in middle school. I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can.

I was really impressed with the first book but this one is a disappointment. First, and this is not a problem with just this book, trying to covering over 500 years worth of history in one class, less than 160 contact hours, is silly. Packing that much content into one course guarantees information overload, nothing will be learned. This is how they taught history when I was in school, I don’t even remember the class. Each chapter in this book could, and have, filled hundreds volumes of scholarly history. Why not narrow the range, of focus on a topic that can be covered in a year and allow the students to learn some skills that will serve them in whatever they study? But that is an issue with the system, the book is not at fault it is merely trying to achieve the impossible goal regulators have set.

That is not to say this book does not have problems. Many of the lessons ask the students to draw a picture to illustrate their understanding. Seriously? This is not second grade. These students have basic communication skills. They need practice writing. One or two “art” assignments that connect well to the subject matter would be acceptable, but as someone who can not even trace a straight line, by middle school I was ready to put away childish things. One of my favorite authors when I was these students age. Robert Heinlein, explained that when he wrote his “juveniles” he never talked down to the readers. It is my feeling that this lesson plan, most of the time, does talk down to the students.

One of the book’s strong points is its use of the Library of Congress’ Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool for investigating contemporary engravings and political cartoons. “Reading” pictures was not something I was introduced to until college and it is an important skill for developing critical thinking skills and your attention to detail. Unfortunately early in the book, lesson one of chapter two, the url leading to the sources did not work. I was able to find them but any teacher using this book needs to be forewarned. Two of the questions the students were asked to answer from the engravings were about gender roles. Is that an idea we want to promote in middle school in the 21st century? Instead of asking them to identify men’s work and women’s work how about just identifying the work being done? Instead of separating the work into male / female roles why not ask about the technology, the tools being used?

Slavery is the most divisive subject in U.S. history and I was ready to blast the authors for this untrue, illogical, statement, “For Whites in the slave states, the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, to the presidency, signaled and immediate threat. Compromise, an essential feature of American politics, proved impossible and several Southern states immediately drew up declarations of secession modeled after the Declaration of Independence.” That sounds like an attempt at compromise was made which is untrue. Southern states were attacking U.S. military installations and issuing declarations of secession before Lincoln even reached Washington City. Just how did compromise prove impossible? At first I thought this was the author’s bias coming through but it is more an indication of how completely the South’s “Lost Cause” revision of history has sunk into our culture. When I read the assignment for that lesson I realized that Southern mythology could not survive this textbook. Students are given the Secession Declarations from South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas, all name slavery as the primary reason for attempting to leave the Union.

The original texts used in the book are important documents and are sure to challenge readers at this grade level. I suspect that there will be push-back on some of the choices from both the left and right, they strike a good balance sure to offend many. They only used two pages from Paine’s “Common Sense”. The book is only 46 pages long, I would have liked to have seen more if not the entire text, but, like I said many people will be second guessing some of the author’s choices. Only in the lesson covering Jackson and the removal of the Eastern Indian Nations did I feel the sources were lacking. There were excerpts from Jackson and Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation as well as excerpts of pro and con speeches to Congress. Why repeat Jackson and Ross’ arguments and leave out the Supreme Court’s decision?

As I said, covering the entire history of the United States in one class is a silly, irresponsible requirement that schools, and texts like this, must follow. It guarantees information overload, unless you choose to edit out a lot of information. The closest the text comes to mentioning the labor movement is in one sentence, “One group, the Lowell Mill Girls, became world famous for their independence and culture.” What does that even mean and how does it deserve mention when the “Bread and Roses” Strike is overlooked? Later in the text the Civil Rights Movement follows the Great Depression which followed World War One propaganda. Where are Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam?

As a history text this book does the best it can with the unreasonable expectations that one class cover over 400 years of North American / US history. However, the lessons are uneven. Some seemed so simple and childish that I can’t imagine a middle schooler not being bored with them. Others were exceptional, I can see the discussion on Washington’s Farewell Address working in an adult class. Maybe a second edition will improve the weaker lessons and correct the bad links. Only legislatures can fix the unreasonable requirement to squeeze everything in U.S. history into one school year.

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Review: The Earl of Louisiana

book cover

The Earl of Louisiana

Abbott Joseph Liebling’s 1961 book “The Earl of Louisiana” has been on my shelves for a long time. I bought it thinking it was about Huey Long and shelved it when I learned otherwise. After seeing the movie “Blaze” I had the opinion that younger brother Earl was a bit of a fool. If Rachel Shteir had not mentioned Liebling so many times in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show” I doubt I would have bothered to read it at all. I now have a new rule, if a book stays in print for over fifty years I need to read it.

This is not a biography of Earl Long, it is more a memoir of Liebling’s trip to Louisiana to report on the their governor’s mental breakdown. What he found, Louisiana style politics, was so different from what he expected that he stayed on the story even when he had to do it from long distance, covering the British elections. Earl Long, did have a physical breakdown, he was exhausted fighting to stop a bill intended to purge Louisiana’s voting rolls of African Americans. Louisiana, the entire south, was having a resurgence in segregation politics after the Brown V Board decision. Long called the segregationists “grass eaters”, herd animals, and Liebling adopted the practice.

As interesting as it was to have a glimpse into Louisiana politics it was Liebling’s playful use of language that most impressed me. Discussing how every Southern physician seemed to have an opinion on Earl Long’s health and pointing out the partisan divide on the diagnoses Liebling wrote, “Even his own experts, who denied he was demented, said in explanation of his antislavery views that he was beset by arteriosclerosis, several small strokes, oscillatory blood pressure and an irreverent gleam in his eye.” To illustrate the confusing mix of conversations at a campaign office on the night of the election he wrote, “Carried away by the stream of idiom like a drunk on a subway train, I missed a lot of stations.” Liebling had an ear for language. He quoted Earl Long at a campaign stop after opponents started labeling him crazy, “Wouldn’t you rather have a tried and true man, half crazy and half intelligent, than some bladderskite?”

I could go on and on with quotes like that, in places I gave up on highlighting sentences and simply put brackets around entire pages. I remember reviewing another book that had been in print continuously for over fifty years, “How to Lie with Statistics”, this is that good and just as deserving of being read.

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Review: Unfair the new science of criminal injustice

Book Cover

Unfair: the new science of criminal justice

Several years ago I took a class on social psychology and, after learning about some “classic” experiments and the damage done to the participants I wrote the field off as, well, evil. Adam Benforado forced me to rethink that with his constructive use of that science in supporting the arguments in his book “Unfair: the new science of criminal injustice”. Benforado is a law professor, after reading his book I have to imagine he is a good one. He is an insider and I expected him to be more supportive of the current state of the American criminal justice system than I am but, no, it seems that the view on the inside is even worse than it is from the outside.

Benforado divides the book into four parts. Investigation, where he looks at the victim, police, and the suspect. Adjudication examining lawyers, the jury, the eyewitness, the expert witness, and the judge. Punishment, both popular views and the real effects on prisoners. He explains what our system gets wrong and provides evidence to support his claims. In the final part, Reform, he discusses possible solutions to those problems.

Personally I am proud to call myself a bleeding heart liberal. I think that admission should lend a little credibility when I say that Benforado in not a liberal, bleeding heart or otherwise. Some of his major concerns are not wasting taxpayer money, convicting the right person and administering just punishment. I agreed with almost everything he said even some solutions that I believe to be beyond our current capability. Change the focus of our criminal justice system from punishment to rehabilitation? Not going to happen.

Blame and punishment is to deeply imbedded in our Judeo-Christian culture. When discussing blame Benforado said “When a dangerous virus overwhelms a town, causation is relevant, but blame isn’t. We don’t treat someone who has contracted Ebola or dengue fever as sinful. We get to work restoring the person’s health, preventing new cases, and trying to eliminate the root cause.” I am not so sure I can agree with that. I am old enough to remember when AIDS first made the news. It took an innocent child, someone who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, to slow done the blame the victim attitude. “Christian” preachers can’t resist the chance to label a disease as “God’s revenge” for sinfulness. We even blame the victims of natural disasters for causing the destruction through their sinfulness.

I have to recommend this book to everyone. If you live in the US it will help you understand how and why our criminal justice system is failing and if you live in Europe you can see what your systems are doing right. I expect to hear about this book quite a bit over the next year as Benforado’s suggestions are debated in the media.

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