March 15, 2018

From the moon and Mars to the multiverse

The Future of Humanity by MIchio Kaku

The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth by Michio Kaku

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Climate change. The threat of thermonuclear war. Bioterrorism. Overpopulation. Is it any wonder that most Americans today are pessimistic about the future of the human race? In the face of all these (and so many other) existential threats to the survival of our civilization, who can blame us for wondering whether our grandchildren will live to see the 22nd century? Yet there are those who sail against the prevailing currents of thought and see a future that is endlessly bright. To this brave cadre of optimists we can now add physicist Michio Kaku, who peers hundreds of thousands of years into the future, envisioning human civilization spread throughout the galaxy in his dazzling new book, The Future of Humanity. Read this book, and he will take you on a journey from the moon and Mars to the multiverse.

“Either we must leave the Earth or we will perish.”

Professor Kaku’s prescription is unambiguous: “Either we must leave the Earth or we will perish. There is no other way.” In this judgment, he has a lot of company. The late Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, for example, not to mention many other prominent scientists and technologists (and a handful of politicians) who see humanity’s future in the stars. Yet none of these individuals view the future through the rose-colored glasses of faith alone or science fantasy. Their conviction is grounded in solid scientific research. Kaku makes that overwhelmingly clear in his considered, step-by-step presentation of the steady progression of the human race, first back to the moon, Mars, and the asteroids; then to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn; and finally onward to the nearest stars, with stopovers on the comets that swarm by the millions in the vast Oort Cloud that surrounds the solar system. This is truly a journey from the moon and Mars to the multiverse.

From the moon and Mars to the multiverse

The Future of Humanity is divided into four parts. In the first, Kaku takes us along to witness the establishment of a permanent base on the moon and the settlement and terraforming of Mars. In part two, we accompany him as humanity moves beyond the solar system to explore the nearby stars. Part three concerns the settlement of extrasolar planets, dwelling on the genetic changes that will be required for humans to adapt to the daunting conditions so likely to be found there.

The author’s argument is easy to follow throughout most of his book. His explanations of scientific phenomena are remarkably clear, using an abundance of pithy similes and metaphors. Only in the final chapters when he attempts to explain string theory (his specialization) and the more fanciful imaginings of cosmologists does Professor Kaku’s language become opaque. String theory “contains an infinite number of parallel universes, called the multiverse, each one as valid as the next.” In ten dimensions.

Ideas from the greats of science fiction

Science fiction fans will encounter a wealth of familiar concepts, from the most mundane (mining the asteroids) to the most spectacular (uploading human consciousness and projecting it with lasers or gravity beams throughout the galaxy). In fact, Kaku makes frequent references to the work of such science fiction luminaries as Olaf Stapledon, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Yet, in this book alone, the author floats enough fascinating ideas to put a whole roomful of science fiction writers to shame. And there is no doubting his optimism: “Transhumanism, instead of being a branch of science fiction or a fringe movement, may become an essential part of our very existence.”

About the author

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist who teaches at the City University of New York. He has made numerous appearances on television and in film, hosted a popular science program on radio, and written fifteen books, including several New York Times bestsellers.

If you want to explore imaginative ideas in a fictional context, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels and 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels. You might also be interested in Science history and science explained in 37 excellent popular books.

March 7, 2018

The great female detective who captivated WWI America

The great female detective: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad RiccaMrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca

@@@ (3 out of 5)

As a child, she was known as Mary Grace Winterton, one of three daughters of a wealthy New York family. After gaining a law degree from NYU and being admitted to the bar in 1904, she set up the People’s Law Firm to offer affordable legal services to low-income New Yorkers, especially immigrants. The firm soon had several branches throughout New York City. She was known then as Mrs. Mary Grace Quackenbos, although she and her husband had separated when she entered law school. A decade later, when she intervened in the high-profile investigation of a missing 18-year-old girl, she was known as Mrs. Grace Humiston, having remarried in 1911. Under that name, she achieved nationwide fame as a detective, only to meet disgrace a short while later.

Grace Humiston’s fame arose from her work with the Hungarian-born detective Julius J. Kron in solving the disappearance of Ruth Kruger in 1915. The case had gained worldwide attention because young Ruth photographed well and her well-connected father raised hell over the failure of the police to find his daughter. Humiston and Kron’s success despite the efforts of the police to undermine them led to a series of indictments of men in the NYPD for incompetence, dereliction of duty, and corruption. But the issue that had drawn Humiston into the case was never addressed to her satisfaction. It was called “white slavery” then. We refer to it as human trafficking today. Humiston, however, was obsessed with a single aspect of the issue: the seduction of high-school girls by prostitution rings. She became so consumed with concern over this issue that she closed her law practice to launch a public education campaign and set up a home for girls rescued from their captors.

Despite the fame that the great female detective gained for her work on the Ruth Cruger case, her most significant contribution by far had come much earlier in her career. Not long after establishing the People’s Law Firm, she spent seven weeks traveling through the South to investigate the disappearance of Italian immigrants from their families in New York. They had been lured southward on the promise of well-paying jobs. Instead, the men (sometimes with their whole families) were put to work at exhausting jobs on turpentine camps as virtual slaves, housed in run-down shacks, and forced to buy food and other necessities from company stores. The issue then was called peonage. The practice was widespread in the American South, and not just at turpentine camps. It was a national disgrace.

Using a variety of disguises to enter the camps and interview workers, Humiston succeeded in revealing an extensive network of exploitation that involved recruiters in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere who had brought thousands of immigrants to the United States on false pretenses. Her work gained the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called her to the White House to report her findings.

Unfortunately, the president called off government intervention in the issue after an old friend of his wrote him a letter discrediting Humiston and denying all the charges. The man had been Humiston’s chief target in her investigation—and he had just been elected to the United States Senate. However, the issue had been exposed through the press, and gradually the practice of peonage declined. In the process, Humiston’s skill and tenacity gained her an appointment as Special Assistant United States District Attorney, the first woman to gain such a high-ranking position in the Department of Justice.

This is a fascinating story, and an important one. The accounts of Humiston’s work at the People’s Law Firm, the Ruth Cruger case, and the peonage investigation occupy about the first half of Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. (Humiston was called by that name in the press for a time following the Cruger investigation.) Regrettably, the book weakens markedly after that point. The story wanders back and forth through time, relating the progress of the prosecution of the police officers whose incompetence was revealed by Humiston and Kron and briefly describing a number of additional cases in which Humiston became involved as either a detective or an attorney. (Only one of those police officers was ultimately convicted, and after his release from prison he was rehired by the NYPD!)

Ricca’s account of the events that led to the disgrace and fall of the great female detective from public favor is choppy and difficult to understand. Apparently, she departed from her customary caution and reliance on facts to publicly announce as proven fact a number of salacious rumors. Unwisely, she spoke publicly and bragged to the press that she had proof about the mistreatment and even murder of young women at an army base on Long Island where troops were being mustered before shipment to France in the closing year of World War I. Humiston repeatedly insisted she had affidavits and other proof in hand, and at one point that she had even delivered this information to the authorities. But never did any such information surface. Obviously, she had chosen the wrong target—an army base in the midst of a popular foreign war. Although Humiston continued to speak out on white slavery for many years afterward, and she did meet success from time to time in defending accused murderers, her role as “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” was clearly over.

Brad Ricca has written two nonfiction books and a volume of poetry. He teaches creative writing at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where he was born, raised, and still lives. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is a nominee for a 2018 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.

For my review of a more accomplished nonfiction book about another headline-grabbing case that garnered nationwide attention in the same era, see The case that helped put the FBI on the map. It’s about David Grann’s excellent book, Killers of the Flower Moon. However, if you prefer to read about crime in fictional form, go to 53 excellent mystery and thriller series and 18 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers.

February 28, 2018

Two government professors ask, is American democracy dying?

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel ZiblattHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here.” But can they? Is American democracy dying? This is the question that Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to answer in How Democracies Die. Drawing on decades of research in comparative politics around in Europe and Latin America, they review the conditions of today’s fractured American polity with Donald Trump in the White House.

Four Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior

The principal contribution Levitsky and Ziblatt bring to their topic are the “Four Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior” that they use to analyze the conduct of any democratic regime. It’s useful to cite them here:

  1. Rejecting (or weakly committing to) democratic rules
  2. Denying the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Tolerating or encouraging violence
  4. Demonstrating readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the news media.

Unfortunately, “Trump, even before his inauguration, tested positive on all four measures on our litmus test for autocrats. . . With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.” So, if you’re worried whether American democracy is dying, you have reason to be.

“The most likely, post-Trump future”

Levitsky and Ziblatt’s conclusions are equivocal but sobering. “[W]e see three possible futures for a post-Trump America,” they write. “The first, and most optimistic, is a swift democratic recovery. . . A second, much darker future is one in which President Trump and the Republicans continue to win with a white nationalist appeal . . . The third, and in our view, the most likely, post-Trump future is one marked by [increased] polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions [i.e., customs and procedures], and increasing institutional warfare—in other words democracy without guardrails.”

“Democracy without guardrails”

Guardrails is the metaphor the two professors employ throughout their book. The word refers to the unwritten laws that have almost always restrained Trump’s predecessors in the Oval Office, following a pattern consciously laid down by George Washington at the outset of the republic. Of course, there have been departures from the norm: Abraham Lincoln suspending the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt attempting to pack the Supreme Court and running for third and fourth terms, and Richard Nixon’s illegal wiretapping. However, with these and a few other notable exceptions, presidents have generally restrained themselves from using the full powers available to them against those they perceive as enemies. Similarly, until recently, Congress had shown similar restraint.

Is American democracy dying?

Not until the closing days of the 2oth century have we witnessed a dramatic increase in what can only be termed abuse of historical norms. The pattern is far and away most egregious because of the actions of the Trump White House. But, as the authors make clear, there have been precedents aplenty, especially beginning with the scorched-earth tactics Newt Gingrich engineered to achieve a Republican majority in the House in 1994, continuing with the explosion of right-wing media that constantly urges Republican politicians to take the gloves off, the brinksmanship over the debt limit and the budget, the increasingly frequent use of the filibuster by both Republicans and Democrats to frustrate presidents of the opposing party, and the blatant use of voter suppression and gerrymandering in red states. Donald Trump’s attacks on the press, tolerance of white nationalism, and almost daily lies simply represent the fullest expression of these trends. Is American democracy dying? Has the trend been underway for three decades? You be the judge.

What is to be done?

To forestall the grim scenarios they foresee for America’s future, Levitsky and Ziblatt recommend that centrist and liberal forces enter into coalition with their political enemies. “A political movement that brings together–even if temporarily–Bernie Sanders supporters and businesspeople, evangelicals and secular feminists, and small-town Republicans and urban Black Lives Matter supporters, will open channels of communication across the vast chasm that has emerged between our country’s two main partisan camps.” They point to successful efforts along these lines in such countries as Austria and Colombia. Can you imagine such a thing in today’s overheated, deeply polarized political environment in the United States? I can’t. Apparently, the two professors have had little if any practical political experience. Attractive as such an approach might appear in theory, it’s a non-starter. To my mind, the only possible remedy for the current Republican shift to the far right is a sharp swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction.

For further reading on the Trump phenomenon

I’ve posted reviews about a number of other books on Donald Trump, including the following:

In fact, this is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy. You might also be interested in my post, 59 revealing nonfiction books about politics.

February 21, 2018

Another superior example of Dave Eggers nonfiction

Dave Eggers nonfiction: The Monk of Mokha by Dave EggersThe Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Dave Eggers has struck gold once again with the extraordinary story of the Yemeni-American entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, “a poor kid from [San Francisco’s] Tenderloin who now has found some significant success as a coffee importer.” But that description barely scratches the surface. Mokhtar is the man who introduced now-highly-praised coffee from Yemen to the American market. And he did so after surviving an odyssey through war-torn territory worthy of Ulysses himself.

A civil war few outsiders can understand

Few Americans can locate Yemen on a map, even though the country is frequently in the news. (It’s located at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula across a narrow strait from the tiny African nation of Djibouti. Yemen lies just south of the much larger and richer nation of Saudi Arabia.) A brutal civil war has been underway in the country since 2014. The war pits an ethnic group called the Houthis, who back the ousted former president, against those who opposed him, backed by Saudi Arabia. Saudi warplanes (purchased from the USA) have been dropping bombs (also purchased from the USA) on Houthis and anyone in their vicinity for nearly four years. This has resulted in a massive famine and other deprivations affecting three-quarters of the nation’s 28 million people, not to mention thousands of deaths. The already desperately poor country is a shambles. And as if civil war and famine aren’t enough, Yemen is host to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most powerful remnant of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, and ISIS. Despite all this, Mokhtar Alkhanshali has managed to grow, process, and export many tons of high-quality coffee from Yemen to the United States.

The history of coffee began in Yemen

Ethiopia, the huge country across the Red Sea from Yemen, lays claim to having originated coffee production in the 9th century based on a flimsy legend of a goatherd who chewed on the beans and got high. But the historical evidence is stronger for Yemen’s contention that the industry was launched five hundred years ago by “the Monk of Mokha.” Mokha (or Mocha) is a port on the Red Sea coast of Yemen. There, according to legend, a Sufi holy man named Ali Ibn Omar al-Shadhili “first brewed the bean into a semblance of what we now recognize as coffee.” Over the centuries, cultivation of the coffee plant moved (mostly by outright theft) from Yemen to many other countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Meanwhile, coffee production steadily declined in Yemen both in quantity and quality. When Mokhtar became animated by the obsession to import “specialty” (high-quality) coffee from Yemen, the country’s output had gained a reputation for highly uneven quality and often simply bad taste. Coffee farmers there had been abandoning the crop in droves.

“I will resurrect the art of Yemeni coffee and restore it to prominence throughout the world,” Mokhtar had confided to a friend. Astonishingly, that is exactly what he achieved. Fleeing Yemen with a colleague, he personally carried “the first coffee to leave the port of Mokha in eighty years. . . . By July 2017, Port of Mokha coffee was available . . . all over North America, Japan, Paris and Brazil . . . [and] the Coffee Review awarded” one variety of Yemeni coffee “the highest score issued in the publication’s twenty-year history.”

Another superior example of Dave Eggers nonfiction

Eggers’ account of Mokhtar’s experience reads like an adventure story. His description of the history of coffee and of its cultivation and processing is equally fascinating. This book is, in truth, another outstanding example of Dave Eggers nonfiction.

I’ve previously reviewed three other books by Dave Eggers. Among them were two novels, A Hologram for the King (“Dave Eggers goes to Saudi Arabia and finds a desert“) and Heroes of the Frontier (“No heroes on this frontier“). As you might gather from the titles of my reviews, I didn’t enjoy either one of them all that much. However, I loved Zeitoun (“Life in the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina“). There appears to be a pattern here. Not only are both the books I liked nonfiction, but also they’re both about Islamic immigrants to the US. However, I did enjoy reading Eggers’ What Is the What, a fictionalized account of the life of a Sudanese child soldier named Valentino Achak Deng—which, perhaps not incidentally, is also a story about an immigrant from a faraway land.

February 14, 2018

With “political termites,” Donald Trump is undermining our government

It's Even Worse Than You Think by David Cay JohnstonIt’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America by David Cay Johnston

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Most of the books I’ve read about Donald Trump focus squarely on the man himself, his relations with the people surrounding him in the White House, and his outrageous behavior. David Cay Johnston’s book is somewhat different. Trump’s erratic actions and insults are acknowledged throughout. He is unquestionably the star of the story. But It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America spotlights the policies Trump has promoted and the people he’s named to senior positions in government. The picture is devastating. As Johnston notes at the outset, “the Trump presidency is unlike anything that came before, a presidency built on open public contempt for Constitutional principles.”

Item: kleptocracy is the new normal

In a blatant violation of the law and the US Constitution, Trump is brazenly promoting his own businesses, most notably the Trump International Hotel in Washington and Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He is personally raking in many millions of dollars as a result. (Johnston’s detailed description about how the scheme works is eye-opening.) And Trump is not alone in self-dealing. Key appointees are promoting the industries and the individual companies where they previously worked, and in some cases they’re directly profiting from the policies they promulgate or the regulations they eliminate. Others, including at least one billionaire, are routinely traveling on the government’s dime although their predecessors carefully paid for their own travel when on personal business.

Donald Trump frequently spoke about “draining the swamp” in his campaign. As one former official put it, “we thought they were talking about lobbyists, but they meant civil servants . . . the civil servants were the swamp.” Instead, Trump has appointed industry allies, including many lobbyists, to run the agencies they have sued, lobbied, or otherwise weakened in the past. And the damage they are doing is little reported in the news media. I’ll cite just two examples.

Item: Trump’s “political termites” are undermining our government

Trump is attempting to defund a long list of government agencies, including not just such long-time Republican candidates for oblivion such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but less-well-known agencies including the Trade and Development Agency (TDA). The TDA encourages exports of high-value American goods and assists domestic companies that require assistance to operate successfully overseas, thus helping create jobs for American workers; its elimination would run counter to Trump’s repeated insistence that he will create “job growth the likes of which our country has not seen in a very long time.” (That’s just one of many ways in which the Trump Administration is discouraging rather than encouraging job growth, a subject to which Johnston devotes a chapter of its own.) To ensure that these agencies are crippled even if Congress declines to defund them, Trump has appointed men and women like Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, and others with lower profiles who will make it difficult or impossible for their employees to perform their duties effectively. And they’re doing a very good job of that—by failing to appoint the high-level officials needed to approve their work, by instituting policies and procedures designed to frustrate them, or simply by creating an environment within the agency that discourages aggressive action on behalf of the public.

Item: Trump’s “forgotten man” is forgotten by his Administration

On the campaign trail, in his inaugural address, and in myriad ways since, Donald Trump has continued to emphasize that he is in office to protect the “forgotten man.” He continually proclaims his concern for workers. But the actions he and his appointees have taken, and insist they will continue taking, are anything but supportive of middle-class working families. (Poor people are not just forgotten—they’re not even mentioned among the forgotten.)

For example, by moving to emasculate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Trump Administration is subjecting millions of us once again to the unrestrained predations of predatory lenders. By eliminating environmental regulations, they are exposing us all to foul air and polluted water and eroding one of our country’s proudest accomplishments, our National Parks. By opening up our coastal waters for oil and gas exploration, they are endangering the livelihood and the quality of life of millions of Americans who live near the shore. By eviscerating OSHA, they are ensuring that “‘workers will pay the price for rolling back these hard-earned protections—in injury, illness, and death,'” in the words of one critic quoted by Johnston. And “[s]pending less on scientific research is not a policy to make or keep America great and it certainly is not a policy to put American workers first.” As Johnston notes, “research shows that at least half of American economic growth since World War II stems from advances in science and technology”—and a disproportionate share of those advances have come from government labs or work financed by government grants.

The damage will last for decades

Yes, even if you faithfully follow the political news, you may conclude, as I did, that “it’s even worse than you think.” It’s profoundly disturbing to read, chapter after chapter, the evidence of the damage Donald Trump and his appointees has already done to our country. Johnston ranges far afield, detailing the devastation at State, Education, the EPA, the VA, and other critical agencies. Even if Trump is forced out of office before his term is up, or the Democrats win control of both houses of Congress in the 2018 election and the presidency in 2020, cleaning up the mess may take decades. Simply recruiting and training replacements for all the experienced foreign service officers, scientists, and regulators fired or forced to resign will take many years. Restoring the morale of the departments they led won’t be easy, either. Nor will the tedious work of recovering or rewriting the hard-fought regulations that protected our health and our financial wellbeing. And who knows how long the Federal courts will remain under the sway of Neil Gorsuch and like-minded “strict constructionists?” (Johnston’s portrait of Gorsuch is unflattering to say the least. Yes, the newest Supreme Court Justice is even worse than I thought.)

David Cay Johnston is an investigative reporter specializing in economic and tax issues, to which he gives a great deal of attention in It’s Even Worse Than You Think. He has won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting and is the author of six previous nonfiction books.

I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump. See Fire and Fury review: Exposing the chaos in the Trump White HouseCollusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent?, and A conservative explains how Donald Trump corrupts democracy. In fact, this is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.

You may also want to check out 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

February 7, 2018

A Fox News host explains Donald Trump’s “Media Madness”

Media Madness by Howard KurtzMedia Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth by Howard Kurtz

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Fox News commentator Howard Kurtz begins his new book, Media Madness, conceding that “Donald Trump is staking his presidency, as he did his election, on nothing less than destroying the credibility of the news media . . .” And then he proceeds to devote nearly all of the book’s 256 pages attempting to prove that the media is doing Trump’s job for him, undermining its own credibility. In other words, this book is just about what you might expect to come from any but the most rabidly reactionary Fox News host.

A questionable claim to be neutral

Kurtz goes to considerable lengths to make the case that he does not support President Trump. He professes to be neutral. He frequently cites Trump’s egregious lies, insults, and grossly exaggerated claims. But his case is weak. Again and again, Kurtz makes clear that he regards the media’s reports on those lies, insults, and claims to be inappropriate. The implication is that, since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, he should be immune from any but the most restrained and polite criticism. Yet Kurtz insists that the coverage of the president represents “the most catastrophic media failure in a generation.”

Donald Trump’s over-the-top behavior

Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s over-the-top behavior is so far from what any thinking person has a right to expect from the occupant of the Oval Office that I am amazed some of the coverage has been as mild as it is. When, in more than two centuries since the founding of the republic, have we had a president who:

  • shamelessly used his office to promote his own private business interests;
  • repeatedly insulted private citizens in the grossest possible way;
  • broadcast his own unfiltered and uninformed thoughts to the public at large;
  • demonstrated a near-total lack of knowledge about public policy;
  • insisted on personal loyalty from officials whose job it is to uphold the law, not support the president;
  • attacked the FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department, not just once but again and again;
  • openly campaigned to shut down an officially-sanctioned investigation into him and the people around him; and
  • undermined decades of bipartisan foreign policy by cozying up to the criminal regime that controls Russia.

Given these facts, it hardly seems legitimate for Trump’s leading media spokesperson to cry, “We get no forbearance. We get nothing! We get no respect! We get no deference!” I’d always thought respect needed to be earned. And Kurtz writes, almost approvingly, that Trump “didn’t carefully weigh his words as other politicians did.” But how can this be a good thing in the President of the United States?

From a Fox News host: chaos and dysfunction in the White House

Media Madness is better written and less hysterical than Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Yet the two books paint very similar pictures of how the White House operates. Here, the term “madness” seems appropriate. Back-biting and leaks to the press are a daily occurrence. Trump’s tweets and his frequent direct calls to reporters frequently contradict set policy or statements by his communications staff. And in off-the-cuff remarks or unscripted outbursts in press interviews, Trump undercuts his staff and his own high-level appointees.

Clearly, much of the content of Media Madness comes from the two White House staff members who are most familiar to the media: Presidential Counsellor Kellyanne Conway and former Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer comes across as pathetic, stumbling over words and forever finding himself contradicted by the boss. After Trump repeatedly insisted that Barack Obama had bugged Trump Tower, “Spicer had to keep deflecting questions about whether Trump should admit he was wrong and apologize to Obama.” If there is a hero in this story, it’s Conway. “She wasn’t the one saying that major media organizations were ‘fake news.’ She wasn’t out there talking about the ‘dishonest media.’ She wasn’t the person who had called the press the ‘opposition party.’ That was all Trump and Bannon. But she took the heat.”

Kurtz’s book was not well received

I am far from alone in my negative view of Kurtz’s book. In The Guardian (January 29, 2018), Lloyd Green’s review, “Fox News host Kurtz stacks deck in favor of Trump,” concludes that the book “succeeds as another window on the dysfunction that characterizes Trump’s White House. As a critique of the media, it comes up short.” And Margaret Sullivan’s review of the book for the Washington Post is headlined, “Fox News host’s hyperbolic take on the ‘war’ between Trump and the press.” Sullivan rejects Kurtz’s thesis that “war” in underway between the media and the president. She terms the relationship “codependency.” As Trump himself insists, he’s a “ratings machine.” Kurtz seems to think that the news media should just ignore Trump’s more outrageous outbursts!

I’ll close this review with a confession: I read only somewhat more than half of this book before giving up in disgust. My blood pressure was rising dangerously. This is the ONLY one of the nearly 1,000 reviews I’ve written for this blog without reading the book to the end. If you’ve gotten to this point in this review, I think you’ll understand.

I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump, including Fire and Fury (“Exposing the chaos in the Trump White House“) and Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum (“A conservative explains how Donald Trump corrupts democracy“). In fact, this is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.You might also be interested in “35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.”

January 31, 2018

A brilliant, muIti-dimensional picture of Indonesia today

Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth PisaniIndonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re like most Americans, chances are you know little or nothing about Indonesia. Yet that island nation is the world’s fourth largest by population (after China, India, and the USA) and fifteenth largest by land area (just after Mexico). It also is home to the world’s largest population of Muslims. Indonesia consists of “a string of 13,466 islands inhabited by people from over 360 ethnic groups, who between them speak 719 languages.” If armchair exploring appeals to you, then you’ll love Indonesia Etc., Elizabeth Pisani‘s memoir of her 13-month journey through what she terms “the improbable nation.”

No run-of-the-mill travel writer

Pisani is no run-of-the-mill travel writer. She lived in Indonesia for three years as a reporter for Reuters (1988-91) and returned for another four-year stay a decade later after training as an epidemiologist specializing in AIDS. (Today, Pisani runs a public-health consultancy in London.) It’s clear from context in the book that she is fluent and comfortable in the lingua franca of the islands, Indonesian. Equally important, Pisani is one tough lady. Even as a youngster, I wouldn’t have dreamed of subjecting myself to the rigors of her 13-month odyssey.

Colorful and engaging anecdotes

Indonesia Etc. is full of colorful and engaging anecdotes of the sort that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled extensively in the Third World. There is, for example, a hilarious tale of a Crocodile Whisperer, a shaman who presented himself as able to persuade the crocodiles in one region to identify and shun the one beast in their midst that had eaten a local woman. In other tales, Pisani recounts her experiences wearing the wrong batik design to the coronation of a local sultan and with a Koran-reading contest. “Koran-reading contests are as popular in Indonesia as visits by Manchester United’s touring team.”

Then there was her effort to travel from small island to another. “‘Is there a schedule for the boat to Lonthor?’ I yelled across to the boatmen. ‘Of course!’ they yelled back. ‘When do you leave?’ I bellowed. ‘When the boat is full!’ came the reply.”

Pisani emphasizes again and again the warm hospitality and sense of humor she encountered everywhere in Indonesia. After casual meetings on boats or buses, local people unhesitatingly invited her to live with them in their homes and share their food for days on end. Just imagine that happening in New York or Los Angeles!

Indonesia’s blood-soaked history

In Indonesia Etc., Pisani delves deeply into the history, politics, and economics of Indonesia. Amid her tales of days spent in tiny settlements or on leaky, slow-moving boats from island to island, she explores the history of this extraordinarily diverse and rich nation. Most of the time since the country gained independence from the Dutch in 1945 Indonesia has been dominated by two men whose legacies remain evident to the present day: Sukarno (1945-67) and Suharto (1968-98). Pisani recounts their years with rich detail about the tumultuous times during which they presided over the nation.

One event stands out: the massacre that brought Suharto to power. In the course of three years, at least half a million, and as many as three million Communists, ethnic Chinese, and alleged leftists were brutally murdered. Hundreds of thousands more were raped, driven from their homes, or saw their businesses destroyed.

As Pisani writes, “The carnage wiped out a whole generation of socially committed activists and pulled up the roots from which they might regrow. It crippled the development of political debate and made Indonesian citizens wary of political allegiance.” For decades afterward, the Indonesian military ran rampant through the breakaway provinces of East Timor and Aceh as well as other regions that sought independence for themselves.

Indonesia today: one of the world’s most decentralized nations

From Pisani’s perspective, Sukarno and Suharto followed radically divergent political paths. Sukarno moved to centralize government, imposing rigid control from the country’s most populous island (Java) on the rest of the country and launching a satellite to carry news in the Indonesian language throughout the archipelago. Suharto initiated decentralization, devolving power onto local government.

“At a stroke,” Pisani writes, “the world’s fourth most populous nation and one of its most centralized burst apart to become one of its most decentralized. The centre still takes care of defence, fiscal policy, foreign relations, religious affairs, justice and planning. But everything else—health, education, investment policy, fisheries and a whole lot more—was handed over to close to 300 district ‘governments,’ whose only experience of governing had, until then, been to follow orders from Jakarta.”

In myriad ways, Pisani shows how the move to decentralization has been a disaster for Indonesia. When she wrote her book in 2012, the number of district governments had grown to 509, virtually every one of them a fiefdom for the local elite and rife with corruption. (“‘Papua’s wealth used to be stolen by Jakarta. Now it’s stolen by the Papuan elite.'”) Yet, as Pisani takes pains to point out, “No other nation has welded so much difference together into so generally peaceable a whole in the space of less than seventy years.”

Indonesia’s endemic corruption

As the author explains, “A small fraction of jobs in the bureaucracy are awarded based on competitive exams. But most of the jobs that are not given out to political supporters get sold . . . The minister in charge of the ‘state apparatus’ recently said that 95 percent of Indonesia’s 4.7 million civil servants didn’t have the skills they needed to do their jobs.” Many Indonesians attribute their country’s endemic corruption to the legacy of Dutch colonialism. Compared to the English, the Dutch provided few educational opportunities for their subjects. However, Indonesia has been independent for seven decades. Blaming colonialism is a bit of a stretch.

An “improbable nation?”

Pisani subtitles her book Exploring the Improbable Nation. She makes clear that Indonesia’s unmatched diversity, island geography, and complex history could well have resulted in many different countries rather than one. There’s no disputing this. However, to a somewhat lesser degree, the same might be said of many of the European countries that are generally regarded as the most stable and logical nation-states in the world: Italy, Germany, France, Spain, even England. Dig beneath the surface in any one of these countries, and you’ll find the nation-building that occurred in centuries past was anything but an inevitable outcome. All these countries are rife with regional differences in culture, history, and even language. To be sure, the regional differences are by no means as stark as they are in Indonesia, but it would be a mistake to assume that the emergence of these countries as unitary political units was foreordained.

Clearly, Indonesia’s geography is a decisive factor in setting its course in the world. For insight about how geography determines destiny, see my review of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall (A thought-provoking look at geopolitics) and The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan (From Robert D. Kaplan, a thought-provoking view of world politics).

For your convenience, you’ll find here all the nonfiction books reviewed on this blog in 2017.

January 24, 2018

A conservative explains how Donald Trump corrupts democracy

Donald Trump corrupts democracy: Trumpocracy by David FrumTrumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

“Trumpocracy has left Americans less safe against foreign dangers, has diverted their money from its proper purposes to improper pockets, has worked to bias law enforcement in favor of the powerful, and has sought to intimidate media lest they report things the public most needs to know.” Thus David Frum sets the stage to explain how Donald Trump undermines democracy in his new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.

If there is any surprise in this line of argument, it lies in the identity of its author. David Frum is a card-carrying conservative, or neoconservative, if you prefer the current jargon. He wrote speeches for George W. Bush and served as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. (He is now a senior editor at The Atlantic and a CNN commentator.) What sets Frum apart from today’s kneejerk “conservatives” is that he has been in the Never Trump camp since the New York developer turned reality TV star declared his campaign for the White House.

In Trumpocracy, Frum methodically surveys the damage Donald Trump and his minions have been inflicting on the American people ever since November 6, 2016. For example, in a chapter entitled “Plunder,” he details the blatant corruption that is enriching Trump and his family. (Frum notes that “the United States ranked a not exactly reassuring eighteenth on Transparency International’s corruption index, behind Hong Kong and Belgium.”) But the author doesn’t place all the blame on Donald Trump personally. “The man inside the oval center did not act alone. He held his power with the connivance of others. They executed his orders and empowered his whims for crass and cowardly reasons of their own: partisanship, ambition, greed for gain, eagerness for attention, ideological zeal, careerist conformity, or—in the worst cases—malicious glee in the wreck of things they could never have built themselves.”

Frum is clearly convinced (as am I) that Donald Trump is in the White House “in some considerable part by clandestine help from Russia.” Like Guardian reporter Luke Harding in another recent book, Collusion, Frum believes the evidence clearly shows that the Trump campaign collaborated with Russian officials operating on behalf of President Vladimir Putin. And he deplores the shameless efforts by Right-Wing media as well as the White House to discredit those who are attempting to uncover the truth about the collusion. For instance, he quotes a pro-Trump author speaking on CNN: “‘There’s no violation of law if, in fact, the campaign colluded with Russia, whatever that means.'” Come again? How is collusion in this context not treasonous?

Curiously (for a conservative), Frum appears to be troubled by the near-total dominance of the Republican Party in today’s political scene—and the underhanded tactics used to achieve it. “Republicans entered the 2016 cycle controlling all elected branches of government in half the states in the country, their best showing since the 1920s. Democrats controlled only seven states, their worst showing since Reconstruction.” Frum notes with concern that voter suppression has played a major role in this trend. However, he doesn’t mention gerrymandering, which has doubtless been an equally important factor.

Frum also examines the damage to US foreign policy and our country’s reputation around the world. He writes, “[Trump] never understood that America’s power arose not only from its own wealth and its own military force, but from its centrality to a network of friends and allies.” The author is also deeply concerned about the multiple attacks from Trump and his staff on the national security agencies. He fears the possibility that the FBI, the CIA, and the other intelligence agencies—as well as the Pentagon—may drift into the habit of keeping future Presidents isolated and acting essentially on their own.

As other commentators have done, Frum explores the rise in support for violent white-nationalist groups as a result of Donald Trump’s campaign and his time in the White House. But of even greater concern is the much broader trend toward the politics of resentment. “The phrase ‘white privilege’ transitioned from the academy into common speech in the Obama years—at exactly the moment that millions of white Americans were experiencing the worst social trauma since the Great Depression.” Not only did Trump capitalize on that development; as well all know, he is driving the wedge even deeper between whites and people of color.

There is little in Trumpocracy that is truly new. We’ve learned most of these lessons from others over the past two years. Frum’s contribution is to compile the facts and the analysis into one thin volume—and carefully document every assertion. By contrast with other recent books about the Trump Era, one-quarter of Frum’s book consists of notes. The result is a case against Donald Trump that is difficult to refute.

During the past year, I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump and his unlikely rise to the presidency. These included:

For a longer list, see 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.

You might also be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

For your convenience, you’ll find here all the nonfiction books reviewed on this blog in 2017.

January 18, 2018

Fire and Fury review: Exposing the chaos in the Trump White House

Fire and Fury review of Michael Wolff's bookFire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

@@@ (3 out of 5)

If you deplore Donald Trump’s racism, misogyny, meanness, stupidity, narcissism, and recklessness, and the sheer incompetence of his White House, as I do, and if there is a malicious streak in you, as there is in me, you may love Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. It’s difficult to imagine any account of the goings-on in Donald Trump’s White House that would paint a darker picture of this worst of all Presidents and the servile minions around him. Fire and Fury is scathing.

Other reviewers have panned this book

However, far better writers than I have reviewed this book and found it wanting. Here, for example, is Masha Gessen writing in The New Yorker (January 7, 2008): “The President of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounds himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound. He is manifestly unfit for the job. Who knew? Everybody did. So why has a poorly written book containing this information, padded with much tedious detail, become an overnight sensation, a runaway best-seller, and the topic of every other political column, podcast, and dinner conversation? It seems we are in bigger trouble with reality perception than we might have realized . . . That ‘Fire and Fury’ can occupy so much of the public-conversation space degrades our sense of reality further, while creating the illusion of affirming it.”

In a similarly unflattering review in the San Francisco Chronicle (January 9, 2018), Book Review Editor John McMurtry describes Fire and Fury as “a few hundred pages of gossipy, anecdote-heavy accounts that paint a highly unfavorable portrait of a deeply unpopular president . . . Of course, as with any satisfying dish that has you craving more, the book, with all its accounts of petty and profanity-infused backstabbing, can ultimately leave you with the feeling of having consumed one too many of Trump’s beloved cheeseburgers.”

Despite the bad reporting, a terrible truth emerges

It’s difficult to disagree with any of this. Surely, Fire and Fury is a product of very bad reporting. But strip away the flimsy analysis, the nasty innuendo, the unattributed zingers, and the opinionated diatribe, and you’re left with an indictment of Donald Trump that is still likely to shock anyone who is not immersed 24 hours a day in the seething cauldron of political news. The picture that emerges from even a skeptical reading of Fire and Fury is horrific. Everything I had come to believe about Donald Trump has been confirmed: Our president is an impulsive man of limited intelligence, a racist, a sexual predator, a pathological liar, and an unrelenting narcissist who almost never listens and never accepts criticism.

What I learned from Fire and Fury

Still, I learned a few things from Fire and Fury:

  • Donald Trump never wanted to be president, and he was stunned when he won. His campaign was a brand-building exercise—a way for him to make a lot more money. “He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured [former Fox News chairman Roger] Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities. ‘This is bigger than I ever dreamed of,’ he told Ailes in a conversation a week before the election. ‘I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.’”
  • Practically everyone on the White House staff, including his daughter and son-in-law, treat Trump like a willful two-year-old. Almost nobody ever says no to him. Those rare occasions when anyone does so trigger tantrums and vicious backbiting from the president. He even badmouths his daughter and son-in-law.

All this may be old hat to you, if you obsessively follow the daily news. I don’t.

How did Michael Wolff ever get access? 

I find it astonishing that anyone in a senior position in the White House, much less the president himself, would allow a man with Michael Wolff’s reputation as a scandal-monger to set foot in the place, let alone hang out with them for eighteen months. But Edward Helmore has an explanation (The Guardian, January 14, 2018): “After writing relatively positive profiles of Trump and Bannon for the Hollywood Reporter, Wolff joined the parade of job-seekers and ring-kissers at Trump Tower in the weeks after the astonishing election result. ‘I said to the president, “I’d love to come down and be an observer at the White House.” That’s when he thought I was asking for a job. I said, “No, no. I might want to write a book.” His face fell. He was completely uninterested. So I pressed a little. I’d really like to do it. So it was, “Yah, yah. OK sure.”’”

What’s missing from Wolff’s reporting

One more thing about the book: in any serious effort at political analysis or reporting, it’s customary to include notes, usually extensive ones, about the sources of the author’s information. There are no notes in Fire and Fury. Nor does Wolff date the conversations he reports having had or learned about. This is exceedingly sloppy reporting.

And here’s a taste of how Wolff’s peers in journalism look at him. “It’s unsurprising that, as a former colleague delicately puts it, ‘people really can’t stand Michael.’” So wrote Michelle Cottle in the New Republic more than a decade ago (August 29, 2004). She continued: “What is surprising is how much of the animus seems unrelated to the content of his commentary. On a meta level, Wolff is resented for not playing by the rules of his chosen profession. He has a reputation for busting embargoes and burning sources by putting off-the-record comments on the record.”

About the author

From Wikipedia: “Michael Wolff is an American author, essayist, and journalist, and a regular columnist and contributor to USA TodayThe Hollywood Reporter, and the UK edition of GQ. He has received two National Magazine Awards, a Mirror Award, and has authored seven books.” (Do you wonder how he managed to win those awards? I do.)

One of Wolff’s earlier books, Burn Rate, chronicled his effort in the 1990s to become a multimillionaire on the Internet. The book was panned by many reviewers, just as has been the case with Fire and Fury. And those reviews suggest there’s nothing new in Wolff’s style or approach to his subjects. Here, for example, is Katie Hafner, writing about Burn Rate in the New York Times (July 26, 1998): “Wolff spares no feelings. He casts such an unforgiving eye on the people around him that his tone often smacks of vendetta. He depicts his cohorts as fakes and blowhards, arrogant and clueless. He is locked in a hate-hate relationship with one of his main investors, who Wolff believes is out to double-cross him. Wolff portrays his partner as a wealthy, simpering venture capitalist wannabe, and makes disagreeable sport of deceiving him. It is this dark figure who eventually strips Wolff of control of his own company.”

During the past year, I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump and his unlikely rise to the presidency. One was Guardian reporter Luke Harding’s book, Collusion, along with the so-called Steele Dossier, which I posted at Collusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent? Another was Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green, reviewed at How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history. I also reviewed Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ revealing book, Shattered, about Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election. In fact, this is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy. You might also be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

For your convenience, you’ll find here all the nonfiction books reviewed on this blog in 2017.

January 10, 2018

Janesville book review: The human cost of the Great Recession

Janesville book review: Janesville by Amy GoldsteinJanesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Amy Goldstein frames her insightful new book, Janesville, as An American Story. By following the fortunes of a half-dozen families in Janesville, Wisconsin, Goldstein dramatizes the impact of the Great Recession of 2008 in the years following the closure of a large Chevrolet factory. The recession officially ended in June 2009, but Goldstein eloquently shows that the pain it inflicted on the people of Janesville has lasted to this day. This is, indeed, an American story. Particulars aside, what took place in Janesville beginning in 2008 happened throughout the United States.

A microscopic look at the human cost of the Great Recession

Goldstein’s approach is microscopic. She uses statistics sparingly and rarely places the town’s experience in the larger, national context. “The work that vanished—as many as nine thousand people lost their jobs in and near this county seat in 2008 and 2009—was among 8.8 million jobs washed away in the United States by what came to be known as the Great Recession.” But Goldstein doesn’t write as an economist or a pundit. She writes with empathy and understanding about the plight of individual human beings. The result is an intimate look at the painful choices the recession (and globalization) have forced on so many of the families of a once-prosperous town.

By now, the recession has passed. The unemployment rate in Janesville, once well over 10%, stands at the current national average of 4.1%. But for many of the 3,000 workers who lost their jobs when General Motors shuttered its Janesville plant on December 23, 2008, life has never been the same since. And for some it will never again offer the comfortable existence that GM’s $28-an-hour wages afforded them. The evidence of this decline lies in the sharp rise in home foreclosures, the sudden emergence of homeless kids, the huge decline in receipts for the United Way, and the doubling of the suicide rate in Janesville’s Rock County.

Lessons to be learned from Janesville

I take three lessons from my reading of Goldstein’s book.

  1. The author notes that “The evidence is thin that job training in the United States is an effective way to lead laid-off workers back into solid employment.” In fact, the specific accounts she relates in Janesville suggest the opposite. There, even the most ambitious and carefully planned job-training efforts failed to lead even half of its graduates to paying work. To say this is discouraging is a sad understatement. Consider the human cost of this error in policy planning. What is the alternative other than the approach favored in Scandinavia? There, extremely generous unemployment benefits help families sustain a comfortable lifestyle until improved economic conditions create enough new jobs.
  2. Following the GM layoff two days before Christmas, 2008, thousands of Janesville families lost more than a comfortable income. As the months without new jobs stretched into years, the unemployed workers and their families often found themselves depending on handouts of food. And the psychological problems weighed even more heavily in many families: shame, depression, conflicts over money, even suicide. Even when both the wife and husband found work again, they never earned even close to the living wages their union jobs had paid them. To my mind, the lesson here is simple. The people of Janesville and of our country as a whole are paying an enormous price for the decades-long decline of the trade union movement.
  3. Goldstein writes about how “the city was splitting into its two Janesvilles, separated by political outlook and economic circumstance.” She cites anecdotes and observations by local officials about the bitterness and polarization that became so evident in the years following the end of the recession. I take this as evidence of the poisonous effect of economic inequality. That trend, projected onto the national stage, surely helps explain how an ill-prepared, narcissistic demagogue could have been elected President of the United States in 2016.

My own experience in the Rust Belt

I grew up in Lima, Ohio in the 1950s before rust began to take hold in the heartland. Lima was then a prosperous industrial town. The community boasted a Sohio oil refinery, an Ohio Steel plant, a Ford Motor factory, a Westinghouse small motor plant, a plastics manufacturer, the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton locomotive works, and a Superior Coach factory—and those are just the ones I remember after more than half a century. About 50,000 people lived in town then. The current population is around 37,000. Of all the manufacturers that once operated in Lima, what remain today are only the Ford Motor plant and the refinery, now owned by a Canadian company. The town’s biggest employer by far is St. Rita’s Hospital with 3,000 employees.

On my last visit to Lima a decade ago, I found a town that barely resembled the place where I lived until I turned 18. I have no personal knowledge of the struggles faced by so many people in town as the factories shut down, one after another, but I’m certain their experiences were similar in many ways to those of the people of Janesville.

Amy Goldstein, a staff writer for 30 years at The Washington Post, shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Janesville: An American Story is her first book.

This is one of the books included in my post 10 enlightening books about poverty in America.

For my reviews of other good books about business and the economy, see 29 good books about business history.

For your convenience, you’ll find here all the nonfiction books reviewed on this blog in 2017.

1 2 3 34