December 13, 2017

Debunking the popular myths about genetics

Popular myths: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes  by Adam Rutherford

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There is no gene for evil. Black people have no genetic predisposition to excel at sports. Tay-Sachs is not a Jewish disease. Native Americans are not genetically predisposed to alcoholism. And, of course, there is no such thing as a “race” in genetics. These are a few of the many axes Adam Rutherford grinds in his ambitious new book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes.

Rutherford’s book consists of two parts. Part One, “How We Came to Be,” lives up to the title for the most part. He outlines the emergence of Homo sapiens as the sole survivor of several human species. (All members of the genus Homo are human. This includes Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo erectus, and an as yet unknown number of other species.) Using the latest findings from genetic research, the author traces the movements of various human populations over 200,000 years since the first anatomically modern human walked the Earth. Rutherford emphasizes that the patterns of migration were far more complex than earlier studies have led us to believe—and interbreeding among human species far more extensive.

In Part Two, “Who We Are Now,” Rutherford departs from the promise of the title to survey the findings of genetic research about some of the many popular misconceptions about race and genetics. Here are a few highlights:

  • Are African-Americans uniquely well-suited to play basketball? Not so, he writes. “The Dutch are the tallest people on average on Earth, and I have little doubt that if there were similar numbers of Dutch people as there are Americans, and basketball were as culturally important and ubiquitous, then they would produce teams as good as the LA Lakers.”
  • Do some people commit awful crimes because their genes program them to do so? “No one will ever find a gene for ‘evil,’ or for beauty, or for musical genius, or for scientific genius, because they don’t exist. DNA is not destiny.”
  • What about that “Jewish disease” Tay-Sachs? “Tay-Sachs . . . is seen at roughly the same frequency in Cajuns in Louisiana, and French Canadians in Quebec. There is no such thing as a Jewish disease, because Jews are not a genetically distinct group of people.”

What about race? The visible differences between, say, East Asians and Africans suggest that races are real, don’t they? Well, no. Not at all. As Rutherford makes clear, “certain genetic groupings do roughly correspond to geography. But not exclusively, and not essentially.” There is, in fact, no such thing as “race” in genetics. “Eighty-five percent of human variation, according to the genetic differences in blood groups,” Rutherford writes, “was seen in the same racial groups. Of the remaining 15 percent, only 8 percent accounted for differences between one racial group and another.” In other words, those visible differences among the races are trivial from a genetic perspective. The genetic differences among any two Africans from different parts of the continent are almost certainly greater than the differences between either of them and a pale, blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian. This should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of genetics, Rutherford suggests. When Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa and radiating around the world, only small groups left the motherland. The genetic diversity among them was immeasurably smaller than that of the much larger numbers they left behind.

The author explains at length that the Human Genome Project did not decode the whole genome. In fact, more than 98 percent of the three billion letters on the genome do not encode for proteins, which is the primary function of genes. These non-coding letters have been given the unfortunate and misleading name of “junk DNA.” Many do have discernible and important functions. But the function of most junk DNA is not understood.

Scientists are in the very earliest stages of tapping the power of genetics to address disease. As of now, “the number of diseases that have been eradicated as a result of our knowing the genome? Zero. The number of diseases that have been cured as a result of gene therapy? Zero.” The Human Genome Project was a beginning, not an end. Today, “DNA is used routinely in the diagnosis of dozens of cancers, of heart arrhythmias, in identifying the causes of thousands of diseases too rare to have historically warranted major research projects.” But science today is merely scratching the surface of this potential.

Rutherford clearly knows his stuff. But he’s far from infallible. He’s dismissive of linguistic studies that inform our understanding of prehistorical migration patterns. Why? He doesn’t explain. He’s inconsistent about the number of years when Homo sapiens first entered the Americas, citing numbers all the way from 12,000 years to more than 24,000. He refers on numerous occasions to findings from the for-profit companies 23andme and BritainsDNA, both of which provide genetic profiles to individuals for a price. But he fails to mention the National Geographic Genographic Project, which predates them both and now encompasses genetic records from more than 800,000 people. And he first states that individuals from different species can’t mate and produce fertile offspring, then fails to explain how Homo sapiens and Neanderthals together produced so many of the rest of us.

British geneticist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford is a former editor of the journal Nature. He hosts the BBC Radio 4 program Inside Science.

If books like this are of interest to you, please check out my post, Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books.

November 29, 2017

The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

woman codebreaker: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, “It’s too early to tell.” That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries pass before the most crucial evidence comes to light.

In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.

There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won’t surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI’s role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).

Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e’s.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.

William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. “MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway,” the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Fagone notes, “Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing’s epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes.” However, independently, before the US and Britain’s Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)

“William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency,” Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It’s very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today’s NSA.

As Fagone notes, “Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology.” Although today Elizebeth isn’t nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners,” Fagone writes. “It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that

The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.

Check out my post, 17 good nonfiction books about espionage, for other books that illuminate the business of spying. You might also be interested in My 10 favorite espionage novels, or in 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era.

November 22, 2017

Troublemakers: the people who put Silicon Valley on the map

Troublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

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Any casual reader whose knowledge about Silicon Valley comes from the headlines or the news online might get the impression that Steve Jobs and the Google and Facebook guys invented the place. Obviously, this is far from true. But even more serious coverage tends to focus on a handful of high-profile individuals who have played outsize roles in the development of the high-tech industry. Stanford historian Leslie Berlin sets the record straight with her engrossing new book, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. 

Troublemakers chronicles a critical period in the Valley’s history (1969-76). Those seven years witnessed “the most significant and diverse burst of technological innovation of the past 150 years . . . Five major industries were born: personal computing, video games, advanced semiconductor logic, modern venture capital, and biotechnology.”

“Innovation is a team sport,” Berlin writes in the introduction to her book. She makes clear that her intention is to tell the stories of more than just the usual suspects. “Troublemakers . . . feature[s] some of the most famous names in Silicon Valley history, while also profiling seven other individuals in depth.” More famous people such as Steve Jobs and Larry Page make brief appearances. Berlin’s account highlights:

  • Bob Taylor, who led the creation of the rudimentary computer network at the Pentagon, in a sense “inventing” the Internet;
  • Mike Markkula, the man who made it possible for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to launch and build Apple;
  • Sandra Kurtzig, a software pioneer who was “the first woman to take a technology company public;”
  • Bob Swanson, a cofounder of Genentech;
  • Al Alcorn, who designed the video game Pong that launched the game giant Atari; and
  • Niels Riemer, the man who patented recombinant DNA for Stanford University, thus kickstarting the biotech industry.

Every one of these seven people could be the subject of their own biography. Berlin brings their stories to life through one-on-one interviews—all but Bob Taylor and Bob Swanson are still alive—while placing their accomplishments into the context of their time and place. As a professional historian specializing in this region—Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University—she deftly meshes personal accounts by her subjects with extensive archival research.

To my mind, the most impressive of these seven individuals is Bob Taylor. As a key player at ARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, now called DARPA) in the 1960s, he helped lay the foundation for the Internet. Later, in the 1970s, as the director of computer science research at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), he assembled what was widely considered the most talented group of computer scientists anywhere in the world—and possibly the most talented ever brought together anywhere. These extraordinary men (and a handful of women) created the Alto, the world’s first personal computer with a graphic user interface (GUI), mouse, windows, and networking ability. It’s astonishing to most observers that the Xerox Corporation failed to commercialize the Alto. Only years later did Apple’s Macintosh begin to approach the capabilities of the Alto. (A former key player at PARC thought of the early Mac as a toy.)

You might also be interested in several other reviews I’ve posted: “The new Steve Jobs biography is terrific!,” “Confessions of a Silicon Valley techie,” “The iPhone: the world’s most profitable product?,” and “35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.”

November 15, 2017

Van Jones’ messy truth about the Democratic and Republican Parties

A hopeful critique: Beyond the Messy Truth by Van JonesBeyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

More than half the American people complain about Donald Trump. But few are doing something about it. Van Jones is one of the exceptions.

Van does not mince words. “There is evidence that Trump is crazy,” he noted in a Nov. 5 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, “but he has also driven us crazy.” Van’s new book advises us how to treat that craziness.

In Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, his third book, Van writes at the outset that “the same political dynasties that screamed the most against Trump’s ascendance . . . created the mess that opened the door for him in the first place.” And he makes clear that those “dynasties” are the Clintons and the Bushes. To remedy the mess that resulted from the neoliberal views that have dominated their years in government—and remained largely unchallenged under Barack Obama—Van advocates bridging the gap between conservatives and liberals by finding common ground on issues where our values overlap. He takes both political parties to task for blocking the way for activists on both Left and Right to meet on that common ground. And both liberals and conservatives come in for harsh criticism for our failure to grasp how we might come together on some critical issues despite the dramatic contrast in our values.

Beyond the Messy Truth consists of seven short chapters. The first addresses the dilemma we Americans now find ourselves in. Each of the two following chapters is devoted to an “open letter” to one of the two major political parties. A fourth chapter explains what Van calls the “whitelash” that elected Donald Trump. It’s followed by two other chapters that detail Van’s own work on both sides of the aisle to address some of the most urgent issues of our time. Here, he lays out an agenda for action on these issues: reforming the criminal justice system, ending the addiction epidemic, and creating jobs for the millions of people who are either already shut out of employment opportunities or will become unemployed as automation continues to take its toll. The concluding chapter expresses Van’s optimism that the agenda he lays out is not just necessary but also possible.

Here, for example, is Van in his letter to liberals: “It is one thing to say, ‘I disagree with you because we have different values and priorities.’ It’s quite another to say, ‘I disagree with you because you are an uneducated idiot—a pawn—and a dupe.’ The prevalence of the latter set of arguments is why the Democratic Party stinks of elitism.”

In each of the two cases, Van enjoins us to “honor our traditions,” uphold religious liberty, respect all Americans, “fix the party,” and “solve real problems.” Liberals, he notes, tend to be disrespectful to both churchgoers and white working-class voters—and we’re “addicted to the bickering and infighting.” (“We cannot win against the worst of the right if all of our best weapons are pointed at one another.”)

Conservatives fail by disparaging Muslims, who might otherwise be their allies, since they tend to be both religiously observant and conservative. And today’s Republicans seem to have forgotten their core commitment to limited executive power, small government, and freedom of speech and religious practice. (“Would [our founders] approve of a U.S. president attacking the credibility of independent judges merely on the basis of their heritage . . .? Would they stand by idly as the executive branch tramples on the rights of the press?”)

Van Jones is best known as a commentator and reporter on CNN. But his work as a leading activist is far more consequential. In fewer than fifty years, he has founded or co-founded numerous social enterprises, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, Rebuild the Dream, the Dream Corps, and Magic Labs Media. He has also collaborated with other public figures including Newt Gingrich,  Prince, and Patrick Kennedy in launching nationwide initiatives on such topics as criminal justice reform, the opioid epidemic and heroin addiction in our inner cities, and training “100,000 young women and men from underrepresented backgrounds find success in the tech sector” (#yeswecode). In other words, Van walks the talk. Many of the views he expresses in Beyond the Messy Truth reflect his own years of work on these issues.

For further reading, see “How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history,” “5 books that explore our broken criminal justice system,” “Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?,” and “Van Jones: Making sense of the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and Barack Obama’s shift from candidate to President.” You might also be interested in my post, “35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.”

November 7, 2017

This book will challenge everything you know about ancient history

Against the Grain by James C. ScottAgainst the Grain by James C. ScottAgainst the Grain by James C. Scott

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott

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Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent, South China, the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan, and Central America. To secure enough food once their population had grown to a level unsustainable by hunting and gathering, those communities turned to agriculture. Food surpluses, seized by local rulers, enabled the establishment of the empires that dominated the world.

However, as modern scholarship has shown, little of that is true. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott tells a somewhat different story that will challenge everything you’ve been taught about ancient history.

For example, by about 10,000 BCE, small human communities had begun to form, domesticating plants and animals, irrigating crops, and growing some of their own food while obtaining the rest from the land around them. In other words, humans were tilling the soil thousands of years before the first empires even began to form. Even “[s]lavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples.” However, “civilized societies” perpetuated and expanded the institution. “As Adam Hochschild observed, as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage.”

The conventional view that life grew gradually better once states and then empires (“civilization”) had begun to take shape is simply wrong. Archaeological evidence has shown that people lived longer and healthier lives as hunter-gatherers. Their diet was more varied, and they suffered fewer diseases. They grew taller and lived longer. They worked far less time to secure food, fuel, and other resources than farmers engaged in backbreaking work tilling wheat, barley, rice, millet, or other grain crops. (Why the emphasis on grain? Because only with predictable and measurable grain crops could elites collect taxes.)

Early human communities were, as Scott asserts, “multispecies resettlement camps.” Both humans and animals clumped together in ever-larger numbers. Because of the crowding, epidemic disease became common among both people and animals. Infant mortality soared. Domesticated animals steadily became smaller than the wild species from which they originated. Humans, too, grew shorter and died earlier, partly from a diet almost exclusively limited to grain and partly from the effects of disease. “[V]irtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in a strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’”

“[A]n even-handed species history would give the state a far more modest role than it is normally accorded,” Scott notes. The earliest states were fragile, ephemeral constructs that frequently fell to the ravages of disease or marauding pastoralists. They were “minuscule affairs both demographically and geographically. They were a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly twenty-five million in the year 2,000 BCE . . . Even at the height of the Roman and early Han ‘superstates,’ the area of their effective control would have been stunningly modest.” Nonetheless, historians typically focus on states and empires (since written records make history possible, and writing came into use only in settled communities). But it was not until about 1,600 CE that established states encompassed most human populations—in other words, fewer than 500 years ago. For many thousands of years before then, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists greatly outnumbered the grain-growers who lived in cities.

Against the Grain is full of surprises. What I’ve cited above is only a smattering of the book’s revelations.

Here’s another: Fire was first harnessed by hominids 400,000 years ago, long before we human beings appeared on the scene. Scott regards fire as the most consequential tool in human history. Fire made cooking possible. In turn, cooking “allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it . . . It allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before”—and archaeological evidence shows this is associated with the increasing size of our brains.

Reading Against the Grain is likely to upend your understanding of ancient history. But it’s tough going. I found myself rushing to the dictionary on virtually every other page. Scott uses words that I would swear have never seen the light of day anywhere else but obscure academic papers and technical dictionaries.

James C. Scott confesses in his preface that he is “an amateur” historian but “a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist and environmentalist by courtesy.” Against the Grain offers a multidisciplinary approach to ancient history—what elsewhere is called “Big History.” Although Scott primarily turns his attention to Mesopotamia, where the first states appear to have been established, he extends his arguments to all the other regions where “civilization” first emerged.

If you’re intrigued by this new, multidisciplinary approach to history, you’ll enjoy seeing my post, 8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history.


November 1, 2017

The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics

inherited PTSD: Survivor Cafe by Elizabeth RosnerSurvivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner

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“I carry the words; I pass them on. I listen to the stories and tell them again.” Thus writes Berkeley novelist and poet Elizabeth Rosner in her deeply moving new memoir, Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory. The stories are the recollections of Rosner’s parents, both of them Holocaust survivors, and of countless others she interviewed in researching the articles incorporated in this book. Interspersed among these sometimes shocking stories are accounts of her three visits to Buchenwald, where her father was imprisoned as a teenager during the last year of the war, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The phenomenon of inherited PTSD

Thus, Survivor Café is a memoir, but it is far more than that. Rosner set out to understand the impact of her parents’ experiences in the war on her own life. She read deeply in the literature about the Holocaust and about the phenomenon of epigenetics, “the study of environmentally induced changes passed down from one generation to the next.” This emerging field is controversial and its research easily overdramatized. However, interpreting the findings narrowly, Rosner found in it an explanation for her own deep feelings about the Holocaust—and those in other second- and third-generation offspring of survivors. As others have observed, the overwhelming majority of Holocaust survivors experienced PTSD in later life. And “PTSD, it turns out, has an impact on the very wiring of the brain, and these changes are transmitted to the offspring.” Rosner quotes a Viennese psychoanalyst “who used the term ‘transposition’ to describe the unconscious cross-generational transmission of massive trauma by Holocaust survivors.” I’m confident that this phenomenon is not universal, but I’m equally certain that it’s common. I’ve seen it in action.

Beyond the Holocaust

In the United States today, “survivors” are often taken to mean those who directly experienced the Nazi Holocaust and lived to talk about it. When analysts broaden their scope, they might refer to other documented examples of genocide in the 20th century, most notably the Armenian, Cambodian, and Rwandan tragedies. In Survivor CaféRosner further expands the term to encompass those who experienced the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as African-American slavery, with brief references to other incidences of genocide. She also includes the Japanese internment in World War II, which was surely traumatic for those who experienced it though it did not directly lead to large loss of life. Those examples make her case.

However, Rosner includes many references to other, far different atrocities that led to inherited PTSD. She cites 9/11, the Sandy Hook school massacre, and the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among others. Instead, to stick to a narrower interpretation of inherited PTSD that is limited to genocidal incidents, she might well have explored the subject with survivors of the Ukraine famine in the 1930s, China’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and 60s, the Biafran war in the 1960s, the Bangladeshi war for independence in the 1970s, and the ongoing civil wars in what is currently called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Every one of those events has caused the death of at least one million people, and most of them far more, leaving tens of millions of survivors. There are other, less dramatic examples of genocide as well. As so many observers have remarked, the last century was an extraordinarily violent time in human history.

A quirky chronology

Survivor Café is eloquently written and abounds with insight. Rosner has clearly thought deeply about her subject for a great many years, and she has conducted methodical research to flesh out her own perspective. However, in one respect the book is not an easy read: it clearly represents the author’s attempt to mesh together several previously published articles. The result is a quirky chronology, with Rosner’s account jumping from one decade to another and back again in a fashion that is disorienting at times. There is also some repetition, in which the same event or the same source is described in much the same fashion at two different points in her account. But it’s easy enough to shrug off these relatively minor problems. Survivor Café is, in the end, an illuminating piece of work and a worthy addition to the extensive literature of the Holocaust.

I’ve found fiction to be a rich source of insight about the Holocaust. You might wish to see my review of All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won. You may also be interested in The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa. My review is at A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust. I’ve also reviewed The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd: A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto.

October 18, 2017

“Illegal immigrants” come to life in this sensitive personal account

Illegal immigrants: The Far Away Brothers by Lauren MarkhamThe Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

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For those of us who live in comfortable surroundings in well-ordered towns such as Berkeley, the day-to-day realities of life as experienced by undocumented migrants may be impossible to understand. Most of what we know comes from news reports and occasional exposés about the efforts of the Trump Administration to expel what Right-Wing politicians have insisted we call “illegal immigrants.” In The Far Away Brothers, Berkeley journalist Lauren Markham brings the lived experience of two young Salvadoran migrants and their family under a spotlight. The picture she paints is nuanced and moving as well as sobering.

Identical twins Ernesto and Raúl Flores were seventeen years of age when, separately, they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas with the help of coyotes. Though in so many ways their experience is unique, they also stand in for the tens of thousands of young Central Americans who flooded across our southern borders earlier in this decade—and for many of the millions of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans who now reside in the United States. Nearly all recent refugees from Central America were driven north by the gang violence and official corruption that are now endemic in the region. However, as Markham makes clear, economic motives also loomed large. Abject poverty conjures up visions of prosperity in “El Norte” among many Central Americans, as it does in many other people around the world.

As I read about the often horrific circumstances that confronted the Flores brothers over the three-year span described in the book, I couldn’t help but think about the sharply contrasting experience of my father’s parents, who emigrated from Russia early in the 20th century. Their lives in the shtetl where they had lived, plagued by repeated pogroms, were at least as difficult as those of the Flores twins in El Salvador. Also, it was no easy feat for them to make their way through the vastness of the European continent and then across the Atlantic in steerage. But the welcome they received at Ellis Island, though decidedly chilly, was in no way comparable to the repeated violence and official hostility that met the Flores brothers both on their way and after their arrival.

As the author makes clear, the massive migration of young Central Americans to the United States is, in a large sense, the consequence of US policy in the region throughout the 20th century, but especially in the 1980s. In El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala alike, our government actively supported local efforts to stamp out local insurgents in the name of anti-Communism—murdering tens of thousands of peasants in the process. Large numbers of young men fled to the US to escape that violence. Many succumbed to the lure of crime and were imprisoned in California. There, in prison and on the streets of Los Angeles, the most violent gangs that victimize Central America today were formed (Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, and Barrio 18). Today, these gangs are enormous, multinational criminal enterprises. They’re responsible for an outsized body count in our cities and a major share of drug trafficking in the US today. In a real sense, then, we’re paying the price of our government’s intervention in Central America in the last century. And so are tens of thousands of migrants from the region.

The Far Away Brothers is Lauren Markham‘s first book, but the Berkeley author and journalist has been writing fiction, essays, and journalism for several years. The book is based in part on her work at Oakland International High School since 2011, where the Flores brothers attended classes on and off, and more generally on her “thirteen years of experience working with, interviewing, and reporting alongside thousands of refugees and migrants like the Flores twins.”

After reading The Far Away Brothers it’s difficult to see how today’s “illegal immigrants” are in any substantive way different from the Irish, Chinese, Italians, and Jews who made their way into the US in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

You might also be interested to see my list of 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.


October 4, 2017

Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history

conspiracy theories - Fantasyland - Kurt AndersenFantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

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You will be amazed. In Kurt Andersen‘s shocking 500-year survey of US history, Fantasyland, you’ll learn just how truly exceptional America is—and not in a good way.

Who is responsible for “fake news?”

If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on “fake news,” guess again. Andersen relates countless incidents of purportedly true accounts of satanic cults, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, vaccines causing autism, and other once-pervasive delusions on ABC and NBC News and other mainstream media over the years. Even that paragon of accurate journalism, The New York Times, has fallen prey to such nonsense from time to time. Is it any wonder, then, that ludicrous conspiracy theories should multiply on the World Wide Web, where any nut can say anything anonymously without fear of contradiction?

Who spreads conspiracy theories?

Equating The New York Times with Breitbart and Russian hackers as purveyors of fake news would be highly misleading. Andersen doesn’t do that. As he notes in another context, “There are different degrees of egregious.” However, he is clear that “fake news” and conspiracy theories are by no means limited to the so-called “Trump voters” pilloried by professional journalists and commentators.

Huge numbers of other Americans have left the realm of rationalism for Fantasyland. Consider Scientology, the antivaccine movement, hysteria about GMO food, alien abductions, homeopathy, and the national missing-children panic of the early 1980s. None of these delusions and conspiracy theories are solely identified with any class, region, or race. And popular New Age gurus such as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle, all of whom sometimes spout nonsense, have not attracted notably large followings among the creationist set. Similarly, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Bill Maher, and other popular show business celebrities have promoted delusional beliefs. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Unfortunately, as Andersen makes abundantly clear, far too few Americans take that sentiment seriously—and, in that respect, the United States stands out clearly in comparison with all other developed nations.

The religious roots of America’s infatuation with fantasy

Andersen’s account begins early in the sixteenth century with the establishment of English colonies in present-day Virginia and Massachusetts. In both cases, conventional wisdom has it that the search for religious freedom drove early colonists to American shores. That’s only partly true, and only in the case of New England. Andersen explains that the primary motivations for all the earliest European expeditions were visions of gold and the Northwest Passage. And the Puritans—they only later called themselves Pilgrims—who landed south of Boston were in no way motivated by religious “freedom.” They had set out to establish a theocracy intolerant of any religious practices that departed even slightly from the rigid prescriptions of their faith.

However, in Protestantism, with its view that “every man [is] his own priest,” there lurked a fatal flaw in its commitment to conformity: if “every man” was “his own priest,” what was to stop them from inventing their own religions? In fact, as American history clearly shows, that is precisely what has happened over the five centuries since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Beginning not long after the landing at Plymouth Rock with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Americans have demonstrated unending creativity in devising variations, often radical variations, on Christianity, from Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the numberless evangelical Protestant denominations.

In every case, these new belief systems rested on fantasy. And there, Andersen argues, lies the rub. Most Americans seem willing to suspend disbelief to worship on the basis of precepts any self-respecting science fiction writer would reject as improbable. (If you think I’m exaggerating, read The Book of Mormon as written by Joseph Smith, or Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by by Lawrence Wright.) Interestingly, Andersen cites studies by scholars at Yale and the University of Chicago that found “the single strongest driver of conspiracy belief [is] belief in end-time prophecies.”

Andersen frequently cites findings from public opinion surveys to telling effect. “Nearly all American Christians believe that Heaven (85 percent) and Hell (70 percent) are actual places,” he writes. Focusing on “the solid majority of Protestants, he adds that “at least a quarter of Americans . . . are sure ‘the Bible is the actual word of God . . . to be taken literally, word for word.'” And “more than a third of all Americans . . . believe that God regularly grants them and their fellow charismatics magical powers—to speak in tongues, heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on.” Elsewhere, Andersen notes, “According to Pew, 58 percent of evangelicals believe that Jesus will return no later than the year 2050. (And only 17 percent of all Americans said they thought He definitely wasn’t coming back during the next thirty-three years.)” With such beliefs so widely held, fake news and “alternative facts” can be no surprise.

The problem is far broader than fanciful religious beliefs

Fantasyland is far from limited to the religious sources of Americans’ predisposition to fantasy. Andersen regards shopping malls, planned communities, Civil War reenactment and Renaissance Faires, fantasy sports, theme restaurants, People magazine, cosmetic surgery, pro wrestling, computer games, reality TV, and Disney theme parks as other signposts of our infatuation with the unreal and the impossible. It’s difficult to argue with this on a strictly logical basis. Andersen makes the case. Yet I find it a stretch too far to imply that such phenomena are in any way equivalent to fantasies such as widespread voter fraud, hysteria about vaccines, and the pernicious practices of Scientology, all of which have real-world consequences and sometimes lead to physical harm and even death. However, Andersen implies that, because of conditioning by these seemingly inconsequential realities, Americans are peculiarly susceptible to dangerous conspiracy theories.

Another author examined America’s religious history in an excellent recently published book. I reviewed One Nation, Under Gods by Peter Manseau at America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book. Earlier, I had reviewed two other books with insight about American history: Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout (Citizens United, bribery, and corruption in America) and Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal (When religion dominated the views of American conservatives).


September 20, 2017

America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book

religious history - One Nation Under Gods by Peter ManseauOne Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

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If you’ve wondered how anyone could insist that the United States is a “Christian nation” when so many other faiths are practiced within our borders—and so many Americans shun religion entirely—you should enjoy One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau. In fact, if you yourself believe that claim, it’s even more important that you read this surprising and revealing book. One Nation Under Gods is an ideal companion volume to Howard Zinn’s classic secular history, A People’s History of the United States. Together, the two books provide a well-rounded picture of American history as it really happened, not as we were taught it in high school.

And the perspective advanced in One Nation, Under Gods is mirrored in the news: “Last week, in a report entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity, the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) concluded that white Christians were now a minority in the US population. Soon, white people as a whole will be, too.”

Surprises galore in America’s religious history

In One Nation Under Gods, Manseau surveys the country’s religious history from the arrival of the Conquistadores and the Puritans to Scientology, the Right-Wing evangelicals, and New Age cults of recent years. To illustrate each of the major belief systems that have flourished (and sometimes faded away) over the centuries, Manseau offers a lively sketch of each faith’s earliest practitioner, or in cases such as the Mormon Church, the founder.

One Nation Under Gods is full of surprises.

  • For instance, did you know that a North African Muslim explored large swaths of what is today the United States nearly a century before the fabled landing at Plymouth Rock—and did so far more extensively than his Spanish Christian masters?
  • That twenty percent of the African slaves brought to America were Muslims?
  • That the theology espoused by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was derived in significant part from the oracular vision of an Iroquois leader named Handsome Lake?
  • That many of America’s leading intellectuals of the nineteenth century—Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman—were heavily influenced by a traveling Hindu lecturer and the sacred writing of the Hindu faith?
  • Or that the first woman prosecuted as a witch in Salem was a Caribbean Indian woman named Tituba whose practice of her traditional religion induced two young girls in a preacher’s household to imitate her “heathen” practices? (Tituba escaped the gallows. The two girls didn’t.)

I certainly knew none of these things. And these examples merely scratch the surface of the revelations in Manseau’s delightful book. I suspect you’ll learn a lot, too.

Religious intolerance in American history

The central theme in One Nation Under Gods is the extraordinary diversity of religious beliefs that have captivated Americans over the centuries. Manseau provides abundant evidence that religious diversity was a reality from the earliest days of English settlement in America, giving the lie to the rigid conformity demanded by Puritan preachers in seventeenth-century New England. Names familiar to any religious scholar—Anne Hutchison and Roger Williams, for example—represented only an early stage in the splintering of the Puritan faith. As settlement moved further into the wilderness, more and more distant from the churches of the towns, the lure of Christian faith grew ever dimmer.

However, it might as well be said that the book is a study of religious intolerance in our history. From John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the leaders of whichever version of the Christian faith held sway at any one time went to great lengths to stamp out competing belief systems. (Manseau demonstrates that both anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese anger was based at least in large part on intolerance of the Buddhist religion.) The dogmatism of today’s Right-Wing evangelicals who demand “prayer in the schools” is only one manifestation of this history.

About the author

Peter Manseau is the religion curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, DC. One Nation Under Gods is his fourth book.

You might also enjoy my reviews of two books about Scientology. One is at Scientology revealed in a definitive investigative report. The other: Inside Scientology: set up your own religion, and make a billion dollars. I also reviewed another excellent book of religious history in America: Joseph Smith: the remarkable man who founded the Mormon Church.

September 12, 2017

Historical perspective on “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

Book exploring the "Right-Wing conspiracy"Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

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In Dark Money, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer exposed the dominant role of what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class” behind the rise of the Radical Right in America—what then-First Lady Hillary Clinton famously called “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy.” In Democracy in Chains, Duke University professor Nancy MacLean probes the historical roots of the radical libertarian ideology they profess. Together, the two books deepen our understanding of the misleadingly-named “conservative” movement that has come to dominate American politics in the second decade of the 21st century.

The historical roots of today’s “conservative” movement

MacLean’s argument is essentially simple. Dig down to the intellectual roots of today’s Radical Right, she asserts, and you’ll find John C. Calhoun‘s spirited defense of slavery in the 19th century and Harry Byrd‘s campaign of massive resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. Contemporary “conservatives” don’t acknowledge the racist roots of their ideology in the “states’ rights” arguments of the past. They advocate “economic liberty” grounded in a “free market,” citing the work of Right-Wing economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedich A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman. While acknowledging the influence of these and other intellectuals on what has come to be called the conservative movement, MacLean persuasively argues that instead the principal figure in the evolution of the ideas at the core of today’s Radical is a lesser-known Nobel Prize-winning economist, James M. Buchanan.

“The vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

In a detailed exploration of Buchanan’s work at a succession of Right-Wing campuses, chiefly the University of Virginia and George Mason University, MacLean points to his decades-long partnership with Charles Koch and other ultra-wealthy donors as the central thread in the ascendancy of the Right. “In the eventual merger of Koch’s money and managerial talent and the Buchanan team’s decades of work monomaniacally identifying how the populace became more powerful than the propertied,” she writes, “a fifth column movement would come into being, the likes of which no nation had ever seen.” She characterizes her account as “the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance . . . a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” This movement’s hidden agenda—and it has been consciously hidden for many years—is to end public education, abolish Social Security and Medicare, close down the U.S. Postal Service, repeal minimum wage laws and prohibitions against child labor, eliminate foreign aid, close the Environmental Protection Agency, and eventually end taxes and government regulation of any kind. In other words, given the stealth nature of this radical libertarian movement, Hillary Clinton was right on-target when she called it a “vast Right-Wing conspiracy.” But why has so much time and money gone into this effort? Buchanan had a simple answer to that question: “‘Why must the rich be made to suffer?'”

Criticism of Democracy in Chains

Given MacLean’s obviously negative perspective on these developments, it’s no surprise that her book has been bitterly criticized by commentators on the Right. For  example, one critic, writing in the Washington Post, referred to “dubious claims” in MacLean’s account, challenging the importance she ascribes to Buchanan’s work and the relevance of the resistance to desegregation in 1950s Virginia. Others have questioned her scholarship. Judging from what I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that these critics have actually read MacLean’s book.

What “economic liberty” really means

Buchanan espoused “public choice theory.” In his view, which won him the Nobel, democracy inevitably leads to overspending because the majority continually forces politicians to fund new government services. The taxes required to fund these services constrain the “economic liberty” of wealthy people and corporations. Buchanan’s intellectual descendants call these privileged people and their business enterprises “makers,” as opposed to the rest of us, who are “takers.”

MacLean observes in her conclusion that “There is another, biting irony to note: the goal of this cause is not, in the end, to shrink big government, as its rhetoric implies. Quite the contrary: the interpretation of the Constitution [they seek] to impose would give federal courts vast new powers to strike down measures desired by voters and passed by their duly elected representatives at all levels—and would require greatly expanded police powers to control the resultant popular anger.”

Reviews of related books

My review of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is here: How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics. You might also be interested in Robert Reich explains how to make capitalism work for the middle class. And, for another take on the origins of today’s Right-Wing movement, see my review of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted. It’s at How today’s conservatism grew in the cotton fields of California.

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