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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Open letter to Molly Ball of the Atlantic

I have enjoyed your reporting in the Atlantic and comments on the Diane Rehm show, but I was a bit dismayed by the dismissive attitude of you and your colleagues with regard to presidential debates being a “for-pay” event only.  Certainly this is something the media would want to abhor. Have we become so blase and cynical that no one cares any more that a substantial portion of the population cannot watch a debate among candidates running for elective office?  It would seem this is one area where pressure from the media would be non-partisan and a very important issue to promote. What I fear is that the debates formats have been devised in such a way to showcase the moderators rather than those running for office.  A well moderated debate will have watchers walking away discussing the candidates rather than the moderators, perhaps not even knowing their names.

If the media were really serious -- and I think you and some of your colleagues are -- about having substantive discussions, you need to organize and promote such an event.  Were I moderating a discussion, I’d have one or two questions prepared (a couple of examples are below) -- they could even be given to the candidates in advance -- and give each one 4-5 minutes to expound on that topic and then allow all of the others to weigh in on each other's proposals to create substantive give and take and to highlight differences. The role of the moderator would then simply be to make sure the candidates didn;t interrupt each other and everyone had a chance to speak.  I suspect such a format would separate the serious candidates from the rest very quickly.

You might argue that such thinking is naive at best, or would even create a boring show.  Perhaps, but if the “debates” are merely to entertain with gotcha questions for the twitter feed of the night, we’ve seriously lowered the quality of media and our democracy.  Let’s not always underestimate the intelligence of the American people.  Who but the media can hope to change the tone and character of these events? Surely not all of you have succumbed to the desire for easy fame and fortune through the celebrity route.

Some minor examples, I’m sure serious journalists could come up with better ones:

1.  The GOP would seem to be the party favoring allotting power to the states more than the federal government.  As president, what issues are properly the role of the federal government and which belong to the states? How would you go about making changes in that allocation of power.

2.  Key for any president is his/her ability to gain a majority in the House and Senate for legislation. What skills do you bring to the table in order to gain those majorities and what should the role of compromise be in that?

3.  Several former government officials have discussed the "shadow governments" that exist within our large bureaucracy, for example a rogue CIA or other department that manages to make its own policy.  How would you identify and address that concern?

4.  The president has to hire a lot of people and will have to delegate much of that role to others.  How would you go about making sure that the people you hire are on board with your theory of government?

Friday, October 30, 2015

"Maybe we are just chumps."

Here's an interesting comment from someone who posted on Timothy Egan's opinion page regarding the current GOP debates.  Jim from Virginia

"Here's a thought: maybe we really are bad people - Americans, that is. Maybe we've become so morally hollowed out by profitable wars these past 70 years that Wayne LaPierre and Ben Carson really do represent us. Maybe TV and fast food and the NCAA have finally gutted our self respect and we can't begin to imagine a wage so low that we wouldn't work for it. Maybe all those soldiers who died so the rich could pay lower taxes were in fact chumps. Maybe the Walton children really deserve more money, that 30 million workers and the social security recipients really are social parasites. Maybe it was all a joke after all - that talk about hard work and playing by the rules and sending the kids to college. Maybe the Republican Party reflects the best of the American heart and soul."

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Trickle Down Halloween

This year we're giving all the candy to the first 1% of those who come to the door and then let them share with everyone else.  That should work.

Re Debate moderators

I've been reading a lot about the moderators' performance at the GOP debate last night.  (As an aside the decision of CNBC to limit viewers only to cable subscribers was unconscionable.)  Much of the complaining  both from the people on stage and others has related to their "liberal" bias or whatever.  Leaving aside that CNBC  provided the inspiration for the Tea Party, it seems  to me whether the moderators were biased or not is irrelevant, since it's particularly useful to see how different people respond to a variety of "biased" points of view. That presents an opportunity for a candidate to really shine in how he/she answers a question. Attacking the moderator is rarely revealing, but something he/she could say is. "thanks for the question which I think relates to [policy position] and here's what I would do in regard to that."  If you want the moderator to simply throw softballs, my guess is we would learn nothing about the candidates ability to deal with the opposition he/she will certainly face from Congress.

On the other hand, the format is ridiculous.  Too many people on the platform and not enough time for anything other than simplistic answers.  The candidates should fight that. They should demand time for at least 3-4 minute answers, not that they would have to use up all the time and could certainly cede some of their time to others on stage if they wished.  We've certainly come a long way from the Lincoln Douglas debates where the two would often speak in great depth for several hours on issues.

As a general rule, it's been my impression that moderators often make themselves the issue which is precisely what they should not do. One should leave such an event thinking about what the panelists or candidates said, not how the moderator behaved.

Were I a moderator these are some questions I'd like to see asked of each of the candidates answer given each at least 5 minutes per question.

1.  The GOP would seem to be the party favoring allotting power to the states more than the federal government.  As president, what issues are properly the role of the federal government and which belong to the states? How would you go about making changes in that allocation of power.

2.  Key for any president is his/her ability to gain a majority in the House and Senate for legislation. What skills do you bring to the table in order to gain those majorities and what should the role of compromise be in that?

3.  Several former government officials have discussed the "shadow governments" that exist within our large bureaucracy, for example a rogue CIA or other department that manages to make its own policy.  How would you identify and address that concern?

4.  The president has to hire a lot of people and will have to delegate much of that role to others.  How would you go about making sure that the people you hire are on board with your theory of government?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Imperium by Robert Harrois

I was reading a biography of Julius Caesar after having watched some episodes of “Rome,” a rather bawdy but interesting version of the rise of Octavian in which Cicero plays a prominent, if cheesey role, so I knowing Harris through some other books, I grabbed this one.

Told through the eyes and memory of his servant, Tiro, supposedly the inventor of shorthand, the mechanism for perfect recording of the actual speeches,  Cicero’s place in the history of oratory (Demosthenes taught that content was less important than delivery) and role in the growing conflict between the “plebes” and aristocracy (“the fish rots from the head down) is secured. A real person, Marcus Tullius Tiro, was Cicero’s slave then freedman, who wrote about Cicero, since lost, and collected many of Cicero’s works.

“Imperium” is a Latin word (not that I remember it from my high school Latin) which can be roughly translated as “power to command,” that refers to the power of the state over the individual, but also implies the power gained from wealth and ownership of “stuff,” i.e., the aristocracy.

There are some startling images of historical veracity.  For example, Crassus, bringing his army back to Rome, crucified 6000 prisoners, slaves, along more than 300 miles of the Appian way, spacing he crosses about 17 to the mile, as a warning to any future Spartacus who might wish to revolt against the imperium. (From the Third Servile War -

Harris shows an intimate knowledge of Rome and its history managing to portray all of it through the legal battle between Cicero and the great legal mind of Hortensius (who defends the role of rhetoric in Cicero’s Hortensius) the famous advocate in a trial in which Cicero defends a friend from Gaius Verres, a disreputable and thoroughly corrupt Senator (all historical figures.).  Corruption, as we would understand it, was rampant and institutionalized.  Votes were for sale; in fact, there were bribery merchants and it took a great deal of money to gain and remain in power, “voters never forgave a cheapskate.”

What I found quite remarkable is how Harris’s Roman Senate and political world so mirrors our own.

This is not a book for those who like flesh-slashing, cut-them-up action stories.  Rather, it’s an intricate legal novel of startling historical veracity (as far as I can research) that really held my interest. There are some wonderful turns of phrase.  While making a comment about hagiography, Tiro says simply it is the “distorting light of the future on the shadows of the past.”

This is the first of a trilogy.

Review: Saint Death by Mark Dawson

Next in the John Milton series after The Cleaner. Several characters are introduced in the beginning:  the intrepid journalist; the honest Mexican cop due to retire in five days; the bad guys who are really, really bad members of the drug cartel, and, gradually your continuing character, John Milton, now in Mexico. He’s been traveling light after leaving Britain to hide from his former employers.  Throw in an MI5 operative who happens to be a Russian agent and things get complicated when Milton interferes in a cartel hit and gets fingerprinted by the local cops. And then Milton agrees to help an American mercenary deliver the cartel’s leader’s son to his enemies.  Things get messy.

I’m glad I stuck with Dawson.  This 2nd book in the series is so much better than the first. (There were a couple of proofing errors of content, however.) Make no mistake, this stuff is not literature, so the way the plot develops becomes key and this one is above average.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Cleaner by Mark Dawson

The book gets off to a slightly bizarre start. Milton is on assignment for MI5 or some such private governmental agency running amok, to assassinate some North Korean generals responsible for some cyber-terrorism (as if the generals knew how to program.)   Fast forward to an assignment in France where is kills a couple from Iran looking for Zirconium or some such shit they need for their nuclear weapons program. One problem, he kills a cop who happens on the scene but doesn’t kill a little boy in the back seat of the couple’s car.  Big mistake because it gets him in bad with his bosses.

Fast forward to the Milton and the boss where Milton, who has been suffering from nightmares (and is a closet alcoholic attending AA meetings - in passages reminiscent of Lawrence Block’s obsession with Alcoholics Anonymous) has decided he wants out. Of course there is no such thing, but Milton, after saving a woman from her suicide in front of a train (interesting question:  do we have that right?) decides to help her son who has fallen in with bad characters. (Interesting anomaly: the gang leader urges Elijah, her son, so go back to school -- the gangster is studying accounting -- because there’s no future in robbing people.)

Well, it all goes to hell as three worlds collide: Dawson’s MI5 handlers want him dead as he seems to have left the business on his own; the gangs that control the area where Milton decides to live for a while; and those trying to escape both

Somewhat predictable and disjointed, but I may read another.  Next in the series is Saint Death.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

There is very little about the plot I’d like to say other than it’s terrific and you can read all about it elsewhere.  I loved the chemistry and the science.  It’s all about using your brain and knowledge to extricate yourself from difficult situations.

I was also intrigued by the way Weir got the book published.  His father, btw, is a particle physicist, his mother and electronics engineer, and Weir himself a computer programmer but writer wannabe.  He made a lot of money when AOL was bought out and he was forced to sell his stock at its peak (tough).  He took three years off to write, but that went nowhere.  When the Internet came along he realized he could write to an audience and after a while began writing a serial that became the Martian. He would also get comments from scientists who were fans suggesting changes in his math or chemistry.   You can read much more about how it got to be a movie at in this interview with Adam Savage.

Loved this book.

Favorite quote: "Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped."

Lost Vegas by Steve Brewer

E-book package deals are becoming the rage and they are always a good deal for both the reader and the authors. Die Laughing 1 contained humorous mysteries/thriller by several authors with whom I was unfamiliar. And for $.99?   The first in the compilation was Lost Vegas by Steve Brewer.

Shades of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder with perhaps a touch of noir. Tony Finn and his crew are asked to hit a casino in a small town in Nevada so the owner, a former Chicago hit man, can claim insurance money and make it more competitive with the only other casino in town, run by Big Jim Kelton. It’s your typical heist story gone a bit wrong although I prefer ones with more subtlety and less explosive violence.

Brewer handles things well although not as deftly as Westlake.  Certainly a pleasant way to spend time waiting in line or at a doctor’s office, but hardly memorable. Slumming can be fun, too.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Amazon Fire Phone - A Great media player

It's a shame that the Amazon Fire phone was such a bust.  It had some nice features, such as the rather incredible 3D lock screen that rotates cute movable images. That aside, when I saw that this $600 phone was available on ebay for $150 that included (!) a Prime renewal (it extends your existing Prime subscription) AND came with an unlocking code, I realized this is a tremendous bargain.

This is a phone that runs on the AT&T GSM network using an easily accessible SIM card.  In other words you can swap out the AT&T card and replace it with any other SIM card that runs on a GSM network, the one used all over Europe.  So I could get a phone to use in Europe and get a pay-as-you-go phone network in the States such as T-Mobile, EZKonnect, Tracfone, etc.  AND I would have a great media player that used the Amazon app system (not as good as the Google Play store, but since I have tons of Kindle books and love the Amazon ecosystem, no problem.)

I ordered one, got a T-Mobile SIM card ($3/month access and a new phone # that I won't need or use, but could if I wanted to and it could Skype or use some other VoiP), unlocked the phone (ridiculously simple), and logged in to my Amazon account and connected to my WiFi network.  Bingo, I have a great reader, phone, and media player for a total of about $30.  Since it works on WiFi you need never use cellular data plans unless you want to.

There appear to be lots more of these available on ebay.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Deadline (Virgil Flowers #8) by John Sandford

Warning:  This review contains adult language although I’ve heard it from ten-year-olds.  Well maybe not in Latin.

Audiobook. Eric Conger and Sandford  are perfectly matched, especially when Conger is reading the Virgil Flowers series.  He has just the right articulation and sardonic quality to his narration that truly adds to the enjoyment of a fun series. I really enjoy them.

Virgil, a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent, is asked by a friend, Johnson Johnson, -- Johnson’s father was enamored of outboard motor manufacturers and his brother was named Mercury Johnson  -- to investigate who has been stealing dogs in the area. During the course of that investigation he discovers a meth lab, and a local man is murdered.  The main investigation focuses on the members of a local school board (no spoiler here, the reader is fully apprised of the conspiracy from the start) that has been ripping off the district and splitting the proceeds among themselves, the superintendent and the security guy.)  I found it stretching credibility a bit to accept such a successful conspiracy among so many people and that what is portrayed as a very small community has such a huge district budget, but the story does work and in any case the details are irrelevant.

I do have a small gripe with regard to how most writers regard town size. I live two miles east of a small town. The population is 1,800 people. (One PT cop.) I used to live near a smaller town with a population of 176.  Those are small towns.  The school district ( where I now live) covers a very large area encompassing several other small towns and has a budget of about $6 million.  The closest large town, about 17 miles away, has a population of about 28,000 and the school district’s budget is about $40 million, similar to the one in this story.  The interaction of the characters in this story is much closer to a town of 1,800 than one of 28,000. But a small town with the characteristics Sandford describes would never, imho, have a budget approaching $40 million permitting embezzlement on the scale he describes. But I suppose writers who live in cities assume a small town is something around 100,000.  That’s a big city. Then again, you can read about the Queen of embezzlers, Rita Crundwell, who stole $57 million over several decades from Dixon, Illinois, population 16,000. (In classic understatement one of the city commissioners said of her financial stewardship as comptroller, "she looks after every tax dollar as if it were her own."  (

This has to be the best Virgil Flowers story yet.  Some very funny scenes and conversation, often in the midst of serious situations. I loved the boat chase across the Mississippi near the end using two very slow fishing boats followed by a golf cart chase ending in a sand trap. And the Attorney General’s representative who, when discussing extradition from the Cheeseheads said he would need to look up the Latin legal phrase for “Fuck Off.”  (My high school Latin is very rusty, but, I believe it’s Futete.  Don’t even ask what “Te futueo et caballum tuum” means.  The Internet is amazing.)  

Virgil’s new girlfriend, Frankie, does some farming and Virgil (Sandford under his real name, John Camp, wrote a book about farm life in southwestern Minnesota),  when given the choice between following a hay wagon and throwing bales around or having his testicles dropped in a bear trap, has to take a while to “think about it.”  I know exactly why the delay, having had to throw about a thousand bales a day into a barn daily for several summers.  It’s dreadful.

If you haven’t tried the Virgil Flowers series, I highly recommend them.  Start with the first although they stand alone quite well.  Much better than the  Davenport series, which are also enjoyable.

Monday, October 05, 2015

My Years with Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden

Having read and reviewed Barbara Branden’s biography of Ayn Rand and several of Rand’s books, I thought it might be very useful to get the perspective of someone Ayn rejected, Nathaniel Branden. One does get a different sense of Rand from this rather self-absorbed, but very interesting, memoir. Clearly Rand delighted in having young acolytes falling on her every word and interpretation, and she was not particularly tolerant toward ideas that sprang from other brains. 

This book provides a detailed insight into how she wrote, why, and a further explication of many of her fascinating ideas. For example, several people expressed concern over Rand’s ideas of altruism and selfishness. Ayn considered altruism, “the tradition that equates morality with self-sacrifice, . . . [that:] man has no right to exist for his own sake,” incompatible with capitalism, which rests on the recognition of individual rights. “When I,” Ayn said to Nathaniel, “tell people I’m opposed to altruism, they go crazy. They think it means I’m opposed to kindness, charity, benevolence, and respect for the rights of others — and yet altruism means none of those things — and people miss what it actually does mean. . . : selfsacrifice to others as the highest good. . . .I wonder what people would think if someone told them that imprinted on Nazi coins was the slogan, ‘The common good above the individual good.’ No one spoke more passionately than Hitler about the nobility of the individual sacrificing himself for the tribe — only he called it the ‘race.’ ” The critical reaction to Atlas Shrugged was often vicious, yet by word of mouth the book took off. Branden accuses the critics of not just "getting it wrong," but also misrepresenting the ideas in her work. "To me her opponents were debating with straw men. They equated her philosophy with that of Spencer or Nietzsche or Spinoza or Hobbes, thereby exposing themselves to the charge of philosophic illiteracy. What they did not do was identify accurately and then challenge the ideas for which Ayn in fact stood. No one wrote, 'Ayn Rand holds that man must choose his values and actions by reason; that the individual has a right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing self to others nor others to self; that no one has the right to seek values from others by physical force, or impose ideas on others by physical force — and I consider such ideas wrong, evil, socially dangerous.' " 

Rand was equally contemptuous of both liberals and conservatives, noting that each wanted to apply social controls. “In my philosophy,” Branden quotes her as saying, “ the government’s only proper job is to protect individual rights against violence by force or fraud — to provide courts for the protection of property and the peaceful settling of contractual disputes — and a military for protection against foreign invaders. . . .The greatness of the Founding Fathers was how well they understood this issue and how close some of them came to understanding it perfectly.” 

The Brandens — not married yet, but dating in a somewhat peculiar manner — were in school in southern California during the McCarthy period, when there was concern expressed by the left wing that their views were being suppressed, and when professors were afraid to speak their minds. The Brandens observed otherwise, noting that their views supporting laissez-faire capitalism were anathema to their teachers, who virtually uniformly promoted Marxist and socialist ideology. Eventually, the Brandens fell under the intellectual sway of Ayn Rand and became part of a group that quite ironically called themselves “the Collective.” This group would gather regularly “at the feet of the master” to discuss issues. Among the more prominent members were Alan Greenspan and Allan Blumenthal. Branden later suggests that the group’s often unquestioning allegiance to Rand and her rejection of those who failed to accept her wisdom without question had cultist implications. The relationship between Nathaniel and Ayn was to become quite weird. Rand insisted that women should ideally subsume themselves to men, yet she seems to have totally dominated her husband, Frank. 

One day she announced that she and Nathaniel were to have a love affair. This was presented calmly in the presence of Frank and Barbara in a “rational” manner. The idea was that Nathaniel and she were in love and would therefore meet often to indulge their sexual desires for each other (she was quite a bit older than Nathaniel, who by this time was training to become a psychotherapist, but people have a tendency to specialize in their deficiencies). Obviously, this was stressful for the other partners; then the inevitable break came, and Ayn’s reaction when Nathaniel finally rejected her over was vicious. Nathan’s relationship with Barbara, always a bit odd, had soured and he had been smitten with a nubile young model, Patrecia who just admired him immensely. BY this time, he was the de facto spokesman for Objectivism as the creator of the Nathaniel Branden Institute — a rather narcissistic name for it — that was spreading the “gospel” throughout the U.S. Ayn was still urging Nathan to return to her romantically, but when he wrote her a long letter explaining his love for Patrecia, she exploded and cut him off from her and the Collective. 

I suspect her participation in the Objectivist movement and the Institute was an unintentional way of trying to keep him attached to her. It appears she desperately needed “adoring followers” although she had been taking large doses of amphetamines for many years by prescription to control her weight and it now appears that long-term use can make one paranoid. As he was forced out of the movement, Nathan later came to see some of the pitfalls of a movement dominated by a charismatic figure: “fanaticism, dogmatism, [and:] oppressive moralism.” It’s a fascinating story, well-told. I find Rand’s ideas appealing, particularly her emphasis on individualism and selfishness (as she defines it) and rejection of coercion of any kind. All movements eventually suffer from hardening of arterial thought that prevents growth.

Dead Sea Scrolls Deception by Michael Baigent

In 1947, many old scrolls were found in several caves near Qumran along the shores of the Dead Sea. They were very old, but their significance was not immediately recognized. Eventually, most of them found their way into the hands of the Ecole Biblique, a Dominican-owned-and-operated research institution in what was then part of Jordan. The scrolls appeared to date from around 200 B.C. to 70 A.D. and were originally thought to be the work of the Essenes, a monastic group of pacifistic Jews who retreated to the desert to live a communal and impoverished existence.

The Ecole Biblique was headed by an anti-Semitic monk named Father de Vaux. He and a small group of scholars (whose credentials have been disputed) jealously guarded the scrolls from any outside (particularly Jewish) examination. Meanwhile, the world waited to discover what these scrolls might contain. Only small portions leaked out. John Allegro, one of the early members of the team, suggested that the contents of the scrolls indicated that much of the Christian "myth," to use his phrase, was already recorded in the scrolls, which had been written many years before the birth of Jesus. Allegro, (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth) insisted that the Christian orthodox creed survived by ruthlessly suppressing any deviant beliefs, and by institutionalizing the beliefs of the early Essenes. Allegro was drummed out of the Ecole for such speculations and refused further access to the documents. Admittedly some of his later writings were quite fantastic and peculiar.

By the late 1980s the failure of the international team, as it was now called, to release the scrolls for examination by scholars other than those approved by the team, had become an academic scandal. The Biblical Archaeology Review and major biblical scholars around the world finally created great pressure on the Ecole to make the documents available. They consistently refused to do so, arguing that they wanted to prevent "shoddy" scholarship.

Only recently have the documents become available through other means. The Huntington Library in California, which had come into possession of a microfilm copy of the scroll photographs, decided to make the material public on interlibrary loan to any interested scholar, and a text was published of the scrolls which had been created from a published concordance.

But let's return to my original premise. Because of the Ecole's reluctance to permit outsiders to view any of the scrolls, and the Ecole's very close ties to the Catholic church (de Vaux and his successors have all sat on the Pontifical Biblical Commission, whose job it is to monitor and supervise all biblical studies of the church), naturally it was only a matter of time before someone decided that a conspiracy existed to suppress the scrolls because they contained information that threatened the very existence of the Christian Church.
Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh have done just that in a recent book entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception. Baigent is previously known for his collaboration on another book, Holy Blood Holy Grail, which, according to reviews, purported to discover a plot by the Prieure de Sion, a secret French society. This group derived its raison d'etre from a legend that claims Jesus did not die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene, and together they sired a line of Merovingian kings (which doesn't say much for their blood line). Anyway, the authors predicted that believers in this Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ and emphasized his humanity, would place one of the Merovingian descendants on the throne of Europe. Baigent and Leigh admit to having no evidence for this little theory, only a hypothesis. They make it sound plausible, but that doesn't cut it. Ockham's Razor, or the third rule of history, states that in the absence of evidence, what most likely happened is probably the simplest solution; that which requires the fewest assumptions.

As in the Merovingian plot book, their "Deception" book is very short on evidence. Suggesting that the Catholic Church would want to suppress evidence that Jesus' beliefs predated his birth might be plausible, but it's irresponsible to present a thesis based simply on conjecture. An eminent theologian and scholar I consulted confirmed my suspicions that the mystery surrounding the scrolls, while indeed a scandal from the standpoint of scholars in the field, represents nothing more than a case of little men guarding a tremendous find for themselves and their friends. Still, the book is fun to read and does disclose a fascinating account of an academic embarrassment. 

Another, more scholarly work, albeit early (1955), is by Millar Burrows and entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls . Fortunately, now that the Ecole and the international team have been suitably humiliated, one can hope that we will see more accurate and less speculative studies on the archaeological find of the century.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Public Servant, Secret Agent: The Enigmatic Life and Violent Death of Airey Neave

I stumbled across this book while doing some research on Colditz, the supposedly escape-proof castle/prison where incorrigible escapees were housed by the Nazis.  I had never heard of Neave but reading just a couple of pages hooked me completely.  It’s fascinating.

As a child Neave had been sent to Germany in 1933 to learn the language.  This gave him an opportunity to witness fascism in practice and he formed a lifelong hatred of authoritarianism that became an obsession.

Unlike his fellow students who wanted nothing to do with war, Neave joined the Territorials.  When the war began, he was shipped off to France as part of a Searchlight unit which was unfortunate enough to be assigned to defend Calais against Guderian’s panzers. He was shot by a sniper and captured. (He described these events in his book The Flames of Calais.**) He was captured and imprisoned in several different POW camps from which he tried to escape each time.  Eventually, he wound up in Colditz, the supposedly escape-proof camp (that’s a laugh).  He escaped to Switzerland in 1942 where he came to the attention of MI9, one of those shadowy numbered agencies of British Intelligence which, in this case, was “a wholly owned subsidiary of MI6.”

During the war, following his escape, he worked for MI9 in establishing and maintaining the escape routes for downed airmen. Anxious to get France following the Normandy invasions, he pushed through on the heels of the American Third Army in order to personally liberate one of the rather spectacular camps they had established right under the noses of the Germans.  It held over 100 men and was supplied by air. One interesting and confirmed story has him preventing the destruction of Chartres Cathedral by American troops with orders to blow it up for fear snipers might be hiding in the towers.  If so he personally saved one of the great Gothic cathedrals.

There is a relatively short chapter on Neave’s role in the Nuremberg trials. I was disappointed in its brevity for Neave’s -- he was one of the junior prosecutors -- comments on the reactions of each of the major defendants as the indictments were being read to them I thought were fascinating and would have enjoyed learning more. I realize in a biography one has to be selective, but I would have traded some of the escape detail for more depth about Nuremberg. Especially since the author questions whether Neave took its lessons to heart: “...soldiers should also understand politics, and Nuremberg was the greatest example of civil society seeking to make soldiers understand the nature of their actions and their responsibility to recognise political right and wrong. In his own life, the soldier – politician Neave was not always so scrupulous. He vigorously propounded the virtues of liberty and democracy but flirted dangerously with quasi-military groups in Britain determined to halt what they saw as a drift towards Communism. For the most part, the politician was in charge, but sometimes the soldier took over, as in his attitude to Northern Ireland much later."

He then morphed into politics, but his heart always lay with the secret service and he intertwined the two. Following a heart attack in 1959 (most likely caused by his excessive drinking and smoking, he resigned his ministerial offices and relegated to the back benches where he began to nurse a resentment against what he  considered ill treatment from his conservative brethren taking a job as a lucrative  parliamentary consultant for an atomic energy company. Back as an MP, his efforts were unspectacular except in the area of compensation for British POWS who had been held by the Germans in concentration camps. He was active in debates on the ‘brain drain’, care of the elderly, nuclear energy, toll bridges and the foot and mouth epidemic among English cattle. Making a long story shorter, Naeve offered his services to Margaret Thatcher as her campaign manager and using the psychological skills of the secret service, performed brilliantly. His intelligence network was “unsurpassed.”

By the early seventies, IRA violence was dominating the news. Following Thatcher’s election, Naeve could have virtually any position in her cabinet. Perhaps because of his MI6 experience he chose Northern Ireland. “Despite his reputation as a vaguely progressive Conservative, Neave was now moving in very deep shadows on the hard right of British – and Irish – politics.” No doubt he thought he could use force to quell the Republican movement.  "Roger Bolton, a television producer who knew him and put together a documentary on his assassination, argues the paradox that Neave was a moral man willing to do things that immoral people were not: ‘If necessary, he took the gun out and there were difficult things to be done but for the most honourable of reasons.’ Thatcher perhaps owed him a great deal as Neave was the mastermind behind the coup that “dethroned” Edward Heath. using the “psy-ops” techniques he had acquired during his years in the intelligence services.

Neave was killed by a bomb in his car in 1979.  Routledge managed to interview the team (another one of the hopelessly confusing quasi-independent groups with its own acronym (INLA) they were black-hooded and still very secretive, but hoped that by revealing the truth of Neave’s killing, they might persuade the British government to reveal information about some of the government’s own killings.

"He was a public servant who never really stopped being a secret agent.”   

A riveting book. One caveat:  some knowledge of 20th century British parliamentary history would be invaluable, something I did not have, and without it the central section seemed often ungrounded, but the recounting of his time during the war, his shadowy operations to get Thatcher elected and Northern Ireland make up for that.  Highly recommended.  

** In his book, Neave makes the case that holding Calais “at all costs” made the evacuation at Dunkirk possible.   Liddell-Hart thought that was rubbish noting that the panzer division assigned to Calais was only one of seven and had been deployed because “it had nothing else to do,” and that the brave stand against overwhelming odds was a useless sacrifice that Churchill later glorified to salve his conscience.     

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

I stumbled across this book by accident.  It’s fascinating, if often depressing. I’ve always maintained that if reenactors were really serious about authenticity, they’d issue live ammunition. Nevertheless, Horwitz, whose immigrant great-grandfather became obsessed with Civil War history, also caught the bug, and when they discovered a TV crew shooting a scene in the land next to their house in Maryland, decided to investigate what makes Confederate reenactors (they hate to be called that preferring terms like “living historians”) tick.

Unfortunately, many of them can’t get over the fact they lost. Refusing to call it the Civil War (they prefer “War Between the States” which it wasn’t called at the time) they revel in southern mythology which they pass along to their children in organizations like the Children of the Confederacy’s catechism.  “Yankees hate children,” the kids are taught;  slaves revered their masters; and the war had nothing to do with slavery, they just didn’t want the government to tell them what to do (ironic in light of southern demands that northern states enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws.)

Just to get a few things straight:  1. Nowhere in the Constitution is the right to secede mentioned; it’s in the Declaration of Independence. 2. Southern states all said in their proclamations of secession that their reason was slavery; to argue otherwise is disingenuous. 3. We could refocus the debate over slavery by redefining the issue as one about "property." Slaves were considered property. The Constitution protected property. Supreme Court decisions through 1857 consistently considered slaves to be property. The Founders wrote in many compromises in the Constitution to protect the rights of southern plantation owners (of which they could include themselves, most of them.) David Blight (Race and Reunion) has noted that slaves by 1860 were worth about $3.5 billion, an enormous sum then and of course the southern plantation owners didn't want to give up their property. The cotton business was booming and had doubled in value every decade for four decades before 1860. Ironically, one might posit that the southern states needed a strong federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Acts and it was states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who insisted on "states' rights by passing laws making enforcement of federal Fugitive Slave laws difficult. Southern states, in their declarations of secession documents, said the reason for secession was their desire to protect slavery (see South Carolina and Georgia esp., which also makes reference to slaves as property and their constitutional right thereto). Slavery and race have sullied this country for centuries; to whitewash it is rather sickening. As Bernard Malamud wrote in The Fixer: "There's something cursed, it seems to me, about a country where men have owned men as property. The stink of that corruption never escapes the soul, and it is the stink of future evil."

A constant theme is the power of symbols and nothing illustrates that more than his dispassionate recounting of the killing of Michael Westerman in Guthrie, Kentucky.  Westerman was out driving in his red truck with a large rebel flag flying from the back. What the flag meant to those involved was far less important than what it meant to those who used Michael’s death as a rallying cry for their own particular agenda or hatred.  Horwitz’s interviews reveal that Michael liked the battle flag simply because it matched his truck. To the kid who shot him, clearly unintentional through the side of his truck as they raced along the highway at 85 mph, it was only a symbol of the white bullies in town. Michael's glorification -- he has his own tribute website -- was not what Horwitz heard from others in town when he interviewed them. Much of the town’s reverence for the battle flag seemed to be exacerbated by the school board’s wish to change the mascot -- the Rebel, which served only to inflame teams they had to play.  Ironically, Guthrie, in Todd County, Kentucky was on the Union side during the Civil War. In a further irony, Freddie Morrow who did the shooting, was sent to prison for life plus an extra four years for violating Westerman’s civil rights.  More recently, the power of that symbol was demonstrated when that kid shot up the black church killing several people and calls have echoed throughout the south for and against removal of confederate symbols.

Lots of interesting stories.Horwitz writes well, with compassion, and with humor.  My wife thought the book (we listened to it together) was a bit reminiscent of Bill Bryson.  I agree he has the same sense of irony that has you smile except that in the case of this book that smile is followed by a quick grimace rather than a broad grin. Note that his interview with Shelby Foote is worth the price of the book.

Favorite quote:  “Charlestonian Baptists were so religious they wouldn’t fuck standing up for fear someone might think they were dancing.”