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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review: Pacific Interlude by Sloan Wilson

Third and last of Wilson's WW II novels, Lt. Syl Grant is billeted to an Army gasoline tanker that had almost been destroyed by a Japanese plane. After being refitted (more or less) she is sent to refuel assorted airfields, usually acting as a shuttle between the larger tankers and fuel barges tied to the shore connected to tanks on shore. A random spark could send her skyward and the crew is a collection of misfits. Tankers had their own special dangers: "... but the men of a tanker had to live on top of thousands of gallons of gasoline almost all the time for a year or more. The fighter pilots and the marines feared only the enemy, but the tanker men also had to fear themselves and each other … one moment of carelessness or a suicidal impulse could blow them all up. Most people would never understand that, but other sailors treated the crews of gas tankers with sympathy and respect. The poor devils who ran the gas tankers had a right to swagger a little when they went on liberty."  

Wilson again touches on racism as he did in Voyage to Somewhere although this book was written some thirty years later. Another theme is the relationship of men to each other, their wives, and the girls they meet while in port. Whether the wives at home at any understanding of the dangers faced by their husbands during the war is problematic.

I would read Ice Brothers first, then Voyage to Somewhere, and finally this book even though that's not the order in which they were written.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Having now seen all three major Murder on the Express movies as well as having read the book, it might be time to discuss the book. I like it better than all three, although of the three movies, the David Suchet version is clearly the best. One thing Suchet insisted on, apparently, in the last few episodes in the wonderful series was to inject a religious underpinning to Poirot’s character. This is clearly evident in the train movie with Suchet as Poirot struggles with the moral dilemma of what constitutes justice with regard to the murder of Rachett. Kenneth Branaugh’s version touches on that as well although no where near as neatly as Suchet, which, although very dark, at least held together. 

None of the religious struggle is in the book. Consisting mostly of conversation, Christie manages to deftly reveal the temperament of each character. Lacking, however, is a sense of place. There is very little description of the surroundings, nor (as railroad buffs have complained) much description of the opulent train cars of the Simplon-Orient Express. While I consider myself a member of the latter group, that didn't bother me much. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: Deep Freeze by John Sandford (Virgil Flowers #10)

OK, so I've now read or listened to all 10 Virgil Flowers novels. Eric Conger is a terrific reader, btw. This one is not as good as some of the others but still a huge cut better than most novels out there in the genre, and I like them better than the Davenport series, too. Flowers is just a much more interesting character.

As I pointed out in the other Flowers book that takes place in Trippton, MN, Sandford has a bizarre concept of what constitutes a small town. The people all act like the population is barely one hundred, but the town's infrastructure is that of a small city. I have lived in all sizes and his description hits a false note each time. No matter. I still like the books.

Interesting that I don't think Flowers's nickname (that fucking Flowers) comes up at all in this one.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Review: Vespers by Ed McBain

Not one of my favorite McBain 87th Precinct stories. Too many threads, I thought. In particular the scenario with the girlfriend of Willis was unnecessary and distracting.

A priest who had recently been pushing parishioners to tithe; a former hooker who killed her pimp in Buenos Aires and is now the girlfriend of Detective Willis who is being chased by some thugs for the killing; and a local Satanist church are the initial focal points in this mishmash. Some of the scenes, especially those of the so-called Satanic church struck me as wildly improbable.

Review: Voyage to Somewhere by Sloan Wilson

Not for the non-nautical afficionado, but if you like ships and realistic sea stories, you will enjoy this book. It's based on Sloan's WW II experiences at sea.

Lt. Barton is assigned to a new small supply ship bound for the New Guinea theater in the South Pacific. They are soon hauling such innocuous cargos as pineapples to Hawaii and then candy bars to assorted islands then "burial supplies" and thousands of crosses to an island called Okinawa.

Wilson nicely conveys the tedium of the war as well as the viciousness of being in a small ship during a typhoon. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The moral of this story is that people will see what they are paid to see and that if they are incentivized not to see the truth, they won't. That was the situation described by Michael Lewis. It was the experts who failed us again. It was one guy with Asperger's Syndrome (which may have given him a huge advantage since the condition does help one to focus intensely) who realized that the banks, in making negatively amortized mortgages, were creating a situation to would inevitably fail. He decided to bet against it, was right, and made billions through the use of the banks own creations: the credit default swap, which is basically an insurance policy that pays off big if a bet goes south.

Goldman Sachs, virtual lone survivor of the meltdown thanks to its friends in government, persuaded AIG to insure billions of the subprime mortgages. That was to their downfall. They never did their homework. Nor did the rating agencies. Nor did the regulators.

"People who create disasters make a lot of money cleaning up the disasters because they are the only ones who know about the disasters." The current system is a very elegant form of theft. Basically, Wall Street could care less about investors and is only interested in getting the maximum number of fees. Alan Greenspan is labeled as the worst Fed chair ever, having kept money way too cheap for too long, and ignoring the whole sub-prime mortgage problem thinking, in good libertarian form, that it was none of his business.

The big question is, have what have we learned from this debacle? I suspect nothing. Especially when I hear big wigs predict future financial meltdowns within 5-10 years. Ultimately, Lewis believes that Wall Street has divorced itself from American society and may have done itself in. Soon, as people learn that brokers are encouraging investment in stocks which their own firms might be betting against, customers will learn of the conflict of interest and their world will come tumbling down. It's not a pretty picture. The hatred of Wall Street and its minions is palpable outside NY and Washington. It elected Trump who has learned nothing, instead subscribing to Wall Street's code of doing nothing unless it benefits itself, and falling for its sycophancy. Whether that will ultimately unhinge him remains to be seen.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (reprinted from my Goodreads review 2003)

I had not really paid much attention to Ayn Rand, darling of the conservatives (very surprisingly, actually) until I began reading her biography. When I asked around to see who had actually read any of her work, I found only a few, but lots of opinions about Rand herself. Often those comments ascribed beliefs to Rand that were at opposite poles of the spectrum, from conservative to radical, individualist to Nazi fascist. Obviously another case of what I call the “De Toqueville syndrome,” where everyone pretends to have read a famous book and to know what the author stood for, but has no firsthand reading knowledge. Her biography revealed a complex and very interesting individual, so it was time to dig into her works personally.

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect. Thrown out of Stanton School of Architecture for his refusal to adhere to the standards of the past (the dean views Roark as a rebel who opposes all the rules of architecture and his society’s view of art that is representation of what has been revered in the past) and for turning in assignments that represented a complete break from the past. The conversation with the dean, who tried to persuade Roark to come back into the fold, represents the central theme of the book, the conflict between those who are realitycentered against those who define their lives through the eyes of other people. Roark seeks employment with Cameron, an architect whose designs tried to incorporate using the advantages of new materials, e.g., a skyscraper should look tall, not just like a twenty-story brick building trying to look like a renaissance house. Cameron began to design buildings the way he wanted rather than how his clients demanded. His business dwindled to nothing, but he was sought out by Roark.

Following Cameron’s retirement, Roark seeks employment as a draftsman in a large architectural firm, where he gets a break by sketching a house that breaks with tradition completely but is just what the client wants. Roark is a brilliant but struggling iconoclast, while his rival and former classmate Peter Keating rises to the top of his profession by using obsequiousness, manipulation, and deception. His primary concern is how he is perceived by others. He designs by copying from the past, never thinking independently. Both men are in love with Dominique Falcon, a brilliant, passionate woman, who falls in love with Roark, admires his genius, but who is convinced his genius has no chance in a corrupt world. The villain of the book is Ellsworth Toohey, an architectural critic of note, who denounces Roark for his failure to adhere to the accepted standards of the day. Toohey believes that the individual must sacrifice his independence to the will of others, i.e. society or the group. Toohey is employed by Gail Wynand, a publisher whose paper caters to the lowest common denominator to gain power. He comes to admire Roark and must then decide whether he will continue to pander to popular taste or live according to his higher standards. Rand and her novels have been vilified by the left-wing as reactionary and praised by conservatives as brilliant and influential.

Frankly, I cannot understand how conservatives can be so enamored of this work that celebrates independence and the rejection of tradition and “normal” morality. She celebrated atheism, a kind of free love, very strong women, and a rejection of parental values and social norms. She abhorred the subordination of reason to faith, of surrendering one’s own thinking to the beliefs of others. She despised the religious believer who without questioning adopts the religious beliefs of his parents, conforming without thinking. Morality becomes something practical and relative. For example, Roark dynamites a government building project that has been altered, so he can gain access to the courts since the government cannot be sued. Roark really doesn’t care what other people think. He has such strong personal will that he will just do what he thinks is right. He also pals around with one of the construction workers who admires him because he is the only architect that understands construction, and, indeed, Roark makes the point that he loves engineering and building.

That sounds more like sixties liberalism than what I hear conservatives espouse. Rand is clearly a romantic who believed that man can live up to an ideal, and reason can help them achieve the independence and the happiness that depends on that independence. What infuriates liberals, as far as I can gather, was her unfailing adherence to capitalism. I suppose conservatives latched on to her vigorous rejection of collectivism, no doubt related to her childhood experiences under Communism. This is not to say Rand celebrates nonconformity for its own sake. That is simply another form of conformity because it’s living one’s life in reaction to the standards of others. The conformist must learn the beliefs of others to adhere to them; the nonconformist must learn the standards so as to avoid adhering to them. Both groups are psychological dependents. Rand celebrates the independent thinker, the individualist who lives on his own terms. The individualist creates his own standards and adheres to them regardless of what others do or think. He has a commitment to reason and facts. Roark represents the great innovator struggling against a profoundly conservative society against the traditionalist who says, “It was never done this way, so it can’t be good.” The climax of the book is Roark’s speech to the court when he is on trial. “I wish to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. . . The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” He represents a complete rejection of altruism, “the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.”

It’s truly a shame when books and authors get labeled as “conservative” or “liberal,” “communist” or “democrat” and then judged on the basis of the label. Read the book; make up your own mind!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Ice Brothers by Sloan Wilson

A very interesting novel about a little known part of WW II, that of the Greenland Ice Patrol. Comprised mostly of trawlers, they were commanded by either old-time ice fishermen or wet-nosed and inexperienced peacetime yachtsmen. The novel is based on Wilson's experience around Greenland. The fictional Wilson (Paul) was appointed as executive officer to a very experienced Mowrey, an old-timer with a terrible drinking problem, but one who could read ice conditions like no one else. The radio officer had no sea-experience at all but he had a loathing for Germans after his Jewish wife and child had disappeared somewhere in Germany. He happened to be an electronics genius, however, a skill that was to be more than valuable later on.

A sister trawler has disappeared off the east-coast of Greenland with only a lifeboat filled with machine-gunned sailors remaining. His commanding officer having been taken off the boat for alcoholism problems, Paul and Nathan, his now executive officer, are sent east to fight the Germans and dismantle whatever weather station equipment they had established. Knowing weather conditions over Greenland was crucial for air operations in Europe so both sides wanted the advantage. Greenland, part of Denmark, which had quickly surrendered to the Germans, declared a sort of independence from Denmark and was claimed by both the Axis and Allies. It was an icy wasteland inhabited (barely) by Eskimos. Wilson spends a lot of time describing the Eskimo culture and their total lack of understanding for the animosity between the two sides. His descriptions of the ice and their culture I found quite interesting, especially their attitude toward sex, totally uninhibited and devoid of any monogamous impulses, the children considered children of everyone and cared for by everyone, their emphasis being on survival and laughter -- not a bad way to get through life except for the frigging cold.

Lots of ruminations on war, hatred, why people fight and love. I enjoyed the book very much.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Moments of Silence are Bullshit

I'm getting really tired of moments of silence. Ostensibly engaged in to honor the dead or pray or whatever, to me they just represent the illusion of having done something. Clearly praying isn't accomplishing anything, and chances are those indulging in the moment (notice it's only a "moment" of silence and not an hour or week) are probably just praying for a victory of their fantasy football team, anyway. 

Let's use legislature's moment of silence for gun victims (feel free to substitute your favorite tragedy) as an example. The coercion to engage in the moment of silence is overwhelming, so everyone feels obligated to sit there for a moment and DOES NOTHING. Nothing is accomplished with regard to discussing or fixing a problem. But it gets everyone off the hook. Members can narcissistically delude themselves into feeling self-satisfied, but they have done nothing.

 So next time someone calls for a moment of silence, stand up and shout, "Bullshit! Let's discuss what we can do for victims and their families, or how could we prevent another tragedy. Let's do something." After all, god helps those who help themselves and s/he's had very little to do in the way of helping anyone lately. 

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Political Realignments

There have been several major realignments in American politics since the Revolution: 1860 changed the Whigs, Democrats and Republicans; 1968 with the southern strategy that pushed the Republicans under Nixon into Wallace territory and alignment, and now perhaps 2018.

1968 was truly a momentous year (aside from our marriage): cities were burning, there were multiple assassinations of political figures; and young men were walking around with draft (death) cards in their wallets that meant they had a truly personal stake in the election's outcome. It was also the first time an American president colluded with a foreign power to influence the outcome of an election. The evidence is overwhelming that Nixon had made back-channel communications with the South Vietnamese, persuading them that they would get a better deal from him than the Democrats and they should therefore not do what they had promised the Johnson administration they would do, i.e., start negotiating at the Paris table. McCarthy was the wild card, running as an anti-establishment, anti-war candidate, it had profound implications for Johnson's decision not to run. (The Secret Service had forfidden Johnson from appearing at college campuses and the Democratic National Convention saying they could not guarantee he would not be assassinated.) Bobby Kennedy had been approached to run, but he didn't think Johnson was beatable. After he saw how well McCarthy was doing, he decided to run. All of that pushed Johnson's decision to withdraw from the race. Then came Robert Kennedy's assassination.

Ironically, terrorism (but not immigration) played prominent roles in those realignments. Terrorism has always been with us: the IRA bombings in Britain, the Red Brigade in Germany (not to mention Kristallnacht in 1938), the Wall Street bombing by Italien anachists and the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 (not to mention Sam Adams and John Brown provoking mob violence, and a host of others in the last 300 years.) [The reaction to Sirhan Sirhan's (a Palestinian immigrant upset with Robert Kennedy's position on Palestine) was very different from the country's treaction to recent NY attacks.]

Those of us (I was was just finishing college in 1968) who lived through 1968 were surrounded by portents of gloom and doom. It was to be the end of the United States as cities burst into flames with riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam continued its killing fields, and faith in government disappeared.

Gill v Whitford: On Gerrymandering

In recent Wisconsin elections Democrats won 53% of the votes but got only 39% of the seats in the legislature. How that was accomplished is the subject of recent oral arguments in the case of Gill v Whitworth. SCOTUS has always been more than reluctant to tinker with political gerrymandering. (If you live in Massachusetts, it’s pronounced garrymandering after the Massachusetts governor who gave the process its name in 1812 when he created a salamander-like district to benefit his party.)

Gerrymandering is the process of redistricting so that one party or group is favored over another. The 4th district in Illinois, for example, is drawn in such a way so as to bring together predominately Hispanic voters, thus giving them a representative and a voice. (Justice Stevens, bemoaning the practice, once said that gerrymandering permitted legislators to pick their voters rather than the other way around.) Gerrymandering for the purpose of achieving racial parity is perfectly legal under current jurisprudence. In a perfect world everyone would live in square districts and square states with the same number of people in each and perfectly balanced politically. Not gonna happen. (For really nice descriptions of the different kinds of gerrymandering and how it’s accomplished, see the sources below.)

It was the Vieth case that led us to the current situation. In Davis v Bandemer in 1986, the court had ruled that partisan gerrymandering could be unconstitutional, but had struggled with finding a standard. They could not. In Vieth, they again decided not to decide, Scalia proposing that it was an unsolvable problem and therefore the court should not even try. Justice Kennedy, however, ever the middle-of-the-roader, wrote a narrow decision suggesting that some kind of standard might be within reach.

Enter some social scientists (derided by Roberts in oral arguments as providing “gobbledygook” – I don’t know if he has measured legal gobbledygook against social science gobbledygook.) They have developed something called the efficiency gap. It measures the ratio of wasted votes to determine whether the redistricting was done with partisan intent or not. The court may now have to rule on whether districts need to be fairly balanced from a partisan standpoint.

Whether we really want the courts to be deciding districts remains to be seen, but the principle of one-man-one-vote and not wasting votes is an important one. It would seem the only way out of the mess might be some move toward proportional representation, or, better yet, a trend away from political party adherence and more independents.





Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review:Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer

Inferno doesn't begin to describe it. Guadalcanal represented the first major invasion by U.S. forces in the 20th century and many hard lessons had to be learned. The oft-repeated charge that the Marines were abandoned there by the Navy is belied by the statistic that for every Marine who was killed on land, five sailors died at sea in the horrific battles there. “The puzzle of victory was learned on the fly and on the cheap.”

Hornfischer brilliantly, succinctly (and often horrifically as he describes the dreadful injuries suffered by the sailors) sets the stage discussing the personal and political challenges and conflicts that affected and drove the allocation of resources: the Army v the Navy (McArthur v Nimitz and King) in the Pacific; Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in the Atlantic, with George Marshall stuck in the middle. The importance of Midway in boosting moral and altering the overall strategy cannot be overstated.

Here’s an interesting little detail. Admiral Kinkaid was a day late getting to the staging area because his charts showed the International Date Line in the wrong place. Personally, the thing always confuses me, but his staff were careful not to let the higher brass learn of the error.

Things got off to a bad start right from the beginning. Admiral Fletcher, (supported by Nimitz) in charge of the carriers, and Admiral Turner(supported by King), commanding the landing, hated each other. At the planning meeting at Saratoga, Fletcher worried about the risk to his carriers and refused to provide air support for more than 3 days. Turner, knowing the supply ships had not been combat loaded (so the most important supplies could be off-loaded first) knew that he could not afford to have the Marines abandoned after three days. This became infamous as the “Navy Bug-Out.” Whether Fletcher was correct in arguing that the risk to the carriers was far more strategically important is a debate that continues to this day. Hornfischer explains the rationale from both perspectives without coming down on either side.

The Japanese were already suffering from “victors’” disease and tended to dismiss the landings as inconsequential and but a diversion aimed at slowing down the Japanese advance on Port Moresby. The Japanese had their own army-navy slugfest of distrust. The Army, in fact, had not told the Navy that the U.S. had broken their operational code. There was no central intelligence gathering unit and army commanders had to rely as much on their instincts as hard intelligence that was virtually non-existent.

But the US Navy had a lot of hard lessons to learn. The Battle of Savo Island (otherwise known as the Battle of Five Sitting Ducks) revealed that the three minutes it took to get everyone in place after calling for general quarters was way too long. Especially as it meant having everyone run around changing places from where they had been. Leaving float planes on the decks of cruisers during action meant having aviation-fueled bombs on the rear deck. And captains ignoring the warnings of some of those being supervised could be deadly, not to mention poor communications and reluctance to trust new radar. Admiral Turner summed it up nicely: "The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise".

There were lots of lessons to be learned and many heads to roll. Communications was a big problem as frequencies differed between services and even between planes and ships. One little tidbit was that southern boys, of which there were many, had to be kept off the radios since their heavy regional accents often made them incomprehensible to those on the other end of the wireless. Another was the importance of communications and knowing the difference vetween friend and foe. Many casualties occurred and ships sunk because the combatants couldn't tell the difference at night.

Guadalcanal became the trial run for many of the islands that were to follow.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

review: Death's Head by Campbell Armstrong

Grunwald has lost his wife and son to the Nazis, taken away to camps before the war. It's now after the war and he is in Berlin when he encounters Dr. Schwarzenbach, now going under the name Luetze whom he remembered from before in the Polish camps. Schwarzenbach had been engaged in despicable "experiments" on camp victims ostensibly to learn how much pain a human could take. Grunwald is tormented by guilt for having assisted Schwarzenbach in his experiments in order to save his own life. Events are driving the two inexorably together after Grunewald recognizes Schwarzenbach.

Ironically, each had been urged to leave: Schwarzenbach by his Nazi colleagues who are escaping to Spain and then elsewhere, and Grunwald by a woman who befriends him and says he return to his hometown, Munich. Schwarzenbach realizes that Grunwald can betray him to the Americans, already suspicious of him and so he decides Grunwald must be killed. The allies are eager to root out any Nazis who now find it expediant to grovel before their new masters.

A very interesting novel dealing with guilt, responsibility, and the randomness of life that doesn't always bring the guiltless to the top. The ending is frightenly ambiguous.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: The Best of Our Spies by Alex Gerlis

Best spy novel I have ever read. Ever.  

All spy stories should be this devious. Lt. Quinn, having been returned to England following his ship being bombed into oblivion off Crete, falls in love with one of his nurses. Unbeknownst to him she is a German spy in deep cover, but the spymasters in Bletchley Park know it and are manipulating their relationship so they can turn her into a double agent without her, or his, knowledge. “He has no idea whatsoever who she is. He is unaware of what is going on. Thinks this beautiful Frenchwoman who is two years older than him has fallen in love with him. He is like the cat that has found the cream, gallons of the stuff, in fact.” The idea is to feed her all sorts of false information leading to an assumption that the real invasion of the continent will take place at Pas de Calais and not Normandy which they want the Germans to believe is just a diversion. Then she is sent to France. 

Not only is it a terrific spy novel, but a good love story, as well and nicely set in an historical context. You will begin to question good and evil and whether the end can ever justify the means.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review: Highliners by William McCloskey

The tsunami of 1964 caused by the earthquake wiped out a major portion of Kodiak, Alaska, but it vitalized the fishing community which now thrives with canneries for salmon, crabs, halibut, and other seafood caught in the rich waters of the Alaskan shelf. Fishing these waters is extremely dangerous and the towns that support it resemble nothing less than the older frontier.

The book is an interesting combination of fiction and non-fiction alternating chapters as McCloskey follows the career of Hank, college graduate and Vietnam veteran , who falls in love with fishing (for some unfathomable reason) in Alaskan waters for a variety of species. We're treated to a section on each kind of boat and species as Hank learns the skills needed for each finally (after being injured by the smashing force of a Halibut tail --I had no idea...-- they can weigh up to 400 lbs.) as submanager of a cannery, a job that displays all the intricate details of the operation and the vast quantity of material that is processed (millions of cans of salmon during an eight-week season) with the concomitant problems of managing people who don't want to be managed. He ends up as skipper on a boat so we get to see the business from that end as well. (The scenes of the boats icing up are tense and scary.)

Being a bit bizarre myself, I found the mix of technology and culture to be fascinating.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

Review: Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion by Mark Leibovich

One of my major gripes during the last election (an election Trump insists was fraudulent - I agree, let's do it over) was the myopia of the Washington media who spent the entire election cycle talking to each other and refusing to examine the obvious currents of dissatisfaction with Washington and the "elites" who reside there and run the country. (They all read and absorb "Playbook" produced by Mike Allen - read the essays to understand what that is and why it's important.)
Leibovich, who writes for the Times, specializes in writing profiles of those in Washington. He's more self-aware than some others about where he fits in the Washington swamp, but his insights into the relationship between the media and Washington insiders and how residing there affects them and their lives are valuable. This book is an older collection of those essays. They remain relevant and interesting. The profile of Glenn Beck is particularly interesting and revealing on how and why Beck is the way he is. His show on Fox was known in the ad world as "empty calories: he draws great ratings but is toxic to ad sales."
The mnemonic techniques of Andrew Card, patterned after that of a 16th century monk, are startling to say the least. I have read of other people who create "castles" of the mind where memories are stored for easy retrieval; Card uses a kitchen with some things in the freezer, others on one of the burners, etc.
Even though some of the essays are more than a decade old, the comments and profiles are as fresh as if there were written yesterday. His comments on campaigning and the relationship between reporters (badgered by the 24/7 news cycle and bored to tears by the candidates' canned speeches) and the candidates are just as pertinent today as they were 10 years ago. "Politics is not about objective reality, but about virtual reality . . . an infinitely revisable [and risible] docudrama."
Some fun quotes: "Chris Matthews is trapped in a tired caricature" "The demise of the cable blow-hard" "Rick Santorum is like Forrest Gump with an attitude." His essay on fakery in Washington and pretending to have read the "Economist" is priceless.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: Dark Money by Jane Mayer

The demonization of the Koch Brothers political machine by Mayers, while impressive, reminds me of one reason why the Democrats failed in 2016. They will have difficulty regaining Congress if they continue to focus on personalities rather than policies and issues. The book plays into the Democrats' (liberals?) need to blame someone else rather than their own failures. The Democrats' emphasis on right-wing-conspiracies, which may indeed exist, but are far more fragmented than Democrats suppose. The right is splt, e.g., the Koch's support for libertarian issues (note that they part company with conservatives on several issues such as immigration, free-trade, and justice – Liberals would be far smarter to join forces with the Kochs on those issues rather than antagonize them.) The Kochs are using the same techniques developed by the left in the sixties to build support for liberal agendas. In the meantime Democrats have lost sight of the needs of what used to be their core constituency, i.e., blue collar workers, the so-called middle-class. Trump represents a failure of both the right and left. He was able to appeal to economically savaged whites who wrongly blame immigration and free trade for their problems. Free trade and free immigration are core libertarian, i.e., Koch principles. The Tea Party movement may have backfired on the Kochs. "Ordinary conservative citizens and community activists, almost all white and mostly older, provided angry passion and volunteered their energies to make the early Tea Party more than just occasional televised rallies. Grassroots Tea Partiers accomplished an utterly remarkable feat: starting in 2009, they organized at least 900 local groups, individually named Tea Party units that met regularly."1

There is no doubt that money in politics decays government. That it has always predominated is hardly a justification. (I'm reading Rubicon, a history of Rome by Tom Holland. The wealthy predominated and controlled the political system. In this country, the wealthy have always controlled the press, and the distribution of information, so little has changed.) But I would have far more sympathy for the "scourge of money" position if the debate were not so content-centric, i.e., the antagonism for money comes primarily from those opposing the ideas promoted by the moneyed class. Theda Skocpol, author of a book on the rise of the Right3, in a review1 of Mayer's book said, "Mayer overlooks divisions within the right and offers no insights that could help us understand the unruly Trump surge. Dark Money portrays an unstoppable, unified far-right juggernaut led by plutocrats. It correctly alerts us to many aspects of their secretive, unaccountable machinations. But the full story of what is happening on the right is more complex and volatile. . . .We learned that grassroots Tea Partiers were far from disciplined libertarian followers of ultra-free-market advocacy groups. Local Tea Party groups met in churches, libraries, and restaurants, and collected small contributions or sold books, pins, bumper stickers and other Tea Party paraphernalia on commission to cover their modest costs. They did not get by on checks from the Koch brothers or any other wealthy advocacy organizations. Furthermore, the views of both grassroots Tea Party activists and of many other Republican-leaning voters who have sympathized with this label do not align with free-market dogmas. Research by political scientist Christopher Parker at the University of Washington reinforces our conclusion that ordinary Tea Party activists and sympathizers are worried about sociocultural changes in the United States, angry and fearful about immigration, freaked out by the presence in the White House of a black liberal with a Muslim middle name, and fiercely opposed to what they view as out of control “welfare spending” on the poor, minorities, and young people. Many Tea Partiers benefit from Social Security, Medicare, and military veterans’ programs, and do not want them to be cut or privatized. About half of Tea Party activists or sympathizers are also Christian conservatives intensely concerned with banning abortion and repealing gay marriage."
I suspect Mayer was too enamored of professional politicians' view of the impact of AFP which according to Skocpol was negligible because they missed the true character of the Tea Party, many of whom became Trump supporters and activists. Others are not so sure, suggesting that the money spent by the Kochs on think-tanks and in academia was far more powerful in the long run. This was money not spent directly on candidates, but has had a far more reaching influence. One great sin ascribed to the Kochs is that “They said they were driven by principle, but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.” So who among us can say otherwise? We expect them to be more righteous?

The debate becomes even cloudier and less germane when the Citizens United decision is added to the mix. It’s important to remember that the decision was about an anti-Clinton movie. The producers had paid for the right to show the movie to a pay-per-view audience. The Federal Election Commission ruled they could not show the movie during the 30-day period before the election. The group called Citizens United, which had sponsored the film, appealed. SCOTUS, in a 5-4 decision reversed a lower court ruling arguing that if the Constitution protects any speech at all, it protects political speech, and it overturned Austin.4 What bothers many people about the decision is they went a little further in saying the FEC could not prohibit political speech during the thirty-day period before an election, by also saying that “While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.” 2 Citizens United was a public association funded primarily through private donations but also some from public corporations.

Ironically, the Citizens United decision had nothing to do with the personhood of corporations. The incorrect - but widely held - reading of Citizens United is that the corruption of elections arose fundamentally because the Supreme Court adopted a legal doctrine of corporate "personhood" which endowed corporations with First Amendment free speech rights, which, combined with the notion that spending money to promote a candidate is a form of speech, gives corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of their money in elections. This incorrect reading of Citizens United is compounded by the further error that a constitutional amendment is necessary and sufficient to remove those corporate constitutional rights and to remove corporate money from elections, or could prevent the pro-corporate majority on the Supreme Court from making further decisions corrupting elections. . . Many may be surprised to learn that no federal campaign finance law has ever been struck down by the Supreme Court on grounds of "corporate personhood" or any kind of corporate rights. The court has consistently hinged its decisions on the First Amendment rights of the listener to hear all sources of the free and open debate and of society to enjoy an abstract "freedom of speech" disconnected from the identity of the speaker.4

The court based its decision on long-standing decisions (going back to 1976 in Buckley v Valeo) that money is speech and that: ... voters must be free to obtain information from diverse sources in order to determine how to cast their votes. . . . . When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.

Note there are lots of reasons to condemn the Citizens United decision, it's just that person-hood is not one of them so a constitutional amendment to revoke "corporate person-hood" would have no effect on campaign financing at all. What the Nine failed to do was to define the balance between free speech and the corrupting influence of money in elections. SCOTUS may have overstepped its mandate by going further than dealing with just the issue of the movie and striking down a legitimate attempt by the legislature to deal with money's corrupting influence. It certainly does not have authority to deal with election integrity under the Constitution. (See “The Problem with Citizens United is Not Personhood” by Rob Hager at Truth-Out.org4) The SpeechNow 7 decision was perhaps more insidious in opening the floodgates of money through individual contributions.

In light of that, I think several questions need to be answered before making what I consider to be rash decisions to control money in politics:

1. Fairness. How would you allocate money to anyone to spend on issues. By issue? By mode of expressions, i.e., TV, newspaper, radio, etc.? Do you limit the amount of money anyone can spend? How is that fair if I may feel more strongly about an issue than you do?
2. What if I have a zillion dollars and decide I want to influence an election by hiring a bunch of writers to write and publish books about the opposing candidate. Would you prevent the publication of those books? (During oral arguments the issue came up as to whether a corporation could pay for or provide support to have a book published that might be read during the 30-day “black-out” period and the government, to its discredit” said, in response to a question from Justice Roberts, that “ we [the government] could prohibit the publication of the book using the corporate treasury funds. Now that’s pretty dangerous territory and the court was to make it clear in Kennedy’s decision that the medium, i.e. cable, satellite, print, whatever, should have no effect on free speech protection.)
3. Should the Koch brothers be prohibited from funding think-tanks or academic institutions like the American Enterprise Institute or the Hoover Institution or any number of right-leaning organizations? Or the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning group? Or endowing university departments? Where do you draw the line?
4. Do you prevent corporations and unions, or any type of association, from any kind of political speech? Isn't political speech exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect? Aren't associations collections of people with a common interest? Should be banned from political support?
5. Isn't the issue content rather than policy? If the Koch brothers were spending their money on support for our concerns would we be equally upset? I doubt it.
6. Is public financing the answer? Perhaps, but let's not forget Obama was the one who threw that under the bus when he refused to limit his spending after receiving huge amounts of small donations. How do you determine who is a legitimate candidate to receive that funding? Would that not exclude third-party candidates?

So what do we do about the corrupting influence of money in politics without impinging on vigorous political dialog?

I would suggest the following:
1. Public disclosure and auditing of all sources of campaign funding.
2. Strengthen ethics rules to prohibit voting on legislation that would favor a person or group having donated to the representative. And make the Supreme Court Justices follow tighter conflict-of-interest rules. (The way it is now, each individual justice determines whether or not there is a conflict.)
3. From the Constitution: "The Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact with such Exceptions and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make (US Constitution, Article III, Section 2)." Admittedly dangerous, Congress could simply say, hey SCOTUS, you don't have jurisdiction over election financing and then pass laws passing limits, e.g. banks, or manufacturers, or anyone buying stuff from the federal government can't give money to elected representatives. (Good luck with that one.)
4. Consider increasing the inheritance tax to 90%. People should earn their money, not inherit it.
5. Revise how government contracts are awarded and prevent congressmen and their staff from going to work in industries they may have regulated. (This is probably an unconstitutional infringement on free movement, but worth a shot.)
6. Give some thought (and action) on how to address income inequality. “Wealth begets power and power begets more wealth.”
7. Reform the tax code along the lines of New Zealand's which lowers the rates but broadens the base (BBLR), a scheme promoted by TR Reid in his book, A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System. But it requires elimination of virtually all deductions.

Dark Money is a fascinating book both for its exhaustive analysis of a political machine, but also the salacious personal details of the rich and famous.


3. Skocpol, Theda and Williams, Vanessa. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
. Oxford University Press, 2013 (Skocpol is cited often by Mayer)
5. For a discussion on the history of personhood and the Constitution see "Personalizing the Impersonal: Corporations and the Bill of Rights"By Carl J. Mayer Hastings Law Journal, Hastings College of Law at University of California, March, 1990; Volume 41, No. 3 republished by
6. For a really interesting take on the Democrats' desire for a constitutional amendment see Rob Hager's The Amendment Diversion: How Clinton, the Democrats, and Even Sanders Distract Attention from Effective Strategies for Too Much Money in Politics by Promoting Futile Remedies -- Book I: Hillary Clinton and the Dark Money Disclosure 'Pillar'

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Impeachment: Two books

With all the loose talk about impeachment in the media and elsewhere, I found the recent review of two expert opinions in the New York Review of Books to be quite illuminating. Allan Lichtman’s The Case for Impeachment makes the extreme case that the president can be impeached for just about anything. To quote Gerald Ford, “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” A very loose, and, I would argue, undemocratic and dangerous view indeed. The idea that Congress might be allowed to exceed the Constitutional strictures, as open to interpretation as they may be, is frightening. Feldman and Weisberg judiciously suggest that while even though the language may be broad to allow unfettered political justification for impeachment is wrong. Can a president be impeached and thrown out of office for offenses committed before taking office? And what kind of offenses?

Richard Nixon tried to manipulate the outcome of his election to a second term, but he was a sitting president while those offenses were committed and in any case his other actions constituted obstruction of justice. If Trump was indeed involved with the Russians in an attempt to sway the election in his favor, or at least against Clinton, he might be excused. But since then he has condemned himself numerous times in assorted tweets that are prima fascia attempts to thwart justice. Lichtman really goes off the rails when he suggests that Trump could be impeachment for his policy (or lack thereof) regarding global warming and climate change. Impeachment, as James Madison noted, should never be used to correct perceived “maladministration.” That vague term, if implemented, would result in a president serving at the pleasure of the Senate, not what the Framers intended I’m sure.

Article II, section 4 Treason, Bribery, and “high” crimes and Misdemeanors. “High,” the authors note, has an archaic meaning, that is, “when they relate to the president’s exercise of the distinctive duties of his office.” In other words, “presidential actions that contradict, undermine, and derogate democracy and the rule of law. They are actions that weaken the liberty and equality of individuals and the capacities of other branches of government.” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist #65 that impeachment was reserved for “offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Treason has a well-defined meaning in the Constitution and can only take place during time of war, so one might ask, whether anyone’s actions in a conflict where Congress has not declared war could possibly ever be considered treason. But bribery is really tricky for Trump. If a foreign country wanted to influence the president into making a favorable foreign policy decision, and by staying in the Trump hotel Trump’s income goes way up, does that constitute a form of bribery? Or is it a violation of the emoluments clause when a foreign official stays at a Trump resort thereby increasing Trump’s personal income? (Membership fees at his properties have gone up considerably since he took office.) His lawyers claim they are just a business transaction but no such exemption or exception is mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. The reviewers cite several examples of interactions that could easily be considered quid pro quo. It’s the kind of corruption that is endemic to Italy, among others.

Two other concerns that could lead to impeachment are his subversion of the democratic process should it be found that he encouraged Russian interference in the election. The other is his challenge to the independence of the judiciary by questioning their independence, and we won’t even mention his comment that the role of Congress is to defend him!

Impeachment is a last resort process and no president has ever been removed from office because of it. These two books bring out a myriad of reasons and examples from several points of view and may become essential reading.

Books discussed in the NYRB article: The Case for Impeachment by Allan Lichtman and Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide by Cass R. Sunstein Read the original long article in the September 28, 2017 issue.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review: L.A. Rotten. A Tom Tanner Mystery by Jeff Klima

What bizarre book. Tanner is a paroled felon who has a job cleaning up homicide sites. He inadvertently discovers a pattern of murders, all committed in room 236 of motels close to the interstate. He and his girlfriend, Ivy, resolve, in between heroin hits, to find the killer. In the meantime, he is being harassed by the police who believe him to be responsible for the death of an officer, even tough he has a rock-solid alibi. It holds your interest in spite of gruesome details as you await the inevitable train wreck. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Review: The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Martin Terrier wants out. Having worked as a paid assassin for "the company" run by an obscure American, Mr. Cox, he decides to return to his native town where he had left Anne Freux who had promised him to wait for him ten years before while he sought his fortune. Now everything has gone to shit; Cox doesn't want him to quit as he has a big job coming, his financial advisor has committed suicide after losing all his clients money, and worst of all they killed and dismembered his cat. Anne has married Felix in the meantime ("I only drink whiskey-sours because they taste like vomit. “If you systematically drink something that tastes like vomit,” continued FĂ©lix, “you won’t be confused when you end up vomiting.” ) who is killed in a shoot-out forcing Martin/Christian to go on the run.

The ending is satisfactorily unpredictable and unexpected. Perhaps it was just me, but the translation felt a bit off in spots. There was apparently a movie tie-in with a Sean Penn thriller entitled The Gunman that I watched but with which I could find zero resemblance.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review: Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion by Stephen Johnson

1968 was not a good year: riots in the cities, multiple assassinations, and perhaps coincidentally four submarines were lost that year: one French, one Israeli, one Russian (K-129 see Project Azorian), and the USS Scorpion. The year's only redeeming feature was that I got married in August.
The USS Scorpion, an attack sub, had just been in dry-dock for several months while they refueled the nuclear reactor a complicated process that requires cutting a hole in the sub and then welding it shut. It passed all the requisite tests afterwards (the whole refit process was to come under review following the disaster,) and so was released for active duty where it was to act first as the "rabbit" for surface ships and other attack subs, i.e. the target during exercises. That was not its original mission, but it was replacing the USS Seawolf that had been severely damaged, almost sunk, after a collision with an underwater obstacle. If you remember The Hunt For Red October, you will remember the scene where they are steering through a large deep basin near Maine that required numerous turns that had to be done exactly in order to avoid a collision. The assumption was they had great charts. Nice fiction. The deep basin the Navy was using was very poorly charted as the USS Seawolf discovered, smashing the bow and stern. It was very lucky and survived only by emergency blowing the tanks. It needed to be towed back to base. (Something that surprised me was the number of underwater collisions suffered by U.S. nuclear subs. Of course, after recent events, we now know that Navy ships collide with things on the surface, too.)
Arriving in Rota, Spain, the Scorpion had a substantial list of work that needed to be done, not including huge hydraulic leaks they had managed to fix while in transit. The private contractor which had done the refit in Norfolk refused to cover any of them under warranty so all the fixes had to be done by the sub tender at Rota. They had a long list of problems that needed fixing. One serious one required the sailors to scrounge Freon from as many other ships as possible. Their own antiquated refrigeration systems was leaking substantial amounts. Freon by itself isn't particularly hazardous, but in a closed environment it displaces the air and if it accumulates in a small space it can cause asphyxiation. Normally they would expect to los about 75 lbs per month. They were losing ten times that and would ask for some from every ship they encountered. They were also having considerable communications equipment problems. On the way back it sank without a trace.
The search for the sub is described in detail (John Craven who was also involved in the search for K-129, developer of the Bayesian Search Theory and the super secret spy submarine the Halibut played a prominent role.) After discovery of the location and with analysis of thousand of photographs, the reasons were almost as numerous as those doing the analysis. The major ones seemed to be blown up by one of its own torpedoes (lots of things to go wrong), defective battery causing a fire (the batteries used in the torpedo were often defective), a stuck plane forcing the boat down faster than they could recover before hitting crush depth and others. (Interestingly, you'll learn that submariners don't drown when a submarine reaches crush depth, to put it bluntly, they are squashed instantly.) One peculiarity was that the periscope and communications antennas were in the upright position as if they were close to the surface when something happened. Another possibility was that the TDI, trash disposal unit, ball valve had failed leading to catastrophic water intake.
Whether the fast refit had left some lingering problems was another concern. Following the loss of the Thresher, which had sunk because of a bad weld that broke letting in high pressure sea water, the Navy embarked on an ambitious program to make subs safer. The problem was that for a variety of reasons, refits were dragging on for as long as 36 months. At one point 40% of the nuclear attack subs were in drydock. That was unacceptable. So they were going to try and speed things up, going to sea with known issues, limiting maximum submerged, and ignoring problems that could be fixed later.
No spoilers here. A terrific read.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Truly a depressing book although Bryan Stevenson is a veritable hero. A good companion piece to read with this book is the profile of Stevenson in The New Yorker, August 22, 2016. It has more information about his Equal Justice Initiative and additional frightful details of how capital punishment is being used in the south to replace lynching. Studies have revealed that in the twelve southern states studied, they found records of about four thousand lynchings. It was the ultimate in terrorism.

Alabama has no legal defender system so many people have been incarcerated without legal representation. Bryan Stevenson was instrumental in using federal funds to create a non-profit organization that provided attorneys for the indigent. The book has many stories of the unjustly incarcerated not to mention children who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes they supposedly committed while barely in their teens; sometimes crimes they were conned into by adults.

The book is a series of vignettes about people Stevenson has tried to help and who exemplify the problems with race and the “law” in the south. The link that holds all the disparate stories together is the McMillian case. McMillian was charged and held on death row for six years until, thanks to Stevenson, exonerated. The sheriff had buried evidence that showed McMillian could not possibly have committed the crime, but because he was having an affair with a white woman was ripe bait for an official lynching. Ironically, the case played out in Monroeville, Alabama, the town immortalized in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Interracial marriage, not to mention sex, was feared in the south and made illegal, enforced not just legally but through the terror of lynching. It remained illegal in most of the country until 1967 and Loving v Virginia in 1967. The Alabama Constitution continued to prohibit it even in 1986. It was not until 2000 that a ballot initiative removed it from their Constitution, and even then 40% of Alabamians voted to retain it.

Alabama elects its judges and is one of the few states where a judge can overrule a jury’s recommendation for life in prison with the death penalty. This means that judges compete with one another to be the toughest on crime and what better way to demonstrate that conviction than by sentencing loads of people to death.

Stevenson has appeared several times before the Supreme Court. The McMillian case itself wound up before them. Because Sheriff Tate had withheld exculpatory evidence that would have freed McMillan, he sued but by a 5-4 decision the Court affirmed the lower courts which had decided that the sheriff was acting on behalf of the state rather than the County, and therefore the County could not be held liable for his actions.

Steven's crowning achievement came in Miller v Alabama in which the Supreme Court decided that a life sentence for juveniles was disproportionately severe and unconstitutional.


Miller v Alabama

McMillian v Monroe County, Alabama:

Florida V Sullivan: 13-yr. old convicted of sexual battery and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

More comments on Monuments. Letter to the Journal Standard

I appreciate Jim Sacia's concern for the historical record (August 19, 2017) and hope that his appreciation will translate into active support for history education in Illinois. I love history and read it constantly. I think his support for President Trump's comments on monuments is wrong, however.  

Monuments serve several purposes: to memorialize, to celebrate, and sometimes to intimidate. Intimidation was the purpose of the statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, and many of the monuments celebrating Confederate heroes along with the economic culture that was supported and rooted in slave labor. They provide an interesting exception to a general reluctance to celebrate traitors. There are no monuments (except for the infamous "Boot Monument near Saratoga) to celebrate Benedict Arnold even though he was an important general fighting for the Revolution. But he committed treason. So did Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, all of whom had sworn allegiance to the United States at West Point and in Congress and to not take up arms against the United States, yet then they did just that. We have executed people for less. And do we really want to celebrate Roger Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision that declared slaves to be property and not persons? He will certainly always be taught in any class on the Civil War as part of the War's justification but a monument to him?

Mr. Sacia said Lee was against slavery. Why did he never speak out against it? Why did he never free those owned by his wife? While he wrote to his wife that "slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country," he also added "the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction." According to eminent Civil War historian Eric Foner, Lee never supported voting rights for black citizens and was silent about the terrorism perpetrated against freed blacks by groups such as the KKK. (He did object to raising monuments writing in 1869, that "it would be wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.")

I lived in Germany for several years (I speak German,) and I have visited most of Germany's former Soviet sector and what used to be Czechoslovakia. Sacia is right to bring up the concentration camp example, but he completely missed their point. I have never been to Auschwitz so I can't speak for the example of Poland, but he has misconstrued how concentration camp and other memorials, e.g. Track 17 at the Berlin- Grunewald Station (very much in the spirit of the Vietnam Memorial) are used in Germany and the former Soviet Block. After WW II all the monuments to Hitler were torn down and the flag representing his culture and anti-semitism were made illegal (unlike the display of the Confederate battle flag in the United States, which represents to many support for a similarly odious culture.) Following the dismantling of the notorious Wall, statues of Lenin and Stalin were torn down. The monuments that I have seen all over Germany, but especially in Berlin and Dresden, celebrate the victims not the perpetrators. (No swastikas or Hitler statues at concentration camp memorials.) How many monuments do we have in this country in the South to the victims of lynching or the decades of slavery? A strong lesson: In Germany they celebrate those who died under the hand of those who would enslave; here southern monuments celebrate the enslavers.

Monuments teach very little about history; they do represent a culture and attitude. The tearing down of statues can be just as important for what that action represents. This is not snuffing out history, it's history in the making, a rejection of a culture and value system that subjugated a people and those who fought against the tyranny of that system.

To quote Adam Serwer in the Atlantic. "Lee is a pivotal figure in American history worthy of study. Neither the man who really existed, nor the fictionalized tragic hero of the Lost Cause, are heroes worthy of a statue in a place of honor. As one Union veteran angrily put it in 1903 when Pennsylvania was considering placing a statute to Lee at Gettysburg, “If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’” The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.

To describe this man as an American hero requires ignoring the immense suffering for which he was personally responsible, both on and off the battlefield. It requires ignoring his participation in the industry of human bondage, his betrayal of his country in defense of that institution, the battlefields scattered with the lifeless bodies of men who followed his orders and those they killed, his hostility toward the rights of the freedmen and his indifference to his own students waging a campaign of terror against the newly emancipated. It requires reducing the sum of human virtue to a sense of decorum and the ability to convey gravitas in a gray uniform."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review: Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty

An excellent series that begins, in this the latest, with Duffy's imminent death. That should get your attention.

Again the "Troubles" feature prominently, Sean noting at one point when trying to find a hotel room for a guest, that Belfast only had three hotels since they got blown up all the time by the IRA. One had been rebuilt four times after being bombed.

I would like to read more McKinty that feature Duffy, but I fear that this one may be the last given the peace accords around the corner and events at the end of the book.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On the destruction of monuments

President Trump has tweeted "...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" I found this statement to be quite interesting. I love history and read a lot of it. So just what do we learn from monuments. They commemorate people or events who represent a cause or culture the community where they reside wish to celebrate. So what do statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson represent? All of them were by definition traitors. They had sworn an oath to the United States: Lee and Jackson at West Point and Davis in Congress and as Secretary of Defense under Franklin Pierce. In seceding they had taken up arms against the country they had sworn allegiance to in order to defend the odious economic system of slavery. 
(Anyone who disputes that the Civil War was not about slavery need only read the secession documents of the seceding states where they explicitly state it was about slavery. They didn't believe in states rights, they were angry with northern states who were exercising what they believed to be their moral right not to send slaves back to the south in contravention of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.)  

Traditionally we don't celebrate traitors or governments we despise. I don't remember seeing any monuments to Benedict Arnold with the exception of the Boot Monument near Saratoga and his name is not even mentioned on the monument even though he was one of the seminal and important generals of the Revolutionary War.*

So just as there are no monuments to Hitler in Germany nor any to George Washington in Great Britain, it seems perfectly understandable to me that communities would wish to remove monuments that memorialize the defense of slavery. The individuals the statues represent certainly won't disappear from history any more than Hitler or Stalin have. The justification to tear down a monument to Jefferson Davis is just the same as that of East Germans ripping down statues of Lenin.


*"On the grounds of the Saratoga National Historic Park in upstate New York, the site of a key battle of the Revolutionary War, there stands a peculiar monument of a leg encased in a boot. Aptly called the Boot Monument, it marks the spot where a leg was shattered by a bullet. The back of the monument is inscribed to the memory of the "most brilliant soldier of the Continental Amy, who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of Burgoyne's 'Great (Western) Redoubt' 7th October 1777, winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General, The soldier was Benedict Arnold, but because the tribute is to the leg and not to the man, his name does not appear on the monument. And perhaps that is the way it should be for a brilliant soldier whose renown was quickly eclipsed by an everlasting infamy."   From Warriors Seven: Seven American Commanders, Seven Wars, and the Irony of Battle by  Barney Sneiderman




Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: November Rain by Donald Harstad

I have read all of Harstad’s books and liked them immensely. (full disclosure: Harstad was the chief deputy sheriff in an Iowa county close by, and I had invited him to speak at the college regarding immigration issues quite a few years ago -- see Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. He’s a delightful man.) This one I had postponed reading because I shy away from books where the protagonist is transported to a foreign country and immediately seems to know his way around the culture solving crimes right and left. Michael Connelly (I’m a big fan) did this with Bosch in Nine Dragons, which was dreadful. I should not have worried, for Harstad creates a very plausible relationship between New Scotland Yard and the deputy's presence. It all makes sense and Houseman doesn't tear around trampling on the locals or their customs.

Anyway, Carl Houseman is conned by the Sheriff and other locals into traveling to England from Iowa to see what he might be able to find out about the disappearance of Emma Schiller. Thanks to interspersed chapters detailing what is happening to Emma, we know she has been kidnapped, although the precise reason is unclear. Except that after she has been taped with a message, she is to be killed.

I was disappointed to see that Harstad's editors did not do him justice. There are a couple total non-sequitors and errors any competent copy editor would have found. In one case they leave his daughters past midnight only to arrive back at the hotel by 10 pm.

I hope Harstad gets back to writing and returns us to northeastern Iowa.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill

I really enjoy the audiobooks of the Dalziel and Pasco series that are read by Brian Glover. Great accent, although it's occasionally hard to decipher, but the voices are great.

Dalziel witnesses the murder of a woman. Problem is that his story doesn't match those of others present in the room. As one would expect, his badgering and harassment soon reveals a host of nefarious activities.There's a side plot, the outcome of which I found a bit bizarre and unsatisfying. A woman has written to Dalziel that she intends to commit suicide and there i an underlying challenge for him to find her. He dismisses, it and it remains for Pasco, at the very end of the book to discover the woman's identity. In the meantime, Dalziel has been cast as God (!) in a local play.  

Several readers have complained the book is not one of Hill's best and that the book drags. The beauty of the series is in the language, ribaldry, and the characters and their interactions. 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Review: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Audiobook: Bill Bryson is a national treasure. I have read all of his books except the most recent and that problem will be remedied shortly. My wife and I especially enjoy listening to Bryson read his own work while driving; Bryson never fails to entertain and inform, the best combination ever.

This book is no exception. He uses the year 1927 as a springboard to recount events and people that defined early 20th century culture such as Lindbergh’s flight, Babe Ruth’s prowess, Tilden’s unusual skill, and Herbert Hoover’s self-aggrandizement. Some of the events have been forgotten and startled me. I don't remember ever hearing of the Bath Massacre. Andrew Kehoe was about to lose his farm to foreclosure and he blamed the school district taxes for his dilemma (ironically he was school board treasurer who had just been defeated for reelection). He packed hundreds of pounds of explosives in the basement of a local school and then watched from his car as children’s body parts were hurled into the air from the massive explosion. 38 elementary school children and six adults were killed with over fifty others injured. That the death was not higher was only because the explosives under other wings of the building did not ignite. More people were killed when he blew up his shrapnel-filled truck with himself in it while rescuers were trying to get children out of the destroyed building. It was shortly discovered he had murdered his wife who was dying of tuberculosis and set fire to all his farm buildings. Sandy Hook pales by comparison.

Another interesting tidbit. When Lindbergh made his famous flight, no one was quite sure how he would be received. The United states was hated by most of Europe, but France and Britain in particular, as they had been forced to take out loans to aid Austria after the war. Congress had forbidding American money to be spent on current or former enemies, so this was a way around that prohibition. Austria then defaulted on the loans, but Congress insisted that France and Britain repay the loans, with interest, even though the U.S. had prospered since a requirement of the transaction was that all the money had to be spent in the United States, a clever form of double-dipping.

Prohibition was one of those curious American phenomena and probably the only case in which of government deliberately poisoned its citizens. Because of the nature of alcohol being used for so many different other purposes besides drinking Industrial alcohol was often denatured and adulterated by the government with all sorts of these are poisons including strychnine so that those people who drank it illegally would suffer the consequences. It was another interesting fact was that many states were upset about the Volstead Act because they lost so much revenue in fact New York's revenue was cut in half when they lost the tax revenue from the sale of alcohol. It made criminals out of honest people, too. (War Against Drugs, anyone?) Churches had an exception (of course) and one church in California offered fourteen different vintages of communion wine. Doctors could prescribe whiskey and it’s estimated that loophole brought them some $40,000,000 in revenue. And, it was dangerous. The murder rate went up by 30%. The revenue agents themselves killed 23 innocent bystanders in a short period of time.

Henry Ford is highlighted. Brilliant in some ways, obnoxious and bigoted in most, he was the only American to have been mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf. Among his more interesting failures was Fordlandia, an attempt to build an all-American city in the middle of the Brazilian jungles. Those who worry about Amazon’s desire to control, will only marvel at Ford’s obsession to control all aspects of his care production so as to keep costs to an absolute minimum in order to produce the best car for the least amount of money. (Part of the reason why he invented the forty-hour week and double his workers pay was to help keep workers from leaving but also so they would have enough money to be able to buy his cars.) Fordlandia was an effort to return Brazil to its former glory as a rubber producer. Ford, the largest consumer of rubber in the world, wanted to control prices. He failed miserably. His manager was a thug, diseases and noxious animals were rampant. Greg Grandin has written a history of the city, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, which I have acquired and look forward to reading.

Another fascinating section discusses the development of radio and television and that greatest of unknown 20th century inventors Philo Farnsworth who came up for the idea of using a cathode ray tube to display images while plowing his father’s field. Ironically, it was a businessman with no inkling of the mechanics of radio that made it ubiquitous. David Sarnoff’s genius was making the connection between content and device. Who would buy a radio if there was nothing to listen to? The first public demonstration, a broadcast of a boxing match turned out to be a fraud as a technical difficulty prevented the live broadcast, but the huge crowd in Times Square listening on speakers to an imaginative reader of ticker tape thought it was live, and that’s all that mattered. Soon NBC was having to create all sorts of expensive content to be delivered for free to radio listeners. Enter advertising.

Bryson’s writing is a delicious melding words and phrases together that routinely bring a smile to your face (the Tribune’s lawyers revealed the shallow waters of his mind - re Ford). Or after talking about the number of flying accidents he mentioned the man who was injured by a whirling propeller being hit on the head and having his arm sliced off, “leaving him much diminished.”

Bryson’s audio narrative whets the reading appetite.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: The Huckleberry Murders by Patrick McManus

This is a marvelous series: delightful characters, humor, a decent mystery. What more could you ask for.

Sheriff Bo Tully is off to collect huckleberries so his mother can bake him some pies when he meets three hysterical women who have discovered three bodies. There are three hard looking men in town worth investigating. And a local wife who insists her ex-husband has been murdered. Because the bodies were found on federal land, the FBI sends an agent to verify that the investigation is done properly. She soon falls under the spell of doing things the "Blight" way. There's also some raft poling. :)

Series keeps getting better.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Review: Jig by Campbell Armstrong

Being sucker for Irish mysteries, I picked this one up. It's first in the Frank Pagan series. Pagan is a British cop sent over to the U.S. in pursuit of an IRA assassin, nicknamed Jig, who, in turn has been told to track down those who had stolen $10 million intended for the IRA. Throw in a psychotic Protestant minister with his own agenda and the FUV (Free Ulster Volunteers) and things get surprisingly messy with colliding agendas. Pagan and Jig are forced to link up in order to sort things out as ostensible IRA terrorism comes to the United States. To say more would ruin the surprises.

While I wouldn't say this was a favorite book, I will look for more titles by Campbell Armstrong, whose books are being reissued by OpenRoadMedia. Armstrong died in 2013.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Avalanche by Patrick McManus

This is the second Bo Tully story I have read and it's even more enjoyable than the first. The interplay between the characters, Bo father and ex-sheriff who made a fortune as a corrupt sheriff, Lurch, his CSI, Daisy, the secretary, and Herb, the under-sheriff, is charming and humorous.

Bo is called to a resort in the mountains to investigate the disappearance of the co-owner. On the way they are barely missed by an avalanche which we soon learn was deliberately aimed at his vehicle. No more spoilers. The series is a lot of fun, and I intend to read all of them. Reminiscent of the delightful "liturgical" mysteries by Mark Schweizer that are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Review: Afterthoughts by Lawrence Block

This is a collection of afterwords taken from an assortment of Block reissues in which Block (one of my favorite crime writers) discusses the genesis of many of his earlier works and includes autobiographical details that surround the writing.

If you have ever heard Block read one of his own books (he is a master narrator, by the way) you’ll hear his unique cadence even in some of these short essays.

Reading the book is like sitting with Block in a dimly lit bistro and having a lovely chat with an old friend.

Review: The Sledge Patrol: A WWII Epic of Escape, Survival, and Victory by David Howarth

The east coast of Greenland is a vast wasteland inhabited only by a few intrepid hunters. Technically a Danish colony, some 2200 miles away and geographically part of North America, the Greenland governor decided to cast the island’s lot with the allies, after Denmark was overrun by the Germans. It was of strategic importance to the United States and Britain who needed weather reports in order to predict weather over Europe. I didn’t realize just how far north the country is until I looked at a globe. It’s a forbidding country, uninhabited by only a few natives, and with severe weather.

A small group of Arctic-loving Norwegians and Danes protected the vital radio and weather equipment under very difficult circumstances. Ironically, the German captain sent to invade and seize the station was an Arctic climate lover himself and was sympathetic to those who lived and worked there. One cannot help but admire the hardiness of these folks who thought nothing of walking, often with hardly any supplies but a rifle to ward off polar bears, hundreds of miles in horrible conditions, thinking nothing of it.

The culture of these Arctic lovers and Eskimos was the antithesis of what was going on in the rest of the world. To survive they needed to be able to help each other and to count on that assistance. The prospect of shooting someone else or anything not for food was completely foreign to the Eskimos, especially, who had no comprehension of why the fighting was going on hundreds of miles away. The entire Greenland “army” consisted of nine (!) men tasked with patrolling an immense coastline. That they ever ran into anyone else is simply astonishing.

David Howarth has done a service of showing us how WW II was truly a *world* war and how it affected even desolate parts or the globe. Fascinating. I suspect some of it was fictionalized as the internal monologues and thinking of some of the participants must have been impossible to document.

N.B. The Wikipedia article on Greenland is quite interesting. It had been populated by people from Iceland until the Little Ice Age of the 13th and 14th centuries when settlements were abandoned. Study of bones shows the populace had been very malnourished. Growing anything must have been close to impossible. One theory, though, holds that they failed because of their Euro-centric thinking driven by the Church and large landowners, when to be successful they should have adopted the culture and ways of the Inuit. The article on Greenland in WW II ( provides additional detail and led me to Sloan Wilson’s Ice Brothers which I will start this afternoon. (Gotta love Kindle and credit cards.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: The Blight Way by Patrick McManus

Charming police procedural of the cozy kind; a Steven Havill novel with more humor, if you will. McManus is a humor writer and this series departs from that genre, but the quirkiness of the characters has a subtle humor that helps you appreciate and like them.

The main character is Sheriff Bo Tully who is called by the local miscreant family to their ranch where a man has been found shot and draped over a fence. Realizing they would be the logical suspects, they thought it might be best to phone it in. Then, again, had they done it, the body would have been buried and not found. Tully knows that. Turns out Vern Littlefield's new wife and the new hands on his ranch (ostensibly he was switching from cattle to grapes!) may be part of something nasty. Tully bring his father along (the former sheriff) for curmudgeonly relief.

The timid among us who are fearful of being exposed to a "bad" word will appreciate McManus as with the Posadas County mysteries. I don't mind one way or the other. The book was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and I will read more in the series.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review: The Devil's Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers by Vicki Ward

A fascinating look at the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, an investment bank that went bankrupt as a result of hubris and wild speculation in the real estate market and the people that rose and fell with it. I have read numerous books about the tragic effects of credit default swaps and other speculative financial “instruments” that, while the market continued to go up, made spectacular fortunes for people who came to believe they could do no wrong.

The author had access to the notes and journals of Joe Gregory (who ironically refused to be interviewed,) the company’s president. He began the journals in 2003 by encouraging executives to write up they perceptions of the history of the firm. He discovered a huge disparity (as any historian could have predicted) in their accounts and abandoned his goal of writing a history. Those piles of notes proved invaluable to the author.

The company, under its CEO Dick Fuld, who had worked his way up and was with them his whole forty year career, developed its own lavish lifestyle. "As a Lehman wife, you raised your kids by yourself. You had your babies by yourself in the hospital. And then you were supposed to be happy and pretty and smiling when there was an event, and you really would have liked to strangle somebody,” a senior executive's wife explained. Executives were told what to wear, what charities to donate to, how to spend their time, it was a nice little capitalistic oligarchy. " Lehman was the last of the Wall Street firms to go casual on Fridays.” They were extremely competitive and cutthroat. That single-mindedness lead Time to labeled Fuld as one of 25 executives in the country most responsible for the collapse of 2008.

Many people blame the catastrophe on the repeal of Glass-Steagal which had prohibited banks from speculating with their customer’s assets. That’s probably overly simplistic and hardly mentioned in this book that focuses more on the personalities than the precise speculative strategies that inevitably ballooned into an unsustainable bubble. All of Wall Street conspired to create more and more ways of loaning money and then turning those high-interest, often sub-prime, loans into ways of betting money. As long as prices went up everything was rosy; the collapse was spectacular.

The section on Paulson and Geitner’s roles in the “bail-out” is quite interesting. It probably won’t change any minds on whether Lehman should have been bailed out, too or not. And that’s probably my biggest complaint. I would have liked to see conclusions from the author (with evidence for or against) for whether it indeed should have been done. But then again, the book was more about Lehman and that would have widened the scope. It’s a fun, breezy, cautionary book about a sad time that hurt a lot of people but probably not those who should have been hurt. It was published in 2010 so don’t expect the longer view which I need to read.

The blame, however, ultimately belongs to all of us. We all want and need the stock market and Wall Street to thrive and support pension funds, etc., without which we would all be in terrible shape. That said, a return to more regulation would be in all our best interests.

And who said the monarchy was dead. It thrives in the business world. Trump should know.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Review: The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the Energy Revolution and Changed the World by Russell Gold

Russell Gold is a Wall Street Journal reporter whose family had purchased a small Pennsylvania farm as a retreat from Philadelphia.  His parents were approached by an oil company offering them $400,000 plus royalties for the right to drill under their land. Being old time sixties environmentalists they were reluctant but it’s a lot of money and since almost all their neighbors had bought in they figured they might as well. He returns to their story periodically throughout the book to highlight the personal conflicts people have.

Gold provides a riveting account of the development of fracking from its extraordinary technological success to its environmental impacts.  It’s truly astonishing that this intricate technology has resulted in the United States becoming a net energy exporter barely a decade after “peak oil” had been proclaimed. The book mixes technical details with profiles of the major players, often focusing on the financial details, which can’t be easily separated from the evolution of oil drilling.

It’s perhaps ironic, that most of the anti-fracking environmental antagonism comes from geographical areas not affected by the drilling. Larger cities that depend on natural gas and heating, for example, have become hotbeds of anti-fracking activity, yet those people are little affected by the economic and environmental plusses and minuses of the activity except for lower prices for energy.

Some of the allegiances formed to promote fracking are interesting.  The Sierra Club worked with Chesapeake Energy to fight the development of coal plants in Texas and elsewhere, arguing that global warming was a far greater threat.*  That Chesapeake was giving them substantial amounts of money didn’t hurt either, but the environmental group has become split among those favoring just conservation opposed to some realists arguing that it’s better to focus on energy that reduces the carbon footprint like natural gas and nuclear power. Ironically, the shift to natural gas means the U.S., which hasn’t ratified the Kyoto protocols, will come closer to meeting the reduction in carbon emissions than any of the signatories.

Gold says that’s a very good thing and supports fracking (the reason why it’s now spelled that way as opposed to the more technically popular “fracing” is interesting) but notes the industry and regulators need to work on better sealing of the wells which is where most of the problems arise. Surprisingly, there was no mention of fracking-generated earthquakes, although perhaps being published in 2014, the concern had yet to be raised.

No energy generating process is unopposed.  Dams drown villages; mines are dirty and dangerous; transporting fuel in pipelines, ships, and trains risks spills and fires; drilling is obnoxious, wind generators destroy the landscape and kill birds; and nuclear, in many ways the least harmful, suffers from ignorance of new technology and problems of early technology.

A very interesting read.

*Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame has embraced GMOs, nuclear energy, and other technologies, arguing that global warming is the greatest threat.  An interesting article detailing his evolution in thinking is

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Review: The Run of his Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

I remember the intense discussions surrounding the trial and the O.J. trial and the passions it engendered. We didn’t have over-the-air TV at the time (still don’t and don’t care) so we could only follow in the newspapers and on the radio.

Recently we watched the docudrama based on this book. It’s excellent and those participants who are still with us have indicated it’s quite accurate. I’ve always enjoyed Toobin’s books so I looked this one up; it’s spellbinding, providing a lot more detail and background than the TV show ever could.

To those insisting the jury should have found OJ guilty, I reply that the jury saw only a fraction of what TV viewers saw. They were sequestered for close to eight months with no access to TV or newspapers (the section on the jury revolt is entertaining) and of the original 12 seated jurors, only three remained by the end of the trial. I don’t know what would have happened had they run out of alternates and that was close to happening. The jurors were treated like prisoners for the many months of the trial, often being sent out of the court while the lawyers argued over interesting points of law, many times with attendant fireworks. They were not permitted TVs or radios, had their newspapers censored and cut up, had their room keys taken away every night, and were permitted one “conjugal” visit per week with their spouse. Conversations with other jurors were monitored to make sure they didn’t talk of the trial.

Couple all this with the long history of police abuse of blacks in Los Angeles and you have a recipe for the verdict. Toobin sets the stage with a short history of the LAPD. It was another of those unintended consequences where an attempt to do something really good backfired in the long run. In an effort to eliminate the rampant corruption that had become the LAPD, it was separated from the highly political world and redesigned to become a more meritocracy. The LAPD became an entity unto itself, completely unaccountable, very self-defensive, and unfortunately a bastion of white privilege and racism.

Toobin gives a great deal of credit for the verdict (aside from a lot of prosecutorial arrogance and incompetence) to Barry Scheck (one of the early founders of the Innocence Project) on the defense team whose meticulous study of the DNA evidence and development of the complicated almost self-contradictory theory that the LAPD was both incredibly incompetent while being sinisterly brilliant. He worked tirelessly, unlike the more famous lawyers on the team who often seemed more interested in their own careers than their client’s future. Scheck’s theory melded perfectly with Cochran’s race-oriented approach and between the two provided mountains of doubt for the jury to deliberate.*

Ultimately, the question came down to reasonable doubt. A key moment was when Furman pled the fifth when he was asked if he had manipulated the evidence. That alone would supply enough reasonable doubt, not to mention the debacle with the glove, I would have voted for acquittal, too. The trial testimony reeked of reasonable doubt in spite of overwhelming physical evidence of Simpson’s guilt.

Some very amusing phrases by Toobin: “On the night of the murders, the jury learned, Kaelin spent from 7:45 to 8:30 P.M. in O.J.’s Jacuzzi—a marination of almost superhuman duration;” and describing one of the prosecutors as “ a trial lawyer with the stage presence of a voice-mail attendant.”

*A comment on how Schenk’s actions in the Innocence Project and the Simpson trial might appear at odds: “According to Richard Lewontin, a professor of population genetics at Harvard, ‘Unlike most lawyers, Barry and Peter really know what they’re talking about when it comes to the technology. When they’ve defended clients, they’ve done brilliant work in showing the problems with the DNA labs. On the other hand, I have to say, they have no compunction about supporting the technology when it’s useful for the defense. They are defense attorneys—and they’re not always consistent, because they’re defense attorneys.’ “

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Kansas City Archdioceses and the Girl Scouts

The Archdiocese of Kansas City has embarked on a silly crusade against the Girl Scouts, arguing that the Girl Scouts are somehow allied with Planned Parenthood and therefore not in tune with Catholic values. Fine. Aside from the Catholic tradition of protecting pederasts (see Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal by David France, innumerable other books, not to mention the Ferns report in Ireland that documented widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests and many other books and articles,) the church has embarked on a path that seeks to force those of different religious persuasions to adopt their view. The Girl Scouts position is clear

One argument is that there is no explicit right to abortion in the Constitution. Explain to me where there is *not* that right. There are plenty of unenumerated rights. That's the whole point of the 9th and 10th amendments. Individuals have every religious right to be against abortion under the free exercise clause, but the establishment clause prohibits government from providing support for any(!) religious belief system. The Catholic Church in recent years (contrary to their stated positions during the anti-Catholic wave when Kennedy was running for president) is trying to force society in general into adopting their anti-sex, anti-abortion, anti-contraception, very narrow religious point-of-view, and trying to get government (read their position in the Hobby Lobby case not to mention Notre Dame's silly argument that was destroyed by Posner in the 7th Circuit) to enforce their religious views. That's a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Another argument is that murder was against the law at the time of the writing of the Constitution. Certainly. But abortion as murder is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even St Thomas Aquinas didn't consider abortion to be murder until the "quickening" of the fetus, something that occurs around the 20th week. (The idea that a fetus could be human before the formation of the cerebral cortex is ludicrous.) "Although Bracton said that abortion of a quickened fetus was homicide, later writers insisted that it could not be homicide at common law. The proposition that abortion cannot be homicide is reiterated by practically every major writer on English criminal law, from William Staunford and William Lambard in the sixteenth century, through Edward Coke and Matthew Hale in the seventeenth century, to William Hawkins and William Blackstone in the eighteenth century. Homicide was agreed to require the prior birth of the victim."* The writers of the Constitution were intimately familiar with those writers. Abortion was an ecclesiastical offense. Don't inflict your narrow religious views on the rest of us. We believe in the free exercise of religion, not the free exercise to practice only one form of religion.

Even more ironically, if the Catholic Church had any sense, they would be supporting Planned Parenthood, which promotes and supports contraception. Preventing pregnancy obviously reduces abortion. If they were really serious about opposing abortion, they would be standing on the street corners handing out condoms.

*Read more: Abortion - Abortion In English Law - Fetus, Quickening, Homicide, and Century - JRank Articles

Other excellent reading is "Facts of Life: Science and the abortion Controversy" by Harold Morowitz
and The True Meaning of the Establishment Clause