Monday, December 28, 2015

Shining and Other Paths, edited by Steve J Stern.

The Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso, was a Maoist revolutionary movement born of Peru’s university system. It was the creation of Professor Abimael Guzman who, with fellow professors and students, saw communism as a potential liberating force for Peru’s impoverished underclass. They began by addressing the plight of highland, Quechua-speaking “Indians,” who labored long hours in poverty under a centuries-old, colonial, hacienda system. In that system, a “patron” owned the land and exercised such complete control that he was permitted to physically punish his workers. Organizing an army in the province of Ayacucho, Guzman and his cohort initiated retribution against patrons and corrupt local government bosses. The Peruvian military responded with violent attacks on Sendero villages and cadres, which began a war that lasted from 1980 to 1995 and claimed almost 70,000 lives. In the end, what defeated the Sendero Luminoso was an inflexible party dogma. By demanding that all regional produce go to the party, that traditional tribal leadership be abolished and replaced by their hierarchy and that children be conscripted for military service, they lost the support of the people they had come to liberate. The communists could not tolerate disloyalty to the party. Their response to resistance was assassination and massacre. Though the initial years of the war were dominated by Peruvian Army annihilations of Quechua-speaking communities, “by around 1988 it was the Shining Path’s massacres that populated the map of regional death” (Stern, p. 147). The military saw an opening, began arming highland (Serrano) communities, and expelled the Maoists with that support. Today, there are still a few bands of Sendero Luminoso, but the threat of revolution has passed.

Shining and Other Paths is an anthology of history and analysis discussing the rise and fall of the Sendero Luminoso. It’s five parts cover 1) The history of oppression and resistance that gave paved the way for the failed revolution; 2) The war in the highlands and Quechua life during this period; 3) The destruction of reform efforts by both the Shining Path and the Peruvian Armed Forces, 4) The different roles and political stripes of women during the war; and 5) The legacies of this war.

Frequently, an anthology will attempt to cast a wide net, representing voices of as many different political perspectives as possible. An editor covering a nation experiencing revolution, might choose to present articles written by government, revolutionary, native, reformist and reactionary individuals, to present the full spectrum of opinions. This book is distinctive in its single-point political perspective. Its writers are uniformly of a liberal-progressive stance that is to the Right of the Shining Path and to the Left of the government. Their concern is entirely with the well-being of the Quechua-speaking population, the poor city-dwellers and the Peruvian reformers, all of whom were the main victims in this conflict. According to a report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), out of a national death toll of 69,280 people, 75% spoke Quechua as their native language.** To put this in perspective, 80% of the population speaks Spanish. Only 20% of the population speaks Quechua; yet they accounted for three-fourths of the casualties.

Shining and Other Paths is a compendium of thoughtful essays elucidating the destructive impact of the Maoist revolutionaries, and the government forces, on Peruvian society. But in many ways, this volume is a both a product and a victim of history. The Shining Path lost. It is this fact that informs the analysis recorded therein. If the revolutionaries had been successful, US leftist analysis would appear more conciliatory. After all, when the Vietnamese Communist Party was victorious, many of its wartime atrocities against perceived traitors and resistant communities in the countryside were forgotten. The rigorous demands and conscriptions imposed on farming communities by the Viet Cong were seen, by many sympathetic western scholars, as a necessary evil to create the conditions for victory and the overcoming of oppression. The Peruvian authors of this volume would also represent events differently. Within a nation where a successful revolution has occurred, a different, cleaner perspective on the events is taught in the schools and advanced to the public. Few US citizens are aware of British claims that US revolutionary soldiers scalped wounded Redcoats at Concord. The excesses of any revolution are sanitized in a campaign of honoring the “visionaries” who supported revolution and a public agreement of national forgetting. Shining and Other Paths is an insightful guide to the failures and injustices of its subject organization. But the reader must not forget the events and political agendas that inform this book’s conclusions. The writers represent views far more aligned with those of Peruvian reformers, who were assassinated by the revolutionaries, than with any other group. The Sendero Luminoso could not have gained a foothold in Ayacucho without initial Quechua support. They did speak to the aspirations of some disenfranchised Serranos. Some gave their lives for the Sendero view of the future and supported the Maoists even in defeat. I wonder what they would have said.

**"CVR. Tomo VIII. Chapter 2. "El impacto diferenciado de la violencia" "2.1 VIOLENCIA Y DESIGUALDAD RACIAL Y ÉTNICA"" (PDF). pp. 131–132.

Stern, Steve J. (ed.) Shining and Other Paths. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Islamophobia, the Red Scare and Donald Trump. Inspired by Reading Murray B. Levin.

In April of 1919, US postal officials discovered thirty-six bombs had been mailed to prominent politicians and industrialists throughout the United States. On June 2, 1919, a more successful effort through the mail produced eight explosions across the US. (Levin, pp. 32-4). These bombings were presented to  the public as a foreign-inspired Bolshevik plot. (Levin, p. 1). The public was understandably alarmed. A number of politicians used the opportunity to initiate the nation’s first Red Scare. Thousands of foreigners were deported. Offices of radical organizations were raided by federal agents. (Levin, pp. 52-3). Conservative politicians like Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer (the individual who ordered the raids) attempted to increase their personal power. Palmer used the publicity to launch a bid for the Presidency of the United States. (Levin, p 72).

Sound familiar? Replace Bolshevik with Islamic, and Palmer with Trump, and you have the USA in 2015. Have we learned so little about fear? Do we automatically revert to an irrational defensive posture which violates the rights of citizens and improves the circumstances of demagogic conservative politicians? Though I am sure that I could write an article of popular opinion, excoriating Trump for his fear-mongering, the truth is that Trump would not be successful without an ignorant public who is unaware of their history, their prejudices and themselves. It’s easy to point at Trump and say that he is the problem. But these epidemics of fear occur periodically in the United States against some foreign or “un-American” source. It results in our putting safety before human rights and oppressing a class of people. This time the target is Muslims.  Yes, there are some terrorist attacks occurring by some Muslims. But a large section of US citizenry, in one of its characteristic fits of anxiety, is failing to properly assess the risk. Saying that we should prevent Muslims from entering the country because of terrorism, is like saying that we should keep library cards out of the hands of Southern Baptists because they’re just going to burn  the  books; or that we should keep white teenage boys out of high school because they’re just going to go crazy and shoot-up the place. The large majority of Southern Baptists, white teenage boys and Muslim Americans are law-abiding, rational people. Far more rational than Trump’s noisy minions.

What is needed is a dispassionate discourse, not an emotional reaction. And this is what we should be demanding of our politicians. It has been said too often that terrorism relies upon fear to win. Too often because so many citizens are not listening and the message bears repeating. If you react out of fear, they win. The losers will be innocent citizens, our Bill of Rights, and you. If we can take a collective breath and begin examining the many reasonable options for curtailing violence, we will be able to produce a plan that balances civil liberties with safety. 

We must tread carefully. We must fully examine each proposal designed to prevent attacks. If, in  the process of securing the safety of our nation, we undermine the Constitution and  violate our laws, there will be no America as we know it, to defend. For example, we currently have a no-fly list for people whom we suspect could perform terrorist acts. If this limitation is fully vetted, and found to be constitutional, then the list may have other useful safety applications. Logically, if an individual is such  a danger to the US populace that their freedom to travel by  air has been proscribed, then it is reasonable to prevent their access to the purchase of firearms, with which they could cause more public harm. The aforementioned is a limited, cautiously contemplated limitation on individual rights. It may not stand-up to intelligent dialogue; but there should be a dialogue. Compared to the infringements proposed in some quarters that we prevent further immigration by Muslims, or curtail internet access for everyone, this proposal at least not a fear-based, bigoted reaction to outsiders. But, whatever our solutions will be, they must be approached with an attitude of calm and a method which respects due process. This collective breath is square one of an intelligent conversation. The next moves determine our freedoms for the near future. Lets avoid another Red Scare.

Levin, Murray B. Political Hysteria in America. The Democratic Capacity for Repression. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers. 1971.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Guardian of Boston. William Monroe Trotter by Stephen R. Fox.

William Monroe Trotter was an early Twentieth Century radical for the cause of racial equality. Of course, what was radical in 1910 is accepted wisdom in 2015. Among his most memorable activities were his conflict with Woodrow Wilson over segregation in the federal departments of government, his agitation against the film “Birth of a Nation,” his organizing with The Niagara Movement (precursor to the NAACP) and his reporting from the Paris Peace Conference.

The main instrument for Trotter’s opinions was a newspaper that he founded in 1901 with George Forbes, called The Guardian. Publications created by and for African Americans were few, and played an important role in both informing and organizing the populace.  This newspaper was founded primarily in response to the accommodationist politics of Booker T. Washington, and remained a thorn in the side of this famous educator throughout his career. Trotter, as editor, hounded Washington for his unwillingness to address lynching (Fox, p. 27), segregation (Fox, p. 34) and the loss of voting rights for southern African Americans (Fox, p. 36). When Washington’s influence was eclipsed by the rise of the NAACP, African Americans finally had a superior advocate for their rights.

If Trotter had limited his criticism to Washington, history would have vindicated his perspective. “But he had the strong man’s flaw: his bulldog tenacity could often become a prickly stubbornness…Compromise was not flexibility, but cowardice. Other men were either manly or unmanly, with him or against him. These qualities made him an admirable spokesman for the protest tradition, but hamstrung his personal relationships.” (Fox, pp. 64-5). Trotter was unable to accept that a movement is a body with many organs that function for the well-being of the entire organism. As a result, he eventually alienated almost all of the important radicals whose perspectives he shared. WEB Du Bois, Archibald Grimke, George Forbes, Clement Morgan and William Ferris, all were one-time allies who deserted Trotter. This is a sad and frustrating theme in the book: while African Americans are losing many rights, facing a resurgent KKK and enduring an increase in lynching, Trotter is wasting movement energy on infighting.

Stephen R. Fox, for his part, does a heroic job of reporting on this important but difficult figure. He does his best to balance the editor’s valuable work and his difficult personality. But even the most saintly biographer cannot avoid editorializing about such flagrant personality deficits, as when he parenthetically discusses the activist’s “larger problem of subordinating his ego sufficiently to admit mistakes and remain on good terms with anyone whom he did not control.” (Fox, p. 118). At least one cannot accuse Fox of hagiography.

Despite William Monroe Trotter’s personal flaws there is much to recommend him. He put forth the then unpopular (now accepted) idea that African American organizations should be run primarily by African Americans in order to  empower them. Even the NAACP of his time had a majority of white men on its board. As a Harvard graduate from a well-off family, he had the opportunity for material comfort. But he “relinquished a comfortable, respectable existence” for a life that “brought him poverty…For over thirty years he genuinely put his people’s welfare above his own. And the tragedy of his life is that he died without much assurance that his dedication had been worth it.” (Fox, pp. 281-2).

Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston. William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D Ehrman provides a carefully considered, insightful, perspective on the Bible. It is a document which he has spent a long time examining. Ehrman has been a biblical scholar and a professor of religion for over thirty years. He has written 27 books, primarily on topics related to the Bible. Since 1988, he has taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. But he does not believe in God. He defines himself as an “Agnostic.” This is a definition he chose not because the word “Atheist” is repugnant to him, but because he thinks that it is more accurate to say that he cannot disprove the existence of God. (One cannot disprove the existence of unicorns either, but that doesn’t mean we need to quibble over the possibility of their existence.) The professor’s purpose in writing this book is to have a population that questions and understands what is written in the scriptures. He’s not out to make atheists. After all, he is married to a churchgoing Episcopal woman and teaches students, the majority of whom are believers. Professor Ehrman’s view is that “the Bible lies at the foundation of Western culture and civilization…the Bible informs our thinking in more ways than we are inclined to allow” (Ehrman, p. 14). Its ethics and ideas have profoundly influenced Western civilization for better and worse. Even today, citizens of Europe and the Americas express thoughts (sometimes direct phrases) that are found in the Bible; often without being aware of their source. So, for Westerners, knowing what the Bible says permits them to be more conscious of factors that have shaped and continue to form, the societies in which they live.
God’s Problem is a methodical, chronological examination of the Bible’s many answers to the question “Why Do We Suffer.” Ehrman takes the reader from the views of the Prophets on this subject, through those of the apocalyptic Jewish sects, to the appropriately final Christian apocalypticists. This author combines a good biblical scholar’s full understanding of the text, with the incisive mind of an individualist Agnostic who is not afraid to question its wisdom or consistency. For example, Ehrman reveals the views of the Prophets who lived during a time when Israel and Judea were Jewish kingdoms. People then were distressed by famines and attacks from neighbors. They asked why they were suffering. The Prophets, almost universally, answered that the people were being punished by God for disobeying his laws. The Prophets assured that God would re-embrace his people when they returned to his laws. Conversely, after Israel and Judea fell, many Jews were being persecuted by their conquerors for maintaining their religion and obeying Jewish law. So why isn’t God returning to his people, as promised, to re-embrace them? When this generation of Jews asked why they were suffering, the apocalyptic Maccabees answered that God’s cosmic enemies and their earthly minions were battling God and harming his people. The book of Daniel, written at this time, assured that God would send a Messiah who would vanquish the Lord’s enemies and establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. So the answer of the Prophets, that God causes suffering as punishment for disobedience, directly conflicts with the apocalyptic Jewish answer, that God’s enemies cause suffering as retribution for obedience to God. These contradictions make clear that the Bible is not inspired or channeled from a Supreme Being. If it were, answers would complement each other, rather than contradict each other. Instead, the Bible is a compilation of writings by different people, at different times, answering the question based upon their situation. Ehrman’s method is to present in each chapter a different biblical answer to why people suffer, then expose the inadequacy of the answer in a final assessment.

In discussing the ways that God punishes his people, our theologian expresses his difficulty in accepting this behavior of God. He criticizes universal punishments like the Great Flood, where God drowns all of the innocent babies on the earth because people have become sinful. He criticizes the individual punishments meted-out on specific wrongdoers, like when God kills the infant of King David and Bathsheeba for their betrayl of Uriah. Clearly, God’s moral actions do not sit well with Professor Ehrman.

Though the writer is capable of complex biblical analysis and extensive, rational contemplation, regarding the question of suffering, his main criticism of the inadequacy of biblical answers derives directly from the compassionate impulses which drove him from belief to Agnosticism in the first place: today’s conditions of suffering and God’s resounding absence. Ehrman is grief-stricken by the overwhelming suffering endured by God’s alleged children: If “the God who created this world is a God of love and power who intervenes for his faithful to deliver them from their pain and sorrow and bring them salvation…Why are babies still born with birth defects? Why are children kidnapped, raped and murdered? Why are there droughts that leave millions starving…If God intervened to deliver the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely attack and destroy entire villages…If God [fed] the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child…dies every five seconds of hunger?” (Ehrman, pp. 5-6). Ehrman has many religious friends and students who have posed answers based on the Bible. The most common answer is that God gave humans free-will and humans use that free will to do evil. The professor has two answers to that question: 1: “If God gave people free will as a great gift, why didn’t he give them the intelligence they need to exercise it so that we can all live happily and peaceably together?” (Ehrman, p. 13). 2: “If suffering is entirely about free will, how can you explain hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters?” (Ehrman, p. 229).

Whether one responds to Professor Ehrman’s well-reasoned analysis of the Bible’s answers, or to his personal anguish over today’s conditions of suffering, one will respond. The question of why we suffer leads one on a thought-and-emotion-provoking journey that, at some point, most thinking and feeling westerners exposed to the Bible will undertake. Inviting Bart Ehrman along on this trek, will help to clear-away some of the fog on the path.

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Woman of Valor. Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America by Ellen Chesler.

“Margaret Sanger went to jail in 1917 for distributing contraceptives to immigrant women.” She worked from “a makeshift clinic, in a tenement storefront in of Brooklyn, New York. When she died fifty years later, the cause for which she defiantly broke the law had achieved international stature” (Chesler, p. 11). Of course she did not accomplish the acceptance of birth control on her own. There were many who preceded Sanger in the effort to secure legal, reliable contraception. There were many who worked on the issue as volunteers under her, or as rivals for pre-eminence in the movement. And there were scientists and activists who followed her and expanded upon her gains. A few of Sanger’s accomplishments include several successful court rulings mitigating the Comstock Laws, thence allowing the dissemination of (formerly illegal) birth control information; creation of our country’s first network of birth control clinics; and introduction of the diaphragm into the United States. Twenty-first Century proponents and opponents of birth control agree on very little. But there is one thing historically-minded activists of these opposing movements do agree upon: Margaret Sanger is the reason why birth control is so widely accepted in the United States today.

This biography was a twenty-year-long odyssey for Ellen Chesler. The years of care have paid-off. It is a masterful, detailed and balanced study, on one of the most effective activists for social change to appear in the US. One of the strongest features of this biography is one that has the capability of being a weakness. In her introduction, Chesler cautions “this study necessarily incorporates some of the history of these sweeping developments. It veers away at points in the narrative from the woman herself” (Chesler, p. 12). True, but the veering reveals the culture, the historical evolution and the placement of Sanger in the context of her time’s political developments. It is not only necessary, but informative.

Ellen Chesler undeniably supports birth control and sees Sanger as a hero. After all, the work is entitled Woman of Valor, not Kicker of Dogs. In spite of her personal admiration, Chesler is capable of fairly portraying the difficult personality traits and unjust political perspectives of her subject. Sanger was a thorny, vain, competitive woman. Those who appreciated her company were thick-skinned people capable of admiring a driven, intelligent, challenging friend. Additionally, the author freely depicts Sanger as a terrible parent who abandons her sons, leaving them with “an unappeased hunger for the love and approval of a mother…who lavished her exuberance on other people and causes but never found enough time for them” (Chesler, pp. 137-8).

Margaret Sanger’s racism is a well-known fact and one that Chelser unflinchingly portrays. She supported the philosophy of eugenics. In the early 1800s, eugenics began with the lofty and flawed goal of creating a better society by encouraging the best human stock to breed. Further complicating their misapprehension of humanity and genetics, eugenicists composed the economic and social elite of the US and Europe who either quietly felt or explicitly stated that theirs was the class/culture which should be breeding. Conversely, those of other classes and cultures should be breeding less. Sanger’s advocacy of birth control caused members of the Eugenics Movement to approach her with their idea that birth control could be used to prevent growth of undesirable classes. Sanger was of an immigrant Irish Catholic background. Furthermore, she had married a Jew and produced what eugenicists would think of as "mongrel children" from that marriage. She was from two groups whose reproduction the eugenicists would want to limit. Nevertheless, Sanger was nothing if not an opportunist. She was offered vocal support from an elite during a time when she had little else, and she took it. In the words of her biographer: “eugenics…became an unmitigated defense of property, privilege and race baiting” (Chesler, p.215).

Other expressions of this activist’s personal racism are a mass of confusing mixed messages, but undeniable. Clearly she was prejudiced enough to take support from the Eugenics Movement. Conversely, she employed African American doctors in her Harlem clinic when such a practice was unthinkable for a white organization. Also, she would not permit expressions of racial bigotry among her staff. Finally, she opposed “racial stereotyping” by eugenicists, “claiming that intelligence and other inherited traits vary by individual, not by group” (Chesler, p.215). However, Sanger later contradicts this claim. The reviewer has read Ms Sanger’s “What Every Girl Should Know. Part II: Sexual Impulses.” In this article, which appeared in the December 29, 1912 issue of “New York Call,” she states “the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that the police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.”** Shocking as that sounds, these were not uncommon perceptions among white people. While there may have been some free-thinking white individuals who thought that non-whites were entirely our equals in brain development and were of the same species as whites, the norm of US society was far less enlightened in 1912. Less than fifty years earlier, African Americans were slaves and even the most progressive of abolitionists believed that they were mentally inferior to whites. Racism was so endemic to early 20th Century America that it existed on both sides of the contraception issue. Some favoring contraception blatantly supported using it to limit African American reproduction. Some opposing contraception argued just as fervently that limiting the size of white families was “race suicide” and would allow African Americans to dominate politically in areas of the country. Less well-known, and  more disturbing, is a 1926 address Sanger gave to women’s auxiliary of the  Ku Klux Klan ( At this point, Ms Sanger’s ignorance concerning race and the Klan approaches the surreal. The KKK is an immensely anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. How this Catholic-born activist with her half-Jewish children came together with a group that hates both of those aspects of her is a mystery. But more importantly, the KKK was well-known as a hate group that most thinking people avoided. It is clear that Sanger furthered racism in her time. Despite the plethora of mixed messages, her public actions (support for eugenics, addressing the KKK and her published writings) all caused harm to the cause of African American equality.

Ellen Chesler’s portrayal of Sanger’s life is an achievement of rare quality: factual, balanced, highly readable and unafraid of controversy. Some may think that Ms Chesler is the true “woman of valor.” She never shrinks from the truth and fully, patiently examines the circumstances of the time. It is a biography that will leave the reader with a strong background on the history of the Birth Control Movement, the life of Margaret Sanger, and the zeitgeist of US society during her time period.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor. Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

**Sanger, Margaret. "What Every Girl Should Know," New York Call, December 29, 1912. The Public Papers of Margaret Sanger: Web Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney

Noah Charney has written a well planned and colorful book that will introduce the general public to the subject of art forgery. This is not an exhaustive, academic study of the topic. It is an entertaining presentation that relies on the sensations of crime, trickery and flamboyant personalities, to seduce its audience. Nonetheless, the book contains a respectable amount of information for the uninitiated.

This author has selected an uncommon, but effective direction for his book. He first sympathizes with the popular image of forgers as “artful tricksters—often ingenious, skilful, quirky and charming.”  (Charney, p. 13). These criminals are generally perceived by the public as damaging only the reputations of arrogant art experts, and the wallets of wealthy collectors who can afford a loss. But this view evolves. Charney’s evaluation progressively pays more attention to the effects of such criminal behavior on society. “A forgery scandal…damages our understanding of the past and skews the study of history.” (Charney, p. 89). Charney later examines counterfeiters who enter historical archives posing as researchers. When inside, they insert false provenance that will be later found by buyers to validate the history of the false work being sold. This is highly damaging because “once real archives have been impregnated with fake historical evidence…every piece of documentation in the archive must be called into question.” There is no other way to tell how many records have been tainted. (Charney, p. 177). Archives must then embark upon an expensive, time-consuming process of re-examining all records to expunge the fakes and become once again trustworthy for scholars. Since most archives are non-profits with little expendable cash, this is a hardship. The theme of destructiveness progresses to the point where Charney is presenting literary forgeries like “The Donation of Constantine” which permitted the Vatican to seize large provinces of property, and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which led to numerous anti-Semitic murders and pogroms. Shifting from artworks to written forgeries, is incongruous with the rest of the book, but does illustrate the most harmful consequences of forgery.

Professor Charney purports to offer his readers the opportunity to “peer into the forger’s mind, motivation and methods.” (Charney, p. 17). While it is a dicey claim to say that one can enter the mind and motivations of another whom one has never met, using only written information, the author does make a brave attempt. His task is further complicated by the fact that he relies on the words of convicted forgers, who lie for a living. Naturally, the forgers ascribe to themselves only the most self-congratulatory explanations for their actions; and these explanations almost never involve greed. But Charney is taken-in by these professional deceivers. He claims “we might assume that money is the primary motivation for art forgery, but we see again and again that this is rarely true—although profit might be a welcome bonus. Forgers are complex psychological characters driven by many different impulses.” (Charney, p. 14). It is not certain that Professor Charney’s PhD in Art History gives him the qualifications to analyze the criminal mind. While this author primarily ignores the profit motive, he does ascribe some negative reasons for art forgery to his subjects. Chapters entitled “Pride, Revenge, Fame and Power” are headings under which individual forger’s stories are told.

One of the most interesting, contentious and mentally challenging chapters is “Genius.” Here, Charney presents the early forgery careers of famous artists. Michelangelo once carved a statue which he passed-off as an ancient Roman marble. (Charney, p. 36). Later, when famous, Michelangelo “copied drawings of the old masters…he smoked and tinted the paper to give it the appearance of age.” He was thereby able to “keep the originals and return the copies in their place.” (Charney, p. 38). This, and other examples of talented artists committing crimes, does blur the line between forger and artist. To complicate matters further, forgers do not reproduce works that are hanging in museums and galleries; they would not be able to sell their fakes as originals this way. Instead, they study the style of a master and reproduce works in that style. One might argue that they are producing an original work with aesthetic, emotional appeal. But let’s not get carried away. Most average art school graduates can copy an original work or style; that’s part of the training. This does not make one a “genius.” Concerning masters who were also forgers, one can see their original works as excellent art, while also accepting that they once created inferior derivations. Charney later challenges his own thesis with comments that “a forger’s work is inherently derivative” and that with few exceptions “forgers are largely failed artists who are missing one component of greatness.” (Charney, p. 108). The author’s chapter on “Revenge” is testimony to the failure of most forgers to produce successful original works. When they are unsuccessful in the art world, they turn to forgery for revenge and profit.

Noah Charney’s subject and presentation have the power to excite and captivate his audience. He understands his readers and appeals to what moves them. Combining the iconoclastic personalities of several forgers, with the crime drama of law enforcement’s pursuit and capture, the author spins fascinating stories while providing instruction. The Art of Forgery provides the best of opportunities for readers, to be both entertained and informed.

Charney, Noah. The Art of Forgery. London: Phaidon Press, 2015.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Symptoms of Modernity. Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth-Century Vienna by Matti Bunzl.

Symptoms of Modernity is an anthropological, cross-cultural study concerning the conditions and progress of the LGBT and Jewish communities in Austria. Matti Bunzl is able to link these two groups because both were perceived, by the majority of citizens, as containing traits which opposed the nation’s Aryan self-image. The existence of Jews and LGBT people contradicted the dominant culture’s view of itself as Aryan men and women, having specific gender roles, within a culturally homogeneous nation.

From this jumping-off point, Bunzl presents the similar history of these groups from pre-World War II to the early 21st Century. The reader sees an evolution from oppression and exclusion, through the inter-war Nazi period of extermination, to the post-War period of disregard. The trajectory becomes more positive in the 1970s as both groups organize publicly and begin demanding rights. One then observes increasing progress through the 1990s and into the 21st Century, which is influenced by both demands from these two communities within the nation and modernizing transnational pressure exerted primarily by the European Union that Austria wished to join.

The chief post-war stumbling block, which prevented Austrians from making much progress around homophobia and anti-Semitism, was the nation’s self-identification as “Hitler’s First Victim.” Those familiar with the history of the Anschluss will remember that the Austrian population overwhelmingly supported the Nazi “invasion.” German soldiers were welcomed at the border with flowers and treated to parades in Vienna. After the confetti was swept-up, Austria’s citizens brutally, enthusiastically participated in the Third Reich’s program, of killing and deporting to concentration camps, their Jewish and LGBT citizens. They were “Hitler’s First Cheerleaders.” But the loss of the war made remembering this behavior inconvenient. So the victim myth was born. Unlike their relatives in Germany, Austrians remained unrepentant. While Germany began a program of classes in public schools that addressed national responsibility for the Holocaust, Austria continued its ideology of racial purity and gendered images of Aryan men and women that excluded LGBT people and Jews. By the late 20th Century, Germany was electing leftist chancellors like Willy Brandt and rising Green Party members like Petra Kelly, while Austria was electing conservative ex-Nazis like Kurt Waldheim and rising reactionaries like Jorg Haider.

Bunzl’s work is a unique contribution to the study of Austrian history and society. His examination of the intersections between the experiences of Jewish and LGBT communities is a first. The author teaches Anthropology, as well as History. His research is based upon both historical archives and direct, anthropological field study. As a result, his perspective is on the development of the two cultures, their institutions, their connections with each other and their relationship to the dominant culture, as they politically awaken and culturally expand over time.

The language of this book is a combination of academic anthropological expression and over-thinking. Its dense professional vocabulary sometimes results in ideas sounding more original and complex than they are. For example, Bunzl will say that the two communities “share a common genealogy of cultural abjection” (Bunzl, p. 12), rather than “they are similarly oppressed minorities.” Through a novel use of terms, Professor Bunzl also argues for a thesis statement that is intellectually obtuse and linguistically awkward. The author calls the LGBT and Jewish communities “symptoms of modernity,” meaning that they were “the abject products of the nation’s reification as a fantasized space of ethnic and sexual purity, as well as the signposts of its historical trajectory” (Bunzl, p. 216). Aside from the author’s ever-present, convoluted language, the idea is flawed on its face. It’s not Jewish and LGBT people who are “symptoms.” Indeed, calling oppressed minorities “symptoms” dehumanizes them and configures them in a subservient position as indicators for the dominant culture, when they should be represented as independent peoples. It would be simpler and more accurate to say “the way LGBT and Jewish people were treated showed how the Austrian culture was changing.”

The value of Symptoms of Modernity is not only in its unique presentation of Vienna’s LGBT and Jewish communities, but also in its optimism. Bunzl shows vibrant groups overcoming a horrific past and arriving in a more liberated, culturally rich present. His images of Pride Marches, social events, Jewish museums, strong organizations and protests, are affirmative pictures of healthy growth. A particular nugget of interest is his portrait of an iconoclastic political group of LGBT Jews called Re'uth. It’s not all rosy. This anthropologist presented signs that Austria was developing new nationalist prejudices targeting non-European immigrants. These anti-immigrant sentiments are poignant to read about, as Austria and the EU face their Migrant Crisis of Syrian refugees. But by and large, Bunzl celebrates the changes that have taken place and the regenerative ability of humanity.

Bunzl, Matti. Symptoms of Modernity. Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth-Century Vienna. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Illuminati Without Illusions. History Minus Modern Conspiracy Theory. From van Dulmen.

The purpose of this essay is to offer the public a factual history of the Illuminati. There is so much misinformation and spurious (frankly paranoid) conspiracy theory on the internet concerning this past organization, that some clarity is useful. While this German Enlightenment organization was indeed a secret society, its history is no secret. There are several legitimate sources of information on which a balanced, earnest reader may draw. This essayist has chosen The Society of the Enlightenment. The Rise of the Middle Class and Enlightenment Culture in Germany, as his source. Richard van Dulmen, the book's author, is Professor of Modern History at the University of Saarland. The structure of this article will contain first, a short history of their origins; second, an explanation of the structure of this organization; and third, a brief description of their principles and plans which resulted in their being outlawed.

“The League of the Illuminati was founded in 1776 in the university town of Ingolstadt by the twenty-eight year old Professor of Church Law and Practical Philosophy, Adam Weishaupt.” (Dulmen, p. 105). Its original intention was to oppose the Catholic Jesuit sect’s goals and philosophy. He recruited its first members from among his students. Weishaupt originally conceived of the nascent association as a secret organization to avoid outside (read State and Jesuit) interference, and to exert greater personal control over the agenda. As interest in his group expanded to other towns in Germany, the program of the Illuminati expanded as well. It began to include a more affirmative tenor of not just opposing Jesuits, but advancing Enlightenment notions of reason. When, in 1778, the Munich chapter of the Freemasons became enthusiastic about the Illuminati program, Weishaupt lost control of the organization. Munich was not prepared to accept Weishaupt’s autocratic leadership and appointed itself “Aeropagus” or “the highest collegiate of the league.” Munich was joined by journalist Aldoph Freiherr von Knigge in their bid to assume leadership. Weishaupt spent the next six years in a losing battle for control of the organization until its 1785 demise, when it was officially banned by the government of Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria.

There was a three-tier structure to this organization. The Novitiate was an entry level where “young Illuminati were educated…each under the individual supervision of a leader. They were taught to lead a moral life, to educate themselves, to read a particular canon of books, view everything in a critical light and write short tracts…it was essential to display both absolute obedience to the leader and discretion.” (Dulmen, p. 113). Tier two, the Minervals, were “the league’s foundation, a type of learned society, meeting in lodges.” (Dulmen, p. 113). The third and final tier was the Arcana. It was conceived as “the foundations upon which the whole edifice stood.” But no one ever attained this grade. The organization only survived eight years and was disbanded before any member exhibited enough learning to qualify. So the Minerval tier “exercised the decisive influence.” (Dulmen, p. 114).

Principles, Plans & Termination.
The principles of this organization were benign enough: they wished to realize “the dream of the kingdom of reason, in which equality before the law, freedom of thought and freedom from violence would reign supreme.” But the implementation is what got the Illuminati into so much trouble: “It was the deliberate intention of the league that…all important religious, governmental and, not least, didactic institutions should be infiltrated by Illuminati sympathizers in order that they might operate in the best interests of reason.” The plan was to surround “the ruling princes with a network of Illuminati sympathizers so that they would be left with no alternative but to govern in the spirit of Illuminism.” (Dulmen, p. 113). When Illuminati documents were brought to Prince Karl Theodor, he exhibited a disinclination to be thusly influenced. His March 2, 1785 edict banning all secret societies ended the organization.

The League of the Illuminati was an Enlightenment era phenomenon. There is no surviving secret society from that time period. As for the current conspiracy theories: The Rothschilds are not members of any modern version; this was not a society that would have accepted Jews. The Kennedys are not members of any modern version; there is no way that the former Illuminati would have accepted immigrants into their membership. The Extra-terrestrials are not members; I suppose it’s the immigrant thing again. The Illuminati began and ended in the Seventeenth Century. I hope this short essay has cleared-up some misconceptions.

Dulmen, Richard van. The Society of the Enlightenment. The Rise of the Middle Class and Enlightenment Culture in Germany. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Age of Conversation by Benedetta Craveri.

Benedetta Craveri examines the world of the French salon from its genesis. Beginning in 1618 (the exact date is unknown), Mme de Rambouillet first invited a select group of fellow aristocrats to her Blue Room, where they participated in an experiment: a social event where conversation reigned and would be developed into an art. This event may seem trivial to the serious student of evolving western history; but it created a blueprint of social interaction for the following generation of the Enlightenment. The salonnieres of that later generation would use this forum to educate themselves, elevate the importance of reason and begin the process of questioning traditional institutions. This questioning would result in the French Revolution.

The usefulness of Craveri’s work is that it elucidates the origins of the salon. Most discussions of this institution begin with the Enlightenment. They overlook that the act of taking ceremonial manners out of the king’s court, into a realm where aristocrats focused gallant respect upon each other, was an innovation. This change of focus marks the beginning of the public sphere that would eventually challenge monarchical domination of opinion.

As a feminist historian, the author illuminates important darkened areas in our knowledge regarding women and their contributions during the 15th Century. The world of the salon was created and facilitated by women. This sphere evolved during a time when women were considered, by men, to be little more than a commodity traded between noble families. Women's predominance in this arena is a testament to the intelligence, ingenuity and independence, of individual noble ladies who invented a central role for themselves.

That said, I must reiterate that the Aristocratic Salon was not the Enlightenment Salon. By the beginning of the 15th Century, the nobility of France had lost their position as defenders of the king’s realm to professional armies. No longer contributing knights and warriors to the monarch’s battles, this class was left to justify its indolent position by professing its inherent superiority over productive classes. Such a goal cannot be pursued without a heroic attitude of self-involvement and arrogance. This was a circle which “never tired” concerning “the idealized story of their own daily lives” (Craveri, p. 47). The salon provided an extension of this show. Since nobles were now holding court for each other, the rules of courtly conduct still applied. “Flattery…was essential to society. How could courtesy—and even more so gallantry—systematically embellish everyday life without the providential aid of a lie?” (Craveri, p. 346). While some discussions concerned the arts, it was more likely that romantic love, taste, friendship or decorum itself, would be the topic. Never, in such an environment, could a Cesare Beccaria tour the most important salons, as he did in the 1760s, discussing prison reform. Topics relating to social change, education and science, would have to wait almost 150 years to enter the conversation. Approximately two-thirds of the book focuses upon the Aristocratic Salon. An intrepid reader will need the qualities of thoroughly enjoying pageantry, finding amusement in the folly of self-important puffery or exercising immense patience. For the reader without such qualities, an avenue is open to her that was not open to this reviewer: she can develop her skimming talents.

Mercifully, the salon does evolve more useful functions over the next century-and-a-half which allow it to genuinely give voice to society. Inclusion of bourgeois writers and thinkers based on their merits, along with the elevation of reason, produces a milieu worthy of the term “Enlightenment.” The environment of Mme de Tencin’s salon typifies this change: “the priority given to intelligence made [social standing] irrelevant…participants…were concerned only with following the logic of their argument to its very end, whatever the outcome might be…the intellectual adventure destined to threaten the whole established order took off” (Craveri, p. 293). It is a shame that only one-third of the book’s space is given to the Enlightenment Salon. But for those wishing to follow (or substitute) Craveri’s study on the years of development with a more thorough examination of the latter period, I recommend Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters.

Craveri’s journey ends with a sad, circular irony: The aristocracy created the salon, in part, to display their superior courtesy and decorum. Such behavior provided a code for their Enlightenment successors to use in creating civil conversation on more controversial issues. These following discussions resulted in a determination that the nobility was the problem; resulting in a revolution which sent aristocrats to the guillotine. Professor Craveri closes with a paragraph from Hippolyte Taine's writing: “In prison, men and women would dress with care, pay each other visits, hold a salon…they would retain their dignity and their smiles; women particularly went to the scaffold with the ease and serenity with which they attended a soiree” (Craveri, p. 375). It is with this irony that noble conversation ended and the candles which had illuminated the evenings of the Aristocratic Salon were snuffed.

Craveri, Benedetta. The Age of Conversation. New York: New York Review Books, 2005.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Neanderthal Man by Savante Paabo

Svante Paabo is a scientist who created and led a research team that uses genetic information to uncover the human past. Among their achievements to date are: 1) Isolating the first fragments of Neanderthal DNA. 2) Mapping the Neanderthal genome (the first complete genome sequenced from an extinct form of human). 3) Showing that there is Neanderthal DNA in the Homo Sapien genome. 4) Identifying that the Denisova Cave remains (discovered by archaeologist Anatoly Derevianko) were of a previously unknown species of hominid. The work of this team, under Paabo’s leadership, confirms the merit of applying genetic science to our study of the human evolutionary past.

Neanderthal Man is a memoir, a lesson in applied genetics and an exciting tale of discovery. It follows the career of one of the most influential paleogeneticists, from his college years through the aforementioned discoveries. Paabo is aware that he is writing for scientists and laypeople alike. Professional information is explained in a clear, methodical manner. The author first lays the groundwork for understanding basic genetics. Paabo then explains how the most advanced technologies for extracting DNA work. He then describes how he and his team employed these technologies to isolate DNA from Neanderthal bones. For the non-scientist, the internet provides important elucidation. Whether one’s interest is in genetics, human evolution or, more generally, to broaden personal knowledge, Neanderthal Man will provide enriching information.

As a memoir, the book is surprisingly frank. Paabo discusses his opinions of his colleagues, his bisexuality, and his political maneuvering in the scientific community. Characterizations can be amusingly blunt: “In charge of the Vindija collection was Maja Paunovic, a woman of a certain age…friendly enough but understandably dour—no doubt aware that science had passed her by” (Paabo, pp. 77-78). The author unselfconsciously discusses getting drunk with fellow geneticists, fretting about other researchers publishing first, romantic relationships with both sexes, and influencing “distinguished colleagues” by taking “advantage of their vanity” (Paabo, p. 217). It is a refreshingly honest look at work and self.

General non-fiction and science readers crave information and understanding. Svante Paabo’s Neanderthal Man is the kind of book for which we wait. It is a unique tome of new information. The reader learns a great deal while observing the paleogeneticists making discoveries about DNA and humanity’s place in nature. For those whose desire is to learn, a story where talented scientists are advancing humanity’s knowledge is an absorbing read. It makes one feel optimistic about the abilities of our species.

Paabo, Svante. Neanderthal Man. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

History of Rome by Michael Grant.

Michael Grant’s History of Rome is as standard and scholarly a depiction on this subject as you will find anywhere. It is not highly original or challenging in its conclusions. But it is an interesting and easy read by a historian who mastered his topic and was a skilled, methodical writer. Using his consummate understanding and proficient writing ability, Grant leads the reader from the Etruscan Period through the fall of the Western Empire after the split between Rome and Constantinople. He accomplishes this task in approximately 500 pages. Given that such breadth of time is often covered in twenty volume enterprises, one must admire the author’s concision.

While the insights Grant offers are hardly original, they are beautifully expressed with all of the thoughtful complexity intended by the progenitors of these ideas:
“Hannibal was…one of the world’s most noble failures, an altogether exceptional man who took on, in deadly warfare, a nation empowered with rocklike resolution—and that nation proved too much for him. It emerged hardened from the supreme test, and ironically, his most lasting achievement was to confirm and magnify its confidence and power” (Grant, p. 127).
In a couple of short sentences, the historian conveys Hannibal’s character, Rome’s tenacity, and the fascinating paradox that Hannibal produced the opposite of his intention despite heroic efforts of genius.

One surprising feature of this book is the inadequacy of its endnotes. They exist primarily as a further discussion of events and issues; not as confirmation of the statements to which they refer. Sometimes, during the process of explication, Grant will reveal the name of an individual who is a source (as he does in discussion of the claim that Jesus was born earlier than 4 BC [Grant, p. 499]). But even in that instance, he does not tell the reader where he found that source. Most often, he simply offers no information to permit one to investigate his interpretation. It is understood that history is not a science. But the more evidence a work offers, the more accuracy it will contain. Statements and conclusions that are drawn from primary sources, and from the real science of archaeology, are the evidence of history. Notes are the documentation of that evidence. Without accurate documentation, historians cannot confirm or falsify each other’s findings. Consequently, it is impossible to tell how the writer arrived at a conclusion. Statements without evidence are no better than legend.

But this is the only major flaw in an otherwise exceptional synoptic history. It is a difficult task to present a brief account of an extensive time period, about which so much has been written. Among such projects, there is a tendency to over-generalize and present a bare-bones outline, leaving the reader without rich thought or detailed picture of life. Grant performs a superior service by elegantly balancing his subject’s flow and the Empire’s evolution, with instructive, personally relatable features in which history lives. If your goal is to obtain an overview of the Roman Empire, you could hardly do better than to pick-up this volume.

Grant, Michael. History of Rome. New York: History Book Club, 1997.

Louis Blanc. His Life and His Contribution to the Rise of French Jacobin-Socialism by Leo A. Loubere.

Most people outside of French institutions of higher learning know nothing about Louis Blanc. But during the 1848 Revolution, there was no more popular Frenchman in Paris. His books had educated a generation of rebels on the Republican-Socialist alternative to monarchy. As a result, organizers of that monarchy’s opposition and workers in the streets saw him as their leader. The politicized populace was fully willing to place him as leader without parliamentary due process. Indeed, on more than one occasion during those tumultuous days, they carried him on their shoulders (as he struggled to get down), with the intention of violently installing him as autocrat of the government. There was certainly precedent for this means of choosing leadership. Only 50 years earlier, Robespierre had attained supremacy using the power of the mob. But Blanc was not a demagogue. He resisted violent efforts to attain his goals. He thought that the combination of education and representational government would lead to the realization of democratic and socialist ideas he propounded in his writing.

Leo Loubere follows Blanc’s career from journalism and history-writing, through his involvement in the 1848 Revolution, to his later career and death. Permeating the entire chronology are the revolutionary’s ideas on state, republicanism, socialism and social conditions. Be prepared for some detailed political philosophy; this is not just a portrait of a life. It is also quite critical of Blanc’s thoughts and actions. Saliently, his thoughts on violence are self-contradicting. While Blanc clearly states that “a cause…which must dip its hands in blood…can only retard the forward thrust of progress” (Loubere, p. 48), he supports war against Britain, rationalizing that for economic reasons “either France must perish, or England be erased from the map” (Loubere, p. 52). Politically progressive readers may be disappointed that Blanc repudiates the Paris Commune for its establishment through violent rebellion; but when the troops kill 20,000 communards, Blanc is silent (Loubere, p. 197).

Loubere has inimical tendency to perseverate upon sectarian political divisions within 19th Century France. This grinding proclivity dominates chapters 17 and 18, which lead-up to a final whimper on Blanc’s death and legacy. The only consolation to this weak ending is that these chapters comprise 32 short pages, so are quickly dispatched (or skimmed based upon the reader’s preference).

By the author’s admission, “Blanc was not a particularly effective leader” (Loubere, p. 162). He possessed neither the personal opportunism nor the strategic skill to create a lasting legacy. His gifts were those of a teacher, propagandist and thinker. As the biographies of Socrates and Marx show, such people are not remembered unless there is an intrepid student or following to carry-forth their projects. So outside of French academia, Louis Blanc is a forgotten footnote in history.

Loubere, Leo A. Louis Blanc. His Life and His Contribution to the Rise of French Jacobin-Socialism. Westport: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1980.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

According to Howard Zinn, most of what we are taught about history is “told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats and leaders” (Zinn, p. 9). He contends that selection, simplification and emphasis, are inevitable distortions; choices that must be made in order to tell a cogent story. But, “the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” and “any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual” (Zinn, p. 8). Given this view, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is an attempt to add the viewpoints of those most often left out of historical narratives. He tells the landing of Columbus from the perspective of the Arawaks, the Civil War from the perspective of the slaves, the rise of industrialism from the perspective of the workers, the opeerations of government from the perspective of the women ignored by it, and the wars from the perspective of those who favored peace.

The writing in this book is plain, without being simple-minded. Because of the overwhelming task the historian has set for himself, he relies upon the linked stories of individuals and events to present broad movements and subcultures. “It was January, midwinter, when the pay envelopes distributed to weavers at one of the mills…showed that their wages, already too low to feed their families, had been reduced. They stopped their looms and walked out of the mill…soon 10,000 workers were on strike…the IWW organized mass meetings and parades…the governor ordered out the state police. A parade of strikers was attacked by police…this lead to rioting all that day…a striker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot and killed. Witnesses said a policeman did it, but the authorities arrested Joseph Ettor and another IWW organizer…Neither was at the scene of the shooting.” (Zinn, pp. 327-8). His images are clear and evocative, pitting the common people against a wealthy owner class and the government that supports their interests.

Zinn admits that “a ‘people’s history’ promises more than any one person can fulfill” and that “it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.” He explains this “makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission” (Zinn, p. 570).

There is an underlying political science theory that drives Zinn’s narrative: the historian straightforwardly expresses that he sees our government as created by wealthy elites to support their interests, and that it has been safeguarding those interests ever since. He puts forth the idea that most governments are interested in maintaining stability and will relinquish power and rights just enough to prevent rebellion from below. Concurring with Karl Marx, Professor Zinn describes our capitalist state as “pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich” (Zinn, p. 252).   At times, the historian’s self-proclaimed “bias” and “distortion” leads to distorted conclusions. Chapter Sixteen, “A People’s War?” is an artless and comically unconvincing attempt to challenge the notion that World War II was not popular among the US masses and undemocratically foisted upon them. Conversely, in the same chapter, he presents China’s communist government as “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government” (Zinn, p. 418). Perhaps compared to China’s dynasties, Mao’s regime was closer to “a people’s government;” but it was still a dictatorship with re-education camps and prisons for those who disagreed. It appears doctrinaire to attack the capitalist state for being in the hands of an elite minority while extolling the virtues of a dictatorship in the following paragraph. But such juxtapositions are rare for Zinn, and his version of our history presents consistent evidence of State collusion with wealthy elites to maintain stability in a system which benefits their association.

Whether or not the reader agrees with Professor Zinn’s political paradigm, there is a great deal to learn from his topics. A People’s History of the United States provides significant puzzle pieces to our picture of the past. It is uniquely compiled and sensitively reveals the paths of the disenfranchised through our nation’s evolution. He focuses upon groups that are under-represented in our government and under-represented in the discussion of our past. Their stories are the stories of the rest of us: immigrants, activists, minorities, women and workers. People who influenced the evolution of our country and without whom neither our nation nor our history is complete.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1980.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jeb Bush Outed by Stephen L. Goldstein.

Stephen L. Goldstein is a fire-breathing liberal. Between 1999 and 2014, he was the sole progressive columnist of the South Florida Sun Sentinel; a conservative newspaper in a conservative state. During those years, he was the target of every former student, from one of the worst public school systems in America, who could hold a crayon and scrawl an insult. For fifteen years, Goldstein pounded-out strident, unapologetically liberal columns, that were read by a seething, barely literate mob; until a new, faint-hearted editor asked him to write local “happy news” minus political content. At that, Goldstein took his computer to the developing

Jeb Bush took the oath of office as Florida’s Governor the same year that Goldstein started at The Sentinel. This book is a compilation of articles pertaining to Bush’s performance, seen through a liberal-progressive lens. But, partisan polemics aside, Jeb Bush Outed offers insight concerning the former governor’s true agenda. Bush has been posturing as a moderate Republican. However, people (especially politicians) are far more how they act in the world, rather than what they say about themselves. Here are some of Bush’s actions as Governor:

*In 2003, Jeb Bush had state troopers remove a brain-dead Terri Schiavo from her hospice where her body would be kept functioning on life support. Against the wishes of her husband, Terri was transferred to a rehab facility where her feeding tube was reinserted. This state interference in a legally private family decision, backed by Bush’s anti-Choice supporters, was later defeated in court and Terri was permitted to die. (Goldstein, p. 28).

*In 2003, Bush used state tax dollars to fund the nation’s first “faith-based prison,” violating the separation of church and state. (Goldstein, p. 55).

*Bush repeatedly pushed for a school voucher program that would have given tax dollars to religious schools. The Florida Supreme Court repeatedly disallowed this measure as unconstitutional. (Goldstein, p. 52).

*In 1997, before becoming Governor, Bush signed the “Statement of Principles” created by the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century (PNAC). This document encourages the US to fight wars against governments that do not conform to a conservative agenda. (Goldstein, p. 23).

*As part of his conservative foreign policy, Bush spoke as Governor in favor of strengthening the embargo against Cuba. (Goldstein, p. 24).

*In alignment with his anti-Choice beliefs, Bush opposed stem cell research (Goldstein, p. 12).

*Goldstein cites examples where Bush managed the State Treasury by refusing to cut property taxes and middle-class income taxes, while simultaneously funneling those tax dollars to large corporations. (Goldstein, pp 135-163).

However one may feel about Goldstein’s writing, the citations speak for themselves: Bush is not a moderate in his social, fiscal or foreign policy agendas.

A cautionary note: There are different intentions in reading between someone who picks-up a fourth-grade level conservative paper in Florida to scrutinize and react to the words of a liberal columnist, and someone who is so enthusiastic about learning that they peruse non-fiction book reviews to determine what they’d like to learn next. Goldstein was aware of his readers. His style is less contemplative than combative. His patter is a mix of sarcastic humor and blunt liberal agenda. Examples: “Are you up for more war—a lot of it? More invasions of sovereign nations like Iraq…More trillions spent protecting Halliburton’s profit?”  (Goldstein, p. 23). And “The Tallahassee Taliban are at it again: faith-based finagling with your tax money” (Goldstein, p. 51). There is no subtlety or compromise in Stephen Goldstein’s prose. His articles were aimed at a public that was at best apathetic and at worst reactionary, who appeared to him as incapable of making intelligent choices. After all, they elected Jeb Bush twice. Facing such an audience, Goldstein’s manner is not so much a cry in the wilderness as it is a scream.

For the balanced examiner of non-fiction book reviews, these articles offer a learning opportunity on two levels. First, they provide a record of Bush’s performance as Governor that slices through his election-year claims to moderate Republicanism. Second, the book is its own dramatic sociological study of how a liberal writer battled a marginally-educated, conservative audience.

Goldstein, Stephen L. Jeb Bush Outed. Ashland: Grid Press, 2015.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why Marriage Equality Won.

The myth about the Supreme Court is that it impartially interprets the Constitution despite political pressure and public opinion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The justices are a part of our society and are as influenced cultural change and political pressure as you or I.

The influence of cultural change is nowhere better illustrated than in the Supreme Court's sodomy rulings of 1986 and 2003. In Bowers vs Hardwick (1986), the Court upheld, in a 5-4 ruling, the constitutionality of Georgia’s sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults when applied to gay men and lesbians. In Lawrence vs Texas (2003), the court struck down the sodomy law in Texas and, by extension, invalidated sodomy laws across the nation. What happened to the court in the intervening 17 years? It certainly did not become more liberal. The 1986 Burger Court was more judicially liberal than the 2003 Rhenquist court. What changed was the culture and its values. People felt that state and federal governments had no business in their bedrooms, and had become more accepting of  the LGBT community.

In addition to cultural change, there was political pressure. The Supreme Court has a stated role: to interpret laws according to the Constitution. But it also has an unstated role: to maintain stability. To make sure that society remains ordered and calm; to ensure that the rule of law prevails and the legitimacy of the government is upheld. If the population moves towards liberty, and it is too far ahead of the courts, there is a danger of instability and disobedience on the part of the people, which would undermine that legitimacy and authority. So, in terms of Civil Rights, these authorities are consistently seeing where they can stand firm on the way things have always been and where they must accommodate the public will. For instance, in the African American civil rights struggle against Jim Crow laws, the Supreme Court largely remained on the sidelines between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s. When they did step-in, it was to maintain the current order. In their 1886 Plessy vs Ferguson ruling, the courts upheld that separate but equal facilities were constitutional. They only began ruling against racial segregation laws when there was a movement of African Americans prominent enough to challenge that status quo. It wasn’t until 1954, in the atmosphere of a healthy Civil Rights Movement, that the courts overturned Plessy, in Brown vs Board of Education. Legal change favoring liberty does not happen unless there is a concerted effort by a large enough population advocating for their freedom.

So why did Same Sex Marriage win? It was a historic combination of cultural change and political pressure. The Justices, as people in our society, were influenced by our changing mores. No one who heard or read Kennedy’s majority opinion, could doubt that he is the product of an environment that accepts and upholds the dignity of people of the same sex seeking marriage rights. But the additional political pressure of a popular movement, backed by the 60% of the US populace who favor marriage equality, made it clear to the Supreme Court that the road to stability lay in supporting LGBT marriage rights. This ruling is a testament to a people willing to grow in liberty and a movement persistent in its goals.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Nazism & Holocaust Denial. Censorship in Germany 70 Years Later.

As an American Jew, reading about the Holocaust, I am struck by the current legal prohibitions in Germany against denying this genocide or glorifying the Nazi government of 1933-1945. I live in a nation where expression of even the most obnoxious, hateful view is protected, unless it incites physical harm. Perhaps it is a failure of this writer’s imagination, but World War II’s armistice is having its seventieth anniversary this year. On the eve of this milestone, what is the wisdom of continuing these prohibitions?

I understand why Germany, divided and controlled by post-war Western powers, submitted to censorship of free speech around Nazism and (in 1985) Holocaust Denial. But a nation must periodically revisit restrictions on freedoms to examine whether or not they are still relevant. If German society has progressed enough that there is no threat of returning to totalitarian nationalism and genocide, then the prohibitions are superfluous and constitute a dangerous legal precedent to the stifling of other expressions. If strong undercurrents remain that might lead to destructive results, isn’t it time to recognize that a policy which has suppressed discussion has failed?

We won’t truly know the strength of totalitarian or genocidal tendencies in Germany until this censorship is lifted. If the result is that the voices favoring destruction are weak, then we can all celebrate the progress of human learning and peace. If these voices are strong, it may be time for Germans to face them directly in open, uncensored debate, aimed at educating society.

Admittedly, it is easy to sit safely across the Atlantic and ponder the consequences of lifting this ban. Even the presumption of safety may be naïve, given the last two world wars. I could be wrong. Cautionary inquiry and self-doubt propels frightening questions: Is Germany a Pandora’s Box of martial and racist sentiment that once opened, could only be closed again by World War III?  Is Freedom of Speech such a sacred virtue that we should risk the safety of non-German residents or neighboring countries? But these questions are driven by an anxiety that is itself affected by anti-German racism and the denial of present reality. Germany has been reunited for twenty-five years within a European Union. The destruction of that union would only harm Germany economically. It is unlikely that the opening of discussions around Holocaust Denial or the Nazi period would result in another world war. German society has evolved to the point where a Green Party regularly wins 10% of the federal parliamentary seats. The forces of reason and peace appear to be a strong counter-weight to neo-Nazi sentiment.

It is a truism, of both psychology and political history, that suppressed desires tend to destructively explode. Conversely, expressed desires brought into the open contain the possibility of being disarmed. If there are suppressed, racist and martial impulses in Germany, these will only fester until an economic failure forces a more rational leadership from  power. So, is censorship of these discussions wise? Seventy years after the armistice and twenty-five years after reunification, Germany is again a nation that can determine her own course through history. Outsider individuals and nations will undoubtedly express opinions, but this is a question that only German citizens can collectively answer.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy by Judith Schwarz

Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy is an optimistic, informative and regrettably short record of a women’s bi-weekly gathering in Greenwich Village. It was founded in 1912 by Mary Jenny Howe with the intention that “it would be a place where social constraints and conventional politeness were outweighed by the sheer delight in honest disagreements and differences which opened the mind to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, living, being” (Schwarz, p. 5).  This club’s attendees were among the most creative, accomplished, independent and well-educated women of their age. They supported each other personally, regarding occupational pursuits and life trials. Outside of the organization, they networked regarding a range of feminist activism from birth control to the vote. Though being a self-defined feminist in the early 20th Century was difficult, these women found a way to make the road less rocky and lonely.

While the author unreservedly loves her subject, she is not incognizant of this social group’s flaws. Reflecting the prejudices of its time, Heterodoxy was largely white and privileged in its composition. Few working-class women attended meetings. Only one member was African American. Also, this was not an activist organization per se. Though community activists for women’s rights became members or spoke at gatherings, the group did not have a political wing. For example, “Margaret Sanger was angry at Heterodoxy members for not becoming more involved with her birth control work,” whereas Mary Ware Dennett, founder of the Voluntary Parenthood League, was a member (Schwarz, p. 65).

Judith Schwarz does an excellent job of revealing the sanctum of Heterodoxy meetings and lives with scant primary information. She published this book in 1982, when the Women’s Movement was still prominent, but under attack by the New Right. As a result, Heterodoxy contains scattered comparisons between the two times and two groups of women in hostile territory. “Like those of us who have gone through ‘C-R’ sessions, Heterodoxy women must have often been startled that despite the differences in their backgrounds, most of them had received the same sort of messages and expectations as children” (Schwarz, p. 16). Sometimes her informality is playful: “a large number of the women in the photographs were also astonishingly tailored, or, as my mind instantly reacted: ‘butchy looking’” (Schwarz, p. 5). Schwarz presents a style of writing that is largely eschewed by feminists of the academy.

Scholarly style aside, history can do more than inform about the past. It can provide us with directions for the future and understandings of human nature or situation which we find relevant to ourselves. Though it is more common for feminist historians to restrain comparison of past and present, the reader or activist is under no such constraints. For those who favor equality and are facing opposition, (whether that opposition is the conservative cross-fire of the author’s 1982 or the numbing phase of feminist political dormancy of the early 21st Century), a book like this can offer support and inspiration. In Judith Schwarz’s words “we have a lot to struggle both for and against, and years of hard work ahead of us. In the meantime, take hope. Marie Jenney Howe and her merry ‘band of willful women, the most unruly and individualistic females you ever fell among’ did indeed ‘start something’ which still has relevance for us, their political descendants” (Schwarz, p. 82). Perhaps what we need today is a new generation of heterodoxy clubs as spaces for women to gather against the storm.

Schwarz, Judith. Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy. Lebanon, NH: New Victoria Publishers, Inc., 1982.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reflections on 19th Century Anarchism From Reading *The Proud Tower*.

Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower permits mediation on what is truly admirable about 19th Century anarchism. The range of expression of lifetime commitment, from the fiery leading intelligence of Michael Bakunin to the quiet intellectual preoccupation of Jean Grave is compelling. “In a fifth-floor garret in a working-class street, the Rue Moffetard,” after his imprisonment, Grave “edited, largely wrote, and printed on a hand press ‘La Revolte,’ at the same time working on his great history Le Mouvement Libertaire Sous la Troisieme Republique’” (Tuchman, p. 86). For one inclined to reading and writing, such a depiction is immensely seductive. But it is the life-long active engagement, the passionate dedication to the well-being of others, that is most impressive.

There was a romantic faith in human nature among these idealists. “The Anarchists believed that with Property, the monarch of all evil, eliminated, no man could again live off the labor of another and human nature would be released to seek its natural level of justice among men. The role of the State would be replaced by voluntary cooperation among individuals and the role of the law by the supreme law of the general welfare” (Tuchman, p. 73). A pause in appreciation of Barbara Tuchman’s even-handedness. While she was not an anarchist, Tuchman’s ability to sympathetically portray a group, who is remembered by most of her fellow mainstream historians for inspiring violence, is commendably open-minded. The Proud Tower’s chapter, entitled “The Idea and the Deed,” is a valuable, 61 page, encapsulation of anarchist history between 1890-1914.

But romantic vision and commitment was not enough to ensure success. From the distance of more than a century, we have available hindsight. As modern individuals looking backward, we can see some problems with the views of 19th Century anarchists that are readily visible to us, but were not apparent to them. Violence, in the form of assassination and public bombings, is repudiated by almost all contemporary, thinking anarchists. This is the case for both practical and philosophical reasons. Practically speaking, the numerous attacks of the late 1800s did not make Western Civilization receptive to anarchist principles. Anarchists of that century learned too late that the masses, whom these acts were meant to support, were horrified by the attacks. Workers tended to rally to the victims of bombings rather than to the banner of anarchism. As for the bourgeoisie, they simply stiffened their resolve and rallied more fervently around their State and capitalist systems. Expecting bourgeois citizens of various countries to surrender, is as unreasonable as the similar expectation of 21st Century Radical Islam, that the West will surrender its permissive, democratic culture because its people are terrorized.

Philosophically, attempting to create a utopia by employing violence or, in the words of Audre Lorde, using “the Master’s tools” to “dismantle the Master’s house” (Lorde, p. 110), will only create an authoritarian outcome. With the numerous examples of history available to them (Robespierre comes to mind) the anarchists of that time should have known that terror results in suffocating fear, demagoguery and oppressive regimes.

The times being what they were, there were also misunderstandings of human biology that certainly effected the thinking of anarchists living in that period. Natural Selection was so new, and genetics so poorly understood, that wrong-headed assumptions about human nature persisted. There was a naïve, utopian notion that humans would “return” to a mythical state of grace where everyone shares and cooperates. Humans have as many, if not more, selfish impulses built into their genetic composition as they do cooperative ones. We are the current product of simpler animals, who survived to evolve by clawing their way to the top of the food chain. Yes, there was some cooperation exhibited, but primarily within one’s tribe or group. Primate behavior and history both teach us that outsiders are violently attacked and driven-off if they encroached on the resources or food supply of one’s group. As humans evolved, stronger tribes subjugated weaker tribes and used their labor to create what we ironically call civilization.  The golden age, where a multi-ethnic collection of human families sat around a campfire singing folk songs and eating vegan cheese, is nothing more than a wishful fantasy. For a more extended discussion of the opportunistic tendency in human behavior, without which we would not have survived, I refer the reader to Richard Dawkins’ masterful work The Selfish Gene.

Nineteenth Century anarchists, from Proudhon to Kropotkin, elaborate their utopian vision of how, once governments were abolished, people would divide resources.  They discussed ideas like the equitable division of land among farmers and the pooling of food or goods into vast storehouses. Kropotkin “had the plans for the kingdom already drawn” (Tuchman, p. 83). But any such system would undoubtedly create a governmental structure to gather resources and administer fair distribution. After the destruction of all governments, we would certainly build one again for this purpose. Governments, over time, make themselves larger, not smaller. Bureaucrats find new reasons to create more work and accrue more power to make their departments larger, more important, better funded. They end-up controlling more aspects of life. What might begin as a benevolent distribution of resources would end in another State system of control. The paradox of anarchism’s antipathy towards organization, when considered alongside the need for organization before, during and after a revolution, was never a contradiction that activists of that era could resolve.

Finally, there is the problem that Bakunin himself elaborated at the end of his life. Discussing the failure of revolution in his lifetime, Bakunin wrote to his wife “we reckoned without the masses who did not want to be roused to passion for their own freedom…This passion being absent what good did it do us to have been right theoretically? We were powerless.” Tuchman goes on to say “he despaired of saving the world and died, disillusioned, in 1876” (Tuchman, pp. 75-6).

Whatever criticisms we have of thought or action among these idealists, they did make a contribution to the individualism, and perhaps even the freedom, of humanity. Given Tuchman’s historical balance, she should have the last word before we move on to current anarchism:

“However self-limited its acts, however visionary its dream, Anarchism had terribly dramatized the war between the two divisions of society, between the world of privilege and the world of protest. In the one it shook awake a social conscience; in the other, as its energy passed into Syndicalism, it added its quality of violence and extremism to the struggle for power of organized labour. It was an idea which drew men to follow it; but because of its built-in paradox could not draw them together into a group capable of concerted action. It was the last cry of individual man, the last movement among the masses on behalf of individual liberty, the last hope of living unregulated, the last fist shaken against the encroaching State, before the State, the party, the union, the organization closed in” (Tuchman, p. 132).

Despite this praised-filled post-mortem, there are anarchists pursuing a vision today. Modern anarchists generally do not make the mistakes of their 19th Century predecessors. For the most part, they repudiate violence, have a more scientific understanding of genetics/selfishness, shy away from prognosticating on utopias, and have fewer illusions about the commitment of the masses to social change. While these current perspectives result in a more sound political acumen, they do not aid in fostering a revolution. On the contrary, these contemporary understandings hamper efforts towards creating constructive plans and actions. As a result, 21st Century anarchism is far more a philosophy than a movement.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Freedom: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Proud Tower. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

God and Incest. The Bible Reconsidered.

Incestuous sex is perhaps the most psychologically destructive crime a parent can inflict upon a child. But the Bible is rife with incest and supports it.

Let us begin with God’s example of the most righteous man on Earth for his time: Lot. Lot is so good that he is the only man whom God saves from the destruction of Sodom and Go-mor’rah. Putting aside, for a moment, the notion that our Heavenly Father murdering all of the people in two cities, and their babies, is a colossal parental overreaction that makes The-Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He the greatest mass murderer of all time; let’s stay with Gods fondness for incest.

After God’s decent, compassionate and irreproachable, immolation of the area’s city dwellers, Lot’s daughters find themselves without sexual partners. The two siblings do what any well-raised girls would do in such circumstances; they “made their father drink wine that night: and the first born went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose” (Genesis 19:33). Righteous man? Let’s say your neighbor returns your lawnmower one Sunday and starts telling you about a real bender he went on the night before. “Man, I blacked-out, and when I woke-up this morning I learned that I’d had sex with my daughter.” Okay, I’m a humanist and I try not to be judgmental. But I think I’d probably fail in that circumstance. A guy who drinks with his daughters until he blacks-out, then claims he’s not responsible when he finds-out that he’s had sex with his eldest, then later learns that he’s gotten her pregnant, is not blameless. Especially if he does it two nights in a row; once with his elder daughter and once with his younger daughter (Genesis 19:35). I would not want this guy coaching my kid’s soccer team.

And where is God in all of this? He’s all-knowing. God’s right there talking to Lot like some celestial weatherman: “Cloudy with a chance of brimstone; bring an umbrella today in your commute from Sodom.” Why isn’t the Holy One telling his pal Lot about the special wine tasting his daughters have planned? Does God have a voyeuristic kink for watching incest? He does permit a great deal of it in the Old Testament. He does see everything. I would think that he’d prefer the ancestry of his chosen people a little less inbred.

Sure, the Christians at this point may want to distance themselves a bit from the Old Testament. “Those crazy Jews with their talking snakes, genocidal floods and daughters gone wild, they’re the Banjo Boy in Deliverance to our respectable New Testament. Not a chance. In their story, God actually gets off the couch where he’s been watching the father-daughter monkey show and becomes an active participant. You see, God is not the self-described “jealous and angry” sky father deity of the Old Testament; he’s actually your father in the New Testament. “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Admittedly, this is a Supreme Being ad campaign superior to that of the Old Testament, but it does open the Creator up for a bit of criticism when he impregnates one of his daughters. Mary is told by an angel “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). One would think that an all-powerful being could bring his son into the world without entering the womb of his daughter. But, as we have already seen, this is not how God rolls.

Christians can argue all they want about how God entered Mary without breaking her hymen. First of all, that does not mean that it’s okay to put a baby into your daughter. Let’s say some dad walks up to you on the playground. He says “see that kid with your child in the sandbox? He’s my son. Funny story: he’s an in vitro fertilization of my sperm and my daughter’s ovum. But don’t worry, nothing weird happened and she’s still a virgin. You see, my daughter being a virgin is so important to me that the incision was abdominal so that the procedure wouldn’t break her hymen.” I don’t know about you, but I’d probably move away from him. I am so judgmental. Secondly, that little membrane of skin covering Mary’s vagina was certainly demolished when her pelvic muscles blasted the Lamb of God onto the physical plane. 

How about the argument that this was a spiritual penetration and conception with ethereal semen. Well, isn’t that a bigger deal to a group who prizes the spiritual above the physical? Doesn’t that make the violation worse?

For those of a Judeo-Christian bent who like to pick and choose their Bible stories, sorry, there is no room for ignoring or interpreting actions in the Bible. Its words are divinely inspired. If God is a perfect being owed unquestioning allegiance, then questioning or ignoring the words he inspires is not within the ability of a common mortal believer. One’s personal interpretation is actually a disobedient, blasphemous transgression. For a believer, the words must stand on their own as truthful testimony: Lot got drunk on two separate occasions and impregnated both of his daughters. The all-powerful, all-knowing deity did not intervene despite he and Lot being on speaking terms. God himself put a baby in Mary. You can either accept that the Bible is divine truth, or accept that it’s a bunch of myths that contain some repugnant activities on the part of God and his most pious followers.

The Holy Bible. King James Edition. Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1978.