Archive for the ‘History – Non-New York City’ Category

Crescent & Star – Turkey Between Two Worlds

Friday, February 5th, 2016

The Book of the Week is “Crescent & Star – Turkey Between Two Worlds” by Stephen Kinzer, published in 2001. This repetitive volume recounts the recent history of Turkey. Of course the country has changed significantly since the publishing of this writing, which was prior to 9/11.

The individual was considered less important than the collective– family, village or clan, not the nation. The media were censored on topics such as the Kurds, Islam, the Armenian genocide of 1915, relations with Greece and Cyprus, etc., etc. Three major controversies in Turkish society included: the tribal conflict between Turks and Kurds, the religious conflict between Sunni Muslims and Alevis, and the hotly debated question of whether religion should be practiced in public life (such as female students’ wearing of veils at university). “The Turks are still gripped by two ancient Middle Eastern taboos. One is the taboo against change, which they equate with admitting failure. The other is the taboo against dialogue, compromise and negotiation.”

In the mid 1980′s, the Kurds formed an anti-government military organization called the PKK to try to subvert the government through violence. Excessive blood was shed with the government’s response against these separatists.

The August 1999 earthquake was a particularly trying time for the nation. There was plenty of unnecessary death and destruction. The disaster was a cluster screw-up. In years prior, unschooled, capital-poor Turks started unscrupulous home-building businesses that constructed flimsy apartment buildings. After the quake, arrogant and indifferent top officials of the government relief agency, Kizilay, who had been playing fast and loose with the organization’s checkbook, responded slowly to aiding the victims. Nevertheless, tens of countries around the world, including Greece, aided Turkey in its time of need. The disaster served as an excuse, a tipping point for the nation’s resuming diplomatic relations with Greece. Besides, the events surrounding the earthquake served as an additional impetus for younger Turks to agitate for political and cultural change.

Read the book to learn about additional factors that were affecting the people’s push for change, such as worship of Kemal Ataturk, the 1996 Susurluk scandal and the military’s role in governing the country.

An Irishman in China

Friday, January 8th, 2016

The Book of the Week is “An Irishman in China” by Zhao Changtian; Yang Shuhui and Yunqin, translators, published in 2014. This is the career story of Robert Hart.

Hart, originally from Northern Ireland, visited various ports of the world via ship before settling in Shanghai, China in autumn 1854 as an interpreter, a non-official member of the British consular service. In his early twenties, he started at a time of anti-government rebellion by two groups, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and Small Sword Society. British merchants– angry about having to pay taxes when other nations’ traders, such as France, America and Portugal didn’t– were supplying the rebels with arms. Coastal cities produced ample rice, silk and tea. Unsurprisingly, there was corruption at the customs house.

Hart stayed at the British Consulate in Ningbo. He hired a cleaning boy, cook and an English tutor who taught him the Chinese language. Employed by the Chinese government, he moved up through the ranks serving Western merchants in the customs department. In March 1858, he was transferred to Guangzhou because Anglo-French forces attacked the city. He was skilled in diplomacy, and through the years, made friends in high places in the Chinese government. As for his social life, a colleague told him he could get a mail-order bride of sorts, a non-prostitute who was “…trained in music, chess, calligraphy and painting.” Nevertheless, he met someone on his own, and started a family.

Read the book to learn of Hart’s personal and professional relationships over the course of half a century; how he protected British interests in China and had an impact on China’s foreign policy, especially during armed conflicts among its own peoples and other nations.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography” originally published in 1936. This book on Indian history shows the reader yet again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Born in 1889, Nehru, who had much older sisters, grew up in a wealthy, multigenerational Hindu family of Kashmiri origin. After completing his elitist legal education, following in the footsteps of his father, he became an Indian civil servant and political activist in Bombay. He wrote, “All the bureaucrats in New Delhi do are gossip about promotions, leave and rules, furloughs, transfers and scandal.”

In the mid-nineteen teens, the Indian populace began agitating for Home Rule (also called “swaraj”)– breaking the yoke of British colonialism, and making peace among believers of Hinduism and Islam– two major Indian religions (amid violence in the Punjab in 1919, and other areas such as Bengal). In a nutshell, “India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else, and Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and others take pride in their faiths and testify to their truth by breaking heads.”

Nehru’s father became a follower of Gandhi, who led the powerful, non-violent movement of civil disobedience, satyagraha. In the early 1920′s, a few million people participated in non-cooperation protests at Gandhi’s behest. Many, including Nehru were jailed with sentences of one to three years, sometimes with early releases, on and off into the mid-1930′s. Their civil rights of assembly, speech, etc. were severely curtailed, as was their ability to defend themselves in “show-trials” against the British authorities’ hastily conceived, arbitrary legislation outlawing the dissident political groups and their activities. [Sidenote: Authorities in South Africa (a former British colony) behaved the same way as the British authorities fifty (!) years later, against dark-skinned political dissidents under apartheid.]

Nehru recounted an ugly episode involving his mother. She was peacefully marching in a protest when police arrested her and bloodied her head, beating her with their batons. “That night a false rumour spread in Allahabad that my mother had died. Angry crowds gathered together, forgot about peace and non-violence, and attacked the police.”

As well, the spirit of the times involved youth groups and workers’ trade unions, who met to talk late into the night about the social and economic problems of the day. Socialism and Marxism were in the air. Nehru and other political dissidents urged peasant farmers to initiate a rent strike against their landlords. Gandhi launched a few attention-mongering hunger strikes in his attempts to effect political change.

During 1930, there were negotations for Indian independence. A new Constitution would have to be drafted with provisions on national defense, foreign affairs, financial and economic policy, and on what was to be done about India’s indebtedness to Britain.

Funny, in the mid-1930′s, Nehru could have been writing about current American politics: “It is very unfortunate that foolish and ill-informed criticisms of a personal nature are made, because they divert attention from the real issues.” Across the Atlantic, there was a “…Europe in turmoil, fearful of war and tumult and with economic crises always on the horizon.” At that time, India’s people were not alone in their suffering. There was more violence and death around the world due to fascism, nazism, imperialism and colonialism than now. Nevertheless, Nehru asked a question that is still relevant, “Were there any principles, and standards of conduct in this world, or was it all sheer opportunism?”

Read the book to learn Nehru’s answer, and about Indian history in the 1920′s and ’30′s, as seen through Nehru’s eyes.

The Queen of Katwe

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers, published in 2015. This story focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess player in Katwe– a poor area outside of Kampala, Uganda.

Prior to her playing chess, Mutesi was destined for an empty life in which she was likely to die young from a fire, flood, disease, violence or famine, or bear many children starting in her teens, due to dependency on unreliable, polygamous men as providers of the basic necessities of survival. Education in Katwe was sporadic, as children attended only when they could afford the tuition. Not only priced out of schooling, but living a hand-to-mouth existence, Phiona (and her siblings) were compelled to “…walk around the slum, selling maize from a saucepan on her head.” She had to scrounge around for even one meal a day. Additionally, it was a three-hour round trip on foot between her home and the public well. Her family was evicted from numerous hovels due to nonpayment of rent.

Mutesi’s older brother happened to frequent a kids’ soccer program whose director started to also provide a bowl of porridge, and chess instruction. The soccer was introduced by a non-profit initiative called Sports Outreach Institute, started by Russ Carr. His goal was to teach kids “how to fish” and convert them to Christianity.

Around 2009, when she was approximately nine years old, Mutesi tagged along after her brother, walking the five kilometers to the eyesore of a venue, and became obsessed with chess. The food was a major draw for hungry kids. Their mothers, although grateful, were apprehensive that their kids might be kidnapped by the recreation coach who was a white man, according to local gossip.

Read the book to learn the details of Mutesi’s rise in Africa’s competitive chess culture, and the reasons for her uncertain future.

Michelle Obama

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.

Silvio Berlusconi

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Silvio Berlusconi” by Paul Ginsborg, published in 2004. This is an extended essay on the media mogul/powerful politician in Italy. It examines the issue of whether Berlusconi practiced Fascism, not necessarily through creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, but through monopolistically broadcasting propaganda in the guise of education, to the masses. He combined his business dealings with politics to amass a staggering amount of power, with the usual conflicts of interest that come with the territory.

Over the course of three decades starting in the 1970′s, operating out of Milan, Berlusconi, a construction contractor, founded an ad agency and purchased TV stations that accounted for the bulk of Italy’s visual information sources. Later, he entered politics and bought a professional European football team. He was accused of racketeering, bribery and money laundering, among other crimes.

Berlusconi proved to be teflon, escaping punishment in the 1990′s. Not only that, he made a comeback– legally, economically and politically. As of 2004, he was still dragging his feet on answering the legal charges against him, in order to invoke the statute of limitations to weasel out of going to jail.

Read the book to get the details, and the author’s take on whether Berlusconi’s political career would survive much longer, given his outrageous exaggerations when recounting his endeavors for the people of Italy in 2004. The nation’s cost of living had soared and real wages had fallen significantly beginning in 2002.

The following video of Al Franken’s speech on America’s fiscal deficit is well worth watching in its entirety; he mentions a few recent American presidents’ economic policies (starting just after 23:00)– some of which can be compared to Berlusconi’s:

https://youtu.be/hHUDPU7_2qA

Lastly, Berlusconi’s reputation for alleged extensive law-breaking had been a “thing” for a long time.