A Fort of Nine Towers

The Book of the Week is “A Fort of Nine Towers, An Afghan Family Story” by Qais Akbar Omar, published in 2013.

As is well known, the Russians marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The resistance fighters were called the Mujahedin, the Holy Warriors. The Russians had advanced aerial bombs, while the Warriors had old hunting-guns. The Russians left in 1989, but continued to financially support the government until spring 1992; galloping inflation ensued.

The author and his growing family lived in Kabul, of which the Mujahedin then took control. Omar’s father and grandfather ran a lucrative Oriental carpet business. They lived in a multi-generational household, with large families of uncles, aunts and cousins.

At the time Omar began to experience the hardships of war, he was about eight years old. His elementary school stopped teaching the basics of evolution, and began to teach creationism instead. There was no more fear of stray bullets in the streets, but there was a food shortage. The following year, tribal infighting plagued the Mujahedin; rockets fired from above by the different tribes– all Muslim– started to kill people.

Omar’s grandfather’s resistance to change, anger at having his livelihood, property and material possessions stolen, and love of his homeland were largely responsible for his family’s precarious situation, and their traumatic experiences in the coming decades. He insisted the family stay in Afghanistan– to try to protect what they had. He was stripped of the fruits of his life’s work, anyway. Most of their community fled. Omar’s family obeyed the law of Islam by which the females and children obeyed the oldest male relatives.

As the year 1993 progressed and the violence worsened, schools closed and no one went outside for fear of getting hit by sniper bullets, or a rocket-propelled grenade or other weaponry.

In late spring, the declaration of a cease-fire prompted Omar’s father to temporarily evacuate the family from their home in a northwesterly direction over a mountainside to a more peaceful village. They were the only people in their area who had a car.

About four miles away, the closest family members who could fit in the car, were driven to and stayed at the quiet estate of the author’s father’s fabulously wealthy business partner. Until the war came to that neighborhood.

The author, as the oldest son in his immediate family, on a few occasions in the next few years, was invited to accompany his grandfather or his father in a return to their old property to see how it was doing, and perhaps to dig up the gold they had buried in the garden there before they left. Those were harrowing, emotionally and physically hurtful episodes with gruesome scenes and near-death experiences.

For, the war had turned illiterate young Muslim men into sociopathic sadists with weaponry. The hatred among different tribes knew no bounds. On the streets, ragged, begging children were used as decoys for hidden robbers who might also commit rape if passersby stopped to help.

“Panjshiris and Hazaras were supposed to stop launching the rockets at each other that had come from the Americans to be used by the Mujahedin against the Russians. But the Russians were defeated and long gone.”

In September 1996, a new tribe, the Taliban– supplied with weapons by Pakistan– was wreaking havoc in Kabul. Omar’s grandfather described them thusly: “They capture a village and torture people and club them to death, then afterwards ask the young boys to do the same to their parents. They tell the young boys that this will make a man of them.”

The Taliban held public executions of thieves, prostitutes, murderers and gays. They enforced their own draconian version of observance of Islam. After a while, though, people at least knew what to expect. The trains ran on time.

Read the book to learn how the author and his family survived in this extremely suspenseful, emotionally-charged cautionary tale whose moral is this: early evacuation of a region with a history of civil war, whose violence is flaring up again, is advisable.

How the Post Office Created America / Superpower

The First Book of the Week is “How the Post Office Created America” by Winifred Gallagher, published in 2016. This was a detailed account of the history of the delivery of written communications in what is now the United States.

In the 1630’s, a Boston-area tavern doubled as the first post office. Local politicians and rich businessmen collected their Transatlantic written correspondence there; the latter paid for the privilege. The service was “… primarily designed to advance an imperialistic power’s interests, serve a narrow elite, and produce some revenue for the [British] Crown.”

It was in the interest of Great Britain to improve the roads to distribute the mail in the thirteen colonies (which later became the United States), as she was competing with France to rule the colonies.

Postal carriers had to deal with unforgiving land, mountains, rivers and hostile Native Americans in making their appointed rounds. A month might elapse, what with uncertain weather, before mail went from Boston, MA to Richmond, VA. The literate read letters aloud to update their fellow community members of goings-on in places far away.

Ben Franklin was a prominent figure in the mid- to late 1700’s due to his numerous, various contributions to humanity. Between and among the colonies– Canada and Britain– in the mid-1750’s, he served as one of two Postmasters General.

The colonists were demographically and geographically fragmented even after they became Americans. There were Puritans in Massachusetts, Dutch traders in New York, elitist slave owners in the South, and pioneers in the Midwest. But they all agreed that there should be a nationwide free exchange of ideas.

Read the book to learn how mail delivery quickened with more advanced forms of transportation and mail-sorting, what the “Pony Express” really was, and the controversies over: a) postage rates for different regions; b) which entity should authorize mail delivery– the federal or state governments, or private companies; c) whether the Post Office should stray from its core business of delivering only written communications, including newspapers and magazines (rather than electronic, or packages), and more.

In the United States, delivery of written communications evolved into a public-private partnership, as has the distribution of electric power. The two have become interconnected because communications have increasingly required electric power. Government regulates the two because they are the trappings of an industrialized society and massive disruption of them might cause significant economic and social (not to mention political) harm to the nation.

Some Americans are pushing to significantly reduce pollution by sourcing electric power from wind and sun. That activity, which is growing in popularity, was described in the Second Book of the Week– “Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy” by Russell Gold, published in 2019. This was the career biography of Michael Skelly, renewable-energy entrepreneur.

As is well known, what to do about environmental pollution has been a political football for the last few decades. In the late 1970’s, when Minnesota farmers used weaponry and sabotage to protest the building of power towers on their land, a Minnesota state trooper commented, “Whenever there is progress, there is change and change does not benefit everyone. Change is hard for some people to accept.”

In the Obama administration years, the U.S. Energy Department funded a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory outside Denver.

Researchers used a supercomputer to analyze hypothetical scenarios in 2026 in which wind and solar power would account for thirty percent of the power generation of the Eastern Interconnection (infrastructure that would transmit energy across states and provinces between eastern New Mexico and Quebec, Canada); electric power would go back and forth, depending on need. The results were promising. Once infrastructure was in place, costs wouldn’t be significantly higher than fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

For, wind and sun are free of charge. Fossil fuels’ prices fluctuate. True, wind and sun aren’t available 24/7, but a giant network spanning thousands of miles would allow energy to be transferred across time zones wherever needed, when wind and sun aren’t available.

Skelly was a doer. He didn’t waste time in “Twitter feuds or policy battles.” In the early 1990’s, after acquiring life experience in the Peace Corps and Harvard business school, he supervised the construction of an unprecedented tourist attraction in Costa Rica: an open-air gondola / tram from which travelers could view flora and fauna from the rain-forest-canopy.

Then Skelly got into wind farms. Building them involves an extremely expensive, years-long series of steps to get cooperation from numerous stakeholders such as investors and local: residents, governments and utilities, not to mention the federal government. The company building the turbines sees nary a penny of revenue until it sells the energy. It must get a slew of regulatory approvals, and fend off angry opposition and lawsuits.

Interesting factoid: by 2007, Texas had surpassed California in renewable energy generation.

Bankruptcy is always hanging over the head of the project initiator. In 2005, Skelly and his fellow executives were able to sell to Goldman Sachs a 90% interest in their company. Getting the investment bank involved enabled them to purchase a few billion dollars’ worth of turbines from Europe. Goldman got a major tax break for building the wind energy project.

Skelly was a conscientious individual. Federal law required a different, later venture of his– Clean Line– to have one public meeting with the locals. Clean Line had fourteen meetings. Skelly spent eight years involved with another project, Plains and Eastern. “It would be a $9.5 billion private investment, generating thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs and using enough steel for four aircraft carriers.”

Read the book to learn all the details of Skelly’s trials and tribulations in supervising renewable-energy projects.

Financier

The Book of the Week is “Financier, The Biography of Andre Meyer, a Story of Money, Power, and the Reshaping of American Business” by Cary Reich, published in 1983.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Meyer was a pioneer of the mergers and acquisitions craze in corporate America. He was the head honcho at the investment banking firm of Lazard Freres.

The firm exploited the trend, switching from supplying venture capital to advising its clients which were institutional, to form conglomerates, because it was thought that bigger was better. Other firms spent big bucks on research analysts, whose pronouncements were sometimes wrong. Lazard specialized in numerous, diverse, creatively structured deals.

Beginning in August 1951, for instance, for the purpose of minimizing the tax on the purchase and sale of an eight hundred thousand acre cattle ranch in Texas, over what turned out to be the course of a decade– Lazard split up the real property into sixteen different parcels, each owned by a different corporate entity. This way, the eventual 80% profit on the approximately $18 million investment was classified as capital gains (taxed at 25%) rather than real-estate income (taxed at 90% in those days; that’s not a typo).

The absolutely most valuable investment in the 1950’s and 1960’s was real estate because inflation was only 1%, and real estate ventures were easy to form. This was shown by Bill Zeckendorf, who (after obtaining loans with usurious terms on various occasions from Lazard), in August 1968, with assets of $1.8 million and debt of $79 million, rose from the ashes of bankruptcy to form General Property Corporation, and continued doing real estate business.

In early 1977, Meyer “… was convinced that the world was heading for economic apocalypse, that capitalism was dying, that government deficits and inflation were out of hand, and that nothing was a safe investment any longer… Should you buy gold? Stocks? Art? Bonds? And he didn’t want to buy anything.”

A man with his life experience should have known better. As is well known, the economy recovered within a decade. Granted, it got worse before it got better, and of course, shortly after that, there occurred a stock market crash and recession. But one need only wait ten years or less to see major changes in the nation’s economics (and politics for that matter; not that there aren’t lingering scars).

Excuse the cliche, but this too, shall pass.

Read the book to learn about Meyer’s major deals, the corporate culture of Lazard Freres, and how its reputation was hurt when it became too creative with its complicated stock swaps in its underwriting activities.

In My Time – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “In My Time” by Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney, published in 2011.

Born in January 1941 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Cheney and his family moved to Wyoming when he was twelve. He learned fishing at a young age. In high school: he was co-captain of the football team, was senior class president, and met his future wife.

Cheney got a scholarship (work/study program) to Yale. “… I continued to accumulate bad grades and disciplinary notices. In the spring of 1962, Yale and I finally parted ways.”

Cheney claimed that by 1967, he had aged out of the Vietnam draft through obtaining deferments for being a student and father. He got into politics, and was elected as a Republican from Wyoming, to the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms, beginning in 1978.

Interesting factoid (apropos of the way the U.S. government can behave badly): “The tobacco companies supplied free cartons of cigarettes to the Nixon and Ford White Houses…”

In October 1995, Cheney became CEO, as the previous one retired– of the international monster-sized oil-services / construction / military contracting company, Halliburton. He therefore moved to Texas. He rambled on a few pages about his quail-hunting there, and global fly-fishing trips. He explained how his February 2006 hunting accident happened.

Karl Rove opposed naming Cheney as George W. Bush’s running mate. According to Cheney, Bush was the only one who was desperate to have Cheney be his vice president. It took months of discussions before Cheney reluctantly agreed.

Even then, the two candidates were both from Texas, which meant the electoral college could vote for only one of them. Cheney had to hurry up and register in Wyoming before the deadline, to exploit the loophole in election law that allowed him to run from a different state. To be fair, in late July 2000, when Cheney’s candidacy was announced, “… the Democrats were waiting in the wings, ready to attack.”

Cheney asked Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan about the extent of 9/11’s economic impact on the United States, just after the attacks. Greenspan couldn’t say, because the “million equation model” (factors too numerous to account for) applied to such an event.

If that was the case, then the economic conditions of one president’s administration CANNOT be compared– apples to apples– to any other’s, no matter how indicators or numbers are quantified or adjusted. Each one faces challenges or advantages unique to his administration– as well as increasing globalization– as time goes on.

However, the economy’s tanking under Bush’s administration, was hardly due to 9/11. In October 2008, Bush signed a $700 billion bailout plan for failing financial institutions, the largest in United States history. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the economy contracted 8.4%. In sum, Obama inherited a national deficit of $6.369 trillion from his (blankety-blank) predecessor, thanks to tax cuts, mad military spending and a hog-wild mortgage crisis– the one that required that bailout– among other factors.

Bill Clinton happened to get reelected at the dawn of a once-a-century technological innovation that lifted all boats. It’s impossible to say how much his actions directly contributed to that.

So the line– uttered emphatically during any particular president’s administration (especially at odd times; i.e., whenever there’s a news lull)– “The economy is booming with president A, but in the same time period it sucked with president B!!” is meaningless. Sadly, this reckless kind of propaganda that targets the ignorant, works.

Anyway, roughly the last third of Cheney’s narrative consisted of infuriating, depressing and sickening myth-making, and credit-grabbing of feats that were arguably dubious distinctions. Excuse the cliche, but he rewrote history.

For one thing, Cheney was rather vague on the time frame in which he created a charitable trust to contain the after-tax profits of the stock options he still had yet to redeem with the aforementioned Halliburton; this, instead of putting his assets in a blind trust so as to reduce conflicts of interest upon becoming a (sorry excuse for a) public servant who was involved in numerous, highly suspicious circumstances. Curiously, one of the trust charities, Capital Partners for Education, has yet to be rated as of this writing by Charity Navigator, though it was founded in 1993.

The reader wonders whether Cheney would have acted completely unethically had there not been a firestorm from the media that followed his every move from the get-go. He is one of those people who, unless he gets caught, having a crack public relations team, will keep doing what he will.

Cheney wrote that Bush conferred with him in making major administration decisions. If true, Obama got elected due to the outrageous nature of the acts ordered by Cheney as much as by Bush, that sullied the Republican party’s reputation: Unethical opportunism. Unconscionable greed. Unmitigated hubris.

Cheney and Bush favored money over human lives by starting two needless wars launched on false pretenses in order to profit in many ways. ZERO of the 9/11 terrorists were from Afghanistan. ZERO of the the 9/11 terrorists were from Iraq. Yet retaliation was directed at only those two countries for harboring terrorists. The United States can’t be the world’s police officer. Clearly, it’s expensive and results in needless deaths and damage to America’s reputation.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Cheney’s version of events.

George F. Kennan

The Book of the Week is “George F. Kennan, An American Life” by John Lewis Gaddis, published in 2011. This is the biography of an emotionally troubled American diplomat, an expert in Russian– the language and mentality– who became known for his historical writings on the Cold War power struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union; the struggles arose from the the two rivals’ weaponry and opposing ideologies.

Born in February 1904 in Milwaukee, Kennan was raised by his three older sisters and other relatives after his mother died in spring 1904. His father was 52 years old.

In 1910, Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor. The city was a melting pot of Western, Eastern and Northern European immigrants. Kennan graduated from a military school, then from Princeton University. The Foreign Service had recently become a civil service job, comprised of Northeastern elitists.

After passing its two exams, starting in 1927, Kennan was posted to Geneva, then Hamburg, then on to Estonia to learn Russian. He met his 21-year old wife in Norway. They eventually had four children. After stints in Riga in Latvia, and Prague, he spent most of the rest of his career in Berlin, Moscow, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey.

In 1944, as WWII was winding down, Kennan tried to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to sternly warn the USSR not to expand geographically. Roosevelt, in a tough position, argued that the Allies couldn’t win the war without the USSR’s military assistance, so he had to tread lightly with Stalin; Harry Truman, too. The president had to deal with one issue at a time. Those men in Los Alamos couldn’t say how soon the atomic bomb would be ready. That was the kicker.

Stalin tried a divide and conquer strategy– to drive a wedge between the United Kingdom and the United States so they would fight. Nevertheless, after the war, they became best friends.

For the second time, and it wouldn’t be the last, Kennan submitted a letter of resignation, as he perceived that his counsel and advice were being ignored. Nevertheless, he was convinced to stay on at the Foreign Service. He read the classic novels and plays of Tolstoy, Chekhov and others to understand the Soviets’ behavior.

In February 1946, Kennan sent a telegram which later became famous, urging the United States to take a hard line with the Soviets. But it was already too late. Six months later, he “…saw how Soviet ambitions, American complacency, and British weakness might combine to upset the balance of power in Europe.”

According to the author, Kennan’s input for the Marshall Plan– whose purpose was to financially aid the then-needy, war-ravaged European nations (with the true goal of warding off a Communist takeover)– was to suggest to offer such aid to the Soviets knowing Stalin would reject it. Stalin also told the Soviet satellites to reject the aid. The Americans then knew which countries needed help (in countering Communism).

In summer 1947, Kennan recommended that the sixteen countries split up the aid themselves rather than let the United States decide, so that way, the USSR couldn’t claim the United States was acting imperialistically. The recipients could spend the funds on food, arms– whatever they wanted.

Around that time, the US established the CIA. Kennan agreed that the organization should conduct covert operations to keep up with the KGB. He later regretted agreeing on that issue.

The US couldn’t afford to politically, militarily and financially help all nations vulnerable to Soviet domination, but Kennan advised President Truman on which regions were most at risk, and where America’s resources should be deployed. He told him to cease assisting Chinese Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai Shek because Stalin had already staked out strategic military locations within striking distance of China, and China posed a minor threat to the US, having a shaky economy anyway.

In short, Kennan believed in particularism– a practice of selectivity in taking action against the Soviets. The newly formed United Nations believed in universalism– all nations should share and share alike, regardless of cultures and ideologies.

In early 1948, the Soviets took over the Czechoslovakian government. In the spring, in a lesser wrong, America meddled in Italy’s election– threatening to cut off Marshall Plan aid to the government if people voted for the Communist party instead of the Social Democrats. Additionally, Italian Americans wrote lots of letters to the Vatican, which told Italian voters for whom not to vote.

In January 1957, pursuant to the Suez Canal Crisis, President Eisenhower signed legislation based on the doctrine that the United States would financially and militarily assist any Middle Eastern nations vulnerable to Communist influence.

In 1978, Kennan became a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Due to his prolific writing and prominence, he got special treatment– continued to be treated like a full-time professor. Private donors such as the Rockefeller family, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and Warren Buffett funded his continued tenure.

Read the book to learn why Kennan was expelled from the US embassy in Moscow, of a proposal that would result in German reunification in the 1950’s, of one step Eisenhower took in deciding the Soviet question, of Kennan’s activities after his Foreign Service career, of America’s relationship with Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito, and much more.

American Governor

The Book of the Week is “American Governor, Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption” by Matt Katz, published in 2016. Christie was a two-term New Jersey governor known for skillful fund-raising, telling cute stories, and verbally attacking the media, hecklers and political opponents.

In September 1962 in Newark, New Jersey, Christie was born to be a politician. He was elected to leadership roles beginning in high school. He argued for civil rights as a student-officeholder in college. But his stands on most major issues prompted him to become a Republican.

Christie entered politics after practicing law as a commercial litigator with the help of his law partner’s contacts. He started to work in politics in the early 1990’s. After 9/11, he was appointed by George W. Bush to the patronage position of U.S. Attorney (chief prosecutor) for the state of New Jersey. He lacked the criminal-law experience for it, but learned on the job.

He drained the swamp of dirty New Jersey politicians of both parties. At the same time, he was collecting goodwill by doling out multi-million dollar legal contracts to big-money political donors.

After his election to the New Jersey governorship in 2009, out of necessity, Christie was forced to work with a Democrat-controlled legislature. Otherwise, he would have gotten nothing done.

To his credit, Christie “… was a big guy who knew how to get people to sit down and shut up and compromise– just what Washington needed.” He was so good at fundraising because his staffers identified community influencers at the most local levels, and invited them to town hall meetings.

However, “The reformers, led by [Newark mayor Cory] Booker and Christie, were shockingly naive about how closing schools with little public input would upend the daily lives of Newarkers.” Christie argued or voted in favor of a series of anti-liberal policies which hurt the poor in housing, wages, heating and cooling of homes, and food stamps.

Additionally, due to the purported reason of a fiscal crisis, he “… froze almost all construction funding for the state’s poorest school districts.” (It would have killed him to raise taxes; then he wouldn’t get reelected.) This led to the cancellation of the building of a new school in the neighborhood of Lanning Square in the city of Camden. Instead of a new school, Christie’s crony would get the opportunity to construct a building for his medical school on the site, plus five privately funded schools in Camden.

Christie gave tax breaks of tens of or millions of dollars to a diverse bunch of businesses to get them to stay in his state so that they “created jobs” (and bragging rights for politicians). Over the years, those tax breaks resulted in: the creation of tens of jobs, a net dollar value of hundreds of thousands in benefits’ going to the state, and incalculable billions of dollars in lost tax revenue; showing yet again that cronyism thrived in Christie’s New Jersey.

And now, as an aside, an interesting factoid: “Christie had met Bill and Hillary Clinton in January 2005 at Donald Trump’s wedding.” And another: In January 2014, he signed the Dream Act, which (conditionally) allows children of illegal immigrants to qualify for (greatly discounted) in-state college tuition.

However, the major incident for which former Governor Christie will be remembered is “Bridgegate.” His political enemies turned out to be sufficiently aggressive to turn it into a humungous scandal.

Deliberately-created traffic congestion by a handful of people in Christie’s organization caused hours-long delays in September 2013 for five days in a row during the morning rush hour on the George Washington Bridge (GWB)– that links New Jersey and New York City. This was done for the purpose of petty, political retaliation against the mayor of a New Jersey suburb in GWB territory. That mayor had declined to endorse Christie for gubernatorial reelection.

It is a shame that Christie’s political record of unethical behavior in so many areas that ended his political career negated the one good thing he did that had long-term positive results– eliminated a significant amount of corruption in New Jersey.

The same seems to be happening with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio: the one good thing he did was institute free pre-kindergarten across the city. There is ample evidence that this is a game-changer– it helps “even the playing field” for kids of all economic and social levels. The earlier the intervention in the lives of at-risk kids, the better. Preschool is not too soon.

Research has shown that the kids who have home environments with severe deprivations, are significantly less likely become career criminals when, in very early childhood, they are provided with a safe place that provides resources to assist them in learning, and learning how to interact with other children.

However, de Blasio’s alleged wrongs in recent years in fund-raising activities and housing, both steeped in patronage (like Chris Christie’s administration) — just to name two of many issues– have earned him numerous political enemies.

Anyway, read the book to learn more about the above GWB scandal, and Christie’s fights with New Jersey’s civil service unions – especially the teachers’; how he sold out environmentally; why his approval rating soared immediately following Hurricane Sandy; his actions on a range of other issues such as drugs, abortion and gun control, and much more.

The Chief – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Chief, The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts” by Joan Biskupic, published in 2019. This slightly redundant biography described prominent U.S. Supreme-Court cases in detail, explaining them for laypeople. Most of the cases revolved around issues with which the United States continues to grapple, especially various kinds of discrimination.

Born in January 1955 in western New York State, Roberts and his family moved to Indiana near the Illinois border when he was about eight years old. He turned into a staunch conservative Republican.

The burning question that must be answered in any given case, that would determine whether favoritism or compensation should be given to the victims of discrimination, is whether, as a group, the victims– having been oppressed for so long– have caught up to the rest of society, with regard to the case’s area of life covered; education, housing, employment, political elections, financial dealings and other day-to-day situations.

In the applicable areas of life, whether and how much discrimination still exists is of course, extremely subjective (given the anecdotal evidence and propaganda wars from both sides). Each case needs to be decided on an individual basis because the times are continually changing. If the victims have yet to catch up, it is because one thing leads to another. If for decades, they’ve been rejected from, say, colleges based on their skin color, they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to employment opportunities, which leads to financial disadvantages and a slew of other lifestyle limitations. It’s not just a matter of compensating victims for past wrongs against them– the wrongs (if there were wrongs) held them back from being treated equally with others for decades longer.

It is impossible to require truly color-blind acceptance policies, however. And of course, there’s always that lingering uncertainty whether the college applicants were accepted more for– when compared with their peers– their potential success in furthering their education, than for their skin color.

Roberts claimed the Supreme Court was nonpartisan in handing down decisions. But– the Court has been divided 4-4 or 5-4 practically all the time in famous cases, because each of its presiding justices has consistently subscribed to a particular political persuasion in his or her opinions.

Further, appointments of Supreme Court Justices (or lack thereof) have been fiercely political in recent decades. “From the start of Obama’s presidency [Mitch] McConnell had put up hurdles to Obama’s lower Court nominations, ensuring, for instance, that not a single appointment was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in Obama’s first term.”

Read the book to learn of the many ways Roberts made known his political beliefs through his Court pronouncements.

Where the Wind Leads/The Fox Hunt

The Books of the Week are “Where the Wind Leads, A Memoir” by Vinh Chung With Tim Downs, published in 2014; “The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” by Mohammed Al Samawi, published in 2018.

Both authors told suspenseful, extremely extreme, long, complicated refugee horror stories, in which they had great good luck on several occasions, and in which certain people took tremendous risks by providing the authors with invaluable assistance that saved their lives.

Born in South Vietnam in December 1975, the author of the former book helpfully, briefly described his homeland’s history three decades before his birth.

The author’s family was Chinese– neither enemies nor friends of the French, Viet Minh, or Khmer Rouge. However, in the 1940’s, the author’s father’s family’s house in the Mekong Delta had been burned to the ground twice, anyway. There was a higher risk of a Viet Minh invasion in the French territory farther north, where the family moved.

As is well known, in the mid-1950’s the French were militarily defeated by the Viet Minh– Communists– and kicked out of their colony Indochina in Southeast Asia. Thereafter, Vietnam was split into north and south. Different ethnic groups migrated toward the side where they numbered in the majority: Communists, north; Catholics and Buddhists, south.

The Khmer Rouge, comprised of Cambodians, continued to ally with the French for decades. By the late 1950’s, the author’s father had become a draft dodger, fleeing to Cambodia to avoid having to fight against the Viet Minh. In 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s militia, the National Liberation Front, was attempting to reunite North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh was renamed Viet Cong by the United States.

Over decades, the author’s maternal grandmother began a rice-processing business that flourished. By the mid-1970’s, it had a couple of mills, a fleet of trucks, warehouses, etc. It actually benefited from America’s Vietnam War.

The family matriarch hired a matchmaker to marry off her son (the author’s father), born in 1937. He was still sowing his wild oats in his late twenties. Traditionally, both prospects’ families went on a date with the prospects. Then they saw a fortune teller.

The author’s mother was the daughter of a Chinese servant girl of a wealthy household. When she moved to her husband’s house, she had to shop daily for the fast-growing multi-generational household, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. But, since she was expected to become a baby-maker in addition to all of her other responsibilities– she was permitted to hire a teenage nanny with every additional child.

The author’s birth made five. Three more were quickly added, while the author’s father’s mistress had four. The two major philosophies of the family’s culture were filial piety and ancestor worship. Living in the South, their religion combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That changed when the Viet Cong attacked the Mekong Delta. The author’s family’s life was disrupted forever, as their business and real and personal property were stolen.

Due to the Vietnam government’s war against the Chinese that started in February 1979, the ever-growing Chung family became “boat people” in June. Read the book to learn of the family’s ordeal, adjustment to a brand new life, and the author’s explanation for what gave rise to his own extraordinary achievements.

Born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1986, the author of the latter book helpfully, briefly described the recent history of his homeland.

In 1987, a Sunni-Muslim group named the Muslim Brotherhood formed another group, Hamas. They were supported by Saudi Arabia, southern Yemen, Iraq and another group that formed later, Al Qaeda. Their enemies were Shia Muslims, who are the majority in Iran and northern Yemen.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the author’s Shia-Muslim family lived in a peaceful neighborhood in Sana’a in northern Yemen, where everyone got along fine. He had two older and two younger siblings. His parents were trained as medical doctors; his prominent father worked for a military hospital.

Al Samawi’s parents believed in education, but were extremely devout Muslims. So his parents were thrilled when, as an adolescent, he donated all his lunch money to the Muslim Brotherhood when the group (who were pushing pan-Arabism at the time) visited his private, well-funded grammar school.

However, the teachers preached nonstop hatred against Jews and Christians. The Quran was their authority on that. Besides, they said Hitler was a hero for killing Jews, and the Jews’ books were “dirty, amoral, sinful, impure, demonic.”

In 2000, TV propaganda in Yemen claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel was ordering the killing of innocent Palestinians, such as a young boy (who became a poster boy to incite Yemen), for no reason. The haters ignited in most Yemenis additional hatred against the Jews and Israel’s backers, such as the United States.

Eight years later, the author thought he was falling in love at university. But his filial piety put the kibosh on that. His mother did a background check on his prospective girlfriend, and found she wasn’t good enough for her son, and given their situations, she was probably a gold digger. His father also pressured him to end the budding relationship, by offering him a car and a job if his parents could fulfill the traditional Muslim route of choosing a bride for him. He caved in to their browbeating.

However, the next chapter in the author’s life proved to be most educational. He met an inspirational British instructor at his English-language school. Surprisingly, the author’s parents were allowing their son to study English. Al Samawi and his teacher exchanged gifts (the Quran and the Bible, respectively) to try to proselytize the other one. Each dogmatically believed that his own religion was the only right one to practice, else they would go to hell upon their deaths. Then a funny thing happened.

The teacher horrified Al Samawi by telling him he’d been hoodwinked– Al Samawi had unknowingly been reading the (Jewish!) Old Testament, having started at the beginning of the book. The stories’ morals and precepts were largely similar to those in the Quran(!)

In the next several years, Al Samawi became sufficiently open-minded to try to clear up his own confusion between what he’d been taught by his parents and Yemen’s culture, and what he was learning on Facebook and from his jobs at cross-cultural peacemaking organizations and international aid organizations.

From the start of Yemen’s religious civil war in 2015, Al Samawi found himself in a life-threatening, harrowing situation for several months. In one particular instance, he wrote, “Thirty minutes later, I jumped in the back of the black sedan. I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t pay the hotel.”

Read the book to learn the details of how Al Samawi’s friends in high places went to extraordinary lengths to change his fate, through thrilling plot twists and turns.

True Blue – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “True Blue, Police Stories By Those Who Have Lived Them” by Sgt. Randy Sutton, published in 2004.  This was a bunch of first-person anecdotes told by police officers– who recounted the most memorable moments of their careers; several of them NYPD members who survived 9/11.

Robert Brager’s 9/11 story was of confusion. He wrote, “At different times throughout the day, I was told that the Empire State Building, the United Nations Complex, the White House, the Pentagon, and many other places might have been hit. You can’t imagine the distorted information during a time like that: Here we were in the greatest city in the world in the middle of the news capital of the country and we couldn’t find out anything because all cell phone sites were down.”

Read the book to be reminded how dangerous and traumatic, or emotionally fulfilling, police work can be.

As is well known, traumatic is a word that describes the past week in the United States. Pursuant to Wikipedia (which is probably not comprehensive), below is a chronological rundown (month, year and state) from the year 2000 and later, of shooting sprees, in each of which there was at least one death of an innocent person. These do not include: road rage, robberies, burglaries, home invasions or workplaces or any situations of solely targeted murders in which the shooter knew the victims. What they all have in common (besides a temper tantrum with a firearm) is that the shooters were all male (except for one couple– a male and female).

More than half were white males. It’s okay to say “white males” now without sparking outrage among the tabloid set who would associate the speaker or writer with “The Squad” because that news cycle is finished. Luckily, the unwashed masses have short memories.

  • January 2001, CA
  • September 2001, TX
  • October 2002, Washington D.C. area
  • June 2003, MT
  • August 2003, WV
  • May 2004, CA
  • March 2005, MN
  • October 2006, PA
  • February 2007, UT
  • April 2007, VA
  • October 2007, OH
  • December 2007, CO
  • February 2008, IL
  • September 2008, WA
  • April 2009, NY
  • August 2011, OH
  • September 2011, NV
  • October 2011, CA
  • April 2012, CA
  • December 2012, CT
  • June 2013, CA
  • April 2014, KS
  • June 2014, NV
  • October 2014, WA
  • July 2015, TN
  • October 2015, OR
  • February 2016, MI
  • September 2016, SC
  • April 2017, CA
  • May 2017, OH
  • November 2017, CA
  • December 2018, CA
  • December 2018, NM
  • February 2018, FL
  • July 2019, TX
  • July 2019, OH

Leading Lady

The Book of the Week is “Leading Lady, Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker” by Stephen Galloway, published in 2017.

The subject of this movie-studio-executive biography was born in July 1944 in Chicago. She had a younger sister. Her biological father died of a heart condition when she was almost nine years old. That childhood trauma made her driven to succeed in life. But she took her stepfather’s last name, Lansing.

After graduating from Northwestern University, she and her medical-student husband moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue her dream of becoming an actress. To earn a living, she became a substitute teacher.

She suffered through three years of cattle calls and other indignities, which allegedly did not include sexual favors for career advancement. Arguably, in retrospect, there were mitigating factors to the culpability of men who displayed behavior on the continuum of sexual harassment of women in the entertainment industry.

In Lansing’s generation, both females and males accepted the continually reinforced gender-stereotypes in American culture, especially in that line of work. The vast majority of women never thought to question their enforced inferiority. The tiny number who did, were left silently seething.

Any woman who dared to enter the entertainment industry knew that that was the status quo, or quickly found that out. Institutionalized gender discrimination was a fact of life. Nowadays, of course, men’s offensive behavior is considered by everyone to be inexcusable, but accusations are still very hard to prove, absent reliable witnesses or physical evidence.

Anyhow, Lansing finally got a few roles, the most exciting of which was a bit-part on the TV show Laugh-In. However, the phoniness of acting wasn’t for her; she found she needed to be true to herself and the world.

Lansing, then 26, had cultivated valuable Hollywood contacts, one of whom, a producer, gave her work as a script-reader. Again, in the 1960’s, movie-making was still a male-dominated field, in which few women were able to tolerate the old-boy-network’s frat-boy behavior if they were trying to climb the corporate ladder. Lansing had a calm, peace-inducing temperament and engaging personality. She was able to keep her mouth shut and endure her hostile work environment until such time as she wielded the power to work with men as an equal.

That time came in November 1992, when Lansing became chair and CEO of Paramount Pictures’ movie division. Nevertheless, her work involved a boatload of stress and worries. She was the ultimate decisionmaker on whether a movie got made, but there were frequent problems with, and fierce arguments over hiring crews, financing, casting, shooting, screening, promoting, etc.

By the 1990’s, studios were forced to jointly pay production costs because filmmaking had become so expensive with high-tech special effects and for other reasons. So the relocating of the shooting of Braveheart from Scotland to Ireland due to foul weather, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Irish government provided 1,700 extras on the set, free of charge. Despite the astronomical costs of Titanic, the movie reached its break-even point prior to the revenue streams of cable TV, home entertainment and ancillary markets. Eventually it raked in revenues of $2.19 billion.

But after ten years at the top, Lansing was becoming disenchanted with the trends of the industry. For, “…the quality of pictures no longer seemed essential… clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies.” In other words, execrable movies that never should have been made were profitable, anyway– the marketers had become more important than the producers, casts and crews. Curiously, the same thing happened in publishing– the people managing the creative side of the business got greedy when cultural changes caused costs to rise.

Besides, Lansing asked, “How did the Oscars become the monstrosity where people [movie studios] are spending zillions and having parties and slipping things here and there? What happened to the camaraderie?” It should not have come as a surprise that by early 2003, Wal-Mart had become one of the largest distributors of DVD’s in the nation.

Read the book to learn more about Lansing’s career trials, tribulations and successes, her personal life, and the activities she found more fulfilling after she left Paramount.