West of Kabul, East of New York

“For all of us, surrendering to diversity is probably the only plausible path left to attaining unity. The international community is supposedly committed to helping the country rebuild, but the lost world will not be constituted. Whatever rises from the rubble, will be something new…”

The author wrote the above about Afghanistan, presumably after 9/11.

The Book of the Week is “West of Kabul, East of New York, An Afghan American Story” by Tamim Ansary, published in 2002.

Born in Kabul in Afghanistan in 1948, the author, who had an older sister and much younger brother, lived a childhood typical for his time and place– primitive living conditions, but in a communal space with multi-generational households of extended families.

In the mid-1950’s, the author’s father, through his former classmate, got a job on a U.S.-sponsored irrigation project, helping to further Afghanistan’s technological advancement. The goal was to “…sell the harvest for cash abroad, and use the currency to buy machines.” The author’s family lived in a corporate village with American expat families. They had Western leisure facilities– tennis, swimming, bicycling, square dancing, American music.

However, the project failed because the Helmand river branches changed their courses, so salt contaminated the water. Later on, water shortages, rather than lack of know-how or aid, caused crops to fail, when land reform (alleged equitable re-distribution of land among the peasants) was instituted.

In 1959, royal-family females were allowed to doff their veils, and coeducation was introduced at the local high school: about one hundred boys and four girls. Ironically, it was the Communists who forced the schools to educate the females, but (Muslim) Afghan leaders with old-school tribal and clan sensibilities got angry at that. Religious zealots (mullahs) in Kandahar incited a riot, in which some people died. “Within hours, the government put tanks on the streets [in Kabul] and jets in the air.” It had actually been a planned anti-Western campaign, but luckily, it failed.

Grades at the school, in a rural village, were based on only exams thrice every year in each of eighteen subjects. A few men (in their twenties) from the Soviet-trained military were sent there to get educated. Schools in Afghanistan’s cities got aid from the West.

The author’s mother was an American citizen, so when political turmoil flared in Afghanistan, and the author was awarded a high school scholarship as a sophomore in America, he, his mother and siblings moved to the United States. The author’s father was a citizen of only Afghanistan, but he could have become a college professor in America. Nevertheless, he chose to stay in his native country.

In the early 1970’s, the author found a community that mirrored his childhood’s– with an extended counter-culture “family” in Portland, Oregon. In 1979 (the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan), while in Morocco, he met Sunni Muslims who didn’t pray in the mosques.

One of them explained that, “Because the religious scholars have sold themselves to the governments… When the people are lost, the gangsters are safe.” There must be the right balance of power and integration between a nation’s leaders and the people, politically, economically and culturally (including religion). If the government acquires too much power, the people become lost. If the people acquire too much power, there’s revolution.

Individuals’ mentalities are shaped by their experiences. The author’s much younger brother, Riaz, when he became an adolescent, apparently had a bad experience of culture shock after the family moved to the United States. Riaz’s early Afghani childhood in the late 1950’s must have been a comforting, happy experience. For, in early adulthood, he turned to radical Islam in finding his identity.

Read the book to learn how the author coped with reconciling the cultural clashes he encountered in his life.

Here at The New Yorker

The Book of the Week is “Here at The New Yorker” by Brendan Gill, published in 1975.

Born in 1914, Gill was the fourth of five children. His mother died when he was seven. His father was a successful surgeon in Hartford, Connecticut.

Gill went to work for The New Yorker magazine as a young adult. “Hard for young writers nowadays to realize how many magazines were vying for short stories in the thirties and forties; hard too to believe how much they were paid!” Sadly, propagandists who compose the words of political smear campaigns are highly compensated, but hardly any other kinds of present-day writers are. It is also interesting to note that most of the prominent writers of the twentieth century were alcoholics, but hardly any were in the nineteenth, and now, there are few of them in the twenty-first.

Harold Ross, founder and managing editor of The New Yorker, deliberately neither smeared nor promoted the subjects of nonfiction articles, and had no hidden agenda– neither financial nor ideological ulterior motives in putting out his magazine. Also, the magazine paid employees to do meticulous, honest, best-efforts fact-checking.

Gill, in his prolix prose describing his workplace’s culture, office space, and various quirky magazine-employees— mentioned James Thurber’s 1957 short story, “The Wonderful ‘O'” which can be read here:

https://www.bookscool.com/en/The-Wonderful-O-711417/1

The story covered various aspects of the human condition, and featured a greedy tyrant, herd mentality, and historical revisionism. One word was essential in the suspenseful plot. That word represents a concept that must actually be put into practice in order for a society to be democratic. Incidentally, the villain was named “Black” and the people he hurt were randomly victimized. Despite its now-controversially named villain, the story is obviously analogous to the United States’ buildup of political hostility in the most recent forty years.

The two major American political parties are engaged in a fight that resembles the Cold War between the former U.S. and the former U.S.S.R. It might be recalled that during the Cold War, there was a space race, an arms race, power-hungry posturing and the specter of the kickoff of world destruction if either side was to be the first to recklessly use a nuclear weapon.

For decades now, America’s own political parties have wreaked vicious, reputation-damaging, life-ruining vengeance against each other. This has resulted in the present situation, borne of childish political fury; in sum, the pretense of taking precautions to stem the spread of a pandemic, that has unduly oppressed all Americans, not just political targets. Shamefully, as well as shamelessly, the parties have exceeded the limits of healthy disagreement and civil discourse.

If one considers six different political systems (of course there can be combinations of more than one in the same nation): feudalism, fascism, communism, dictatorship, anarchy, and democracy, one can see that in general, democracy is the least unfair to the highest number of people because it strikes a balance more or less, between competition and cooperation in its operation.

The American brand of democracy, when it works properly, consists of representatives of the people– Congress, courts, elected officials, legislatures, assemblies, etc., who fluidly cooperate when creating or modifying laws, while members presumably cooperate within their political parties. Each party competes, or debates, when they disagree on policies, and during elections.

When in balance, both competition and cooperation bring out the best traits humans possess, and the best kind of society because there is the best chance for various capacities of improvement for all participants. However, significant imbalance inevitably causes a government to adopt traits of the first five aforementioned political systems.

The most fulfilled humans are those who have the best balance in their professional and personal lives. Therefore, those who serve the public in truly democratic governments ought to be fulfilled, as should people who partake of team sports (including the Olympics), science fairs, battle of the bands, group projects in business school, and competitive bidding in industry, among numerous other areas of American life.

Anyway, read the book to learn about Gill’s experiences at The New Yorker.

What’s the Matter…

“Where the destruction will end depends only on what a small scientific elite and a generally apathetic public will advocate and tolerate.”

The above was said by Dr. Everett Koop and the theologian Francis Schaeffer in 1983, with regard to the abortion issue.

The Book of the Week is “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” by Thomas Frank, published in 2004.

American politics in the last forty or so years can be described in one word: HYPOCRISY.

The author spent his formative years in Mission Hills, Kansas. While there, he realized that wealth and various nefarious activities go together– such as dishonesty, white-collar crime, marital infidelity, mean-spiritedness and hubris syndrome.

The author explained how Kansans were converted to the Republican party beginning in the Clinton era. President Bill Clinton aligned the country economically with the conservative Republican congressman Newt Gingrich, a far-right capitalist. Clinton signed an agreement on free trade, making the Democrat and Republican platforms largely indistinguishable, save two emotionally charged, never-to-be resolved issues: abortion and gun control.

Thus began the political trend: the “culture war” and the “backlash” that opened the floodgates for propagandists to scream loudly and repeatedly in a hysterical manner about non-issues to distract voters and increase media ratings. Hardly anything has changed since then.

The author named the most prominent conservative Republican rabble rousers (in no particular order): Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Ann Coulter, Gary Aldrich, Laura Ingraham, David Brooks, Bill O’Reilly (remember him?) and Rush Limbaugh.

But in Kansas, even prior to the Clinton era, president Reagan distracted the unwashed masses with abortion and gun control so they wouldn’t care about the economic damage he did with his union-bashing.

In the early 1990’s, the Republican party in Kansas split into moderate and far-right Christian factions. In the 1994 mid-term elections, the latter won the hearts and minds of blue-collar Christian Democrats in Wichita.

In the late 1990’s, Kansas saw three corporate scandals; these from the utility companies formerly known as Western Resources, Missouri Public Service, and United Telecommunications. Each wanted to be pre-scandal Enron, as unbridled greed was all the rage in that unregulated time.

But take heart! In 1890, radicalized farmers had a “… revelation, a moment when an entire generation of ‘Kansas fools’ figure out that they’d been lied to all their lives. Whether it was Republicans or Democrats in charge, they believed, mainstream politics were a sham battle distracting the nation from its real problem of corporate capitalism.” Those farmers voted their “masters” (who happened to be Republican at the time) out of office.

At this very time in American history, voters can do it again. However, there are a range of problems involving voting. The following video covers those problems, and suggests a way to mitigate them starting at 17:00.

Read the book to learn: the intimate details of the culture war; the backlash; about a Kansan who named himself Pope in 1990 because he refused to recognize the one in power when Vatican II began; and people passionate about pushing the conservative Republican agenda who obviously aren’t doing it for the money.

Lewis Carroll – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Lewis Carroll, A Biography” by Morton N. Cohen, published in 1995.

Born into a family whose children eventually numbered eleven, in January 1832 in Cheshire (England), Carroll was given the name Charles Lutwidge Dodge. His father was curate of the local parish.

The headmaster of “Rugby”– the boarding school Carroll attended (which gave rise to the eponymous sports game), couldn’t “… rid the school of drunkenness. The boys were served beer with their meals– water was unsafe– and from beer to strong libations is not a long leap.” Rugby was considered England’s best public school (in America this means an elitist private school) at the time.

Carroll endured the usual abusive hierarchy (frat boy behavior) that occurred at such a place for nearly four years. Later, he was accepted to Christ Church, at Oxford University. Students from wealthy families brought their hunting dogs to school, and continued their shooting and riding, as they had at home. Academics were way overrated.

Carroll, however, majored in and got high grades in mathematics. After graduating, he became a math tutor and lecturer. But he got upset when he saw freshmen who were ignorant of material he thought they should have already learned.

In an attempt to cover up this embarrassing truth, in April 1864, the school administration proposed lowering its standards, and finally succeeded in doing so in February 1865. In protest, Carroll resigned as Mathematics Examiner.

On another topic, of course, Carroll became best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It started in July 1862, as an extemporaneous story he made up about Alice Liddell, one of the middle daughters (about twenty years his junior) in a large family full of them. He became quite close with the girls socially, accompanying them on walks, picnics, boating outings, in playing croquet, etc.

Nearly a year later, he rode a train alone with the girls– who were without their usual adult supervision. Shortly thereafter, their mother forbid Carroll to see them. Wild rumors swirled around the mysterious incident; the page on which Carroll wrote about this in his diary was removed– lost to history– by his niece.

As an amateur photographer, Carroll had been taking photos of his aforementioned unnaturally close friends, as well as daughters of other families in his community. In spring 1867, he began taking photos of girls in the nude.

Read the book to learn of all of the details about the above, other highlights of his life, and how the “Alice” stories evolved into an enduring piece of work.

ENDNOTE: Curiously, the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, befriended a family of sons. He took an especial liking to a middle son, Peter, about which he made up stories at the dawn of the twentieth century. Both Alice and Peter Pan have been enjoyed in various incarnations internationally for decades and decades. Parallels can be drawn between their authors. The stories must therefore delve into the deepest, truest universal aspects of human nature. That must be why they are still classics.

Just the Funny Parts – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club” by Nell Scovell, published in 2018.

Born in Boston, MA in November 1960, Scovell was the third of five siblings. She became a comedy writer, producer and director in Hollywood.

Scovell wrote of the many issues female writers face in the writers’ room, and in higher-level positions, if they achieve the great feat of actually getting hired in the entertainment industry. For, gender discrimination still persists. Females are still conditioned by society to feel as though the employers are doing them a favor for giving them a job, rather than feeling they deserve it on the merits.

Scovell– by writing an article that prompted truly important discussions on daytime talk shows– made Americans more aware of the fact that for decades, the late-night talk shows had been hiring practically all male writers. She herself had written for Late Show with David Letterman and felt “awkward, confused and demorazlied” due to the male-dominated work environment. She quit of her own accord after a short time.

Scovell said, “But in the real world, awareness more often leads to defensiveness which leads to excuses… you must also be aware that your knee-jerk defensiveness is part of the problem.” Simply saying, “Some of my best friends are female” doesn’t get them equal treatment in the workplace. Which should spark a discussion of gender-related issues of the impeachment brouhaha presently plaguing the U.S. government and the U.S. propaganda community. Which sometimes are the same thing.

First of all, Nancy Pelosi, a female, is the point person for the House of Representatives in connection with the impeachment vote. The way she is portrayed in the media and social media is crucially important to how the public views the whole story, and public opinion can have a tremendous influence on Congress’ activities.

A male Speaker would set a completely different tone– not necessarily intentionally, but simply due to subconscious conditioning by American society. Psychological research has shown that both females and males perceive females in a negative light, but perceive males in a positive light– when asked to comment on a hypothetical someone in a leadership position, having been told the leader’s gender.

As is well known, in 1998, former president Bill Clinton had an impeachment proceeding launched against him for lying under oath about his salacious activities in the Oval Office. That was a male-on-male attack borne of political vengeance. If females had been in the mix (in a major way, leadership-wise), there would have been a different dynamic.

Interestingly, Trump has nicknamed Pelosi, “Nervous Nancy” for a reason. He is trying to razz her to put her at a psychological disadvantage. One of Scovell’s male coworkers said something like that to Scovell when she worked for Letterman, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On another topic, perhaps there is an algorithm for the bad behavior of U.S. presidents. Clinton copied his hero, JFK, who was rumored to have had similar liaisons about thirty-seven years earlier. Trump copied his hero, Ronald Reagan, who was engaged in non-standard foreign policy activities, about thirty-seven years ago.

There must have been some Congress members in Clinton’s administration who fondly remembered JFK. There must be some Congress members in Trump’s administration who fondly remember Reagan. However, the two presidents’ legal situations are a generation apart– have different political, cultural and social backdrops, and have very different sets of facts.

Comparing the troubles of the current American leader with other past leaders isn’t exactly on-point, either. The older generation has seen political turmoil before, so “Have you no decency left” and “I am not a crook” are cliches.

If one is considering emotionally troubling historical events on a continuum pursuant to preventable deaths on one end, and celebrity dramas on the other, the present doesn’t seem so bad.

Younger Americans have no understanding of the Vietnam Era or the genocidal episodes of the 1940’s and 1990’s (!), but they are bombarded with world-shaking “news.” OMG: Elton John was allegedly a witness to Royal-Family child abuse, and Taylor Swift’s appearance on Saturday Night Live was challenging for her.

Right now the political climate is kind of like before the third act of an old-school Broadway play– the audience needs a breather. It is sick of the whole thing. It needs a period of quiet to regroup and assess the situation.

Nevertheless, when the media claims that Pelosi is actually going to resolve the situation, females in the media ought to remind females in Congress not to be intimidated by the males who have conditioned them to be so, and give Trump a nickname.

Anyway, read the book to learn of Scovell’s career ups and downs.

A Good American Family – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “A Good American Family, The Red Scare and My Father” by David Maraniss, published in 2019.

Born in 1918 in Boston, the author’s father grew up in Brooklyn. He was outed as a Communist by a female member of the FBI. She joined the Communist Party USA in order to spy on it, then for nine years, was paid big bucks to tattle on its members.

In March 1952, the elder Maraniss was subpoenaed to appear at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in Detroit. At that time, he was summarily fired from his job as a re-write man at the Detroit Times; ironically, a rabidly anti-Communist newspaper owned by Hearst.

A high-level federal judge in New York State, Learned Hand, provided the legal grounds on which the investigations into Communists rested in the 1950’s. Suppression of free speech was justified by the extent and probability of its leading to evil. “The worse the evil and the greater the probability, the more free speech could be curtailed.”

The ironies and consequences resulting from the above reasoning led to a dark period in American history. The take-away from the Red Scare was that the accusers led by Joe McCarthy, trampled on due process when confronting their prey– those who were allegedly associated with or were allegedly Communists.

One curious little experiment indicated just how effective fear-mongering propaganda can be. One irony is that fear-mongering propaganda is itself considered to be protected free speech!

In early July 1951, a reporter from the Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin asked 112 random people in Henry Vilas Park to sign a petition, the text of which contained, “… the preamble to the Declaration of Independence… six of the ten amendments to the Bill of Rights, along with the Fifteenth Amendment granting black men the right to vote.” Only one person willingly signed. Almost one fifth of the people called the reporter a Communist.

Read the book to learn additional details of the tenor of the times in connection with the author’s father’s persuasion and generation, and the fates of his other immediate and extended family members and his accusers.

Hold On, Mr. President – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Hold On, Mr. President” by Sam Donaldson, published in 1987. This is the career memoir of an aggressive TV journalist who covered politics.

Donaldson was born in 1934. By his mid-thirties, he had an all-consuming career, working seven days a week for about a year at ABC-TV in Washington D.C. He covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Vietnam on-location for three months in 1971, the Watergate scandal, and, glutton for punishment that he was– president Jimmy Carter in 1976. He asked hard questions of presidents, especially president Ronald Reagan, on whom he spent a lot of time reporting.

Donaldson felt that Reagan’s unwavering stance on all issues was a liability because it resulted in “thoughtless and false certainty… Deciphering Reagan-speak is a constant in the White House press room… But give Reagan a TelePromTer (sic)… and he can communicate without ambiguity and, in the process, sell you a defense budget that will reduce you to rags or a Nicaragua policy that will curl more than your hair.” Countless erroneous facts and figures emanated from Reagan’s mouth, of which Donaldson provided numerous examples.

In the late 1980’s, Reagan held political rallies whose attendees “… had to apply for tickets from local Republican organizations, and people who were not already true believers, didn’t get them.” Some things never change.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on Donaldson and his generation of TV journalism in Washington, D.C.