Harry Belafonte / Shirley Chisholm

The First Book of the Week is “Harry Belafonte, My Song, a Memoir” with Michael Shnayerson, published in 2011.

Born in March 1927 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the singer best known for the “Banana Boat Song” actually did a lot more in his lifetime than give concerts and act. He was instrumental in helping fund and organize the civil rights movement.

Belafonte’s older relatives were interracial; they hailed from Jamaica in the Caribbean; the light-skinned ones living there were Scottish. Growing up dirt poor, he lived alternately between upper Manhattan and Jamaica for years at a time, bounced among them.

For Belafonte, it was one psychological trauma after another. He had undiagnosed dyslexia, in addition to having accidentally with sewing scissors, as a toddler, blinded himself in one eye.

Fortunately, Belafonte’s mother, an illegal immigrant, had survival skills. But she practiced spousification with him in his early years. When he was five years old, he was tasked with taking care of his baby brother while she worked. She instilled in him a love of music, taking him to see the great singers of the 1930’s and 1940’s at the Apollo Theater in upper Manhattan.

The author’s mother hired someone to give him piano lessons. However, he played hooky from them because the teacher cruelly beat his fingers, just like the nuns at his parochial school. He ended up quitting school for good in the middle of ninth grade.

Belafonte’s father, an abusive, mean drunk, was frequently out of town– either acting as head chef on a banana boat in the Caribbean, or philandering. But there were a few occasions of quality time, playing marbles.

Belafonte was able to pay for drama school with the G.I. Bill, after his Navy service during World War II. He befriended the politically-active, drama and jazz crowds, many of whom, like him, would later became world famous.

By the early 1960’s, the nation was violently divided. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded Belafonte that “… compromise was a crucial tenet of nonviolence. If compromise got you closer to your goal, then it was worth any loss of face.” As is well known, there was excessive bloodshed throughout the 1960’s– so there must have been a lot of men who couldn’t stand to swallow their pride for the good of the nation.

Anyway, read the book to learn why Belafonte, even after becoming fabulously famous and wealthy, never did lead a charmed life. He did, however, raise funds for Shirley Chisholm.

The Second Book of the Week is “Shirley Chisholm, Catalyst for Change” by Barbara Winslow, published in 2014.

Born in Brooklyn in 1924, Chisholm had a grandfather who worked on the Panama Canal, whose construction spurred the upward mobility of sugarcane slaves from Barbados. Her ancestors believed in education and home ownership.

Chisholm spent roughly three and a half years of her early childhood in Barbados; the rest, in New York City. She experienced culture shock moving from a rural, agricultural village to big, scary, crime-ridden neighborhoods– Brownsville, and then Bedford-Stuyvesant, both in Brooklyn.

Chisholm’s goal was to become an elementary school teacher but she couldn’t get hired because she was black. With her master’s degree in early childhood education, Chisholm eventually became a consultant to the day care department of New York City’s welfare agency, supervising tens of employees. She “… would always have to face men who tried to infantilize, patronize or demonize her.”

In 1964, Chisholm won an assembly seat in New York State. She worked with three other black politicians in New York: Charles Rangel, David Dinkins and Percy Sutton. She was very prolific; eight of the fifty bills she sponsored were passed.

In 1968, with the slogan, “Vote for Shirley Chisholm for Congress– unbought and unbossed” she became the first African American woman elected to Congress. When she expressed her intention to run for president in 1972, men bristled.

Chisholm had a particular reason for rescinding her plan to personally campaign in Wisconsin, involving public relations. She disappointed a bunch of dedicated grass-roots volunteers. But she would have visited the state for only two or three days anyway, and not have gotten significant support over and above her loyal followers’. So by not visiting, she could brag that she got, say, 5% of the vote without even campaigning there– that’s how much people loved her.

In May 1972, after racist presidential candidate George Wallace was shot, Chisholm behaved compassionately, visiting him in the hospital.

Read the book to learn more about Chisholm’s life and times, including why she was actually bossed, but not bought.

Thomas E. Dewey and his times (sic)

The Book of the Week is “Thomas E. Dewey and his times (sic), The First Full-Scale Biography of the Maker of the Modern Republican Party” by Richard Norton Smith, published in 1982.

As early as the 1820’s in New York City, there were political nefarious goings-on via the Democratic machine. Judges chosen by the big boss William Marcy Tweed, “…swore in new citizens [newly arrived immigrants] a thousand a day in the weeks before a crucial election.”

When Thomas E. Dewey was born in March 1902 in Michigan, major American cities had been seeing political shenanigans from both Democrats and Republicans, for decades.

From a young age, Dewey was active in Republican clubs. In early 1931, he became an assistant U.S. attorney. He developed a reputation for investigating organized crime among politicians, labor leaders and the criminal justice system. He launched a sting against vice in order to expose the corruption in the system. About a hundred prostitutes and madams were arrested for the purpose of serving as witnesses who testified against racketeers, in exchange for lesser punishment. In 1936, a jury deemed Lucky Luciano guilty of 559 different crimes.

The Mob owned the garment and trucking industries. Local business owners were forced to pay protection money to racketeers or they or their families would face serious injury or death. They passed on this higher cost of doing business in the form of significantly higher prices, to consumers. Thus, all city dwellers became victims of the scourge.

In 1937, Dewey ran for the law enforcement office of district attorney in New York City. To voters around Manhattan, he showed a highlights reel of his crime-fighting prowess, and made radio broadcasts.

In 1940 in Denver, when Dewey was running for U.S. president, he proclaimed “Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the National Debt.” Unfortunately, that line has borne repetition for the last 80 years.

As New York State governor in March 1945, Dewey achieved approval via the state legislature, of a bill that outlawed anti-black practices in housing and employment. A fellow Republican believed that the three major issues of the day were: international relations, race relations and labor relations, respectively.

In the 1948 presidential campaign, the incumbent Democrat Truman mongered fear among farmers and labor unions that the nation would experience an economic downturn if voters changed direction, and elected a Republican to the White House.

As is well known, some people were shocked that Dewey lost the election. “Dewey was ahead until the last two weeks of the campaign, [Samuel] Lubell concluded [referring to a poll from the University of Michigan], when millions of voters switched their allegiance.”

No doubt, presidential campaigns are all about the propaganda war. But because voters have short memories, ten months before an election is like the first quarter of a football game. It will be a loooong time before a winner becomes official.

Anyway, Dewey continued to serve as New York State governor. In September 1949 in Peekskill, Paul Robeson sang at a concert at which fifteen thousand fans were victimized by rabid anti-Communists. The latter seriously injured the former with stone-throwing and head-bashing with clubs. State troopers failed to keep order. Dewey called in the sheriff and district attorney to investigate. Dewey said that although Communists had a reputation for being subversive and oppressing other people, the concert-goers had rights to free speech and assembly– which were violated.

Dewey prepared for the 1952 Republican convention for president that would nominate Dwight Eisenhower, by ordering fourteen bullhorns from a Pennsylvania company, just in case the microphones there unexpectedly cut out. Incidentally, there was a dispute between competing Republican candidates Eisenhower and Robert Taft, over how delegates chose their candidates, or vice versa.

As a result, in early 1954, Dewey instituted New York State’s first code of ethics for public officials. It would regulate conflicts of interest of legislature members and other office holders. Apparently (or rather, unsurprisingly), there were loopholes in the law. In the 1960’s, the Republican governor of New York State, Nelson Rockefeller was “…funding grandiose building projects… brilliant subterfuges in which independent agencies acted as surrogate spenders for the state. Rocky’s state budget was five times that of Dewey’s administration.

Anyhow, read the book to learn a wealth of additional details about Dewey and his times.

The Reckoning

The Book of the Week is “The Reckoning, Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land, a True Detective Story” by Patrick Bishop, published in 2014.

Born in 1907 in Poland near the Lithuanian border, Avraham Stern grew up to become an agent of the Irgun (one of the intelligence services in Palestine), coordinating the purchase of weaponry from Italian and Polish sources, to be smuggled into Palestine to help the Jews fight for an independent state, plus spreading propaganda about offensives in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a prominent Zionist in the same underground group, who gathered intelligence and launched military offensives in pursuit of Jewish statehood.

Stern, however, was a more radically violent sort, whose spinoff group (called Betar, or Revisionists) committed acts of terrorism against Arabs, even civilians, and later, the British. His group received funding from wealthy Jews who believed in the cause of helping oppressed Jews live freely in a land of their own.

In May 1939, Great Britain issued a White Paper– a follow-up document to the 1917 Balfour Declaration– stating that since there was then a significant Jewish population (450,000) in Palestine, only an additional 75,000 would be let in in the next five years, and those arriving later than that, would require Arab consent.

A governance arrangement would have to be made in the next ten years between the Arabs and the Jews. Of course, no one could know the untoward historical events soon to occur, let alone the number of Jewish refugees who would ultimately be seeking to reside in Palestine.

By 1940, Great Britain was in trouble militarily. In August, Jabotinsky unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Stern, who took the opportunity to occupy the resulting power vacuum, argued that the Zionists should ally with Germany because although anti-Semitic, the Germans might let the Jews emigrate to Palestine.

In desperate need of money, Stern plotted a successful bank robbery in September 1940 that was executed by his henchmen. He himself was an armchair warrior, only the mastermind behind the group’s activities.

Afterwards, Stern went underground, but got friendly with the anti-British Italians through his spy network, so if the Italians were to march into Palestine, they would be benign colonialists, rather than oppressive imperialists. Early 1941 saw Stern solicit the friendship of the German diplomatic corps, too. His overtures later proved to be a waste of time.

In 1941 and 1942, Stern went all out with planning violence because he knew his days were numbered. His group committed a robbery and launched an attack that resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including British cops. He became public enemy number one. A major historical event that might either discredit or make truthfulness more likely in connection with various historical accounts is: the Wannsee Conference held in late January 1942, at which Hitler discussed his plot to create a master race and eliminate all Jews. Thereafter, parties privy to such knowledge began to change their behavior.

Stern and his cohorts hated the British government because the British knew the Jews were seeking refuge from Hitler’s death camps, but they prevented them from reaching the shores of Palestine via boats, anyway. It was inexcusable not to save their lives. Two of Israel’s future politicians, Irgun members (Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin) fought with the ideologically dogmatic Zionists, newly renamed “Lehi.”

Read the book to learn of the way the British intelligence community treated Stern’s terrorist cell as an organized-crime gang– resorting to frontier justice out of fury when law enforcement officers were killed in attacks; the ensuing propaganda war between the Brits and Jews on a specific incident involving Stern; the fate of the head of British intelligence; and the activities of the British and Zionists from 1944 onward.

Whittaker Chambers

The Book of the Week is “Whittaker Chambers” by Sam Tanenhaus, published in 1997. This large volume described a situation that lends itself to the hypothetical board game “Survival Roulette: Alleged Commie Edition” (See “Blind Ambition” post).

Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers were just two of thousands of people starting in the late 1940’s who were losers of this game. The winners actually won only temporarily: Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and other bullies.

The board’s spaces could describe wiretapped conversations of such evil Commie fronts as the Boy Scouts, and dossiers acquired through the Freedom of Information Act in which every word of every page has been redacted (blacked out) except the names of the 205 guilty State Department officials.

Of course, there could be spaces such as “Go to the Electric Chair” and “IRS Audit.” A “Commie Chest” (rather than Community Chest) card, for instance, could say “Collect $1 in a libel suit while your attorneys collect $50,000.” By the way, any player wearing a red necktie is a Commie.

Chambers, born in 1901 in Brooklyn, was accepted to Columbia University in 1920 through, at that time, simply passing an intelligence test rather than taking entrance examinations. He was fluent in several languages and was a skilled writer. As a commuter from Lynbrook in Long Island, New York, he paid only the school’s annual tuition of $256. The following year, living on campus, he also paid room and board of $400.

As a sophomore and rebellious intellectual, Chambers penned an offensive, blasphemous piece for one of a few campus publications for which he wrote. Fierce critics forced him to take a leave of absence from the school.

In the next several years, he traveled around Europe, came home, held short-term odd jobs he obtained through friends, returned to school, rode the rails out West, etc. in an effort to find himself; also in an attempt to escape his dysfunctional family. According to the author, Chambers suppressed his homosexual urges by having affairs with women.

In the course of his voracious reading– a lifelong passion– Chambers discovered a speech of Vladimir Lenin called The Soviets at Work. In it, Lenin advocated violent authoritarianism. Curious factoid: a line in the speech is reminiscent of a line in the Elton John song “Yellow Brick Road” paraphrased: “… where the dogs of society howl… I’m going back to my plow…”

Anyway, in February 1925, Chambers joined the Workers Party of America, a then-illegal political party that espoused Communist ideals. Its American members numbered about sixteen thousand. He also joined the International Workers of the World.

In the spring of 1927, Chambers was found to have stolen tens of books from Columbia University’s libraries and various other libraries. He was proud rather than ashamed. He wrote articles for The Daily Worker and other Communist publications, got a short story published in The New Masses, that was turned into a play performed internationally.

Some Americans became Communists because they felt that capitalism was the cause of the Great Depression— with its breadlines, labor unrest, suicides, protests, etc. In spring 1932, Chambers joined the OGPU– the Soviet agency that eliminated anyone who expressed the least negative thoughts about Comrade Stalin or his ilk.

Chambers was a valuable addition, as he had experience in bureaucracy, was fluent in German and Russian and literate in the Classics. The American chapter of the Party forced him to become a secret agent man.

But it was fun to play adolescent-boy spy games. And the pay was really good. He played well with others. He and his comrades got secret messages in invisible ink and microfilm from the Germans in their safe house on Gay Street in Greenwich Village. They spied on businesses and the military. He helped steal blueprints for weapons to be built by military contractors, and sent them to the Soviets.

In summer 1934, Chambers was relocated by the Soviets to Washington, D.C. to become a New-Deal advocate for sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who were opposing landowners and big growers in the agricultural industry.

Then Chambers started assisting with generating false passports to be used by his comrades. The initial step was to comprehensively extract information (such as birth dates and names) from the archives of obituaries of babies, in the research branch of the New York Public Library (yes, the one with the lion statues in front).

A birth certificate was then the only proof of citizenship that was required to obtain an American passport, which allowed the easiest travel. The above information (reflecting the then-age and gender of the agent who traveled internationally) would be used to apply for a fraudulent birth certificate, which could then be used to obtain a fraudulent passport.

The Party headquarters was in the U.S.S.R., though, and was the ultimate boss. It could shut down a cell if it saw little productivity. For example, an agent was reassigned to Riga (equivalent to Siberia). But before the transfer, the agent did win the handball championship at a YMCA in the closed Tokyo cell.

Across the United States, there were plenty of organizations posing as Communist fronts, such as a literary agency in San Francisco, the Unemployed Council in Queens county in New York State, and the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians. Chambers used a series of aliases for himself, his wife and daughter with each new assignment.

Changes were always afoot. In the mid-1930’s, the OGPU became the NKVD. Chambers’ boss was purged by Stalin. His highly-strung new boss reflected the Soviet mentality of proactively engaging in an act of generosity to butter up his new office in Washington, D.C. He therefore gave it a large cash gift that was used to purchase Oriental rugs to be given to the top operatives there.

In December 1936, the Soviets considered Germany, Italy and Japan their fascist enemies. The United States, France and England were passively standing on the sidelines. Chambers’ new mission was to, with the help of comrades, procure stolen original State Department documents, take photos of them, and return them, turn the photos into microfilm, and send it to Moscow. Although the documents usually didn’t contain anything world-shaking.

Nevertheless, circumstances were getting dangerous for Chambers. He was considering withdrawing from the Party, but then he and his family would have to disappear. He didn’t want to end up like Ignace Reiss, a “…well dressed corpse, perforated with bullet holes.” In spring 1938, he took the plunge and went into hiding. About a year later, he was able to get a job through a friend at Time, Inc.

Chambers knew the NKVD could kill him or harm his family at any time. Besides that, he could be convicted and imprisoned for treason, and he couldn’t afford to flee. So in September 1939, he turned state’s evidence instead. He named names of Treasury Department and State Department members and discussed the U.S. military’s Communist spy ring.

Into the 1940’s, Chambers continued to work around the clock at Time, Inc., where he received an obscenely high salary for his new rabidly anti-Communist editorial bent. His intuitions were correct, however. He knew that the Soviets had designs on world domination.

In August 1948, Chambers was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Reputable officials and journalists were angry that in a public hearing, Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department official had been a Communist in the 1930’s. Hiss’s integrity had been irreproachable up to that point. The then-freshman Congressman Richard Nixon (R., CA) was the only member of the Committee who insisted on continuing the case against Hiss.

Initially, Chambers couldn’t name anything Hiss had done that was illegal. For, Party membership hadn’t been illegal in the previous decade. Neither had paying Party dues, nor meeting with other Communists.

However, with circumstantial evidence that Chambers produced in his own sweet time, he was able to convince the authorities that Hiss had lied under oath. Another crime that Hiss might have been punished for, was espionage. Fortunately for Hiss and Chambers, the three year statute of limitations on that had expired.

Political accusers always seem to scream about risks to national security!!! But it has become a cliche that more often than not, documents have been labeled top-secret, not to become declassified for decades– in order to cover up government’s bad, embarrassing behavior, NOT because American lives are at risk.

For approximately the last seventy years, on and off, vicious political vengeance has been the norm– best interests of the country be damned. However, the punishments haven’t fit the crimes. The most guilty and least punished perpetrators have acted in ways that have resulted in needless deaths and ruined lives.

Who knows what else Hiss did– making love to an intern in the Old Executive Office Building? He did get caught lying under oath.

Based on lies, the most guilty perpetrators have led the United States to attack other countries and smeared their political opponents for their own selfish political and financial ends. At least they didn’t get caught lying under oath.

Anyway, as is common with these kinds of situations, different government agencies are fighting to grab glory for bringing the perpetrators to justice. In the Hiss case, it was the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and HUAC.

Individuals such as Nixon and Robert Stripling, the chief investigator of HUAC, were also jockeying for power and bragging rights. Then-Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter testified on behalf of Hiss, an unprecedented move, and possible conflict.

Read the book to learn why Chambers wasn’t also tried for lying under oath, even though he was the biggest liar in the world; every ugly detail of the Hiss case, and much more about Chambers’ life.

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.

Ibn Saud

The Book of the Week is “Ibn Saud, The Desert Warrior Who Created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray, originally published in 2010. This wordy and redundant biography described the life of a pivotal figure in the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century and his legacy in the twenty-first century.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud (hereinafter referred to as “Saud”) was born circa 1881. He was the oldest surviving son of his forever growing family. The culture of his Islamic, nomadic tribe involved a Robin-Hood like practice called “ghazzu.” Only at a time when a tribe was literally starving, would it rustle camels and/or livestock for itself, from a tribe that was better off, inasmuch as it needed to survive. The raid was not for the purpose of conquest.

A boy would become a man by aiding his fellow men in such a raid. Due to a forced evacuation by a militant attack by the Rashid family in the Middle Eastern desert in 1891, Saud left his family when he was about ten. He assisted with a ghazzu with the Al Murra– one of the poorer Bedouin tribes. They were Muslim, but not as fanatically religious as the Wahhabis in Riyadh, where Saud’s family lived.

Saud’s family was allowed to reside in Kuwait until his father could regain his sheikdom from the Rashid family. In the 1890’s, the whole region was being fought over by the Ottoman Empire, Germany, France, Russia and Great Britain for purposes of international commerce, rail transportation and shipping.

In 1899, Saud took a bride in his second arranged marriage, and his first son was born the following year. He was to have: more than one hundred wives, almost one hundred children, plus numerous concubines in his lifetime, but only three wives at any given time, pursuant to the Quran. At that time in Saud’s culture, divorce was cheap and fast.

Saud led men into the vendetta-laden battle between his family and the Rashid. Allying with other tribes in the area, they fought on camels with swords, rocks and fire. Saud achieved victory in January 1902.

Two months later, his messengers arrived to tell government leaders in London, India, Istanbul and Moscow. Saud’s father’s army retook the territory over the next two years, but the Ottoman empire had the resources to re-conquer the Saud family’s small military and tentative claim on land the Saud family had previously owned. So the two parties signed a treaty conditionally acknowledging the land’s owner.

Until WW I, Saud allied with the Wahhabi tribe, Ottomans and British, but would not help them during the war. To Saud, the Rashid remained an enemy, and Sharif Husayn– British diplomat and leader of a rival tribe– became a new one. All still had territorial claims to the Arabian peninsula.

In 1922, the presence of oil was suspected in the disputed territories. However, the oil drilling equipment at the time was too primitive to the find the oil.

In the mid-1920’s, Saud was allied with the Wahhabi-related Ikhwan tribe, which were fanatically religious and violent with their livestock-grabbing, looting, plundering, destroying Shia artifacts and killing enemy males of all ages– forcing them to flee the Arabia/Iraq border. Saud had to tell the Ikhwan to cool it. Even so, Saud didn’t compensate the enemy for his allies’ war crimes. He kept all the territory he got, and acquired more.

Into the early twentieth century, the Arab tribes thought of the desert as an ocean, around which they could wander because no nation had a sovereign claim on it. Since Najdis (residents of Najd) and Iraqi Bedouins (both allies of Saud) were having border skirmishes against the British, the British thought they had a right to build forts to clarify their claimed territories to corral the local nomadic tribes. Of course the British, having a more advanced military and weaponry, plus the world’s best navy, had the upper hand on the ocean too.

In 1928, one oil company each from America, Britain, Netherlands and France agreed to divvy up any oil that was discovered in the Middle East.

After various battles, finally, in September 1932, Saud named his territory the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, governed exclusively by a literal interpretation of the Quran. In other words, It was a theocratic, not a constitutional, monarchy. For the rest of Saud’s life, excessive amounts of money were spent on keeping Saudi Arabia’s citizens (Saud’s royal family and others, plus millions of charity seekers–to whom hospitality was an obligation according to the Quran) loyal to King Saud.

Read the book to learn what transpired:

  • when a significant amount of oil was finally discovered in Saudi Arabia;
  • what Saud did just before and during WWII;
  • that led the Americans to become besties with Saudi Arabia for decades– which was related to how Saud reacted to the debate over the territory of Palestine and how Saudi Arabia ran into financial trouble in the latter half of the twentieth century; and
  • when Saud died– how his successors led the country in the next half century.

Undercover

The Book of the Week is “Undercover, The Secret Lives of a Federal Agent” by Donald Goddard, published in 1988. This was the biography of a New York City undercover drug agent allegedly named Michael Levine.

Born in December 1939 in the Bronx (in New York City) among blacks and Latinos, Levine’s childhood was fraught with fighting and underage drinking. At eighteen years old, he applied to join the Air Force but pursuant to his aptitude test results, was assigned to the Air Police. He, helped only by a German shepherd, ended up guarding American nuclear weaponry in a rural area near the Canadian border. He enjoyed the work, but after a year, got into a fight sparked by racial tension.

In the next several years, he found that intelligence work was his calling. That was the way to put his acting talent and street-Spanish language skills to use for good, to combat evil. He did time at the IRS Intelligence Division, and then the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency, part of the Treasury Department of the federal government.

Sometimes as many as four other government entities (FBI, CIA, IRS, NYPD) were supposed to cooperate to surveil a mafia don in the neighborhood of Little Italy in Manhattan (New York City). The undercover work became a joke because the don knew he was being tailed, and the don’s driver told the spies where he would be going. Working morning, noon and night, Levine frequently got his man, arresting all walks of life of the criminal underworld– possessors of unlicensed guns, drugs, stolen driver’s licenses and credit cards– taking on five or six cases at a time.

From the ATF, Levine was promoted to customs inspector, under the auspices of the State Department, where he got more power than ever. He was able to execute searches without a warrant, and operate internationally. In 1973, he survived the consolidation of entities of law enforcement of cocaine, heroin, hash, marijuana, etc.– into one Drug Enforcement Administration.

Levine’s favorite place to work was on the street. He wasn’t meant to be a paper-pushing bureaucrat in an office. One kind of case he worked might involve a “buy-bust” on the Lower East Side (of Manhattan) in which the informer was an “orange-haired Cuban bisexual who lived with the female Jewish butcher” that resulted in the arrest of three Mexicans who possessed a full kilo of heroin.

Levine acquired more than two decades of experience masquerading as an insider in the New York City drug scene. He witnessed all aspects of it, handling thousands of cases, working harder, and more hours than most other law enforcement personnel. He testified in court as an expert witness countless times. Therefore, he felt he knew the least bad solution to the ever-increasing societal problems stemming from the abuse of drugs.

Levine said the drug users were the problem– they were the ones generating demand for the product. If they disappeared, so would the problems because the sellers would go out of business. He pointed out that the “… dealers weigh the risks against the money they make. They don’t respond to fear of the law.” The users would.

Levine recommended that there be strong deterrents: hard prison time for illegal-drug possession and illegal-drug intoxication of the slightest amounts.

At first glance, that recommendation seems logical. Of course, Levine’s career would get a gigantic boost in the event of such a trend. For, Levine described his undercover work thusly: “We’re paid to lock people up, that’s all. What happens to ’em after that has got nothing to do with us. It’s up to them, their attorneys, our attorneys, public opinion, politics, the media… Juries convict people, not agents… But that’s not to say you won’t face real dilemmas about guilt and justice.”

HOWEVER, considering the consequences, one begins to think, “Oh, that’ll end well.” Harsher punishments would create as many problems as they would solve. The trouble was that many of the users were also dealers. So if the users/dealers were the sole source of income for their families, and the users got locked up for a long time, what happened to their families?

The jails would become overcrowded, and there would have to be a massive hiring effort to build more prisons, and catch, process, judge, guard and legally represent the additional soon-to-be prisoners, not to mention the legal can of worms that drug-testing would open up.

Not only that, such a major change in the legal system would highlight the two-tier justice system in this country. Poor people of all ethnicities possessing drugs would be imprisoned. As always, the troubles of those people (most of whom began their lives in unlucky situations) would be compounded. Just ask any public defender– whose caseload would increase, but his or her budget wouldn’t.

This, while the rich people (such as those in the Hamptons– the summer-vacation region on Long Island in New York State), would skate. Those inheritors of wealth and privilege could afford to hire high-priced attorneys. They would squelch the bad publicity that would result from their indiscretions by paying people to shut up and go away with non-disclosure agreements. Their families might have been just as dysfunctional as those of the poor, but the public would never hear about any of that.

As is well known, addicts hurt themselves and their families, but are usually not a danger to society at large, unless they get behind the wheel of a car, or operate heavy machinery. Or get into a gunfight over a drug deal gone bad. However, as an aside– there ought to be NO inherent unfairness in imposing very harsh penalties on possessors of firearms that were acquired ILLEGALLY. Applying the “broken windows theory” of crime to such possessors would likely prevent countless violent crimes.

For, the kinds of people who get hold of guns when they shouldn’t, are the kinds who use them in not-so-nice ways. So it would seem that they would be much more dangerous to society at large, than addicts.

In recent decades, there has been a media trend to report on human interest stories of mass-shooting victims so as to not glorify the shooters. But the news cycle on them ends, and celebrity non-stories, hysterically reported, grab the headlines again.

There’s no follow-up– NO reporting of punishment, if any, for the shooters subsequent to their pleas or trials, if they weren’t killed at the scene of the crime. Perhaps if the media showed (with harsher, new laws) the serious punishments resulting from the shooters’ actions again and again, there would be less tolerance in society for illegal firearms. This might be a start.

Anyway, read the book to learn the details of Levine’s life.

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.

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.