The Truths We Hold

The Book of the Week is “The Truths We Hold, An American Journey” by Kamala Harris, published in 2019. This autobiography comes from yet another female in politics who deserves bragging rights. Her passion for justice and common-sense, early-intervention approaches to helping at-risk populations has made a difference in countless lives.

Born in Oakland, California in 1964, the author considers herself “black” although her father was from Jamaica and her mother, from India. Her parents divorced when she was five. She, her mother and younger sister moved to Montreal when she was twelve.

Harris acquired the power to put someone behind bars simply by signing a document, when she became a prosecutor in Berkeley, California. Upon getting elected district attorney in San Francisco, she co-founded a program– Back On Track– that helped first-time law-breakers escape the poverty cycle by helping themselves through: job training, community service, classes that taught GED tutoring and parenting and money management, and drug testing and counseling.

For the first two years of Back On Track’s existence, the recidivism rate among first offenders dropped from 50% to 10%. That turned out to be far less expensive than prosecuting and jailing or imprisoning such people. The program was duplicated in Los Angeles.

In 2010, at a little after 10PM on election night, the San Francisco Chronicle announced the alleged elected attorney-general of California. As is well known, though, newspapers are hugely influential and wrong all the time. But election coverage especially, is emotionally charged. At 11PM, Harris’s opponent, thinking he was the winner, gave an acceptance speech. Weeks later, Harris won the race.

Harris’s was the first state to implement the mandatory use of body cameras for its law enforcement agents. On a different issue, the attorneys general of all fifty states were involved in settlement talks for the subprime mortgage crisis. The big banks were offering literally– a little bit of compensation proportional to the disastrous losses of the residents of respective states, who were behind on their mortgages. Even reasonable reimbursement would not make anyone whole again because bad loans led to adverse subsequent events: joblessness, homelessness, relocations, major life disruptions, suicides.

California had had the highest number of foreclosures of any state (and various victims– not just homeowners– had red ink in the hundreds of millions of dollars in the aggregate). By rejecting the banks’ initial, insulting offer– Harris infuriated both the banks, and most other states’ negotiators. But she inspired grass-roots organizers of homeowners, activists and advocacy groups to push for “…justice for millions of people who needed and deserved help.”

Read the book to learn about: the exciting conclusion of California’s mortgage negotiations saga; Harris’ opinions and actual professional doings in connection with major modern social issues such as immigration and healthcare, and her mother’s cancer care– along with other personal information.

ENDNOTE: Unfortunately, Harris’ running mate, Joe Biden, appears to be less sharp than she is at this time. Here’s a parody that briefly describes his woes:

LAWYERS, LAWYERS AND LAWYERS

sung to the tune of “Lawyers, Guns and Money” with apologies to the Estate of Warren Zevon.

I served some global patrons

the way I always do.

How was I to know, they were with the Russians, too?

I was caught on video bragging.

I hope you take my case.

Send lawyers, lawyers and lawyers.

I’m trying to save some face. Hah!

I’m an innocent candidate,

but somehow I got caught.

Now I’ve been betrayed

by those who have been bought.

Yes, those who have been bought.

Well, those who have been bought.

Now I’m hiding in my basement.

I hope to stay in the race.

Send lawyers, lawyers and lawyers.

Save me from disgrace.

Send lawyers, lawyers and lawyers.

Send lawyers, lawyers and lawyers.

Send lawyers, lawyers and lawyers. Hah!

Send lawyers, lawyers and lawyers. Ow!

Close Encounters

“… the network executives he would be contacting were apt to regard him as a headline-seeking troublemaker who could not be trusted to behave with dignity and discretion.”

The above was written about Mike Wallace in the early 1960’s.

The Book of the Week is “Close Encounters, Mike Wallace’s Own Story” by Mike Wallace & Gary Paul Gates, published in 1984.

Born in 1918, Wallace grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. As have countless others on the idiot box before and since, he made a career of sitting in judgment of others, so of course, it was impossible for him not to be a hypocrite. Like the folks whom he caught behaving dishonestly, he and his employer-broadcasters had their share of legal kerfuffles.

In spring 1957, Wallace hosted a hard-hitting live TV-interview show called “The Mike Wallace Interview” on ABC. Organized-crime figure Mickey Cohen– a guest on the show– slandered the then-chief of police of Los Angeles, saying he was corrupt. The chief sued ABC. As a result, during the show’s airing, the court required that an attorney hold up cue cards indicating when Wallace’s questions were becoming too controversial. Wallace commented, “Like a baby with its bib and a dog with its leash, I was judged to be in need of a legal teleprompter.”

At the end of 1957, as a result of one of Wallace’s countless minor TV-journalism scandals– involving the Kennedy family– the funding source of his show changed to the Ford Foundation. The show got a new name, “Survival and Freedom” and a more educational format. Unsurprisingly, it became boring.

In the autumn of 1962, Wallace decided to give up lucrative jobs: a) hosting entertainment-oriented radio and TV broadcasts that reported on trivial slice-of-life minutiae, b) hosting game shows, and c) acting in cigarette ads; in order to narrowly focus on serious TV journalism.

Wallace spent two months in Vietnam in spring 1967. He and a colleague ended up broadcasting a “60 Minutes” story in 1972 that was radically different from the one everyone else was narrating. Wallace said, “I responded by telling him [the colleague] what I thought of ‘knee-jerk, bleeding heart liberals’ who allow themselves to be taken in by a trendy media blitz.” With an open mind, they followed where the evidence led in connection with over-decorated Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert.

Another aspect of serious TV journalism that Wallace claimed to espouse, in addition to doing the hard work of collecting evidence through best-efforts / due diligence research, was primary sources: “… an eyewitness account– ‘I was there, and here’s what happened’– is more reliable than a version that has gone through two hundred years of rewrites.”

Wallace’s method of doing said research involved a “Candid Camera” type set-up, a prelude to the hidden-camera reality shows of the early 2000’s. But– his major goal was to catch people committing crimes, rather than evoke laughter at their naivety.

The situation had to be a “national disgrace” to air on “60 Minutes.” One segment in early 1976 showed how easy it was for residents of the state of Maryland, to obtain false identity documents in order to commit financial crimes.

Other stories broadcast up until the book’s writing involved Medicaid kickbacks, corruption in health-, building-, and fire-department inspections, tax evasion in cash-oriented businesses, a shady California health resort, a California diploma mill, and an anti-poverty program in Los Angeles. Also, an entrepreneur offered classes to teach business executives how to answer questions asked by the likes of Mike Wallace.

Read the book to learn plenty of additional details on all of the above.

Cooking With Grease

The Book of the Week is “Cooking With Grease, Stirring the Pots in American Politics” by Donna Brazile, published in 2004.

The author, like any female (Barbara Boxer was another one) who has achieved prolonged success in politics while almost never compromising her principles, deserves bragging rights. On top of that, as is well known, the African American Brazile suffered additional infinite indignities due to her skin color. She recounted many of them in this book.

Born in December 1959 in New Orleans, Brazile was the third oldest of nine children. She grew up in Kenner, a neighboring small city. From there, one had to take the scenic route on more than one public bus in order to get to New Orleans.

Brazile was a bossy, precocious, entrepreneurial tomboy at an early age, but was frequently physically punished for wrongdoing as well as for ideological disagreements with her mother or grandmother. After the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in spring 1968, she attended a Baptist church service at which blacks still sat in the back pews. So Brazile’s political awakening and education started when she was eight years old.

By 1970, she was assisting a woman in her neighborhood with a voter-registration drive with respect to elections for mayor and city council. A few area residents were afraid to vote for fear of retaliatory violence. In August 1971, the author was forced to attend an integrated school in the next town over. She wrote, “Busing was one of the worst public policy decisions ever made.”

On her first day at school there in Metairie, white parents of the local students threw eggs and tomatoes at her and other blacks, and cursed them out. The school principal saw Brazile as a peacemaker and cut her some slack in small increments in order to make the best of a bad situation. She organized protests, and rebelled in various ways, such as refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

In 1984, Brazile worked seven days a week, upwards of eighteen hours a day for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. In 1988, when she worked for presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, she was forced to enlist the help of a white friend to rent an apartment in Boston.

Brazile felt that her bosses were giving insufficient attention to racial issues and thus losing the black vote. Of course, the opposing candidate would smear them if they did address taxes, crime, welfare and affirmative action. The tension was too much for her, and her mouth got her into trouble. She took heart later in her career, as “To his credit, Bill Clinton surrounded himself with African Americans, and we were always strategizing.”

George W. Bush’s presidential run started way before 2000. His camp spread lies and smears early and often. In fall 1999, when Brazile was asked to make Al Gore’s presidential campaign leaner and meaner, she used all the brains she had, and all the brains she could borrow. However, there were lots of problems. When speaking to her– unlike when it spoke to anyone else– the media focused on her skin color. By June 2000, Gore’s side felt the author had become disposable because African Americans’ votes, which the author had garnered, were pretty much assured.

The Gore team was largely comprised of highly compensated consultants who believed the conventional wisdom that spending the bulk of their limited budget on airing attack-ads just before election day was the way to go. Brazile contended that personally visiting fickle voters in swing states would be more effective.

On election day, the Bush camp pulled all sorts of dirty tricks to minimize the votes for Gore; mostly in Florida:

  • Absentee ballots were deemed disqualified because signatures weren’t “certified” even though they didn’t need be certified;
  • Ballots in the Creole language weren’t available to voters;
  • Voters were told they needed two or three (!) government-issued forms of ID in order to vote (but it’s very difficult for poor people get a driver’s license or passport, let alone both);
  • In Chicago, police targeted cab drivers for violations when the cabs were taking poor passengers to voting sites;
  • In Tallahassee, law enforcement wouldn’t let people enter a voting site;
  • Some polling places claimed to be out of ballots or claimed it was too late to vote when voters arrived shortly before the places closed;
  • Some voting venues held criminal background checks of voters, and deemed those voters supposedly ineligible to vote; and
  • of course, it was discovered that some ballots were thrown away.

Read the book to learn about a slew of triumphs, and other trials and tribulations Brazile experienced up until the book’s writing, and the kind of cuisine she and her family enjoy.

Pepper

The Book of the Week is “Pepper, Eyewitness to a Century” by Claude Denson Pepper With Hays Gorey, published in 1987.

Pepper, the oldest of four children, was born in September 1900 in rural Alabama to a Baptist, farming family. In 1928, he ran for the office of Florida state representative. He got permission from a competing candidate in his own Democratic party to be listed as a second choice on the ballot, and got elected.

In 1933, hankering for higher office, Pepper traveled around Florida, generating support for his party. The Kiwanis club paid half of his expenses in exchange for his urging its chapters to participate in the state convention to be held in Tallahassee. In those days, while campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat, he was also allowed to drive around the state’s public places, announcing through bullhorns attached to the car, the times and places of his speaking engagements. His opponent– an old and tired incumbent, paid the poll tax of Italian and Spanish voters who lived in West Tampa and Ibo City. The incumbent won the election through that action and other forms of foul play.

Pepper was elected to the Senate in 1936. He bragged about how he played a key role in introducing the March 1941 “Lend-Lease” legislation that provided crucial assistance to England and the U.S.S.R. during WWII, and how his national-healthcare-proposal gave rise to funding for hospital construction and cancer research. However, voters in Florida’s northern counties that bordered Georgia were less than thrilled with his pro-civil-rights stance.

In autumn 1945, seeking to gain foreign-policy experience (because in the future he hoped to become chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) Pepper met with high-level leaders in nineteen different countries; among them Stalin, Leon Blum and leaders in soon-to-be Soviet satellites. In 1946 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the author attended a rally for vice-president Henry Wallace. Press photos were snapped of him, standing next to Paul Robeson.

The author was complacent about his 1950 Senate reelection bid, because in southern states, incumbents were traditionally returned to office as long as they avoided getting caught for financial crimes or having extramarital affairs. Unfortunately, he was gobsmacked by his political opponents’ smear campaign. A week before primary election day in May 1950, Pepper’s opponent– George Smathers– stabbed him in the back. Years before, Pepper had helped Smathers get his first job in politics.

The Smathers camp distributed a book compiled by hate-mongers and funded by the long-time vicious political operative, Ed Ball. That book contained photos of enemies of the southern Republicans, with whom Pepper had been associating; of diverse ethnicities and political views. The captions– taken out of context, of course– screamed that Pepper was a treasonous “nigger lover” and “Communist” who was going to reveal nuclear secrets and hand over America’s natural resources to the Soviets.

Pepper was blissfully unaware of this abomination until two days before voting day. Even after all that, Pepper still claimed that a democracy necessitated the allowance of all forms of free speech, including childish, negative utterances consisting of “… name-calling, questioning of motives, or assassination of character.”

General criticism against Pepper’s party included blaming FDR and Truman for meekly allowing the Soviets to march into Eastern Europe. One counter-argument to that, was that the United Stated had just been through an exhausting war, and wasn’t all that keen on launching the requisite World War Three that would stop the Soviets from committing further aggression.

Fast forward to the early 1980’s. Pepper was serving as a Democratic Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. His introduction of a bill was thwarted by the Chair of the Rules Committee. That outrageously powerful Chair could refuse to hold a meeting so that he could stop the passage of a law he didn’t like, even if it had the support of “…the president, leadership of the House, and a majority of the Committee.”

Read the book to learn: about a myriad of other ways American politics have hardly changed in at least the last seventy years; what Pepper did as head of the House Select Committee on Crime in the early 1970’s; how he made his political comeback, and much more about his life and times.

Wikinomics / Courting Justice – BONUS POST

The First Bonus Book of the Week is “Wikinomics, How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything” by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, published in 2006.

This book’s authors slapped together a huge number of cliched, vast generalizations in pushing their overly idealistic scenarios of the future. They had high hopes for the open-source movement. Unfortunately, since the book’s writing, most of the open-source projects they mentioned have tapered off, because in the long run, few people can or would want to provide “sweat equity” without ever receiving any equity.

Nevertheless, cooperation and globalization– two other movements for which the authors had great enthusiasm– are still alive, well and prospering. It is debatable, however, how long these two can be implemented before their socialistic aspects reach critical mass, and fail.

The authors mentioned that crowdsourcing of strangers (competitors) who are offered a reward for submitting the best innovative solution for a specific problem- has been very successful. But once the problem has been solved, a corporate entity needs loyal employees to continue to implement the solution.

The authors also contended that cooperation among companies reminiscent of the way the Japanese conduct business, has also been successful. However, long-term, the Japanese way leads to groupthink and herd mentality– lack of new ideas and competition; an oligopoly or monopoly. Free-market economics– competition– forces a company to acknowledge its weaknesses and threats against it, of which it might not even be aware. This is why capitalist economics for most goods and services is the way to go– there is balance between cooperation and competition that allows workers to best fulfill their potential for their employer and themselves.

It might be recalled that pure socialism thrived for a short time when the State of Israel was born. That was an extremely special exception, for the following major reasons; the Kibbutzniks:

  • were forced to work together in order to survive in the desert, geographically surrounded by enemies;
  • were like-minded– oppressed for their religion– seeking a safe place in the world;
  • had a common goal bigger than themselves– building a country for themselves from the ground up– creating the political, social and cultural systems and infrastructure when everything was simple and their population was low;
  • had in common the shared, traumatic experience of WWII and/or the Holocaust; and
  • had substantial financial and military help from the United States.

In the United States, since the Depression Era, there has been heated political debate over how much socialism is too much. To be sure, specific socialistic entities have greatly enhanced the quality of life for Americans for decades: public libraries, the G.I. Bill, Social Security and Medicare.

Capitalistic free markets have also done the same, but when the gap between rich and poor people in a nation becomes too wide because the rich exploit vehicles to wealth through unethical political means, there occurs too much resentment among the poor.

Along these lines, the Second Bonus Book of Week, “Courting Justice, From New York Yankees v. Major League Baseball to Bush v. Gore, 1997-2000” by David Boies, published in 2004, described a few cases of how the author legally fought for underdogs (which were suing super-rich, politically entrenched entities). In antitrust and price-fixing cases, consumers have always been wronged– overcharged– and they are never fully compensated, even when the court rules against the offenders.

Born in 1941, the author (later) attended Northwestern law school in Illinois. He got a scholarship that paid his tuition, books and rent. He wrote, “I also discovered that I could borrow several thousand dollars from the government at no interest, which I did.”

Beginning in 1997, on behalf of the U.S. government, the author litigated an antitrust case against monopolist Microsoft. He helped win the portion of the case he worked on. Unfortunately, he was forced to withdraw from the case due to a conflict of interest. His role in the whole affair was meta-relevant– he represented Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election court fight. The pro-business bent of George W. Bush with his new antitrust department personnel (unethically, at best) changed the course of the Microsoft case.

The author asserted that, “The enforcement of our nation’s laws is supposed to be free from political influence, particularly when a case is ongoing [as was Microsoft’s]… [and in Gore’s case:] The rule of law means, first, that what a court (or other decision-maker) will do must be reasonably predictable, and second, that what a court does must be independent of the identity of the parties. The majority opinion [of the U.S. Supreme Court] failed both tests.”

Read the book to learn the details, as well as several other cases personally litigated by the author.

Morphine, Ice Cream, and Tears. (sic) / Chasing My Cure – BONUS POST

The First Bonus Book of the Week is “Morphine, Ice Cream and Tears. (sic) Tales of a City Hospital” by Joseph Sacco, M.D., published in 1989.

The cynical author did his medical internship and residency in New York City in the early 1980’s. He discussed emotional, financial and ethical issues that doctors-in-training encountered in his generation, illustrating his points with real-life cases.

Healthcare workers, not just medical doctors, must of course not only physically, but emotionally contend with the unpleasant sights and smells of a patient’s body fluids. Such fluids frequently end up on their person, unless they choose a specialty that is not so messy. The author remarked that, therefore, a huge number of medical-school students in their third year realize that they would feel most comfortable specializing in radiology. That partly accounts for why nuclear medicine has become so wildly popular in recent decades.

One medical-industry financial issue that has remained largely the same for the last forty years, has been the profit motive. Thus, emergency rooms are still overstaffed with specialists who overtreat patients to maximize profits for themselves and/or their employers, while drug-addicted patients are also selfish: “This patient was too stupid for conscious manipulation but had succeeded to (sic) engage the attention of doctors, nurses, the EMS, the police, his family, and probably a number of others, as well as to spend a good six figures of public money in his care.”

Healthcare is fraught with ethical issues. One is the completion of the death certificate. The author, as an intern, was tasked with such lowly paperwork. He got scolded for improperly filling in the correct words or phrases (there was a list of them) that constituted “acceptable” causes of death. Overworked and sleep-deprived, most interns sought peace more than accuracy, so the primary or secondary cause of death became “cardiopulmonary arrest” repeatedly. This systemic quirk probably put a wrench in death statistics in the United States. Perhaps it has even been manipulated for political purposes. Enough said about that.

During his residency, the author treated female teenage patients for minor ailments. Because he saw so many who were pregnant, of his own volition, he took the opportunity to counsel them about birth control. He felt that the pill was their best option. He “… sent her off with two free packets and a prescription for several months more. Most incredibly, some patients even decided to use them .”

Read the book to learn of the author’s trials and tribulations, and of other ways times have changed for aspiring medical doctors in America.

The second Bonus Book of the Week is “Chasing My Cure, A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action, A Memoir” by David Fajgenbaum, published in 2019.

The author’s ordeal began in 2010, when he was halfway through medical school. He suffered from a mysterious illness for weeks, with multiple-organ failure, and misguided, incorrect diagnoses of lymphoma, or an infectious or rheumatologic disease. It turned out he had a rare disease whose origins were auto-immune or cancerous.

Later on, through his own actions, he determined the correct categorization. He connected the dots on many fronts, mentioning two traits peculiar to him: when he was a student, his consumption of energy drinks was excessive, and he had inherited a tendency to have an excessive number of blood vessels in various body parts, compared to other people. The former environmental factor, and the latter genetic factor, when they came together, could have played a role in his responding poorly to treatment, and his having to be bombarded with an extremely powerful chemotherapy cocktail approximately every one to two years.

The above are the kinds of factors scientists take into account when attempting to explain why certain patients do better than others with different treatment options. When patients who have a fatal disease are out of options, they aren’t usually as lucky, insightful and resource-rich as Fajgenbaum was. But even he had to overcome numerous obstacles and nearly died on several occasions.

When he initially tried to do research on his fatal ailment, the author was frustrated by scant, old, inaccurate knowledge on it and scattered sources. He likened the medical community’s situation to that of law enforcement prior to 9/11: “..no one talked to one another, no prime database existed, there was no expectation of coordination or data sharing.” Competition for federal funding meant that resources dedicated to all different kinds of medical research varied widely– a matter of money and politics. Even so, this wasn’t due to malicious intent, but merely honest ineptitude– one would hope. Nevertheless, there was a lot of wasted talent, and a lot of misallocated resources (not to mention, unnecessary deaths!).

The above provided an argument for why the author decided to earn an MBA (he had already completed a medical master’s degree) right after graduating medical school, instead of beginning his residency. Acquiring money-oriented, management and leadership knowledge and experience would be more important than practicing medicine. It would allow him to create a medical-research group that he hoped would find a cure for his disease before he died.

Read the book to learn: how the author broke tradition in thinking about the cause of his illness; how that led to his helping to pioneer a medical-treatment trend that will endure in the future; how his actions have led to sooner diagnoses and saved lives (hint– he marshaled resources to consolidate knowledge, and his team found that “… it’s much more efficient to go directly to patients for [blood] samples, just like we do for patient data in the registry study.”); and to learn about other aspects of healthcare in the United States.

ENDNOTE: The above state of affairs provides yet another argument in favor of a national healthcare system for the United States. Free-market economics is fine for business, but healthcare is super-complicated because it also involves matters of life and death. For more information, see the posts: “full circle” (sic)–eleventh paragraph from the top, and “Here at the New Yorker“– fourth paragraph from the bottom, onward. The best healthcare delivery requires the right balance between cooperation and competition among specific parties. This is why training for both war and healthcare delivery utilizes divestiture socialization. Healthcare delivery works best when there is cooperation within a team and among teams, and disease is the enemy. A capitalistic approach to healthcare necessitates an unhealthy level of competition, as Fajgenbaum learned.

Inside the Five-Sided Box / With All Due Respect

The first Book of the Week is “Inside the Five-Sided Box, Lessons From A Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon” by Ash Carter, published in 2019.

Beginning his career as a physicist, Carter served in various capacities in presidential administrations starting with Ronald Reagan’s. He served as U.S. Secretary of Defense in 2015 and 2016. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, even if other people disagreed with him. Of course, as a scientist, he gathered data and then provided evidence to back up what he was talking about.

Such was the case when he said, “So for both technological and systemic reasons, the [‘Start Wars’– er, uh,] ‘Star Wars’ missile defense scheme was pure fantasy.” Members of Reagan’s inner circle (power-hungry political hacks angry at anyone who criticized the president’s agenda) told the media to trash Carter, and they did.

The year 1993 saw Carter supervise the disarmament of the former Soviet Union and its satellites. All the parts, equipment and materials that went into making nuclear weapons had to be secured, lest they be sold on the black market to terrorists.

Carter described president Barack Obama as an organized, concise, decisive, clear communicator who ended meetings with a call to action, unlike Susan Rice. The president didn’t say one thing and do another. Carter bragged about revamping the topsy-turvy compensation system in the Joint Strike Fighter Program, and how he implemented improvements in military equipment and logistics that reduced casualties during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Carter commented that unsurprisingly, Congress members use semantic tricks in order to dishonestly brag to their constituents that they passed a law that funds a specific initiative. In reality, the money is actually going nowhere, and nothing is ever going to get done on whatever it is. He barely scratched the surface on why American foreign policy is so inconsistent, underhanded, politically fraught: “The Saudi leaders ply U.S. politicians, journalists and think tanks with abundant cash.”

Yet, he also made a few ridiculously naive statements, including: “… Practically all these institutions are government dominated; few Chinese institutions are truly independent, as U.S. think tanks and universities are.”

Read the book to learn: the details of why, beginning in 2015, fighting ISIS was so difficult (hint– it would be like Vietnam all over again), the details of relevant planning operations in 2016, what eventually happened, and who falsely took credit for it; Carter’s take on Russian interference in America’s presidential election in 2016; various other of Carter’s career highlights, and a few of his views on now-president Donald Trump.

The second Book of the Week is “With All Due Respect, Defending America With Grit and Grace” by Nikki R. Haley, published in 2019. This volume was a combination memoir / history textbook / Obama-bashing self-bragfest. At times, the book read like a few strung-together episodes of a pundit’s TV show, what with the omission of inconvenient facts. The brief historical backgrounds on the places she visited, were too brief.

Haley served as governor of South Carolina for about six years prior to becoming the United Nations ambassador for the first two years of president Donald Trump’s administration. Working for the president, Haley had an infuriating, depressing, thankless job; nevertheless, she insisted it was fulfilling for her.

In January 2016, she was tapped to provide commentary on president Obama’s State of the Union address, for the media. Her public relations people gauged viewer reactions to her commentary via public comments on TV and Twitter. Another indicator of the tenor of the times occurred in September 2017 when president Trump tweeted, “I tweeted this morning, and it’s killing on Twitter” in reference to having called North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man.”

Haley helped negotiate the imposing of three sets of increasingly harsh economic sanctions on North Korea with China’s help (even though it is in China’s best interests to keep Kim Jong Un in power) in order to get Kim to stop testing nuclear weapons. No matter. Brutal dictators rarely change their spots; more of their citizens suffer, rather than their weapons programs. North Korea has continued testing to this day. It is naive to think that people such as Kim Jong Un can be shamed into better behavior.

Also in connection with North Korea, Haley was tasked with securing the release of 21-year old American Otto Warmbier. He was tortured and taken hostage. It was a bad editorial decision for her to mention him at all in her book. For, she never did explain a burning question: Why was Warmbier in North Korea in the first place? The U.S. State Department presumably had a travel ban to North Korea. Haley did, however, take credit for securing his release, even though he died shortly thereafter.

In addition, Haley showed that she let her detractors psychologically control her, as she spent several paragraphs discussing smears against her. The president never appeared to be bothered by what other people thought of him; even when his provocative tweets got him in trouble.

Haley spoke her mind, even to the president. He behaved in a way that showed lack of leadership. Whenever high-level staff members disagreed on a specific action to take on a major issue, Haley wrote, “Once again, the president told us to resolve our differences and come back and see him.” Whoever had his ear at the right moment, got their way.

As ambassador, Haley encountered two megalomaniacs: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. They thought they alone could save the United States by being able to do what they thought best. No one should get in their way. Not even the president. They thought they were always right.

Anyway, often, Haley tried to salvage other hopeless situations, too. “It takes a lot to move the UN Security Council to action. Even after this gruesome report on all the violence that followed yet another meaningless cease-fire, some on the council still argued that a weapons embargo would hurt the ‘peace process.’ ” This describes most any Third-World nation. Haley thought her job was to get Americans to care about oppressed peoples. She visited some of them, such as those in South Sudan. She got asked a lot, why should Americans care?

The cynical answer is that South Sudan is a backup source of oil for the United States– which has invested billions of dollars in it already. The hopeful answer is that a rising tide lifts all boats and what comes around goes around — any generosity toward human beings (even downtrodden ones) anywhere in the world helps improve the world, it reduces the suckiness in the world, if only just a little. Although the problems of Third-World countries might seem overwhelming, the few individuals (who win the international aid / sympathetic journalist lottery) have limitless appreciation for appropriate assistance.

Haley sat on the UN Security Council, which was concerned with only “peace and security” of nations, not with human rights abuses. Another UN division, the Human Rights Council (HRC), handled the latter; hypocritically and corruptly, after a while. That is why she helped the United States withdraw from HRC in summer 2018. Some of its remaining member-nations were run by brutal dictators. It had become a joke– like the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in recent decades.

Read the book to learn of Haley’s opinions on economics and immigration (which she should have covered in whole other books); mind-boggling evil she heard about from peoples she personally visited in Palestinian refugee camps, Iran, Congo, South Sudan and elsewhere, and other traumatic events in her career (for more information on brutal dictators, see the post, “Ian Fleming – BONUS POST” and scroll down to the spreadsheet; for more background on the aforementioned countries, type in their names in the search bar of this blog).

Sovietstan / Kabul Beauty School

(WARNING: Long Post)

The First Book of the Week is Sovietstan, Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Taijikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan” by Erika Fatland, (translated by Kari Dickson), published in 2020.

In the past decade, the author personally visited countries whose names end in “stan” except for Afghanistan. Those Central Asian nations became, more or less, independent from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990’s.

The author accepted hospitality from numerous people in the region, and related the historical backdrops of the respective lands. She spoke with several people who thought life was better under the old Soviet system, because they had had education, healthcare and culture then. Americans would consider the said countries to be dictatorships, although the author courteously called their leaders “presidents.”

Turkmenistan has oil and gas, the latter of which it exports to China. Its geography is comprised of more than eighty percent desert. Its political system is authoritarian.

Claiming she was a “student” (but was actually a tourist collecting information to write her book) in order to obtain a visa that was issued to very few applicants to begin with, the author was supervised every second of her stay; limited to a maximum of three weeks.

The author saw only a few Mercedes (and hardly any other cars) on the eight-lane main roads in the capital, Ashgabat. The bus shelters were air-conditioned. Most of the buildings were made of white marble.

There were a luxury Ferris wheel, and bright, colorfully lit fountains at night. However, there were only three ATMs in the whole nation that accepted foreign bank cards. Seven days a week, cops surveiled people on the streets to enforce the 11pm curfew.

Photos of the “president” hung everywhere in public places. Starting in 1992, he provided free utilities and car fuel for everyone. In 1999, he declared himself the nation’s ruler for the rest of his life. He wrote a book called Ruhnama, meaning Book of the Soul. No one questioned its greatness. Or else. It became the only reading material in schools. No more science or humanities were taught.

In the course of about four years, the dictator rid his people of Soviet culture, and banned dogs and recorded music. The health and welfare systems went to hell. Although no one paid taxes, more than half of the people were unemployed. That explained the almost empty roads the author saw in the capital city. Mercifully, the dictator died in late 2006.

Another ruler replaced him who forced the people to read his books. The author visited a rural farming village where the people herded camels and goats. They spoke only Turkmen, not Russian.

When the author and a cab driver were in the desert where no one else was present for miles around, she asked him why people had only the highest praise for their leader — worshipped him like a god and would never dare say a negative word about him.

The driver criticized himself for not working hard enough. He said, “Each one of us has a responsibility to play our part and to help our country develop.” The author wrote that he was born into the system– had never known any other mentality. This aspect of authoritarianism that the author witnessed bears a chilling resemblance to a recent line of propaganda in the United States (!): “We’re all in this together.” Who paid people to say that??

The author was forced to attend a horse show, and the next day, horse races. Attendance was mandatory for the nation’s every town, all of which had hippodromes. The dictator was a jockey in one race, but he accidentally fell after his horse crossed the finish line first, of course. Security compelled all attendees to delete any presidential-mishap footage from their cameras. The next day, a bootleg clip of the embarrassment surfaced on YouTube, anyway.

Predictably, very few citizens of Turkmenistan could afford to stay in the skyscrapers in the resort town of Turkmenbashi. The ones who could afford to go anywhere, holidayed on Turkey’s beaches instead because the former offered “Soviet-style service, bad food and no Internet.” Moreover, Turkmenistan’s dictator owned and controlled nearly all of their homeland’s hotels, restaurants and shops.

Kazakhstan— the most resource-rich nation in Central Asia– is flush with oil, gas, minerals, gold, coal and uranium; the first of which it extracts through Russian pipelines.

The author was pleased to see that the country had an open, Westernized society. It purchases most of its consumer goods from China. People spend their leisure time horse-racing and playing a game mounted on horses, batting around a goat carcass. They eat horse meat and drink soured mare’s milk regularly.

The author was able to travel around unaccompanied by a chaperone. Even so, at the entrance to the capital city of Astana, all buses’ passengers had their identity papers and baggage checked by security, while she and her cab driver weren’t subjected to what Americans would consider undue privacy intrusion.

As an aside, the privacy pendulum has finally swung the other way for political candidates in the United States. In the last several decades, in every election, every candidate’s political enemies have subjected candidates to increasingly punitive fishing-expeditions (It might be recalled that vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and her husband were mercilessly put through the wringer in 1984).

Supposedly, a candidate’s history of financial dealings are an indicator of a candidate’s character. BUT, it is not necessarily an indicator of how well a candidate will do his or her job in the elective office.

Case in point: President Jimmy Carter’s tax returns were presumably squeaky-clean– as was his character— but there is general consensus that he did a poor job as president. That just shows that the real purpose of the privacy intrusion has been political vengeance!

There are plenty of ways other than scrutinizing personal financial behavior, to try to ascertain whether a candidate will be the public servant the voters want them to be.

Anyway, by the early 1950’s, high incidences of birth defects, mental illness, high blood pressure, and a cancer cluster plagued the region of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, thanks to secret testing of weapons of mass destruction by the Soviets beginning in 1949. The author learned this by personally visiting with the victims and their descendants, only the poorest of whom were still living there.

Tajikistan is resource-poor and has primitive infrastructure. Its geography is comprised of more than ninety percent mountains. In autumn 1991, the Communist party candidate won the election for president. He became increasingly unpopular. For, between June 1992 and March 1993, the nation suffered a bloody civil war, in which tens of thousands died. During the fighting, “Having regained power in parts of the country, the Rahmon [Nabiyev] government chose revenge rather than reconciliation, in keeping with old clan culture.”

Tajikistan’s fourth largest town lacks full-time electricity and heat, and has no indoor plumbing. Most of the people who live there are alcoholics. The vast majority of its people are Sunni Muslims. The men go to Russia to earn money to send back to their families. Some divorce their wives and never return home. But such income accounts for about half of the nation’s gross domestic product.

The author’s cab driver bribed three different border guards to minimize trouble when she traveled from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan. In the latter country, it was refreshing for her to see an absence of the dictator’s portraits everywhere, and to hear people speaking freely, both verbally and in the press, even negatively (!) about their government, with no punishment whatsoever.

Kyrgyzstan is, comparatively, the freest nation in Central Asia– the first to have a Parliament. Nonetheless, people tolerate corruption and nepotism from their leaders to avoid repeating the two difficult, past periods of political instability they suffered in the past three decades. They’ll vote for the same criminals over and over– which shows how much they want peace at all costs.

Also, at the time of the book’s writing, they lived in a culture in which any man could take a bride (even a Russian one) by abducting her, and she could not protest. He could even take more than one wife. In most cases the bride was likely headed for a life of marriage and children anyway, as she was unlikely to have an education, her own money, or somewhere to flee. Most families encouraged the practice.

Uzbekistan is one of the most oppressive States in Central Asia. The author wrote, “With great cunning, Karimov has used the fear of ethnic violence, Islamist fundamentalism and unstable neighbors as an excuse to rule with an iron fist.” The government’s imposed collectivist Soviet model of cotton growing was an epic economic fail. The author was subjected to unrelenting public scrutiny via police officers and video cameras everywhere she went.

Read the book to learn of numerous other adventures the author had in the aforementioned countries of Central Asia.

The Second Book of the Week is “Kabul Beauty School, An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil” by Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin Ohlson, published 2007.

This career memoir described the author’s early-21st century experiences in Afghanistan, teaching young women how to become beauticians. She wrote, “I love the Afghans, but their true national sport is gossip.”

The American author moved to Afghanistan in May 2002. Her mother owned a hair salon in Holland in the state of Michigan, so she had grown up immersed in that business’s culture. When she volunteered with an international aid organization to get away from her second husband, who was abusive, she realized her calling.

Also, the author wanted to help Afghan females, in one of the few environments that was strictly for them, where they could escape from the daily oppression they suffered, stemming from their culture and from their country’s war-torn situation.

The people of Afghanistan are descended from all different rivalrous tribes. Afghan females are treated as second-class citizens, especially if they are Muslims. They are still forced into arranged marriages. A prospective groom’s mother chooses a first wife for her own son. The men are allowed to take on additional wives if they so choose.

The later wives are those whose reputations have been ruined for one reason or another; some through no fault of their own. If they are not virgins when they are first chosen to be wives, say, due to having been raped, they are damaged goods, and might have an unusually horrible prospect pushed on them– one who is decades older, more abusive than usual, or poverty stricken.

The author’s Afghan friends planned to set up a husband for her. She had two previous failed marriages. The man they chose seemed nice and wealthy enough. He had an oil-drilling business in Saudi Arabia. By the way, the friends were finally pressed to mention, though, that he already had a first wife and seven daughters back in Saudi Arabia. He was hoping the author could bear him a son. The author had already had two sons from her first marriage, living in the United States.

The author felt obliged to get married because any woman seen alone with any man, engaged or not, was assumed to be a prostitute.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details about Afghan culture, the hardships the author faced in furthering her career, and more about her life.