Fighting For Common Ground – BONUS POST

PLEASE READ THE POST BELOW THIS ONE, AS BUGGY SOFTWARE PUBLISHED IT OUT OF CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER.

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Fighting For Common Ground, How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress” by Olympia Snowe, published in 2013.

Born in Augusta, Maine in 1947, the author was of Greek extraction. In the mid-1970’s, when she ran as a Republican for the state Senate in Maine, she rode a bicycle around to personally knock on doors to get votes. In the mid-1980’s, the NIH was still (!) providing federal funds for medical research only on men. In 1987, the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health and the Environment acknowledged this abomination. Finally in 1993, the author and others pushed through legislation that created an office of the NIH that conducted research on women, that spurred additional research on women at other organizations.

The author wrote that in the early 2000’s, Karl Rove proposed an evil plan involving five issues, with the goal of keeping the Republicans in power indefinitely. In George W. Bush’s second term, the Republicans pushed for and got a federal education mandate, but the other four initiatives were never fully implemented (fortunately): a Christian agenda, privatization of Social Security and healthcare accounts, and some immigration reform.

The author spent a large portion of this book lamenting about how gridlocked Congress has become due to the hostility between America’s two major political parties. Republicans had traditionally believed in maintaining a balanced budget, but that went out the window with the uncontrolled deficit spending in the George W. Bush years.

In early August 2011, Congress members went on their summer recess, shirking a boatload of important business. As a result, America’s national debt rating was downgraded by Standard and Poor’s for the first time in history.

Read the book to learn about the author’s recommendations on how to change the Senate’s protocol and rules in order to improve its functioning, civility and ability to compromise to achieve consensus.

The Passion of Ayn Rand

The Book of the Week is “The Passion of Ayn Rand, A Biography” by Barbara Branden, published in 1986.

Born in St. Petersburg in February 1905, Ayn (rhymes with “mine”) Rand, whose father was a chemist, spent her early childhood in a cultured, Jewish family in Petrograd. After graduating from high school in the Crimea, when the family was poverty-stricken and starving due to the Bolshevik Revolution, Rand taught literacy to Red Army soldiers.

In the early 1920’s, the Russian government evilly schemed to allow “former bourgeoisie” such as Rand’s family to work in cooperatives until it felt sufficient assets were accumulated, at which time it stole those assets by force. Its attitude was: “… workers and peasants were extolled as the highest types of humanity, and intellectuals, unless they employed their intelligence in selfless service to the state, were denounced as parasitical.”

Rand was headstrong in her desire to flee to America and never return to Russia. She eventually got her wish in the mid-1920’s, thanks to her mother’s distant relatives in Chicago. After overcoming numerous obstacles, she lived with her Orthodox-Jewish relatives, and later, struck out on her own in Los Angeles. She was driven to become a writer and let nothing stand in her way.

Rand eventually wrote what became a very famous novel– Atlas Shrugged— whose theme was that if intellectuals are the ones “…who make civilization possible– Why have they never recognized their own power? Why have they never challenged their torturers and expropriators? … it is the victims, the men of virtue and ability, who make the triumph of evil possible by…” being too nice to their oppressors.

Rand thought that the American government, with its anti-trust stance, was persecuting industrialists. She thought the latter deserved to enjoy every last penny of the fruits of their labor because they were the economic engine of the nation.

In rebelling against her former country’s socialist economic system under its Communist political system, Rand thought workers were becoming too powerful, and she denounced them as parasitical. She dogmatically advocated an extreme version of “survival of the fittest” or Libertarianism.

However, when government becomes an accomplice to its donors’ activities that involve excessive greed, conflicts of interest and unfair economic advantages– society becomes economically unbalanced as wealth becomes too concentrated in a tiny percentage of the population; this situation foments class resentment. For additional information on this situation, see this blog’s posts:

  • Wikinomics / Courting Justice
  • What’s the Matter With Kansas
  • Street Without A Name
  • Sons of Wichita
  • Outsider in the White House
  • Crossing the River
  • Burned Bridge, and
  • Forty Autumns.

Whittaker Chambers wrote in his negative review of Atlas Shrugged, “Miss Rand calls in a Big Brother of her own… She plumps for a technocratic elite… And in reality too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship…”

Rand formulated the theory of Objectivism, whose purely capitalist-free-market-oriented, rational thinking completely rejected religion. Yet she never did explain– in her lucrative lectures to big-name, elitist, politically liberal (ironically!) American colleges, how that squared with her total rejection of godless Communism / Socialism.

Incidentally, the main character of the novel itself– whose cult of personality persuades intellectuals from all walks of life to go on strike– says, “Force and mind are opposites, morality ends where a gun begins… It is only in retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use.”

Along these lines, gun-control advocates in the United States have been too nice for too long. Except for short periods, whenever there’s been a proposal to:

  • curb the bearing of arms (not even all arms, just the most destructive ones–that are overkill for hunting or local law enforcement), or
  • enact stricter background checks on the granting of gun permits or licenses,

the opposition has repeatedly, through propaganda and money, convinced enough significantly powerful people that:

  • no stricter background checks should be done, and
  • no firearms should be banned pursuant to the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

Sources with more information include this blog’s posts:

  • A Good Fight
  • Undercover, and
  • Savage Spawn.

If America wants to return to “normal” (have pre-COVID gatherings of a large number of people in one place), it needs to put gun control at the top of the agenda.

Anyway, read the book to learn of Rand’s biographer’s relationship to Rand, a wealth of additional details on Rand and how she acquired her wealth, the romantic subplot in the soap opera of her life, and much more on her theories, writings and lectures.

Educated – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Educated, a Memoir” by Tara Westover, published in 2018.

This was an emotionally jarring autobiography of a female whose dysfunctional family members were the major influences in her life. Born in 1986 in rural Idaho, the author was the youngest of seven children. Her father– a fanatically religious Mormon– home-schooled his children, asserting that public school would brainwash them. The author’s mother taught her basic reading and math, but little else academically. Three of her older brothers rebelled, and left home as soon as they could. One of those– who had a thirst for knowledge– worked his way through college, and inspired the author to do so.

Morbid curiosity will keep the reader in suspense throughout this ghastly book that recounts a series of life-threatening injuries, traumatic and violent scenes of family strife, interspersed with anecdotes that spur the reader to cheer the author on during her journey toward self-awareness, healing and profound insights about her life and her family members. Read the book to learn all about it.

ENDNOTE: It took the above author a long, long time. Just as when someone has a lifelong dream, it isn’t usually achieved immediately. He or she is not going to change their mind about it. They’re going to pursue it relentlessly. In an ideal world, the one who prepares for it properly deserves to get it more than others. However, in the world of United States politics, an infinite number of factors complicate the process.

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!

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.

Bella Abzug – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Bella Abzug, An oral history (sic)” by Suzanne Braun Levin and Mary Thom, published in 2007. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Abzug was a pioneer in law and politics, not just due to her gender. Females in each of their respective times had to be tough as nails to be taken sufficiently seriously to wield influence to effect change.

In this day and age, the Web, TV and radio are dominant sources of voting-influence. However, it is difficult to measure how much influence specific individuals (pundits, politicians, celebrities, etc.) of those outlets, have on voters. When users, viewers or listeners merely acknowledge that they like a show or read the messages or posts of someone specific, it is likely they are seeking to confirm what they already believe– those “influencers” aren’t changing the audiences’ minds. Therefore, candidates must try to influence impressionable people who are voting for the first time who make up their minds ahead of time, and try to gauge how significant a sector, are voters who decide at the last minute.

The 2020 presidential election will likely have unprecedented last-minute surprises, so no one really knows how to fully prepare to influence the outcome of the election. Nevertheless, one unbiased open-ended survey question asked of high schoolers, college students, and last-minute voters– which might actually turn out to be all voters in 2020– could be, “What was the biggest influencer of your voting decision for or against a certain candidate– an individual, website, TV show, TV commercial or radio show? Name him, her or it, and specify the candidate, and whether for or against.”

Anyway, born in 1920 in New York City, Abzug graduated from Columbia University Law School during WWII. After the war, she applied for a job as an attorney at a law firm that practiced labor law. She said the firm (because they were sexist) “… would offer me money which was lower than the minimum wage paid the workers they were representing!” In those days, law firms didn’t hire attorneys who were female, let alone ones who were Jewish, as was Abzug.

Abzug intentionally avoided learning how to use a typewriter so bosses wouldn’t order her to do typing rather than practice law. In 1972, she was the first member of Congress to call for president Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

There was plenty of political violence during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Nixon. According to Margot Polivy’s recollection, “Every month or so, there was a major demonstration. Half the time all of downtown Washington (D.C.) reeked of tear gas… All the Nobel Prize winners started to get arrested, and they didn’t have jail space for them.”

In 1974, Abzug coauthored the Privacy Act and FOIA, which required federal government agencies to send unclassified documentation to any member of the public who requested it in connection with the government’s operations and records. Unfortunately, times have changed. Radically.

Read the book to learn much more about Abzug’s personality, family, career and accomplishments.

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.