Louis D. Brandeis, A Life

The Book of the Week is “Louis D. Brandeis, A Life” by Melvin I. Urofsky, published in 2009. This is the lengthy biography of an attorney and Supreme Court Justice.

The youngest of three siblings, Brandeis grew up in Louisville, KY in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Prior to the early 20th century, Brandeis felt that his job as an attorney was to help develop a fair solution for all parties involved in a dispute. He felt he was a mediator and moralist, rather than an attorney being paid to favorably act on behalf of and give legal advice to only his client. This mentality led Brandeis to engage in a few conflicts of interest in dealing with his firm’s clients.  For instance, he represented a corporate client in litigation in which a third party was represented by his firm.

Despite becoming embroiled in a few episodes of hypocrisy, Brandeis fought against corrupt, monopolistic practices of various large American institutions. He felt obligated to do what he considered public service, pro bono. Fortunately, his income as a law partner allowed this.

In the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, there were three big insurance companies that wielded an amount of power similar to that of big-name brokerages in the early 2000’s. The outsized ego and greed of the insurance executives, too, led them to manipulate the government, commit accounting irregularities, and abuse their power and the public’s trust. Brandeis took them on, exposing what he thought was their moral depravity. He then found a way for the public to avoid adding to the profits of the evil insurance corporations by initiating the sale of affordable life insurance through savings banks.

Brandeis was nominated a Supreme Court Justice by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. “When confronted with the first Jew named to the Supreme Court, and in a time of growing nativism, clearly those who ‘feared foreigners’ would oppose the appointment.” Brandeis had to endure four stressful months of hearings and background checking before he was appointed.

Around 1920, Brandeis became active in the Zionist movement. He controversially defined the movement as one in which oppressed Jews could receive financial assistance to improve their lot through settling in Palestine. Since the persecuted Jews who had found a haven in the United States had become successful in their adopted country, they did not need to go to Palestine to build a homeland there. But they were urged to help their fellow Jews who were worse off than themselves, to do so. Other people in the movement felt Brandeis did not truly understand the mentality of the oppressed Jewish immigrants, who viewed Palestine as a place they could freely practice their religion.

During the 1930’s, when Great Britain realized that Arabs greatly outnumbered Jews, and that there was so much oil in the Middle East, she changed her political position on Zionism as mentioned in the Balfour Declaration. She found the Jews argumentative, and wanted Palestine to be “an Arab-dominated region under English tutelage.”

Brandeis favored a workday shorter than twelve or fourteen hours, in order to give unionized American workers time to fulfill their civic responsibilities to get involved in local politics and “as parents and members of their communities.”

As a Supreme Court Justice, Brandeis left an influential legacy in that he had a “… great impact not only on jurisdictional matters but on commercial law, antitrust, administrative law, utility regulation, federalism, and individual liberties.”

To the Heart of the Nile

The Book of the Week is “To the Heart of the Nile” by Pat Shipman, published in 2004. In the 1840’s, when a little girl, later named Florence, was orphaned by revolution in the land that is now Hungary, she was sent to live in a harem.

By a strange twist of fate, Florence, with an Englishman, Sam, (with a retinue of servants) ended up going on expeditions in what is now Egypt and the Sudan to find the sources of the Nile, and stop the slave trade. They “made detailed observations on the climate, the terrain, the people, the animals and the plants,” all the while braving disease, near-starvation and tribal warfare. That last life-threatening condition required delicate negotiations with a tribal chief.

On one occasion, Sam gamed the situation correctly. He boldly “ordered his headman to raise the Union Jack… Sam asked these delegates [officials of the enemy tribes] how they dared to invade a country [the Sudan] under the protection of the British flag.” They obeyed his order to evacuate the area. The tribal chief who was allied with Sam “was awestruck by the power of Sam’s magical flag and… rewarded Sam with huge quantities of [smuggled] ivory.”

Sam refused to accept the ivory, as he was disinclined to tarnish his reputation with criminal and morally reprehensible pursuits.  He was more interested in exploration and annexing the Sudan for the United Kingdom.

Read the book to the learn the outcomes of Sam’s and Florence’s adventures.

Burned Bridge

The Book of the Week is “Burned Bridge, How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain” by Edith Sheffer, published in 2011.

This book discusses the history of the splitting of Germany post-World War II, and its effects on Neustadt, a Western border city, and Sonneberg, an Eastern border city, both connected by Burned Bridge. Pursuant to agreements made at Yalta, “… on July 1, 1945, Soviet forces entered Sonneberg, and the U.S. Army withdrew into Neustadt… bighearted Americans distributing gum and chocolate from tanks with images of brutish Soviet solders in tattered horse-drawn wagons.”

In the late 1940’s, frequent border-crossers included black marketeers, undocumented workers, refugees and begging children. In both the East and West, border guards were easily bribed to accept fake travel permits. Families had been rent asunder by the creation of the artificial border.

In 1952, the East German government cracked down on border residents who had made, or were liable to make trouble– activists and frequent border-crossers who might spread the word to Easterners about the Western (capitalist) way of life– by forcing Easterners to move farther east, away from the border. Through the 1950’s, the East German government launched propaganda campaigns to lure former Easterners back to Sonneberg, offering residences, jobs, wages and farms superior to previous ones. Returnees exploited such opportunities, obtaining high-level education for their children as well, in the process. The physical Wall was erected in August 1961.

For about a decade after the war, West Germany flourished economically, after which various untoward events in the 1960’s and 1970’s slowed its growth. There occurred the scandalous Spiegel Affair, violence stemming from student and anti-nuclear protests, terror perpetrated by the Baader-Meinhof gang, oil shocks and anti-immigrant sentiments.

The late 1980’s saw a relaxation of westward travel. Nonetheless, the East German government was resistant to change, and continued to oppress its people through the fall of 1989. In November, dissatisfaction reached critical mass. “Most still recall exactly where they were and what they did when Burned Bridge opened, and cry with joy at the memory.” During reunification of East and West, people who were infrequent border-crossers experienced shock at the stark economic, cultural and social disparities between the two.

Shakespeare’s England

The Book of the Week is “Shakespeare’s England,” a Cassell Caravel Book, by the editors of Horizon Magazine, published in 1964.

This book recounts English cultural, theatrical and royal-family history of the late 1500’s through 1616– the years of the height of Shakespeare’s fame.

In the late 1580’s, Shakespeare’s acting company performed for Queen Elizabeth. At that time, the status of acting company members was divided into three groups: veteran actors who were shareholders in the theater, weekly wage-earning minor-role actors who doubled as stagehands and writers, and young boys who played girls’ and boys’ roles (as females were banned from theater careers).

There were two kinds of playwrights: university-schooled, and non-; the plays of the former were more stiff and serious than that of the latter. All intellectual property rights to a work were transferred from the writer to an acting company upon purchase of a play. Nevertheless, works were pirated all the time, with no adverse consequences for the thief.

Read the book to learn about the events and issues that affected the fame and fortune of Shakespeare and his colleagues– the plague, censorship, a theater fire, playhouse construction, political intrigue and more.

One Of Us

The Book of the Week is “One of Us” by Tom Wicker.  This is a biography of Richard Nixon, published in 1991.

This book discusses aspects of the late president’s psychology as well as his life story and historical events. Nixon had an inferiority complex. He always felt like an outsider in Washington because he was a Duke University, rather than an Ivy League, graduate. He used an apt phrase to describe the focus one needs to succeed in a law career: a “lead butt” that can sit in a chair for hours, reading.

Despite his shameful crimes and resignation, he still took some actions that benefited the United States, the most well known of which was “opening up” China.

Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion

The Book of the Week is “Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion” by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, published in 2010. As can be surmised from the title, this book is about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s life and liberalism.

When Brennan was first appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950’s, the United States Supreme Court was ruling on cases dealing with integration, Communism and censorship of pornography. “Brennan and his allies on the Court were being attacked by the mid 1960’s for encouraging racial mixing, coddling Communists and trying to drive God out of public life.”

The Court turned very conservative after Richard Nixon was elected president. Conservative politicians secretly investigated liberals for any conflicts of interest, or worse sins, to force the liberal justices off the Court. Brennan quit all teaching and lecturing to eliminate all of his own conflicts of interest and divested himself of real estate interests and stock. No other liberal justices took such precautions.

Although principled, legally obedient and even supportive of several women’s rights issues, ironically, Brennan refused to hire females as clerks in his own chambers. It was only after an aide wrote to him in strong language in the early 1970’s– that sooner or later, someone would sue a Supreme Court Justice alleging gender discrimination in clerk selection. Besides, Brennan would want his own daughter to be hired, if she were in a position to apply.

The Court stayed conservative for the rest of Brennan’s tenure. Read the book to learn the impact Brennan made on the Court nevertheless.

Little Princes

The Book of the Week is “Little Princes” by Conor Grennan, published in 2010. This the story of a global aid worker who changed many lives for the better over the course of three years.

Initially, Grennan volunteered to be, in essence, a surrogate parent for a couple of months in Nepal in late 2004 at an orphanage, whose name in English is “Little Princes.” However, the children were not truly orphans. Months or years before, a child trafficker had told their parents, living in poverty-stricken rural villages, that if they gave him a lot of money– in some cases, their life savings–  that their children would be fed and clothed well and get an education. Instead, the trafficker sold them into domestic servitude in private homes. Those lucky children had been rescued by a pitifully incomplete patchwork of international child-services organizations or a government official in Kathmandu. “In Nepal, there were no safety nets, no system where all children were cared for in an orderly manner.”

Grennan fell in love with the children at Little Princes, and they, him. He thus returned to be with them after a year’s interlude. He learned of a group that ran homes in Kathmandu, and visited with kids there, too. He, with a fellow volunteer, had a dream to form an organization to have rescued children come to live in their own children’s home.

After the decade-long civil war between the Nepalese monarchy and the Maoists ended, Grennan’s goal became to find the children’s parents and reunite them. In prior years, the Maoists had occupied villages and had been ruthless with people associated with aid organizations. A weeks-long expedition taken on foot in the high-altitude mountains to find the parents, was already fraught with the dangers of death by a fall, illness, marauders, and snow, and even in this day and age– the absence of communications devices (!)

Grennan encountered a traumatic situation, of which he knew not, how many of its like there were. While on an expedition like the one described above, he found out from a postal service worker that the parents of a fourteen-year old kid in a home were alive and well. At some point in the past, the kid had been given their death certificates. Grennan realized the certificates were forged. “Here was a boy who had grown up believing that his entire family was dead… I was struck by how viciously the civil war had torn this country apart.”

Once Grennan started having success reuniting children and parents, the latter were overjoyed to see the former again. “But when they learned that their child was being well taken care of, they were suddenly reluctant to take him or her home. Nepal is a terribly poor country; it is a challenge to support a family.”

Read the book to learn more about the author’s trials, tribulations and triumphs, which include a romantic subplot.

McIlhenny’s Gold

The Book of the Week is “McIlhenny’s Gold, How a Louisiana Family Built the Tobasco Empire” by Jeffrey Rothfeder, published in 2007.  This book tells the history of a company that sells hot sauce.

A man named Edmund McIlhenny started the company in southern Louisiana in the 1870’s. He developed a method for making the sauce so that it was very consistent from batch to batch, and its production was not easily imitated. Due to his marketing savvy, the product was soon distributed in California, Nevada, Maine and Florida– “…anyplace with telegraph lines, paved roads and train depots.” His son died in 1949.

One of his son’s sons took over the business. In order to attract a reliable workforce, he created a company village– a compound where white employees both worked and lived (almost rent-free). Black employees commuted, and held difficult, low-level, pepper-picking jobs.

Through secret political machinations, the family was able to get the sole right to use the name “Tobasco” even though competing companies had also been using it during the whole prior time.

When the company, still privately held, was well over a century old, it began to lose its grip on market leadership due to various factors, including American dietary trends, refusal to maximally automate its operations, lack of strong leadership, and growing list of family shareholders.

Read the book to learn of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and looming opportunities and threats going into the first few years of the 2000’s.

Savages

The Book of the Week is “Savages” by Joe Kane, published in 1996.  The author describes his encounter with the Huaorani tribe– people living in the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador.

The author recounts an interesting episode in which the natives take a jaunt in a food store– a place they had never visited before, and comments on their strange eating habits. He also writes about the health problems contracted by non-natives in the rain forest.

The bottom line of the book though, is that in the early 1980’s, the Ecuadorian government colluded with American oil companies to keep the natives politically powerless. The country was burdened by staggering international debt and was dependent on oil-related business for half of its revenue. It therefore felt disinclined to share approximately $2 billion in oil revenue with the Huaorani. The author details how the Americans destroyed the land and consequently, the tribe’s ability to survive.