American Radical

The Book of the Week is “American Radical, The Life and Times of I.F. Stone” by D.D. Guttenplan, published in 2009. This is the biography of a muckraking journalist, who wrote of “good, honest graft” and the “…human wreckage piling up around me.”

He was born Isadore Feinstein on Christmas Eve, 1907 in Philadelphia. He spoke Yiddish as a second language. In 1924, because his grades were below Harvard standards and there was open enrollment for local residents, “Izzy” as he was affectionately known, began attending the University of Pennsylvania. He changed his name to I.F. Stone at the tail end of his twenties.

The year 1955 saw Congressional surveillance of Stone’s weekly publication “Weekly.” Stone launched lawsuits against his oppressors, arguing that public moneys should not be used to violate his 1st Amendment rights to privacy and freedom of the press. He would have lost his lawsuits but for a curious situation.

James Eastland, chief counsel and chairman of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, included the New York Times as one of many newspapers and magazines he was surveilling. Stone had embarrassed the Times for pointing out inconsistent behavior: the newspaper’s firing of its employees who were accused of Communist leanings. Yet the Times had published articles arguing for civil rights, anti-segregation, condemning McCarthyism and immigration restrictions. The Times was indignant because it thought it was being singled out for investigation by Eastland. Eastland dropped his investigation.

Other organizations accused of harboring Communists included the Boy Scouts, Voice of America, the USO and YMCA. The Justice Department‘s whole roster of professional informers was finally discredited…” when an ex-Communist admitted to fabricating the allegations against the organizations. In fall 1955, finally, there was vindication of Stone and other activists who were under threat of arrest or deportation or subpoena.

This blogger believes the author’s historical accounts are misleading in spots; he implies that in 1948, when the Israelis had achieved military victory over the Arabs in their war for an independent homeland, the Arabs fled. Historical accounts other than this book say that the Israelis subjected the Arabs to a forced evacuation from their homes where they had been residing for generations.

The result of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, according to the author, was cause for celebration for Stone, because a new government was installed that would impose socialism, and Stone was all for socialism. The author neglects to mention that the Soviets crushed the revolt in an orgy of bloodshed. Then the author goes on to say that Stone misread the Suez Canal Crisis.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn modern history through the eyes of a smartass reporter who called a spade a spade most of the time.

Roses Under the Miombo Trees

The Book of the Week is “Roses Under the Miombo Trees” by Amanda Parkyn, published in 2012.  This is a four-year chronicle of a family in Rhodesia in the early 1960’s. The country at the time was comprised of three territories, one of which later became the country of Malawi.

When she was in her early twenties, the author, an Englishwoman, married a Rhodesian. They, as light-skinned people, had all the creature-comforts a former British colony had to offer: tennis, golf, bridge, swimming, and yachting. However, technology in entertainment and telecommunications was behind that of the United States. Few people had television in rural areas, and telephone calls still had to be made with the help of a live operator. One of their neighbors had a tennis court made of dead anthills, that had been shaped with water and sun-dried.

The author describes their social life and how it changed as her husband was transferred to different territories in connection with his employment; the birth of their two children, her love of gardening and the job performance of the household’s dark-skinned domestic servant.

Read the book to learn the details of the ups and downs of the family’s life, in their specific time and place.

In the Garden of the Beasts

The Book of the Week is “In the Garden of the Beasts” by Erik Larson, published in 2011. This ebook describes the ill-fated German ambassadorship of William E. Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A history professor at the University of Chicago for more than two decades, Dodd possessed no public-service experience. As a D-list candidate for other reasons too, he reluctantly accepted the post anyway. Nevertheless, he believed in speaking out against injustice, and in the past when he became embroiled in a controversial situation, he said, “…to remain silent is out of the question for a strong and honest man.” He moved his wife, teenage son and grown daughter to Berlin in the summer of 1933.

Part of Dodd’s job as ambassador at the time was to get the German government to pay its reparations to the United States from WWI. Germany owed more than $100 million in bonds through National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) and Chase National Bank. Dodd failed to do so.

Dodd was also ill-suited for other aspects of the position. Foreign Service officers were an independently wealthy lot– golf-club members with fancy cars and mansions– who threw lavish parties at their own expense, unconcerned with the cost. The German ambassador lived frugally.

As well, Dodd’s daughter caused diplomatic embarrassment, as she became romantically involved with a series of men of political intrigue through the years. These included the chief of the Gestapo, a Soviet political operative, and Fritz Haber, who first formulated the poison chlorine gas that was used at Ypres in WWI. He proved that cumulative exposure to small quantities of gas in the long run was just as lethal as large amounts of a short duration.

Sadly, Dodd and a colleague, George S. Messersmith, America’s consul general, were two of only a very few prescient government officials who understood that Germany posed a serious and growing threat to world peace. The U.S. government was more concerned with Germany’s war reparations.

In the mid-1930’s, lurid stories of extremely uncivil behavior of Germany’s law enforcement apparatus were leaked to the international press. People rationalized that the violent acts (mostly against Jews) were just isolated incidents because they did not want to believe that an evolved society such as Germany’s could be so evil.

Read the book to learn the details of how Dodd became the prophetic, tragic figure in an existentialist drama that set the stage for WWII.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

The Book of the Week is “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson”  by Paul Robeson, Jr., published in 2001.

This is a biographical account of Paul Robeson from his birth until the start of WWII, written by his son. At times, it is like a soap opera. This ebook is mostly commentary on the diary entries, letters and notes of Robeson and his wife, Essie, and covers the following topics:

  • Robeson’s runaway success as a scholar and athlete in the nineteen-teens in the United States
  • how Robeson came to choose his ultimate career of professional actor and singer, starting in the mid-1920’s
  • how Essie’s identity was dependent on Robeson’s because she gave up her own career to manage his career
  • anti-black discrimination the couple encountered
  • his extramarital affairs
  • the intimate details of their relationship
  • Essie’s health problems
  • Robeson’s on-and-off presence during his son’s early childhood years
  • Robeson’s philosophy on life and international political activities

Robeson took up the cause of fighting for civil rights for African Americans, but his son writes, “He lived a pampered, aristocratic life, far from the radical humiliations endured daily by even the highest-ranking blacks in the United States.” In the 1930’s, the Robeson family was living in the Soviet Union because the country showed no racism, colonialism or fascism; thus, Robeson was able to overlook the atrocities committed by Stalin at a time when the behavior displayed by other nations was ugly.

Also in the 1930’s, Robeson decided he did not want to act in theatrical or movie roles that portrayed negative black stereotypes. His mythic status, which eventually brought him great wealth, afforded him flexibility in deciding the course of his career.

Read the book to learn all you ever wanted to know about Paul Robeson up until WWII.

The Good Girls Revolt

The Book of the Week is “The Good Girls Revolt” by Lynn Povich, published in 2012. This short ebook discusses what happened when a group of female employees sued Newsweek magazine’s parent company in March 1970, for gender discrimination.

Shortly thereafter, similar litigation followed at other publications– at Time, Inc., Reader’s Digest and various newspapers across the United States. The author briefly describes the historical backdrop before, during and after. One of many cultural phenomena she relates is that the year 1973(!) saw the elimination of classified ads divided into “Help Wanted– Female” and “Help Wanted– Male,” the former of which were mostly for menial and/or low-paying jobs. “Saying you worked at Newsweek was glamorous compared to most jobs available to college-educated women.”

The author says that from the early 1920’s up until the aforementioned lawsuits, periodicals publishers relegated women to dead-end positions. At Newsweek, the vast majority of female employees held the title “researcher”– a fact-checker, who could never become a reporter or editor like, or get paid as much as, the male employees. Besides, many of the men were hired “…as reporters and writers with no prior professional journalistic experience” and most of the female researchers had the same qualifications as they did.

One reason many women did not protest or were not even consciously angry about their situation, is that they were conditioned by the workplace and society in general to comply with gender stereotypes. Four decades ago, women were limited in their opportunities and criticized if they chose a male-dominated career field. They were given to believe they should not aim too high, but stay where they were, because otherwise, they would encounter difficulty.  It became a self-fulfilling prophecy for most of them. Even many women’s colleges at that time had the goal of providing an education with the assumption that a graduate might get a job, but she would quit the workforce when she had children.

Even today, in the American workplace, there is an environment in which women are jockeying for position and power. According to the book, they are less well-liked, the higher up the corporate ladder they climb. The opposite goes for men. In certain aspects of their lives, such as weight-loss groups and fitness, women band together and cheer each other on. But not usually in the workplace.

Read the book to learn about the consequences of the initial legal action, and whether Newsweek’s workplace policies changed when, in 2006(!), three female employees recognized the recurrence of gender discrimination.

Outliers

The Book of the Week is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2008. This short, repetitive yet fascinating ebook is a hodgepodge of commentaries on human nature.

The author argues that extremely successful people in specific areas of expertise, such as professional sports, computer programming, music, science and lawyering “…are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies…” that give them a helping hand with regard to pursuing their passions. He also touches on a few peripheral topics, such as cultures of honor, plane crashes, rice paddies, education and slavery, all of which involve complex systems of teamwork and communication.

Outliers take advantage of the chances they get over the course of about a decade, or 10,000 hours, in which they hone their abilities in one area that, at the time, happens to become valued by society.  An outlier is what some business commentators refer to as a “hedgehog” rather than a “fox.” The former becomes an expert in one or two areas–  the outlier mystique; the latter gains some experience in many areas– useful in times of crisis, but never conducive to outlier status.

Gladwell names real-life examples of various celebrities, mostly Americans, explaining why their incredible achievements were attained with assistance from fate. He writes that stories about outliers are often exaggerated, failing to mention the set of lucky circumstances that led to success.

For example, the nurturing of talent of young Canadian ice hockey players is based on a biased selection process. Players are grouped in leagues by their playing abilities within age ranges determined by their birthdates. The ones who are older, even by a few months, have a statistically significant advantage in terms of size and strength. Thus, it so happens that a large percentage of players are born in January, February or March. These lucky ones are provided with a superior experience, whose success feeds on itself, called “accumulative advantage.”

The maximally successful achiever is one who is both book-smart and street-smart, as was J. Robert Oppenheimer, project manager of the atomic bomb. According to Gladwell, street-smart consists of attitudes and skills instilled by one’s family. If one happens to be born into a wealthy, nurturing family, one is much more likely to become an outlier.

Read the book to learn: 1) which countries’ students are best at math and why; 2) the reason there is an achievement gap between high-income and low-income American elementary schoolers; and 3) other interesting findings.

Joseph Anton

The Book of the Week is “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” by Salman Rushdie, published in 2012. This ebook describes an author’s life, and the furor created by his controversial novel, “Satanic Verses.”

Rushdie grew up in India and England in the 1950’s and 60’s. His parents identified with Islam but did not provide him with a religious education. He became fascinated with the subject at university. In the late 1980’s, he wrote Satanic Verses, which was extremely critical of Islam. Some powerful people became offended by it; over the course of the next decade, serious repercussions– not hilarity– ensued.

Iran’s leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a “fatwa,” or death threat, against Rushdie. Scotland Yard learned that Muslim groups were plotting to kill the author. There were protests by Islamic fanatics. A price was put on his head.

Rushdie’s publisher, Viking Penguin received threatening phone calls, and over time, a few actual bombs exploded at bookstores that carried the book. In international incidents– injuries and sometimes death befell bombing victims, the book’s translators and a publishing executive. The government of the United Kingdom pressured Rushdie and his family to go into hiding, and endure 24/7 police protection. He changed his name to Joseph Anton.

India became the first nation in the world to prohibit importation of Rushdie’s book. For years, India also denied him a travel visa. However, “India was surrounded by unfree societies– Pakistan, China, Burma– but remained an open democracy; flawed, certainly, perhaps even deeply flawed, but free.” He was deeply hurt. Many other Muslim countries later followed suit.

At one point, he met with a political Muslim organization to negotiate an end to the fatwa. He ended up regretting signing a statement acknowledging that his book was offensive to some Muslims, and also saying that he himself was of Islamic persuasion.

“British Muslim attempts to indict him [Rushdie] for blasphemy and under the public order act were heard in court.” New York Times bestseller status bestowed upon Satanic Verses was probably not due to true likability by the public, but rather, due to all the hullabaloo. Rushdie wrote, “I conclude that my difficulties are not with You, God, but with Your servants and followers on Earth.”

For more than a decade, because the author’s life was thought to be endangered, his ability to live like the citizen of a modern nation was severely curtailed. Read the book to learn about the people who helped him through all of the unanticipated trouble stemming from his writings; the ideology behind his various literary works; and the difficult family situations unrelated to his career, of which he was admittedly the cause.