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.

Cronkite

The Book of the Week is “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, published in 2012. This tome is the biography of Walter Cronkite. Born in 1916, he was one of the first news reporters to appear on television. He spent most of his career at CBS, covering most of the major historical events of the twentieth century. He developed a reputation for trustworthiness in delivering information to Americans at a time when the nation watched an excessive amount of TV.

In the 1950’s, stiff and awkward newsmen initially read the headlines aloud in fifteen minute segments. Eventually, reporters broadcast on-location, and coverage was lengthened to half an hour and then an hour– and sometimes much longer (during political conventions and after assassinations) to provide more in-depth stories.

There were occasions when Cronkite “…abandoned all the rules of objective journalism he had learned…” such as during WWII, when, according to the author, he “… eagerly wrote propaganda for the good of the Allied cause.” The first TV anchorman believed that journalism was obligated to expose tyranny everywhere in the world. At the same time, he was concerned that TV could be used as a communication vehicle for hate speech.

This blogger thinks Cronkite’s concern smacks a little of arrogance and hypocrisy. Either, there should be free speech for all, or for none. The United States has committed and hushed up its share of political sins. In addition, it is too difficult to define hate speech. Some people might argue that hate speech is any communication that is offensive to the people in a society at large. How many of which people? Some might argue that the speakers have a right to express their opinions, or say whatever they want in the context of entertainment. In the United States, if an issue is controversial enough, the U.S. Supreme Court– nine people– are in charge of a majority vote that decides what constitutes “opinions” or “entertainment.”

This blogger thinks society is better off allowing blanket freedom of expression, than imposing a totalitarian gag order. For, American citizens have placed sufficient trust in their system of government to continue, more or less, to uphold a Constitution from its beginnings; the pendulum has swung back and forth with regard to numerous First Amendment issues. Nevertheless, movements that oppress free speech, whether hateful or not, on a large scale, are unsustainable in the long term, as are movements that spout hate speech.

For instance, the McCarthy Era did see a number of years in which people were oppressed for expressing unpopular political views, associating with those who did so, or being falsely accused of associating with those who did so. However, some witchhunt victims–a minority of the population of the entire nation– sacrificed their livelihood or their lives; backlash reached critical mass among the majority, and the nation righted itself again.

The author says that in the 1950’s, Cronkite also believed in objective reporting. He thought that a reporter covering a political election should refrain from expressing his preference for a particular candidate. Nevertheless, whenever it was convenient for furthering his career, Cronkite abandoned objectivity, like in WWII. He was a “huge cheerleader for NASA,” established in the summer of 1958. The “Space Race” (between the United States and the then-Soviet Union) was a great distraction. In 1962, a massive, six hundred square foot screen was placed “…on top of the central mezzanine in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal so commuters could watch [astronaut] John Glenn on CBS.” Besides, the newsman’s Vietnam War reporting included graphic images of atrocities every night in 1965.

Cronkite understood the conflict CBS faced as a profit-making organization. The network needed to entertain its audience in order to sell advertising to stay in business. It was in CBS’ best economic interest to report news inoffensive to Southern viewers, for example, during the Civil Rights Era; a tall order, to say the least. By 1960, critics thought that the head of CBS, William Paley, was shying away from controversial news reporting to please Republicans and big business.

Read the book to learn more of Cronkite’s role in informing the nation on what was happening, what he made happen, and his commentary on what happened over the course of about four decades. One caveat:  the book is wrong by one year on at least three major, recent historical events–  the year Iraq invaded Kuwait, the year the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal started, and the Y2K situation.

Between Two Worlds

The Book of the Week is “Between Two Worlds” by Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund, published in 2005. This ebook tells Salbi’s life story, whose themes include women, war, family and religion. During her childhood in 1970’s Iraq, her mother was a teacher and her father, an airline pilot. In the early 1980’s, since they were government workers, her parents were forced to join Saddam Hussein’s Baath political party.

Iraq had a liberal, Westernized culture because it had previously had close ties with the United States. Nevertheless, Hussein and his followers committed unspeakable acts of cruelty against the populace. Life was unbearably scary and stressful, even for the upper classes; especially those who were sucked into “friendship” with Hussein, as was Salbi’s family. Hussein derived power from his political party, army, the war with Iran, and oil but “he found time to keep meticulous accounts of our emotional peonage.”

Hussein initiated a witchhunt in order to deport people who were deemed to be of “Iranian origin” as indicated by their citizenship papers, to Iran. His military then looted their homes. He incited hostility between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, and encouraged male dominance through raping of females of all ages an act whose perpetrators went unpunished.

The Iraqi people were powerless to protest when they found themselves living under a brutal dictatorship. “Boys and girls joined the Vanguards, the tala’a, and wore… uniforms… as they practiced marching and singing at school…” Teenagers were pressured to enter endless poetry, art and marching contests to exhibit their love for Hussein. His birthday was a national holiday. He built new palaces every few months. You get the picture.

Read the book to learn more about the emotional traumas Salbi experienced that led her to find her life’s work.

Just Plain Dick

The Book of the Week is “Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the ‘Rocking Socking’ Election of 1952” by Kevin Mattson, published in 2012. This ebook details the 1952 U.S. presidential election in which vice presidential candidate Nixon became more the center of attention than presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower.

The dirt that generated bad publicity for a candidate in that election was of a slush fund of Nixon’s. When the news broke in September 1952 about Nixon’s alleged campaign finance impropriety, there was lots of hand-wringing among Eisenhower and his advisors as to whether Nixon should be dropped from the ticket.

The nature of the new medium of television– a visual, collective, simultaneous experience for a large audience– was a game-changer. It allowed Nixon to deliver directly to the American people, what turned out to be the perfect message in a way that repaired his reputation and ultimately helped him and his superior win the election.

Nixon’s emotional appeal persuaded his audience that he was a member of the middle class– not an elitist. Mention of his wife’s cloth coat and his dog struck just the right tone. To top off his speech, he skillfully initiated crowd sourcing by inviting voters to contact the Republican Party to express their opinion on whether he should withdraw from the race.

Read the book to learn the details of this memorable, fascinating episode in American political history.

A First-Rate Madness

The Book of the Week is “A First-Rate Madness, Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness” by Nassir Ghaemi, published in 2011. This book describes the leadership abilities of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, various Civil War generals, Adolf Hitler, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Ted Turner, as determined by their mental health, or lack thereof.

The author argues that most people who have mental illness are not insane all the time; they merely have abnormal moods, such as depression or mania some of the time. He claims that mentally ill political and military leaders are heroic in times of crisis, and mediocre during peaceful, uneventful times; the opposite is true for mentally healthy leaders. This concept can be applied to the corporate world, too.

“In a strong economy, the ideal business leader is the corporate type… He may not be particularly creative… all is well only when all that matters is administration… When the economy is in crisis… the corporate executive takes a backseat to the entrepreneur…” It is rare to find someone who is an excellent leader under both extreme and normal conditions.

Ghaemi contends that “…depression led to more, not less realistic assessments of control over one’s environment, an effect that was only enhanced by a real-world emotional desire…” In other words, people prone to clinical depression have a more acute sense of reality than those who are not, a concept called “depressive realism.”

When the mentally healthy leader faces a crisis, he handles it poorly, because having suffered little in his youth, he “…hasn’t had a chance to develop resilience that might see him through later hardships” and has not developed the ability to empathize. George W. Bush was one such leader. To boot, he had “hubris syndrome.” Getting drunk on power, like many mentally healthy leaders, made him “…unwilling and even unable to accept criticism or correctly interpret events that diverge from their own beliefs. Hubris syndrome worsens with duration and absoluteness of one’s rule.”

Read the book to understand the psychology behind the successes and failures of the aforementioned leaders.

Destiny of the Republic

The Book of the Week is “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard, published in 2011.

In 1880, James A. Garfield was a humble soul. He, like Abraham Lincoln, did not traverse the country making speeches because stumping was “considered undignified for a presidential candidate.”

Garfield actually did not want to become the 20th president of the United States, but he was elected anyway. He was inaugurated in 1881, in March– the month in which presidents took the oath of office until 1933– when transportation to Washington, D.C. had been sufficiently improved.

At the time, the Secret Service sought to eliminate counterfeit money, not provide security for the president. He had no bodyguards. It was thought there was no way to prevent a determined public from harming him. So he did not worry about assassination.

On orders from God, a deranged man named Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in a train station. While Garfield lay on the extremely unsanitary floor, a doctor “inserted an unsterilized finger into the wound in his back, causing a small hemorrhage…” and a big infection.

If the president had been shot only fifteen years later, he would have been X-rayed and would have undergone antiseptic surgery. However, at the time, the American medical community was still resistant to accepting Lister’s theories on antisepsis, and instead exhibited arrogant, distrustful behavior.

Read the book to learn the destiny of the United States at this fateful turn of events.

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.