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.

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.