An Irishman in China

The Book of the Week is “An Irishman in China” by Zhao Changtian; Yang Shuhui and Yunqin, translators, published in 2014. This is the career story of Robert Hart.

Hart, originally from Northern Ireland, visited various ports of the world via ship before settling in Shanghai, China in autumn 1854 as an interpreter, a non-official member of the British consular service. In his early twenties, he started at a time of anti-government rebellion by two groups, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and Small Sword Society. British merchants– angry about having to pay taxes when other nations’ traders, such as France, America and Portugal didn’t– were supplying the rebels with arms. Coastal cities produced ample rice, silk and tea. Unsurprisingly, there was corruption at the customs house.

Hart stayed at the British Consulate in Ningbo. He hired a cleaning boy, cook and an English tutor who taught him the Chinese language. Employed by the Chinese government, he moved up through the ranks serving Western merchants in the customs department. In March 1858, he was transferred to Guangzhou because Anglo-French forces attacked the city. He was skilled in diplomacy, and through the years, made friends in high places in the Chinese government. As for his social life, a colleague told him he could get a mail-order bride of sorts, a non-prostitute who was “…trained in music, chess, calligraphy and painting.” Nevertheless, he met someone on his own, and started a family.

Read the book to learn of Hart’s personal and professional relationships over the course of half a century; how he protected British interests in China and had an impact on China’s foreign policy, especially during armed conflicts among its own peoples and other nations.

Jawaharlal Nehru

The Book of the Week is “Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography” originally published in 1936. This book on Indian history shows the reader yet again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Born in 1889, Nehru, who had much older sisters, grew up in a wealthy, multigenerational Hindu family of Kashmiri origin. After completing his elitist legal education, following in the footsteps of his father, he became an Indian civil servant and political activist in Bombay. He wrote, “All the bureaucrats in New Delhi do are gossip about promotions, leave and rules, furloughs, transfers and scandal.”

In the mid-nineteen teens, the Indian populace began agitating for Home Rule (also called “swaraj”)– breaking the yoke of British colonialism, and making peace among believers of Hinduism and Islam– two major Indian religions (amid violence in the Punjab in 1919, and other areas such as Bengal). In a nutshell, “India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else, and Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and others take pride in their faiths and testify to their truth by breaking heads.”

Nehru’s father became a follower of Gandhi, who led the powerful, non-violent movement of civil disobedience, satyagraha. In the early 1920’s, a few million people participated in non-cooperation protests at Gandhi’s behest. Many, including Nehru were jailed with sentences of one to three years, sometimes with early releases, on and off into the mid-1930’s. Their civil rights of assembly, speech, etc. were severely curtailed, as was their ability to defend themselves in “show-trials” against the British authorities’ hastily conceived, arbitrary legislation outlawing the dissident political groups and their activities. [Side Note: Authorities in South Africa (a former British colony) behaved the same way as the British authorities fifty (!) years later, against dark-skinned political dissidents under apartheid.]

Nehru recounted an ugly episode involving his mother. She was peacefully marching in a protest when police arrested her and bloodied her head, beating her with their batons. “That night a false rumour spread in Allahabad that my mother had died. Angry crowds gathered together, forgot about peace and non-violence, and attacked the police.”

As well, the spirit of the times involved youth groups and workers’ trade unions, who met to talk late into the night about the social and economic problems of the day. Socialism and Marxism were in the air. Nehru and other political dissidents urged peasant farmers to initiate a rent strike against their landlords. Gandhi launched a few attention-mongering hunger strikes in his attempts to effect political change.

During 1930, there were negotiations for Indian independence. A new Constitution would have to be drafted with provisions on national defense, foreign affairs, financial and economic policy, and on what was to be done about India’s indebtedness to Britain.

Funny, in the mid-1930’s, Nehru could have been writing about current American politics: “It is very unfortunate that foolish and ill-informed criticisms of a personal nature are made, because they divert attention from the real issues.” Across the Atlantic, there was a “…Europe in turmoil, fearful of war and tumult and with economic crises always on the horizon.” At that time, India’s people were not alone in their suffering. There was more violence and death around the world due to fascism, nazism, imperialism and colonialism than now. Nevertheless, Nehru asked a question that is still relevant, “Were there any principles, and standards of conduct in this world, or was it all sheer opportunism?”

Read the book to learn Nehru’s answer, and about Indian history in the 1920’s and ’30’s, as seen through Nehru’s eyes.

Gnarr! – Bonus Post

This blogger read “Gnarr! How I Became Mayor of A Large City in Iceland and Changed the World” by Jon Gnarr, translated by Andrew Brown, published in 2014.

In 2009, the author co-founded the Best Party and in spring 2010, started running for mayor of Reykjavik. “Our campaign played out primarily on Facebook, YouTube and Blogspot.” He made a fool of himself because he had poor debating skills. He knew only how to mock other parties’ stupid slogans. Nevertheless, the city council elected him mayor.

The Best Party allied with the Social Democrats. As mayor, he was allowed use of a chauffeured car and a MacBook Pro with a fifteen-inch monitor, because he “… absolutely couldn’t cope with Windows.” He supervised eight thousand people, working for Iceland’s largest employer.

Iceland is a country with no military, and has no law enforcement officers who are armed. Regarding homosexuals, it is one of the most egalitarian nations in the world.

Gnarr is an idealist. He wrote, “I am an anarchist… If I actually believe in anything at all, it’s democracy… I believe in direct democracy.” In October 2011, Gnarr and his Party introduced participatory democracy over the World Wide Web. His administration allowed the general public to vote on urban construction and renovation projects. However, the pesky aspects of human nature– greed and power-hunger that spur lobbying and corruption–  among other flaws, can diminish the beneficial effects of such an innovative political practice.

Read the book to learn more about Gnarr’s political philosophy.

Michelle Obama

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.

Silvio Berlusconi

The Book of the Week is “Silvio Berlusconi” by Paul Ginsborg, published in 2004. This is an extended essay on the media mogul/powerful politician in Italy. It examines the issue of whether Berlusconi practiced Fascism, not necessarily through creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, but through monopolistically broadcasting propaganda in the guise of education, to the masses. He combined his business dealings with politics to amass a staggering amount of power, with the usual conflicts of interest that come with the territory.

Over the course of three decades starting in the 1970’s, operating out of Milan, Berlusconi, a construction contractor, founded an ad agency and purchased TV stations that accounted for the bulk of Italy’s visual information sources. Later, he entered politics and bought a professional European football team. He was accused of racketeering, bribery and money laundering, among other crimes.

Berlusconi proved to be teflon, escaping punishment in the 1990’s. Not only that, he made a comeback– legally, economically and politically. As of 2004, he was still dragging his feet on answering the legal charges against him, in order to invoke the statute of limitations to weasel out of going to jail.

Read the book to get the details, and the author’s take on whether Berlusconi’s political career would survive much longer, given his outrageous exaggerations when recounting his endeavors for the people of Italy in 2004. The nation’s cost of living had soared and real wages had fallen significantly beginning in 2002.

The following video of Al Franken’s speech on America’s fiscal deficit is well worth watching in its entirety; he mentions a few recent American presidents’ economic policies (starting just after 23:00)– some of which can be compared to Berlusconi’s:

https://youtu.be/hHUDPU7_2qA

Lastly, Berlusconi’s reputation for alleged extensive law-breaking had been a “thing” for a long time.

My Father, His Daughter – Bonus Post

This blogger read (except for the first and last sections) “My Father, His Daughter” by Yael Dayan, first published in 1985. This is an account of the life of Moshe Dayan and his relationship with the author– his only daughter. It starts and ends with the circumstances surrounding his death (a bit of a tedious pity party).

The author’s father, an alpha male, became a legendary figure in Israel as a military leader and political appointee on and off from the 1930’s through the 1970’s. He was also memorable for wearing an eyepatch, the result of a war injury. Aside from serving his country, his other passions included farming and archeology.

Prior to WWII, Dayan became involved with the Haganah– an Israeli intelligence agency. Through the 1940’s, Czechoslovakia provided arms to the Israelis, but in the 1950’s, it did so for Israel’s then-enemy, Egypt. Dayan was responsible for overseeing troop deployments and was consulted on the allocation of resources and appointments of other military leaders in various wars through the decades.

Read the book to learn, aside from Dayan’s life, about: the author and her family members; her experiences growing up with a father who exerted a huge influence on her homeland’s history; and how this ironically afforded her opportunities (and made her want) to live abroad in adulthood.

Indefensible

The Book of the Week is “Indefensible” by David Feige, published in 2006. This is an autobiographical account of a public defender; an attorney who represents indigent people accused of street crime, who were assigned to him by the court.

Feige described his experiences with the people in the criminal justice system in the New York City of the 1990’s. He had to deal with the homeless, mentally ill, addicts, gang members, good people who were wrongly accused– and their family members; judges and other court personnel, and fellow attorneys. There were personality types he saw over and over again– the poorly educated jailed people trapped in the poverty cycle due to their bad choices, bad luck and a series of circumstances out of their control; good, fair judges; and unsympathetic and sadistic judges.

Feige was overworked, underpaid and his anecdotes smacked of the proverb, “Good to know the law, better to know the judge.”

Read this depressing book to get an intimate picture of the inner-city downtrodden, and the difficulties of keeping them from being jailed, even when they are innocent, due to the odds against them.