The Last Idealist

WARNING: This is a long post.

“They watched him bang away at Berkeley and other campuses, a man nearing eighty-one commanding the attention of student crowds usually scornful of anyone over thirty.”

NOT Bernie Sanders. Norman Thomas.

The Book of the Week is “Norman Thomas, The Last Idealist” by W.A. Swanberg, published in 1976.

Born in November 1884 in Marion, Ohio, Thomas began attending divinity school in 1908, pursuant to his parents’ wish for him to become a Presbyterian reverend, like his father. He espoused the political ideology of a socialist, believing that antisocial behavior could be eliminated if people the world over were provided with a decent standard of living, as there would be no class resentment.

However, Thomas’ marriage to an heiress allowed him to live better than those he aided financially. Initially, the couple lived on an ethnically mixed, high-crime block in East Harlem, among Irish, Jews, Italians and Hungarians. He ministered to parishioners and established social programs at various churches.

Thomas was a charismatic public speaker and a pacifist, keeping busy “eight days a week” with all kinds of political, social and religious groups. He rubbed shoulders with the political influencers of the day, including president Woodrow Wilson. During WWI, he asked the president to refrain from conscripting conscientious objectors– both the devout and those who held sketchy religious beliefs like atheists (and agnostics like himself).

Thomas got in trouble and was forced to resign from his various groups for pacifist speechifying and distribution of pacifist publications (which were censored)– a clear and present danger once America entered WWI. Conscientious objectors and pacifists like himself were getting arrested and jailed. He railed that all Americans had a right to free speech (and later helped found the ACLU); hypocritically, the country was fighting the war in order to combat the fascist Prussians.

Although in 1917 Thomas endorsed the Socialist Party candidate Morris Hillquit for mayor of New York City, Thomas actually delayed joining the Party until the end of the war. Hillquit thought Thomas could be instrumental in getting more Gentiles to join, as the New York City chapter was overwhelmingly Jewish.

Both the Socialist and Communist parties ran candidates for mayor even though they knew they would lose. Each hoped to convert the members of the other’s Party to join their own. The socialists’ enemies smeared them all as Bolshevists (though only a few were on the far left fringe), as the Russian Revolution heated up.

In the 1920’s, the ruling class committed a lot of violence against the working class when there occurred labor unrest. The Palmer raids resulted in beatings, arrests and jailings. The government reasoned that violence was a necessary (temporary!) evil in restoring democracy. That was the same thinking of the Communists in America who felt the Soviets were creating the right kind of political system, but that the oppression would eventually cease.

Thomas wisely stayed Socialist through the decades, as he saw that Communists were totalitarian. Nevertheless, he was conflicted, as he took heart in the fact that the Russians fought against Fascism: by aiding the Loyalists in Spain during its civil war, and during WWII. Some American Communists were thrown for a loop after Stalin made a pact with Hitler in 1939; others, when Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s human rights abuses and atrocities in 1956.

In 1920, New York State Assembly speaker Thaddeus Sweet, a Republican, took the undemocratic action of suspending five New York State Assembly members just for being in the Socialist Party. Their constituents included sixty thousand voters in New York City. The Assembly voted 145-2 to expel them altogether. They were accused of seeking to break up traditional families, being anti-religious, and opposing capitalism.

In 1933, membership in the Socialist Party reached its peak, numbering about nineteen thousand. But those who had been spellbound by the shrewd, entertaining Thomas, began to back FDR instead; the latter began to offer similar social programs and was already president. Many voters thought the evils of capitalism had caused the Great Depression. Others turned to hatred spouted by rabble rousers like Father Coughlin, Hitler and Mussolini.

In the 1930’s, there were heated discussions, debates and decisions that never pleased everyone, between and among all the different factions (Communists, Trotskyites, Old Guard, Militant-Centrist, etc.) in election years and at political conventions. Up until 1936, they used various communications outlets to spread their gospel: the Rand School, the Jewish Daily Forward, a radio station, publications like the New Leader, and a summer camp.

In 1940, the American Labor Party favored FDR, who supported capitalism and war. Thomas acted as a spoiler, as he was still an anti-capitalist and pacifist. He bristled at Britain’s colonialism in India. Jews in New York City felt the need to fight Hitler, so their allegiance lay with FDR, especially after December 1941.

Arguably, Thomas engaged in hypocrisy in his choosing to ally with the Nazi-friendly Charles Lindbergh, but only because the latter wanted America to stay out of the war. Lindbergh, and Joseph P. Kennedy were the kinds of individuals who attached themselves to Hitler because they thought Germany would win the war. That way, in the end, they’d be on the winning side. They would get the spoils. Fortunately, on WWII, they guessed wrong.

Fast forward to spring 1960. After the U-2 incident, Thomas wrote, “… in the widely played game of peacetime espionage, we lie and cheat like the rest of them– only better, we now boast, because of our technical skill. In the anarchy of sovereign nations there are no morals, there is no crime, except to be caught.”

In summer 1963, Thomas, a Princeton University graduate, got his article published in the alumni magazine. He expressed his dismay that the school received a bit more than half (!) of its total budget from federal grants. He wanted to know what proportion of those were made on behalf of the Pentagon. No word on whether anyone answered him. Later, Thomas was bothered that the younger generation was rooting for the NLF and the Vietcong rather than trying to lobby LBJ to stop the Vietnam War. He advised them to wash, instead of burn, the American flag.

In the mid to late 1960’s, Thomas was able to push his causes because his articles were printed in the national, high-circulation Life and Playboy and Esquire magazines; he also did TV interviews with highly rated shows. Unfortunately, publicity is only a small ingredient that is part of the planning process in getting people to adopt causes. Thomas, even with all his popularity, lacked the other ingredients on and off during the entire course of his career: funding and executing (actually getting elected to office).

Read the book to learn of the numerous elective offices for which Thomas ran as a Socialist and his adventures in connection therewith globally: speaking, publishing and socializing with diplomats; of the details of decades-long Socialist Party infighting; the shocking revelation that came to light about the CIA in 1967; and much, much more.

ENDNOTE: This blogger would like to clarify once and for all, what characterizes a few different economic and political systems.

First:

With SOCIALISM, the people collectively own entities, and share and share alike. These can be profit-seeking businesses. The government can own entities that provide essential services, that should not be profit-seeking (but some of their subcontractors are, anyway), such as libraries, welfare, healthcare, early childhood education, infrastructure, and social programs.

With COMMUNISM, the government owns profit-seeking entities (businesses) in whole or in part (as in the former Soviet Union and China). So yes, these
include public-private partnerships in which there are clearly outrageous conflicts of interest that result in patronage and profiteering. So, arguably, the former Soviet Union and China have both Socialism and Communism to a large degree.

Also, see a bunch of this blog’s posts: Wikinomics, Here At the New Yorker (beginning with the 9th paragraph), Street Without A Name, Against the Grain, Crossing the River, and Patriot Number One. Lastly, see a bunch of excerpts from this blog’s posts:

  • Klima got a job with a construction crew [in Czechoslovakia in the 1950’s], where he got his first taste of socialism in action. “No one could earn more than was necessary for daily subsistence.” The government was stealing the economic surplus from the people. That was why corruption came into play. He was pressured into joining, surprise, surprise, the Communist Party. He said, “I was stunned by how the environment bubbled over with rancor, continual suspicion, malicious gossip, and personnel screening.”
  • Fast forward to 2007. Dubai’s small population of about a million citizens (mostly royal family members) allowed the government to adopt a socialist policy of generous entitlements, including an average annual $55,000 in stimulus money, and low-cost or no-cost: cooling of their lavish homes, car-fuel, food, education, healthcare, and water.
  • In late 1993, mayor Chirac [in Paris, France]– a socialist at heart– agreed to start a (no-charge) ambulance service for the homeless in Paris. By 1995, via the city council, against the wishes of the socialist (federal) government, he provided free medical care to 150,000 homeless people.
  • In the early 1920’s, “After 2 decades of debate and agitation, the rise and fall of Populist, Progressive and Socialist parties…” and lots of labor unrest, there was general consensus between government and American business “… that the role of government was not to supersede or control the corporation, but to legalize and legitimize it by regulating its excesses.” [As is well known, capitalism flourished until the late 1920’s.]
  • Because East Germany was a police state with a socialist mentality, the people availed themselves of a free university education. Merkel got hers, as well as a doctorate in nuclear physics. In exchange, she was required to work for the government for a specific period.
  • They examined democratic, autocratic and socialistic models of leadership. The most mature group was found in the first model. The second spawned a form of Nazism. The third model’s group members displayed resentment of lazy and non-cooperative individuals.
  • Although Communism preaches godlessness, the supervising Soviet government [in East Germany] allowed some religious activity among the local citizens. Merkel’s family was spied on by the Stasi- the secret police. It was cost-effective and efficient. For, all the socially dangerous elements (potential subversives) were in one place.
  • For four decades, Czechoslovakians forced to live under Communism had been told everything was great. In January 1990, Havel truthfully told his countrymen that the nation was in an economically, infrastructurally, environmentally and ethically horrible state. The younger generation who had been born into the Soviet mentality– unless they were dissidents– were obedient robots. So converting people to a capitalist, liberated, honest way of thinking was very difficult.
  • Blakely thought that bringing capitalism to them [Siberian people] would be a good thing. However, they soon developed an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. Once they were made of aware of their severe deprivation by the media and increased their connections with the rest of the world, they became depressed. Previously, they had been happy due to their ignorance of how materially poor they were.
  • After the Korean War, the Communist Party of North Korea oppressed business owners– who were considered evil capitalists, but praised farmers and peasants– who were considered virtuous; they served the Party. Adults were forced to attend self-criticism meetings every Saturday morning. The meeting leaders punished them by making them stand up against the wall while others stared at them. Around the time she started school, Jang and her mother went to a theater for the first time. They saw a movie written by their fearless leader, Kim il-sung. Of course, it ended happily because the peasants conquered the landlords.
  • Once in power [in 2000, Communist] Putin actually kick-started the Russian economy by nationalizing oil companies, and taking control of the gas industry and television.
  • In order for any native (Chinese) to prevail at a journalism career, joining the Communist Party was mandatory. This involved attending Party conferences on some weekends.
  • Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under [Communist] Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production.
  • 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.
  • He [Charles Koch] became a convert to it [Libertarianism] in its most extreme form. It espouses the belief that a purely capitalist society is the best economic system. This means total deregulation, no entitlements such as government-administered retirement or medical plans, no unions, no socialism of any kind, no income tax, and a government whose role is only to protect citizens and property from each other and outsiders, and from fraud. As a result of their political mentality, Charles and David could have cared less about the environmental destruction and wrongful deaths their company caused due to poorly maintained oil and gas pipelines. Perhaps to salve his conscience, David made huge donations to cultural institutions, especially in New York City. The liberals (hypocritically) gratefully accepted the money, notwithstanding David’s political activities that led to rack and ruin.
  • In the early 1990’s, [Soviet] leader Boris Yeltsin became a convert of [Jeffrey] Sachs. The result was mass corruption. On the other hand, this has helped the United States and other nations with already evolved [mostly] capitalist systems to maintain their economic dominance in the world. This blogger is not saying such a goal is right or wrong, but merely suggesting that this might have been Sachs’ goal.

***

Quiet Strength – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Quiet Strength, The Principles, Practices, & Priorities of A Winning Life” by Tony Dungy with Nathan Whitaker, published in 2007.

Born in 1954, Dungy grew up to become a professional football coach. In 1999, at an after-game press conference, he expressed his displeasure with the referees’ rulings and instant replays. He was fined by the then-NFL commissioner ten thousand dollars.

About four years later, and again, about six years later– an instant replay helped Dungy’s team win in the last play of the game. The way the former win occurred was unprecedented in that the team scored three touchdowns in the last four minutes of an away game on Monday night, against the latest Super Bowl winners, in his original hometown. On his birthday.

Dungy thought God had something to do with that. Read the book to learn much more about his religious bent, philosophy, and the different roles he played in his life, in addition to that of coach.

The Rape of Bangla Desh

The Book of the Week is “The Rape of Bangla Desh” by Anthony Mascarenhas, published in 1971.

In March 1969, Pakistan got a new leader named Khan. The reason was that dissatisfaction with Khan’s predecessor had reached critical mass among various parties that were keeping him in power, including the military.

Khan made the following campaign promises: “drain the swamp” in the government, and hold elections that would establish parliamentary (representative, civilian rather than military) government, pursuant to a constitution. The sovereignty of Pakistan had not held elections since its 1947 inception via the partition of India (amid excessive bloodshed, religious hatreds and a caste system that retarded the country’s economic, cultural and social growth for decades; see this blog’s post, “Freedom At Midnight”).

In November 1969, Khan claimed he was still working on the new constitution. He made other announcements on other issues that made it pretty obvious to politically astute people that he was turning out to be yet another dictator. He declared that Sind, Punjab, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier (in West Pakistan) would become separate states again, and changed how votes would be tabulated, territorially.

Khan set dates for steps that helped Pakistan prepare for its elections, which would allegedly be held in October 1970. But they weren’t. In early November 1970, a tidal wave and cyclone hit the coastal areas of East Bengal. Khan then had a great excuse to postpone the elections until December.

Khan wrote the new constitution, which contained “small print”– a Legal Framework Order– that basically gave Khan unlimited powers; plus murky language that would cause endless arguments over the application and jurisdiction of laws between the provinces and Pakistan’s federal government.

However, in his evil scheme to become Pakistan’s supreme ruler through “divide and conquer” Khan’s new vote-tabulation method allowed Bengalis (of East Pakistan) to obtain too much representation in the national assembly, in the elections (when they were finally held). West Pakistanis became resentful, although they had previously enjoyed the lion’s share of control of governmental affairs for decades.

By February 1971, Khan had been executing various political machinations, including dissolving his civilian Cabinet. He said that he couldn’t let civilians rule Pakistan’s government just yet, as there was a national-security emergency– conflicts among East and West Pakistan, and India. The military had to handle them.

Unsurprisingly, in the first week of March 1971, there began more than three weeks’ worth of violence, rioting and looting, with Bengalis’ agitating to become an independent Bangladesh. To sum it up, “Pakistanis are intensely patriotic people and could not for one moment believe that their government was deliberately misinforming them so terribly.”

Read the book to learn the details of this “textbook example” of how actions taken by an alpha male with hubris syndrome (whose actions backfired!) led to circumstances that resulted in independence for a specific group of people in a particular territory (not without: serious sacrifices of human lives, the usual ethnic, tribal and religious warfare– including what some have defined as genocide; plus linguistic and other issues, and millions of refugees).

The Foreigner’s Gift – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Foreigner’s Gift, The Americans, the Arabs and the Iraqis in Iraq” by Fouad Ajami, published in 2006. This was a repetitive, non-chronological mishmash of the author’s observations about the history of the Middle East intertwined with goings-on in Iraq up until the book’s writing.


The author, an American citizen, grew up in a Shia family in Lebanon. He interviewed all kinds individuals– soldiers, students, government officials, academics, etc.– of different religions, different sects, during his visits to different regions of Iraq in 2003, 2004 and 2005. There were conflicting reports of whether ordinary Iraqis viewed the Americans as “occupiers” or “liberators.”

The author argued that American president George W. Bush wanted to spark a pan-Arab reform movement in the Middle East by attacking Iraq. However, clearly, the American vice president’s motive was profiteering. Yet– anyone who has read his or her history and has basic knowledge about human nature, would know that centuries-old hostilities and hatreds between the Sunnis and Shias is never going to be resolved; not even by someone like Mahatma Gandhi!

Gandhi stopped the fighting between Hindus and Muslims only momentarily. Even he had a crack public relations team who got him featured prominently in the history books, as someone who was more powerful than he actually was. Suffice to say, the American presence in Iraq in the past thirty years has been yet another instance of too many alpha males with hubris syndrome who won their propaganda war. For decades, they have refused to take lessons from seeing military conflicts ranging from: the 1950’s end of French colonialism in Indochina to the 1947 partition of India to the 1980’s civil war in Lebanon, and many others.

Of course, oil threw a wrench in the works. Now, almost twenty years later, the current American government is making a much more aggressive push to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. This, by constantly reminding its citizens that they can assist with energy-related initiatives that arguably slow the changing of planet earth’s atmospheric conditions, that adversely affect humans; changing that has allegedly been caused by humans. So the energy-related issue is a whole other ball of wax now.

But human nature doesn’t change. In America (never mind Iraq), there are still racial tensions and cancel culture. Plus, there is an incidental ideological aspect to the masking order of the COVID crisis: that of forcing Westernized, yet religious Muslim males to empathize with their female relatives. The males now know how it feels to be required to cover their faces.

Read the book to learn of the good consequences and bad consequences of removing Saddam Hussein from power, as seen through many interviewees’ eyes, and the author’s take on the situation, given his knowledge of Middle East history.

The Life and Times of Little Richard

The Book of the Week is “The Life and Times of Little Richard, The Quasar of Rock” by Charles White, published in 1984. This story included quotes from people who knew the subject, and quotes from the subject himself. WARNING: As is well known, Little Richard was a rock star; this volume described graphic sex scenes.

Born in Macon, Georgia, Richard Penniman was the third child of thirteen born to a teenage mother in December 1932. He was a problem child and class clown, having a crying need for constant attention. Fortunately, he was supervised and disciplined by a tight-knit African-American community that encouraged his talent, so although he was always getting into trouble, he avoided doing serious harm to people or damaging property, or becoming a career-criminal. Throughout his life, he vacillated between singing religious music, and singing music he perceived as banned by his religion.

At a young age, Richard began singing gospel music with a group of other kids organized by an adult from the local church. His mother was raised as a Baptist; his father, a Methodist. He himself preferred to attend a Pentecostal church. In high school, he learned to play the saxophone in a marching band. In the 1950’s he saw traveling musicians at the local concert hall, and even got to meet a few of the greats of that era, such as Cab Calloway.

At fourteen years old, Richard left home to become a singer in the floor-show of a literal traveling snake-oil-salesman. He soon transferred his talents to singing and developing his own style of attention-grabbing choreography, with a band that played the standards, that traveled all over the state of Georgia. Over the next few years, he performed with a series of bands, met lots of people in the community, and attended numerous shows of the period– minstrel, vaudeville and night-club.

In October 1951, Richard got his first recording-contract with RCA. He was to deal with various music companies in the years to come. At that time, he was singing rhythm and blues, and wore a pompadour. He sang other people’s songs. He soon switched to rock and roll.

Later, Richard’s signature song got lots of laughs from night-club audiences for its initial obscene lyrics– “Tutti Frutti, good booty – if it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, make it easy…” Of course, the song had to be rewritten to be played on the radio. Richard resented the fact that Pat Boone (a white singer) sang a cover version that was made number one in the radio countdown. Richard’s own concert audiences were about 90% white.

In the 1950’s, the back room of a furniture store served as a recording studio. The space was large enough to accommodate a full orchestra and grand piano. But someone had to make adjustments for the acoustics of the room via careful placement of microphones and locating the drummer outside the door.

After a while, Richard realized he had been repeatedly cheated of reasonable compensation, given his talent and how hard he worked. In the mid-1950’s, pursuant to his contract, he made half a cent for each record sold.

The powers-that-be obviously knew how to maximize profits– the early rhythm and blues holding-companies had music-publishing companies, which owned the record companies. One way Richard and his concert-entourage wised up, was to demand half their pay when they signed a contract, and collect their remaining pay just before they went onstage. Or else they wouldn’t go onstage.

Richard eventually accumulated sufficient wealth to buy a house for his mother and siblings in the Sugar Hill district of West Los Angeles, next door to Joe Louis. Other famous singers such as Elvis, Bill Haley and Buddy Holly began covering Richard’s songs. When Richard gave concerts with his band, the Upsetters, he wore crazy clothes, makeup and had long hair. The band members got their hair done at a beauty salon. At one performance in El Paso, Texas, Richard was arrested for having that long hair.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on Richard’s life, including what transpired when: Richard found God again, stopped his drug addiction, alcoholism and promiscuity, had to deal with racial issues, and much more.

Daughter of Destiny / Getting Away With Murder

The first Book of the Week is “Daughter of Destiny, An Autobiography” by Benazir Bhutto, published in 1989.

“If you do not appoint me president along with my team, then I’m afraid I’ll have to explore other options. I may even have to start my own party. I will be your biggest opposition.”

-said to Benazir in late 1984 by one of the Old Guard PPP members in exile in London

Upon the initial sovereignty of Pakistan in 1947, there was an egalitarian climate in terms of gender– women could join the country’s National Guard. Born the oldest of four siblings in June 1953 in Karachi, Benazir Bhutto began studying at Radcliffe College (the sister school to Harvard) in 1969. There, she made many friends who achieved high positions in the world, affording her political assistance through the years.

The Bhuttos were something akin to a royal family in Pakistan in the second half of the twentieth century. They were one of the largest tribes in Sindh. They were Muslim, and most of their members lived in Larkana where they had plantations of rice, sugar cane, cotton and guava. Females inherited land when their relatives died, but their marriages were arranged.

Benazir’s grandfather was progressive in permitting his female descendants to get an education. Ironically, many families didn’t educate their sons because the sons were almost guaranteed a living from supervising servants who worked the land.

Benazir’s father– Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a Sunni, studied abroad at the University of California at Berkeley, and then Oxford University’s law school in England. Benazir’s mother, a Shiite, was: a second-generation Iranian, allowed to forgo covering herself up with clothing, and allowed to drive a car.

As is well known, through the centuries, there has been almost non-stop tribal and religious warfare in the territory that has become Pakistan. In the 1960’s, the major sites of bloodshed included the Kashmir, the Punjab and Sindh. In 1967, Zulfikar (Benazir’s father), a wildly popular government minister experienced in various political areas, helped form the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). In 1974, Zulfikar, as a master diplomatic negotiator, participated in talks over the territory that was to become Bangladesh.

In March 1976, Zulfikar was elected president of Pakistan. He nationalized major corporations, re-allocated land to peasants and outlawed gender discrimination in employment and government. Pairs of groups engaged in constant conflict: separatists in certain regions of Pakistan fought with those who believed the people would be better served by a federal government; rich opposed poor; landowners tangled with the educated, etc. Surprisingly, most of Pakistan’s population was still illiterate.

In the first half of the 1970’s, Zulfikar and his ilk continued to anger the United States with their actions. The leader spoke out against the Vietnam War, made friendly overtures to China, and took the Arab side in the Yom Kippur War.

Beginning around the middle of 1976, the French were teaching the Pakistanis how to make nuclear weapons. The latter were having a little spat with India besides. So the following year, the newly elected president Jimmy Carter secretly sicced the CIA on Zulfikar. It collaborated with the PPP’s rival party, the PNA (comprised of thugs, arsonists and sociopathic sadists with weaponry) to commit black-market currency manipulation to lower the value of the American dollar. Predictably, there were ugly consequences.

Carter and Ronald Reagan after him, like all American presidents, had to decide the kinds and amounts of aid to give to, or withhold from nations such as Pakistan, with its human rights abuses and temptation from the Soviets to adopt Communist policies in exchange for financial aid and weaponry.

As is well known, Pakistan borders on Afghanistan, in which the Soviets militarily insinuated themselves in late 1979. There were complicated economic, trade and geopolitical considerations– including a huge number of Afghan refugees– which as usual, were favored over stemming abusive treatment of ordinary Pakistanis by their government.

In July 1977, Zia ul-Haq, a general, had finally gained sufficient sway over Pakistan’s military to arrest and jail Zulfikar. Zia canceled the elections and declared Martial Law when he saw that there was still huge support among common Pakistanis for the Party (PPP). In October 1979, the Bhutto family’s newspaper was shuttered. The remaining media outlets of course, were censored by dictator Zia. Political parties were outlawed.

Dissidents, including Benazir and her mother (who, for some years stayed and fought, and other years, fled the country until there was less danger of assassination) were subjected to the usual Third-World-country human-rights abuses.

There was the vicious cycle of arrests on false charges, jailings with horrible conditions, arbitrary releases and re-arrests on different, absurd charges; firing on protesters– killing hundreds or thousands (accurate documentation was hard to come by, as foreign journalists were censored or banned from the country during the worst years of the oppression). For, the government controlled the courts, the army, and the media.

By the 1980’s, Pakistan was making a transition from military dictatorship to theocracy, as Zia supported the Wahhabis. However, on and off through the years, Zia must have still cared about world opinion because international complaints prompted him to, among making other concessions, allow Benazir and her mother at different times to be released from jail to receive
treatment abroad for serious medical conditions.

Anne Fadiman, a writer for Life magazine recounted an interesting experience riding in a car with Benazir going to a political rally in August 1986. Benazir stood on the seat with her head through the open sunroof (or emergency exit) when police officers started spraying tear gas. Incidentally, that tear gas was made in America, by Smith & Wesson.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on Pakistan’s political history from the 1970’s up until the book’s writing as seen through Benazir’s eyes and personal experiences (Hint– it involved the usual, repetitive dictatorial shenanigans), and how she portrayed herself as the new Mahatma Gandhi toward the end of the story, in the spring of 1986, amid riots in Karachi over identity politics, and identity cards for voting).

The second Book of the Week is “Getting Away With Murder, Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan” by Heraldo Munoz, published in 2014.

The author wrote, “The commission soon encountered a country deeply skeptical of authority and the justice system because of widespread corruption , abundant behind-the-scenes political deal making, and the regular impunity that had met previous unsolved political assassinations [which included Benazir Bhutto’s brother; her father’s was a death sentence but an assassination nevertheless].”

From its founding in 1947 through the first decade of the twenty-first century, Pakistan has had a European-style / military / theocratic government, each of which has waxed and waned with the vicissitudes of geopolitical shenanigans.

In mid-2004, the United States persuaded Pakistan’s leader Pervez Musharraf (who was turning into a dictator) to plan to give up his generalship in the Pakistani military and exile himself at some future date at U.S. taxpayer expense (because he knew the tide was turning against him), rather than the alternative. Benazir was considering returning to Pakistan to run for the top leadership position in an election, when Musharraf’s latest term was supposedly going to expire.

Talks also dragged on for three years between Musharraf and Benazir over a proposed power-sharing arrangement. Always a bad idea. For, a co-prime-ministership would certainly have failed. In the vast majority of cases, with a more-or-less democratic government, there can be only one leader.

Two very different people such as they, unrelated by marriage or blood are highly unlikely to have enough common vision, complementary talents and skills, and strategic interests to cooperate enough of the time to make it work.

Elections to governing bodies and top leaders in Pakistan were scheduled for January 2008. Benazir Bhutto had, in the past, been at various times– top leader, party leader, jailed, in exile, and physically present– mentored by her father who led Pakistan before her in the 1970’s.

Conspiracy theories abounded surrounding the circumstances of Benazir’s December 2007 assassination in Rawalpindi. A few bullets allegedly penetrated her head (or not– she allegedly bumped her head on the lever controlling the sunroof / emergency exit of the vehicle in which she was standing up with her head exposed to rally-supporters / protesters / political enemies), plus a suicide bomber’s explosives detonated near her vehicle that might have contributed to her death.

However, the fact that she was killed should have come as no surprise. She knew she was at risk for harm, considering that all political leaders are surrounded by security at all times, even those from democratic countries. Ones from Third World countries like Benazir, are especially vulnerable to physical danger from political rivals.

Just one day prior, terror attacks against her supporters in the form of two explosions in Karachi left hundreds wounded and dead. The then-leader of Pakistan’s military dictatorship who had grabbed power in a 1999 coup– the aforementioned Musharraf– refused to allow the FBI or Scotland Yard to investigate, not wanting to appear to be a puppet of the West (though he so obviously was).

A year and half later (!!) (rather than the next day), in February 2009, the United Nations (UN) began an inquiry into Benazir’s death. It wasn’t meant to result in any trial or punishment, but was simply a way for the investigators to remain relevant, and counter the Pakistan government’s historical revisionism with their own.

The author was named to the UN Commission of Inquiry, which traveled three times to Pakistan. Read the book to learn much more about the history of Pakistan and his experiences in trying to get the facts on the events that led to Benazir’s death.

The Bookseller of Kabul / The Bin Ladens

The First Book of the Week is “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad, translated by Ingrid Christophersen, originally published in 2002.

“To him, power is more important than peace. He’s mad enough to jeopardize the lives of thousands just so he can be in charge. I can’t imagine why the Americans want to cooperate with a man like that.”

-Said of the Afghan warlord Padsha Khan, who took over Central Asia after the Taliban left in 2002.

The Americans hired Khan to look for members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The warlord used the American-provided money, weapons (such as B-52’s and F-16 fighter planes), communications devices (such as a satellite phone) and intelligence devices (all of which were also provided to the warlord’s enemies) to kill his enemies in a local conflict in the provinces– instead of seeking America’s enemies.

This paperback tersely yet effectively described the culture of strict Muslim households as seen through the lifestyle (as dictated by its eventual patriarch, Sultan, the oldest son– the favorite child) of a few generations and branches of the Khan family tree. Crazy about books, in the early 1970’s, Sultan opened his first bookshop in Kabul. With his obsessively hard work, his business grew to three shops in a few decades.

As is well known, in September 1996, Afghanistan became a theocracy under the Taliban. Sultan’s behavior and attitudes was typical for a man of his generation and entrepreneurial bent. He traveled to Tehran, Tashkent and Moscow to acquire all kinds of books to sell. He did jail time for offering subversive ones. In Afghanistan, there was actually book-burning in November 1999.

Sultan decreed that his sons quit high school to manage his stores, and his wife performed the administrative work. During the most politically oppressive times, he, his wife and four children lived in Pakistan. After the Taliban were driven out of his native land of Afghanistan in 2002, his family returned. War was the order of the day for his son’s entire seventeen-year lifetime, as the country then devolved into civil war among warlords.

Against the wishes of his extended family and his first wife, Sultan married a sixteen-year old girl. The girl’s family needed the customary gifts bestowed on them, including supplies, food and animals.

Sultan risked his life, paying people-smugglers in order to go to Pakistan primarily to visit business contacts (and his family), as, after 9/11, the country closed its border with Afghanistan. Lahore in Pakistan had no regard for intellectual property laws, so Sultan could get two to three thousand percent profit margins on stolen texts of books he had printed there. The kind of lawlessness that existed on the Afghan side of the Khyber pass included a free-for-all on hashish and weaponry.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional characteristics about Sultan’s culture, such as wedding rituals, pilgrimages, and about the draconian segregation of the sexes and enforced inferiority of the females.

The Second Book of the Week is “The Bin Ladens, An Arabian Family in the American Century” by Steve Coll, published in 2008.

This large volume described the culture of what Americans would consider to be a huge family of Middle Easterners with the last name Bin Laden, whose households ranged from the strictly Muslim to the very Westernized, over a few generations and branches of its family tree.

Born around the dawn of the twentieth century, one of the family’s major patriarchs was the entrepreneurial Mohamed, a construction contractor who played well with others, and joined the Hadhrami community in Yemen. He kissed up to the Saudi Arabian government in order to build his business.

In the mid-1930’s, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud began to reap riches from oil. This led to various developments in terms of the evolution of the country’s infrastructure and acquisition of Western aid.

During WWII, Great Britain and the United States lavished copious monetary assistance on Saudi Arabia to keep it away from Communist temptations. The Saudis opted to pave roads instead of building railway lines, as automobiles would allow them to prosper by selling oil. Aramco, the jointly owned American and Saudi oil company, did business with Mohamed, too.

Strictly Muslim, Mohamed– a polygamist, was a typical man for his time and place. Of his 54 children, his oldest son, Salem, was born in the mid-1940’s. As such, Salem grew up to become chair of several multi-national corporations his father eventually grew, that built mosques, dams and reservoirs, and renovated the buildings and grounds of pilgrimage regions and military installations.

At the dawn of the 1950’s, the Bin Ladens’ companies were awarded business by the Saudi government partly because American contractors couldn’t deal with the Saudis, as the Saudis were too corrupt. Even so, the Saudi government’s officials, who were big spenders living high on the hog, went deep into debt, and turned out to be bad payers.

About a decade later, Mohamed’s businesses, which were developing structurally complicated kinds of shell companies– acquired a reputation for inexperienced laborers, doing shoddy work and missing deadlines.

President John F. Kennedy initially supported Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1962, but the latter sent guerrilla soldiers to Yemen to agitate for a new government there, and exchanged hostile words with Saudi Arabia’s government. In 1963, the United States changed its mind, probably for various secret geopolitical reasons.

In order to protect Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier from Nasser’s imperialist aspirations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cooperated with Great Britain to provide the Saudis with missiles and military infrastructure there. Mohamed’s contribution was to build roads.

Osama was one of Mohamed’s biological sons, born in January 1958, when his mother was about fifteen years old. His parents divorced in his early childhood. His mother remarried. Mohamed died when he was nine years old. During (what would be equivalent to) junior high school, he joined an after-school Islamic study group. He was later recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood; an anti-Nasser, Koran-purist group approved of by Saudi Arabia’s king in the early 1970’s.

That was a time of foreign-policy contradictions for the Saudis and the West. In 1973, the former imposed an oil embargo meant to harm the Americans (for helping the Israelis), Egyptians and Syrians. At the same time, the Saudis accepted financial aid from the Americans, as the former supplied oil to the latter’s troops in Vietnam. The Saudis also purchased vast quantities of U.S. Treasury Bonds.

Salem became the leader of a few of the most Westernized branches of the family (his younger siblings), encouraging the education of females. He purchased properties in the United States, and began to collect private jets. His relatives had identity crises, caught between two cultures.

At seventeen years old, Osama married a fourteen-year old. She bore him a son, and pursuant to the Koran, he obeyed a laundry list of prohibitions: didn’t covet his neighbor’s wife, and banned photography, music, gambling and alcohol from his life. He did, however, teach his children hunting and shooting, and seemed to have no problem with violating certain religious laws. He quit college and entered the family business.

In early 1985, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and Salem met with American president Ronald Reagan. The king secretly funneled money to a Cayman Islands account to fund the Contras (of the infamous Iran-Contra affair).

Read the book to learn how numerous other historical events shaped the activities of Salem and Osama and vice versa through the second half of the twentieth century into the new millennium.

ENDNOTE: Even with all the information the author was able to glean– the story was like Swiss cheese. The United States has suffered the usual in terms of intelligence-gathering in recent decades: incompetence, hubris and inter-agency rivalry, not to mention political and economic inter-dependence between the Arabs and the United States. Other wrenches in the works include the complex web of Bin Laden business dealings and entities, many of which are offshore. Enough said.

City of Gold

The Book of the Week is “City of Gold, Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism” by Jim Krane, published in 2009.
Location and entrepreneurial opportunists played a big role in making the city of Dubai the westernized hub of modernity it is today. It is located across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
Beginning in 1894, Dubai’s ruling family paved the way for it to become a trading hub, providing financial incentives to Arab, Persian, Indian and Baluchi merchants to use Dubai’s port rather than Iran’s ports. However, a side effect of prosperous trade invited smuggling of black-market goods including firearms, gold, slaves, diamonds and drugs.
The mid-twentieth century finally saw the game- changing discovery of oil in Dubai. In September 1958, the city got a new ruling sheikh who began to introduce better living to his people through infrastructure and utilities. In December 1971, Dubai and other territories in the region shed their British-protectorate status. At the last minute, Iran made a land-grab, but the remaining areas of the seven sheikhdoms became the United Arab Emirates.

Abu Dhabi held 88% of the land and 90% of the oil. So, through the 1970’s, Dubai’s ruling family further reduced Dubai’s financial dependence on oil by branching out into trade, construction and services– importing cheap labor to do it. The city built an aluminum smelter, a seaport and a dry dock– which in the 1980’s, repaired vessels from Iran that were damaged in its war with Iraq. The gentrification trend inevitably involved a little eminent-domain abuse, Arab-style, but Dubai citizens and capitalist expatriates needed luxurious places to live in the desert.

From the late 1990’s into the 2000’s, with the introduction of the Internet, Dubai lured the world’s biggest technology and media companies with generous financial incentives, building corporate villages for them. In 2000, Dubai allowed foreigners to buy real estate. The following year, the city had a stock market.

After 9/11, Arab investors transferred their money from the United States to Dubai. In February 2006, New York State Senator Charles Schumer and the media whipped up a frenzy of anti-Arab hysteria by telling the public that Dubai owned some of America’s most important Eastern-Seaboard ports. Hillary Clinton and hate-spewing pundits piled on. “Yet Dubai and the UAE remained among America’s closest Arab counter-terror Allies, even though the United States government has problems with Dubai’s freewheeling trade with Iran.”

Fast forward to 2007. Dubai’s small population of about a million citizens (mostly royal family members) allowed the government to adopt a socialist policy of generous entitlements, including an average annual $55,000 in stimulus money, and low-cost or no-cost: cooling of their lavish homes, car-fuel, food, education, healthcare, and water.

One last factoid: Dubai keeps its population safe because “The government is on the lookout for any form of radical expression, whether it’s Saudi Wahhabism, Salafism, or radical Shiite theology from Iraq and Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot operate openly.”

Read the book to learn about: how the British stifled Dubai’s growth, and many more details on the city’s political, economic and cultural history, beginning with ancient times.