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Book Review

The Arab Lobby Ruling America Exposed by Author Mitchell Bard

September 6th 2010

Book Covers - Arab Lobby

The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East. Mitchell Bard. 432 pages. Harper.

While the media and politicians engage in frenzied debate about the virtues and vices of building—or preventing the building of—a Muslim community center (cum mosque) near the "sacred ground" of 9/11, Iran continues to build a nuclear weapon, as the Israelis and Palestinians take a tentative step toward building a peaceful resolution to their age-old conflict. Inevitably, whenever Middle East issues take center stage, the question of the role of lobbies, particularly those that advocate for foreign countries, becomes a hot topic. This book by longtime Middle East authority, Mitchell Bard, is a must read for anyone who cares—and who doesn't?—about the role of lobbies in influencing American policy in the Middle East. Its thesis, which is sure to be controversial, is easily summarized: "If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you'd be surprised how much better friends you have when they are just coming into office."

Yes Virginia, there is a big bad lobby that distorts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East way out of proportion to its actual support by the American public. Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, author of the screed, The Israel Lobby, are right about that. But the offending lobby is not AIPAC, which supports Israel, but rather the Arab lobby, which opposes the Jewish state. Read more ..

Book Review

Live in the Future Now if You Can Prepare Today

September 6th 2010

Book Covers - I live in the Future

I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works. Nick Bilton. Crown Business. 304 pages.

Toward the end of Nick Bilton's stimulating and provocative new book, he quotes the visionary science fiction author of Neuromancer, William Gibson: "The future is already here — it is just distributed unevenly,'' and that's about right. Some of us readily embrace new technology and are early adopters. Others move more cautiously, either clinging to whatever older technology they came up with, or treading carefully with the new stuff, though only when forced to do so by bosses and/or clients.

It's pretty clear that we're still in the midst of a metamorphosis that's transforming the ways we live, play and work. Bilton, a talented journalist, is the lead writer for the New York Times ``Bits'' blog, a cool position that barely existed a few years ago. He also toiled in the Times' R&D Lab, which sounds like a fun gig, testing different technologies as the Gray Lady tries to stave off its extinction.

Bilton is a good writer and an inquisitive reporter. His book is sort of a quick survey of the changes in technology and its effects on the human interface. His palpable fascination with the digital landscape makes this an enjoyable and breezy read, despite the fact that some of the stops along the way are pretty serious indeed. Read more ..

Film Review

Life during Wartime

September 6th 2010

Film - Life during Wartime

We watch so you don't have to - not that you (or anybody else) would want to. I notice that, three weeks into its domestic release, Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, a movie that cost $4.5 million to make, had grossed $154,455 at the box office. Anyone who saw Mr. Solondz's Happiness (1998), to which his new movie is something between a sequel and a remake, will have no difficulty understanding why. It is even more gloomy and miserable than its predecessor, though no less ambitious. In Happiness, the slightly saving grace was that you were just about able to glimpse a world outside the hell to which Mr. Solondz had consigned his characters - a world in which Happiness itself could have been something more than the savage irony he treated it as. He's still at it in Wartime, but now this patch of blue is no longer visible. The dark clouds of misery envelop everyone completely. Like Happiness, it is a movie about sexual perversion and, especially, child rape, but now Mr. Solondz attempts to equate these things with terrorism, at least as we fear it in the post 9/11 world. Hence the title. Read more ..

Book Review

Creating the College Man Will Educate About Education

August 30th 2010

Book Topics - Creating the College Man

Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915. Daniel Clark. University of Wisconsin Press. 2010. 256 pp.

Daniel Clark begins by quoting a grumpy Andrew Carnegie: “A college education unfits rather than fits men to affairs.” Clark, a historian at Indiana State University, then spends the rest of his monograph showing how popular new, mass-audience magazines, including “Collier’s Weekly,” “Munsey’s Magazine,” “Cosmopolitan,” and the “Saturday Evening Post” contributed to dramatically changing that stereotype.

“American mass magazines,” says Clark, “spearheaded a cultural reconstruction of college and middle-class masculinity…in the years surrounding 1900, as they emerged as a central national cultural forum, our nation’s first truly national media.”

Clark thus posits an answer to the important question of how and why the undergraduate college experience, previously limited to tiny fraction of the population, increasingly came to be considered an important, even essential, part of middle class life. Read more ..

Film Review

The Extra Man Delivers a Gem of Propriety and Coming of Age

August 23rd 2010

Film - The Extra Man

Light-hearted, unpredictable, upbeat, and original. Enjoyable, sophisticated, witty and unexpected. Besides being incomplete sentences, these words succinctly sum up how I feel about The Extra Man. But what? You need more, you say? You don't trust catchy little blurbs that neatly fit on DVD covers? Well, I say "NO! That's enough!"

Okay, so Kevin Kline actually said that, in one of the many wonderful passing moments that infuse The Extra Man with charm and good nature. The film is a unique blend of sweetness and mature comedy with a strong literary style that manages to remain extremely tasteful in light of some of the subject matters it addresses. This is due in part to Kevin Kline's character of Henry Harrison but also to the young Louis Ives, his flat-mate, who fancies himself the protagonist of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. One of the key recurring themes of the movie is the concept of propriety, a word that has virtually lost all meaning in today's society.

Henry and Louis are both struggling to be gentlemen in a world that has made the need for them almost obsolete. It is refreshing to watch smart men who care about their appearance actually behaving considerately and modestly. The Extra Man is not only a throwback to 20's literature but to the early days of the silver screen when foul language and toilet humor were not the only elements necessary to produce well-liked movies. Not to say that the film doesn't have it moments of modernism and adult content, but they are not the focus. Rather, they serve to establish character, and are quickly moved on from as a means to an end. Read more ..

Book Review

Why the Dreyfuss Affair Matters and the Fragility of Civilization

August 23rd 2010

Book Covers - Why the Dreyfuss Affair still matters

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. Louis Begley. Yale University Press. 2009. 272 pages.

The Third French Republic (1870–1914) was no stranger to political scandals. One of these scandals, the famous “Dreyfus affair,” shook 19th century French society to the core and its reverberations filtered across a Europe beset by political and nationalist rivalries. This scandal has since entered the political lexicon as a cipher for abuse of power and unjust judicial processes yet it is unclear how many people today are aware of the basic facts underpinning the story.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an esteemed and efficient Jewish military officer in the French army. When it was discovered that an unknown traitor had been passing military secrets to the German army during the Franco-Prussian war, the military establishment closed ranks to lay the blame on Captain Dreyfus. The only evidence offered was a piece of paper with handwriting which was claimed, incorrectly, to be his. He was found guilty of treason and exiled on Devil’s Island off French Guyana, where his inhumane treatment would have left lesser men dead. Another military officer, Colonel Georges Picquart, had traced the real culprit, a Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, but Esterhazy was acquitted after a brief trial.

The acquittal of Esterhazy prompted the brave intervention of the French novelist, Emile Zola. Zola’s famous “J’accuse” article in the press in 1898 set out the reasons why Dreyfus was innocent of the charges laid against him and, controversially, declared that the army had acted illegally in charging Dreyfus. After a second trial and a timely intervention from the President of France, Emile Loubet, Dreyfus was finally cleared of all charges in 1906. He was subsequently reinstated into the French Army and regained his promoted rank, although failing health hastened his discharge from the army. He died in 1935. Read more ..

Book Review

Memories of “The Forgotten War” Invokes a Powerful Image

August 16th 2010

Book Covers - Korean War - Cumings

Bruce Cumings. The Korean War: A History. Random House, 2010. 320 pages.

Overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War has long been the “forgotten war” in American memory. Apart from a few notable exceptions, American historians have predominantly accepted the standard propaganda that the Communist North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—DPRK) was singularly responsible for provoking the war by invading the Southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and carried out myriad atrocities, justifying U.S. action. Mainstream analysts and commentators similarly devour Washington’s line that North Korea today is a threat to humanity which should be contained and its leaders overthrown.

Bruce Cumings’s book The Korean War: A History shatters these conceptions and shows in vivid detail that the Korean War was among the most misguided, unjust, and murderous wars fought by the United States in its history, displaying many of the features of the Vietnam War that aroused mass public protest. Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, writes: “Here was the Vietnam War we came to know before Vietnam—gooks, napalm, rapes, whores, an unreliable ally … untrained GIs fighting a war their generals barely understood, fragging of officers … press handouts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters apparently scripted by comedians or lunatics, an ostensible vision of bringing freedom and liberty to a sordid dictatorship run by servants of Japanese imperialism.” Read more ..

Film Review

Inception Will Make Your Brain Hurt

August 16th 2010

Film - Inception

Christopher Nolan makes my brain hurt. I mean that in the best way possible. Thank goodness there are still original ideas left in Hollywood. They are so clouded by storms of remakes, sequels, and adaptations that when an original script actually appears it is a ray of sunshine in the dark landscape of major motion pictures. Inception is just this, a shining beacon of hope that the money-hungry empire of Hollywood can still produce a blockbuster that is well written, thought provoking and visually stimulating.

Nolan's writing dares to make you think, hard and a lot. I understand that not everyone goes to the movies to be mentally challenged and forced to pay attention, but for those of us bored with formulaic actions flicks and the paint-by-numbers romantic comedies that even a small child could predict the outcome of, Inception is a dream come true. Oh no, is that a spoiler? Wink wink.

If you are at all familiar with Nolan's body of work you know that he is a master of tricks and surprises in his story lines, reminiscent of Hitchcock (ie: Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige). With that said, I'm not really going to discuss the plot other than to tell you it could be called a psychological thriller based on the premise that a human's dreams can be entered by other sleeping beings. The main purpose of this mental invasion is to extract information locked in the dreamer's subconscious, but the conflict of the film occurs when the opposite action is proposed: to plant a foreign idea into the dreamer's mind that will hopefully affect their behavior in real life. Read more ..

Book Review

Girls On The Edge: The Four Factors Driving the Crisis

August 9th 2010

Book Covers - Girls on Edge

Girls On The Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls. Leonard Sax. Basic Books. 2010. 272 pages.

When Leonard Sax, doctor, psychologist and promoter of single sex education, wrote his second book, Boys Adrift, in 2005 he tapped into a widespread concern that boys were doing badly in education and social development. The girls are fine, people said, pointing to their superior academic performance, but the boys were in trouble.

After 15 years in family practice Sax knew that was not true. Sure, the girls were hardworking and achieving, but those traits often had an obsessive character that was the flip side of the boys’ retreat into their bedrooms with World of Warcraft and a bit of porn on the side.

Increasingly, girls he dealt with in his practice were fixated on some ideal -- to be the top student, the top athlete, the girl who’s really thin -- to the point where failure could bring on a major existential crisis, if not psychological collapse.

Beyond his office, observation, research and lots of contact with girls’ schools showed that an increasing proportion of girls were locked in a cyberbubble. When not honing their image on Facebook they were texting non-stop, keeping the cellphone under their pillow at night and under the desk at school, so that they could receive messages (“OMG, I thought you were Jason’s girlfriend but I just found out that…”) 24/7, and picking up a double-shot espresso coffee on their way to school to stay awake. Read more ..

Movie Review

No. 4 Our Lady Street: A Reflection of Grace Amidst the Holocaust

August 9th 2010

Film - Number 4 Street of Our Lady
No. 4 Street of Our Lady

It is not every day that we sit down to watch a documentary, especially one with such serious subject matter as the Holocaust. With work, friends, spouses, children, pets and the many other numerous tasks that make up our daily lives, it's hard to make time for anything besides recreational viewings. But if you find yourself with a spare 90 minutes, consider the award-winning No. 4 Street of Our Lady, a recent documentary produced by Judy Maltz that has been 65 years in the making.

The film will not only educate you on a little known event in the history of the Holocaust, but also will also move you emotionally and enlighten you to another level of respect for the strength of the human character. The world will never lose the need for remembrance of its past or of its heroes, and this film addresses both in an effective and stimulating manner. Read more ..

Book Review

The Insurgents and Patriots of America’s Revolutions

August 2nd 2010

Book Covers - American Patiots

American Insurgents, American Patriots. T.H. Breen. Hill and Wang. 2010. 252 pages.

Ask anyone when the United States became an independent nation, and many will answer with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Others will cite the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Perhaps some will say not until victory at Yorktown in 1781, or even the Treaty of Paris in 1783. But in this compellingly structured and argued book, T.H. Breen asserts that a de facto nation came into existence between the spring and fall of 1774. It was in these crucial months that the people of the thirteen colonies -- not the Founding Fathers, not the Continental Army, not the maladroit British government -- executed a series of steps that collectively solved problems of governance and demonstrated how a republic could be successfully constituted.

What's even more surprising is that Breen makes this somewhat counter-intuitive argument, one rooted in a social history sensibility, in the form of a chronological narrative. He achieves this cohesion despite lacking a discrete sense of leading characters or a dramatic set of circumstances (the most consequential event of his story is actually a rumor). The result is a book that's highly readable as well as provocative.

Breen's story begins in the aftermath of the notorious Boston Tea Party of December 1773, when a group of colonists dressed as Indians dumped a shipment premium tea from the East India Company into Boston harbor. What matters about the Tea Party, Breen says, is not that a group of radicals -- he calls them, as they called themselves, "insurgents" -- destroyed imperial property by throwing it overboard. Nor is it that the government of Lord North responded with a series of laws that came to be known as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts (depending on which side you were on), which included the closing of the port of Boston and a series of new rules that denied local colonial governments long-cherished autonomy. What did matter is how the colonists reacted to the Intolerable Acts once they learned of them the following spring. They got mad -- and they got organized. Read more ..

Movie Review

Cyrus: Don't You Want Me, Baby?

July 26th 2010

Film - Cyrus

Cyrus, by Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead), is an attempt to give a bit of an artistic edge to one of Hollywood's most successful commercial genres of recent years, the slacker comedy. It doesn't work. Though intermittently funny and provocative in its set-up, the brothers Duplass don't bother following through with the latter. Designed as a meditation on the fantasies of lonely men who are or seem to themselves to be for some reason shut out of normal sexual relations with women, the movie draws back from this fantasizing into a fantasy of its own in which social and sexual dysfunction prove to be no big deal after all and are given a facile commercial resolution. The trouble is that the rather troubling outlines of the picture's mise-en-scene are still visible through the bland conventionality into which it eventually sinks.

This retreat from its own edginess is summed up in the opening scene in which Jamie (Catherine Keener) is found knocking on the door of her ex-husband, John (John C. Reilly). Getting no answer, she enters through the unlocked door and finds John lying prone on his bed with his pants around his ankles and a pair of headphones clamped to his ears. His denials that he is doing what she assumes he is doing seem to match his state of denial about his relationship to her. She has come to tell him that she and her new boyfriend, Tim (Matt Walsh), have decided to get married, and John does not take it well. Jamie points out that they have been divorced for seven years. "It still stinks," says John. And: "I'm still surprised." Yet, though he professes to be surprised and shocked, at the same time he says, "I knew it!", as people will when accusing others of what seems to them treachery. Read more ..

Movie Review

'War Against the Weak' Movie Provides an Eerie Feeling During Visit to Czech Republic

July 19th 2010

Film - War Against the Weak Movie Poster

In 2007 I visited the town of Trebic, in the Czech Republic. It has the dubious honor of being the last totally intact Jewish settlement from the WWII era. It is listed on the UN World Heritage List (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1078/ ). The buildings stand, still, almost all vacant, just as they were during that nightmare week in the early 1940’s when first the men, then the women and children were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to concentration camps under Nazi occupation.

The genesis of the aberrant mental construct that led to this event was the subject of a new documentary directed by Justin Strawhand and produced by Peter Demas. The movie, War Against the Weak is a hard-hitting 90 minute journey through about 80 years of intellectual and public policy development in what came to be known as the science of Eugenics. This little known branch of biology can be defined as “the study and practice of selective breeding applied to humans, with the aim of improving the species.” It sounds innocent enough, right? Wrong. It was, in the worst possible sense, misguided science.

What this insightful documentary, adapted from a book by Edwin Black, does is take you through the step-by-step development of first the study of biometrics by Francis Galton in the U.S., then the application of these principles to “criminal elements.” This eventually led to funding for Charles Davenport by the Carnegie Foundation and the hiring of Harry Laughlin. Read more ..

Book Review

Producer and Impresario Jerry Weintraub Recounts His Steady Rise

July 19th 2010

Book Covers - When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man

When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man. Jerry Weintraub, Rich Cohen. 12/Grand Central. 291 pages.

Though generally wary of CEO memoirs for their patently self-aggrandizing bonhomie and vacuous, shameless — and endless — self-promotion, I'll occasionally take a look-see. In the case of this one, the subject is less a CEO and more of a show biz entrepreneur and personality. As a businessperson, he shook up the status quo and reinvented his chosen profession. Plus, his collaborator, Rich Cohen, is a veteran author whose tale of his own dysfunctional family, Sweet and Low, focusing on his artificial sweetener-inventing grandfather, is one of my all-time faves. Cohen's other books, profiling Hebrew shtarkers, gangsters and warriors, made him an ideal scribe for Weintraub's rambling tale.

Curious, star-struck (after a family trip to Hollywood) and not at all academically-inclined, a young Jerry Weintraub first sought and created opportunities for income generation in his Bronx neighborhood, joined the Air Force and found a few more odd jobs, then refused to go into the family business upon discharge. Weintraub's mercantile talent manifested itself in making connections and then building upon them. He became a talent manager, agent — whatever it took — then met and married star singer Jane Morgan, who became his entré to the world outside his New York show biz circle. Read more ..

Book Review

Schooling America--From Schoolhouse to Computer

July 19th 2010

Book Covers - Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning

Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. 336 pages.

Paul Peterson, a prominent education scholar and professor of government at Harvard University, here takes on the daunting task of tracing the trajectory of almost 200 years of American school reform in less than 300 pages. The clarity and precision of his writing make his book engaging and provocative. However, the book’s narrow focus and revealing omissions leave it less than completely persuasive and make it emblematic of the limitations of the current education debate.

The book’s overall interpretive arc can be captured in the titles of its three sections: “The Rise,” spanning nearly more than a century, from the beginnings of public schooling for all to the desegregation era of the 1950s and 1960s; “The Decline,” embracing approximately the next two decades; and “Signs of Resurrection” in the most recent decades, a time featuring, most importantly in Peterson’s eyes, the emergence of “choice” as a tool for reform.

Each section includes extended treatment of two or three figures who, Peterson argues, “altered America’s educational system….Each [was] heroic in his aspirations and ideals, had a powerful idea, a loyal following, and an impact that changed the system, but each was frustrated, often for reasons of his own making.” Peterson makes clear, however, that he is not endorsing the “great man theory of history”; he hastens to say that “each leader was part of a broader wave of forces by which he was shaped and to which he contributed.” In fact, the men (and all are men, until he gets to the present) are more symbols than forces in and of themselves, a fact made all the more apparent when one considers the idiosyncratic roster Peterson chooses for analysis. Read more ..

Book Review

Baseball and Foreign Policy--Yes There is a History Here

July 12th 2010

Book Covers - The Empire Strikes Out

The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. The New Press, 2010. 448 pages.

In The Empire Strikes Out, Robert Elias, who teaches law and politics at the University of San Francisco, interrogates popular assumptions of baseball as America’s pastime, while suggesting that perhaps William Appleman Williams provides insights into baseball and American life more valuable than the exploits of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Barry Bonds. Elias contends that Major League Baseball officials did, indeed, succeed in making the sport an integral part of American expansionism from the 1880s into the twenty-first century. By attaching itself to American empire and militarism, however, so-called Organized Baseball (in which American Major League Baseball assumes that it is the only legitimate voice for the sport in the global marketplace) has earned the ire and resentment of many in the world who might, otherwise, be attracted to the mental and physical challenges of the sport. As a true patriot and baseball fan, Elias, nevertheless, believes that the game has the potential to detach itself from the pursuit of empire and profit by pushing “the nation to live up to its ideas.”

In his chronological survey of baseball and expansionism, Elias points to Albert Spalding’s 1888 World Tour as establishing the pattern of baseball’s close connection with American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Seeking markets for his sporting goods company in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, and Europe, Spalding identified baseball with America’s civilizing mission in the world. Elias writes, “Spalding’s trip was a model for other industries going abroad. New markets were needed, and imperial conquests offered the solution; such interventions were rationalized by social Darwinism, in the ‘interests of civilization and humanity’ and to proliferate the American dream." Read more ..

Book Review

Edith Stein and Companions: Jewish Catholics at Auschwitz

July 12th 2010

Book Covers - Edith Stein 3

Edith Stein and Companions on the Way to Auschwitz. Paul Hamans. Ignatius Press. 2010. 320 pages.

"Come, we are going for our people” – St. Edith Stein to her sister Rosa.

Are all here Catholic? “Yes” it sounded as though in one voice. – Letter of Sister Judith Mendes da Costa, OP.

We are on our way to heaven. – Sister Hedwigis Lob.

The insanity of the Holocaust is brought into stark relief in this moving book Edith Stein and Companions on the Way to Auschwitz by Fr. Paul Hamans about the lives and fate of the Catholic Jews arrested in Holland on August 2, 1942, in retaliation against the Dutch Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter read the previous Sunday condemning the Nazis’ persecution and deportation of the Jews in the occupied Netherlands.

It is a great pleasure to be asked to write this review: St. Edith Stein’s writings and life both have impacted the spiritual life of the author, but the various biographies had only snippets of information about the other Catholic Jews arrested with her. This lack of information is now on its way to resolution with a marvelous book that gives us not only moving testimony from the victims, but also their conversion stories which would stand alone as spiritual testaments. Read more ..

Movie Review

Winter’s Bone: Honor-bound and Family-tied

July 5th 2010

Film - Winter's Bone

First let me say that I liked Winter’s Bone, the adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name by Debra Granik, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, though I thought it needn’t have been so sombre and depressing as it was. This was because the tone was not quite rightly judged, I think. Essentially, the movie gives us a woman’s—if not quite an explicitly feminist—perspective on what is represented, probably with some accuracy, as the patriarchal male honor culture of the Missouri Ozarks. But the result is almost unremittingly grim and miserable and so runs the risk of compromising that accuracy by making it look too much like a feminist caricature. Although I have no idea of Ms Granik’s political views, she could hardly have made a movie more dark and depressing if she occupied an honored place among the sternest sort of that’s-not-funny! feminists.

There are some rather half-hearted attempts in the movie to lighten this darkness. In one or two scenes we see these wild mountain men forget their propensity for violence long enough to engage in music-making along with the women who, for the moment, cease looking depressed and resentful of their lot in life. But these scenes are not enough to add any significant shading of grey to an otherwise starkly black-and-white representation of this bleak and frightening world. The mountain-man’s honor culture is doubtless a throwback and considerably debased from the time - only seventy years or so ago, as you can see from Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York of 1941—when it bore some relation to a national honor culture, but even today it would be an exaggeration to say that either the women or the men are prisoners of their ancient habits of clannishness and deference to paternal authority. The patriarchy could not have held on for so many centuries if it were the tyranny the feminists believe it to be. There must be good as well as bad in it. Read more ..

Film Review

"Of Gods and Men" - a Cannes Grand Prix for a Modern Spiritual Classic

June 28th 2010

Film - Of Gods and Men

Directed by Xavier Beauvois, Des Hommes et de Dieux “Of Gods and Men” – a meditative film based on actual gruesome events – won the Grande Prix on May 22 at the Cannes film festival as well as a prize for works fostering inter-religious understanding. Judged by an ecumenical jury, the picture recounts the lives and deaths in 1996 of a group of French monks who were massacred and beheaded in a Cistercian monastery in Algeria following events that remain mysterious and controversial.

The film’s plot centers on the Catholic monks as they wrestle with whether to flee during a bloody conflict between Algeria’s army and Muslim jihadi insurgents, or to remain in their monastery from which they had ministered to their Muslim neighbors. Read more ..

Book Review

Author McCarthy Reveals Islamic Goals in 'The Grand Jihad'

June 28th 2010

Book Covers - The Grand Jihad

The Grand Jihad—How Islam and the Left Sabotage America. Andrew McCarthy. Encounter Books. 2010. 464 pages

During an address on Thursday May 27, 2010 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, John Brennan, the Obama administration’s lead counterterrorism adviser, provided a transparently bowdlerized perspective on jihad. Brennan’s statements were breathtaking in their profound cognitive dissonance regarding this uniquely Islamic institution, which continues to wreak daily havoc in our era.

Despite over 15,350 jihad terror attacks by Muslims worldwide, since the cataclysmic acts of jihad terrorism committed against the United States itself, on September 11, 2001, Brennan insisted,

Nor do we describe our enemy as ‘jihadists’ or ‘Islamists’ because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children.

Closing this willfully blind circle of “reasoning,” Brennan further asserted,

 …describing our enemy in religious terms would lend credence to the lie propagated by Al Qaeda and its affiliates to justify terrorism – that the United States is somehow at war against Islam. Read more ..

Book Review

Hitch 22 is Provocative Amid its Rage

June 21st 2010

Book Covers - Hitch 22

Hitch 22: A Memoir. Christopher Hitchen. Twelve. 448 pages. 2010. 

Christopher Hitchens hardly needs an introduction; as a journalist, polemicist and “contrarian,” he appears to be a one-man road show in rusting armour, travelling the world to tilt at whatever windmills of folly provoke his wrath. Late in this often engaging, sometimes instructive and occasionally self-regarding memoir, he compiles “hate” and “love” lists: in the hate column he puts “dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation” while in the love column he has “literature, irony, humour, the individual, defence of free expression, friendship.” These lists sum up the passions and themes of this book.

Given the tensions and undercurrents of his childhood and youth, Hitchens, unlike many who embark on their autobiography, both understands and forgives his parents. His father was in the navy, a conventional, reserved man who once admitted that it was only during the War that he knew what he was supposed to be doing. His mother, Yvonne, was clearly the driving force of the family; from a poor Jewish background – which she managed to conceal from her two sons until well after her death – she was determined that they would become English gentlemen. Under the English class system this meant prep school, followed by public school: The Leys, Cambridge.

His mother’s later bizarre death in a suicide pact with her lover in an Athens hotel when he was in his early 20s haunts Hitchens still. She had been trying, and failing, to contact him; for this, he admits, there is no “closure”. He also confesses remorse at having been a highly neglectful father when his own children were young. Elsewhere he might tie himself up in elaborate explanations about his gradual move from a radical engagement with international socialism to support for American conservative policy after 9/11 – “I didn’t so much repudiate a former loyalty, as feel it falling away from me” - but here there is honesty without excuses. Read more ..

Retrospectives on Bestsellers

'To Kill a Mockingbird' Turns 50 years old--Still Brilliant

June 21st 2010

Book Topics - To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a magical book. That is the word. From the moment of its publication 50 years ago it radiated magic. To this day you may with confidence place it in the hands of anyone, anywhere, of any age, race or gender and know that if they do not love it, they have missed something transcendent.
The first thing to be said to clarify the magic is that its portrayal of childhood is wonderful. I mean this not as a stock word of praise from an author afraid of blundering stylistically if he writes “magical” again. I mean it literally: Mockingbird captures the wonder of childhood.

Once Scout and Jem befriend the visiting Dill, their familiar world cracks open with a series of delightful fissures caused not by the shattering impact of evil, though it surrounds them, but because it is expanding wonderfully and must do so. They are able to have a series of new adventures undreamed of before it all started yet somehow perfectly natural once they are happening. And this, to me, is one of the outstanding features of a good childhood.

I should interject autobiographically that I was fortunate enough to have a happy childhood including reading many books whose spell never entirely faded. Mockingbird was not among them, and when I first read it in my early 30s I was inclined to add to my very short list of regrets about my life that I didn’t read it as a kid. Try as we might to become again as little children, almost nothing that happens to us as adults seems to have that luminous quality of immanence that pervades a happy childhood, where every day or week may bring some new, unexpected wonder larger and richer than we have yet experienced.

On reflection I’ve changed my mind on that point. Part of the magic of the book for me when I did read it was its uncanny capacity to conjure up overpowering flashes of childhood (including the plan to lay out lemon drops that Boo Radley would follow “like an ant”). I believe I relished these far more for being an adult. Read more ..

Mendoza Against the Deaf

Author Edwin Black to Deliver Lecture on Implications of Eugenics Movement for the Deaf Community

June 14th 2010

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

Edwin Black, the author of numerous books and investigations including War Against the Weak will offer a public lecture in Sacramento CA on the history of the eugenics movement in America on June 15, 2010. Entitled “Eugenics – From California to Auschwitz, Implications for the Deaf Community,” Black will recount the history of a movement that began in the United States but would go on to influence Nazi Germany as it carried out the Holocaust.

In his book War Against the Weak, Black recounted how American corporate philanthropies such as the Carnegie Endowment and Rockefeller Foundation launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing , and helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Adolf Hitler and Josef Mengele, creating the modern movement of "human genetics." With the goal of creating a superior, white, Nordic race by obliterating the viability of all people thought to be “defective,” the eugenics movement sought victims such as the infirm, Jews, African-Americans, brown-haired white people.

Author Black will demonstrate the dangers of this mentality to Americans who hard of hearing in his lecture to be held at the Grand Hall in Sacramento CA. Members of the deaf community are flying in from across California in an event that will be video-streamed live. Questions and answers on a range of issues will be taken internationally. It is the first such event of its kind for the deaf, employing six sign language interpreters and split screen filming.

The diverse coalition of sponsors is led Norcal Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the California Association of Deaf, and is cosponsored by Ohlone College Deaf Studies Division and Gallaudet University Regional Center at Ohlone College in association with the Jewish Federation of Sacramento Region, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Mosaic Law Congregation and the Auto Channel. Additional sponsors include Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, State of California Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance, History Network News, the Institute for Religion and Public Policy, Jewish Virtual Library, and Spero Forum. Read more ..

Movie Review

The Cartel: American Educations Gets Spanked

June 14th 2010

Film - The Cartel

There is one scene in Bob Bowdon's movie, The Cartel, that ought to be required viewing for everyone who has ever voted Democratic, especially if you live in New Jersey. It is the scene of a lottery drawing for places in a Charter School in that state, which pays its teachers and the school administrators with which its educational system is top-heavy more than any other. Mr. Bowdon's camera shows us the faces of the parents and children who have been chosen for the school and the faces of those who have not. Both are in tears, but for the chosen ones, they are tears of joy; for those not chosen, they are tears of despair. "Thank you, God. They have a chance," says one of the lucky mothers who is overwhelmed by her good fortune. Mercifully, Mr. Bowdon allows the faces of those who have missed out on that chance - yet again - to speak for themselves.

This scene is singled out by Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times as being particularly "egregious" in a film that is already what she calls a "bludgeoning rant" and "lousy with ad hominems and emotional coercion." What she describes with sneering irony as "another tiny victim of public school hell" is to her just an example of the film-maker's "emotional coercion" - as if he had managed to find a child actress who could cry on cue instead of turning his camera on a real-life tragedy to which Ms. Catsoulis and others of her political persuasion are determinedly blind. The same must be true of a majority of the voters of New Jersey, who year in and year out, have allowed the vast pool of human misery of which this is just one small indication remain undrained in order that they may go on foolishly over-funding their public schools and the unions that run them for their own profit and convenience and congratulating themselves on their "progressivism" in doing so. Read more ..

Book Review

Choose Your Weapons: Two Centuries of British Foreign Secretaries

June 7th 2010

Book Covers - Choose your weapons

Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary: Two Centuries of Conflict and Personalities. Douglas Hurd. 448 pages. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. February 2010.

In this study of selected foreign secretaries during the last 200 years, Lord Hurd has written a fascinating and thought-provoking book. Indeed, he is better placed to write it in some ways than a professional historian for he has the immeasurable advantage of having been the UK Foreign Secretary – one of the four great offices of state – for six years, between 1989 and 1995. This stint included the fall of the Soviet empire, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the invasion of Kuwait.

First-hand knowledge of “abroad” is coupled with close analysis and a dry, witty prose style, such as the remark that “Britain did not have official diplomatic relations with China. This was because the Emperor of China knew that he was the ruler of the world.” His study has been helped by a bright young history graduate and collaborator, Edward Young. It is not quite clear how much actual writing the latter undertook; he is obviously more than a mere researcher of the kind employed, for example, by Churchill in his written histories, and Hurd generously often refers to “we” when discussing matters of historical debate.

Hurd’s study includes the careers (and brief, entertaining personal biographies) of eleven of his predecessors during the high point of the British Empire, between 1807, soon after the victory at Trafalgar, and 1956, the debacle of Suez. Sometimes contrasting two contemporaries, such as Canning and Lord Castlereagh, Lords Aberdeen and Palmerston, Ernest Bevin and Anthony Eden, he also includes other colourful or intriguing personalities, such as Lord Derby, Lord Salisbury, Sir Edward Grey, Ramsay MacDonald and Austen Chamberlain. Read more ..

Film Review

"Please Give" is an Enjoyable Notion of Modern Ladies

June 7th 2010

Film - Please Give

Please Give. Starrring: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall. Directed by: Nicole Holofcener Produced by: Caroline Jaczko, Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu. 90 minutes.

Once upon a time, it was widely accepted at all levels of American society, at least above the very lowest, that girls should be raised to be what were called "young ladies." Exactly what qualities this category of persons comprised varied along with changes in the wider culture, but so long as young-ladyhood remained a social ideal, it included ideas of sexual modesty coupled with personal and social graces thought to be desirable in attracting and keeping a husband. It was a often a fine line between attractiveness and modesty, but all girls were taught to walk it. 'Tis now more than 40 years since the lady was killed off in an avowedly political act by a new generation of feminists who saw the conventions and manners that went into the ladylike ideal as a form of oppression by an unjust masculine power-elite.

Like most political progressives, the feminists determinedly closed their eyes to any non-oppressive reasons why there might have been ladies in the first place, with the result that post-feminist women, delivered from the old social necessity of being ladies, have often found themselves bemused by the new social necessity of not being ladies. What were they supposed to be instead? Men? Read more ..

Film review

Robin Hood: A Legend is Re-born with Gusto

May 31st 2010

Film - Robin Hood

Robin Hood. Directed by Ridley Scott Starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, and Max von Sydow. 140 minutes.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn will always be for my generation, and for many others, the definitive film version of the legend. The Robin Hood (1922) of Douglas Fairbanks, however admirable in its buoyant American hero, pales before the Technicolor glory, then new, of the Warner Brothers production. Hollywood followed by making two films about the sons of Robin, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), starring Cornel Wilde, and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), starring John Derek. It also produced a B version, Prince of Thieves (1948), with Jon Hall in the lead. Everyone loves Robin. Read more ..

Edge on Interfaith Relations

Exhibition of Jewish Manuscript Treasures Reveals Centuries of Cultural Exchange

May 31st 2010

Jewish Topics - Hebrew manuscript

The Jewish Museum of London is launching its first major temporary exhibition since its reopening in March 2010 with an exhibition of Hebrew literary treasures on loan from the Vatican and major British collections. The exhibition will bring together a collection of 27 rare manuscripts, many exquisitely illuminated, including three from the Vatican Library, eight from the British Library, three from Lambeth Palace Library, and eleven from the Bodleian Library. The manuscripts reveal a story of rich cultural exchange, practical cooperation and religious tolerance between Jews and non-Jews in the Muslim and Christian worlds during the Middle Ages and beyond. The exhibtion opens in June and continues until October.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are a richly illuminated 15th century version of the Mishneh Torah, an important Renaissance masterpiece, written in the 12th century by Maimonides, the greatest medieval rabbinical figure. There is also a 9th century midrash  on the book of Leviticus, thought to be the earliest Hebrew document in codex form. These two are both on loan from the Vatican Library. Read more ..

Arts on the Edge

British Singer Elvis Costello Bows to Palestinian demands to Boycott Israel

May 24th 2010

Art Topics - Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello, the British songster who is married to American jazz singer Diana Krall, has decided to join an artists boycott of Israel, having now cancelled two concerts there allegedly in protest at its treatment of Palestinians. Costello had initially said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that he was against such protests. Costello and his new folk band the Sugarcanes were to have had two concerts in Caesarea on June 30 and July 1. Costello and Krall currently reside in New York City. In a highly personal statement, Costello wrote “It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts.”

Costello offered apologies on his website to advance ticket holders while also expressing appreciation to members of Israeli media. Apparently seeking some kind of balance, he said in his statement “I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Referral Engine: How to Make Your Business Market Itself

May 24th 2010

Book Covers - The Referral Engine

The Referral Engine: Teaching Your Business To market Itself. John Jantsch. Portfolio. 233 pages.

I skipped his last book, a bestseller called Duct Tape Marketing, for reasons that are now unclear; perhaps out of loyalty to Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. Regardless, I may have to go back and give it a gander, as John Jantsch's latest is a real gem. Under the guise of developing a system for generating business referrals, the Kansas City, Mo.,-based author also provides coaching on just about every aspect of entrepreneurial enterprise -- but more about that in a bit.

First of all, Jantsch identifies humans' inherent need to refer and recommend. He writes: "We refer to connect with other people. Being recognized as a source of good information, including referrals, is a great way to connect with others. Think about how eagerly you responded the last time someone asked you for directions, offering up your favorite shortcut and tips for avoiding traffic. We all do it. Making referrals is a deeply satisfying way to connect with others -- asking for referrals is just the other side of the same phenomenon. I think the growth of many popular social networks can be traced to the fact that people love to connect and form communities around shared ideas."

In order to have customers refer you to others, you must ensure that you delight them and surpass their expectations. Guys like Guy Kawasaki and Seth Godin have been pounding on that drum forever, but Jantsch updates the pitch quite nicely by adding his own perspective and experiences. Then he invokes using Facebook and Twitter, among other things -- which should be a no-brainer these days, although they're surprisingly absent from many businesses. He also covers stuff like product development and innovation, as well as market differentiation -- all vital elements in today's commoditized marketplace. Read more ..

Book Review

A Vast and Fiendish Plot: An 1860s Training Manual for Modern Terror?

May 17th 2010

Book Covers - A vast and fiendish plot

A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City. Clint Johnson. Citadel. 2010. 320 pp.

This is a digressive, partisan, entertaining and unsettling book. Using an obscure failed 1864 plot to burn down New York City as its backdrop, popular historian Clint Johnson captures the aggrieved mood among die-hard Confederates in the closing months of the Civil War. His work also suggests the ongoing power such attacks on federal authority continue to exert in the imagination of the contemporary Right.

In the first and most fascinating section of A Vast and Fiendish Plot, Johnson traces the arc of what might be termed the romance -- or, perhaps more accurately, the marriage of convenience -- between the antebellum Cotton Kingdom and New York. The city's port facilities, financial infrastructure, and trade relationships made it the linchpin of the Southern economy, and while this interdependency periodically would cause resentment -- Johnson repeatedly cites a statistic that forty cents of every cotton dollar stayed in Manhattan -- the strong economic ties also had political as well as cultural consequences, principal among them a shared investment in slavery.

The New York financial community remained sympathetic to secessionist sentiment for months after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who lost the city by an almost 2-1 margin, and there was talk in some quarters of the city seceding from the Union as well in early 1861. Only with the Confederate decision to attack Fort Sumter in April did this sympathy weaken. (I never understood until I read this book what a political masterstroke it truly was that Lincoln maneuvered the Fire-eaters of Charleston to fire the first shot.) By the end of 1861, it was increasingly becoming clear to the city's finance, manufacturing, and trading elites that joining the Union effort was going to be more lucrative than the slave trade ever was. While antiwar sentiment would continue to run high in the years that followed in some quarters, notably the working classes that erupted in the draft riots of 1863, the breach in the antebellum basis of the relationship would never be re-established. Read more ..

Book Review

The War Comes Home: How America Treats its Veterans

May 10th 2010

Book Covers - The War Comes Home

The War Comes Home: Washington's War Against America's Veterans. Aaron Glantz. University of California Press. 2009. 288 pp.

I once commuted to work on the Long Island Railroad with a neighbor. He had been an Air Force captain during the Vietnam War and one of his jobs in the states was telling people that their family member had been killed or grievously wounded. Tell me more, I asked after he unexpectedly told me about his war when I mentioned I had just published a book about Vietnam combat veterans. I’m sorry I told you that, he answered, adding that he’d never allow his two sons to join the military. The pain of delivering the news of death was too much for him.

Another memory: A laconic and pleasant kid who worked around his father and uncle’s neighboring gas station served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam and was mortally wounded. His parents were at his side when he died in a military hospital in Japan. My onetime student, Ronald, was a shy, not especially athletic African American who tried hard to get good grades. His mother cared for my mother in a nursing home and one day she told me about her dream in which Ronald had been killed in Vietnam. I had once been a soldier and told her to ignore it because most soldiers do make it home. He finally did, but in a casket draped with an American flag. Decades later one of his aunts told me that the family never recovered from Ronald’s death.

All the more reason to read and admire Aaron Glantz’s deeply disturbing and justifiably angry “The War Comes Home,” about our newest crop of wounded soldiers and marines who managed to survive Iraq and Afghanistan. It belongs on the list of books about combat and the incredible damage it inflicts on troops and their families. Read more ..

Book Review

A Worthy Book on a Worthy Leader and Soldier--Harry Truman

May 3rd 2010

Book Covers - Soldier from Independence

The Soldier from Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman. D.M. Giangreco. Zenith. 2009. 304 pages.

The Soldier from Independence is the first of a proposed two-volume study of Harry Truman's military career. An historian and previous editor of Military Review, Giangreco recently published Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947.

Giangreco's book illuminates the combat experience neglected in studies of the thirty-third President of the United States. Truman, captain of an artillery battery of federalized Missouri National Guardsmen, led his unit in World War I.

Twenty-first century soldiers will be struck by the amateurism of the World War I U.S. Army. After enlisting in the Missouri National Guard, Truman was commissioned because he was popular, had run his family's farm, and displayed competency as a construction crew paymaster and bank clerk. 

Truman's work history, despite his lack of military experience, his limited formal education, and eyesight too poor to pass a legitimate physical examination for a commission or enlistment, suggested the intelligence essential to successfully lead men in an increasingly industrialized army. Shortfalls notwithstanding, Truman was a successful staff and line officer. Readers have to decide if the captain's appointment to an important leadership role was an intelligent selection or dumb luck.

When the Missouri Guard was nationalized and sent to training camps, Truman impressed his superiors with his grasp of technical skills necessary to lead an artillery battery and others with his horsemanship in an army reliant on animal power for transportation. Both in the States, and in France, Truman was an ardent student of artillery. It is unlikely that he considered himself undereducated for his Army role.  He did, nonetheless, understand the importance of training for his responsibilities. Read more ..

Film Review

El Secreto de Sus Ojos: Love and Murder in Argentina

April 26th 2010

Film - El Secreto de Sus Ojos

Here’s a question for you. Someone with a glittering eye, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, buttonholes you on your way to a wedding. Like the Ancient Mariner too, he has a fascinating story to tell, and he prefaces it by saying this: “A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion.” Do you believe him? In one way, he himself seems so passionate that you think he ought to know, and the thing does sound sort of profound. Yes, it certainly ought to be true—and, if you stipulate that it is, you get to hear his story whose fascination depends on just this assumption about passion. In fact, without it the story would hardly even make sense. It seems a small price to pay for the satisfaction the story gives you.

Once you manage to tear yourself away from the Mariner and have a moment to reflect, however, you can’t help thinking that that central proposition, this assumption on which all else depends, is nonsense. Passion dies and changes like everything else. Some people don’t have it at all, and for some it is only the thing of a moment, a sudden summer storm that blows up and immediately dissipates. Even those rare souls for whom a particular passion amounts to a lifelong obsession for the most part live their lives pretty much like the rest of us. Unless they associate exclusively with those who share their passion, they have to disguise it in order to avoid being a bore to those around them. At any rate, it must be easier than disguising one’s face.

El Secreto de Sus Ojos, now released here as The Secret in Their Eyes, by Juan José Campanella (Son of the Bride) is just like that Ancient Mariner, and one of its characters, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) says what he says—the thing about unchanging passion. And, lo, while you are listening to him, you may find it easy to believe. I know I did. Read more ..

Book Review

Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization

April 19th 2010

Book Covers - Leading Outside Lines

Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization, Energize Your Team and Get Better Results. Jon R. Katzenbach, Zia Khan. Jossey Bass. 240 pages.

In just about every organization I've worked for or with, I've repeatedly observed a formal hierarchy in place as well as an unofficial group of people who actually get stuff done. They are, more than not, two disparate groups. The somewhat loose confederation of doers, in my experience, tends to respect the authority of those above them on the corporate food chain, while developing and implementing ways to circumvent and subvert them to git 'er done, regardless and in spite of. Sometimes, it's just a slight variation to the table of organization that allows certain obstacles to be avoided and ``impediments to progress'' (to put it politely) to be ignored -- while including them in any necessary e-mail threads, of course.

Though the role of the guerrilla squad of achievers is frequently well known within the organizations, they are often officially disregarded. But I've seen situations where CEOs, VPs and directors often bypass protocol to enlist them in key projects, often to the chagrin of their bosses. I've known several of these stealth commandos, and when asked will admit, immodestly, to having been one.

Katzenbach and Khan look at this phenomenon and attempt to demonstrate ways that these ad hoc, informal groups can be mobilized and engaged. They do so by defining formal structures; that's pretty easy. Then they take a shot at informal ones. They write: ``The informal isn't as easily defined as the formal, because it does not have the clear structural boundaries that the formal has. Its elements often overlap and don't follow the clean principles of `mutually exclusive, comprehensively exhaustive' that analytical thinkers prefer. In essence, the informal is the aggregate of organizational elements that primarily influence behavior through emotional means. And, unlike the formal elements, the informal elements of an organization rarely appear as written instructions. Even so, they can still be identified and named.'' Read more ..

Book Review

The Evolution of Childbirth

April 12th 2010

Book Covers - Let Me Out

Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein. W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. 302 pages.

Birth is a fact of life. But, as Randi Hutter Epstein shows in this breezy but enlightening little book, it's a fact that's been subject to endless interpretation. In a survey that spans from antiquity to the reproductive technologies of the 21st century, Epstein traces the power struggles among men and women to cast birth in their own image of the way life should be.

As often as not, this struggle has been among purists of various kinds and those advocating new forms of technological improvement, with pregnant women in the middle. Epstein succinctly captures the dynamics of such debates in her discussion of foreceps, a device that went from secret innovation to childbirth staple to source of dread over the course of the last few centuries: “Doctors were confident, sometimes overly so. Midwives were worried, sometimes overly so. Women were confused, rightly so.”

One source of this confusion was the sometimes counter-intuitive logic that shaped ideology. At the turn of the century, for example, elite feminists were strong advocates for the use of drugs, often of dubious utility and safety, rather than subjecting women to lengthy, painful, and dangerous labor. Yet this typically meant ceding control of their bodies to experts, almost always men, who often feared bourgeois women were too overcivilized to endure the birth process, and who spoke of them with what we today would regard as a comic degree of cluelessness. (An obstetrician who believed doctors should make decisions about childbirth because a woman “has a head too small for intellect and just big enough for love” typifies the juicy quotes that pepper the book.) Read more ..

Author's Essay

What is the Meaning of Empire?

April 5th 2010

Book Covers - Against Empire

When I wrote my book Against Empire in 1995, as might be expected, some of my U.S. compatriots thought it was wrong of me to call the United States an empire. It was widely believed that U.S. rulers did not pursue empire; they intervened abroad only out of self-defense or for humanitarian rescue operations or to restore order in a troubled region or overthrow tyranny, fight terrorism, and propagate democracy.

But by the year 2000, everyone started talking about the United States as an empire and writing books with titles like Sorrows of Empire, Follies of Empire, Twilight of Empire, or Empire of Illusions—all referring to the United States when they spoke of empire.

Even conservatives started using the word. Amazing. One could hear right-wing pundits announcing on U.S. television, "We're an empire, with all the responsibilities and opportunities of empire and we better get used to it"; and "We are the strongest nation in the world and have every right to act as such"—as if having the power gives U.S. leaders an inherent entitlement to exercise it upon others as they might wish.

What is going on here?" I asked myself at the time. How is it that so many people feel free to talk about empire when they mean a United States empire? The ideological orthodoxy had always been that, unlike other countries, the USA did not indulge in colonization and conquest.

The answer, I realized, is that the word has been divested of its full meaning. "Empire" seems nowadays to mean simply dominion and control. Empire—for most of these late-coming critics—is concerned almost exclusively with power and prestige. What is usually missing from the public discourse is the process of empire and its politico-economic content. In other words, while we hear a lot about empire, we hear very little about imperialism. Read more ..

Book Review

Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business Has Quite a Tug

March 29th 2010

Book Covers - Pull

Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business. David Siegel. Portfolio. 288 pages.

Because an e-mail address accompanies my reviews, I often get interesting notes from diverse individuals and groups. My Spanish is limited mainly to menu items, so most missives in that language go unread. Political screeds and PR pitches to review chick lit, religious tracts and teen adventure novels get similar treatment, as do political essays clearly intended for the op/ed desk.

I did, however, happen to read one the other day from a very frightened guy who was convinced that chips were being surgically implanted in individuals' skulls (in Ohio, no less) and that these procedures were sanctioned by the government. Presumably, there was something to be gained from doing this, but what was not clear.

Then there's the scholar I know who tells me that when he collaborates with researchers and assistants around the globe, he avoids Google and its array of applications, including Gmail. He wonders who Google really is and what they are going to do with all the information they gather. (Sell more ads, perhaps?)

I hadn't thought much about these things before I read David Siegel's rather enthralling new book but now have been reflecting upon them. The idea that data will be free and open, and that by becoming so, commerce will ensue is pretty exciting. It also seems like a naive notion, and unbelievably Utopian. But worry not! Microchips need not be slipped into our skulls to be efficacious. Not yet, anyway.

If all the information that's floating around (or remains earthbound) is electronically tagged in ways that can be detected, collected and inspected, Siegel says that we will all benefit. It's not solely a commercial breakthrough, though that's a big part of it. This semantic web will make the current online (and offline) world seem primitive. Instead of information, products and services being pushed to us by providers, we will be pulling it, as customers. Read more ..

Book Review

Love and Race in the Early 20th Century

March 22nd 2010

Book Covers - Rising Road

Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America by Sharon Davies. Oxford University Press, 2010. 368 pages.

This gripping story, ably reconstructed by Ohio State law professor Sharon Davies, has all the makings of a Hollywood movie. The facts are clear enough. In August of 1921, a hack Methodist minister named Edwin Stephenson (a hack because his credentials were dubious, he lacked a pulpit, and loitered at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama to marry couples for a living) shot and killed a Roman Catholic priest named James Coyle in broad daylight and in front of numerous witnesses. The reason? Hours before, Father Coyle had married Stephenson's eighteen-year old daughter Ruth, a convert to Catholicism, to a 42 year old Puerto Rican native named Pedro Gussman.

In many contemporary legal thrillers, one is typically presented with a person falsely, but understandably, accused of a crime, dependent on the gifted detective or attorney to finally show that appearances are deceiving. In this case, though, the drama comes from reading to discover how far bigots are willing go to set a guilty man free, and whether their enablers will condone the triumph of evil. One of those enablers was Hugo Black, a future Supreme Court justice known for his support of racial integration in the Civil Rights era, who defended Stephenson and joined the Ku Klux Klan prior to his election to the U.S. Senate in 1925. This is one a number of twists in this story—the outcome of which won't be revealed in this review. Read more ..

Book Review

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India: Whither the Sub-Continent?

March 15th 2010

Book Covers - Nine Lives

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple. Bloomsbury 2009. 302 pages. 

Rudyard Kipling, best-known of all the chroniclers of Empire, wrote when India was still the largest jewel in the British crown, “Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Having read this fascinating book, I am inclined to agree with him. William Dalrymple, a modern-day writer and observer of India, who lives outside Delhi, sets out to discover just what makes the sub-continent still so different from the West—or, more accurately, the “Anglosphere”. In this task he makes no judgments and comes to no conclusions; he simply allows selected Indian voices speak for themselves.

From a Western perspective, India is the country which is soon to overtake Japan as the third largest economy in the world. Yet only 20 minutes’ distance from the Microsoft Indian headquarters, cars have largely given way to camels and bullocks, the immemorial form of transport. This discrepancy was further highlighted for the author when he happened to meet up with a sanyasi (wanderer). To his surprise he found that this man had an MBA and a high-flying career in marketing, yet chose to give it all up to become a wandering, naked sadhu. He told Dalrymple he could not face selling fridges any more so “I gave away my belongings to the poor... threw away my suit, rubbed ash on my body, and found a monastery.”

Wondering how common such a dramatic gesture might be, Dalrymple went in search of nine different people who had either turned their backs on ordinary life, like the sadhu referred to, or who had stayed loyal to an ancient familial or tribal tradition of semi-mystical entertainment. Among them are a Jain nun, a dancer, a temple prostitute, a hereditary singer of epics, a blind minstrel and a craftsman of idols to be used for worship. Some, such as the dancer or the temple prostitute, are from the poor, Dalit (untouchable) caste so that it could be argued that their calling gives them a social status they would not otherwise have. This is not a sufficient answer. It would be more accurate to say that they followed a family profession into a world they regard as at least half-divine and which they believe gives a transcendental dimension to their lives. Read more ..

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