Tag Archives: American politics

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

I wanted to write about this book BEFORE checking out reviews and other feedback, but it’s becoming more difficult every day! I just got a Facebook message from the man himself (Barack Obama) recommending the book, and offering a few other comments. He did not yet release his annual list of favorite books.

One of the first questions I was asked (by a friend) was whether Mrs. Obama had a co-author. There’s none on the title page. She mentions many people in her acknowledgements (which run to three pages and end, unpredictably, with a gratitude towards “every young person I ever encountered during my time as First Lady… Thank you for giving me a reason to be hopeful”). So, the answer is “no”. There was no co-author.

Michelle Obama emphasized one thing over and over. Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us matters. Much of her public speaking has involved telling her story – that of growing up on Chicago’s side, seeing her neighborhood change from diverse to decidedly minority dominated, wanting SO MUCH to achieve, to be approved of, to get high grades!

Once, when she was in high school, Michelle was asked (by a relative near her own age) why she talked “like a white person”. Surprised, she didn’t really answer. Her parents and other adult relatives had emphasized diction and standard usage. My guess is that Michelle Obama is functionally bilingual (in two forms of English).

So much of Michelle Obama’s life was spent “juggling”. Between being “too black” and “too white”, and everything else. Too tall. Too earnest. Too “pushy”. She found her path, but became, in many understandable ways, cautious. She was always aware of the balance she needed and/or wanted to strike.

I was interested in the First Family’s life in the White House. Michelle wanted her mother to join them, but Mrs. Marian Robinson was reluctant. She had lived all her life in Chicago. Michelle enlisted her brother Craig to help change her mind. Mrs. Robinson was able to occasionally evade the constant Secret Service presence. She slipped out of the White House to run errands. If someone said “You look like Michelle Obama’s mother”, she smiled politely and said “Yes, people say that…”

I get the impression that Michelle and the President didn’t play any games AT ALL with the Secret Service. They accepted the fact that the stakes were way too high for that.

We all wonder what’s ahead for the Obama family. Leadership is so urgently needed, but they deserve a break, at the very least a long vacation, and I wish them all the best in the future.

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“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

“Having Our Say: Women of Color in the 2018 Election”, a lecture by NJ Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver

Personal note! Living near a college (in my case, Stockton University) is an advantage. Something is always happening. In the past few weeks, I’ve attended three lectures. Unrelated to the University, I stepped out for one speaking engagement. I will blog about all of this. Stay tuned!

Institutional note! FIFTEEN years ago Stockton University initiated the Fannie Lou Hamer Human and Civil Rights Symposium. What a great program! Every Fall, a distinguished guest speaks about RIGHTS. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an amazing example of a person who acted to expand human rights in our country.

Now to discuss the event and the featured speaker. Sheila Oliver was preceded by about 45 minutes of music, dance, welcome and introduction. It was interesting to note which earlier civil rights leaders were mentioned in either the introductions or Ms. Oliver’s presentation:

  • Shirley Chisholm
  • Coretta Scott King
  • Angela Davis
  • Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Eleanor Roosevelt

The auditorium was dark, so my note taking was limited. Ms. Oliver pointed out that in this election cycle, many women are choosing to run outside of the two major parties. The importance of state legislatures (when the US House and Senate are polarized and paralyzed) was emphasized.

I’m always curious how a leader is shaped by her education. Ms. Oliver mentioned A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens) and The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) as foundational for her, and also recommended Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, by S and E Delany.

Ms. Oliver was not long winded, but many students left before the Q/A period. Maybe shorter preliminaries would reduce this attrition?

The panel assembled for feedback and discussion was distinguished. I won’t try to cover everything said. The standout was Christabel Cruz of the Rutgers Center for American Woman and Politics. Emerging leader! She was the youngest panelist and the first (only?) speaker to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community. She is energetic and articulate and exactly the right person to reach out to millenials. After all, this event was intended to engage STUDENTS. I hope Ms. Cruz stays in New Jersey.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca) and Allan Metcalf

A fringe benefit of my job is on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a must-read for college and university employees and anyone who supports or utilizes our strange and complicated system of post secondary education. The Chronicle covers everything from the fall of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina to classroom access for underserved student populations. Every day, there’s something worth reading, and I always check the column called “Lingua Franca”.

“Lingua Franca” is all about language, and offers blog entries from a dozen academics, all highly credentialed, opinionated and amusing.

The article that motivated me to write this review was published on September 9, authored by Allan Metcalf (English professor and forensic linguist) and titled “Who is Anonymous? An Extraordinary Writer”. The anonymous missive was published in the New York Times around September 1, talking about President Trump and the discontents of his highest advisors. Of course everyone wants to know the source. Personally, I’m astonished that a paper with the stature of The Times published an unsigned document.

Metcalf’s discussion relies on rhetorical analysis and a variety of forensic linguistic approaches. (I’ve read several popular works of linguistic forensics. Remember the Unabomber?) I realize that my education, which was strong on grammar, gave little attention to rhetoric.

No, Metcalf does not put a name to Anonymous. His conclusion? “…look for someone who is noted for her or his extraordinary command of language, who knows how to recruit the exact right words and deploy them artfully and memorably in sentences and paragraphs and whole essays. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, but he’s not eligible”.

Wow! That is high praise. I’m okay with leaving “Anonymous” alone for the time being, but I hope I live long enough to learn his or her identity.

“A Full Life – Reflections at Ninety” by Jimmy Carter

Published 2015 – 238 pages, indexed, with photos, poems and artwork

I grabbed this book (off a give-away table) because I spotted a section on DIPLOMACY. And if there’s anything that might help our troubled world right now, that’s it.

I rapidly realized this book fits one of my favorite categories – accounts of times and events I lived through, but don’t really understand. I’ve investigated the Civil Rights movement, Kent State (does everyone recognize this reference?) and the Cuban missile crisis.

I read one of Carter’s earlier books, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood. It would be worth reading even if Carter had not risen to the Presidency.

By way of a refresher… Jimmy Carter was born in Georgia in 1924 and served as the 39thPresident of the United States from 1977 to 1981, losing the campaign for a second term to Ronald Reagan. At 93, he is the longest-retired President in US history. (Wikipedia)

The social/historical thread that runs through A Full Life is race. Carter grew up deep in the segregated South. The US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, was segregated when he entered in 1943. In 1948, the US military and Civil Service were integrated by order of President Harry Truman. By the time he returned to Plains, GA, Carter had little tolerance for racial discrimination. So many years have passed, and our country still struggles with racial issues!

A Full Life – Reflections at Ninety is studded with surprises. I had forgotten that it was Carter who pardoned all the draft resisters from the Vietman war, allowing many who had left the country the option of return.

Carter’s account of the peace talks that led to the Camp David Accords (1978) is fascinating. As Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began to favor some of Carter’s suggestions, Sadat’s contingent became so angry that Carter feared for Sadat’s life, worrying so much he lost a night’s sleep, a rare problem for Carter. What would have happened if Sadat had been murdered in the US? (Sadat was assassinated 1981, in Egypt.)

Carter often sent family members overseas to represent him. Rosalynn Carter traveled to Brazil as part of an effort to convince that country not to refine nuclear reactor waste for use in weapons. OMG! The mere thought of nuclear states in South American gives me cold chills! (Yes, I recognize the irony…)

I very much enjoyed seeing Carter’s paintings, ten of which are reproduced in this book. As far as I know, he is a self taught artist. I’m impressed that he painted portraits. That’s much harder than a landscape or a picture of a house. I only skimmed Carter’s poems…poetry is not my strong point.

For anyone interested in the US Presidency,  A Full Life is worth a careful read. Carter is an excellent, incisive writer and an accomplished politician in the best sense of the word. I wish he could have served longer, and I admire his undertakings in retirement.

“Where are the Gatekeepers?” a lecture by Dr. Dannagal G. Young

Dr. Young teaches at the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication. She writes for Huffington Post and The Atlantic magazine. I heard her lecture at Stockton University on April 13, 2017. The “Gatekeepers” of which she speaks are those who oversee the internet and, more specifically, social media.

Good question. What “gatekeepers”? What do we need/want in terms of internet and social media regulation? I think we agree that violent crimes should not be live streamed or posted. What else?

I am assuming “Communications” is one of the social sciences. By way of background, I admit to vague prejudice against the social sciences. I’m a chemist by training. I like the physical and biological sciences.

  • Experiments
  • Observations
  • Reproducibility

How do the social sciences meet those standards? (I’m speaking very generally here, lest I get bogged down.) I am skeptical about some social science research conclusions. I’m also skeptical about some “new “ fields of academic study – which is seriously unfair of me since I taught in one (Environmental Studies) for years, a very short time after it emerged.

Dr. Young provided important historical perspective. The “mass media” of my childhood (see blog post dated December 26, 2016) underwent a paradigm change, with 1982 as a pivotal year. “Mass media” was a form of “top down” communication, divorced from feedback, directed at isolated target individuals. “Digital mass media” enables feedback and networking. A person can be both a consumer and a producer of content. This is what Al Gore was thinking of when he theorized about “networked democracy”.

Dr. Young labels the internet a “sewer” of

  • Noise
  • Self indulgence
  • Flattery
  • Conspiracy theory

In other words, a dangerous disappointment. Moderation, education, contextualization and crowd sourcing are tools Facebook and other social platforms can use to improve their level of social responsibility.

During the Q/A period, I asked Dr. Young what kind of research on social media she would like to do, and what methods she would use. I can’t remember how she characterized her research interests, but the technique she said she used was the TELEPHONE SURVEY. I may have scowled – I’ve dodged telephone surveys for years. I hate them. Someone asked how you get people to participate. She said by “robo” dialing – on and on and on until you get the number of replies you need. She claimed that after 1000 replies, your outcome didn’t change much, so that was your “answer”. Really?? Someone pointed out that different sectors of the population must surely respond at different rates, and Dr. Young said that, for example, older people were more likely to participate in phone surveys, but cell-phone-only people emphatically do not. She mentioned “weighting” results to allow for this. By this time, she was looking sheepish. I was probably looking very skeptical indeed. Possibly I was glaring.

The discussion moved on the other topics, like WikiLeaks and political empowerment. Normally a seminar would lead to interesting discussion afterwards, but my internal alarm went off (dinner can only be postponed about so long – 7:15 pm is my absolute limit), so I departed.

Dr. Young investigates interesting subjects, and I’ll be watching for her name among the authors who turn up in my news feeds.

“The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer

This book was published in 1951, when the world was struggling to understand what had led to World War II and the Holocaust. The “true believers” Hoffer analyzed were Nazis and Fascists, with some discussion of early Christians and other movements. He believed all mass movements shared a definable set of characteristics.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read this book! I attended two 2-hour seminars on it, sponsored by my husband’s alma mater, and I read ABOUT the book and the author.

A subtext to our discussion was the election of Donald Trump. We’ve all suffered from shock. What does this mean about our country? Are we headed towards fascist type authoritarianism? Who voted for Trump, and why? As far as I know, the fourteen people (total) who attended the two seminars did not vote for Trump.

We decided that Trump’s supporters were not “true believers” in the same sense as Nazis and Fascists. There’s no reason to believe they would die for Donald Trump.

Hoffer believes certain segments of a population are vulnerable to demagogic leadership, namely those who feel angry and powerless. He speaks of spoiled or damaged lives, and mentions “failed artists”. I can’t parse that category.

Our discussion veered to other groups that offer up their lives. Suicide bombers. The Arab Spring protester who burned himself to death. Kamikazi pilots.

Though often described as a philosopher, Hoffer was not an academic. Wikipedia lists his occupations as “author and longshoreman”. He may not have graduated from high school. He was fluently literate in both English and German, and read voraciously. The US military refused to enlist him due to medical condition and possibly his age – he was 40 at the start of WW II. How he managed to publish “The True Believer” while laboring as a dockworker in San Francisco puzzles me.

A great deal of Hoffer’s writing was never published, but is available to scholars. I hope more of it will be extracted for publication. Now is the time for public dialog on the issues he studied.