Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bill O'Reilly, Serial Killer


First it was Killing Lincoln, now Bill O'Reilly plans on Killing Kennedy this fall.  What gives?  I read the first chapters in the amazon preview of Killing Lincoln and it was so banal.  The book reminded me of the biographies I read in elementary school, with American historical figures reduced to a set of anecdotes broken up with illustrations to make reading easy.  I suppose for the persons who tune into the O'Reilly Factor, this is appropriate reading level, but at least O'Reilly doesn't pretend to be an historian, unlike his fellow conservative pundit, Glenn Beck, who has blessed us with his evangelical account of George Washington.  Here is Glenn and David Barton on GBTV chewing the fat over which founding father is harder to pin down, Old George or Doubtiing Thomas.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

America is a mistake

Freud, Hall and Jung in front row

I recently watched A Dangerous Method, a fascinating drama on the birth of psychoanalysis and the compelling relationships between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein.  The film mostly focuses on the characters time in Switzerland, but there is a scene toward the end of the film where Freud and Jung come to America in 1909 for a conference at Clark University, sponsored by G. Stanley Hall.  The conference also included William James, who found himself soon overshadowed by these two Europeans.  Apparently, Freud came away with a disconcerting diagnosis of America, but his visit would reshape the way America viewed psychiatry.  Here's more on this famous journey.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Young Barry


Could David Maraniss's new book on Obama, The Story, be the game-changer?  Certainly appears to be a lot of juicy details, judging  by the excerpts published in Vanity Fair.  No doubt much of it will serve as fodder for the Romney Super-PACs, anxious to have something to seize on this election year.  Genevieve Cook has a Gennifer Flowers ring to it, even if the only thing Obama can be accused of is morphing past girlfriends.

At over 600 pages, it appears to be much more than just a story about Barry's pot-smoking days, but that was what Yahoo! focused on in its salacious plug.  You have to wonder if John Kennedy would have ever gotten through the primaries if his past was brought under a journalistic microscope like this.  However, given Maraniss's Pulitzer Prize, you have to take what he writes seriously, and one hopes that the book will paint a full picture, given that Obama gave him an unprecedented 90-minute interview in the Oval Office.

The Forgotten Founding Father



James Madison seems to be getting his due these days.  Three new biographies have come out in the past year, including a succinct version by Richard Brookhiser, that has garnered much praise.  Others by Kevin Gutzman and Jeff Broadwater weigh in at a few more pages, which leads one to ponder when David McCollough or H.W. Brands will weigh in on Madison.  He is certainly a founding father worthy of more consideration.

Too many children left behind



I heard Diane Ravitch on Charlie Rose last night.  What a breath of fresh air!  Listening to Romney lay out his "education plan," he obviously should have consulted with Ravitch first, then he might have had something.  As it is, he lays out the same recipe for disaster which Ravitch criticizes in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, calling for an end to vouchers and testing.  She said on Rose that there is no evidence to suggest the "free market" model for education has worked.  She was quite critical of charter schools, which Davis Guggenheim extolled in Waiting for Superman.  Maybe Romney sees himself as "Superman."  More likely just another cynical ploy, among many, to use education as a hot political button.

Ravitch appears to be above the political rhetoric.  She had previously served as assistant secretary of education in Pere Bush's administration, and supported the idea of vouchers and testing at the time, but looking at the empirical data changed her mind.  The idea of vouchers apparently goes back to Milton Freedman, the great guru of supply-side economics, who promoted the idea of making the public education system into a "free market" in a widely circulated paper back in the 50s.  It wasn't adopted then, but became the basis for the conservative education agenda in the 90s. The idea has been adopted by many school districts over the years.  She focused on Milwaukee in her discussion with Rose.

She is also very critical of the Obama administration insistence on tweaking the No Child Left Behind program, which she feels has been a complete failure.  Testing has become the bane of public education, with so many schools now teaching to the Test for their own survival, as the results have become the prime criteria for which schools stay and which schools go.  Over 100 New York city schools have been closed down over the last few years because of poor test results.  She says tests should only be used as a diagnostic tool, not an administration tool like this.  She pointed to Finland, Singapore and Japan, which have the best education systems in the world, and these countries don't use testing like this, nor dilute their public education system with vouchers.  What they have is a national commitment to public education.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A champion of free thought


Speaking of free thinkers, Royal Bob has taken quite a few hits in recent years, especially among the religious conservative fold who don't fancy his acerbic views on the Bible and religion in general.  My grandfather interlaced clippings of Robert Ingersoll and Twain in the family album, which is how I first came across his writings.  Most of the books available on Ingersoll are in his own words, which is the way it should be, but there have been a few biographies written over the years, including this one by C.H. Cramer, published in 1952.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reclaiming the Past


This looks refreshing,

At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers offers a powerful defense of the secularist heritage that gave Americans the first government in the world founded not on the authority of religion but on the bedrock of human reason. In impassioned, elegant prose, celebrated author Susan Jacoby traces more than two hundred years of secularist activism, beginning with the fierce debate over the omission of God from the Constitution. Moving from nineteenth-century abolitionism and suffragism through the twentieth century's civil liberties, civil rights, and feminist movements, Freethinkers illuminates the neglected achievements of secularists who, allied with tolerant believers, have led the battle for reform in the past and today.



Holy First Amendment



... as Robin might say.  I remember reading Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy sometime back and thinking he was a little out there in his views.  But, after seeing how David Barton, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck are attempting to rewrite American history in evangelical terms, it doesn't seem that Phillips was too far off.  Now we get another book along the same lines, Attack of the Theocrats!, praised by Richard Dawkins, among others.  It is really quite alarming, especially as we see the Tea Party showing early signs of strength in this election cycle, unseating Richard Lugar and putting up another "Sharron Angle" in Nebraska.  Chris Hedges more bluntly describes it as American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, from a book published in 2007.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Destiny's Child


If we still had our old NYTimes reading group, I would be suggesting this engaging new novel,

Mr. Fountain, whose only previous book was the short-story collection “Brief Encounters With Che Guevara,” sets up this Thanksgiving game as an artfully detailed microcosm of America in general, and George W. Bush’s Texas in particular, during the Iraq war. Though it covers only a few hours, the book is a gripping, eloquent provocation. Class, privilege, power, politics, sex, commerce and the life-or-death dynamics of battle all figure in Billy Lynn’s surreal game day experience. Although BeyoncĂ©’s girl group is on red-hot display during halftime, this book leaves no doubt that Billy is the real destiny’s child in the story.

From a review by Janet Maslin in NYTimes.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Now what would Victoria think of this?



Sorry for the parts, but it didn't come in one piece.

Lost Colony


Always exciting to see new clues into our "Lost History,"

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — A new look at a 425-year-old map has yielded a tantalizing clue about the fate of the Lost Colony, the settlers who disappeared from North Carolina's Roanoke Island in the late 16th century.


The American and British scholars believe the fort symbol could indicate where the settlers went. The British researchers joined the Thursday meeting via webcast.


In a joint announcement, the museums said, "First Colony Foundation researchers believe that it could mark, literally and symbolically, 'the way to Jamestown.' As such, it is a unique discovery of the first importance."
Here's more on the Lost Colony.



Thursday, May 3, 2012

The more things change ...



This looks like a very good new book,


What is striking about Honor in the Dust, Gregg Jones’s fascinating new book about the Philippine-American War, is not how much war has changed in more than a century, but how little. On nearly every page, there is a scene that feels as if it could have taken place during the Bush and Obama administrations rather than those of McKinley and Roosevelt. American troops are greeted on foreign soil as saviors and then quickly despised as occupiers. The United States triumphantly declares a victorious end to the war, even as bitter fighting continues. Allegations of torture fill the newspapers, horrifying and transfixing the country.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Portraitist of History



Nice to see Barbara Tuchman is now part of the Library of America,

One of the best-known historians of her time, Barbara W. Tuchman (1912–1989) distilled the complex interplay of personalities and events into gripping narratives that combine lucid scholarship with elegant literary art. A shrewd portraitist, she laid bare the all-too-human failures of leaders caught in the pull of historical currents and often tragically blinded by biases of culture and temperament.

This latest volume includes The Guns of August and The Proud Tower.  I'm surprised they didn't include The Zimmerman Telegram.

Battling the Austerians


I caught the tail end of Paul Krugman plugging his new book End this Depression Now! on Charlie Rose last night.  I wasn't sure what book he was referring to until I "googled" amazon.  He made his usual trenchant observations.  He sized up Europe very well.  And, offered some sound advise for the Obama administration and the Fed.  His most biting comments were directed at Paul Ryan, whose proposed budget he said was a joke.  There is nothing concrete about it other than the domestic cuts he proposed.  Krugman supported Larry Summers' position that domestic cuts are the worst possible thing to do at the moment.  Not only do they add to unemployment, but offer no debt relief given the corporate tax cuts the Republicans, and even Obama, are proposing as well.  But, in this new age of Austerity, which is all too reminiscent of how Hoover tried to tackle the Depression, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that "belt-tightening" is the answer.  As one would expect, Krugman effectively argues the opposite.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Man in Trouble



Robert Caro has come out with the fourth book, The Passage of Power, in his epic series on Lyndon Johnson.  It will be the subject of our next reading group starting on June 15.  You can read the New York Times Review.

On Nov. 22, 1963, when he was told that John F. Kennedy was dead, and that he was now president, Lyndon B. Johnson later recalled, “I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than minutes away from catastrophe.”


He said he realized that “ready or not, new and immeasurable duties had been thrust upon” him and that he could not allow himself to be overwhelmed by emotion: “It was imperative that I grasp the reins of power and do so without delay. Any hesitation or wavering, any false step, any sign of self-doubt, could have been disastrous. The nation was in a state of shock and grief. The times cried out for leadership. ... The entire world was watching us through a magnifying glass. ... I had to prove myself.”


He definitely responded to the moment.