Category Archives: American history

The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

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”Close your eyes and count to ten,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.
I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat. What the hell was that?

Thus begins The Babysitter, a telling of growing up unaware that one of the author’s favorite adults was not who she’d thought.

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Liza Rodman – image from Simon & Schuster – Photo by Joel Benjamin

In 2005, Liza Rodman, then in her forties, was working on the thesis for her undergraduate degree when she began having frequent nightmares. It was not her first such experience. She had had these for a long time, but all of a sudden they were happening every night. In one, her husband was trying to kill her with a fireplace poker. Another featured a man killing nurses and eating their hearts. The dreams kept coming, with a faceless man chasing her, always with a weapon. She would wake up as her dream self was about to crash through a window, fleeing for her life.

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Jennifer Jordan – image from her site – photo by Jeff Rhoads

Clearly there was motivation to figure out this puzzle, so she started writing about them, incorporating them into her thesis, over a two year period, drawing out more and more details. One dream-site was The Royal Coachman motel where she, her mother, and sister had lived for a time in Provincetown. Another was Bayberry Bend, a P-town motel her mother had owned.

Slowly the process moved along, six months of regular dreams, more images, months more of nightmares, until she saw the face, a familiar one, someone she hadn’t seen since she was a kid, a handyman hired to work at the motel where her mother was employed. His mother worked at the motel too. He was one of a series of people who took care of her and her sister, a really nice guy, one of the few adults who were kind to them, who never yelled at or hit them, who took them around with him in the motel’s utility truck, on chores, to the dump, to his garden in the woods, but who had disappeared when she was ten. This was not all that unusual for the adult males who scooted through her childhood. Why would she be having dark dreams about that guy? So she decides to ask her mother, then in her 70s, what this might all mean.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it did.
“What do you mean, happen to you?”
“With Tony Costa.”
“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”
“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”
She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.
“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

Oh, is that all? Not all that surprising from Betty. Liza’s divorced mom was not exactly the best. While she did manage to keep body and soul together for herself and her two girls, she was frequently cruel to Liza, for no reason that the child could fathom. Mom, in fact is a major focus of the book, as chapters flip back and forth, more or less, between a focus on Tony and a focus on Liza and her relationship with her mother.

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Antone Charles “Tony” Costa, Provincetown handyman and murderer of four young women. (Photo courtesy Barnstable County Identity Bureau) – image from the author’s site

Who was this guy? Tony Costa never got to know his father, who had drowned trying to save a fellow seaman in New Guinea near the end of World War II, when Tony was only eight months old. He would be obsessed with his war hero dad for the rest of his life. There were early signs of trouble with Tony. At age seven he claimed to have been visited regularly by a man in his bedroom at night, an actual intruder? a fantasy? an obsession? He said the man looked like his father. He stood out among his peers during summers in Provincetown, his mother’s birthplace, cooler, smarter, and more “inside himself” than anyone else, according to a kid he hung out with there. Then there was the taxidermy kit. Lots of killing of small animals, neighborhood pets going missing, yet never a successful display of a stuffed animal. There is no mention of bed-wetting in his psychopath Bingo card, but who knows? We know he was raped as a pre-teen, and was probably one of several victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Provincetown. So his potential for madness certainly had some outside assistance. He was accused of attempting to rape a young girl as a teen.

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Jen and Liza, Northampton, 1979 – image from Rodman’s site

Tony was smart and handsome, but had terrible judgment, a ne’er do well, capable at work but unable to hold onto a job. He became a heavy drug user and local dealer. Clearly this guy had some charisma (as well as a considerable supply of illegal substances) and a way with young teens. A pedophile who married his pregnant fourteen-year-old girlfriend, he kept a crowd of young acolytes around him unable or unwilling to see through his line of distilled, grandiose, narcissistic bullshit. Cult-leader stuff. There is a Manson-like quality to him. And, like most narcissists, he was never willing to accept any responsibility for his own actions, always insisting that people were out to get him, blaming others for things he had done.

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The VW Tony stole after murdering its owner. A local spotted it in the woods and notified the local police, which spelled doom for Tony Costa – image from the author’s FB pages

There is more going on here than personal profiles of the major actors. A lot is made of how different from the mainstream Provincetown was, particularly during the tourist season. The ethos was much more accepting of whatever than most places. With people coming and going so much, it was custom-made for a predator. It was the 60s, man, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, and kids taking off for adventures, whether drug-related or not, and thus not necessarily raising instant alarms when they went missing. In 1971, for example, I bought an old Post Office truck at auction for three hundred bucks, and drove across country with three friends. (well, tried, we never actually made it across the continent) No cellphone, no regular check-ins. We didn’t exactly file a flight plan. If we had come to a bad end, no one would have known, or been alarmed back home for weeks. This is something a lot of people did. Of course, we were not runaways, and we were not female. That would have been a whole other order of business. The cops in Provincetown took a lackadaisical attitude toward worried parents looking for missing progeny. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they will turn up in due time.” And they were probably right, mostly. Except, sometimes they weren’t. It took a lot of pushing from those concerned about the missing young women to get the police to pay much attention. Rodman and Jordan provide a very detailed look at the various police departments that became involved in Tony’s case, both the occasional good police work and the ineptitude of inter-departmental communications. Sound familiar?

The locals were slow to allow for the possibility that there was a killer in their midst. Even today, there is an urge to protect one of their own, despite it being fifty years since the events of the book.

“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.” – from The Provincetown Independent

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It was her sister’s 8th birthday. At the moment Liza was making a face at the camera, Tony was leading two young women into the Truro woods, where he would murder and bury them. – image from the author’s FB pages

One of the things about true crime books is that there is an element of suspense that is lacking. We know that little Liza will grow up to write this book, so we know that Tony did not kill her. This makes it more like a Columbo episode, knowing that the bad guy will get got, but enjoying seeing how that ultimately happens. That said, this is not a straight-up true crime effort. It is a fusion of true crime with memoir. Half of the book is about Liza’s childhood, her relationship with her mother in particular. It is an interesting look at how someone can survive a bad parent-child relationship. Showing how things were for Liza at home makes her a more sympathetic narrator for the other story. Geez, ya poor kid. I sure hope nothing else bad happens t’ya. And it makes it much more understandable how a kid who was starved for adult affection and attention would be drawn to an adult who was offering kindness and interest.

I did not get the frisson of fear reading this that pervaded in another true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Maybe because the killer in this one was long ago jailed, whereas the California killer had not yet been arrested when that book came out. But there is a certain vertigo, like walking near a cliff edge, blindfolded, only to realize the danger you were in when you take it off. It is distinctly possible that Liza might have found her way into Tony’s special garden if he had managed to stay out of jail for a few more years. Liza was like the little girl playing with Frankenstein’s monster in the movie, not realizing that he was more than just a large playmate, and seemingly friendly soul. Whew!

Rodman had been working on this project for about thirteen years. It happened that, in 2018, Jordan, a professional writer, was casting about for her next book project (She had previously published four books.) when she thought of her dear friend, Liza, (they had met in college) who was thrilled at the suggestion that they collaborate. So, sixteen years of research in all and here it is. An in depth look at a monstrous series of events, a sick individual, an interesting place in a time of upheaval, a difficult childhood, an odd friendship, and a very close call. The Babysitter is an engaging, informative read that will make you appreciate your sane parents, most likely, and appreciate your luck even more in never having had such a person as Tony in your life. (You haven’t, right?)

His coterie of teenagers, his stash of pills, and his marijuana helped mask his ever-increasing feelings of inferiority; by surrounding himself with idolizing acolytes who needed a hero, he could feel more in control, sophisticated, confident, and, of course, more intelligent.

Review posted – March 5, 2021

Publication date – March 2, 2021

I received an ARE of The Babysitter from Atria in return for an honest review. I did not charge them my usual rate of ten bucks an hour and whatever I want to eat from their fridge.

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Liza Rodman’s ’s personal, FB, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Links to Jennifer Jordan’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Red Carpet Crash – February 24, 2021 – Interview: Authors ‘Liza Rodman And Jennifer Jordan’ Talk Their Book The Babysitter: My Summers With A Serial Killer – audio – 17:02 – definitely check this one out
—–New York Post – February 27, 2021 – How I discovered my babysitter Tony Costa was a serial killer by Raquel Laneri
—–The Provincetown Independent – February 24, 2021 – Remembrance of Serial Murders Past by Howard Karren
—–WickedLocal.com – February 23, 2021 – In new memoir, local serial killer Tony Costa babysat two youngsters by Susan Blood

Items of Interest
—–Frankenstein playing with sweet young Maria
—–Columbo – or substituting for whodunit the howchatchem
—–My review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Songs/Music
The author’s site provides a link to a considerable list of 39 songs mentioned in the book. But you have to have a membership to hear the full songs on Spotify instead of just the clips that are available on Rodman’s site.

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews, Thriller

Land by Simon Winchester

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This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. – from Chief Sealth’s letter to President Pierce on a treaty giving much of what is now Washington state over for white settlement

What are the three most important things in real estate? All together now, “Location, location, location.” Simon Winchester, in his usual way, has offered us a grand tour of land, and thus real estate on our planet. Note the subtitle, How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World). This is not the broker’s walk-through in which the good elements are highlighted while the less appealing aspects are minimized or ignored. It may be that location is the most important property of land, but there are other features that are worth knowing too. Things like How much land is there? How do we know? How was it measured, by whom, and why? Is the amount of land fixed? Can it increase or decrease? Can land be made unusable? Where is everything? Who can make use of it? Is land inherently public, for (reasonable) use by all? Was it ever? How did it come to be private? How do different cultures think about land? Why is land divided up the way it is, into public and private, into parcels of particular size? Who gets to own land, and who is relegated to merely renting it? Winchester has answers.

Land is the defining characteristic of every nation. Our (the USA’s) national anthem, for example, goes “O’er the land of the free” not o’er the pond, lake, river or fjord of the free, (and no, Norway’s anthem makes no specific mention of fjords), not the sweet air of the free, not the great views of the free (although “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesties” from our other national anthem, America the Beautiful, comes close), but the land. Check your nation of choice for common ground re this. (Click for a list of anthems) The word “land” figures prominently. Although I suggest you check out the Algerian lyrics. Dude, switch to decaf. The war is over.

Land is seminal in human culture as well as national history. For many of us in the West, our very origin story begins with a landlord-tenant dispute. “If we owned the garden instead of renting it, Adam, I could have eaten the goddam apple and it would have been nobody’s business but my own. And we wouldn’t have to put up with the creepy landlord spying on us all the time, or his freaky feathered bouncer. The guy should get a hobby, make some friends or something.”

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Simon Winchester at home in his study in the Berkshires – image from The Berkshire Eagle – Photo: Andrew Blechman

This is the eighth Winchester I have read, of his fifteen non-fiction books (so, plenty left to get to) and they have all been engaging, informative, and charming. He read Geology at Oxford, so, has a particular soft spot for explaining how physical things on our planet came to be where they are, how they changed over time, and why they exist in the forms they have taken on. You might be interested in the Atlantic Ocean, maybe the Pacific? Winchester has written a book on each. How about looking at the creation of the world’s first geological map, or maybe why Krakatoa blew its top. He is also interested in tracing back how we know what we know, (or, um, history) as a crucial element of understanding things as they are now, and how they came to be. The Perfectionists looks at how industrial standardization developed, and how machine tolerances improved to the point where they are beyond the control of flesh and blood humans. In The Professor and the Madman he looks at how the Oxford English Dictionary was made. The third element in Winchester’s trifecta of interest is people, often odd personalities who played pivotal roles in the development of technical and intellectual advances, thus expanding and deepening human understanding of the world.

I think what I’ve done is to get obscure figures from history and tell the stories like I’ve told you about Mister Penck and his maps, Mister Struve and his survey, Mister Radcliffe and his line, and turn them into what they truly are, which is heroic, forgotten figures from history….I just become fascinated by these characters. – from the Kinukinaya interview

There are plenty of interesting sorts in Land. Maybe none of the folks noted here are quite so interesting as the institutionalized murderer in The Professor and the Madman, but they are still a colorful crew, and it is clear Winchester had fun writing about them. They include Cornelius Lely, who built the 20-mile-long Barrier Dam in The Netherlands, which turned the Zuider Zee into vast tracts of arable land, Gina Rinehart, the world’s largest private landholder, not someone who has contributed nearly so much to the store of human knowledge as she has to conservative politicians, and Friedrich Wilhelm Georg von Struve, who spent forty years measuring a meridian for the tsar of Russia. There are many more, of both the benign and dark variety.

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land. — Desmond Tutu

There are surprising connections made, such as the relationship between the invention of barbed wire and America’s appetite for beef. Or the link between the growth of commercial aviation and the development of World Aeronautical Charts, well maybe not so surprising, that. But that such things did not exist prior to people flying the friendly skies reminds us just how recent so much of the foundation of today’s world truly is. I suppose it also might not count as surprising, but John Maynard Keynes had an interesting solution to the problem of landed gentry, euthanasia.

Winchester details many of the outrages that have been inflicted, in the name of seizing land, on indigenous people across the planet, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA figuring large in these. But there are also plenty of other people who have been expelled from their homes, livelihoods, and history by the forces of greed across the planet. These include immigrants to the USA whose land was stolen while they were illegally incarcerated, and farmers who were dispossessed by land-owners seeking to maximize the profitability of their holdings, via the Enclosure and Clearance laws passed in England and Scotland. Then there are the perennial turf battles, like those in Ireland and the Middle East.

Gripes are, per usual with any Winchester book, minimal. He writes about the role, historical, current, and potential, that trusts have, had, and might have for the preservation of land from destructive exploitation. Yet, in doing so, there was no mention of The Nature Conservancy. Their motto could be (it isn’t) We save land the old-fashioned way. We buy it. It has over a million members (yes, I am) and has protected about 120 million acres of land. It definitely merited a shoutout here. Another part of the book tells of the annihilation of bison from the American west. The critters are referred to as multi-ton. Like the mythical eight hundred pound gorilla which grows only to about 400 pounds at most, bison max out at roughly 2,000 pounds, or a single ton, which still leaves them as the largest land mammal in North America.

Like any good geologist, or writer, Simon Winchester enjoys digging. And we are all the lucky recipients of the informational nuggets he unearths. He is a master story-teller, and if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself at a party with him, or find a chance to see him speak publicly, just pull up a seat and listen. You won’t be sorry.

So, I can tell from the looks on your faces that this one would be a perfect fit for you, particularly if you are planning to start a library soon. Do you think you’d like to make an offer on the book? There are other potential buyers stopping by this afternoon, and I would hate for you to miss out. It won’t stay on the shelves very long. Take my card and give me a ring when you make up your mind, ok. But I can assure you that, whether your preferences for land are LaLa, Never, Sugar, Holy, Promised, Wonder, Native, or Rover, when you check out Simon Winchester’s latest book, you will be a Land lover.

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1948)

I could say that Winchester covered a lot of ground in this book, but really who would write such a thing? I suppose one might say that he planted a flag on his subject matter and claimed it for his own, and if you don’t like it, you can get the hell off his lawn. Not me. Nope. Nosiree.

Review first posted – February 5, 2021

Publication dates
———-January 19, 2021 – hardcover
———-January 18, 2022- trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A nice overview of Winchester’s professional life can be found here

Interviews
—–Kinokuniya USA – Interview with Simon Winchester on ‘Land’ – video – 30:03 – by Raphael – This is wonderful. The interview is a lot like SW’s books, one fascinating story follows another follows another.
—–RNZ – Simon Winchester: how land ownership shaped the modern world by Kim Hill – text extract plus audio interview – 48:24
—–The Book Club – Simon Winchester: Land – audio – 42:46

Songs/Music
—–Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land
—–The Lion King – This Land
—– LaLa Land – soundtrack

Reviews of other Simon Winchester books we have read:
—–2018 – The Perfectionists
—–2015 – Pacific
—–2010 – Atlantic
—–2008 – The Man Who Loved China
—–2005 – Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
—–2001 – The Map That Changed the World
—–1998 – The Professor and the Madman

Items of Interest – by Winchester
—–From 2013 – Simon Winchester at TEDxEast re his book The Men Who United the States – There is an interesting morsel here about 11 minutes in on an important Jeffersonian decision having to do with land ownership
—–American Scholar – Experience Everything

Items of Interest
—– Citizen Simon: Author, journalist, OBE, sage of Sandisfield by Andrew D. Blechman – Posted on September 9, 2018
—–International Map of the World
—–The Nature Conservancy

An extra bit. I had intended to incorporate the following into the body of the review, but just felt off about that. Nevertheless I do hold with the notion expressed, so here it is, tucked away at the bottom:

I was taken with a particular instance of the horrors that accompanied land grabs in the expanding USA, as having resonance with today, with Donald Trump as the embodiment of that carnage. Whereas the racist yahoos of the 19th century westward expansion delighted in slaughtering bison from a moving train, in order to deny the native residents a living and to make it easier to clear them from desired land, so Trump has spent his time in the limelight, and in power, blasting away at the things that are central to our culture, to our values, so that he could deny us our cultural and legal core, as he seized all he could grab for himself and those like him.

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Filed under American history, England, History, Non-fiction, World History

Digging for Truth – We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper

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I’m here because, for the past ten years. I have been haunted by a murder that took place a few steps away. It was told to me my junior year of college like a ghost story: a young woman, a Harvard graduate student of archaeology, was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. Her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect recreation of a burial ritual. No one heard any screams; nothing was stolen. Decades passed, and her case remained unsolved. Unsolved, that is, until yesterday.

“Every nation-state wants an important past,” Karl said. So, often the ruling parties will commission archaeologists. But sometimes the past the archaeologists find is not what the powers want them to find.

In Becky Cooper’s gripping true-crime tale, We Keep the Dead Close, there are two mysteries at work. Who brutally murdered Jane Britton and why, and was Harvard University involved in covering up the murder? If so, did they know who the guilty party was?

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Becky Cooper – from the Boston Globe – photo by Becky Cooper

Ok, so here is how I went about reading the book. In addition to entering into my review file the names of the suspects people connected to the crime, I also kept a running list of the questions I thought needed answering as the book moved along. Here is a sample from reading through page 32:

Questions so far
—–Was Jim H (Jane’s sort-of bf) at her door at 9a as reported by her friends and neighbors, the Mitchells?
—–Where is Jim H now?
—–Who were the two men dashing to a car at 12:30a as reported by neighbor Ravi?
—–Why was Jane’s cat screaming at 8p, and if the place was effectively soundproof how did neighbor Carol Presser hear it?
—–Sounds like the killer was left-handed, given the location of the fatal blow.
—–What’s the deal with the red ochre sprinkled over Jane’s body?

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Jane Britton – image from Wikimedia

I kept a separate list for the question of whether Harvard engaged in a coverup. In a book of over 400 pages you can see how this list might grow. And grow it did, even as I checked off many of the questions when they were answered. But that was one of the major joys of reading this, or, I guess, any true crime book, or fictional crime book for that matter. Seeing if what strikes the author, or the investigators, is also what strikes you, the reader, the rousing of our inner Sherlock. Aside from the mystery, the whodunit of the story, there is content in abundance. For example, how can an institution like Harvard at the very least appear to be involved in covering up a crime, and yet remain unaccountable. Maybe that is not so surprising given that, after lives of diverse forms of crime, the Trump family remains on the spacious side of prison bars. But still, there is, or at least should be, some shock value to this. Did Harvard leadership hide a capital crime, did Harvard obstruct justice for fifty years? Cooper looks at evidence suggesting that it did.

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Professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky was a prime suspect in Britton’s murder – image from the NY Post – grad students had accumulated a file on him. One of them died under questionable circumstances.

As noted in the opening quote at top, Cooper had come across this story while an undergraduate at Radcliffe. The professor presumed most likely to have done the deed was still teaching at Harvard. Cooper graduated, moved on, was having a life, but the story stuck with her. Ten years after her undergrad days, she returned to the scene of the crime, as a graduate student, determined to find out the truth of Jane Britton’s death.

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The Dig team in Iran in 1968 – from West Hunter

This is a journey very reminiscent of Michelle McNamara’s amazing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in which she helped track down the Golden State Killer. Could Cooper do the same? We follow her through the labyrinth of her investigation, talking with everyone who knew Jane at the time of her death, and then branching out to the people who knew the people who knew her. She keeps trying to get access to official police records, a remarkably difficult undertaking for such a cold case, even moreso as Massachusetts is one of the worst states in the nation on Freedom of Information access, and gets in touch with local and state investigators who were involved back then. Suspects get their time in the spotlight, then are replaced with others. Was it one of these, or maybe someone in Jane’s circle who was never thought of as a suspect, or maybe someone else entirely?

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Jane Britton and Ed Franquemont at their college graduation in 1967 – image from Town & Country – source: the Jane Britton Police File – Franquemont, an ex, was universally disliked by Jane’s friends. He may have been physically abusive to her

But there is a whole lot more going on here than a procedural effort to unearth the truth in a nearly fifty-year-old cold case. There is a consideration of historical and all-too-contemporary gender discrimination issues at Harvard, a strong thread about story that permeates, and a subset of that, on rumor as a means of social control.

Cooper documents decades of dismissive treatment of women, not just at Harvard, but in academia well beyond those ivied walls. This manifests in many ways. Women at Harvard in the 1970s learned to dress as sexlessly as possible in order to de-emphasize their gender, lest they be seen as less academically capable than their male clasamates. In the 1980s, women were ushered to positions in the university that were high on administrative duties and low in departmental influence. In 1994 Nancy Hopkins documented the bias against women, showing that only 8 percent of the science faculty at MIT were women, and even lower, 5 percent, at Harvard. In 2005 Hopkins confronted then Harvard president Larry Summers at a conference when he claimed that female under-representation in science faculties was the result of innate biological differences. In the twenty-teens, Associate Professor Kimberly Theidon, was active at Harvard speaking out about sex discrimination and sexual assault, faulting Harvard for its lagging sexual assault policy. When her concerns made it into The Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, her tenure application, which had already been approved by the authorizing committee, was withdrawn. Behind-closed-door deliberations on tenure decisions shields Harvard from much-needed transparency.

The tenure decision-making process “is an invitation to abuse,” Howard Georgi, a Harvard physicist who has served on tenure committees told Science magazine in 1999. “There’s no question this has affected women.”

The whole notion for the book began, of course, with the story BC heard when she was a Radcliffe undergrad. The police withholding their information made the story of Jane’s death largely oral, and certainly unofficial. And we know from the game Telephone, how stories can change when passed along that way. The file kept by graduate students at Harvard about Karl, with so many elements poorly examined, if researched at all, made that a kind of urban legend. Everybody back at the time of her death had their own experience of Jane and BC tries to make sense of them, learn from their Rashomon-like views the truth of who Jane was. She presents to us a Jane Britton who is not just a body deprived of life, but a three-dimensional person, with a personality, a history, hopes, talents, complications, and ambitions.

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Jane Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, was also a possible suspect. – image from the NY Post – source: Jane Britton police file

We construct history from the pieces that are available to us. Artifacts, physical objects, letters, photographs, newspaper reports, police reports, spaces that existed then that are still around today. Cooper pursues all she can find, but some will never be unearthed. Sometimes those pieces might lead in opposing directions. Sometimes the pieces might lead nowhere. Sometimes small pieces might hold large truths. Sometimes what seem large pieces hold little explanatory value. Which are the important shards? And which are just detritus? It takes persistence, sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity to make the story we construct of these pieces reflect the truth of the person, the event, or the time we are attempting to describe. Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky’s claim to fame, for example, was not the high academic achievement of his field research. It was his ability to transform the bits he found into a compelling tale. And what about the missing puzzle pieces, the police reports that were kept hidden, the people there in 1968 and 1969 who had died? We can never really know all there is to know. But hopefully we can, with the evidence we are able to gather, get close enough.

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Richard Michael (Mike) Gramly (many years later, obviously) not only knew Jane at the time of her death, but was also on an expedition when another young woman vanished mysteriously – he was known to have serious anger issues

There were rumors bouncing around Jane and her death like neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Many of the people with whom Cooper spoke had a favorite suspect they believed guilty of the crime, offering what they knew or, maybe, had heard or suspected as supporting evidence. Did Ed Franquemont beat her? Was Mike Gramly guilty of maybe two killings? Did Jane have an affair with Karl in Iran? Did Jane threaten to expose a professional lie Karl had told? Did she blackmail him to gain an advantage in her exams, and a place on the next dig? Was Karl a plagiarist? Was Karl a murderer? Did rumors surround him because of his arrogance or because he might be guilty? How about Lee Parsons [sorry, I was unable to find a photo, but Lee is a prime suspect]? Something happened between Lee and Jane at a notorious “Incense Party” at his place. But what? Did Lee confess to killing Jane many years later? In Cooper’s investigative travels she crosses paths with an expert in such things.

As I thought more about [medical anthropologist] Mel [Konner]’s assertion that the rumors were a form of punishment, I found myself reading scholarly work on the social functions of gossip. I eventually worked my way to Chris Boehm, a former classmate of Jane’s who’s studied how gossip works in small-scale societies. He had, in fact, used Jane’s murder as an example in his paper about gossip as a form of social control.


According to Boehm, social groups necessarily have a certain amount of “leakiness“ built in. These are the whisper networks; these are the stories that get swapped in the field and passed quietly between graduate students. Their job is to limit outlier behavior and to keep members of the community safe when what can be said out loud is constrained. Gossip, in other words, is punishment for people who move outside the norms.

There is so much going on here, and it is so accessibly presented that you will be rewarded with much more than the knowledge of who killed Jane Britton. You will learn a lot about Harvard, how academia treats women, how gossip works in the world, and how one might go about solving a very cold case. You may or may not want to read this book in the somewhat OCD manner I pursued, focusing on solving the mystery. That way does add considerably to the reading time, as well as the filling feeling one gets from such activities. But whether you dust off each piece of information as it emerges, or speed through Cooper’s excavation on a mud-spattered Jeep, you will be well rewarded. Once you dig out We Keep the Dead Close from your bookseller’s shelves, you will definitely want to keep it close until you finish reading, exploring, and learning. This is an expedition well worth signing up for.

…the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know. There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.

Review posted – January 8, 2021

Publication dates
———-November 10, 2020 – hardcover
———-September 14, 2021 – trade paperback

I received a copy of the book from Grand Central in return for an honest review, or at least, as honest a review as might be possible given the materials I was able to excavate. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC. You know who you are.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–This is an EXCELLENT interview – Wellington Square Bookshop – We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper | Author Interview with Sam Hankin – video – 41:15
—–Grand Central Publishing – Becky Cooper & editor Maddie Caldwell in conversation – video – 56:16 – safe to skip the 2:13 intro

Items of Interest
—–Wiki – Murder of Jane Britton
—–WebSleuths.com

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Reviews

Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

book cover

What do you do when you’re a scared-shitless kid that’s been faking it for so long? You bury it. You polish your smile and study until you can’t even focus your eyes. You buy yourself a big red sweater with an S across the chest, just like the superchild you once were. You try to prove them all wrong. You attempt to outrun it. But then you get injured and your mom goes insane and a kind man in a blue shirt with a trim black beard uses the words. Emotional abuse. Crossing physical boundaries, Trauma. Neglect. I feel like a blank space covered in skin.

Who is that masked man? If all of your life you’ve worn a mask, what do you see in the mirror? A reflection of someone you aren’t. How can you know who you really are, or who you might become, if you see your world through cut-out holes? And the world never gets to see you, never gets to relate to you, the real you, behind your facade. Kinda tough to live your best life that way. Kinda tough to live a real life that way. And how did that mask get there in the first place? And how did it impact the nuts and bolts of your life? And is there any hope you can tear it off without losing the you beneath, pull it off slowly, maybe un-sew it from your face, a stitch at a time?

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Mikel Jollett – image from his Twitter

Who is that masked man, the kid from the cult, the pre-teen looking for thrills, the teenager who nearly killed himself, the long-distance-runner, the Stanford student, the substance abuser, the serial spoiler of relationships, the music-world journalist, the successful rock musician, the wonderful writer? Or are they all just different masks?

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Synenon leader Charles Dederich – Image from San Diego State University

The impetus to write the book was a recent one. Jollett had been writing and performing music with his band, Airborne Toxic Event, since 2005, a step sideways from his intention to pursue a writing career, and a closely linked redirection from his work as a music journalist.

Then, in 2015, his father died, and Jollett says he was overwhelmed with grief and confusion. “I wondered why it hit me so hard, so I went back into my past—that day my mom took us out of the cult. I went in to lockdown and started to write.” He stayed with it for three years. – from the PW interview

There was a lot to write about. This coming of age story begins when he was five. Jollett had the bad luck to be born into a bad situation. His parents were members of Synenon, a place that came to public prominence in the 1960s in California, a goto drug rehab community for a while. People charged with substance-related crimes were often sent there by California courts. It probably did some good in the beginning, but as the leader of Synenon, Chuck Dederich, became more and more unhinged and power mad, his not totally crazy community became a totally crazy cult. Not the best start for a new life. One of the rules in Synenon was that children were to be raised communally. So, even though mom and/or dad might be around, they were not the ones providing care. Have a nice life.

“It was an orphanage!” Grandma screams. “That’s what you call a place where strangers raise your kids!” Grandma says that mom doesn’t even know who put us to bed or who woke us up or who taught us to read. She says we were sitting ducks. (We did play Duck Duck Goose a lot.) “You made them orphans, Gerry!” Grandma will point at us from her chair as we pretend not to listen.

We follow Mik’s journey from his earliest memories of Synenon, raised by people other than his parents until Mom flees with him and his older brother in the dark of night. Most orphanages do not send goons to track down people, including children, who leave. Even out of the Synenon cult, Mik, his brother, Tony, and his mom, Gerry, were not safe. Mik gets to see a fellow “splittee” get beaten nearly to death by Synenon enforcers outside his new home.

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Facing your dark side – image from Narcissism and emotional abuse.co.uk

If this decidedly unstable beginning was not enough of a challenge, his mother was not the best of all possible parents.

Is that a mom? Someone who you can’t ever remember not loving you? I know Mom doesn’t think that’s what it is but I do…She tells me I’m her son and she wanted kids so she wouldn’t be alone anymore and now she has us and it is a son’s job to take care of his mother.

Gerry was just a weeeee bit narcissistic, to her children’s decided disadvantage. It would take Mik years to learn that the usual arrangement was that parents take care of children.

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Image from collectiveevolution.com

Jollett takes us through many stages of his life, successfully modulating the narrative to fit the age he is portraying in each. As he grows, his awareness increases and his interests broaden. It makes him, appropriately, an unreliable narrator as young Mik does not yet have the tools to see past the misinformation he is being given.

It took my brother and I a long long time to piece together the reality that a functional adult might have about the situation, that we’d escaped a cult that had once done good things for addicts (including our father), that our mother was severely depressed, and that these experiences were very unique in some ways and quite common in others. So I wrote the book from that perspective, at least at the beginning: that of a child trying to piece together the reality of the changing world around him; because that’s how I experienced it. There were mysteries. What is a restaurant? (We’d never been in one). What is a car? A city? And, most devastatingly, what is a family? Because we simply didn’t know. – from the Celadon interview

Being born into a cult and having a depressed, toxically narcissistic mother were two strikes already, but then pop, and other paternal family members had spent considerable time behind bars, and in both his paternal and his maternal trees there was a history of substance abuse, of one sort or many. You’d think Mik was destined to wind up an alcoholic and/or a drug addict and in jail. Is genetics destiny? This is a core battle he faced in his life. Another was to come to terms with how his strange upbringing affected how he related to other human beings, particularly to women. He talks a lot about how he presented a façade to the world, while keeping his truest self well back, if he even knew his true self at all.

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Robert Smith mask – Image from funkyBunky.co

Jollett endured years of poverty, and emotional abuse. He found outlets in criminal acts and substance abuse. But he also found other ways to fill his needs and channel his creativity. A close friend introduced him to the music that would push him in a new constructive direction.

I go to a place in my head where I can be alone. Listening to Robert Smith sing his happy songs about how sad he feels is like he’s there too, like he has his Secret Place in his head where he goes and since he wrote a song about it, he’s right there in my headphones, so we’re in this Secret Place together. Me and Robert. It’s a place where we are allowed to be sad, instead of feeling like freaks of nature, us weirdos and orphans.

A major change in Mik’s life is when he begins spending time with his father, Jimmy, and his father’s significant other, in Los Angeles, first summers, then, at age 11, moving there more permanently, Gerry having moved to Oregon with the boys when they were fleeing Synenon. It is a whole new world for him there, not just offering different ways to get into trouble, but the opportunity to get to know Jimmy and his father’s family, something that was not really possible in his earliest years, particularly as his mother had portrayed Jimmy negatively.

I’d been told so many terrible things about him at a very young age. He was a heroin addict, an ex-con who’d done years in prison. He “left my mother for a tramp.” That was a common refrain. But none of it turned out to matter. He was clean by the time I was born and all I ever knew once I got to spend time with him, was this guy who would do anything for me. He was affectionate. He took us everywhere. He cared so deeply about our basic happiness. He had a great laugh and a quiet wisdom about him. He never cared what I became in life. He wanted me to be honest, to be interesting (or simply funny), and to be around. – from the Celadon interview

The emotional core of the book is connections Jollett has, for good or ill, with the people in his life, friends, and particularly family.

Jimmy was fond of betting on the ponies. He took Mik with him once he started visiting LA. Hollywood Park is the track they attended. It is where Mik has meaningful heart-to-hearts with his father. It is a place that lives in his imagination as well, a place where he can connect with his family across time. Will Mik grow up to be a ”Jollett Man,” a bad-ass tough guy who leans hard toward wildness, or something other? There are certainly strains in him that offer other possibilities. His athleticism, intellectual curiosity, academic licks, creativity, musical talent, and stick-to-itive-ness offer hope for a future different from his father’s.

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Image from The Smiths and Morrissey FB pages

As an adult, Mik finds a career in music, and gains insights into the musical creative process from some household names. He gains as well insights into his emotional state that help him understand the life he has been living. But the real core is how he got to that place to begin with.

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Image from Invaluabl.com

Jollett employs literary tools to great effect. For example, as an eight-year-old in Oregon, his family raised and slaughtered rabbits for food. In addition to this being a sign of the family’s poverty, it is clear that young Mik senses that he, too, is being raised in an emotional cage to provide sustenance of another sort. His writing is smooth and often moving. There are sum-up portions at the end of chapters that pull together what that chapter has been about. These bits tend toward the self-analytical, and are often poetic.

…music makes me feel like I belong somewhere, that this person I don’t know, the one who swims beneath his life in a dark, chaotic, unknowable place, this one has a voice too.

Mikel Jollett has written a remarkable memoir, offering not just a look at his dramatic and event-filled personal journey, but a peek out from the masks he wore to the times he lived through. While his actions and experiences covered a considerable swath, there is always, throughout his moving tale, a connection to family, to his mother, father, brother, various step-parents, his extended family, and closest friends. The power of these connections caused him considerable difficulty, but also made it possible for him to weather some major life storms. The odds are you will be moved by Jollett’s celebration of real human bonding, cringe at some of the challenges he had to endure, mumble an “oh, no,” or worse, as you see the missteps along his path, cheer for the triumphs when they come, and luxuriate in the beauty of his writing. Whatever else you may get from the book, it is clear that Mikel Jollett is unmasked as an outstanding writer. Hollywood Park is a sure winner of a read. Bet on it.

One sentence [in The Scarlet Letter] stood out to me as I read on the edge of my bed. I marked the page: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” It made me think of the Secret Place, the place I hide with Robert Smith. I know this face. I’ve learned not to tell anyone at school about Synanon or Dad in prison or…Mom in the bed staring up at the ceiling. It’s a mask, this face you create for others, one you hide behind as you laugh at jokes you don’t understand and skip uncomfortable details, entire years of your life, as if they simply didn’t happen.

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Jollett (l.), with dad Jimmy and brother Tony -image from Publishers Weekly

Review first posted – May 15, 2020

Publication dates
———-May 5, 2020 – hardcover
———-March 22, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an ARE of this book from Celadon in return for an honest review. But, do they really know who they gave this book to? I could be anyone, pretending to be anyone.

Thanks to MC, too.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page and a promotional site for the book

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – Mikel Jollett Crafts a Heartbreaking Memoir of Staggering Growth by Louise Ermelino
—–Lit Hub – Sheltering: Mikel Jollett Challenges the Memoir Form
by Maris Kreizman – video – 17:58
—–Celadon – Mikel Jollett, Author of Hollywood Park, on Life Inside and Outside a Cult by Jennifer Jackson

My dad was my best friend and when he died it completely derailed my life. It wasn’t just sad, it was confusing. No one tells you that about grief. Or at least no one told me. Just how disorienting it is. And it’s probably the reason I started writing the book: because I couldn’t think about anything else. I was just baffled by how sad I was, how much it felt like the world was actually ending. I emerged from a very deep depression in which I hardly left the house for about six months. I’d put on weight, hadn’t written a word or a single song. I cried every day, and spent so much time just questioning who I was in the world without this guy who was the first person I ever trusted. And all I wanted to do was write about it because it helped me to understand it.

Songs/Music
—–Celadon – Animated Trailer for the album Hollywood Park by the author’s band Airborne Toxic Event – samples from the album songs, with animated backdrop
—–The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys
———-Boys Don’t Cry
—–Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall
—–The Smiths – The Queen is Dead
———-Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want
—–Jackson Browne – Running On Empty
———-The Pretender
—–The Airborne Toxic Event – Wishing Well
———-Sometime Around Midnight

Items of Interest
—–Instagram – images from the author and his band
—–The Hollywood Park Book Tour – only for ticket holders
—–The History of Synanon and Charles Dederich

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Religion, Reviews

Parkland by Dave Cullen

book cover

It became clear quickly that suburban kids feared violence inside their school—once in a lifetime, but horrific—and the Chicago kids feared violence getting there. At the bus stop on their porch, walking out of church. It could happen anywhere, and it did… Martin Luther King had preached six principles of nonviolence…The Parkland kids were embarking on #4: “Suffering can educate and transform.”

After the seminal Columbine shootings in 1999, Dave Cullen undertook to research the event deeply, to find out what the truth was of the shooters, their motivations, planning, and outcomes, and to dispel the many false notions that had made their way through the media like a Russian virus after the event. In a way it was a whodunit, and a whydunit. His book, Columbine, was an in-depth historical look, examining what had happened, after the fact. This included following up with many of those who survived the attack, for years after.

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Dave Cullen – image from GR

Columbine and Parkland may have been similar events, but they are very different books. This time, with his reputation as the go-to reporter on stories having to do with mass-shootings, particularly mass school-shootings, Cullen had the credentials to ask the Parkland survivors for access as they worked through it all. Four days after the shooting he called, and spoke with the entire early MFOL (March For Our Lives) group on speakerphone. The next day he was there. Cullen proceeded to cover the emerging stories in person, when possible, and by phone, on-line, and via diverse media, when not, continuing through 2018. What he has produced is a you-are-there account of the birth of a movement.

Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu described March for Our Lives as one of the most significant youth movements in living memory. “The peaceful campaign to demand safe schools and communities and the eradication of gun violence is reminiscent of other great peace movements in history,” he said. “I am in awe of these children, whose powerful message is amplified by their youthful energy and an unshakable belief that children can—no, must—improve their own futures.

One could do worse, if looking at how to begin a movement, than to pore through Cullen’s reporting, as the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pivot from the physical and emotional carnage of a brutal armed attack on their school to organizing a regional, then national call for gun sanity.

Parkland tells two stories, the personal actions of the teenagers involved and the broader view of the movement that they helped solidify. Cullen offers not only a look at some of the central people who built this movement, Emma Gonzalez, Jackie Corin, Alex Wind, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Dylan Baierlein, and others, but shows how their sudden rise to fame impacted both their movement and them, personally.

There are just so many hours in a day. In very concrete ways, committing large swaths of one’s time to political action meant that there was less time for other parts of what had been their lives. Extracurriculars was the obvious first hit. Theater, music, sports all suffered. But academic ambitions were close behind. Tough to keep up with multiple AP classes, for example, if you are stretched thin organizing a national political bus tour. And tough to maintain perfect grades when you keep getting home on the red-eye after an interview in LA or New York. Friendships suffered, or at the very least shifted. If you were one of the cool kids, but were now hanging out with the nerds, odds are you would get ditched. Of course, the upside is that you replace as friends a bunch of people of low value with people who are actually worth something. And you might imagine that, this being an adolescent-rich environment, jealousy might rear its ugly head. For example, Emma Gonzalez was transformed from just one of the kids at school to a national icon, as Emma and the other MFOL leaders were regularly having meetings with national figures and celebrities to discuss gun control. Might just make the other kids think you have gotten too big for your britches. Some of the organizers even dropped out of school to complete their studies on line. And that does not even begin to touch on PTSD, or death threats.

Hogg, in fact, was frequently not on the bus but traveling separately in a black SUV accompanied by bodyguards. If he were a politician, one of the staffers told me, the intensity of interest in him would merit 24-hour Secret Service surveillance. “We get people armed to the teeth showing up and saying, ‘Where’s David Hogg?’ ” Deitsch told me. An outfit called the Utah Gun Exchange had been following the kids on tour all summer — on what it called a pro–Second Amendment “freedom tour” — sometimes in an armored vehicle that looks like a tank with a machine-gun turret.
The NRA seems to take Hogg’s existence as an affront, having tweeted out his name and whereabouts and inciting its approximately 5 million members by perpetuating the falsehood that the Parkland kids want to roll back the Second Amendment. Hogg’s mother, Rebecca Boldrick, says that in June she received a letter in the mail that read, “Fuck with the NRA, and you’ll be DOA.”
– from Lisa Miller’s New York Magazine article, David Hogg, After Parkland

What does it take to build a movement? Why did this movement catch on, and grow? Was it a propitious confluence of events, right time, right place? If Parkland had happened a year or two years earlier, would it have had the same impact? Would the MFOL movement have gained the traction it has garnered?

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The March for Our Lives rally in DC drew 800,000, the largest rally crowd in DC history – image from USA Today

The core group was blessed with a considerable concentration of talent. One element was media savvy. Just three days after the shooting, Emma’s ”We call B.S.”speech was a call to…well…arms, a call for those being victimized by our national gun fetish to stand up and demand that the adults in the nation start behaving like they are actually grown-ups, a call to legislators to act. It resonated, and went viral. Cameron came up with the #NeverAgain hashtag (although it had been notably used before) as an appropriate motif for the movement. He was also a natural performer, who had been comfortable in stage settings in front of adults since he was seven. David Hogg’s realtime video of the shooting from inside the school during the attack gained the shooting even more national coverage than it might otherwise have gotten. Jackie Corin was preternaturally adept at organizing the details of the movement, coping with scheduling, getting permissions, learning who needed to be contacted, all the office-manager-plus-organization-leader skills that are totally required but rarely available.

Less than a week after creating her Twitter account, Emma would surpass a million followers—about double that of the NRA. By the summer, Cameron would amass 400,000 followers, David twice that, and Emma at 1.6 million towered over them all.

Another element was the availability of supportive adults. This began, of course, with the parents of the organizers, but also some parents of the shooting victims. And beyond the immediate there was input from interested adults from outside the area, people able to offer not only money but media access. George Clooney got in touch, offering not only a sizeable contribution, but a connection to a high-end PR agency. State and national political people got involved as well. One particularly meaningful connection was made with the Peace Warriors in Chicago, local activists whose work in trying to fend off violence dovetailed particularly well with the Parklanders. The relatively wealthy suburban kids were worried about violence in their schools. The Peace Warriors lived in a world in which getting to and from school unharmed was the challenge. The joining of the school safety movement with an urban gun safety movement, was seminal, changing the focus of the Parklanders from school safety to gun safety. Bet you did not hear much about that in the papers.

The Peace Warriors arrived at just the right moment. They helped shape the MFOL policy agenda and the tenor of their approach. They all kept talking: by email, phone, and text. The Parkland kids peppered the Peace Warriors with questions about the six principles, and then burrowed deeper on their own. The more they learned, the more they found it was like listening to themselves—a better, wiser version of the selves they were fumbling toward. How liberating to discover Martin Luther King Jr. had already done all that work. Brilliantly. He had drawn from Gandhi, and it was amazing how well the principles stood up across time, space, and cultures.

The stages involved in the group’s growth and how the movement shifted focus makes for fascinating reading. Beginning with the initial rally, growing to larger memorials, then a rally at the state capital, then the nation’s capital, then a cross country bus tour in Summer 2018, from coverage in local news media to national, even global news coverage. Cullen gives us enough without overwhelming with too much detail on the challenges involved in the logistics of making rallies, tours, and marches happen, and the upsides and downsides of ongoing national exposure. Some of MFOLs core leaders even decided to keep away from any coverage that might focus on personal portrayals, as media stardom was seen as distracting from the group’s message.

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Emma Gonzalez is distraught while giving her “We Call B.S” speech in Fort Lauderdale days after the shooting – image from the NY Times

I do not really have any gripes about the book. It was well written, engaging, informative and moving. It also offers up the odd surprise here and there, like the source of national disunity over using April 20th, the date of the Columbine attack, as the day for a national student walkout.

As for why this movement caught fire when it did, the jury is out. It may have to do with the national backlash against the excesses of the Trump-led right, disgust, finally, with expressions of “thoughts and prayers” absent any attempt to address the underlying problem. But yeah, it definitely helps that the victims were mostly white kids in a well-to-do suburb. Of course, this is hardly the first time mostly white suburban children have been so murdered. But maybe it was a final straw. In a way this strikes me as an echo of larger social trends. As the middle class becomes more and more squeezed by flat wages, declining benefits, increasing taxes (it is not our taxes that get cut), and a threatened safety net, the miseries that have long troubled working-class people, particularly urban people of color, have been, more and more, visited on middle class white people. (See Automating Inequality) Just as the opioid epidemic was once a feeder of three-strikes legislation, and widespread carnage, the current opioid crisis, the one visited on more and more white people, portrays addiction as less a failure of personal morality and more a manifestation of biological addiction, or at the very least, predisposition. When black people are getting shot in ghettoes, it’s business as normal, but when white kids are getting mowed down in their schools, it is a national crisis.

It will be interesting to see how the MFOL movement sustains going forward. While there is no certainty of success, in the long or short terms, there is cause for hope. Even though changes in gun regulations MFOL wrested from Florida lawmakers were modest, getting any change at all was a huge success. Wins, of any sort, have been as rare as brave legislators, and this definitely counted as a win. The road ahead, though, remains long, hard, and fraught with impediments and peril. And people keep dying early, wasteful deaths. In his Broadway show one night in Summer 2018, Bruce Springsteen

reached back fifty years, and drew a straight line to Martin Luther King Jr., assuring us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but tends toward justice”—but adding a stern corollary” “That arc doesn’t bend on its own.” Bending it takes a whole lot of us, bending in with every ounce of strength we’ve got.

Review posted – February 22, 2019

Publication date – February 12, 2019

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram, and FB pages and on Youtube

Items of Interest – Reporting
—–3/14/19 – NY Times – Sandy Hook Massacre: Remington and Other Gun Companies Lose Major Ruling Over Liability – by Rick Rojas and Kristin Hussey
—–8/20/18 – New York Magazine – David Hogg, After Parkland – by Lisa Miller
—–2/17/18 – The NewYorker – Calling B.S. in Parkland, Florida – by Emily Witt
—–2/19/18 – The NewYorker – How the Survivors of Parkland Began the Never Again Movement – by Emily Witt
—– 3/8/18 – “We’re Not Your Pawns”: Parkland’s Never Again Movement Meets the Lawmakers – by Emily Witt

[Joe] Kennedy recalled other instances of youth activism in American history: the mill girls of Lowell in the mid-nineteenth century; the Little Rock nine, in 1957; the children who marched for civil rights in the “children’s crusade” and were arrested in Birmingham, in 1963; the four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State, in 1970. “From Stonewall to Selma to Seneca Falls, America’s youth forces us to confront where we have fallen short,” he said.

—–5/25/18 – The NewYorker – The March for Our Lives Presents a Radical New Model for Youth Protest – by Emily Witt
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland: A Year After the School Shooting That Was Supposed to Change Everything – by Patricia Mazzei
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland Shooting: Where Gun Control and School Safety Stand Today – By Margaret Kramer and Jennifer Harlan
—–1/16/13 – Business Insider – How the Gun Industry Funnels Tens of Millions of Dollars to the NRA – by Walt Hickey

“Today’s NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. “While the NRA portrays itself as protecting the ‘freedom’ of individual gun owners, it’s actually working to protect the freedom of the gun industry to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or accessory.”
There are two reasons for the industry support for the NRA. The first is that the organization develops and maintains a market for their products. The second, less direct function, is to absorb criticism in the event of PR crises for the gun industry.

—–3/22/19 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooting Survivor Sydney Aiello Takes Her Own Life – by Pilar Melendez

Items of Interest – Other
—–NeverAgainMSD on Facebook
—–Change the Ref – a non-profit set up by parents of one of the victims, to fight the NRA
—– 2/13/19 – NY Times – Would Congress Care More if Parkland Had Been a Plane Crash?
—–March For Our Lives
—–National School Walkout
—–Video for the song Burn the House Down, by AJR. This was MFOL’s anthem on their summer bus tour. AJR did an unscheduled show for them in NYC
—–7/1/18 – Dylan Klebold’s mother in a TED talk about how it is possible to miss the signs of disturbance in those close to you – Sue Klebold: My Son Was a Columbine Shooter. This is My Story
—– Bryan Reardon’s novel, Finding Jake, offers a fictional look at a Columbine-type scenario from a parental perspective
—–Since Parkland

Over the summer, more than 200 teen reporters from across the country began working together to document the children, ages zero to 18, killed in shootings during one year in America. The stories they collected go back to last February 14, the day of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when at least three other kids were fatally shot in incidents that largely escaped notice. As the weeks went on, the stories came to include children lost to school shootings, as well as to armed domestic violence, drug homicides, unintentional discharges, and stray bullets. The stories do not include victims killed while fatally injuring someone else or in police-involved shootings, nor children who died in gun suicides, for reasons explained here.

—–March 24, 2019 – Parkland Grieves Again After Two Apparent Teenage Suicides – by Patricia Mazzei
—–April 16, 2019 – Parkland Students Bask in Pulitzer Mention: ‘They Took Us Seriously’ – by Patricia Mazzei
—–July 26, 2019 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooter Was Searched ‘Every Morning’ While a Student: Guard by Marianne Dodson
—–November 30, 2019 – Parkland is named to the NY Public Library’s list of 2019’s Best Books for Adults (Nonfiction)
—–My review of Cullen’s 2009 book, Columbine

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Filed under Activism, American history, History, Journalism, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, True crime

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

book cover

“…I want to ask you many things. I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”…when he lifted his wet face again he murmured, Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go to tell everybody whut Cudjo says, and how I come to Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. “

Barracoon – An enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a limited period.
-Oxford English Dictionary

Before she was a world-renowned novelist, Alabama-born and Florida-raised Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a researcher into the history and folklore of black people in the American South, the Caribbean, and Honduras. She was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, producing works of fiction in addition to her anthropological work.

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Cudjo at home – from History.com – (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

It was during this period that she first met the last known black man transported from Africa to America as a slave, Cudjoe Lewis. She interviewed Lewis, then in his 80s, in 1927, producing a 1928 article about his experiences, Cudjoe’s Own Story of the Last American Slaver. There were some issues with that report, including a serious charge of plagiarism. Hurston returned to Lewis in Africatown, Alabama, to interview him at length. It is these interviews that form the bulk of her book, Barracoon, plagiarism no longer being at issue.

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Zora Neale Hurston – image from Smithsonian

Her efforts to publish the book ran into some cultural headwind, publishers refused to proceed so long as her subject’s dialogue was presented in his idiomatic speech. Thurston refused to remove this central element of the story, and so the book languished. But the Zora Neale Trust did not give up, and a propitious series of events seemed to signal that the time was right

Last fall, on the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, the musician Questlove learned that he descends from people brought over on the Clotilda. Then an Alabama reporter named Ben Raines found a wreck that looked to be the scuttled ship; it wasn’t, but the story made national news….[while] Kossola’s relevance goes beyond any headlines, [there are also] noteworthy links there: one of Kossola’s sons is killed by law enforcement, and his story holds a message about recognizing humanity echoed by Black Lives Matter. – from Time Magazine article

Then there is the story itself. Hurston gets out of the way, acting mostly as Cudjoe’s stenographer and editor, reporting his words as he spoke them. It is a harrowing tale. A young village man in 1859, Kossula (his true name) was in training to learn military skills when his community was attacked by a neighboring tribe. His report of the attack is graphic, and gruesome. Many of those who survived the crushing assault were dragged away and sold to white slave traders. (Definitely not their choice, Kanye) We learn of his experiences while awaiting his transportation, his telling of the Middle Passage, arrival in America and his five years as a slave. He tells, as well, of the establishment of Africatown, after the Civil War ended the Peculiar Institution in the United States, and of the travails of his life after that, having and losing children, running up against the so-called legal system, but also surviving to tell his tale, and gaining respect as a storehouse of history and folklore. This is an upsetting read, rage battles grief as we learn of the hardships and unfairness of Kossula’s life.

“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”

The book stands out for many reasons. Among them is that it is one of very few reports of slavery from the perspective of the slave. There are many documents available that recorded the transactions that involved human cargo, and many reports by slavers, but precious little has been heard from the cargo itself. It is also a significant document in teaching us about the establishment of Africatown, a village set up not by African Americans, but by Africans, Cudjoe and his fellow former slaves. The stories Cudjoe tells are often those he learned in his home culture.

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‘The Brookes’ Slave Ship Diagram – from the British Library

Barracoon is a triumph of ethnography, bringing together not only a first-person report on experiences in African slave trading, but reporting on slavery from a subject of that atrocity. In addition Kossula adds his triumphant account of joining with other freed slaves to construct an Africa-like community in America, and offers as well old-world folklore in the stories he recalls from his first nineteen years. It is a moving tale for Hurston’s sensitive efforts to reach across the divide of time to encourage Kossula to relive some of the darkest moments any human can experience, sitting with him, calm, caring, and connecting. And finally, it is a truly remarkable tale Kossula tells. It will raise your blood pressure, horrify you, and encourage bursts of tears. You think you’ve had it tough? And for this man to have endured with such dignity and grace is a triumph all its own.

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Commemorative Marker for Cudjo Lewis – Plateau Cemetery, Africatown, Mobile, AL – image from wiki

The text of the story is short, but Kossula’s tale is epic. Editor Deborah G. Plant has added a wealth of supportive material, including parables and old-world stories Kossula told to his descendants and to residents of Africatown, a description of a children’s game played in his home town in Africa, and background material on Hurston, her professional issues with an earlier piece of work, and her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance, without touching much on Hurston’s unexpected political perspective on segregation. The information adds to our appreciation of the book.

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Cudjo with great-grand-daughters twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923 – image from
Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The ethnographical research Hurston did bolstered a perspective on African culture that different was not inferior, that African culture had great value, regardless of those who believed only in Western superiority. Long before Jesse Jackson, such research proclaimed “I am somebody.” The research Hurston did in the USA, Caribbean and Central America certainly informed and strengthened the portraits she painted in her fiction writing.

The history of slavery is a dark one, however much light has been shone on it in the last century and a half. This moving, upsetting telling of a life that endured it is a part of that history. That this 80-year-old nugget has been buried under the weight of time is a shame. But there is an upside. The pressure of all those years has created something glistening and wonderful for us today, a diamond of a vision into the past.

Review posted – 5/25/18

Publication dates
———-5/8/2018 – hardcover
———-1/7/20 – Trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

VIDEO
—–A film shot by ZNH – Cudjoe appears in the opening scene
—– On the unveiling of a bust of Cudjoe in Africatown – WKRG in Mobile – it also ncludes an interview with Israel Lewis, one of Kossula’s descendants
—–A contemporary profile of Africatown and the challenges it faces, particularly from hazardous industry nearby

EXTRA READING
—–Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 book, Historic Sketches of the South, includes much on the Clotilde
—–Wiki on Cudjoe – includes images from E.L. Roche
—–Smithsonian Magazine – May 2, 2018 – Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Tells the Story of the Slave Trade’s Last Survivor – by Anna Diamond
—– History.com piece on ZNH’s work on Barracoon – The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It just Surfaced by Becky Little – (the interviewing was actually done in the 1920s)
—–Bitfal Entertainment – A pretty nice brief summary of Cudjoe’s experience, with many uncaptioned illustrations
—–Time Magazine – Zora Neale Hurston’s Long-Unpublished Barracoon Finds Its Place After Decades of Delay – by Lily Rothman
—– On the slave ship Clotilda
—–NY Times – May 26, 2019 – ‘Ship of Horror’: Discovery of the Last Slave Ship to America Brings New Hope to an Old Community – By Richard Fausset
—–National Geographic – January, 2020 – America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities. – much more information about the Clotilda’s criminal mission, and about the lives of the men and women it transported and their descendants
—–Nw York Times – Last Known Slave Ship Is Remarkably Well Preserved, Researchers Say by Michael Levenson

AUDIO
—–NPR’s Lynn Neary talks with Amistad’s editorial director Tracy Sherrod, and Barracoon’s editor Deborah Plant – In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Language is the Key to Understanding – Definitely listen to the entire interview. It is under four minutes. One wonderful benefit is to get a sample of the audio reading of the book, which sounds amazing.

Tracy Sherrod is the editorial director of Amistad at Harper Collins, which is now publishing the book. She says Hurston tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected. “They wanted to publish it,” Sherrod says, “but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn’t written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so.”


Hurston refused, says Deborah Plant, because she understood that Lewis’s language was key to understanding him. “We’re talking about a language that he had to fashion for himself in order to negotiate this new terrain he found himself in,” she says. “Embedded in his language is everything of his history. To deny him his language is to deny his history, to deny his experience — which ultimately is to deny him, period. To deny what happened to him.”

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Public policy, World History

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

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All bullies are largely the same. They threaten the weak to feed some insecurity that rages inside them. I know. I’ve seen it up close.

James Comey is a lawyer, and in A Higher Loyalty he has presented a case to the jury of American public opinion. He lays out the steps of his interactions with Swamp Thing, from introduction to long-distance buh-bye. This is what happened, here, here, and there, on this, this, and that dates. This is what was said. This is what I understood those words to mean. And really, who are you going to believe, a public servant with a decades-long reputation for, among other things, honesty, or a feckless serial and possibly pathological liar?

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James Comey – image from the NY Times

One can argue that it was not Swamp Thing’s clear collusion with Russia that constituted Ground Zero for what would become, in effect, a large-scale impeachment inquiry. Given the spinelessness of GOP legislators and the toadying nature of most of Trump’s appointees, given the clear intention of the Trump administration to install such creatures in as many positions of power as possible, it is a distinct possibility that there might have been no Special Counsel investigation but for a single action, taken by Swamp Thing, and his childish inability to keep his lies straight. We would still have the Quisling sorts like Devin Nunes, who could be counted on to cover their boss’s and their own butt cheeks instead of doing their constitutionally defined job of overseeing the executive branch. The hyper-partisanship and cowardice of most Republicans in the federal government have made a laughing stock of our democracy across the planet. That would have been there in any case. But on May 9, 2017, after having failed to gain a personal loyalty pledge, Swamp Thing fired James Comey as the head of the FBI, with the laughable excuse that Comey had mishandled his job of investigating Hillary Clinton, which is not to say that Comey managed it well, of which more later, but that Swamp Thing had previously praised Comey’s actions as courageous. ( Those who support his dismissal by Swamp Thing will likely succumb to right-wing talking points, preposterous though they are, that Comey was a secret Hillary supporter, whose actions strove to bolster her candidacy. If you believe that, please stop reading now. Your brain has ceased functioning and nothing written here will make any sense to you. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.) When he subsequently admitted on a nationally televised interview that his reason for doing so was “the Russia thing,” he opened the door to a world of hurt. In the absence of the Comey firing there may never have been a Special Counsel investigation into “the Russia thing,” but by so blatantly obstructing justice by firing Comey, Swamp Thing placed the target, in flashing neon, on his own back.

That is the true starting point of Comey’s book. But, like most well written legal documents, there is considerable backstory, and in a very well written case, there is a central thrust. The tale told here is not just about his few months of interactions with the president. He offers pieces of his life story to let us know the kind of person he is, or at least the kind of person he wants us to see him as, the experiences that molded his character, the personal motivations that informed his adult decisions, and what he portrays as ethical choices made in challenging situations in his career. He wants us to understand that he believes he acted properly, both in doing what he did during the 2016 presidential campaign, and in refusing to do what the tainted president demanded of him. And, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the decision will be yours.

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Image from SusieMadrak.com

Here are the charges

—–Did Director Comey tell the truth when he testified that the president had pressured him to drop the case against Michael Flynn?

—–Is Director Comey an egotistical prima donna who put his personal needs and perspective above the needs of the nation and his bosses?

—–Did FBI Director Comey, with forethought and malice, and by choosing to break with FBI protocol, deliberately affect the 2016 presidential election in such a way as to damage the campaign of Hilary Clinton?

Questions

—–Does Swamp Thing really run his White House as if he were a mafia don?

—–Does a guy who’s 6’8” really think he can fade into the woodwork by getting up close and personal with White House drapery that sort of matches his suit?

—–Has Comey behaved in a non-partisan manner in the jobs he has held, in the decisions he made in those jobs?

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Image from @dumptrump33 – Of course we may be raising our expectations a tad high for RM

As for that central thrust thing, it is alluded to in the opening quote. Comey bloody hates bullies. He had to contend with them as a not-nearly-oversized teen. He was thrilled, when pursuing his legal career, to have an opportunity to go after some of the uber-bullies of our society, members of organized crime. He was also on the scene when one of our major political bullies, Dick Cheney, tried to wrest a signature from a man in a hospital ward, just so he could continue an expiring domestic surveillance program of questionable legality. In a way, all his life had led up to his dealings with Swamp Thing, a person who is the very personification of the coward as bully. Comey knew what he was facing when Swamp Thing was elected. He hoped to be able to avoid conflicts with him, and see out his ten-year term as FBI head. He knew the odds of that happening were small.

We are offered a look into Comey’s upbringing in Yonkers, and then New Jersey.

Being an outsider, being picked on, was very painful, but in hindsight it made me a better judge of people. In my life, I would spend a lot of time assessing threats, judging tone of voice, and figuring out the shifting dynamic in a hallway or locker room crowd. Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation. Which is why bullies are so powerful, because it’s so much easier to be a follower, to go with the crowd, to just blend in.

He walks us through some of his career steps and big moments. These include the successful prosecution of a large chunk of the New York area mafia, prosecuting Martha Stewart, prosecuting Scooter Libby, and the event that made his reputation. He was the acting Attorney General at a time when the Stellar Wind program, an illegal domestic spying undertaking, according to DoJ analysis, was up for renewal. The administration needed a sign-off by the AG, and acting AG Comey refused. Getting wind that Presidential counsel Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andy Card were on their way to the hospital to wrest a signature from the barely conscious John Ashcroft, being treated for a life-threatening condition, he dashed to the hospital himself, sirens howling and lights flashing, calling Robert Mueller, then the head of the FBI, to join him in preventing this blatant malfeasance. It is the stuff of legend. And secured him a place in the pantheon of political heroes for his courage under such withering political fire. The passage could have been written by any of today’s best-selling writers of political thrillers, leaving one breathless, even though we know the outcome. Though the broad strokes are at least somewhat familiar to folks who pay attention to the news, there are details I bet you do not know and will be very surprised to learn. The book is worth it just for that section alone.

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Attorney General John Ashcroft – image from US News

Throughout, Comey talks about trying to do the right, the moral, the ethical thing when confronted with difficult decisions. He is certainly persuasive when he writes about the lessons he has learned over his life from people he has known and respected, and from important people and writers whose work has informed his growth as an ethical person. He cites as a particular influence the writings of religious philosopher Reinhold Nieburh, someone many in government, from both parties, have looked to for inspiration. You may be surprised at some of the other people he notes as influencers.

Also a bit of a surprise is his take on various people he has been connected to, most of whom will be familiar. Rudy Giuliani, who had held the US Attorney position for the Southern District of New York when Comey was a prosecutor there, comes in for a look.

Though Giuliani’s confidence was exciting, it fed an imperial style that severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted, something I didn’t realize was dangerous until much later: a leader needs the truth, but an emperor does not consistently hear it from his underlings. Rudy’s demeanor left a trail of resentment among the dozens of federal judges in Manhattan, many of whom had worked in that U.S. Attorney’s office. They thought he made the office about one person, himself, and used publicity about his cases as a way to foster his political ambitions rather than doing justice. It was a resentment that was still palpable when I became the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan—and sat in Giuliani’s chair—a dozen years later.

Hizzoner’s fondness for the limelight has not faded a single watt. Comey also talks about his dealing with former AGs and others in government. His meetings with President Obama make for fascinating and surprising reading.

As with anyone who is presenting himself as ethical, and better than the pack in that regard, he offers up some specifics of errors he has made, including one fairly meaningless lie that he told as a young man, which made him feel particularly guilty. He points out an error of insensitivity he had made when addressing the Michael Brown case, but it is presented in such a way as to show how receptive he is to learning something new. It’s a bit like a job interview when the applicant tries to skirt the “What’s your worst quality?” question with how he works too hard for his own good. Eye roll please. Comey offers fleeting mea culpas on having an outsized ego and an eye for the dramatic, then notes several examples of what a wonderful, thoughtful boss he is. It is clear that he wants us to like, and respect him, and take his “aw, shucks,” demeanor at face value. But it is also quite clear that he is a well-armed, and well armored political in-fighter, familiar with his home turf, sharp-edged, and deft in the art of manipulation.

It is a clear thread throughout Comey’s book that his literary RPG is locked, loaded, and aimed at one Donald J. Trump. The things that disgusted him throughout his life, from childhood and in his public career are epitomized by the man who fired him for doing his job. A secondary, related, core is centered on defending his actions in 2016 and 2017, making the case that he should not have been sacked.

So what about the charges and questions?

I’m almost there. But before that, you should know that James Comey, whatever you think of him as a public official or as a political person, is a wonderful writer. He is able to paint a picture and bring you along with him with seeming effortlessness. No doubt this talent has been honed by his many years of preparing and presenting cases. This book is his case to all of us.

Ok, down to the end

—–Does Swamp Thing really run his White House as if he were a mafia don?
Really? Have you heard anything to offer a more accurate description? I haven’t. Spot on, JC, particularly given his familiarity with less powerful dons as a prosecutor in the SDNY.

—–Does a guy who’s 6’8” really think he can fade into the woodwork by getting up close and personal with White House drapery that matches his suit?
Yeah, he kinda thought he could. The drapery is taller than he is and the color matched his suit somewhat.

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Darth on Twitter had a bit of fun with this

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As you can see from this image from War News Blogspot, Comey was sure to be spotted

—–Has Comey behaved in a non-partisan manner in the jobs he has held, in the decisions he made in those jobs?
As for being non-partisan, I call BS on that. Comey is a Republican, and, while there have been notable instances in which he has risen above purely partisan perspectives, that bias has, I believe, interfered with his ability to remain consistently above the political fray. He writes, for example,

I wanted to find a way to help Bush. This man, whom I liked and wanted to see succeed, appeared not to realize the storm that was coming. The entire Justice Department leadership was going to quit, and just as he was running for reelection.

A politically disinterested official would have given such a concern zero consideration.

We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election…

Rather a false equivalence, no? It is pretty obvious how flawed the Republican candidate was, but the Democratic nominee was one of the most qualified presidential candidates in modern history. The deep flaws some insist on seeing were primarily made up of lies that had been broadcast about her for decades by a well-financed and relentless political attack machine. Like one of those augmented reality games that let you superimpose imaginary characters onto a real-world scene. (Pokémon GOP?) So BS on that, too. Opting to go public with a re-opening of the investigation of Hillary so late in the election season, against protocol, and without the prior knowledge of his AG, knowing it would likely impact the election, while simultaneously keeping under wraps the ongoing investigation of Trump for collusion with Russia was really the kicker. I believe this revealed his partisan stripes, however well he may have tried to disguise them in the tall grass of self-justification. Many will find his explanation persuasive. I am not among them. Bias revealed.

—–Did Director Comey tell the truth when he testified that the president had pressured him to drop the case against Michael Flynn?

Here is piece of how he describes that interaction

He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
At the time, I had understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.

The preponderance of news coverage, confirmed by Comey’s reporting here, makes it abundantly clear that Swamp Thing did indeed ask for special treatment for his guy, a glaringly illegal no-no. Comey was right to continue with business as usual after getting this appalling directive, which is exactly what it was.

—–Is Director Comey an egotistical prima donna who put his personal needs and perspective above the needs of the nation and his bosses?

IMHO, Yes, but with significant asterisks.

Even Comey’s close friends acknowledge that his great strength is also his great weakness: a belief in his own integrity. “He believes this in a way that creates big blind spots, because he substitutes his judgment for the rules,” says Matt Miller, a former director of public affairs for the D.O.J. – from the Vanity Fair Article

See more on this below.

—–Did FBI Director Comey, with forethought and malice, and by choosing to break with FBI protocol, deliberately affect the 2016 presidential election in such a way as to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton?

Yes and No. It seems to me that Comey’s identification with the departments to which he has belonged or which he has headed, whether temporarily or long-term, is extremely strong. Not a bad thing, per se. But I believe there have been times when he has proven himself unable to separate where James Comey ended and the FBI or the Department of Justice began, leading to situations where Le département est moi. I believe that in some of his actions, Comey, knowingly or unknowingly, became, in his head, one with the department. Therefore, it is impossible to differentiate where actions intended to protect the reputation of the FBI or the Department of Justice leave off and become actions to defend the ego and reputation of James Comey. And there is a considerable ego involved. I would not be surprised if Comey, at some not necessarily conscious level, saw himself as a sacrificial figure, a Prometheus who gave the nation the fire of just cause to investigate Trump’s Russia dealings, or even a Christ-figure, sacrificed, if perhaps not as intentionally as the original, for the greater good.

Bottom line is that if you have not read this book, really, what the hell are you waiting for? It is a beautifully written picture of one of the most compelling political stories of our time. Even if you have strong party-based feelings about Swamp Thing or Comey, even if you may (as I did) roll your eyes on occasion, it is worth hearing the story from the horse himself. You will learn some things you did not know and be entertained while doing so. You don’t have to swear a loyalty oath to read this book, but you would be doing yourself a disservice to let it slip.

Review first posted – May 11, 2018

Publication date – April 17, 2018

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Comey on Twitter

Items of interest
—–Vanity Fair The True Story of the Comey Letter Debacle – by Bethany McLean
—– Wiki on Reinhold Niebuhr
—–full transcript of Rachel Maddow’s interview with Comey
—–Stephen Colbert’s interview with Comey
—–The Comey Memos
—–6 Takeaways From the James Comey Memos – by Michael S. Schmidt
—–March 21, 2019 – NYTimes – James Comey: What I Want From the Mueller Report
—–June 14, 2018 – Vox – The long-awaited inspector general report on the FBI, Comey, Clinton, and 2016, explained – by Andrew Prokop

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Public policy, True crime

Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks

book cover

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ – (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

The law, it its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. — Anatole France

The poorhouse. These days, it’s common parlance for extreme financial misfortune. Someone who has had a particularly bad fiscal spell could be said to be heading to the poorhouse. These days, we do not have literal, brick and mortar poorhouses. Those were usually fetid places, ill-maintained, offering meager shelter and food to the detritus of society, the poor, ill, elderly, and disabled, often requiring labor in return. These days, we have something new.

America’s poor and working-class people have long been subject to invasive surveillance, midnight raids, and punitive public policy that increase the stigma and hardship of poverty. During the nineteenth century, they were quarantined in county poorhouses. During the twentieth century they were investigated by caseworkers, treated like criminals on trial. Today we have forged a digital poorhouse from databases, matched algorithms and statistical risk models. It promises to eclipse the reach and repercussions of everything that came before.

The most famous poorhouse resident in literature is one Oliver Twist. In the novel of that name, Dickens intended to highlight the inhumanity of the Poor Law Act of 1834. The world of poverty he described was, while literarily thrilling, a horrifying exposé of man’s cruelty to man. Poorhouses found a home in the USA as well. The first poorhouse in the city of my current residence was established in 1863. In my erstwhile lifelong home, New York, an 1824 law directed the counties of the state to erect poorhouses. Residents could be required to do whatever work the superintendent demanded. Any resistance resulted in being kicked out. Among other sources for the poorhouse population, children younger than 15 caught begging could be legally remanded there until the person in charge of the poorhouse let them out. There were certainly poorhouses in NY earlier than that. The first poorhouse in the USA was in Boston, in 1662.

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Virginia Eubanks – from her Twitter page

Virginia Eubanks has been involved with economic justice movements for over twenty years. She is an associate Prof of Poli Sci at the SUNY Albany campus. Her writing about tech in social justice has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Harper’s and Wired. She is a founding member of the Our Data Bodies project, which looks at how the gathering and use of digital info by government impacts our rights. In Automating Inequality, Eubanks offers a bit of history on the poorhouse, noting, with particular relevance for the operation of today’s prisons, and other bits of outsourcing of government welfare responsibilities, that privately run poorhouses led to the residents being particularly exploited and deprived of necessities in order to increase profits for the owners, not that the publicly run ones were any great shakes. Her central notion is that the physical poorhouse of the past has been replaced in the 21st century by a modern version.

For all their high-tech polish, our modern systems of poverty management—automated decision-making, data mining, and predictive analytics—retain a remarkable kinship with the poorhouses of the past. Our new digital tools spring from punitive, moralistic views of poverty and create a system of high-tech containment and investigation that I call the digital poorhouse. The digital poorhouse deters the poor from accessing public resources; polices their labor, spending, sexuality, and parenting; tries to predict their future behavior; and punishes and criminalizes those who do not comply with its dictates. In the process, it creates ever-finer moral distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, categorizations that rationalize our national failure to care for one another.

She takes two approaches. First is tracking the history of how the poor have been treated, noting the Dickensian era preference for punishing the poor overtly, by shunting them into miserable institutions, if providing any aid at all, then a revolutionary approach called Scientific Charity, which employed caseworkers applying the methodology of police work in examining the merits of a person’s application for aid,

As Mary Richmond wrote in Social Diagnosis, her 1917 textbook on casework procedures, “the reliability of the evidence on which [caseworkers] base their decisions should be no less rigidly scrutinized than is that of legal evidence by opposing counsel.” Scientific charity treated the poor as criminal defendants by default.

the reversal of reliance on private charity with the New Deal, the paring back of benefits in the 1970s, beginning the use of computer technology to exclude applicants, and sundry mechanisms being used today.

The second is to offer case studies, on-site looks at three locations. Homelessness is the focus in Los Angeles, the outsourcing of welfare systems in Indiana, and child custody issues at the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) in Pittsburgh.

In short, Eubanks offers a history of US public policy on poverty, along with the mechanisms employed in various eras to manage, and limit public outlays to address it, a look at the mechanisms now in use that serve to exclude applicants rather than enhance service, and an analysis of how those systems impact people today. She very successfully bridges the gap between theory and reality with her field studies. This is what’s going on. This is how it affects people.

Instead of being shunted to three-dimensional concrete buildings, today’s poor are far too frequently denied public services, while the state, in addition, often erects barricades to the poor finding a way out of their situation by making it more difficult for them to get a job. Apparently biblical predictions were not considered adequate to the task, so we appear to be committed, as a society, to keeping the poor poor. We apparently prefer for them to remain that way. Hating the poor has been a national addiction since the invasion of North America by religious extremists. We are so addicted to hating on the poor that we have managed, with very few exceptions in our national history, to define poverty at such an insanely low level of income that the majority of poor people are denied even the dubious comfort of fitting the official definition. For example, the US Census Bureau defines its poverty threshold as $12,331 for a single person. So, if you are a single person, earning, say, $12,500 a year, you are not considered poor. Congratulations! And if you are over 65, that line drops to $11,367. I guess we seniors must eat less. Right, whatever.

I am no stranger to such topics, and while the broad strokes of her Bruegelesque depiction of our welfare system might not be all that surprising, as with the painting, there is much to be appreciated by looking at the details. There were pieces of information in here that were surprising. Did you know that the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era) imposed a cap of 10% black recruits during the Depression, despite the dramatically higher unemployment rate they experienced? Or that half of us spend at least some portion of our lives in poverty?

Eubanks offers many instances of Kafkaesque, sometimes deadly results of how people are treated by welfare systems. It is amazing to me that there have not been thousands of incidents of people so frustrated by this mean-spirited, cruel system that they go postal on social service agencies across the nation. Probably because they can’t afford the hardware. God knows it’s easy enough to buy.

When you are poor you surrender your rights as a citizen, hell, as a human being. Innocent until proven guilty? Not once you apply for any sort of public assistance. The right to parent your own child? The right to confront your accusers? Not if a hostile neighbor calls in an anonymous false report accusing you of neglecting your kid. The right to choose your sexual partners? Not if the welfare agency deems that person inappropriate. The right to counsel? Nope. You are on your own, with the entire resources of the state aligned against you. Offer any resistance to or question the caseworkers who are assigned your case and you are denied benefits. It’s yes, Massa, no, Massa, or you are out on the street, and in many places you can be fined and/or put in jail for being homeless.

While I am a senior citizen, retired, with only Social Security for my personal income, I am blessed with a spouse who remains employed full time. But I have had my share of interactions with the welfare and legal systems. When I was 18 years old, I had my own apartment. But after a significant industrial accident, (I was working at a large Postal Service facility in Manhattan) I was unable to work for a long time, several months of which was spent in hospitals. I was covered by worker’s comp, but it took so long for benefits to begin that I lost my apartment. Thanks, guys. At least I had a fallback, however unpleasant that may have seemed at the time. I have had just loads of fun dealing with unemployment, having endured that most American of experiences, the layoff, more than once. After one particularly frustrating interaction at an unemployment office, I ripped a large piece of hardware off the wall of the men’s bathroom. (Statute of limitations is passed for that one, right?) In another I was denied benefits, because I made a typo (press 1 to be insulted, press 2 to be denied, press 3 to be put on permanent hold) in an interactive system that would not allow human contact. While out of work for most of four years, and being held responsible for child support (while having joint custody) based on what I had earned in my highest earnings year ever, I had my driver’s license suspended by the state of New York, because I was unable, not unwilling, unable to pay the considerable monthly sum. Not a small thing, as many of the companies that hired people with my skill set were located in suburbia. Way to help. It took several years before the court accepted the fact (helped along by the reams of documentation I produced) that I had been unable to get work in systems, and had taken a shit-paying job as a security guard because it was the only thing I could get. The support arrears that accumulated during this period helped force me into dire financial straits. So, while I am decidedly middle-class by education and inclination, I have first-hand knowledge of how systems that at least purport to be helpful can do their best to make a bad situation worse, permanent even. I live in dread of the day when I have to face these systems again. (It will almost certainly come) And I am doing ok. The people Eubanks writes of are, mostly, not.

Dealing with welfare agencies, with or without their associated, gun-toting uniformed sorts, or their legal enforcers, is horrifying enough. With the expansion of data collection, and monitoring, real and potential, with the widespread sharing of collected information (privacy rights? You’re kidding, right?) with a vast array of other government entities (and private entities too, where service provision or data collection is outsourced) as well as any law enforcement agency that asks for it, Big Brother has become more like the entire Manson Family. They are watching, and any mis-step, real or imagined, any spark of resistance, real or imagined, any error on your part, real or imagined, can get you cut off whatever public benefit you are on, thus increasing your poverty, reducing your life expectancy and increasing your risk of being incarcerated in what has become that contemporary replacement for the poorhouse of old, jail. There are even systems in place that look at projected behavior, that put one darkly in mind of the film (and story) Minority Report.

Virginia Eubanks has written a piercing appraisal of how the new technology of the digital age has given the state unimaginable power over the lives of any who are forced into contact with it. The needs of the poor are not different from the needs of the middle class. But the latter, with the means to take care of those needs in the private market, can minimize contact with the beast that is the welfare/legal system. Once one comes into contact with that beast, a person is marked, indelibly, for decades or forever.

What can be done? As is often the case, big problems do not lend themselves to simple fixes. Eubanks offers an array of actions that might be taken to help in the Dismantling of the Data Poorhouse. She has highlighted truths we should be aware of, and notes groups that should be targeted for a bit of consciousness raising. Mostly the proposed remedies sound sane, but unlikely, not a rare thing in books about sociopolitical ills.

The strengths of this book are many. I was reminded very much of Barbara Ehrenreich’s perceptive writings on diverse important matters of public policy. Eubanks has dug deeply into the underlying realities of being poor in America and filled in a lot of the blanks. (BTW, it make a perfect companion to the excellent book White Trash), and should find a natural home in college and graduate school classes on poverty and public policy. People who are poor already know a lot of what is in here, although even the reader of meager means will still find fascinating information. The middle class, or wealthy reader will, hopefully, have their eyes opened (dare we say their consciousness raised?), finding serial unsuspected revelations in Automating Inequality. But the most significant group of readers who should read this are those who, like me, have lived at least a bit in both worlds, particularly those who, currently not a part of the public welfare/legal system, expect they never will be, and disparage those who are as lazy or morally suspect.

poverty is not an island; it is a borderland. There’s quite a lot of movement in the economic fringes, especially across the fuzzy boundary between the poor and the working class. Those who live in the economic borderlands are pitted against one another by policy that squeezes every possible dime from the wallets of the working class at the same time that it cuts social programs for the poor and absolves the professional middle class and wealthy of their social obligations. – [see recent tax cuts for the 1%]

As the powers in Washington, and in many of our states, seek to dim the lights of our shining city on a hill, it will be up to those who are not wealthy or connected, those who work for low wages, those who are jobless, those who earn, while knowing that a layoff could happen any day, those who can see through the porous barriers between the middle class, the working poor, and the distraught, to comprehend and act on the need to join forces in order to rekindle that flame. As Eubanks points out, and as you probably already know, in your heart of hearts

…systems designed for the poor will eventually be used on everyone.

It’s enough to enrage and/or depress Dickens.

Review first posted – January 19, 2018

Publication date – January 16, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

A sample of the book

The Our Data Bodies project

Based in marginalized neighborhoods in Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Michigan, and Los Angeles, California, we look at digital data collection and our human rights, work with local communities, community organizations, and social support networks, and show how different data systems impact re-entry, fair housing, public assistance, and community development.

HISTORY OF 19th CENTURY AMERICAN POORHOUSES

Poorhouse records by state

January 1, 2018 – NY Times – A.I. and Big Data Could Power a New War on Poverty – by Elisabeth A. Mason
This piece posits that AI could better match people with jobs, and improve computer-based education. In the article, she cites the creation of a Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making, from legislation sponsored by Dem Patty Murray and Rep Paul Ryan. The commission expired in September 2017, but made recommendations

This provides one more indication of the promise of A.I. and big data in the service of positive, purposeful public good. Before we dismiss these new technologies as nothing more than agents of chaos and disruption, we ought to consider their potential to work to society’s advantage.

Yeah, sure. Or another tool the state can use to exclude assistance applicants. Well, you didn’t take that job 150 miles from home that our system indicated would be a perfect fit, so sorry, your application is rejected. Don’t blame me, blame the computer.

December 12, 2017 – The Business Insider – on another automated approach to poverty – Robots are being used to deter the homeless from setting up camp in San Francisco – by Melia Robinson

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February 3, 2018 – NY Times – Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway? by Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz – a familiar extra-legal method for keeping people from getting needed benefits

In case you missed the link in the review, White Trash

A report by the AI Now Institute of New York University – AI Now 2017 Report

Recommendation #1
Core public agencies, such as those responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare, and education (e.g. “high stakes” domains) should no longer use “black box” AI and algorithmic systems.
this includes the unreviewed or unvalidated use of pre-trained models, AI systems licensed from third party vendors, and algorithmic processes created in-house. The use of such systems by public agencies raises serious due process concerns, and at a minimum they should be available for public auditing, testing, and review, and subject to accountability standards.

January 16, 2018 – Interview with the author on PBS – The Open Mind – well worth catching – 28 minutes

Items Worth Reading
—–February 10, 2018 – NY Times – New research on how single-mother families are treated by different societies can impact poverty levels – pretty interesting material – Single Mothers Are Not the Problem – by David Brady, Ryan M. Finnigan and Sabine Huben
—–February 13, 2018 – NY Magazine – a very perceptive piece on the how the right seeks to control and infantilize the poor in direct contradiction to their stated values – Trump Wants Big Government to Decide What Poor People Get to Eat – by Eric Levitz
—–April 22, 2018 – NY Times – Public Servants Are Losing Their Foothold in the Middle Class – public jobs used to mean security, and decent pay. Today, not so much.
—–April 23, 2018 – NY Times – Paul Krugman on the Republican war on teachers – We Don’t Need No Education
—–April 27, 2018 – NY Times – Paul Krugman on – Trump’s War on the Poor
—–May 20, 2018 – NY Times – A chilling article on how unscrupulous landlords abuse the housing court system in NYC to push poor and working class people out of their apartments, so they can jack rents up to astronomical amounts – Unsheltered: The Eviction Machine Churning
 Through New York City – by Kim Barker, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Grace Ashford and Sarah Cohen
—–May 30, 2018 – Southern Poverty Law Center – SPLC sues North Carolina DMV for revoking licenses of people who cannot pay traffic tickets
—–June 22, 2018 – NY Times – The Worrisome Future of Policing Technology – by Barry Friedman

Some of the technology has racial injustice baked into it. Algorithms don’t have to look at race to be racist. Whether written by humans or a product of machine learning, algorithms take past facts and magnify them into future police actions. They rely heavily on criminal records. Much of street policing in recent years — stop and frisk, marijuana enforcement, catching fare-beaters — has been deployed disproportionately against minorities and in poor neighborhoods. Police may “go where the crime is,” but because so much focus has been on low-level offenses in disadvantaged areas that are ignored elsewhere, these algorithms make it inevitable that the police will return to these places time and again.

—–November 8, 2018 – Center for Media Justice – No More Shackles – on the growth in use of and profitabiity from electronic monitoring for parolees, and its tilt against minority communities
—–January 9, 2019- NY Times – How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor – Eye-opening, but not surprising
—–July 3, 2019 – NY Times Magazine – Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt – by Ava Kofman – the endless horror continues
—–October 16, 2019 – Propublica – When Medical Debt Collectors Decide Who Gets Arrested – by Lizzie Presser – an eye-opening, if depressing, heart-breaking, and enraging piece about how the courts are being used by lawyers and creditors as collection agencies, with jail on their list of options. Makes a pretty strong case for MFA, certainly for extending health insurance coverage into many of the crannies in which it currently vanishes.
—-January 3, 2020 – Vox – New food stamp rules won’t just hurt my clients. They’ll hurt struggling social workers like me – by Elena Gormley – even those who work to help the poor are being driven into poverty
—-January 27, 2020 – Washington Post – Supreme Court allows Trump administration to proceed with immigration rules – by Robert Barnes – any contact with public services can now result in deportation
—-February 6, 2020 – NY Times – An Algorithm That Grants Freedom, or Takes It Away – By Cade Metz and Adam Satariano
—–June 24, 2020 – NY Times – Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm by Kashmir Hill
—–December 4, 2020 – MIT Technology Review – The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty by Karen Hao – PLEASE READ THIS ARTICLE!!! – it explains a lot

Credit-scoring algorithms are not the only ones that affect people’s economic well-being and access to basic services. Algorithms now decide which children enter foster care, which patients receive medical care, which families get access to stable housing. Those of us with means can pass our lives unaware of any of this. But for low-income individuals, the rapid growth and adoption of automated decision-making systems has created a hidden web of interlocking traps.

—–February 16, 2021 – NY Times – The New Debt Prisons by Gene B. Sperling – on how our criminal justice system is financed by fees and fines levied on those charged with crimes, seriously impairing their ability to ever escape an endless burden of debt. This is a shocking, and important piece. Read it. Please.
—–July 28, 2021 – The Guardian – ‘We don’t deserve this’: new app places US caregivers under digital surveillance by Virginia Eubanks and Alexandra Mateescu – Per usual, fraud and abuse are the lies being used as excuses for implementing increased burdens on people in need and the workers who care for them.

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy, World History

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

book cover

MUELLER IS COMING!
Da-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta
da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da
Daaaa da dadada dah da-dudaaaah
Daaaa da dadada dah dududaaaah

Michael Wolff has given us a drone’s (dragon’s?) eye view of the competing centers vying to be the power behind the throne, with some looking, in the longer term, at carving paths for their own succession to the highest position in the realm. There is a mad king who needs to be handled. Centers of power arise, morph, wage battles both silent and overt, succeed and fail, rise, die, and sometimes rise again. What we see in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Ice Fury, from our lofty perch, is the geography of chaos in the known world of the White House. Games will be played. Backs will be stabbed. Sadly, there is no magic, only sleight of hand. And it remains to be seen if nuclear dragons will be unleashed.

The juicy bits of this book have been everywhere for the last few weeks. It is highly quotable, and the publisher, Holt, the author, their PR people, and the major news outlets have been flooding the zone. Whether on-line or in print, over airwaves on TV or radio, through cable, and probably via the deep-state-news (WDSN?) that beams directly into peoples’ minds, all media have been all agog with the many looks at this elephant to which they have been privy.

With so much blanket coverage coming at you, one might be forgiven for wondering whether you first saw the item you just read in the book, or came across it somewhere else. It is a little bit unnerving. I will spare you the further confusion of adding all those bits here. I really have to put some in, though. I mean you know them already, right? How many synonyms can you find for idiot?

Fire and Fury is the biggest book of the moment, the Wall Street Journal reporting that it had sold a million copies as of Monday, January 8, 2018, a day earlier than its scheduled release. Remains to be seen, of course, with a steady stream of books on Trump being published, how long this frenzy will persist. But the last time I was aware of people standing on line for hours to get a book, it included the words Harry and Potter. This book, in the words of our former vice president, is a big fucking deal.

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Michael Wolff – image from Mediaite.com

The bottom line of Fire and Fury is that it presents Donald Trump as unfit to serve as president, based not on the dark view and negative press of his opposition, but the been-there-OMG-did-you-see-that experience of his own staff and supporters.

Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing. There was simply no subject, other than perhaps building construction, that he had substantially mastered.

Wolff uses named and unnamed sources. It seems clear that his primary go-to was one Steve Bannon, a weaver of webs, a bomb-thrower, a snake in the grass, a back-stabber, a manipulator, a white supremacist, a gifted media manipulator, and a pretty bright and articulate, if sartorially challenged guy. One might be tempted to dismiss Wolff’s book based on this reliance. Don’t. There are plenty of other sources feeding the narrative. The question is whether the image Wolff generates by making a composite of the incoming bits makes sense. Is it plausible? Is it correct? Having seen Wolff interviewed on multiple news and entertainment shows, and attending to the back-and-forths between him and knowledgeable news people, it seems eminently clear that he got it right. There are probably some details that err a bit here and there. Maybe this person was not at that meeting, or a date may be off. I expect that the only inaccuracies to be found here will be of that sort. Niggling, beside the point. And blown way out of proportion by those with an interest in distracting you from the core content of the book. That the president attempted to stop its publication should tell you something.

What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.

Michael Wolff is a veteran author and journalist, with seven prior books to his credit. He has been nominated for the National Magazine Award three times, and accused by people he has written about of fabricating. The absence of actual lawsuits against him suggests that complaints were less than firmly grounded. He is a serious writer and should be taken seriously. It is a bit mind-boggling the access he had to the actual White House, but he lays it out. He hung out in the WH, with a huge degree of access and was able to get input from the people working or passing through there, for months. Was the administration insane for allowing this? You betcha. But they did, another sign of their unpreparedness.

Inauguration day offered a look at what was to come.

Much of the sixteen-minute speech was part of Bannon’s daily joie de guerre patter—his take-back-the-country America-first, carnage-everywhere vision for the country. But it actually became darker and more forceful when filtered through Trump’s disappointment and delivered with his golf face. The administration purposely began on a tone of menace—a Bannon-driven message to the other side that the country was about to undergo profound change. Trump’s wounded feelings—his sense of being shunned and unloved on the very day he became president—helped send that message. When he came off the podium after delivering his address, he kept repeating, “Nobody will forget this speech.”
George W. Bush, on the dais, supplied what seemed likely to become the historic footnote to the Trump address: “That’s some weird shit.”

As noted above, the geography through which Wolff’s tale travels is one of sundry kingdoms. I could not help but imagine the opening credits of Game of Thrones as we approach each power center, the models for each of the city-states animating, offering moving, 3-D representations of each kingdom’s imagery and motifs. The three (sadly, not seven) are the alt-right of Bannon and his allies (clearly White Walkers), the mainstream GOP crowd epitomized by Reince Preibus, and the family wing, considered by Bannon to be of a liberal-democratic bent, in the person of Jared Kushner and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, aka Jarvanka. (Cersei and Jamie?).

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Swamp Thing as Joffrey Baratheon– image from DesignCrowd.com, by way of Huff-Po

The forward motion of the story is the events of Trump’s campaign, but mostly presidency up to October, 2017. I know, I know. One of the problems with political books is that they can often be outdated in fairly short order. The several months between October and the book’s publication is a lifetime in Trump years. It is impressive, given the daily churning of personnel and events in the DC universe (not the multiverse) these days that any book on Trumplandia still has relevance by the time ink on paper makes its way to readers. And yet, the issues raised here, the main issue, is momentous, and sticks.

Wolff has offered a host of quotes from his sources, many named, that question Swamp Thing’s competence, not just to function as president, but to function as a human being. His own staff frequently mention the applicability of the 25th amendment (although in the real world that is a total fantasy) and the likelihood of impeachment. The sound of Robert Mueller’s approaching steps echoes throughout the work, clearly feeding Trump’s paranoia about being treated unfairly, and boosting his fear of being found out, labeled a squatter or deadbeat, and evicted.

In most White Houses, policy and action flow down, with staff trying to implement what the president wants—or, at the very least, what the chief of staff says the president wants. In the Trump White House, policy making, from the very first instance of Bannon’s immigration EO, [executive order] flowed up. It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself (a result that was often helped along with the suggestion that he had in fact already had the thought).

Wolff, with his title, and content, offers a wonderful Game of Thrones image. But there are plenty more that could easily apply. The Producers is one that he mentions, a particularly apt metaphor, given that it seemed clear to many of us, even during the campaign, that Trump, like Bialystock and Bloom, got into the presidential race for the money, and never really intended to win. This is confirmed in the book. Personally, I think Max Bialystock would have made a better president. Another scenario that Wolff mentions is the relationship of Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII, wonderfully portrayed in the novel Wolf Hall (no relation), with Steve Bannon in the Cromwell role and you-know-who as the guy who made such a gigantic mess, because he simply had to have things his way. One could also consider House of Cards (the original), with all the plotting, back-stabbing, and hunger for power that made that series such fun to watch, although, after Bannon as Francis Urquart, the personnel parallels fade a bit. Alice in Wonderland gives us Trump as the single-minded Queen of Hearts. The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight might offer an image of ineptitude, if one ignores the fact that Trump has overseen the greatest looting by criminals of the national treasury in the nation’s history. For all his intellectual challenges Swamp Thing is a larger than life character with very little core, a made-for-Television president.

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Swamp Thing and Bannon as Henry VIII and T. Cromwell – image from NY Magazine

One of the things I most enjoyed was Wolff’s take on The Mooch. Anthony Scaramucci is the sort of Damon Runyon hanger-on one might expect to see in Guys and Dolls, or maybe a Batman flick, all puffery and attitude smeared over a core of ignorance, inflated by cartoonishly excessive self-confidence and corruption. From the description in Fire and Fury, it is not hard to imagine him in a too-wide pin-striped suit, shoulder-padded, sporting excessive pancake makeup, swinging a pocket watch from a chain, and laughing uncontrollably as he kicks some poor shmo that his minions are holding down for him, because he was a few dollars short on his protection payment.

There are some things missing from the book, of course. There is not the sort of detailed biographical material better found in an actual biography. Forget seeing an autobiography. Anything Trump truly wrote would probably be close to an actual choose-your-own-adventure kid book, given his inability to remain focused for more than a few minutes. There is not a lot about serious international threats, with one exception. In a press conference at his Bedminster, NJ property:

“His staff had not prepared him for this, but, in apparent relief that he could digress from the opioid discussion, as well as sudden satisfaction at the opportunity to address this nagging problem, he ventured out, in language that he’d repeated often in private—as he repeated everything often—to the precipice of an international crisis.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.”

Thus an increased concern about the danger of someone implementing the launch codes in a fit of pique or confusion. A fair bit of that intercontinental exchange of verbal ordnance occurred after the book was written, most notably the “My Button is bigger than your Button” lunacy. There is little discussion, although it gets a mention, of the potential implications of Trump’s autocratic leanings. The telling of the tale is much more about what has already happened as opposed to what might.

It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.”

This is not a book about policy. It is portrait of a White House as a theater of political warfare, a candidate who never really wanted or expected to be president and a president who is not only completely out of his depth, but who shows not only no capacity, but no interest in learning to swim. Even the people who work for him see him as unintelligent, narcissistic, incurious, and lazy. They even suggest he is losing his grip on reality, presuming he ever had one. It is certainly entertaining, the bits about Trump’s TV addiction, how he manages to cover his bald pate, and his pettiness about not wanting the cleaning staff to pick up his clothes from the floor. I mean, really, is he ashamed of being seen as a slob? Eating burgers in bed in front of the TV will probably gain him more support than criticism. I mean, even I can get on board with that, and I do not have a kind view of the man. But the more serious element is his mental fitness, and the danger this presents to us all.

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image from Wolff’s Twitter feed, citing the Hollywood Reporter

There is zero chance that the Republican Party will allow their sitting president, however damaged or corrupt he is, to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment. The best chance for his leaving office is for him to suffer a serious physical health crisis, which might force him to resign. As an older, overweight, out of shape man, this is not far-fetched. Even with a Democratically controlled Congress in January 2019, there is no guarantee that the Senate would come up with the sixty-seven votes needed to convict. The significance of this is that until Donald John Trump is removed from the presidency, by impeachment, ill-health, death, or being voted out of office in 2020, we are all at risk.

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is an air-raid siren warning us all of peril, real and potential. It is must-read material for every American. When the GOP stands in the way of investigations into the administration, they are supporting a president who is unable to function at the needed level, a president who is uninterested in the details of governance, a president who is not in control of himself, a president who places not only himself, but the nation, and the entire world at risk. You need to know what they are protecting. It doesn’t take a stable genius to know that you should be afraid, very afraid. As Dubyah said, “That’s some weird shit.”

Published – January 9, 2018

Review first Posted – January 12, 2018

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This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s Twitter page

Here’s a book that might come in handy – The Case for Impeachment

I came across this Huff-Po piece in my travels, after I had written the body of my review, buh-leev me. I was looking for images of the rulers of Trumpistan as GoT characters, when I came across this wonderful article by David Moye. I disagree with most of the assignments he shows, (for example, DJT is nowhere smart enough to be The Night King, or Tyrion Lanister) but had to pinch his Joffrey/Trump image for my central trope. I came up with DJT as JB on my own, before reading this, really, really. I swear. Check out the article. Donald Trump is America’s Joffrey Baratheon

The Trump as a Super-Villain trope brought this fun series of faux comic book covers – Trump battles Marvel and DC superheroes on Looper.com

Just in case you missed the link in the body of the review, you ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE this video, from The Jimmy Kimmel ShowTrumped

A response from The Author’s Guild to Trump’s attempt to stop publication of Fire and Fury

On Thursday, January 11, 2018, as I was preparing this review, the Washington Post printed a story that was alarming in the usual way, Trump attacks protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries. Even if a person thinks in such an ignorant and bigoted way, and Swamp Thing clearly does, how addled do you have to be to allow yourself to speak such a thing aloud in a quotable venue? It is amazing he has any toes left given how many times he has shot himself in the foot. And tomorrow it will be another daily outrage.

1/13/18 – NY Times – Mr. President, Your Toga Is Showing – Christopher Buckley’s delicious comparison of Swamp Thing with a Roman Emperor of low repute – Can Incitatus be far behind?

1/17/18 – NY Magazine – Fire and Fury Began After Trump Saw Wolff Ripping Media on CNN – by Adam K. Raymond

—–March 30, 2018 – New York Magazine – a catalog (partial, for sure) of the conflicts of interest and downright corruption of this administration – 501 Days in Swampland – by Joy Crane and Nick Tabor – Introduction by David Cay Johnston

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Gotta love the illustration that accompanies the above piece

—–Madeline Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning, is definitely worth a look

—– July 19, 2018 – From Greatist, The Best Way to Identify a Narcissist (and How to Handle Them) – by Sabrina Weiss – relevant not just for those who have to cope with the giant ego in the Oval

—–July 3, 2020 – Independent – Trump has a plan to stay in the White House if he loses election, former senator says by Graig Graziosi – details of one way he might try to do this

—–January 6, 2021 – The Lincoln Project – Bloodlines

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot

book cover

We often forget how fragile a creation democracy is—a delicate eggshell in the rough-and-tumble of history. Even in the cradle of democracy, ancient Athens, rule by the people could barely survive for a couple of centuries. And throughout its brief history, Athenian democracy was besieged from within by the forces of oligarchy and tyranny. There were secret clubs of aristocrats who hired squads of assassins to kill popular leaders. Terror reigned during these convulsions and civil society was too intimidated to bring the assassins to justice. Democracy, Thucydides tells us, was “cowed in mind.”

Our country’s cheerleaders are wedded to the notion of American exceptionalism. But when it comes to the machinations of power, we are all too similar to other societies and ones that have come before us. There is an implacable brutality to power that is familiar throughout the world and throughout history. And no matter where power rules, there is the same determination by those in high places to keep their activities hidden.

Who killed JFK?

In The Map That Changed the World, Simon Winchester wrote about William Smith, an 18th century canal digger who discovered that beneath the surface of the earth there were hidden layers of fossils, earth and stone that rose and fell connecting one to another and forming an understructure that told a tale of the earth’s history. He spent more than two decades gathering the information to prove his theory and eventually created the map of the book’s title. David Talbot entered into a considerable effort of subterranean digging himself, and has drawn a map of unseen layers that cross the planet and affect everything, a map that shows some of the hidden structures that lie beneath the world we think we know, the history we think we have experienced. The fossils in this case are pieces of evidence showing a history of secrets. When you look at the mass of dark deeds perpetrated by the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, there is one man, more than any other, who appears, Zelig-like, over and over again, Allan Dulles, the evidence of his deeds buried in the fossil accretions of our public and foreign policy past. His older brother, John Foster Dulles, would become a Secretary of State and wield considerable influence on his own. The pair formed a two-headed monster of foreign intrigue while in office at the same time. But the focus here is primarily on Allen Dulles

book cover

David Talbot – from USC

The Devil’s Chessboard reads like a riveting spy novel, peeling back layer after layer as it races to its climax. Dulles was a partner in an international law firm. Foster was chairman. Allen Dulles spent considerable swaths of time in government service, as a diplomat and spy. As such he made contacts all across Europe that would come in handy later.

Foster Dulles became so deeply enmeshed in the lucrative revitalization of Germany that he found it difficult to separate his firm’s interests from that of the rising economic and military power—even after Hitler consolidated control of the country in the 1930s. Foster continued to represent German cartels like IG Farben as they were integrated into the Nazis’ growing war machine, helping the industrial giants secure access to key war materials.

Nazi, schmazi. Foster kept the Berlin offices of the company, Sullivan and Cromwell, open until, in 1935, his partners forced him to shut it down, fearful of horrendous PR problems.

Consider some nuggets dug from the accretions of Allen Dulles’s history:
—WW II – he tries to arrange a separate peace with Nazi Germany despite specific orders from FDR to do no such thing, thus undermining the alliance between the US and Soviet Union, and contributing to suspicion between the Allies.
—Post WW II – he is instrumental in helping known Nazis and Nazi supporters hold on to their ill-gotten treasures and cash, and helps many either evade punishment or get reduced sentences and improved accommodations from the Nuremberg Courts
—He manages a ratline, an underground railroad through which Nazis escape punishment and find comfortable resettlement in other parts of the world
—Dulles uses some of these upstanding citizens to create an intelligence network
—He creates an armed force in France, ostensibly to be used against an imagined Communist takeover, but ready to act in support of an anti-deGaulle coup fomented by generals angry at the government’s decision to step back from the Algerian conflict
—Dulles is instrumental in staging the anti-Mossadegh coup in Iran, installing a reluctant Shah, who had to be dragged back into the country to take over
—He goes ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, knowing it will fail, but expecting that the failure would force JFK to commit the USA military to the plot

The list goes on, and on. Talbot proceeds like a prosecutor, laying out the details that set up the final argument. The litany of specifics, of events, of secret, illegal actions, is stunning.

As you might expect, Allan Dulles was a person of questionable human quality, even to his family. His wife, in her diary wrote:

“My husband doesn’t converse with me, not that he doesn’t talk to me about his business, but that he doesn’t talk about anything…It took me a long time to realize that when he talks it is only for the purpose of obtaining something…He talks easily with men who can give him some information, and puts himself out with women whom he doesn’t know to tell all sorts of interesting things. He either has to be making someone admire him, or to be receiving some information worth his while; otherwise he gives one the impression that he doesn’t talk at all because the person isn’t worth talking to.”

He subjected his war-damaged son to bizarre medical treatment in a secret mind-control program he has established. He married his daughter off like a political bargaining chip.

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Allen W. Dulles – from Foreign Policy Journal – Funny, he doesn’t look like a psycho-killer

But it is in his foreign intrigues, and in illumination of his ties to the rich and powerful, that the way is paved for the book’s payoff. It is David Talbot’s contention that Allan Dulles, acting in league with members of America’s business and military elite, orchestrated the murder of JFK. Kennedy was seen as particularly soft on foreign nations who dared to nationalize property owned by Dulles’s peeps. There were many in the military who were eager to get the next war on, the nuclear one, and Kennedy would not play. (Doctor Strangelove had nothing on these guys.) JFK had decided, because LBJ had failed to deliver the Southern votes he had promised, that he would find a replacement VP for his second term, so Johnson, beholden to Texas oilmen, and looking at the potential termination of his political life, was on board. JFK had also sacked Dulles for his insubordination. Not only was the Dallas murder a political hit, there had been an earlier attempt, in Chicago, in November 1963, that did not come off. The Warren Commission was set up not to investigate the killing but to cover it up. Bobby Kennedy knew this, but also knew that unless he could be elected to the Oval Office, the truth would remain cloaked. It is likely his determination to find the truth that got him killed too. The details Talbot offers to back his claim are compelling. I expect that the usual suspects will raise a hue and cry of that old favorite pejorative, “conspiracy theory.” But as we all do, or should know, sometimes there really is a conspiracy. I’m with Talbot on this one.

The details of the sundry plots and executive actions, the coups, planned, executed, or foiled, the breadth of Talbot’s gaze make for gripping reading. And I didn’t even go into the CIA’s work in the mind-control biz, an early example of extraordinary rendition, or any of the juicier bits about our old friend Tricky Dick Nixon, or Castro’s stunning political success story in New York City. This is a compelling must-read, filled with colorful characters, intrigue, and a look at the creation and persistence of a mechanism by which an undercover foreign policy is implemented. You will wonder if, today, the White House has any more control over the intelligence apparatus than it did back then. It will change forever how you view history.

During a 1965 tour of Latin America, Robert Kennedy—by then a senator from New York—found himself in a heated discussion about Rockefeller influence in Latin America, during an evening at the home of a Peruvian artist that had been arranged by [Richard] Goodwin [an RFK aide]. When Bobby brashly suggested to the gathering that Peru should “Assert [its] nationhood” and nationalize its oil industry, the group was stunned. “Why, David Rockefeller has just been down there,” one guest said. “And he told us there wouldn’t be any aid if anyone acted against International Petroleum [a local Standard Oil subsidiary].”
“Oh, come on. David Rockefeller isn’t the government,” Bobby shot back, still playing the role of Kennedy family tough guy. “We Kennedys eat Rockefellers for breakfast.”
The Kennedys were indeed more successful at the rough-and-tumble of politics than the Rockefellers. But, as JFK had understood, that was not the full story when it came to evaluating a family’s power. He fully appreciated that the Rockefellers held a unique place in the pantheon of American power, one rooted not so much within the democratic system as within what scholars would later refer to as “the deep state”—that subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guided national policy no matter who occupied the White House. The Kennedys had risen from saloon-keepers and ward heelers to the top of American politics. But they were still overshadowed by the imperial power of the Rockefellers.

There is no law, only power. Bobby Kennedy should have known that. We all need to know that. Rule by sociopaths is definitely not the way to go, whether the morally-challenged sit on corporate boards, manage branches of government or direct elements of our military. With The Devil’s Chessboard, David Talbot has written an eye-opening and devastating look at modern American history. Your move.

Review Posted – October 16, 2015

Book Published – October 13, 2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

An interesting site on keeping up with developments re the JFK hit

Talbot interview in Mother Jones

Lest anyone think the CIA is not in the business of killing, here is the CIA manual on assassination 101 – A Study of Assassination. There will be a quiz.

Amy Goodman interviews Dulles on Democracy Now – Thanks to Natylie for the heads up on this one

Talbot interview with Tavis Smiley – November 16, 2015

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews