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Voices from Tibet
Voices from Tibet
by Tsering Woeser
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.00
22 used & new from $16.51

4.0 out of 5 stars A conundrum, July 21, 2014
This review is from: Voices from Tibet (Paperback)
This book touches on many sensitive issues. Tibet in its own right is a tragedy. In the context of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and else where its problems seem not much greater than what the Chinese people have suffered since the Revolution. It is really hard to get a picture of post 1950 Tibet. I read this book in expectation of getting multiple perspectives on those events. And it does indeed give glimpses in essays by the authors. But there is little to put those essays into a larger perspective. The thing that is clear is that Chinese bias puts Tibetans in a great disadvantage with respect to the changes going on there. They neither have much influence in the direction of development nor opportunity to participate in it. But lots of things are not clear. There are several anecdotal essays indicating Tibetans are slothful, even drunken when it comes to choosing whether to engage in economic development. They seem to prefer the casual profits of collecting Cordyceps (caterpillar mushroom used medicinally) and then dissipating rather than actively competing with Chinese entrepreneurs. But this is an episode rather than a bigger picture.

The authors say that Tibet is being overwhelmed by Chinese but the latter still make up only one sixth of the population. And the whole issue of immigration in the world is confusing. People argue for open borders but few really parse the consequences of them. Send home the Mexicans in the US, the Chinese in Indonesia, the Indians in the Pacific Islands, the Africans in Israel, etc. etc.

What is needed is a good overall structural description of what has happened to Tibet since the Chinese completely took over. We know about the destruction of religious institutions which may have exceeded similar events in China. What we don’t know about is Tibetan cooperation with the Chinese. One of the authors seems to be the progeny of the Tibetan general in the Chinese army. We know little about Tibetan participation in the Cultural Revolution. After all the Chinese population of Tibet was quite small during that era. We know little about rifts in the Tibetan populations in terms of current development and attitudes toward the Dalai Lama. During Collectivization in the Soviet Union the pastoralists of the “Stans” may have suffered much more than the Kulaks. But then Tibetan pastoralists who were forcibly settled seem to have had little connection to Lamistic Buddhism, Lhasa, or the diaspora. And do Tibetans who have taken “the capitalist road” still revere the Dalai Lama as a living Buddha?

Then there is the mystery of religious protests. The Dalai Lama has condemned violence but has not resigned, so to speak, as he threatened to when Tibetans riot and kill Chinese. Also while the essayists sympathize with recent immolations not much is revealed about the phenomena. Some in the Tibetan government have condemned it, but not the Dalai Lama. There has to be more to the immolation of a mother of three among many others who have burned themselves. That seems to take a lot more explaining than simply a protest against Chinese repression of religion.

Further the move to democracy in the exile community does not seem to be taking root. As much as the Dalai Lama has resigned from leadership of the Tibetan government, his elected replacement neither seems to be assuming authority nor do Tibetans see him as their leader.

These short essays give glimpses of Chinese oppression and Tibetan behavior, and publishing them are clearly acts of courage, but much more needs to be known about what is going on to come to an informed judgment.

Charlie Fisher


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3.0 out of 5 stars they look good, July 18, 2014
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The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (America in the World)
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (America in the World)
by Jürgen Osterhammel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $28.91
60 used & new from $24.21

1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Comparative history, why?, July 17, 2014
Review of both Geoffrey Parker Global Crisis and
Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World.

Neither book could I read from cover to cover. The first had great short narratives of significant events of the 17th century while the second tries to systematize the changes of the 19th. The subtitle of the first seeks explanations as caused by war, climate and catastrophes. While the second is more listy with categories like frontiers, bureaucracy, living standards, empire, etc.

That the global crisis of the 17th century was greater than what proceeded it or came after is certainly debatable. And the author is not convincing in his claims that weather was routinely more important for specific historical events in the 17th century than say rain affecting a battle or a terrible harvest bringing down a government at other times. My attention was brought to a stop in the prologue when the author claimed that the cooling 13,000 BP wiped out most animal life in the northern hemisphere (p. xvi). I like to read about extinctions but I had never heard of this one. The Younger Dryas, which lasted about 1000 years, is a meteorological puzzle. It may have contributed to the demise of megafauna and Clovis culture in North America but hardly had the impact the author claimed. There is no evidence of a drop in human populations, made up of animals I believe, who also may be thought of as megafauna. I know this is a minor point for which the author can be forgiven. But my antennae went up. Yes weather plays many roles in the events of the 17th century but I am not convinced that it was systematically more important than the myriad of other factors which contributed to the outcomes of historical events. And the author often mentions weather ad hominem-ally as a kind of an explanatory crutch. I think the Klingaman family’s book, The Year without Summer: 1816, was more compelling by taking weather and showing how it affected particular events of that year. The events of the entire 17th century are far too complex and the occasions when weather seems to have been significant spread over too many different years that the claim doesn’t cohere. Nonetheless, I found reading mini-narratives of different regions interesting. Although it is covered in great detail in many other books, the section on the Stuarts and the Commonwealth is a very good read. It reminded me of all those events of the English revolution which so affected the North America. Charlie I, you can’t beat him for playing it wrong. And the multiple changes of side of various factions is intriguing. Scotland, for all its protestant sense of order and fairness, certainly takes the cake for bigotry. Charlie simply wanted to be in charge, be king. The Presbyters demanded everyone adhere to their way of religion and had no tolerance for Catholics. Was the return of the Stuarts the first time in history when pleasure outvoted self control? That is ironic. Irish (or is it Scottish) dancing with arms held at the side was supposed to be so that the religious police would not notice that people were dancing when they happened by.

I could read even less of the 19th century book. I guess I am too alienated from the formalism of sociology which was marginal at best in the department where I taught for 30 years. Although Max Weber was pretty much the exception he has not faired so well say in his characterizations of world religions and their ramifications, or even bureaucracies. But I remember the comparative history of political scientists like Barrington Moore, Michael Walzer, Samuel Huntington and the systematic sociology of Parsonians like Neil Smelzer. Systematic history, sociology, and political science lacked insight into historical changes. Capitalist China, the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1960s, the rise of religious and ethnic wars (what are we the Balkans of 1905? And how about the 4th Crusade attacking Constantinople?) The particular details of history often belie the categories posited.

Since I couldn’t read through even a section of the book, I have little right to criticize, but that never stopped anyone in this era of blogs and flaming. Everywhere I turned I found fault with the author’s list of elements which would characterize various general phenomena, like the state or race theories. I kept saying: but but. So I will take the only thing I tried to read more of, Frontiers: comparing the Wild West to Russia’s Wild East. They are both interesting in themselves but one learns little from comparing them because they are so different. Now I didn’t read closely so I may err here. But Western Native Americans were only slightly agriculturalists and not herders. And they were not part of the Eurasian gene and disease pool. They did not have long historical connections with various settled societies contiguous to them. They had the horse for about 100 years versus maybe 4000 in Central Asia and no wheels. They had the buffalo which was like nothing in Eurasia. Both places had Elk (Wapiti) and reindeer (Caribou). First Nations spoke some thousands of languages and North American frontiers differed greatly as they shifted slowly west until hitting the Great Plains at the beginning of the 19th century. Who would compare the Iroquois nation to the Apaches and both collectively to the Kyrgyz and various Siberian ethnic groups. No Mongols swept across North America. On p. 362: the author says that parts of the Ukraine on the edges of the post 15th C. Russian empire had semiautonomous Cossack military societies unlike anything in N. America (OK?) but similar to bandierantes in Brazil. This shows off the authors great breadth of knowledge but I can’t see why it is important. My Teflon frying pan bears no relationship to traditional freeze drying potatoes in the Incan Altiplano of Peru but has some similarities to bakers’ uses of lysine. Interesting, if true, but kind of irrelevant.

Enough said. Both books I imagine will end up as college texts. The students will survive them as they did when I inflicted on them Smelzer’s Collective Behavior. They will probably learn something but they might be better served by more narrative history of a smaller scope (as my students were by sending them into the crowds of the 1968 election).

Charlie Fisher, emeritus prof. and author.


Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century
Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century
by Geoffrey Parker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.14
66 used & new from $17.55

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Comparative history, why?, July 17, 2014
Review of both Geoffrey Parker Global Crisis and
Jurgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World.

Nether book could I read from cover to cover. The first had great short narratives of significant events of the 17th century while the second tries to systematize the changes of the 19th. The subtitle of the first seeks explanations as caused by war, climate and catastrophes. While the second is more listy with categories like frontiers, bureaucracy, living standards, empire, etc.

That the global crisis of the 17th century was greater than what proceeded it or came after is certainly debatable. And the author is not convincing in his claims that weather was routinely more important for specific historical events in the 17th century than say rain affecting a battle or a terrible harvest bringing down a government at other times. My attention was brought to a stop in the prologue when the author claimed that the cooling 13,000 BP wiped out most animal life in the northern hemisphere (p. xvi). I like to read about extinctions but I had never heard of this one. The Younger Dryas, which lasted about 1000 years, is a meteorological puzzle. It may have contributed to the demise of megafauna and Clovis culture in North America but hardly had the impact the author claimed. There is no evidence of a drop in human populations, made up of animals I believe, who also may be thought of as megafauna. I know this is a minor point for which the author can be forgiven. But my antennae went up. Yes weather plays many roles in the events of the 17th century but I am not convinced that it was systematically more important than the myriad of other factors which contributed to the outcomes of historical events. And the author often mentions weather ad hominem-ally as a kind of an explanatory crutch. I think the Klingaman family's book, The Year without Summer: 1816, was more compelling by taking weather and showing how it affected particular events of that year. The events of the entire 17th century are far too complex and the occasions when weather seems to have been significant spread over too many different years that the claim doesn't cohere. Nonetheless, I found reading mini-narratives of different regions interesting. Although it is covered in great detail in many other books, the section on the Stuarts and the Commonwealth is a very good read. It reminded me of all those events of the English revolution which so affected the North America. Charlie I, you can't beat him for playing it wrong. And the multiple changes of side of various factions is intriguing. Scotland, for all its protestant sense of order and fairness, certainly takes the cake for bigotry. Charlie simply wanted to be in charge, be king. The Presbyters demanded everyone adhere to their way of religion and had no tolerance for Catholics. Was the return of the Stuarts the first time in history when pleasure outvoted self control? That is ironic. Irish (or is it Scottish) dancing with arms held at the side was supposed to be so that the religious police would not notice that people were dancing when they happened by.

I could read even less of the 19th century book. I guess I am too alienated from the formalism of sociology which was marginal at best in the department where I taught for 30 years. Although Max Weber was pretty much the exception he has not faired so well say in his characterizations of world religions and their ramifications, or even bureaucracies. But I remember the comparative history of political scientists like Barrington Moore, Michael Walzer, Samuel Huntington and the systematic sociology of Parsonians like Neil Smelzer. Systematic history, sociology, and political science lacked insight into historical changes. Capitalist China, the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1960s, the rise of religious and ethnic wars (what are we the Balkans of 1905? And how about the 4th Crusade attacking Constantinople?) The particular details of history often belie the categories posited.

Since I couldn't read through even a section of the book, I have little right to criticize, but that never stopped anyone in this era of blogs and flaming. Everywhere I turned I found fault with the author's list of elements which would characterize various general phenomena, like the state or race theories. I kept saying: but but. So I will take the only thing I tried to read more of, Frontiers: comparing the Wild West to Russia's Wild East. They are both interesting in themselves but one learns little from comparing them because they are so different. Now I didn't read closely so I may err here. But Western Native Americans were only slightly agriculturalists and not herders. And they were not part of the Eurasian gene and disease pool. They did not have long historical connections with various settled societies contiguous to them. They had the horse for about 100 years versus maybe 4000 in Central Asia and no wheels. They had the buffalo which was like nothing in Eurasia. Both places had Elk (Wapiti) and reindeer (Caribou). First Nations spoke some thousands of languages and North American frontiers differed greatly as they shifted slowly west until hitting the Great Plains at the beginning of the 19th century. Who would compare the Iroquois nation to the Apaches and both collectively to the Kyrgyz and various Siberian ethnic groups. No Mongols swept across North America. On p. 362: the author says that parts of the Ukraine on the edges of the post 15th C. Russian empire had semiautonomous Cossack military societies unlike anything in N. America (OK?) but similar to bandierantes in Brazil. This shows off the authors great breadth of knowledge but I can't see why it is important. My Teflon frying pan bears no relationship to traditional freeze drying potatoes in the Incan Altiplano of Peru but has some similarities to bakers' uses of lysine. Interesting, if true, but kind of irrelevant.

Enough said. Both books I imagine will end up as college texts. The students will survive them as they did when I inflicted on them Smelzer's Collective Behavior. They will probably learn something but they might be better served by more narrative history of a smaller scope (as my students were by sending them into the crowds of the 1968 election).

Charlie Fisher, emeritus prof. and author.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 18, 2014 7:07 PM PDT


Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
by Daniel Okrent
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.21
223 used & new from $0.86

4.0 out of 5 stars Good on the corruption, May 31, 2014
I found I was not interested in the political and social history which led to Prohibition. In the introduction the author says that America was the most drunken nation but does not put that in the contest of fermenting and distilling from five to seven thousand years ago and the invention of hard liquor in the middle ages. Grog has been the bane of many a society. Maybe 30% of early grain was fermented. The English kings imposed the long bow on peasants because they could not drink and maintain the strength to pull it. Pulque and aguardiente have riven Latin societies in the new world. It is a rare indigenous people that could resist drink and its devastating effects. One of the most interesting statistics of the book is that drinking actually declined greatly after Prohibition, but then gradually increased again. So the Anti-Saloon League had some victories.

But the interesting part of the book for me was the corruption that Prohibition brought. From the author’s point of view America of the twenties was a wild place to live. Everyone was drinking hooch, brewing it, smuggling it, selling it or ripping off someone who was doing those things. Sounds great. Medicinal alcohol, holy wine, industrial ethanol, sealed warehouses, everywhere you turned you could get a drink. The Scot whiskey producers got in on the act. Canadian producers eventually had to pay fines for the stuff they didn’t pay export duties on. Roosevelt repealed Prohibition for economic reasons (although fines seemed to bring in more than the cost of enforcement) but I could not figure out from the author how much economic damage was done by destroying all the illegal businesses. What was the effect on smugglers on the Detroit River, off the coast of Massachusetts, up from the Caribbean? What did they do to make money during the Depression?

My hero in the book is wily old Sam Bronfman. He wasn’t so old when he sledded in the north nor when he started rum running. But he became an astute business man supplying the US with booze. And he winked his eye when they accused him of smuggling. He didn’t directly. But my mother’s college chums at the University of Manitoba in the early 20’s did a good job of driving Sam’s trucks across the border to Minnesota and North Dakota. What a great way to earn your way through college. They couldn’t have made nearly as much harvesting wheat on the great plains. And my aunt Ethel got to give away Sam’s millions when she ran his charities while his mom was still alive and he was living in his mansion in Montreal. I assume that was in the 30’s. He either didn’t know or didn’t seem to mind that Ethel was a communist. But then maybe she didn’t share that in public.

Enforcement was a joke, except maybe for the stepped up Coast Guard but they almost always got taken over my faster boats. I liked the one with several two hundred and fifty horsepower airplane engines. Also Al Capone did not walk softly and carry a big stick. He shouted out and whacked it around, so set himself up for getting busted. Everyone was on the take. Impossible enforcement made for corrupt enforcers. I wonder how much that is the case with dope and human trafficking these days. Dope is fed by demand and people are pushed by economic desperation. I can image that the former is actually not corrupt and actually stoppable (make it legal) while the latter will supply work for coyotes until the desperation of the immigrants continues. You can’t stop people who are willing to die by crossing deserts or oceans in rickety tubs. They will filter though somehow. I wonder if the Soviet Union had really been a workers paradise whether people would have made it through despite the iron curtain? Who knows.

This an interesting book. You may have more patience than I to read how Prohibition came into effect. But I am less interested in the anti-foreign, racist, bigotry of the WCTU and the ASL league which festered from the Civil War on. Read and enjoy.

Charlie Fisher author of Meditation in the Wild and Dismantling Discontent both available on Amazon


Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
by Alfred Lansing
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.96
57 used & new from $11.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Survival, May 31, 2014
This is a thrilling book. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Reading it I thought I had read it before. But then I checked and I had read Huntford’s excellent biography of Shackleton. I now wonder whether Huntford took much of Lansing’s dialogue lock, stock and barrel. I have to go back and see. It is interesting when sitting on the edge of my chair I wondered how it could be that the author knew the dialogue among the men and the details of their survival actions. It was as if one cliff hanger after another faced them particularly when the Endeavor went down, their camp broke up, traveling to Elephant Isle, then to S. Georgia and the hike across S. Georgia. It seemed too much survival by the skin of their teeth. And it may have been. There is this problem with narratives like this and that is an author’s predilection to create dialogue and details that are not supported by the raw historical material. It makes for better flow of the story. It maintains excitement, but are the details supported by the historical raw material. I wonder what is in the diaries of survivors and the books written by them. Did participants themselves dramatize things? It is a good question. And how much do we want to hold historians to the data without telling us they are elaborating? I know of one biographer who created dialogue and thoughts of participants where he did not have hard evidence of what they said. In his dotage, one of the participants took the literary creation for the actual events. That is interesting. The creation becomes the facts.

To my the review of Huntford’s book someone took exception to my statement that Shackleton left three members of a “support team.” So he didn’t bring everyone home alive as he claimed. I have to check what I meant by that. Maybe the crew who were on the other side of Antarctica to meet them lost three members? Lansing doesn’t talk about that “support” team. I will check.

Charlie Fisher author of Meditation in the Wild and Dismantling Discontent, both available on Amazon


Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
by Eric Foner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.90
99 used & new from $8.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Monumental, April 29, 2014
I had been looking for an up-to-date book on Reconstruction for a number of years now, thinking that the older books were indeed out of date. Then I read a review in, of all things, the Saturday Wall Street Journal book review section. When Murdoch and News Corp bought the Journal, like many, I expected that the Chinese Wall between WSJ news and editorials would be breeched and, by god, that was the case but not as badly as had been feared. So when I was unable to get my usual Friday Journal and bought the Saturday instead, I was, to say the least, shocked that the reviews were not only better than in the Sunday NYT, but often exceeded those of the New York Review of Books. In addition the political perspectives of the reviewers must make Murdoch toss and turn at night if he were to read their writing. Where would one find a review of the letters of C. Vann Woodward, mind you his letters---yawn---pointing out how important he was in pulling southern history out of the jaws of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara.

So when I came across a review of a book entitled “Wars of Reconstruction” I was pleased. It was a positive review, but the reviewer thought Eric Foner’s book 25 years earlier covered the subject with less literary skill but better, especially economic aspects. So posthaste I resorted to my local library and came up with the Francis Parkman Prize edition released in 2005. And I was greatly impressed by what I will call again monumental coverage of the tragedy reconstruction turned out to be. You have to give Murdoch credit for inadvertently promoting Eric Foner, fellow traveling social thinker. (PS, the section has slipped significantly since I originally wrote this: it now begins with one or two NY Review type essays which are quite conservative---oh well, some editor tried but apparently got caught.)

Rather than rehearse the dream of what reconstruction could have been and how it was buried, I would like to put down some thoughts the book stimulated. First, as seems to be hard to get people to believe, the Civil War had little to do with the moral sin of slavery. Only a few Quakers, abolitionists and republican yeomen cared about Negroes or felt they were more than subhuman. Lincoln freed them for military strategic reasons and wished they would go back to Africa. When victory established their freedom no one really knew what to do with them. America rugged individualism and belief in free enterprise had no ideological room for the kind of economic redistribution and educational subsidy needed to solve the underlying inequities in the South. Instituting needed changes would have rocked the whole country to its foundation, challenging wage slavery in the north, speculation and corruption all of which had been endemic from Jackson’s presidency on. Would a Cuban literacy drive have been conceivable in 1865 or even a post WWII Japanese land redistribution? I think not. So the dreams of some Negroes, New England school marms, and Carpet Baggers were bound to come to little. Forty acres and a mule never came to pass and the land seizures by ex-slave in the wake of victory were reversed.

Then there was violence. William Freehling’s book on the ante-bellum South makes it abundantly clear that Southern society was based on violent repression of dissent. That inbred violence gave the South a fighting chance during the war and, except where northern troops occupied the South, that violence made needed reforms impossible. When Presidents Johnson and Grant sent in the troops the KKK or its ilk had little stomach for resistance. When Lincoln let Lee go home with his horse and sword, his compassion destroyed any chance of reform. The devastation of Sherman’s march should have been driven home. And as much as Radical Republicans railed against Johnson (he, Buchanan and Shrub rank number 2, 1 and 3 from the bottom of accomplished presidents) he was forgiving of the slavers’ rebellion. A completely demoralized South East could have been transformed, but letting defeated Southern true believers off the hook, allowed them to retrench. Only defeat, devastation and demoralization on the scale of Germany in WWII would have cleared the field for reform. The constructive effects of Sherman’s march were nullified. (See Fredrick Taylor Exorcising Hitler on the accept of their defeat by post WWII Germans and the persistence with which they fought until the end, Ian Kershaw, The End.)

One sentence in Foner’s book has particular modern relevance. “Democracy, it has been said, functions best when politics does not directly mirror deep social divisions----[then] defeat does not imply ‘a fatal surrender of …vital interests.’” (p. 443) It is March sixth, 2014. The US called the refusal of western Ukrainians to accept the properly elected President a “revolution” while calling the Russians he invited in to uphold his presidency “invaders”. The Russians on their part regard the revolution nothing more than a coup. In Thailand the prosperous sections of the society reject the democratically elected government because it represents a majority which is poorer but more in numbers and will always win elections. The protesters want to eliminate elections. Similarly in Venezuela, and Honduras, Iraq, Pakistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc. etc. Is democracy then a solution or really only workable when there is either some degree of consensus or a group which dominates and other groups which are either passive or sufficiently satisfied with their lot? American insistence on democracy is mostly cynical but sometimes genuine.

Why did Negroes not fight back? The KKK and other groups killed Negroes and their supporters on the scale of contemporary Iraq, a few here, twenty there, three hundred somewhere else. And when Negroes did fight back they were overwhelmed. Foner says that their relative passivity was not strategic, i.e. because they couldn’t win or didn’t have adequate weaponry to fight back, but the result of slavery. That kind of resistance had been bred out of them. They just couldn’t do it. In that way it is unlike the contemporary world where weaponry abounds, the liberated arsenals of Libya, Iraq, Syria or the Ukraine, leave Africa and Nepal awash with AK-47s and RPGs. So the means to fight back and the ability to vanish in the bush or large cities make resistance, both for the oppressed and the defeated, more accessible.

Why did the north give up on reconstruction? It was their truly American idea that free enterprise would bring blacks into a competitive labor market. But it didn’t. Despite the contrary evidence the North held on to the ideal of capitalist democracy and didn’t have the steel to keep the rebels out of the voting booth. They wearied of having to think about repressing unrepentant Southern racists. The scalawags of the mountains found themselves under tax burdens that reform required because the plantations were not profitable enough to pay taxes. They too wearied of sacrificing to help Negroes. Competition imposed on them a cash economy and along with the terrible seasons following the Civil War they were forced into share cropping cotton in order to survive.

For all the good intentions of the Carpetbaggers (some only came south to exploit under the banner of introducing Northern Capitalism), the problems of how to enfranchise Negroes economically and socially were insurmountable. When Carpetbaggers’ enterprises failed, they either went into government or went home. And liberated Negroes along with northern black Carpetbaggers only really found work in government so when the Democrats slowly regained power they were forced out. They had nowhere else to go except economically downward. It was a sad and impossible history given the restraints.

The book does not cover the institution of Jim Crow. So there is a gap between the mid 1870s and 1890s where the reader can only imagine the gradually disenfranchisement of blacks to the point of the apartheid which replaced slavery. What survived were the institutions which sustained Negroes in the South. As Foner states over and over again, family and the Church and the few educational institution became the heart of Negro life and the seedbed for renewal.

As Gunnar Myrdal pointed out in 1944, the “American Dilemma” is still with us. The Civil Rights Movement created a new black middle class. But racism still stubbornly sticks in the throat of non-black America. But times have changed. We are no longer a white society with a black minority. The hues of people of color have changed dramatically. The terrible inheritance of slavery and Jim Crow still infect both oppressor and victim, but the setting has change with many different claimants on the scene. At the moment American society seems as incapable of tackling the problem of left out blacks as it was of liberated slaves. And for somewhat similar reasons, that conservative capitalism breeds a threatened working/lower middle class and requires an underclass both of which are fighting for their own survival. The middle, no more than Northern yeoman or industrial workers in 1865, will allow social support for the poor nor will accept their voices in elections. And, of course, the so-called one per cent profits from this. The tragedy is that there was not enough to go around in ’65 but now there is more than enough. It is just greed, fear and raw power that keeps it maldistributed.

Charlie Fisher, Prof. emeritus and author of “Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World” and “Meditation in the Wild: Buddhism’s Origin in the Heart of Nature.”


Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo
Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo
by Jack Cheevers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.17
78 used & new from $4.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Good adventure, February 1, 2014
I must say I found much of the book gripping. The Pueblo and the Mayaguez were confused in my memory even though I remember each of the incidents occurring. I was much more politically alert for the latter which cast some kind of pall on Gerald Ford.

The author of this book seems to have done his homework. He could have portrayed the tensions between actions on board the captured boat and the Navy in terms of clichés of valor and command confusion but he went into those issues in a seemingly historically responsible way. His descriptions of the seizure of the Pueblo were vivid like the best adventure movie. But he never lapsed into a kind of John Wayne simplicity. The characters come out with both heroic qualities and very human shortcomings. This was also true for his descriptions of their captivity in North Korea. Although the author bends over backwards to give a balanced view of North Korean behavior his picture does smack of what has been called victims justice: i.e. the captured men and the Navy described the Koreans from a kind of survival mentality. So the Koreans, as in current media coverage, come off as stupid and cruel. Cruel is relative. At the time the crew was captured America was sending down a raining rain of fire on North Vietnam. We hesitated to bomb the damns and flood millions of people because of international public opinion, but we had little hesitation of burning people to death with napalm (designed to stick to the kimonos of sleeping Japanese citizens during WWII). So who is cruel?. We don’t do to captives, except maybe at Bagram and Guantanemo, what the North did to the crew.

Now I wouldn’t want to assert the rulers of North Korea are anything other than a quite insane. They have given ample evidence of that. But that doesn’t excuse our behavior. The Cold War had aspects of a con on both sides. We seemed to feed to each other what each needed for the conservative forces the several societies to maintain their power. Everyone knew that the rationale for Vietnam were stupid (and Iraq even more so). But we persisted. LBJ as he said “was not going to be the first President to lose a war.” Wrong. He had a predecessors in Madison and Truman, a federalist and a Democrat. And a successor in George W. Bush who lost two, Clinton, one etc. There is Korea. Revisionist history would first have had the South’s dictatorship equally responsible. But here the author is wrong---he said the Stalin encouraged Kim---. I think there are now enough books that show that Kim tricked both Stalin and Mao.

Also I am not sure that US restraining of itself and the South in the face of Kim’s continuing provocation, continuing acts of war, may have prevented another Korean war. I think two could have played the game and not precipitated a general conflict. Certainly the author mentioned that the South was doing its own counter strikes, infiltrating etc.

I had a hard time reading details of the torture of the captives. When it got too gruesome I half closed my eyes skimming until the worst was over. And it is only in the epilogue that we learn that the north Koreans got pretty much everything from the spy masters aboard the ship. They didn’t need the sophisticated methods of interrogation both the Soviets and the US developed. As I read the book I was wondering what was happening to all the technicians who were also captives. The author seemed to have enough drama from the major actors that he did not interview the spooks in detail. But that of course was were much of the interesting intelligence lay. That the captives were able to undermine the propaganda message the North Koreans wanted to get out, (say by giving the finger during videos I performances) was good, no one in the west was going to believe what the captives said for their captors. And then elsewhere in the world the finger would not have meant anything. So the gestures were a bit pyrrhic. Maybe needed as the author punted out to keep the captives morale up, giving them a little sense of control and a feeling they hadn’t completely given in, even though they usually paid for it later.

The dramatic break downs during the Court of Inquiry almost had me in tears. The Court of Inquiry was portrayed well by the author. It illustrates what might be called the fog of war which seems an inevitable part of the fog of a large organization. The preparation of the Pueblo was slipshod and the captain was told he was on his own but that there was no risk even though the risks were stated. His voyage was intelligence on the cheap done in the midst of a much more compelling war. So that he was sent off slapdash and accepted it was everyone’s fault but nothing he should have been blamed for. The Navy had bigger fish to fry. And in the aftermath, they tried to cover their asses, making him the fall guy. The Navel contradiction between “damn the torpedo,” making the captain responsible for that ethic and not risking planes or cruisers was shameful on the Navy’s part. Then turning the captain into a pariah after the fact demonstrates the height of a “don’t embarrass the Service” mentality.

There is one more thing I would have like to have been covered and that was the effect of the captain and the crew’s boozing and whoring on their relationships. But since the captain’s widow survived the book’s publication that might have been too hard for the author, who was dependent on his relationship with both, to have gone into. Oh well. A compelling read.

Charlie Fisher, Prof. emeritus and author of “Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World” and “Meditation in the Wild: Buddhism’s Origin in the Heart of Nature.


Jack London: An American Life
Jack London: An American Life
by Earle Labor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.47
73 used & new from $2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bigger than life, January 23, 2014
This is more remarks about London himself than the biography. Literarily the book is very straight forward. Neither very exciting nor badly done. It seems as authoritative a coverage of London's life as will ever be produced. I have a few reservations about its characterizations of the general historical settings such as his coverage of Jack's " wanderlust" in the context of what was mobile labor, sometimes called hoboing, from the mid 19th century until after the 1960s when changes in rail car construction and enforcement made hoboing much more difficult. Migrating labor was a major aspect of the American labor scene. It was not merely wanderlust nor political protest. Similarly the Klondike was just another in a series of opportunities to get rich which shaded into everything from the western fur trade to 1848. In the context of boom and bust, mining, lumbering, ranching, railroad construction, agricultural declines, the Klondike were as much a part of American development as were the other physically demanding jobs that Jack took in his youth like oyster pirating, shoveling coal, and going to sea. Alcoholism has been part of work from the time of grog in England hundreds of years ago. My mother's family came to Canada because of ads in the Ukraine for workers to build out the Canadian National Railway. In that, the work Jack did was emblematic of America at the time. His escape via the tremendous effort he made teaching himself to write is what made him so unusual. I was a little disappointed that the biographer in discussing the roads to the Klondike mentioned the horrors of the Chilkoot pass and overland from Edmonton, but didn't mention going up the Stikine River by paddle boat, overland to the Dease River and paddling into the Yukon. It was as man killing as the other routes.

It is funny that I have probably only read two of Jack's works: "To Build a Fire" and "Call of the Wild." (Though I vaguely remember assigning "The Iron Heel" in a course I taught.) The fire story is chilling to those who have been unable to make a fire when needed and the "Call of the Wild" I must have read while I was still a kid on the south side of Chicago. That Jack was a "nature faker" as Teddy Roosevelt labeled him was accurate. (TR later pressured Japan to release Jack after he was arrested for hitting a Japanese officer's groom in a dispute over hay.) Like Ernest Seton, whose hero was Lobo the wolf, Jack personified nature in a way that utterly transformed its reality. C.f. my book Dismantling Discontent p. 91ff.

Jack certainly was bigger than life. That he exaggerated was probably unnecessary because what he did do was impressive enough. But then we all exaggerate a bit without very mean intentions. I often do by understatement letting people fill in when I know they are letting their imaginations get away with them. The biographer clarifies what I remember from a movie about Jack in Korea. The movie claimed that Jack was the first person to alert the US to Japanese imperialism. It doesn't seem that that was the case or certainly his biographer would have mentioned. In fact, he never made it to the front of Russian-Japanese War and by the time of Wilson's invasion of Mexico Jack had become an imperialist alienating his socialist comrades. This increased with his support of WWI.

I can't figure out whether I like Jack or not. He certainly starts out with and attractive survivalist's joie de vivre. But as fame overtakes him he becomes somewhat overbearing. There is lots of hubris. When he over does things and they fail on him, like various investments or his ranch, the blame always seems to lie elsewhere. He doesn't seem to understand that the effort he takes to financially make up for his lack of judgment contributes to killing him. This is most evident in his relationship to his eldest daughter. He takes little account of the extent to which he abandons her or that she is caught between him and her mother's anger toward him. His arrogant letters to her are punitive although he does apologize but then wades in time and time again. That she continued to love him only highlights his bad behavior.

But then his relationship to Charmian reaches the depths of how intimate a couple can be, sexually, dispositionally and in sharing activities. It is only as his illness begins to take over that his behavior towards her turns ugly. That they spent so much time together on the road and building their dream is testament to the rare quality of their connection. It is interesting that they spent so little time at their Valley of the Moon haven. They both seemed to possess a restlessness that made staying at home difficult. So they voyaged until he could no longer do it. But then Jack in his 42 years did more than most half dozen other people have done in their lives. I keep wondering where my desire for domesticity kept me from doing analogous things to Jack. I did them in outbursts and then tried again at domestic life only to breakout in frustration when the latter proved unsatisfactory. That Jack both had a companion in his wanderlust and could continue writing to support them both is indeed rare.

While I was not thrilled by this biography, it is a good contribution to American history. And it is popular. There are 10 holds on it, so I must return it to the library. I read a review of it in the Saturday Wall Street Journal whose book review section is surprisingly quite friendly towards books the WSJ's owner Murdock and its Tea Party editorial staff might otherwise find objectionable.

Charlie Fisher, prof. emeritus and author of "Dismantling Discontent: Buddha's Way Through Darwin's World" and the forthcoming "Meditation in the Wild: Buddhism's Origin in the Heart of Nature."


Alex Haley's Roots: An Author's Odyssey
Alex Haley's Roots: An Author's Odyssey
Price: $2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A good start, January 15, 2014
This is a nice little essay. At first I might have thought it was merely a kind of Hollywood gossip piece but it is more a statement about the fate of media celebrities in the United States. Alex Haley’s life is oddly tragic. The author of this piece has given us the outlines of Haley’s rise to fame and partial fall. If this piece were a propaedeutic then it might be followed by a closer examination of Haley’s personal life, particularly his states of mind as he rose and almost fell in addition to his family and sex life. It could then look into what Roots meant to Americans both black and white and how a black man like Haley could rise to such fame and then persist in the face of so much criticism. If Haley had only labeled Roots as fiction would it have become just as popular but would that have solved accusations of falsification and poor research if not those of plagiarism? Does Haley’s race play an important role. These are all things the current author might explore in a book expanding on the present essay.

I have not watched TV in fifty or more years and I missed Roots entirely so I probably have no right to comment. If Roots is at all like the sentimentalizing of history I have seen in snippets of Ken Burns’ documentaries than I would probably be impatient with it. We like to sentimentalize our history. That gives readers and viewers a nice catharsis without really facing the tough complicated issues that history poses. We love our idealized Lincolns and Frederick Douglasses without taking into consideration that the former freed slaves for economic military reasons in the midst of blunderingly fought war---if he had his druthers he would have sent them all back to Africa but first he needed to undermine the military economy of the rebel states. And we never hear about Frederick Douglass’ financing of that madman John Brown and was preparing to flee if that support had been discovered after Brown’s insane attack on Harper’s Ferry.

So while the current essay is an interesting, informative and very readable start, it would be great if its author would take the 5 to ten years necessary to complete his study of Alex Haley. I would look forward to reading that book.


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