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4.0 out of 5 stars works, March 11, 2015
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The Journey to Inner Power: Self-Liberation through Power Psychology
The Journey to Inner Power: Self-Liberation through Power Psychology
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Challenge, February 14, 2015
In a era of post post modernism it is interesting to find someone going back to the greats of the nineteenth and early twentieth century for inspiration to reset psychotherapeutic assumptions. Tubal has done it. This is not a book for the faint of heart. The author makes his reader think. The idea of a psychology of maximum responsibility is welcome in a environment where we run to excuse our behavior because of past trauma. This is not to throw out gentleness and understanding but to turn people from what others might call victim consciousness toward teasing apart where what, borrowing from Nietzsche, he labels “will to power.” It both drives and disables us. The author’s perspective also help us understand aggression rather than always interpreting it as the result of earlier victimhood. I just heard a news story of the tragic police shooting death of a young woman. Her community was outraged claiming race, ethnic, age, and gender prejudice on the part of the police. They oddly left out the fact that she was driving a stolen car and the police hardly had time to ascertain her ethnicity or gender choices. The author’s perspective on human behavior would give a much clearer understanding of the reactions of all parties here. Scared maybe prejudiced and violent police, kids with confused identities and little social control stealing in violent neighborhoods, communities with real grievances but also wanting to place responsibility for dysfunction elsewhere. It is a psychological Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, which the perspectives of this book can help unravel.

Charlie Fisher, emeritus professor and author of Meditation in the Wild and Dismantling Discontent.


Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama's Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule
Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama's Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule
by Lobsang Tubten Jigme Gyatso
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Innocence, naiveté or insouciance?, February 5, 2015
I have wanted to see behind the political propaganda of the Tibetan diaspora to understand what the conditions in Tibet were like after the Chinese takeover in 1959. If we can understand that we can get a better sense of the consequences for the Tibetan people in Tibet of the choice made by those Lamas who stayed versus those who left. Arjia was chosen as an incarnated Lama before the Communists came and was still a child when the 1959 uprising was suppressed. He came from a family of pastoral nomads. Such groups suffered particularly under both Russian and Chinese communization. He remembers monks he regarded as corrupt and fighting monastic gangs in traditional Tibet whose members were called Dopdos. He seems completely naïve about the social structure of traditional Tibet. The privileged childhood he led as a Lama was torn from him during the anti-religious and pro-peasant campaigns that swept China and Tibet in the 1960s and then the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. These were indeed terrible times. He was forced to do physical labor and he witnessed the imprisonment of family and monks close to him and heard of the execution of others. His father died in prison. His family was hounded and spied upon by Tibetan Party agents.

So two questions arise. Was it any worse for Tibetans than other Chinese? And, aside from jailing, torture and murder that went on around him, was his physical lot much worse than it had been for many peasants or serfs enslaved by monasteries in traditional Tibet? The answer to the first seems to be no. Tibet went through the same convulsions that did the rest of China. There may have been only degrees of difference for minorities. The author mentions “positivist” monks who identified with the changes and became enforcers of the new order. I have found no historical examination of this phenomenon in Tibet. Also though the Chinese occupied Tibet there were not nearly enough of them there to carry out the Cultural Revolution. Tibetans must have participated significantly. So while we can weep for Tibet the tears ought not be bigger than those we weep for China.

I don’t know how to give an answer to the second question, because I have not found enough information about what life was like for serfs in traditional Tibet. (Here Melvin Goldstein may the have the answer but I don’t remember what he wrote about it.) Certainly the author was torn from a life of privilege and forced to do physical labor. I have periodically abandoned my middle class privilege and done extreme physical labor but nobody forced me and I went back to middle class privilege. Life only truly seemed to have been threatened for Arjia during times of scarcity like the famine after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. As terrible as were the consequences of Mao’s ignorant economic whim, both China and Tibet had gone through periods of deprivation before but maybe not on the same scale (say millions versus tens of millions). So these things aside, was the labor to which the lama was subjected that much worse than life below had been during traditional Tibetan serfdom?

With the end of the cultural revolution and the turn toward capitalism life got much better in China and Tibet. Arjia gradually retook his place as a privileged Lama running a monastery slowly being reconstructed.

All along he has an interesting connection with the Panchen Lama. The latter stayed and the Dalai Lama fled. The young Dalai Lama’s coterie felt that it would be terrible if the Dalai Lama fell into Chinese hands. But the Panchen Lama did and continued throughout his dealing with the Chinese to maintain Lamistic Buddhism in Tibet. During the hardest times he suffered years of imprisonment, but emerged and renewed his efforts. I have seen no books dealing with his life and how much effect he had keeping Lamistic Buddhism alive in Tibet. Was he a Quisling? One might say that from the point of view of the diaspora that the “positivist” monk were Quislings. I recall references to him as a traitor. But then Panchens and Dalais seemed to have had periodic historical enmity. I wonder how much the exodus by the hierarchy in ’59 was motivated by maintaining their privileges. According to the Huffington Post, no authority on the matter, “In this exodus, almost the entire Tibetan Buddhist church, the Tibetan equivalent of the pope, cardinals, bishops and the clergy relocated in India. The dim view the Tibetans [sic: the diaspora] had then of the Panchen Lama was based on the fact that he was the lama who 'stayed back in Tibet', implying that he had sided with the Chinese Communist Party.” Byline 01/29/2014. Long after his death when there was no longer a competition for the loyalty of Tibetans the diaspora may have revised the image they had painted of him.

Arjia had a deeply respectful relationship with the Panchen Lama. Together they trod a careful line in the politics of post-Mao China to reconstruct, at least, the emblems of Lamistic Buddhism. And it is here that I have more questions. Sometimes our lama seems to deeply understand the ins and outs of politics in China and sometimes he seems horribly naïve. Although in his elevated position he travels the world, he seems to have little understanding of the places he goes. His perception of Buddhism in Burma when he visited was very naïve. Besides the fact that Theravada is often put down by Lamas, he says he would like to lead the quiet life of Burmese Buddhists. He seems ignorant that at the time he was there the dictatorship in Burma had the sangha and Burmese people under almost complete control and was engaged in ethnic cleansing of Christians and rebellious ethic groups. And when he finally flees Tibet, he does not seem to understand what the conditions are in Guatemala where he goes.

As for the reasons of his flight, they are odd, leading me to think there is much more to it involving the diaspora than he reveals. The Panchen Lama dies sometime in the middle or late ’80s but no replacement was made until after the hubbub around Tiananmen settled down. The Dalai Lama jumps the gun and makes an appointment before the Chinese, who quickly follow forcing Arjia to take part in faux installation ceremonies which the Chinese claimed derived from the Qing dynasty. He does so but feels that by taking part in what he regards as an inauthentic ceremony he has committed a terrible misdeed. I think his objection was to the ceremony, not the selection process. There were arguments in Tibet about where the committee should search, whether around the Panchen Lama’s monastery or elsewhere. (None of that makes sense to me because if there is a reincarnation somewhere about, then the committee would just have to keep looking till they found him. The starting place would seem irrelevant. Where did the Dalai Lama find his candidate anyway?) The sacredness of the ceremony seemed to be what was really important to him. He had had the feeling for a while that he was committing Quisling like behavior to keep the privileges of his position. This comes to a head when felt the Chinese forced him to endorse their reincarnated Panchen Lama, disown the Dalai Lama and his being appointed the Panchen’s new tutor. He decided to flee taking only his most trusted supporters. He knows that those he leaves behind will suffer because of his abandonment. A benefactor makes possible an escape to Guatemala, a place he had visited in his official role. He stays there for a while and then goes to NYC to see the Dalai Lama who tells him to lay low. There is retaliation against those he left behind and commercial restrictions on some of his American benefactors but he says little about these. He is finally offered a job at a Tibetan Institute in Indiana.

Here is what I wonder. While his physical escape seems reasonable, his survival in the New World seems unlikely unless he had subsidy from the outside. Yes, people gave him and his three companions places to stay but living expenses and air fares take more than that. Yes, there are a lot of wealthy American devotees of Lamistic Buddhism and they could have footed the bill. One wonders whether he or they knew the meaning of what they did in terms of world politics. His description of meeting the Dalai Lama lacks credulity. While writing this its seems as if it was a coup for the diaspora to have such a high Lama escape Tibet. On the other hand they would not want to be associated with it because it would give the Chinese more ammunition in their attacks on the Dalai Lama and also leave Tibetans in Tibet feeling more abandoned as they indeed were. So was there a hidden hand behind his escape? Would the diaspora reveal that? The CIA?

Also what of the Buddhism he sought to preserve in Tibet? There is an odd sentence in the epilogue that gave rise to this question. “Buddhism is based on a belief in reincarnation.” That is that the continuity of incarnate lamas is on what Buddhism depends. Well that certainly is not the case in Theravada. And what about meditation? I don’t think the word occurs in the book. He never talks about a meditation practice. When the Dalai Lama asks him about his practice he responds that he had read over the years, Tsong Khapa’s “Treatise on Step toward becoming a Bodhisattva.” And sometimes recited mantras. Rituals, relics, temple building, performing ceremonies, guru worship that is the Buddhism he seems to have been trying to preserve in Tibet. His leaving Tibet was based on the corruption he believed the Chinese committed in their selection of a Panchen Lama. But other high Lamas in Tibet went along with it and historically the selection of reincarnated lamas has been fraught with controversy. So who is right here? Could he not have become Tutor with the spirit of the previous Panchen Lama: do what is possible, resist when it was too much and accept the consequences. Do the Tibetan people in Tibet deserve any less, especially from someone who practices becoming a Bodhisattva? But then who am I to make judgments about courage. In my senescence I am not on the front lines and when I was, I often made the choice not to get arrested. So the author again leads a life of privilege that he once achieved in Tibet. I do too in my quiet exurban abode.

This book gives a sense of the deprivation that the Chinese imposed on the Tibetans. And for that I am grateful. That it was worse than what Chinese, Uighers and other experienced I don’t know. And how to Tibetan now feel about their lives. Some? Many? revere the Dalai Lama but how many value the life they now lead although they may not want to do so as second class citizens in China. Certainly Native Americans resent their second class status but not many choose to live in teepees hunting with bows and arrows. And Scots and French Canadians remain British and Canadian. I still have many questions about recent Tibetan history and I certainly have little sympathy with the belief in rebirth, relics, empowerments, temples, and ceremony to think they are worth any additional suffering that Tibetans might have experienced. I wonder how ethnic Tibetans in Tibet now feel. Political scientists say that the sweeping away of the “olds” by Mao made it possible for China to achieve the material prosperity it now has. In contrast India without that cleansing will give some prosperity but will be hobbled by the hundreds of millions left behind and those people continue to suffer greatly. Who knows?

Why to I put so much effort into dissecting Lamistic Buddhism. It seems I have an axe to grind. I do pay particular attention to both the inconsistencies of Zionism and those of Buddhism! Zionism because it is the harm “ my people” are doing to the world in the name of the religion into which I was born and by extension my name. Buddhism, because in the US I have watched what I regard as “meditation practice” evolve into religious claims that I do not find supported by the results of that practice and meditation centers grow to be temples. The creep into blind belief founded on faith based on unsubstantiated historical claims I find disturbing. Lamistic Buddhism is currently the most visible of American Buddhisms and I feel the most vocal in its assertions. According to our author, “In my view the best way to stop war and sickness---is to follow Buddhist teachings, especially the Kalachakra tradition.” Physical sickness? He is probably a wonderful man, but I have reservations about how he manifests his beliefs. He was very proud to construct a 55 ft high 85 ft. diameter palace of the Kalachakra deity at his monastery. And his predecessors, the fifth and sixth Arjia Rinpoches in the nineteenth century, both loyally fought for the Qing against indigenous Muslim uprisings in eastern Tibet. By doing so they clearly acknowledged Qing rule.

As a political being I am as disturbed by the diaspora’s propaganda despite the Dalai Lama’s assertion that he and it bring truth to politics, as I am offended by an experienced and prominent meditation teacher who claimed that the spread of meditation in the Western world is as earth shaking as the reformation. God help us. So this review. Both Buddha and Darwin made clear that by its very nature life has terrible challenges. I think this is much more important for human beings than claims that meditation is a panacea. I have a problem with the fact that part of Buddhism, like modern medicine, promises an exemption from life. Also Saints are saints because of their deeds. They don’t need a church or attestations of enlightenment to give them a title. How about a collective biography of incarnate lamas who resign or are corrupt? Every religion has its egotists, zealots and pederasts. I could no more worship a fanciful guru than I could Thomas Jefferson, whose vision of democracy, was blind to slavery, led to Jacksonian corruption and seeded some of the worst nativism in American history. Mother Theresa, Gandhi and ML Kings had their flaws. The Dalai Lama stopped voicing some traditional beliefs when he learned they were politically incorrect, Trungpa, well? And there have been enough Zen and Theravadan scandals. We are all human all although some manage to live lives less harmingly than others.

Charlie Fisher


Voices from Tibet
Voices from Tibet
by Tsering Woeser
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.00
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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
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10 of 30 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.


Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
by Daniel Okrent
Edition: Paperback
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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
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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
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Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
by Eric Foner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.46
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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.”


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