Category: Books

“The Image” 50 Years Later

By , February 9, 2020 6:45 pm

My step-son asked me for advice on what a relatively political novice should read for unbiased insights on politics and controversial issues–aren’t they all? I’m not sure “unbiased” exists. No, that’s incorrect. There’s no such thing as unbiased. There are fair-minded people, however, so I thought I’d steer him in that direction. And then I remembered The Image; A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, a short book by Daniel Boorstin published in 1962, a book I read sometime between 1970 and 1973, a book that helped me grow up fast and develop a critical eye almost as quickly, a book I thought would help my stepson develop the critical thinking skills to approach any political “insights” with his thinking cap on.

Briefly, a pseudo-event is an event that is manufactured news. The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is news, a real event. President Trump reporting that “The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him” is not real news; it’s a pseudo-event, an event manufactured by the White House to give President Trump face time before the American public as he stands in the Diplomatic Reception Room. Think about it: the news of al-Baghdadi’s death could have been delivered on chyron running beneath the talking heads on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. Instead, we get a presidential statement, we get more of President Trump.

Because my stepson listens to rather than reads books–kids nowadays–I downloaded the book to my Audible account and shared it with him. Having done that, I figured it worth my time to listen again to the book after nearly 50 years of experience. It’s been an interesting experience so far, largely because all the references are so dated. In a discussion of the emphasis on the celebrity rather than the hero, for example, Boorstin uses astronauts Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd as proxies for heroes. I smiled when I realized that’s probably all he had to refer to. Gagarin was the first man in space on April 12, 1961, Shepherd the second, less than a month later on May 5, 1961. Boorstin’s book was published less than a year later, barely time to add other astronauts to his example.

Nevertheless, the “re-read” has been worthwhile. Boorstin’s discussion of pseudo-events rings even truer in a time when Tweets–the pseudoest of pseudo-events–make headlines on almost a daily basis. I’m only a chapter or two in, so I won’t report more. I will recommend you read the book. The best defense against the 24-hour news cycle is to know that very little of it is news. I’m not the only one saying this.

LBJ: I Hardly Knew Ye

By , August 29, 2014 9:26 am

I’m reading–well, listening to, anyway–Robert Caro’s Pulitzer prize winning biography of LBJ, a bio he refers to as a study of political power, how to acquire it and how to use it. I’m almost through with the second volume, Means of Ascent. The first volume, Path to Power, which chronicles his life (and his ancestors’s life) up through his years in Congress and his first run at the U.S. Senate–which he lost only because his opponent–literally–bought more votes than he did and then only because Johnson got a little cocky on the day of the election, is an enthralling read. (In case this sentence is a little too complex [a little?], here’s the essence: The first volume is an enthralling read.) The second volume has proved its equal.

Means of Ascent discusses Johnson’s time in the armed services during World War II and his second run for the Senate, an election he literally bought, paid cash for. This comes as no surprise to the reader. At this point in the story, the reader has already read where Johnson stole a student election in college, stole another election for the presidency of an organization of congressional staffers, stole an actual congressional seat, and attempted to steal a Senate seat in a special election.

I’m reminded of a great line from the movie Patton. The great general is facing Rommel in North Africa, and he’s beating him. George C. Scott, as Patton, peers through his binoculars at the unfolding spectacle and says, “Rommel… you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” Methinks more than a few politicians and their operatives have read Caro’s biography of LBJ.

Street Contacting with Pzazz

By , October 21, 2013 4:50 pm

Without comment, other than to say that as good as my street contacting was 40 years ago in Brazil–Rio, Vitoria, and Joao Pessoa–I was no match for what these NYC missionaries did.

And that scripture at the end? It’s from The Book of Mormon:

And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and ahappy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are bblessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out cfaithful to the end they are received into dheaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it. (Mosiah 2:41)

Why Your Senator Should Read the Damn Thing Before He or She Votes On It

By , June 24, 2013 12:37 pm

I’m of so many minds on immigration that I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to explain my position to you. I am clear on one thing however: As with the vote on Obamacare, no lasting good and lots of trouble will come from rushing the current incarnation of immigration reform through the halls and chambers on Capitol Hill. In case you’ve not read the latest, here’s quick update. Though the Corker-Hoeven amendment to the so-called Gang of Eight bill only amounts to about 112 pages, those “pages” are interspersed throughout the existing 1,000 page plus bill, making it an essentially new, 1,200 page bill. The amendment was added to the bill late Friday.

As I said, I’ve always opposed rushing these monstrosities–speaking of size rather than content–through the legislative process. They need to be read and understood first or bad things will almost certainly happen later. My feelings about this issue have increased 10 fold as I read–make that listened to–Robert Caro’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a page-turner about the man behind New York state’s parks and parkways system. (For the uninitiated, New York parkways are essentially well-groomed freeways.) Trust me, this is easily one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Moses grew up an idealist to become a man of great vision. He truly worked wonders throughout New York state from the early 1920s till the 1960s. That said, he did it all by chucking his idealism in favor or raw, virtually unchecked power. He decided that to get things done, he first needed to accumulate power or make friends with those who already had it. He learned the tricks of what would become his trade at the feet of New York governor Al Smith and Belle Moskowitz, Smith’s right hand woman. And one of those tricks was taking advantage of the bill drafting process–advantage, that is, of the fact that most legislators don’t read what they vote on.

With that background, let me quote from Chapter 10: The Best Bill Drafter in Albany.

Once, no reformer, no idealist, had believed more sincerely than [Moses] in free and open discussion. No reformer, no idealist, had argued more vigorously that legislative bills should be fairly debated, and that the debates should be published so that the citizenry could be informed on the issues.

But free and open debate had not made his dreams come true. Instead, politicians had crushed them. And now he was going to make sure that, with the exception of Al Smith and Belle Moskowitz, no one–not citizenry, not press, not Legislature–was going to know what was in the bills dealing with parks that the Legislature was going to pass. The best bill drafter in Albany set to work.

First and foremost, parks were land, and land was generally acquired by government through condemnation. But condemnation in 1924 was a slow process, since the state could not take title to property until a condemnation commission set its value. And since the property’s owner could appeal to the courts if not satisfied with the commission’s evaluation, he could delay the state further. He [the property owner] therefore possessed in his opposition to the state a weapon, even if it was a small one–and in the hands of the barons of Long Island, small weapons could become large.

So one clause within Chapter 122 of the Laws of 1924, “AN ACT TO PROVIDE FOR the location, creation, acquisition and improvement by the state of parks, parkways and boulevards in the counties of Nassau and Suffolk,” a clause buried deep within the act, empowered the Long Island State Park Commission to acquire land by condemnation and appropriation “in the manner provided by section fifty-nine of the conservation law.” (173-174, emphasis in original)

And what was so bad about that you ask, apart from burying the clause “deep within the act”? Well, how he defined “appropriation” within the act, for one. Moses’s bill defined “appropriation” not as “allocating funds to such and such a project” much like any legislator would have understood the term then and now. No, Moses defined appropriation “in the manner provided by section fifty-nine of the conservation law,” a law passed by the New York legislature in 1884 for a very specific purpose and used little since and then only in remote forests to preserve them. And under that 1884 law, appropriation was a procedure, according to Caro,

. . . in which a state official could take possession of the land by simply walking on it and telling the owner he no longer owned it–and that if he wanted compensation, he would have to apply to the condemnation commission himself. (174)

Caro also says that the appropriation “method had never ben used anywhere for more than 30 years because of doubts about its constitutionality. But the Legislature had never gotten around to repealing section fifty-nine” (174).

Moses didn’t stop there. In section eight of the bill, he wrote that the parks commission “had the right to operate parks.” He waited until section nine to tell anybody that read that far that “the term . . . parks as used in this act . . . shall be deemed to include . . . parkways . . . boulevards and also entrances and approaches thereto, docks and piers, and bridges . . . and such other appurtenances as the . . . commission shall utilize . . . ”

Section eight also gave the parks commission the right to “acquire . . . real estate.” The wary legislator had to read section ten to learn that “the term real estate as used in this act shall be construed to embrace all uplands, lands under water . . . and all real estate heretofore or hereafter acquired or used for railroad, street railroad, telephone, telegraph, or other public purposes . . .” As Caro points out, the words “lands underwater” were significant because they effectively undercut any claims a group of his biggest opponents, the “baymen,” had to their “‘sacred’ bay bottoms.”

There’s more to the story. As Caro captures it, “almost every clause in the act contained a sleeper” (175). And each of those sleepers and later ones like them in other bills, ordinances, charters, etc. helped Moses reign over parks and parkways and baseball parks, etc. etc. etc. in New York state well into the 1960s.

For me–and for you, I hope–the lesson is clear: bill drafting is a pathway to power. The drafting of and amendments to bills that are then rushed through Congress without time for interested parties to read and digest what’s in them is a ticket to greater power for some and a recipe for disaster for the rest of us. Be wary. Be very wary of the current immigration bill–unless and until we and our elected representatives have had time to read it.

Fair Criticism or Hit Piece?

By , August 2, 2012 1:19 pm

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, takes Governor Romney to task for misrepresenting the thesis of his book in the Governor’s speech in Israel. He goes so far as to “doubt whether Mr. Romney read” his book. In my view, Diamond’s NYT op-ed is an uncharitable hit piece masquerading as indignant criticism. That’s not to say that Romney was completely accurate in his discussion of Diamond’s book. It is to say that Romney got the thesis–as stated by Diamond in the NYT–essentially right; that his mention of iron ore, though a bit off base, captured the essence of what Diamond said about iron in his book; and that judging by Romney’s discussion of Diamond’s book in his own book, No Apology, Romney has read Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Before we begin, let’s remember the context of Romney’s speech. He was speaking at a fund-raiser in Israel. He spoke about a variety of issues for around 20 minutes. I’ve not been able to find a copy of the speech–if one exists–but judging by something he said, I’d guess the speech was an off-the-cuff recitation of his stump speech, tailored to his audience (more below). What it was not was a book review of Diamond’s book. What it was not was a point-by-point discussion of Diamond’s thesis. And that’s important.

Here’s the relevant part of Romney’s speech, as quoted by Diamond:

[Diamond] basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth. (emphasis mine)

Note, the words “and so forth.” That’s the little throwaway that tells me Romney was speaking off the cuff and without notes. Note also that he summarizes Diamond’s book in about 30 words–hardly a full discussion.

According to Garance Franke-Ruta at the Atlantic, Romney goes on to say,

And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here. And likewise other nations that are next door to each other have very similar, in some cases, geographic elements.

That’s it. As far as I can tell, that’s all that Romney said that relates to Diamond’s book other than the next paragraph where Romney mentions David Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which I’m not going to discuss here because my interest is in Diamond’s criticism.

Now, here’s how Diamond characterizes his own book:

My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents’ sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples. (emphasis mine)

In fact, he did say something about iron ore, on page 246, where he writes,

[Ancient peoples] gradually learned . . . to work available pure soft metals such as copper and gold, then to extract metals from ores, and finally to work hard metals such as bronze and iron. (emphasis mine)

and on page 259, where he continues,

One reason why technology tends to catalyze itself is that advances depend upon previous mastery of simpler problems. For example, Stone Age farmers did not proceed directly to extracting and working iron, which requires high-temperature furnaces. Instead, iron ore metallurgy grew out of thousands of years of human experience with natural outcrops of pure metals soft enough to be hammered into shape without heat (copper and gold). It also grew out of thousands of years of development of simple furnaces to make pottery, and then to extract copper ores and work copper alloys (bronzes) that do not require as high temperatures as does iron. In both the Fertile Crescent and China, iron objects became common only after about 2,000 years of experience of bronze metallurgy. New World societies had just begun making bronze artifacts and had not yet started making iron ones at the time when the arrival of Europeans truncated the New World’s independent trajectory. (emphasis mine)

Diamond goes on to say that what Romney said was not new because he apparently got it wrong in his book No Apology as well. Here’s the relevant passage from that book, again according to Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic:

In his best-selling book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond notes that long ago, the availability of minerals like iron ore meant that some nations could fashion weapons and conquer their neighbors while others without those minerals could not. The complex geography of germs and disease could cripple the economy of one nation while opening new possibilities for another. A nation’s rivers, mountains, and deserts dramtically shaped the transportation network essential for trade and economic development. For scholars like Diamond and many others, the relative differences between nations and people are largely the result of these kinds of inherent natural features. To a degree, there is truth in that perspective, but it simply doesn’t fully account for the great differences between nations and civilizations.

Diamond is right that in both in his speech and in his book, Romney does imply that iron ore was unevenly distributed around the world, when in fact what was not widespread was the ability to turn iron ore into steel. A different disparity, but a disparity nonetheless, and apparently an important one, given that Diamond points out in his book that the Europeans “truncated the New World’s independent trajectory.” Why? Because “New World societies had . . . not yet started making iron [artifacts]” when the Europeans arrived. Isn’t that essentially the point Romney was making in No Apology, that some had iron weapons when others did not? The only difference is Diamond attributed the relative circumstances to metallurgy; Romney mistakenly attributed them to the uneven distribution of iron ore.

Furthermore, Romney–especially in his book–briefly covers the same ground Diamond does in his NYT summary of his book’s focus. As someone who has read neither Romney’s speech nor Diamond’s book in their entirety, I ask anybody to explain to me how Romney’s brief discussion of Diamond’s book is so far off base as to warrant an op-ed response in the New York Times. Then tell me if you think Romney has read Diamond’s book.

UPDATE: Given that Diamond forgot that he did discuss iron ore in his book, isn’t it only fair to give Romney some slack for forgetting that the it was metallurgy that was not widely distributed across the earth rather than iron ore?

The Midnight Lynching of Sarah Palin

By , June 4, 2011 12:18 pm

They’re at it again. Palin’s critics. They’re beclowning themselves even as they attempt to turn her into one. It began with this video:

Her garbled comment set the Leftosphere afire. That dumb Palin got her history wrong again! How can conservatives be soooo stupid!

Then Professor Jacobson at Legal Insurrection rode to her defense (many links at this link). Among other things, he posted Paul Revere’s personal account of his adventure. In the relevant part, it reads (spelling in original, bolding mine):

I observed a Wood at a Small distance, & made for that. When I got there, out Started Six officers, on Horse back,and orderd me to dismount;-one of them, who appeared to have the command, examined me, where I came from,& what my Name Was? I told him. it was Revere, he asked if it was Paul? I told him yes He asked me if I was an express? I answered in the afirmative. He demanded what time I left Boston? I told him; and aded, that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up. He imediately rode towards those who stoppd us, when all five of them came down upon a full gallop; one of them, whom I afterwards found to be Major Mitchel, of the 5th Regiment, Clapped his pistol to my head, called me by name, & told me he was going to ask me some questions, & if I did not give him true answers, he would blow my brains out. He then asked me similar questions to those above. He then orderd me to mount my Horse, after searching me for arms

Jacobson also links to David Hackett Fischer’s book, Paul Revere’s Ride at Google Books. If you’re interested, read pages 140-143, but here’s a snippet to save you the trouble:

[Revere] rode directly to the house of Captain Isaac Hall, commander of Medford’s minutemen, who instantly triggered the town’s alarm system. A townsman remembered that ‘repeated gunshots, the beating of drums and the ringing of bells filled the air’ . . . Along the North Shore of Massachusetts, church bells began to toll and the heavy beat of drums could be heard for many miles in the night air. Some towns responded to these warnings before a courier reached them. North Reading was awakened by alarm guns before sunrise. The first messenger appeared a little later (140). . . . [Another] express rider delivered the alarm to a Whig leader who went to an outcropping called Bell Rick, and rang the town bell. That prearranged signal summoned the men of Malden with their weapons . . . (141) . . . Along Paul Revere’s northern route, the town leaders and company captains instantly triggered the alarm system . . . (142).

So did Paul Revere ring bells, beat drums, and shoot guns to warn his compatriots? Probably not, but who really knows. What we do know is that he and his fellow express riders were certainly the “triggers” that set off the warning system of bells, drums, and gunshots.

Yes, Palin could have been more clear, but what she said was spot on. Revere did warn the British that they were in for a fight, and he “triggered” a pre-arranged warning system.

Meanwhile, her bitter critics on the left cling to their copies of Longfellow’s poem.

If Today is the First Day of Mormon General Conference, Then . . .

By , April 2, 2011 12:28 pm

It must be a good day for a (good) story about the South Park boys’ play The Book of Mormon. Historian Kathleen Flake hits all the right notes. And the story comes with the first photo I’ve seen from the play:

Here’s what an actual Book of Mormon looks like, by the way.

Well, At Least My Kids Will Be Happy

By , February 12, 2011 2:49 pm

Ann Althouse isn’t.

The movie trailer for Atlas Shrugged is out. Atlas Shrugged Part I, I mean.

It is a pretty thick book after all–I guess.

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