Book Review: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn


Author: Howard Zinn
TitleA People’s History of the United States
Narrator: Jeff Zinn
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2009)
Other Books Read By Same Author: A People’s History of American Empire and Marx in Soho
Summary/Review:

This is a powerful “alternate” history of the United States that I’ve long intended to read but only just got around to (I get intimidated by thick books so I went for the audiobook).  Zinn presents many of the familiar stories of American history, but from the point of view of those who don’t often get into the history books – Native Americans, blacks, women, and other marginalized groups.  Wars are stories not of patriotism and national unity but of an average rank and file often at odds with the leadership and demonstrating this through desertion and revolt.  Wars in general have seen much protest, from the Revolution where the goals of the leaders were quite different from the common agitators to the mass opposition to the War in Vietnam. From the earliest days of the American colonies there is also a divide between the elites who hold the wealth and power and the common people that comes out in many class and labor conflicts.  Zinn discusses unheralded unity – such as blacks and poor whites working together for progressive farmers’ movements in the South – as well as divisions within the many movements for Civil Rights and equality.

At times the attitude of the author is too far left-wing for even me to handle, but largely I find this book an instructive look at American history that informs a lot of where we are today.  This book is so full of detail that it’s worth reading again, and the many works Zinn cites could make for a lifetime of additional reading.

Recommended booksLies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer, Eyes on the Prize by Juan Williams, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit,  A people’s history of the American Revolution : how common people shaped the fight for independence by Ray Raphael,  A People’s History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz, The whites of their eyes : the Tea Party’s revolution and the battle over American history by Jill Lepore,  and A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg,
Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

Boston By Foot Roxbury Highlands Tour – June 26 at 2 pm


Join me and several other talented Boston By Foot walking tour guides as we lead a special Tour of the Month of Roxbury Highlands.  The tour begins at 2 pm on Sunday, June 26 at Roxbury Crossing station on the MBTA Orange Line.

Practical vinyl siding side-by-side with full-on restoration to Victorian era.

We start in the Stony Brook valley and work our way uphill and through history to the top of Fort Hill, passing through Roxbury’s colonial town center at Eliot Square along the way.  Learn how Roxbury went from early colonial settlement to strategic military location to bucolic suburb to immigration destination to one of Boston’s densest neighborhoods.  See Roxbury Highlands continue to transform with ongoing restoration and new construction.

Photo of Alvah Kittredge house from 2007, you won’t believe what it looks like now!

The full description of the tour is on the Boston By Foot website where you can also pre-order tickets!

The Roxbury Highlands tour explores a remarkable neighborhood. Our tour travels through the center of colonial Roxbury:  Eliot Square, where the First Church proudly stands as the oldest wooden church in Boston. The Highlands flourished in the mid-19th century as a garden suburb with many pear and apple orchards.  There was even an apple named after the area – the Roxbury Russet.  We will see wonderful Greek Revival and Victorian houses along our route and discuss some of the amazing individuals who called this area home including Edward Everett Hale – author of The Man Without a Country, and Louis Prang – who printed the first Christmas cards in America.   Finally, we finish on top of the hill at the Roxbury Standpipe, in a lovely park which occupies the location of the Roxbury High Fort. Come explore with us!

More photos from the 2007 tour to whet your whistle for Sunday.

Here’s a current list of my Boston By Foot tours for the 2016 season:

June 26:  Roxbury Highlands – 2pm

July 2: Historic Waterfront – 2pm

July 3: A Son of Boston: Benjamin Franklin – 3pm

July 4: Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 7: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 14: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 15:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 21:  Jamaica Plain – 6pm

July 28: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 4: The Dark Side of Boston  – 6pm

August 11: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 18: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 25: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 26:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

August 26:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

Book Review: A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by Joseph M. Bagley


Author: Joseph M. Bagley
TitleA History of Boston in 50 Artifacts
Publication Info:  Hanover ; London : University Press of New England, [2016]
Summary/Review:

A few years ago I listened to the brilliant podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects presented by the BBC and the British Museum.  Joseph Bagley also listened to this podcast while he was at work and since he’s the city archaeologist of Boston it inspired him to write this book.  Bagley selected 50 objects and broke them down into 5 time periods: Native American Shawmut peninsula before colonization, 17th century Puritan Boston, 18th century growing Boston, Revolutionary Boston, and 200 years as an independent city from the 1780s-1980s.  The artifacts come from several significant archaeological sites including the Katherine Nanny Naylor Privy in the North End, the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown, Boston Common, the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, along the Big Dig construction site, and Brook Farm in West Roxbury.  My favorite artifacts include weaving by the Massachusett, a bowling ball from a time when the Puritans forbade such things, vaginal syringes from Ann Street brothels, a Hebrew prayer-book (at the African Meeting House!), a Red Sox pin, and children’s toys.  Each artifact tells a story and from them Bagley draws a bigger picture of the people in that time and place.  Together the 50 artifacts tell an intriguing history of Boston and is a brilliant introduction to archaeology as well as advocating for the importance of archaeology programs in local governments.  This book is a must read, especially if you have any interest in archaeology or Boston history.

Favorite Passages:

“Archaeology, as we archaeologists describe it, is simply the study of the human past through the artifacts that people leave behind.  One important thing missing from this definition is a cutoff date – the coin dropped today is already part of the archaeological record.  When I encounter people who doubt this fact, I always remind them that archaeology is not about the stuff, it’s about the story.  We may know more about the story of daily life now because we live in the “now” and can see how many things interconnect in someone’s life, but over time, these connections break down and the meanings behind various aspects of the past are lost.” – p. 173

Recommended BooksRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz, and Highway to the Past: The Archaeology of Boston’s Big Dig by Ann-Eliza H. Lewis

Rating: ****1/2

2016 Boston By Foot Tours UPDATED


Spring is here, and it’s time to get out and explore the great city of Boston!

One of the best ways to see Boston is on a Boston By Foot walking tour.  The non-profit, educational organization is celebrating 40 years of sharing the history, architecture, and stories of Boston with tourists and locals alike.  This will be my 17th season as one of around 200 volunteer guides leading tours for Boston By Foot.

Below is the list of tours I’ve signed up to lead this season, but I encourage you to check out all our tours and an architecture cruise lead by our many brilliant guides.  If you live in the Boston area, or plan to to visit and take multiple tours, membership is the best deal!  Membership gets you free admission on all regular tours, discounts on tours of the month, and special members-only events!

April 15: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

April 29: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

May 20:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

May 20:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

May 20:  The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

June 3:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

June 3:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

June 3:  The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

June 19: Roxbury Highlands (members preview) – 2pm

June 26:  Roxbury Highlands – 2pm

July 7: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 14: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 15:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 15:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

July 21: Jamaica Plain – 6pm

July 28: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 4: The Dark Side of Boston  – 6pm

August 11: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 18: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 25: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 26:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

August 26:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

See you out on the streets of Boston!

Book Review: The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss


Author: Stephen Coss
Title: The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
Narrator: Bob Souer
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (2016
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced readers copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

1721 is a pivotal year in Boston history.  Coss details how a popular party of elected representatives challenge the rule of the Royal Governor establishing the ideology and some of the organizations that would be used by the Revolutionary generation 50 years later.  At the same time, The New England Courant is launched as the first colonial newspaper completely independent of the government’s imprimatur and challenges the political and religious leaders of the time.  Tying them together is an epidemic of smallpox and the effort of some learned people in the town to try to fight it using a new idea, inoculation.

There are five pivotal figures in this book:

  • Elisha Cooke, Jr., the popular party politician whose election as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representative leads to a showdown with Royal Governor Samuel Shute, who dissolves the House and calls for new elections.
  • James Franklin, publisher of The New England Courant, who publishes opinions that scandalize the established elites and religious leaders of the colony, while also aiming for a more entertaining and literary journalism than offered by the two existing newspapers.  While generally on the side of reason against tradition and superstition, Franklin’s Courant comes out strongly against inoculation.
  • Benjamin Franklin, James’ much younger brother and apprentice who educates himself with materials at the print shop and makes his first impression by anonymously submitting the Courant‘s most popular opinion pieces under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood.  Franklin, of course, is a direct connection to the Revolutionary period of the 1760s & 1770s.
  • Cotton Mather, the conservative Puritan preacher and theologian, seeking redemption for his part in the Salem Witch hysteria.  Surprisingly he is also a man of science who initiates the call to attempt inoculation against small pox which he learns of from his African slave Onesimus and the writings of physicians in Europe.
  • Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, a middling physician who answers the call to attempt inoculation and continues to do so despite strong opposition in the town and threats to his life.  Boylston ends up successfully inoculating nearly 250 people for smallpox despite being a provincial doctor with no formal training and doing so before anyone in Britain had attempted to do so.

While I was familiar with a lot of the aspects of this history, I found it fascinating how Coss tied them together and showed how they influenced one another and lasting impact on Boston and Colonial America.  It’s a fascinating and engaging historical work.

Recommended booksThe Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny by Tony Williams,  Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, and The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Rating: ****

Photopost: Jane Jacobs in Boston Tour


In honor of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday yesterday, I took a tour of the North End lead by Max Grinnell, the Urbanologist, an urban studies expert who divides his time between Boston and Chicago.  While I’ve been leading tours in the North End for more than 15 years, I learned some new things and visited places I’d not been before.  We talked about what Jacobs found successful in the North End in 1960 and what has changed in the intervening years as the neighborhood has gone remarkably upscale.  The highlight of the tour was a stop at Polcari’s Coffee where the shop owner gave a personal history of the business and the neighborhood.

If only the weather had been better, but it was worth getting soaked to the bone to celebrate Jane Jacobs and urbanism.

Book Review: Wild lives by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld


Author: Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
TitleWild lives : a history of the people & animals of the Bronx Zoo
Publication Info: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2006.
Summary/Review:

This is a children’s book history of the Bronx Zoo, a place I visited since childhood and have always been fascinated about it’s background.  The book focuses mostly on the early days when the zoo was designed by William Temple Hornaday.  Hornaday was concerned with conservation, breeding animals, and creating naturalistic settings for the exhibits.  In some areas he was successful, such as donating animals to the American Bison Society to repopulate the herds on the great plains, or opening the first veterinary hospital in a zoo in 1916 (which sadly came after many animals died in captivity).  Natural habitats and breeding would come later (most notably with the opening of the African Plains in 1941) although the author makes a point of these developments being built on what was learned from studying the animals in the early days of the zoo.  The book makes no mention of the darker moments in the zoos history such as the leadership of Madison Grant, a notorious racial eugenicist, or the time in 1906 when Ota Benga, a man of the Mbuti people of Congo, was put on display in the zoo.

The book also focuses on the efforts of the New York Zoological Society, later the Wildlife Conservation Society, in the area of field research.  This originated with William Beebe, who traveled the world observing wildlife in nature, his discoveries informing how to design exhibits and care for animals at the zoo.  Later the zoo would expand to work with wildlife parks and reserves on various continents both for research and conservation.  Later chapters bring updates at the zoo itself up to the end of the 20th century.  The book makes a good case for why zoos remain relevant and necessary in the 21st century.

Recommended booksThrough a Window by Jane Goodall , Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg, and Central Park in the Darkby Marie Winn
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein


Author: Naomi Klein
TitleThe Shock Doctrine
NarratorJennifer Wiltsie
Publication Info:  Macmillan Audio (2007)
Summary/Review:

This book exposes the ideology of neoliberalism, the idea that government should be limited to the bare bones and that corporations should be completely unregulated, a school of thought promoted by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.  The book begins with the story of CIA mind-washing experiments which attempted to erase the very self-identity of the subjects.  The shock doctrine applies these same actions (mostly metaphorically, but sometimes literally with interrogation and torture techniques) to entire communities and economies.  This begins with the overthrow of democratically-elected government in Chile and the installation of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was advised by Friedman’s own trained “Chicago Boys.”  The same policies pop up again in response to disasters – war, economic collapse, and natural disasters – where neoliberal policies are ready to go at the time when democratic processes are least likely to be followed. Klein examines how both Iraq and New Orleans were deliberately cleared of their past and memory to be remade in a neoliberal model, with much exploitation and corporate profits in the process.  This is a chilling and illuminating book.

Favorite Passages:

Communism may have collapsed without the firing of a single shot, but Chicago-style capitalism, it turned out, required a great deal of gunfire to defend itself.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank


Author: Thomas Frank
Title: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2016)
Previously Read By Same Author:  What’s the Matter With Kansas and Pity the Billionaire
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Thomas Frank asks the question – if the Democrats have held the Presidency for 16 of the last 24 years, and have the demographic majority to take full control of the country, and have been in control in many states and regions for some time, why is it that the middle and working class continue in steep decline while Wall Street gets bailouts and the rich get richer?  The answer is that the Democrats have abandoned their traditional base of working class people and organized labor, instead becoming enamored with what Frank calls the professional class.  These are the wealthy and well-educated people credited as being “creative” and “innovators” and who are called upon to resolve problems with their innate brilliance on a revolving door among prominent universities, corporate boardrooms, and political office.  Meritocracy is baked into this idea of the professional class with the people who’ve succeeded being credited with working hard to earn their degrees and get to the place where they are (with the unspoken counter being that those who fail and are poor can only blame themselves for not trying hard enough).

Frank traces the Democrats connection to the professional class to the wake of the troubled 1968 election when Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to move away from their traditional base of organized labor and working people (assuming that these people would have to vote Democratic anyway).  The Democrats lost several Presidential elections over the 1970s & 1980s and the assumption for party insiders was always that they were always too Liberal and moved the party further to the right.  The core of the book is several chapters about the 1990s and Bill Clinton where the Democrats finally could win again and the professional class took control of the reins of government.  Only Nixon could go to China, but only Clinton could ratify NAFTA, approve the sweeping crime bill, dismantle the social safety net of welfare, repeal regulations of the financial industry, and other things that had been on the Republican wishlist for decades.  Frank even details negotiations between Clinton and Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security, the cornerstone of the abandoned New Deal, that were only scuttled due to the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. With only professionals represented in the Clinton government, alternatives were not considered, and all problems were resolved by doing what would most benefit the professional class.

Frank also covers the Barack Obama presidency  where Obama was swept in to power on a populist movement in the wake of the financial crisis.  Frank notes that Obama had the powers to punish those responsible for the Great Recession, but instead chose to bring Wall Street professional class “innovators” into the government to regulate themselves and work towards bipartisan consensus with the Republicans who were clearly not interested.  The presumptive 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is described as someone working to advance women’s equality, but doing so in a narrow way that only sees women working hard to become successful “entrepreneurs”  (another variation on the meritocracy of the professional class) and working class women are just not seen at her events or in her policies.  The book also details how the place where the New Democrat ethos of the professional class has had it’s greatest implementation – Massachusetts – is emblematic of this  reverence of the “creative class,” and also why the state has the greatest level of inequality in the nation.

This book does an excellent job of explicating what has happened in the Democratic party over the last several decades where it’s gotten to a point that a lot of their ideology is indistinguishable from Republicans and the large portion of Americans have suffered as a result.  The year’s still young, but I think this is going to be one of the most important books of the year and I suggest that everyone should read it.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander andThe Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

Podcast of the Week: “Pass/Fail: An American History of Testing” from BackStory


Testing is a big topic of debate in education circles these days.  Tests are increasingly been used not just evaluate what students are learning in class but to make high-stake decisions such as a student advancing in school, whether teachers are given rewards or are fired, and even to justify closing entire schools!  With tests being given so important, a lot of classroom time is being given over to test preparation,  and a lot of money is being given over to the publishers of the tests and test prep materials.

The American History Guys at the BackStory podcast provide an interesting historical background to testing in the United States.  The first written tests in American schools only date to the 1840s.  But there are other types of tests, and podcast examines the tests of faith for early Puritans, the civil services tests, and the questionable scholarship behind the IQ test and the Myers Briggs test.  It’s a fascinating hour of history.

JP A to Z: N is for Nobel Peace Prize #AtoZChallenge #JamaicaPlain


N is for Nobel Peace Prize

Jamaica Plain is home to a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, although you have to know where to look for any evidence of the fact.  Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) taught economics at Wellesley College for many years but when she became an outspoken opponent of the United States involvement in the Great War, Wellesley terminated her contract. From this point forward she dedicated her life to the international peace movement and was a prominent leader in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).  For her efforts she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.

Nobel-4
Emily Greene Balch, Jamaica Plain’s Nobel laureate.
Nobel-1
There’s a plaque on the garage marking Emily Greene Balch’s home, but it’s hard to read from the street.
Nobel-2
On Jamaica Pond, near Balch’s house, there’s a bench with a secret.
Nobel-3
Zoom in on that plaque near the bench and you might be able to read a tribute to a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Post for “N” in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Click to see more “Blogging A to Z” posts.

2016 Boston By Foot Tours


Spring is here, and it’s time to get out and explore the great city of Boston!

One of the best ways to see Boston is on a Boston By Foot walking tour.  The non-profit, educational organization is celebrating 40 years of sharing the history, architecture, and stories of Boston with tourists and locals alike.  This will be my 17th season as one of around 200 volunteer guides leading tours for Boston By Foot.

Below is the list of tours I’ve signed up to lead this season, but I encourage you to check out all our tours and an architecture cruise lead by our many brilliant guides.  If you live in the Boston area, or plan to to visit and take multiple tours, membership is the best deal!  Membership gets you free admission on all regular tours, discounts on tours of the month, and special members-only events!

April 15: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

April 29: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

May 20:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

May 20:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

May 20:  The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

June 3:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

June 3:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

June 3:  The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

June 19: Roxbury Highlands (members preview) – 2pm

June 26:  Roxbury Highlands – 2pm

July 7: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 14: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 15:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 15:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

July 21: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 28: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 4: The Dark Side of Boston  – 6pm

August 11: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 18: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 25: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 26:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

August 26:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

See you out on the streets of Boston!

Book Review: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 by Robert Sullivan


Author: Robert Sullivan
Title: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78
Narrator: Mike Chamberlain
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media (2012)
Other Books by Same Author:  The Meadowlands and The Thoreau You Don’t Know

Summary/Review:

Robert Sullivan and I share a surname and a lot of common interests.  In this case, local history and travelogue.  The American Revolution famously began in New England and ended in Virginia, but the majority of the war took place in New York and New Jersey where the battles are greatly overlooked.  Even the coldest winter on record when the Continental Army encamped at Morristown, NJ doesn’t get the press of the somewhat milder winter at Valley Forge, PA.

Sullivan visits sites in New York and New Jersey, attempting to experience the long marches of a Continental foot soldier, while also exploring the popular memory through books, poems, museums, and reenactments.   I really like the premise of the book and some of the historical details of the Revolution and how the landscape continues to inform the New York/New Jersey area.  On the other hand, the book is meandering and not very cohesive, and well … a bit boring at times.  For example, a long portion of the end of the book Sullivan describes in detail many visits to the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey to attempt signaling his family in Brooklyn using a mirror.  It’s just not lively reading.  All the same, I like the way Sullivan thinks and will seek out his other books.

Recommended books:  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, Snowshoeing Through Sewers by Michael Aaron Rockland and Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Step Aside, Pops : A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton


Author: Kate Beaton
TitleStep Aside, Pops : A Hark! A Vagrant Collection
Publication Info: [Montreal, Quebec] : Drawn & Quarterly, 2015.
Summary/Review:

The brilliant webcomic Hark! A Vagrant is collected in glorious print.  Beaton’s comics tend to focus on historical and literary references with various levels of absurdity, so as a History/English major with fondness for absurd comics, they appeal to me.  This collection includes biographical comics of people you should know such as Sara Josephine Baker  and Ida B. Wells.  Then there’s the history of the invasion of Canada by Irish-American Fenians and the role of the bicycle in liberating women.  Have you ever wondered about the basic nuttiness of Wuthering Heights or wondered what became of the guy in the beginning of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty Boys” video?  These things are analyzed here.  And the popular misconceptions of feminism are pilloried in the series “Strong Female Characters” and “Straw Feminists.”  But I probably bust a gut the most reading “Founding Fathers (in a Mall)” and its sequel “Founding Fathers (Stuck in an Amusement Park).”

Recommended booksHyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore


Author: Jill Lepore
TitleThe Secret History of Wonder Woman
NarratorJill Lepore
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2014)
Previously Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The story of Wonder Women begins as a creation of William Moulton Marston, a something of a quack psychologist previously known for inventing the lie detector test.  Marston worked closely with his wife  Elizabeth Hollaway and Olive Byrne who lived with them in a long-term relationship (and continued living with Holloway after Martson’s death).  Through Byrne they were also connected to her aunt Margaret Sanger who looms large in this book and the history of Wonder Woman.  Lepore shows how the triad’s interests in feminism and unconventional sexuality are expressed through Wonder Woman comics which contains themes of ruling with feminine love and bondage and submission.  Lepore relates an interesting history of Marston, Hollaway, Byrne, Sanger, and others in the women’s rights movements of the 20th century, and Wonder Woman’s unexpected role in the center of it all.

Recommended booksThe Mad World of William M. Gaines by Frank Jacobs, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy
Rating: ***

Podcast of the Week: “How Ann Boleyn Gave Us Our Right To Privacy” by Decode DC


Decode DC once again comes to Podcast of the Week with “How Ann Boleyn Gave Us Our Right To Privacy.”

Today Americans view privacy as a fundamental civil liberty, a right that puts a boundary on what the government can do. Our ‘right to privacy’ has become part of the essential contract Americans make with their government, a system that protects individuals from the government’s ability to intrude into the private sphere.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the very idea of a right to privacy, even of a right to one’s own thoughts, wasn’t such a foregone conclusion.

This week on the podcast, we take you through a history of the right to privacy, where we got our ideas about privacy – specifically personal privacy – and then how that right to privacy has been applied in famous Supreme Court Cases like Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade.

Book Review: The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander


Author: Michelle Alexander
Title:The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness
Publication Info: New York : [Jackson, Tenn.] : New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010.
Summary/Review:

Alexander’s book demonstrates how mass incarceration  in the United States has succeeded slavery and Jim Crow segregation in creating inequality and an undercaste black and brown people in the country.  While notionally colorblind, policing, trials, sentencing and imprisonment disproportionately affect black Americans even though statistically they are no more likely than any other race to commit crimes.  The tool with which mass incarceration works is the War on Drugs, introduced in the 1980s at a time when the Civil Rights movement had ended legal segregation and made open racism culturally unacceptable and a time when economic downturns had ravaged urban black communities and removed manufacturing jobs the community depended on.  At the time the War on Drugs began, illegal drug use was dropping and police were so unconcerned with enforcing drug laws that the federal government basically had to bribe them with grants and military-style equipment.  While statistically white people are more likely to use and sell illegal drugs, enforcement focused almost entirely within black communities and the Supreme Court repeatedly allowed that  police searches and seizures in the drug war did not violate the 4th amendment.  With the punishment of drug crimes so severe, even people innocent of crimes are encouraged to take plea deals for shorter sentences without being informed that they will be labeled criminals for life.  Alexander asserts that the real effect of mass incarceration blacks in America goes beyond prison time as those with a criminal record lose access to welfare and public housing, are not hired for jobs, lose their right to vote and serve on juries, and often have any income garnished to pay for their imprisonment.  Under these circumstances it’s understandable that people denied the ability to make a living may turn to crime, the War on Drugs in effect creating what it’s supposed to prevent.  This is a powerful and important book that everyone should read.
Favorite Passages:

The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000. The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.  These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.

What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed to prevent their mobility. To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so-called underclass is better understood as an undercaste—a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society. Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did. Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.

One senator insisted that crack had become a scapegoat distracting the public’s attention from the true causes of our social ills, arguing: “If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years. Only crack is to blame. One is tempted to think that if crack did not exist, someone somewhere would have received a Federal grant to develop it.”

Clinton eventually moved beyond crime and capitulated to the conservative racial agenda on welfare. This move, like his “get tough” rhetoric and policies, was part of a grand strategy articulated by the “new Democrats” to appeal to the elusive white swing voters. In so doing, Clinton—more than any other president—created the current racial undercaste. He signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which “ended welfare as we know it,” replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a block grant to states called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent, lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—including simple possession of marijuana. Despite claims that these radical policy changes were driven by fiscal conservatism—i.e., the desire to end big government and slash budget deficits—the reality is that government was not reducing the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor. It was radically altering what the funds would be used for. The dramatic shift toward punitiveness resulted in a massive reallocation of public resources. By 1996, the penal budget doubled the amount that had been allocated to AFDC or food stamps.100 Similarly, funding that had once been used for public housing was being redirected to prison construction. During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”

So-called consent searches have made it possible for the police to stop and search just about anybody walking down the street for drugs. All a police officer has to do in order to conduct a baseless drug investigation is ask to speak with someone and then get their “consent” to be searched. So long as orders are phrased as a question, compliance is interpreted as consent. “May I speak to you?” thunders an officer. “Will you put your arms up and stand against the wall for a search?” Because almost no one refuses, drug sweeps on the sidewalk (and on buses and trains) are easy. People are easily intimidated when the police confront them, hands on their revolvers, and most have no idea the question can be answered, “No.”

The resistance within law enforcement to the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration. In order for the war to actually work—that is, in order for it to succeed in achieving its political goals—it was necessary to build a consensus among state and local law enforcement agencies that the drug war should be a top priority in their hometowns. The solution: cash. Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority. The new system of control is traceable, to a significant degree, to a massive bribe offered to state and local law enforcement by the federal government.

It is impossible to know for certain how many innocent drug defendants convict themselves every year by accepting a plea bargain out of fear of mandatory sentences, or how many are convicted due to lying informants and paid witnesses, but reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent. While those numbers may sound small (and probably are underestimates), they translate into thousands of innocent people who are locked up, some of whom will die in prison. In fact, if only 1 percent of America’s prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted, that would mean tens of thousands of innocent people are currently languishing behind bars in the United States. The real point here, however, is not that innocent people are locked up. That has been true since penitentiaries first opened in America. The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences—sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.

The central question, then, is how exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results? Rather easily, it turns out. The process occurs in two stages. The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein. Unbridled discretion inevitably creates huge racial disparities. Then, the damning step: Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination—i.e., the work of a bigot. This evidence will almost never be available in the era of colorblindness, because everyone knows—but does not say—that the enemy in the War on Drugs can be identified by race. This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialized social control the world has ever seen.

Despite the brutal, debilitating impact of these “collateral consequences” on ex-offenders’ lives, courts have generally declined to find that such sanctions are actually “punishment” for constitutional purposes. As a result, judges are not required to inform criminal defendants of some of the most important rights they are forfeiting when they plead guilty to a felony. In fact, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys may not even be aware of the full range of collateral consequences for a felony conviction. Yet these civil penalties, although not considered punishment by our courts, often make it virtually impossible for ex-offenders to integrate into the mainstream society and economy upon release. Far from collateral, these sanctions can be the most damaging and painful aspect of a criminal conviction. Collectively, these sanctions send the strong message that, now that you have been labeled, you are no longer wanted. You are no longer part of “us,” the deserving. Unable to drive, get a job, find housing, or even qualify for public benefits, many ex-offenders lose their children, their dignity, and eventually their freedom—landing back in jail after failing to play by rules that seem hopelessly stacked against them.

The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases, each of which has been explored earlier, but a brief review is useful here. The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. They are rewarded in cash—through drug forfeiture laws and federal grant programs—for rounding up as many people as possible, and they operate unconstrained by constitutional rules of procedure that once were considered inviolate. Police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get “consent.” Because there is no meaningful check on the exercise of police discretion, racial biases are granted free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selecting whom to stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites)—effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown. The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. Prosecutors are free to “load up” defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be challenged for racial bias. Once convicted, due to the drug war’s harsh sentencing laws, drug offenders in the United States spend more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control—in jail or prison, on probation or parole—than drug offenders anywhere else in the world. While under formal control, virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system, and any form of resistance or disobedience is subject to swift sanction. This period of control may last a lifetime, even for those convicted of extremely minor, nonviolent offenses, but the vast majority of those swept into the system are eventually released. They are transferred from their prison cells to a much larger, invisible cage. The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment.13 This term, first coined by Jeremy Travis, is meant to describe the unique set of criminal sanctions that are imposed on individuals after they step outside the prison gates, a form of punishment that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework. These sanctions are imposed by operation of law rather than decisions of a sentencing judge, yet they often have a greater impact on one’s life course than the months or years one actually spends behind bars. These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives—denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.

The vastly different sentences afforded drunk drivers and drug offenders speaks volumes regarding who is viewed as disposable—someone to be purged from the body politic—and who is not. Drunk drivers are predominantly white and male. White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk driving were being adopted. They are generally charged with misdemeanors and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.

The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.

The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.

 

Recommended BooksBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Wild Women of Boston by Dina Vargo


Author: Dina Vargo
TitleWild Women of Boston
Publication Info: Charleston, SC : History Press, 2015
Summary/Review:

This slender volume is chock full of stories of about two dozen women of Boston who bucked the societal norms of their sex and made an impact of history.  These women include leaders, innovators, and activists, but they also include witches, madams, and murderers.  Examples of the former include Revolutionary political writer Mercy Otis warren, art collector Isabel Stewart Gardner, celebrity chef Julia Child, and groundbreaking marathon runner Kathrine Switzer.  One of my favorite chapters is called Biker Babes and tells the story of women who biked their way into history in the late 19th-century bike craze, including Kittie Knox whose cycling skill had to break through segregation in addition to other barriers.  Some of the other stories are more sordid, but all are well-researched and entertaining and arranged chronologically from colonial times to the present day.  The author is a colleague of mine from Boston By Foot, so I may be biased, but I think I’d recommend this collection of important Boston women regardless.
Recommended books: Massachusetts Troublemakers by Paul Della Vale and Eminent Bostonians by Thomas H. O’Connor
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Tinkering toward utopia : a century of public school reform by David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban


Author: David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban
TitleTinkering toward utopia : a century of public school reform
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1995.
Summary/Review:

This slender but illustrative book traces this history of public education reforms across the 20th century.  Two themes run through the book.  The first is that public schools are set in their ways and very difficult to reform.  The authors show that many reforms are “successful” in that they’re widely adopted but don’t actually improve education.  Other reforms have changed teaching for the better and have succeeded so much that they’ve worked themselves into the basic nature of education so that they’re not even seen as reforms.  One example the authors give is the blackboard, a new technology adopted by schools that has become synonymous with education (even as they’re becoming less common in classrooms).  The second theme of the book is that proposals for reform are cyclical returning to the education policy debate generation after generation.  While the authors acknowledge this is true, they also point out that the context in which these reforms are proposed is always changing, thus the implementation of these  “same old” reforms can lead to very different outcomes as they address different problems.

As the title gives away, the authors find that incremental change and working through reforms by adapting to local needs are the most successful ways of carrying out educational reform that actually improves student learning and outcomes.  Although the book was published 20 years ago, the issues discussed are very familiar to anyone involved in today’s education policy debates, and it serves as a good bulwark against calls for sweeping reforms and disruptive panaceas to today’s education problems.

Favorite Passages:

“We want to probe the meaning of continuity in schooling as well as to understand change.  Change, we believe, is not synonymous with progress.  Sometimes preserving good practices in the face of challenges is a major achievement, and sometimes teachers have been wise to resist reforms that violated their professional judgment.

Although policy talk about reform has had a Utopian ring, actual reforms have typically been gradual and incremental.  It may be fashionable to decry such change as piecemeal and inadequate, but over long periods of time such revisions of practice, adapted to local contexts, can substantially improve schools.  Rather than seeing the hybridizing of reform ideas as a fault, we suggest it can be a virtue.  Tinkering is one way of preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not.” – p. 5

“Better schooling will result in the future – as it has in the past and does now – chiefly from the steady, reflective efforts of the practitioners who work in schools and from the contributions of the parents and citizens who support (while they criticize) public education.  This might seem to be just common sense. But in planning reforms in recent years, policy elites have often bypassed teachers and discounted their knowledge of what schools are like today. …

To the degree that teachers are out of the policy loop in designing and adopting school reforms, it is not surprising if they drag their feet in implementing them.  Teachers so not have a monopoly on educational wisdom, but their first-hand perspectives on school and their responsibility for carrying out official policies argues for their centrality in school reform efforts.” – p. 135

Recommended booksThe Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch,
Rating: ***1/2