Book Review: When the Irish Invaded Canada by Christopher Klein


Author: Christopher Klein
Title: When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom
Publication Info: Doubleday (2019)
Summary/Review:

Several years back I first heard about how Irish revolutionaries attempted to invade Canada from the United States and thought to myself “That would make a good movie!”  But I never knew the details until I read this history book.

The invasions, known as the Fenian Raids, occurred from 1866 to 1871 with attempts by Irish Republicans to cross the border from Maine to New Brunswick, Vermont and northern New York to Quebec, Buffalo to Ontario, and the Dakota Territory into Manitoba.  The purpose of these raids was to capture territory of the United Kingdom in hopes of drawing supporters to the cause and perhaps even exchanging Canada for Ireland’s independence.

Klein sets the stage for the Fenian Raids by establishing the 19th-century perspective that Americans had on borders.  The practice of filibustering, private military expeditions across borders, was well known at the time, especially with Mexico.  The United States and Canada also had many border conflicts and Manifest Destiny looked north as well as west, with many Americans assuming that all or parts of Canada would one day become the United States.  Finally, there was resentment against Great Britain for tacitly supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War which made it possible that some people within government might turn a blind eye to incursions across the Canadian border.

Ireland had suffered the potato blight and Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s which caused the death of over a million and the emigration of at least a million more.  The survivors within Ireland used the cavalier indifference of the British to their starvation as impetus to revive the fight for independence.  The Young Ireland movement of the 1840s was succeeded by the secret society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  With so many Irish immigrants in the United States, it became a place where Irish Republicans could raise money and organize freely.  The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York City in 1858 where they established headquarters and a government-in-exile.

Or I should say, two headquarters, because much like Irish Republican movements throughout history, the Fenian Brotherhood was divided by infighting.  One of the contentious issues was whether to invade Canada or to focus solely and supporting an uprising in Ireland.  Klein notes that both Fenian branches would succumb to popular pressure and support raids in to Canada at different times.

Irish-born soldiers made up a large proportion of the men who fought on the front lines on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of them specifically enlisted in order to gain the military experience they could then use to fight for Ireland’s liberation, and in the early raids, the officers and troops were predominately Civil War veterans.  The Irish invaders had success early on at the Battle of Ridgeway, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, on June 2, 1866 where they defeated reservists and militias from Toronto and Hamilton.  This proved to be the only victory in the cause for Irish independence in-between  the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919.

The raids more typically were a comedy of errors. The Fenian Brotherhood faced as much trouble with the United States government enforcing the Neutrality Act as they did with British and Canadian military forces.  But hubris and lack of organization were their biggest obstacles.  Again and again, the Fenians gathered together a small band to strike into Canada with the optimistic belief that once they start fighting people would flock to their cause, and they’d even gain support from French Canadians and the American government.  On one of the last raids with the supposed goal of linking up with the Métis in Manitoba, the Fenians not only failed to make any allies but they also didn’t even manage to cross the border.

One of the great ironies is that Fenian Raids did help bring independence to a country, but not for Ireland.  There was division among the provinces of Canada before the raids, but the fear of invasion lead many people to support Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Fenian Raids also played their part in the longer struggle for Irish independence, especially the key role of Irish Americans as fundraisers and organizers which persists to this day. Klein’s book takes an historical curiosity and fleshes out a story of a campaign that consumed decades of the lives of many Irish Republicans. He demonstrates how invading Canada seemed a plausible and compelling idea as well as showing why it ultimately failed.  And yes, this would still make a great movie.

Favorite Passages:

The Canadian plan offered several scenarios that could result in Ireland’s independence. An attack could divert British army troops from Ireland, increasing the chances of a successful IRB uprising. It could perhaps even trigger a war between Great Britain and the United States, which had cast its land-hungry eyes northward after having expanded west and south in the prior three decades. Under another scenario, the Fenians could seize Canada and trade the colony back to the British in return for Ireland. In essence, a geopolitical kidnapping of Canada, with its ransom being Ireland’s independence. Even the plan’s proponents understood that the chances of success weren’t in their favor. But the odds would be against the Irish no matter what they did. A slim chance is all Ireland ever faced when challenging the British over the past seven centuries. The likelihood of failure might have been high, but it was guaranteed if they did nothing at all.

Recommended books:

  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan
  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein


Author: Richard Rothstein
Title: The Color of Law
Narrator: Adam Grupper
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2017)
Summary/Review:

Housing segregation continues to be the rule in the United States today as most neighborhoods, cities, and suburbs are greatly tilted to be either mostly white or mostly African American. Politicians, pundits, and everyday people consider this de facto segregation, based on the choices of individuals to live among people of “their own kind,” or credit the wealth disparity that prevents Blacks from affording to live in white areas.

In this book, Rothstein argues that this common wisdom is all wrong.  He argues, with lots of evidence provided, that in the past 100 years, the Federal, state, and local governments have created de jure segregation of housing.  By historically being shut out from housing opportunities offered to whites, African Americans were unable to build equity and create generational wealth to pass on to later generations, contributing to the prosperity gap that exists today.  The places where Blacks and whites live today were created by the de jure segregation laws of the past, and laws against discrimination are only half-measures in that they do not undo the damage done in the past.

Here are some of the ways in which the government segregated housing detailed in the book:

  • Federal Housing Authority subsidizes housing in whites-only subdivisions.
  • FHA enables redlining by refusing to insure African American mortgages.
  • FHA regulations for segregation actually written into widely-distributed manuals. Local projects that intended to be integrated could be forced to follow these Federal regulations.
  • Public housing projects built for whites were larger and better resourced, while separate public housing for Blacks were usually smaller and something of an afterthought. White projects often had vacancies while Black projects had waiting lists.
  • Property taxes overassesed in Black neighborhoods and underassessed in white neighborhoods, adding to the burden of making ends meet for Black families.
  • Government programs that enabled whites to buy homes in the suburbs not available to Blacks. A generation of African Americans ended up trapped in decaying cities, far away from good jobs that had also moved to the suburbs.
  • Restrictive covenants that prohibit Blacks from moving into white neighborhoods granted legal protection.
  • Highway projects deliberately targeted Black neighborhoods for construction, demolishing viable communities and creating barriers around what remained (while at the same time benefiting prosperous white car owners commuting between city and suburbs).
  • Police and governments allow and abet violence by whites against Blacks who move into white neighborhoods. If fact, Black victims more likely to be charged with a crime if any legal action is taken at all.
  • IRS maintains tax exemptions for organizations that fund segregated housing.
  • Housing segregation serves as a stumbling block to integration of schools.
  • Government aware that Black home buyers were being targeted for risky subprime mortgages but fail to act on regulations to protect them.
  • Section 8 vouchers restrict African Americans to housing located only in poor, African American neighborhoods

Rothstein also offers a final chapter with several solutions to segregation and inequality in the United States:

  • Education – this book is a good start to countering the widespread belief in de facto segregation based on individual’s preferences and prejudices. The history of the government’s support for funding and requiring segregation must also be taught in schools.
  • Revive George Romney’s proposals to deny HUD funds to any communities that use exclusionary zoning to enable housing segregation.
  • Use the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing of the Fair Housing Act to rectify barriers to desegregation of housing.
  • Subsidies for African American homebuyers in predominately white areas (in a sense, restitution for their parents, grandparents, great-parents being unable to buy homes in these areas back when whites purchased homes at bargain rates).
  • End zoning regulations that prohibit multifamily housing or require large lots.
  • Promote inclusionary zoning.
  • “Fair Share Act” to require states to establish mechanisms to ensure that every jurisdiction houses a representative share of African Americans and low income people.
  • Allow African Americans to use Section 8 subsidies in areas with higher rents, and model Section 8 programs on the mortgage income deduction which applies to all rather than being first-come, first-serve.

This is a powerful and important book and should be read by all Americans who care about creating a just and equitable country.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Rating: *****

Book Review: American Amnesia by Jacob S. Hacker


Author: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
TitleAmerican Amnesia 
Narrator: Holter Graham
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

Two political scientists discuss the history of the “mixed economy” in the United States, how it was dismantled, and why our current political and economic malaise is due to it’s absence.  The mixed economy was ascendant in the United States from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s and at it’s height received wide bipartisan support and was recognized as unchallengable norm by even the most right-wing Republicans.  Mixed economy is defined as one in which corporations have wide ranging freedom to control the means of production and accumulate capital but the government has strong powers of regulation while also providing extensive public services.

During the long progressive period when the US was under a mixed economy, government was generally looked upon in a positive light.  The “American amnesia” is the state we are in today where most Americans are anti-government and have completely forgotten our ancestors’ admiration for government.  This is due to a five decade campaign spearheaded by individuals such as the Koch Brothers and corporate interests like the Business Round Table and the Chamber of Commerce whose Randian ideology of free market libertarianism required debasing and then dismantling the government and the mixed economy.  These views soon were adopted as the Republican Party platform and by the 1990s, even Democrats echoed anti-government sentiments.

This book is important work of political science, economics, and history that shows where Americans once were in a time of more generally widespread prosperity, how we lost that, and what we can do to regain it.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Resistance Mixtape – Independence Day


Over the past few months I’ve been collecting songs for what I call the Resistance Mixtape.

Music can soothe and inspire.  Songs can tell stories and instruct. And most importantly music brings people together.

Here are some songs for the Resistance Mixtape for Independence Day.

Let’s begin with Paul Robeson, singing about “The House I Live In.”

Woody Guthrie’s famous response to “God Bless America” noted that even in a land where people wait in line at the relief office and signs say “No Trespassing” that the reality is that “This Land is Your Land.”

Prince & the Revolution similarly question the premise of “America the Beautiful” and whether or not the grace of God trickles down to our children.

Kim Weston sings a stirring version of the song known as “The Black National Anthem.”

Finally, the love we have for our own nation need does not mean we hate or demean other nations as we learn in the hymn “This is My Song” written by Lloyd Stone.

What other songs would you add to the mixtape?

Book Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado


Author: Linda Tirado
Title: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Narrator: Linda Tirado
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Audio, p2014.
Summary/Review:

Tirado writes and narrates this extended essay on the poor in United States, unflinchingly and wryly explaining why the poor do the things the do and how both right-wing and left-wing  stereotypes of the poor are off the mark.  It’s an intelligent and honest account based on lived experience, not shying away from anything (especially an insightful chapter on sex among the poor).  This book is build off an essay widely circulated on the web which captures the gist of the matter, but the whole book should be required reading.
Favorite Passages:

“If the average rich person had to walk around for a day wearing a polyester work uniform, they’d need Xanax.”

“You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.”

“I once talked to a neighbor about the fact that people who lived on our block were statistically likely to die earlier than the people who lived five blocks over in the wealthy neighborhood. He told me that it was just life, it was the way it was.  He’d stopped questioning it.  So if you already figure you’re going to die early what’s the motivation for giving up something that helps get you through the here and now?”

Recommended booksNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

World Cup Round of 16 Rooting Interests and Predictions


After an exciting round of group play, the knock-out rounds for the 2014 World Cup begin today.  Below I’ve listed the teams I’m rooting for and the teams I expect to win (not always the same) for each game.

28 June 2014

Brazil vs. Chile

This is a tough call.  I have a soft spot for Chile and they acquitted themselves well in group play, but I’ve always liked Brazil and it would be tragic if the host nation exited the tournament this early (especially after having to endure all the corporate, government, and FIFA corruption).  That being said, I expect Brazil will have no problem winning this game and probably advance at least to the semifinals.

Supporting: Brazil           Prediction: Brazil

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Colombia is one of the most exciting teams in the tournament with the most feverish fans.  Uruguay did well in group play, but aren’t going to go far without their bitey star Luis Suarez.  Colombia is an easy team to support and pick for the win.

Supporting: Colombia         Prediction: Colombia

It’s interesting that four of the five remaining South American teams are essentially playing for one semifinal spot.  I expect that Brazil will advance from this group of four, but the Brazil versus Colombia quarterfinal has the potential to be an exciting match.

29 June 2014

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Mexico is our biggest rival, but I’ve been swayed to their side this World Cup for several reasons:  CONCACAF regional pride, the performance of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the exburance of coach Miguel Herrera, and their exciting style of play in a tough group.  I adopted the Netherlands in 2010 as my team to support after the US elimination (mainly because I had just visited Amsterdam that year), but the karate chop performance of the final kind of took the bloom off that rose.  Still, the Netherlands look like a dominant side that may advance all the way to the final again, and will be hard for Mexico to beat.

Supporting: Mexico          Prediction: Netherlands

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Costa Rica’s team is the surprise of the tournament, giant-killers in what should’ve been the toughest group.  It’s hard not to like Los Ticos.  Greece are also surprise members of the final 16.  However, they haven’t shown a lot of skill in the group stage.  I expect another Costa Rica win.

Supporting: Costa Rica     Prediction: Costa Rica

An all CONCACAF quarterfinal would be a thrilling thing, but I expect that the Netherlands will progress to the semifinals from this group of four.

30 June 2014

France vs. Nigeria

I tend to root for the underdogs, so I have to favor Nigeria here, but France is looking like one of the top teams in the tournament, so I don’t have much hope for the African side.

Supporting: Nigeria         Prediction: France

Germany vs. Algeria

Algeria is the other surviving African team who’ve drawn tough European competition in Germany.  I’ll root for Algeria, but expect Germany to make it at least to the semifinal.

Supporting: Algeria          Prediction: Germany

There’s an opportunity for an all-African quarterfinal coming out this group of four, but it’s more likely that European neighbors Germany and  France will meet to decide a spot in the final four.

1 July 2014

Argentina vs. Switzerland

I’ve not been impressed by Argentina who  won a weak group by basically holding out for a Lionel Messi wondergoal.  On the other hand, Argentina has enough talent that should be able to advance as far as the semifinal without breaking much of a sweat.  I haven’t got much of a sense of Switzerland, but I’ll be rooting for them just so that USA would have a more potentially beatable side in the quarterfinal, should it come to that.

Supporting: Switzerland       Prediction:  Argentina

Belgium vs. United States

Sure, Belgium is a dark horse to win the World Cup, and sure they won all three of their group matches.  Sure, the United States has struggled and only just made it out of group play.  But Belgium played in one of the weakest groups, while the United States faced down three challenging opponents without ever throwing in the towel.  I believe that we will win.

Supporting:  United States       Prediction: United States

While I think that the United States can make it to the quarterfinal, Argentina is the prohibitive favorite of this group of four.  Still, Iran held Argentina scoreless for 90 minutes, so maybe someone can pull of a miracle win.

Book Review: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by Peter Gottschalk


Author: Peter Gottschalk
Title: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by
Publication Info: New York: Palgrave McMillan (2013)
ISBN: 9781137278296
Summary/Review:

I received a free early reviewers copy of this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

As Americans, we proudly proclaim our religious tolerance and maintain that our country was built on religious freedom.  While many forms of religious expression have flourished in the United States, Gottschalk reminds of the many instances of religious intolerance in our country from earliest settlement to the present day.  The book is divided into seven chapters focusing on:

  1. Puritan persecution of Quakers in colonial Massachusetts
  2. The struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant-dominated cities in the 19th century
  3. The Ghost Dance and the extermination of the Sioux
  4. 20th prejudice against Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and immigration restrictions
  5. The Latter Day Saints struggle against violent opposition in the 19th century and how the political careers of George and Mitt Romney show a growing acceptance.
  6. The Branch Davidians and the vilifying of outsider groups as cults
  7. Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks

The book is short for all the topics it covers and Gottschalk really only touches upon these various topics.  The author can get oddly deep into some parts of the topics while being very broad at other times.  I also found it troubling how much he defends the Branch Davidians as a persecuted minority rather than recognizing that child rape and their vast military arsenal were a threat to the community at large.

It’s an interesting overview, and if you have a familiarity with American history there shouldn’t be too many surprises.  But if you think that religious groups have always been welcomed in the United States, you’ll want to read this book.
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Rating: **1/2

Dialect Map


The New York Times  recently published a quiz called “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk” that purports to determine what part of the United States you are from based on your dialect. You’ve probably seen it on all the usual social networks.

I had some interesting results, and some questions that were a bit tricky to answer.  So, I thought instead of merely publishing my results, I would also comment on some of the questions that could go either way.

How would you address a group of two or more people?

  • Of the options presented here, I’d probably go with “you” or “you all,” although the seven years I lived in Virginia convinced me of the utility of “y’all.”

What do you call the small road parallel to the highway?

  • Something I didn’t have a term for until about a decade ago when a friend told me they were called “frontage road.”

What is the distinction between dinner and supper?

  • I find myself one of the few people who actually make the distinction (most people I know don’t seem to use supper at all) but “dinner takes place in a more formal setting than supper.”

What would you call a sale of unwanted items on your porch, in your yard, etc.?

  • I’m glad that “tag sale” is an option here.  That’s what they were called in Connecticut when I was young, but I got strange looks when I tried to advertise a tag sale in Virginia, and haven’t heard the term here in Massachusetts.

What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?

  • I’m really curious where in the country are the people who refer to a sunshower as “the devil is beating his wife” or “monkey’s wedding.”  This question has the weirdest options of the entire quiz.

What do you call a big road on which you drive relatively fast?

  • “Highway” is the generic term I’m clicking off here, but also in my vocabulary are “turnpike” (refers to a toll road) and “parkway” (refers to a highway that passes through a scenic and/or historic area).

What do you call the long sandwich that contains cold cuts, lettuce and so on?

  • The correct answer – “wedge” – is not listed as that seems to be limited to a small portion of the small state of Connecticut.  Since leaving Connecticut I’ve had to concede to using “sub” instead.

What do you call a traffic situation in which several roads meet in a circle?

  • I grew up with “traffic circle” but you can’t live in Massachusetts for two minutes without encountering a “rotary.”  Technically, “roundabout” refers to something different from a “rotary” and our city would be improved if “roundabouts” replaced “rotaries” (physically, if not linguistically).

How do you pronounce aunt?

  • I pronounce it “ahnt,” but have to say “ant” when referring to the relatives in my wife’s midwestern family.

So, what dialect do I speak?  My parents are from New York (one from the Bronx and the other from Brooklyn).  I was born in New Jersey, but grew up in Connecticut where my education and dialect should’ve been formed.   The Connecticut accent always struck me as what you might call “standard American.”  Like, they send DJ’s and announcers to Connecticut to learn how to talk like they’re not from anywhere in particular.  Seven years in Virginia and fifteen years in Massachusetts muddy the waters a bit.

Here’s my map:

dialect map

I guess this should not be a surprise.  After all, the red zone of “most similar” goes through Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey – three of the four states I’ve resided in.  I’m disappointed that New York and Boston, or for that matter any city in the state of Connecticut are not identified.  But I have to admit that while I haven’t lived in Springfield, Yonkers, or Newark / Paterson, they’re all kind of close to places I have lived.  The least similar are Amarillo and Lubbock in Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas, which should also not be as surprise.  Perhaps that’s where they say “monkey’s wedding” for a sunshower.

So there’s my voice.  What’s your dialect?  Let me know in the comments.

Something Cool: Visited States Map Generator


The Visited States Maps Generator at the Defocus Blog allows you to create a map of US states (and Canadian provinces if you chose) that you’ve visited, color-coded by the amount of time and commitment you’ve given to each place.

Here’s the key:

Red means I’ve just passed through, maybe seen a thing or two.

Amber means I’ve at least slept there and seen a few things. I have a first-hand idea of what the state is like.

Blue means I’ve spent a good amount of time in that state.

Green means I’ve spent a lot of time in that state, weeks at a time on multiple visits – or lived there.

Here’s my map:

vsm-5dbdf88bbe40d5edf09237c8f10aedcb

I made the decision not to include states where I only changed planes at the airport (for me that would be Minnesota and Texas).  I also think that there should be a distinctive color for  states one has lived in compared to states that one has just visited a lot.  The states I’ve resided in are New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts.  I’ve also included New York, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire in the green category because I’ve traveled to those states frequently (the first two primarily due to family living there).

What does your map look like?  Go to http://www.defocus.net/visitedstates/ and find out.

Movie Review: In The Loop


TitleIn The Loop
Release Date: 17 April 2009
Director: Armando Iannucci
Production Co: IFC Films,  BBC Films
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Genre: Comedy | Satire
Rating: ***

This satirical film depicts mid-level government officials in Britain and the US as they work towards declaring war against an unnamed Middle Eastern country (an obvious parody of the run-up to war with Iraq).  Some of them hope to avert the war due to the obvious holes in the rationale behind the invasion, but most of the characters simply want to do whatever will advance their careers.  Every character in this movie has sharp acerbic wit and insults are hurled left and right.  Kind of  a mix of The West Wing and The Office and Dr. Strangelove.   It is funny with a lot quotable dialogue.  On the other hand, the general mean-spiritedness of the affair leaves a bad feeling in my mouth.  Good performances by Peter Calpadi, Tom Hollander, Anna Chlumsky, James Gandolfini, and others carry the film.