You matter

“Don’t let anyone, man or woman, decide if you matter. You know you do.” ~ Jennifer Palmieri, Dear Madam President (page 174)


Book review: Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World

Dear Madam President is both a reflection on Palmieri’s role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and a call to arms for women in leadership. The book is specifically for the woman who will be the first woman president, but her words really speak to women in any leadership role. Heck, they speak to any woman.

The book is an easy read, divided into nine chapter or exhortations. Through them Palmieri describes situations that happened during the Clinton campaign or during a visit with Elizabeth Edwards and then illuminates the lessons to be learned from them. She talks directly to the future woman president of the United States—Madam President. (She originally notes that Madam seems to define a woman by her attachment to a man but ends up using the title because frankly there is no neutral title for a woman that doesn’t denote her relationship with a man. Sigh.)

She acknowledges the failures that Hillary’s advisors (which includes herself) made in the campaign and their wrong assumptions. They advised her to run like a man, to run as a presidential candidate, not the potential first woman president. This was a mistake. Hillary should have embraced being the first woman president and forged her own model of leadership.

Palmieri recognizes that currently the only model for a person in power to follow is male. And that this needs to change.

As she explained this point and raised the fact that women have imitated male models in the workforce, I thought back to the 1980s, when middle class white women entered the workforce in large numbers. The clothing (remember the huge shoulder pads and mannish look to business attire?), the attitude, the mannerism all screamed women trying to be men.

Women had to prove that they belonged by proving that they were tough enough. They were just like the men, whose ranks they were fighting to enter. They had to embrace the male work style.

In hindsight this was a huge disservice to women, men, and the work world. We are still paying the price and trying to escape this male model.

Palmieri calls for a new way, a new model of leadership. What would it be like to lead like a woman?

She also recognizes in hindsight the refusal or inability of Hillary’s advisors to acknowledge the deep misogyny in the US. People disliked Hillary. They were OK with voting for a woman, they insisted, but not that woman. They didn’t trust her.

But suddenly they were OK with Hillary when she conceded the race. Palmieri surmised (rightly, I think) that people were not comfortable with Hillary—with a woman—being in a position of power. But as soon as she conceded, suddenly she stepped back into a traditional role played by women. Then she was OK.

The problem was clearly that the anti-Hillary folks didn’t trust Hillary because she was an “intelligent, capable, ambitious woman in a position of power.” (page 50) As such, she “represented an existential threat to the proper order of things.” (pages 54-55)

Palmieri mentions that Hillary’s advisors also didn’t understand the level of frustration in the population at large and how it was playing out in the populous movements in the campaigns. But the Clintons did. Palmieri mentions a book that the Clintons read and discussed, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements—a book from the 1950s. It sounds eerily relevant to today (and a must read).

Palmieri’s lessons and advice to the future Madam President (and women in general) are good. Some lines jumped off of the page and felt like Palmieri was speaking directly to me. She described my own experiences, insecurities, and problems being a woman in a world that doesn’t value women.

Which things that she writes might speak directly to you?

Book review: The Storm Before The Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

As a total newbie about Rome, I thoroughly enjoyed The Storm Before The Storm, a look at a slice of the Roman Republic, specifically from 146 to 76 BC.

Why this era? It is the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, before the more famous generation of Caesar, Cicero, and Antony. It is when the elements that led to the rot of the republic began. This is the age of the Gracchus brothers (Tiberius and Gaius), Marius, and Sulla. Mike Duncan introduces them as well as a cast of supporting characters as he lays out the historical, military, and political events of the time.

I learned much about the various bits of the republic and how it worked (in theory and in actuality). The Roman Republic informed the US republic. The differences and similarities to the US republic were fascinating to realize. The Senate, which was composed of the aristocracy, was juxtaposed against the Assembly, which was composed of plebians. The Assembly could pass laws and carry out capital sentences. The Senate could not. The republic was ruled by a pair of consuls, who were elected for single year tenures. In times of crisis, either consul could appoint a dictator, whose power expired after six months.

Duncan walks the reader through a turbulent time in the republic and shows what crises and events led to its unravelling. In essence, the republic devolved into more and more frequent spasms of violence. The republic was fast fading away under violence and the breaking of written and unwritten laws and norms.

Benjamin Franklin’s words echoed in my mind. At the close of the Constitutional Convention, someone asked Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—A Republic or a Monarchy?” He replied, “A Republic. If you can keep it.”

Clearly, the ancient Romans couldn’t—which begs the question that maybe the US cannot either. Duncan acknowledges the parallels between what happened to the Roman Republic and what is happening today in the American Republic.

“Further investigation into this period reveals to the modern reader an era full of historical echoes that will sound eerily familiar to the modern reader. The final victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars led to rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct, the privatization of the military, rampant corruption, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, battles over access to citizenship and voting rights, ongoing military quagmires, the introduction of violence as a political tool, and a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” (pages xx-xxii)

Slowly bit by bit, those in political and/or military power in the Roman Republic dismantled the foundation of the republic without realizing that the structure would collapse. Mos maiorum, or the unwritten rules, were broken again and again—consulships were extended, those in power killed in sacred spots, the requirements for joining the legions changed. A vicious cycle started. As norms were broken, even more norms were broken until the republic became lawless, politics violent, and society controlled by mobs. And into this chaos came the rise of a monarchical system with the Caesars.

The issues facing the republic sound eerily familiar today: economic inequality, redistribution of land (wealth), grain dole (welfare), court (justice) reform, citizenship. The major power players all used policies of convenience to align groups in society, such as policies to seize public land to distribute to the rural poor or granting citizenship or voting rights to the Italian, i.e., non-Roman masses. The struggle for power devolved into two opposing worldviews and a struggle to win at all costs. It was not so much that you were right or that your position would help the republic or a portion of the populace; the goal was do whatever to destroy your rival. (Sound familiar?) Destruction for destruction’s sake leads to nothing good.

The Storm Before The Storm covers the geographical areas where Rome ventured: northern Africa, Gaul, tribes north of the Italian Alps, Asia (modern-day Greece and Turkey). The almost constant warfare, which brought slaves (who displaced workers, which led to economic inequality) and booty to Rome, drained the Roman Republic of men to fight. Rome had to exempt new recruits from being landowners, which ended up exacerbating problems in the republic. New recruits were loyal to their generals, not to the Senate or the republic. A career in the legions became a possibility as did a path for political power for the non-aristocracy.

Mike Duncan is best known for his history podcasts, first The History of Rome and currently Revolutions. As a scholar of history, he has a knack for explaining historical events. He has found his niche outside of academia through his podcasts, travel packages to historical sites, and now his book. Parts of his personality come through in his writing, but even more so in his podcasts. Due to the success of The Storm Before The Storm, Duncan will thankfully be writing more, bringing more history to the masses.

History reveals trends, events, and unintended side effects. We are exhorted to learn history or we are doomed to repeat it. The Storm Before the Storm opens a window into the downfall of one republic. In its reflection, we can see our own and possibly learn from it.

Movie review: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House.

James Baldwin was an author and voice for social justice issues. (He rejected the label of civil rights activist.) In 1948, he left the US for Paris, due to the atmosphere of fear created by racist American society. After seeing a photo of a black woman being taunted and attacked by whites as she walked to a school that she was integrating, Baldwin could no longer remain abroad but returned in 1957. Baldwin then traveled through the south as a witness to the civil rights movement and a writer of his experiences. Through this time, he met and became friends with many prominent folks in the civil rights movement, including Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

The documentary, based on his unfinished manuscript, is a reflection on these three great figures in the civil rights movement, the civil rights movement itself, and racism in America. Baldwin explains his experiences in the US and those of African-Americans. Clearly a well-read and reflective thinker, Baldwin illuminates for whites the experiences of African-Americans in the US. Time and time again he patiently explains how experiences are interpreted differently by whites and blacks. He provides a stark education to his white audience.

I Am Not Your Negro is a combination of many different media. The movie shows clips of Baldwin giving talks at Cambridge or interviews on The Dick Cavett Show. His own words and thoughts are narrated over images. Clips from movies in his youth are shown that depict African-Americans and whites in different ways. These clips speak to what he explains about life in the US. His three friends are shown as the movie rolls through the late 50s to the late 60s—the deaths of Evers, Malcolm, and King are covered in succession.

Baldwin has a talent for holding a mirror up to us to reflect the soul of America. It shows a sobering portrait—a portrait well-known to African-Americans and unknown by whites who keep themselves in ignorance through formal and informal segregation. Baldwin’s words and description of America speak eerily of the present moment and the film overlays his words on scenes from modern-day America—an America long after his death in 1987.

I suspect that Baldwin would have been insightful despite his self-exile, but being an ex-pat gives one distance from which to view one’s own culture and reflect on one’s experiences. Baldwin’s time abroad likely sharpened his assessment of America and the cancer of racism.

Baldwin did not share a number of things with African-Americans from the 1950s and 1960s. He was not a Muslim or a black panther because he did not believe that all whites were the devil. He was not Christian because Christians, he observed, do not live by the commandment to love one another. He was not a member of the NAACP because that organization was entangled with black class distinctions.

His distance and separation from American culture and membership in variety societal groups gave him a removal from which to observe. Why is Malcolm X liked? Malcolm X, he explained to whites, articulates the suffering of African Americans and corroborates their reality. Whites do not know about the lives of their black brethren. Segregation that occurs after school when we go to our separate homes creates apathy and ignorance.

The commonality between whites and blacks seems to be hatred. The root of black man’s hatred is rage. The root of white man’s hatred is terror. Baldwin explains how a movie scene is seen differently based on one’s racial experiences in America. Rather than getting away to safety, a black convict jumps from the moving train when the white convict is unable to ascend it safely. White liberal audiences, Baldwin points out, love the black man for doing this; it reassures them that they are not hated. Black audiences abhor the scene, calling for the black man to get back on the train.

From his vantage point, Baldwin describes American virtues as simplicity, sincerity, and immaturity. The American hero, portrayed by John Wayne, epitomizes these traits. (Ouch. Wayne is considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity in the US, so this observation suggests that American males are immature and simple. Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.)

Blacks were originally needed for the American economy—to pick cotton. But now they are no longer needed. Will they be killed like the native Americans were? Comments like this made me pause and think about modern slavery through economics and the criminal justice system—and the killing of black men that seems to be an epidemic.

Baldwin also points out that in America and other western countries, whites easily pick up guns and cry “give me liberty, or give me death.” No one bats an eye at that. But if a black man did the same? It would not be interpreted or dealt with in quite the same way. Again, Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.

I Am Not Your Negro is an interesting glimpse into the civil rights movement and the lives of Evers, King, and Malcolm as told through the eyes of an ex-pat author. Baldwin’s comments and perspectives based on his life experiences as a black American in the US and abroad provide food for thought. And it makes me wish that he had finished his manuscript Remember This House.