Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

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Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me was a fascinating read. The author sets out to examine twelve school textbooks for their accuracy, completeness, and use in school settings and then write about different ways that the history in these textbooks and ones like them have failed us.

History in a school setting is often uninspiring, incomplete, and in some cases flat out wrong. It should, according to Loewen, invite questions and debates. It should encourage students to think about the past and how the past relates to their lives or informs the current situation. History should be an excellent way to develop the critical thinking skills that engaged citizens need. Instead, history is taught in a way to develop allegiance and blind patriotism—as if one cannot be patriot and also critical of or question the actions of one’s government.

All of these points are well taken. I don’t remember particularly liking history or social studies in school, but I didn’t particularly hate it. However, as an adult, I love history because of the very things that Loewen mentions—the sense of perspective it gives, an understanding of current events, and the development of critical thinking skills.

Throughout the book, Loewen shows time and time again the lies we were told about history and then explains the damage and consequences that resulted from these lies. It is all a bit disheartening. He unpacks the erroneous history about several events or subjects: hero-making, Columbus, Thanksgiving, Native Americans, the invisibility of racism AND anti-racism, the myth of opportunity, the federal government always on the side of good, the lack of recent history, and the myth of progress.

I enjoyed learning from the examples that Loewen provides about how we were misled and mistaught in school. I had no idea about Helen Keller’s adult life. I merely kind of thought (without questioning it) that her life ended in a figurative sense after Ann Sullivan taught her how to interact with the world. Instead, I learned about her rich life as a social activist for class rights and women’s rights.

And President Wilson, whom I suspected was not the squeaky-clean hero that he is portrayed to be, turned out to have been quite the racist and military interventionist. By learning about his actions in the early 20th century, I can see more clearly see the antecedents of the path the US went down in race relations. I can also see the roots of chaos in Latin America—all thanks to the wars we engaged in and the democratic governments we overthrew. By seeing the past, I see the consequences of these actions in the present.

Such knowledge is invaluable. How the US acts affects the future. Why aren’t our early 20th century actions in Iran taken into account when dealing with Iran today? We have collective amnesia or more aptly, we are all collectively ignorant of the fact that we created the Iran that we vehemently oppose today.

As Loewen works through the history that we were taught and unpacks misconceptions, he describes several archetypes. One is hero-fication. Individuals must be presented in a good light as defined by current norms. No blemishes. No complexity. Ignore the slave ownership of founding fathers or their contradictory statements on the issue.

Another archetype or assumption is the arch of progress. Loewen unveils this lie and the blame it causes. If everything is getting better and better, but they aren’t for you, then you are the problem. Those reaping the benefits of so-called progress see it as the result of their abilities. Those not reaping the benefits blame themselves.

Besides the blame heaped on those not in the privileged position, this myth of progress also encourages passivity. There is no impetus to change anything. No need to fight or condemn racist conditions. After all, things are better than they were and will continue to get better. Only we know from history that isn’t the case. After the progress made for blacks during Reconstruction, a dark period descended on the country and gains that blacks made were lost.

Another myth is one that insists that more education leads to tolerance. In fact, Loewen unveils this lie through information on who backed the Vietnam War at the time and who we think backed the Vietnam War, as well as our rationalism about our current interpretation. It is fascinating though disturbing work to unveil unseen myths and assumptions. Education is a socializing tool. The more educated you are, the more you tend to support the system. (There was a reason why re-education was/is used in the USSR and China. They knew that education can lead to allegiance to the state and the status quo.)

Couple allegiance with the myth that the state only does good and you have a populace that will support anything the state does, including wars. Loewen mentions that the college-educated tend to be Republican and the uneducated Democrat, though I wonder what he would make of our current climate where everything seems to be upside down and nothing in politics operates as normal.

After unpacking the lies we were taught, Loewen discusses why history is taught like this and proposes ways it should be taught. In brief, the answers about why are money and ideology, and the how is engaging students in projects to show how the past affects their lives now. Unlike other subjects, history is treated as subjective. We all have different perspectives on events and do not want our children to be taught potentially opposing views. As a nation that doesn’t foster debate, we do not want to foster debate in the classroom or teach our children to think. If they are to think, it is to think how we think, whether how we think is correct about an historical event or not, whether we think critically or not.

Without a critical understanding of the past, we cannot understand where we are and we cannot move forward to propose solutions to societal ills. We miss out on seeing the causes of racism and then cannot begin to recognize racism among us, let alone address it. The same can be said about social class and poverty. Or marginalized groups. Without critically examining the past and knowing what the past really is, we miss out on understanding the present and remedying long festering situations. Things do not get better with ignorance or misunderstanding (or even time). Instead, they get worse through perpetuation.

Loewen taught me about some of the mishistory I knew and some history that I didn’t know about. He also challenged me to question what I read, what I am told, and what I am taught. He proposes that students ask questions about sources of information:

  • Why was the source written or spoken? Contextualize it by placing it in the social structure and the agenda of the speaker or writer.
  • Whose viewpoint is presented? What interests does it serve? What viewpoints are omitted?
  • Is the account believable? Are there contradictions?
  • Is the account backed up by other sources? How is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented? Look at the choice of words and images used.

I would propose, especial in the age of fake news, that these sorts of questions and this sort of critical thinking is what we should apply to all aspects of information, historical or current. I would also add that we should ask ourselves: what assumptions does this interpretation of events make? What assumptions am I making? Fish rarely realize the water they swim in. To see the water we swim in is to see reality. To see the assumptions that we and society make helps strip away interpretations so we can better understand and effect change when needed.

Loewen’s work on historical education came out of his time teaching in Mississippi. He was shocked to hear the erroneous views his students had about Reconstruction and how harmful these beliefs were to them. As a means of social control and white supremacy over blacks, Reconstruction had been reinvented as a time when blacks were in power throughout the south, made a mess out of it, and whites had to step back in to fix things. None of this is true but if this is the narrative you are told as a black American, what does this do to your beliefs about black Americans, their abilities, and yourself? In reaction, Loewen wrote a history textbook. He had to sue the state to get it on the state’s list of approved textbooks.

I bet Mississippi: Conflict and Change would make a fascinating read and follow-up after Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Book review: The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner

It is amazing how much of Pooh sticks with you over the years.

I had a longing to revisit Winnie-the-Pooh and managed to get my hands on the complete works of Pooh by A. A. Milne. I remember one particular Pooh book from my youth: the one where Pooh visits Rabbit and gets stuck in his doorway. This story is included in the complete works.

The Pooh stories were clearly inspired by a young boy and his teddy bear. Originally in the stories the bear was named Edward Bear but quickly referred to as Winne-the-Pooh. Milne created these stories to entertain a real Christopher Robin who dragged his stuffed bear around.

The stories in Winne-the-Pooh contain the original cast of characters: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and baby Roo. The House At Pooh Corner introduces Tigger to the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin is always popping in and out of the stories. He lives in a tree in the forest but is often out doing things and only occasionally joins the other inhabitants in the forest.

The stories were a delight to reread. I remember most, if not all, of the various chapter-length tales—the game of Poohsticks, Roo’s Strengthening Medicine, Eeyore losing his tail. This odd collection of friends is timeless. They do not age and frankly neither do you. Like Christopher Robin in the stories, you can pop in to visit them at any time and it feels like no time has passed since you last interacted with them.

Pooh and his friends seem like archetypes—I always thought that they each represent different aspects of ourselves. Rabbit the know-it-all. Owl the wise and knowledgeable. Kanga the kind mother. Roo the overexcited youngster. Eeyore the perpetually depressed. Piglet the anxious and fearful. (Well, he is a Very Small Animal after all.) Tigger the exuberant lover of life. Pooh the calm, humble bear who accepts all. (My favorite was always Tigger who is quite bouncy.)

I was surprised that in addition to the stories, I remembered the dialogue. Milne had a way with witty banter. I often found myself laughing out loud at exchanges between characters. In one story, Rabbit clearly wanted to be left alone, but he encountered Pooh who wanted to talk. (Who hasn’t been in this situation before?) “Hallo, Rabbit,” [Pooh] said, “is that you?” “Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.” (page 106)

Other times, Pooh, a Bear of Very Little Brain, says something quite profound. Piglet, who is always nervous and worried, asks Pooh a question as they are walking in the forest. “Supposing a tree feel down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this. (page 272)

Other times he clearly is not too bright. As Piglet observed, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.” (page 122). He cannot remember left from right. He knocks on the door to his own house, mentions that it is taking the occupant forever to answer, and then is reminded that it is his own house. He falls into his own trap for the mythical Heffalump. But he is a true and tried friend to all with a heart of gold.

The last story in the collection is sad—a collective good-bye to Christopher Robin who is clearly going off to school and putting his group of stuffed animals aside to Grow Up. But the nice thing is that the group did not grow old. The inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood are still there, visiting each other to wish a Happy Thursday or doing simply Nothing. You can join them any time you need a break from Being an Adult.

Book review: Hard Choices

In Hard Choices, Clinton shares with us her experiences while she was secretary of state during the first Obama term. We learn what was going on behind the scenes in foreign policy crises, the workings of State, and Clinton’s own modus operandi. She gives blow-by-blow accounts of dealings with foreign actors, such as meditating peace negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Morsi-led government in Egypt. In these accounts, she sprinkles human touches—stories of previous visits to countries, long-standing relationships with officials around the world, or her reactions to situations.

I did not realize that Clinton inherited a State Department that was in such disarray and neglected when she became secretary of state in 2009. The Bush administration had neglected State but through much hard work and dedication, the Obama administration under the leadership of Secretary Clinton transformed State and placed diplomacy back squarely in the center stage.

(This oddly enough made me feel better about the present situation where State has been side-lined and downgraded, with career officials leaving in droves. If State had been resurrected once, perhaps it could be again.)

Clinton brought her own style—a very human and pragmatic approach to diplomacy—to her role. Traditionally power was thought of as hard (military) or soft (diplomacy). Clinton added another tool to the toolkit: smart power. “For me,” she states, “smart power meant choosing the right combination of tools—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—for each situation.” (page 33)

How she conducted herself was different too. She focused on human relationships with the leaders she met. Meetings started on the personal level before moving into business and diplomacy. Clinton—a possessor of what I would dub “smart intelligence” akin to smart power—knew that things only get done through relationships. Nurture the relationship and you build bridges for the time in the immediate or distant future that you might need to cross to get things done.

To me, her focus on relationships and the amount that she went out of her way to nurture them was spot on. It reminded me of her husband’s previous focus on the economy. (It’s the economy, stupid.) You could rephrase this motto for her to be “It’s relationships, stupid.”

And she didn’t just focus on relationships with high-ranking officials in foreign countries. When she visited countries, she made a point of arranging meetings with people of the countries where they could ask her questions and engage in a conversation with her.

Hard Choices is a good companion piece to The Secretary, a book written by a journalist who covered Secretary Clinton. The Secretary presents the perspective of a journalist who was born and raised abroad to events in the same time period as that covered in Hard Choices. Naturally, the scope of knowledge is different—Clinton gives more details and background information about events that journalists did not have access to. And sometimes perspectives are different.

Take the 2010 World’s Fair in China. In The Secretary, Kim Ghattas recounts how America was not financially supporting its presence at the fair, a shocking revelation given the opportunity the venue presented to highlight America values to the world. In the end, corporations stepped up to finance our exhibit at the fair. As one would expect, the exhibit was corporation-focused—less on projecting American values than consumerism.

In contrast, Clinton recounts how she was approached in February 2009 about America not participating in the fair—this would be seen as disrespectful by the Chinese who were hosting the world’s fair. Clinton rightfully saw the fair as an opportunity “to project American power and values in Asia.” (page 71) While the two books agreed on the importance of America participating in the world fair, they differed in their interpretation of the outcome: one seeing it as a lost opportunity that projected corporate power and the other seeing it as a saved opportunity that projected American power.

The book takes us through the major foreign policy events of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and even recounts weaknesses and problems that foresaw events that came to pass. Clinton discusses meeting with officials in Myanmar/Burma and future problems involving the Rohingya based on past and then current problems. “The end of Burma’s story is yet to be written, and there are many challenges ahead. Ethnic strife has continued, raising alarms about new human rights abuses. In particular, spasms of mob violence against the Rohingya, an ethnic community of Muslims, rocked the country in 2013 and early 2014. The decision to expel Doctors Without Borders from the area and not to count Rohingyas in the upcoming census brought a barrage of criticism. All this threatened to undermine progress and weaken international support.” (page 125)

At times she turns a blind eye, perhaps out of diplomatic necessity, to reality. She mentions that in November 2009, President Obama was only lukewarmly received in China. As I read her description of his visit to China and his reception by the Chinese, I thought back to my time in China and experience of China as a very hierarchical society based on skin color. Quite possibly there were others things contributing to his weak reception, but racism nagged at my mind as a real possibility.

From Clinton’s descriptions in Hard Choices, I took a shine to Richard Holbrooke who was often sent to fix problems around the world. His focus was on reconciliation. Insurgencies end when those in the insurgency stop. For the insurgency to stop, you have to talk, you have to focus on diplomacy, and you have to give them the opportunity to walk away from the insurgency. In a nod to cold war spycraft, she recounts Richard as observing that “In every war of this sort, there is always a window for people who want to come in from the cold.” (page 151) I smiled as I thought of the classic movie The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I also learned of events and incidents that I was completely ignorant of. Clinton describes the diplomacy needed in the OAS to prevent the re-admittance of Cuba. (Cuba needed to first fix the issues that led to its banishment in 1962.)

As I read about diplomacy surrounding Columbia, I realized that I hadn’t heard anything about the successes in Columbia—the last I knew of Columbia was its failed state status as a drug country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

I was surprised by a statistic concerning Mexico, reading it twice. Mexico is routinely depicted as a country bedeviled by drug-related violence. But what caught my eye was the fact that 90% of weapons used by cartels come from the US. I was stunned. 90%. Following the lapse of the 1994 ban on assault weapons in 2004, a flood of arms crossed the border. Our loose gun laws, killing us here at home, are also responsible for the drug wars killing Mexicans. We cannot be innocent bystanders to the violence and mere consumers of the drugs that fuel the violence. Since we contribute the guns (and consume the drugs), we have a responsibility to help Mexico.

Clinton walks through the Obama administration approach to Africa and describes examples of good countries such as Senegal, Liberia, Kenya, and Botswana and bad countries such as Congo with its civil war, Sudan/South Sudan with its fighting, and Somalia as a failed state.

She crystallizes the problems with China’s involvement in Africa. China’s focus in Africa is on extracting resources it needs to fuel its economic growth and appetites at home. Fair enough. But the manner is what’s troubling. China builds infrastructure in Africa, but uses its own laborers for the projects rather than local laborers. Investment is also a good opportunity to press for reforms, but China has ignored health and development challenges and human rights abuses. This is beyond unfortunate.

Clinton describes the attempt during her tenure for peace in the Middle East. She recounts the challenges with two different leaders of the divided Palestinian state: Hamas in Gaza and Fatah (led by Abbas) in the West Bank. Both have radically different approaches: violent overthrow of Israel vs. nonviolent negotiations. George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, was sent to work on a peace process during a 10-month moratorium on new settlements. Alas, Clinton describes the mad dash rush at the end due to heel-dragging that unsurprisingly led to the collapse of negotiations.

Clinton was in the throes of the Arab Spring too. She spoke out in January 2011 about long-needed reforms in the Middle East. With high unemployment, poverty, and young populations, the Middle East was a powder keg ready to blow. As she spoke these words, demonstrations started in Tunisia, which kicked off the Arab Spring.

She describes the religious groups in each country in the region and the geopolitics. She urged caution about removing tyrants—a lesson one would have thought others too would have learned after Iraq. Their removal, especially in places with no organized opposition, leads to a power vacuum. (Syria, Libya, anyone?) And what enters that power vacuum may be worse. (Look at what happened to Egypt.)

I was surprised to learn about the role Oman played in the Iran nuclear deal. The Sultan ended up brokering secret talks with Iran. Clinton sets out to describe how this deal came about through a quick history lesson about our involvement in Iran and its uranium enrichment program. She does not discuss other US attempts to curtail Iran’s progress. (Stuxnet, I’m thinking of you here.) Instead, she focuses on the offer that the Sultan of Oman suggests: swap their uranium stockpile for fuel rods to power research reactors that are used to produced isotopes to diagnose and treat disease.

She describes the quagmire that is Syria and the geopolitics that shape the reality on the ground. It was not an easy situation during her tenure. If anything, it is worse now. Sanctions did not work thanks to financing Syria received from Russia and Iran. Trying to get the Russians onboard went nowhere and then the US began exploring arming rebels. (So where is Kerry’s book as the sequel on our official involvement in Syria?)

Of course, no book describing her experiences at State would be complete without information on Libya and Benghazi. As usual, she gives the history and geopolitical backgrounds as well as the current political situations. Context is everything. She gives a measured description of what happened in Benghazi based on her personal experience and information that came out during investigations. She puts human faces on the people killed: the Ambassador, an Information Management Officer, and two CIA officers. She walks through what the department did and how security and communication work.

I was struck by her low-key mention of the cause of the uprising in Benghazi—a trailer about the film Innocence of Muslims by Terry Jones, a provocateur pastor in Florida (the same guy responsible for burning the Koran, which led to killings of Americans in retaliation). The focus of the umpteen investigations, it seemed to me, was on the wrong item. The investigations ignored the consequences of religious bigotry.

After an exhaustive tour of the countries she visited and worked with on issues, she looks toward the future. What issues will impact us? Climate change, jobs, energy, use of technology by activists, and human rights.

She decries the false choice of environment vs. economy in the climate change discussion. With 40% of all people within 60 miles of a coast, climate change will have a massive impact. She describes her first-hand experience of the negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 and how the aim was different than Kyoto. The end goal was a diplomatic agreement signed by all leaders in which all countries had skin in the game. (In contrast, the Kyoto Accords was a treaty that needed to be ratified by parliaments and placed a heavy burden only on rich countries.)

Clinton returns to the topic of China and its emerging role in the world. As China gains prominence on the world stage, many countries look at it as a model of stability and economic growth and see “state capitalism” as a viable alternative. “China had become the leading exponent of an economic model called ‘state capitalism,’ in which state-owned or state-supported companies used public money to dominate markets and advance strategic interests. State capitalism, as well as a range of new forms of protectionism involving barriers behind borders—such as unfair regulations, discrimination against foreign companies, and forced technology transfers—posed a growing threat to the ability of American businesses to compete in key markets.” (page 510) As an example of its negative impact, Clinton highlights the Corning glass company, which fought China over its practice of blocking companies, high tariffs, and stealing intellectual property. Unfortunately, our continued disarray at home (witness the debt ceiling fights that led to talks of a new reserve currency) helped fuel the allure of state capitalism.

She uses the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti to describe best practices for development. Americans erroneously think huge sums of our tax money go to foreign aid, but actually less than 1% of our budget goes towards foreign aid. Why is foreign aid important at all? Because what happens in other countries can threaten us and our strategic interests. Think of it as investing in our future. Both aid and long-term reconstruction and development are important. They are more tools in our toolkit along with diplomacy and defense. Telling countries how to use the aid we give them isn’t the answer though. Each country, each area, each situation is different. For aid and development to be successful it is best to allow country ownership as much as possible.

Clinton touches on what she calls digital diplomacy, which basically refers to training dissidents and organizers to be able to use technology to get around censorship efforts in their country. The problem, she admits, is that these tools and techniques are agnostic. Bad guys as well as good guys can use them.

Her quote of Anne-Marie Slaughter caught my eye. In her Foreign Affairs article, Slaughter explained how heterogeneous societies would benefit in an increasingly networked world—a plug for diversity and multiculturalism at a time when the US is moving in the opposite direction. We’re currently throwing out non-whites and pulling up the drawbridges.

Hard Choices ends with human rights, perhaps fitting given Clinton’s long role working for children’s and women’s rights. Women’s rights, she argues, are human rights. They are also strategic and in our national interests, despite the male officials who poo-poo talk of women’s rights. Where women are abused, not a part of the economies, and denied political participation are the “parts of the world most plagued by instability, conflict, extremism, and poverty.” (page 562) Human rights lead to stability. “History teaches us that when the rights of minorities are secure, societies are more stable and everyone benefits.” (page 575)

Hard Choices is a long but interesting read into a history of US foreign policy from 2009 to 2013. We see successes and failures, near misses and close calls. Pair it with The Secretary to see different perspectives of the same time period and events.

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?