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.

Advertisements

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?

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.