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.

Book review: The Secretary

The Secretary is a window into past US political and foreign policy history through the lens of a journalist. This journalist, Kim Ghattas, had a unique vantage point: she was part of the press corps that followed Secretary of State Clinton during her tenure (2009-2012).

Ghattas’s own background informed her view of what she saw during the Clinton years at State. Ghattas was born and raised in Lebanon during the war-torn 1980s and 1990s.  She brought to her role the experience of being on the other end of US intervention (or lack of intervention). In The Secretary, Ghattas shares with the reader her progression from a Lebanese resident who wondered why America didn’t just fix things in Lebanon to a US resident who saw the limits of American power.

Ghattas’s perspective of foreign countries toward the US is fascinating and reveals deep contradictions. Other countries see America as a superpower in decline, but also as a country that can do anything. They assume that the US can fix anything, even the problems in their own country. But they bewail the US getting involved in their countries and dictating how their countries should be run. They assume the US has a grand master plan and bemoan the neglect or attention that the US gives them.

It literally does not compute to others that the US does not have a grand master plan, cannot fix their countries’ problems, and doesn’t actually have all countries and all problems on their radar. America, it is believed—even in the face of contradictory evidence or explanation—can fix the problems in Iraq or bring peace to the Middle East.

In fact, the US is often reacting to events on a day-to-day basis, though Clinton and the Obama administration attempted to change this a bit by focusing on developing relationships. Clinton logged over a million miles during her tenure, zipping around the globe to fix and deepen relationships—everywhere. This strategy seems so basic that it also seems bizarre that few follow it.

Ghattas also describes Clinton’s approach to developing relationships. Again, another no brainer: start by connecting with people before sitting down to conduct business. In The Secretary, Clinton clearly has the social skills to connect with people on a deep level, putting them at ease (or not if the situation calls for it) and developing a rapport that she could call on in times of crisis. It is much easier to secure desired outcomes if you already have a personal relationship.

Although Clinton and the Obama administration worked to become more involved and to deepen relationships, at the same time, they were trying to empower other countries. It was less about telling others what to do than letting them figure things out on their own. Rather than solving their problems, the US wanted them to solve their own problems. “It was time for other countries, other regions, to take ownership of their problems. For decades, the first reaction of people around the world had been to ask what America was planning. Now America wanted first to know what the rest of the world had in mind, and second, what they were willing to contribute to that plan.” (page 255)

And there were clearly growing pains. Countries weren’t used to thinking like that. America should fix their problems. Now, it seems, with the Trump administration in retreat, that other countries are trying to figure out how to act on their own to solve problems in the international community.

Some things surprised me in the book. I did not realize how badly the Bush administration downplayed State and foreign service. Clinton’s goal was to rehabilitate the US reputation in the world. (In an odd way, this brought me comfort, knowing that the next administration would—and presumably could—rehabilitate America’s standing in the world following the Trump administration.) Clinton and Obama wanted to make sure that the US was a player on the world stage. It was not abdicating its role in the world to others.

Ghattas talks about when people call for the US to retreat from the world, they aren’t thinking through the consequences of the US doing that. Doing so leaves a power vacuum that others would be happy to fill. What are the possible consequences?

I would expand on this observation. When the Trump administration and followers call for the US to retreat from the world stage, they are not thinking through the consequences. Just because you go home does not mean that problems go away. Decisions are still being made. Actions are being taken. But you are no longer at the table having a say in it. If you retreat, you have less control over things that will affect you: militarily, foreign policy-wise, trade-wise. (The same can be said about the UK retreating from the EU. It will leave them less powerful because they will no longer have a voice over things that affect them.)

I was surprised by observations about events that I did not realize or know about. Clinton was skewered by how events unfolded in Libya, that diplomats were left unprotected. In passing, Ghattas mentions that originally US embassy diplomats were not allowed to leave Tripoli by order of Gaddafi—a reminder that not all is how it seems.

Concerning our ongoing problematic relationship with Pakistan and its cooperation (or lack of it) in the Afghanistan war, Ghattas brings up a point that puts it all in perspective. She explains our history with Pakistan and their reliance over the decades on the aid that we provide them. The aid stopped before and the US attention drifted away from Pakistan. The US simply wasn’t interested in Pakistan and/or Pakistan wasn’t strategic to US interests. If you are Pakistan and you want to maintain a relationship with the US (= continued aid and continued US interest), what do you do?

An aside from Ghattas suggests that you do not fix things in your country that would bring an end to the Afghanistan war. If the war ends, then the US leaves the area and walks away from a relationship with you. Why then would Pakistan want to stamp out the militants in its territory that fight against the US in Afghanistan? That could mean an end to the war and an end to a relationship with (and aid from) the US.

I was dismayed by the US retreat that I was not aware of—and how the US sought to reconnect. World expos used to be a big event. I know of historic ones: the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. But I hadn’t connected the historical with the current ones; world’s fairs are still being held.

Ghattas’s description of the one in Shanghai in 2010 broke my heart. In the 1990s, the US decided that world’s fairs were a waste of time and money. The US retreated from the world stage. Actually, the fairs are a chance to showcase the US, our history, and our values. The US decided to stop using taxpayer money and instead would finance our appearance at these expos with company money. We asked companies to represent the US in world fairs. Rather than an opportunity to display our values and to broadcast the view of the US that we wanted others to see, we let businesses advertise for themselves. The US = capitalism, capitalism = the US. We are missing a huge opportunity to project how we want others to view us.

The book offers a good view into how Clinton operates and her incredible knowledge and skills. She came to the role with a lot of experience and knowledge, some relationships with foreign leaders already forged as a First Lady and Senator. While her husband’s appetite for knowledge is well documented, Hillary’s is just as voracious. She routinely devoured detailed documents about countries and situations that the State Department compiled for her. And wanted more. She wanted the details and to understand the big picture so she could easily understand and move between situations as they arose with a deep understanding of history and cultures. She relied on experts and looked to others to supplement and enrich her knowledge. We clearly lost a great deal with her forced retirement from politics.

The Secretary contains lots of tidbits about other cultures, countries, and histories, interspersed with descriptions of State travels to different sites. The pace at which Clinton traveled sounds bone-wearily exhausting to her staff and the press that accompanied her. Ghattas brings us along to important visits and events, from the Arab Spring to the world expo in China to a historic visit to Myanmar. The Secretary is a worthy read for understanding US foreign policy, world events, and the limitations and power of the US. We see how the US operated on the world stage in the first Obama administration through the eyes of a non-US native. The results are fascinating.

Book review: March: Book Three

The March trilogy covers five years of the civil rights movement experienced by legend John Lewis. Like the other books (Book One, Book Two), March: Book Three weaves the events of the time (1963 through 1965) with the inauguration of President Obama.

The book starts with the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four young girls were killed. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke after the bombing about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy that produced the killers. Going after the murderers isn’t sufficient, he said. One must dig out the roots that produced the tree with the fruit of violence.

Book Three discusses the wave of killings and protests that followed. The goal of the protests in Selma was for all African Americans to be able to register to vote and to vote. In Selma’s county, only 2.1% of African Americans were registered to vote. Barriers to registration were huge: limited registration times, literacy (and other farcical) tests, publication of registrants’ names in public papers (which invited firings from employers and attacks by the Klan).

Things also got heated next door in Mississippi. Activists organized the Mississippi Freedom Vote, a mock election with African-American candidates. Similar to a tactic used in South Africa, the mock election’s goal was two-fold: give African Americans a sense of what it was like to vote AND dramatize their exclusion from voting.

Activists also organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the state’s Democratic Party and its white delegates to the Democratic convention in 1964. MFDP was thwarted from getting an adequate number of delegates. (The powers-that-be offered them a paltry two delegates.)

While the Democratic Party was composed of segregationists, the Republican Party was not much different (or better). In 1964, the Republican Party was the party of Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rockefeller, who lost the Republican nomination, begged in vain for the party not to turn its back on its guiding principles.

Book Three prints a lengthy, moving quote from Rockefeller that could speak for the present times:

“It is essential that this convention repudiate, here and now, any doctrinaire, militant minority—whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan, or Bircher—which would subvert this party to purposes alien to the very basic tenets which gave this party birth. Precisely one year ago today on July 14, 1963, I issued a statement wherein I warned that: ‘The Republican Party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-financed, and highly disciplined minority. At the time, I pointed out that the purposes of this minority were: Wholly alien to the sound and honest conservatism that has firmly based the Republican Party in the best of a century’s traditions, wholly alien to the sound and honest Republican liberalism that has kept the party abreast of human needs in a changing world, wholly alien to the broad middle course that accommodates the mainstream of Republican principles.’” (page 102)

The book highlights the changes within SNCC, the organization that John Lewis chaired. The organization, working in the trenches in Alabama, felt threatened by SCLC and Martin Luther King, Jr. They saw others swoop into town to steal the limelight and the credit after they did the hard, grassroots effort. Also, funding was not split equally between different organizations. SNCC, considered the youngest and most radical, received the least funding. And SNCC was changing, moving away from its nonviolence roots.

In Book Three, numerous other people important to the protests and activities of the civil rights movement show up. I was tickled to see James Baldwin mentioned in passing. And I was surprised to read about Malcolm X’s seeming change of heart and tactics prior to the Selma march.

Harry Belafonte took John Lewis and others on a short tour of Africa. During that trip, Lewis learned how much Africans looked to Malcolm X for inspiration. Although SNCC was deemed radical in the US, in Africa it was not radical enough. In Africa, Malcolm X had already started his shift in philosophy; his focus was no longer on race but poverty, reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s focus on poverty right before he was assassinated. What could have been accomplished in the fight against poverty if neither leader had been assassinated?

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a milestone, it was severely deficient. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not ban literacy tests or other voting restrictions. There was nothing in the act to ensure voter registration. A Voting Rights Act was needed to ensure the right to register and to vote.

The Civil Rights Movement described in Book Three ends with the march from Selma to Montgomery and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Malcolm appears as a foil to Martin Luther King, Jr. Seen as a radical element compared to King, Malcolm used his reputation to strike fear in whites in hopes that they would acquiesce to King’s demands rather than deal with the unpredictability and likely violence from Malcolm X and his followers. The march from Selma to Montgomery finally ended in success on the third attempt, on March 21, 1965. (The inspiring marches from Selma are retold in the movie Selma.)

The five years of the movement that the three books of March cover are awe-inspiring. Clearly the work is not done and in some ways the movement has slid backwards. The books remind us of what was done and how it was accomplished in the 1950s and 1960s. History can be a guide, illuminating, encouraging, enlightening. March does all three. Through its illustrations and text, March shows us what is possible and educates us about the important historical events and people who made a difference.

Book review: Anarchism and Other Essays

Anarchism and Other Essays is a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, compiled in 1910 by Emma herself. The essays cover a wide range of topics important to anarchism, such as education, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and marriage.

Reading the essays one hundred years removed from their creation provides a glimpse into history. In some cases, arguments or points seemed dated and a bit archaic. In other cases, I had trouble understanding the perspective from which she was arguing. On the whole, my impression is that Emma and anarchism was grounded in idealism and belief in the goodness of humans. In many respects, her critiques of our political and social organizations are spot on. Sometimes her solutions seem progressive, even today. Often though, better possibilities do not seem to exist.

Her writings and the ideology behind them are definitely products of the time and reactions to centralization, machinization, and industrialization, which destroy the individual. I hear echoes of libertarianism, which derides all things government. Anarchism is the freedom from religion, property, and government.

She argues for individual liberty and living a creative life.  Again, she seems to be reacting to the times in which she lived, where industrialization was replacing individual artisans. Artists are slaves to economic necessity. The masses do not appreciate art; artists are forced to cater to their whims and tastes. Thus, artists are not truly free. She derides the masses and upholds the individual. “Every effort for progress, for enlightenment, for science, for religious, political, and economic liberty, emanates from the minority, and not from the mass.” (page 44)

Emma recounts several violent acts, such as the Haymarket Riot of 1887 or the Homestead Strike of 1892. These violent acts, she argues, are really acts of compassion committed by people suffering from violence in the world. The people who commit these acts of violence do so in response to the injustice they see around them. Which is worse: the acts of violence they commit or the injustice they see around them? The answer for Emma, of course, is the latter.

She examines prisons, the reasons typically given for imprisonment, and the reasons behind crime. Most crime, she argues, is due to social and economic inequalities. Prison can be used for revenge, punishment, deterrence, or reform. Prison definitely does not do the latter two, she argues. What can prevent crime? “Nothing short of a complete reconstruction of society will deliver mankind from the cancer of crime.” (Emma definitely does dream big.) She argues progressively for work in prison that will lead to employment once the convict is released, and for shorter sentences so they have some hope for rejoining society.

She rails against patriotism as a means to control and use the lower classes. Military excursions and standing armies are used to protect the money-class. (I am hearing echoes of John Reed’s stance on World War I.) Capitalism and militarism support each other and need each other. And, here Emma’s observation seems spot-on today, people enter the military out of economic necessity.

Emma mentions Ferrer in passing and then devotes an essay to him. She discusses Ferrer and the Modern School but doesn’t go into great detail about the type of education that Ferrer advocated. The impression is one of freedom and nurturing of the individual over strict authoritarian forms of education.

She attacks Puritanism, which is at the root of America’s history. This repressive –ism is the root of all real evil, repression, and lack of creativity. Its sexual mores demand celibacy for single woman OR forced sex/reproduction for married women. From this comes illegal, secret abortions and prostitution, which brings with it disease. No matter how you slice it, women are getting a raw deal, all thanks to Puritanism.

She discusses women and the impact of the lack of freedom on their lives. Women are reared to be sexual commodities, kept ignorant and chaste for marriage or forced into prostitution out of economic necessity.  “…it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.” (page 101)  Government suppression and moral crusades only make things worse. (Brothels where women have some protection are replaced with streetwalking.) Prostitution is a product of economic and social conditions and can only be abolished if industrial/economic slavery is abolished.

I found her writings on women’s suffrage and emancipation the hardest to understand and follow. She seems to be against both, recognizing that neither movement will really set women free. In countries where women can vote, are labor conditions better? Are women happier? Are there no double standards? Are women no longer seen as sex commodities? A resounding no to all of these, even today.

Being able to vote doesn’t affect economic conditions for women. For Emma, it is all about economics rather than having the same rights as men. The suffrage movement is “a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of the people.” (page 116) Labor as her first allegiance is clear in another quote: “Susan B. Anthony, no doubt an exceptional type of woman, was not only indifferent but antagonistic to labor; nor did she hesitate to manifest her antagonism when, in 1869, she advised women to take the places of striking printers in New York.” (page 116)

Emancipation is really no emancipation. Women strive to be allowed to do the same as men, only to find that they now have to do the same as men AND their old role in the house and family. No wonder, she cries, that women are retreating from emancipation and seek marriage as a way to retreat and be taken care of. Also, the role of an independent woman is a lonely one due to moral and social prejudices. Better, some find, to acquiesce to the societal role for women as mother and wife. “…we find many emancipated women who prefer marriage, with all its deficiencies, to the narrowness of an unmarried life; narrow and unendurable because of the chains of moral and social prejudice that cramp and bind her nature.” (page 123) True emancipation is the freedom from external AND internal tyrants (i.e., ethical and social conventions).

Perhaps as expected, Emma is not a real fan of marriage. As with prison, she looks at the reasons given for it and then deconstructs them. Marriage is an economic arrangement/insurance pact. (In some respects, although we moderns claim to marry for love, this assessment is still true.) Women pay for marriage with their name, privacy, self-respect, life; they are condemned to “life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.” (page 126)

Work is expected for men. For women, it is transitory. She is saved through marriage, but she is not free because now her labor and economic slavery increases. It is a myth, she argues, that marriage exists for the child and protects the mother. She argues instead for motherhood outside of the bonds of marriage. How this could happen with women’s economic subordination is unclear.

Emma’s arguments are a combination of clear-headed realism and idealism. Some seem insightful. Others fanciful. Economic justice and equality trumps other concerns. Freedom from religion, property, and government is key. She has a strong belief in the goodness of the individual, and justifies violence as a compassionate reaction to violence and injustice. “No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.” (page 41) What would be interesting is to read some of her writings after her deportation to Russia where she encountered post-revolution Russian society and recoiled from the horrors she saw.