Book review: “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” by Chris Arnade

In Chris Arnade’s prose and photo book “DIGNITY Seeking Respect in Back Row America,” he explores those surviving in the back row, the lower and lowest economic echelons of America.

A former Wall Street trader of 20 years, with a comfortable house in Brooklyn, Arande was a resident of society’s front row. He left behind stifling life in a small Southern town by attending a series of colleges, culminating with a physics degree from John Hopkins. However, his financial work brought yawning emptiness. Any degree of fulfillment was absent.

So he began traipsing though Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, talking with residents and taking photograph of his subjects even after being warned by so many ‘outsiders’ that it was not a safe area to enter.

Upon a mutual parting of the ways from his lucrative banking job, he enlarged his travel itinerary to the entire country, seeking down-and-out areas of towns and their residents. Among his many stopovers: Gary, IN, Portsmouth, OH, Youngstown, OH, Selma, AL, El Paso, TX, Amarillo, TX, Bakersfield, CA, Cairo, IL, Milwaukee, WI, and Lewiston, MI.

One of unusual discoveries: McDonald’s serves as a community center for so many, homeless and housed, in economically depressed zip codes. Some customers, primarily seniors, spent an entire day at Mickey D’s, getting out of the house while catching up and chatting with friends. Arnade noted the proximity of a McDonald’s as a critical component for such residents who don’t have the luxury of senior centers.

Although he provides no answers (are there any that are currently politically feasible?) for poverty reduction/elimination, Arnade explores many factors involved in producing lower income lives. He doesn’t cite studies or statistics but rather asks his subjects for their takes.

The responses included:

  • Racism being alive today as well as when blacks migrated from the south
  • Being forced to live only in certain ‘designated’ areas and then redlined when attempting to purchase houses and build equity
  • The reduction of the middle class via the disappearance of stable and decent-paying factory, ‘high school education’ jobs
  • Hearing “this is my home” over-and-over again when residents are asked why they don’t move to towns/cities/states offering better economic opportunities
  • The corollary to the above being the lack of capability (money) for most to just pick up and move
  • Another corollary being the unfeasibility of abandoning support systems (family and friends)
  • The power of religious belief with such being all that some have, providing hope, if not now, then for the future. Arnade notes he developed “intellectual humility” through finally understanding this spiritual element.

This is a moving book especially because the photographs of the subjects makes what is said and written within it human, and therefore, real.

Book review: “God’s Problem How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer?” by Bart D. Ehrman

The following is a look at Bart D. Ehrman’s book “God’s Problem How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer?”

University of North Carolina Professor of Religious Studies Bart D. Ehrman, among many other things, is a former fundamentalist and currently a fallen Christian. Agnostic would be a more accurate term.

Despite an early-on devotion to fundamentalist Christianity, he began experiencing doubts about his faith during graduate school. As he writes here:

“…If there is an all powerful and loving God in this world, why is their so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering?…”

“…for many…life is a cesspool of misery and suffering…”

“…the darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too powerful…”

“…Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith…”

“…I realized I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life…”

Ehrman then explores the often contradictory and multiple reasons/justifications detailed throughout the Bible for such horrible afflictions in life. Among those:

  • suffering is a consequence of sin
  • suffering is a test, a down-the-line reward for passing
  • it eventually bolsters the recipient
  • it is the just the nature of things so accept it and God will bring hope and justice and eventually correct wrong
  • that the why of such is simply beyond knowing

Ehrman also points out conundrums in such misery: God’s flood killing countless animals as well as the actions of Adam and Eve not injuring others.

He states that if God can see into the future and is all powerful and loving, then his actions/inactions are not worthy of worship, but fear.

Simply put, he cannot understand or explain the prospering of the wicked while innocents suffer, believers among them.  Why  aren’t genocides prevented? Birth defects eliminated? Cancers stricken? Natural calamities deterred?

For Ehrmann, there is no fully satisfactory answer.

Not necessarily as a side note, he also writes about the element of Christian and Jewish apocalypticism and provides a pair of instances where Jesus offers that the end time would come very soon:

“Truly I tell you, some of those standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come to power” (Mark 9:1)

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (Mark 13:30)

Yet we’re still here. More grist for the proverbial mill besides the suffering conundrum.

Mark W. Bartusch offers in-depth insight in his 2011 God’s Problem How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer?” review. Do take a read.

Book Review: “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern IrelandPatrick Radden Keefe’s new book “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in North” is nauseating yet critical material, detailing the absence of winners in the quaintly labeled “troubles”of Northern Ireland, not even haughty Margaret Thatcher nor master of prevarication Gerry Adams. The list of those having lost is enormous and remains growing — those who gave their lives over to an eventually corrupted solitary idea of saving/freeing being in conflict with the political powers who deliberately deluded the those doing the fighting by keeping to themselves from the beginning that compromise, at best, would be the outcome.

No one should righteously pretend to have any answers for solving this quagmire because there are none. A segment of the UK situated at the top of the Republic of Ireland is obviously an anomaly. From a distance, it makes no sense. Could the majority Protestants surrounded in the North not enjoy the same or even a better life if joined with the rest of the heavily Catholic population of Eire? Or would such bring forth an implosion of cultural identity as well as a never-ending cycle of recriminations? Is the hatred between the two now too hardwired? But then what will happen if/when the Catholics out-number the Protestants up north? Multiple questions, few if any answers.

Built around the December 1982 abduction of mother-of-ten Jean McConville from her apartment in Catholic Belfast, Keefe seemingly determines the killer although some of the evidence remains disputed. That mystery is the backbone of this book but overall coverage of this conflict is also thoroughly presented.

Book Review: “Listen, Liberal” by Thomas Frank

front book cover“Economics aren’t ecosystems. They aren’t naturally occurring phenomena to which we must acclimate. Their rules are made by humans. They are, in a word, political. In a democracy, we cannot set the table however we choose” — Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank’s “Listen, Liberal or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” eviscerates the Democratic Party for abruptly jettisoning its long held representation of blue collar American workers while simultaneously pursuing Wall Street, corporate cash and the professional class instead.

It’s a morality play of sorts. Not necessarily cardboard cutout good versus evil (although there’s certainly elements of that) but more the rich and powerful plus the Cool Kids lording it over Main Street America by rewriting the rules of economic fairness in favor of corporations, achieved by acquiring the allegiance of politicians through financial contributions and social standing. Granted, that’s been a long time given for the Republican Party but not so, or at least as complete, for the other side of the aisle.

Protecting the middle class, the working man and woman and the farmers used to be the Democrats mantra, “kind of a sacred mission for them” as Frank writes. That is certainly no longer.

Frank begins with Barack Obama’s squandered opportunity. He writes: “it was the perfect opportunity for transformation.” The Dems owned Congress for Obama’s initial two years and the country was in a financial and mortgage crisis. Yet changes were minimal and “predation resumed.”

Obama didn’t suggest, let alone propose, anything similar to Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). There was zero direct job creation. The rhetoric of Obama the candidate versus Obama the president was also startling as he campaigned vocally against NAFTA but soon said yes to the Trans Pacific Partnership. His choices of Tim (Mr. Wall Street) Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury and Eric (Mr. Covington and Burling D.C. law firm) Holder as Attorney General resulted in a tap on the wrist accompanied by a forlorn apologetic look to financial wrongdoers (not by financial wrongdoers) in addition to lows in white collar prosecutions.

To wit: on March 22, 2009, Obama addressed a gathering of Wall Street CEOs and opened by referring to pitchforks among the general populace. However, he quickly told those assembled not to worry, that changes would not be happening.  Frank’s take on this and other subservience: “it was a Democratic failure, straight up.”

What Obama was for, to a degree in a hardwired manner, was consensus, bipartisanship and the hallowed center. This while hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and homes and Republicans openly vowed to make him a one term president by refusing to cooperate.

Then, Obama lost Congress in 2010 and, true to form, he again reached out. This time for the so-called Grand Bargain of trading social insurance cuts in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy. Bear witness to the heresy of a Democrat, a president no less, proposing reductions and limitations in Social Security and Medicare.

Compare Obama’s political direction and important hires to those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) during the Depression era:

Frances Perkins, a longtime promoter of social justice and economic security, was named Secretary of Labor

Harry Hopkins, a social worker from Iowa, became FDR closest confidante and one of New Deal architects of the New Deal, especially the WPA

Robert Jackson possessed no law degree yet was named to the United States Attorney General position as well as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Marinner Eccles, a small town banker from Utah. became the Chairman of the Federal Reserve

Henry Wallace, owning no advanced degree, was named Agriculture Secretary and, later, became Vice President to FDR. He later ran for president as a member of the Progressive Party.

Thurman Arnold headed the Anti Trust Division. One of his prior achievements was writing “The Folklore of Capitalism.”

JK Galbraith, with the Office of Price Administration, even questioned classical economics

Frank also details the Democrats split with blue collar workers when a segment of Democrats began repeatedly calling for an end to The New Deal.  Future presidential candidate Gary Hart was vociferous in his willingness to drop union members and other blue collar workers for the burgeoning segment of white collar professionals. He even gave a campaign speech in 1974 titled “The End of the New Deal.” It was labeled a battle between the Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats versus the Atari Democrats. Neo liberals also detested labor unions, and the Democrats “cut bonds with the working class for the doctrine of individual excellence,” preferring high tech and the like over organized labor, farmers and the middle class.

Hart’s rise from helming the badly beaten 1972 George McGovern campaign to Democratic frontrunner is fascinating. His segment of the Democratic Party berated the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the presidential runs of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis as more of the same far-out liberal candidates with their out-of-touch ideas.

Frank strongly disagrees with those characterizations. He writes that Carter’s legislative agenda while president began with “…cancelling public works projects, and conspicuously snubbing organized labor. With the help of a Democratic Congress, he enacted the first of the era’s really big tax cuts for the rich and also the first of the really big deregulations…” as well as depictions of “…budget balancing Walter Mondale…” and “technocratic centrist Michael Dukakis…”

Also, the transparently phony Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) came to be in 1985, supposedly committed to working class voters because other Dems were “too weak on crime, too soft on communism, too sympathetic to minorities.”

For the DLC,  Dems could only win by moving further to the middle and supporting balanced budgets, free trade treaties, school privatization, social benefit reforms and the post industrial global economy. In other words, becoming Republicans.

As Frank directly notes, “how does any of these benefit middle class?”

Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential win was supposed to bring aid and comfort to the middle and working classes as he campaigned on such planks. Granted, Clinton got a minimum wage increase passed but that positive was crushed by the passage of NAFTA, as well as financial, telecom, energy deregulation, punitive welfare changes, large increases in incarceration, the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall Act and attempts at Social Security and Medicare privatization with help from Newt Gingrich.

Again, how did this litany of sins better the lives of of working people?

Compare FDR’s evisceration of ‘economic royalists’ versus the new Dems now favoring knowledge workers, professionals and the high status groups and where innovation and technology are the regurgitated answers to any problems or concerns. Such has led to damning unregulated credit default swaps, Amazon with zero sales taxes, Airbnb facing no regulatory or safety rules, safety concerns with Uber and a maximization of profit by new and unregulated means and monopolies. Also as Frank notes, does anyone recall Apple, Intel, Google and Pixar entering into an informal agreement not to hire away each other’s employees? A lawsuit resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement. So much for any ‘Do No Harm’ philosophical claims.

One question remains: why is it the Democrats can’t represent both blue AND white collar constituencies? Why is it the false choice of one or the other besides a stated disdain for those in lower classes? That’s hopefully grist for another Thomas Frank book.

Consider Democrat Deval Patrick, the former two-time (2007-2015) governor of very blue Massachusetts, in 2015 becoming managing director of asset management firm Bain Capital. Read Patrick’s Wikipedia entry here in order to get a sense of the personal and political choices he has made. The DLC and its ilk remain alive and completely out of touch with present day reality.

This book was published in 2016 prior to the national election.

Book Review: “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” by Nancy MacLean

The name James M. Buchanan likely first brings to mind the 15th President of the United States. However, the full name of the former president is actually James Buchanan Jr., not James M. Buchanan. However, the latter is surprisingly a more intriguing if much lesser recognized figure.

James M. Buchanan, who died in 2013, was a Nobel laureate economist touting his specific brand of economic libertarianism while a professor at such schools as University of Virginia, UCLA, Virginia Tech and George Mason University.  But the freedom he promoted was more a bedrock for a minority of powerful elites to abuse and sustain power while wreaking havoc on the middle and lower classes of this country. Buchanan was against voting rights, labor unions, majority rule, public social programs such as Social Security and Medicare, et al, because the free market and the individual person and state triumph all. Segregation, poll taxes, sharecropping, slavery and worse were not of concern to him.  In fact, MacLean notes one of Buchanan’s tenets being people who fail to save for the future are ne’er-do-wells to be treated as inferiors. In his reality, the so-called economic freedom of a few was of utmost importance and federal programs to address the needs of the actual majority were simply an unfair financial imposition on the wealthy.

Buchanan and his ideas eventually became the darling of the Koch Brothers who aided in the funding of various collegiate economics department positions and usually controlled who was hired. He and others (although some became disillusioned with the manipulation of their academic work) provided intellectual ammunition for these wealthy businessmen and any semblance of the war of ideas became subverted.

However, unshackling the rich from the burden of contributing to the well-being of greater society was wildly unpopular both politically and economically. For example, this minority viewed the graduated income tax as “a devouring devil, tantamount to slavery.” Thus the gorilla in living room of this political domain was the inability to win this argument by persuasion. Theoretically standing on ideas and letting the chips fall where they may morphed into the rules needed to be rigged in order to garner further political and economic power. Theories became bastardized, cropped short and sized to fit (thank you to the late Dave Carter) in whatever manner and situation. Creative application of economic analysis became the norm because masses have the unacceptable tendency  to vote for the collective and not for millionaires and billionaires.

It was also necessary to repress the majority socially, politically and economically through such tactics as poll taxes, literacy tests, other voting restrictions and more, including the push for eliminating needs-based scholarships and reducing public and college university budgets, thus making tuition costs skyrocket. All this and more became part and parcel of the on-going push for privatization and deregulation.

MacLean also includes coverage of such historical figures as John C. Calhoun, Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman and David Stockman as related to this topic.

Again, there is more history here that will never be found in school text books.

Other articles of interest on this subject:

“The beliefs of economist James Buchanan conflict with basic democratic norms. Here’s why.” Michael Chwe

“The Architect of the Radical Right” Sam Tanenhaus

Book Review: “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” by Carol Anderson

Carol Anderson’s book “White Rage The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” considers the myopia, if not chosen ignorance, of most United States citizens who can readily recite such historical events as the murder of Martin Luther King and, to a lesser degree, that of Medgar Evers, as well as nine worshippers being murdered in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015, the 1965 conflagration in Watts as well as in Detroit during 1967 but fail to see the daily root causes-and-resulting effects vis-a-vis minority life in this country.

The failure of a broad percentage of our populace to connect-any-of-these-dots along the racial spectrum to both historical and more current events sits alongside the majority’s primary reaction to such being applause for the application of greater oppressive law and order, and worse. Perpetuation thrives.

Anderson details what is conveniently overlooked: the unacknowledged daily violence in all its forms conducted by courts, legislatures and all other elements of government against minorities throughout United States history.

A critical point: ‘Black rage’ has long been applied pejoratively so why minimal, if at all, usage of ‘white rage’ alongside no negative connotation?

Throughout her book, she utilizes past and present day critical truths in making her points, including:

  • The historical undermining of democracy via systemic and institutional voting, employment and housing restrictions
  • Black Codes with the sole purpose of eliminating self-sufficiency
  • Voter suppression to this day with limited or no early voting, the requirement of ID cards while DMV posts which produce such identification are shuttered
  • In 1860, 80% of America’s GNP was tied to slavery
  • Southern whites tried to stop the Great Migration
  • Not including suffrage was a fatal omission in Reconstruction
  • Any terms of surrender would have been accepted by the South, thus a missed opportunity
  • Chief Justice Roger Taney declaring in the Dred Scott case that “black people have no rights which the white man is bound to respect” (this from an individual holding the most esteemed legal position in the nation)
  • Spectacle lynchings included promotional trains bringing spectators to the events
  • The Republican Southern strategy of Nixon and Reagan designed to denigrate welfare recipients (always referencing people of color) so as to keep and promote racial tensions

Anderson provides so much missing and important history which won’t ever be found in high school textbooks.

Anderson also has a new book out titled “One Person, No Vote How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy”