Mexico, Donald Trump and Walls

I have just returned from a week on the Yucatan peninsula, first time in Mexico.  And I don’t want to generalize, but one of the things that I noted about my travels in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo is that Mexico is filled with walls.  Donald Trump should take notice of that.

I saw stone walls at the three Mayan site I visited, Chichen Itsa, Coba and Tulum.  They were tall, and obviously sturdy, as they have lasted hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.  To me, at least, they seemed impermeable.

But it wasn’t only the Mayan walls.  Highway 307, the divided speedway that goes from Cancun virtually south to the Belize border is bordered on the east by a continuing series of resorts, none of which are visible from the road, and all of which are gated, and most of which are separated from the highway by a tall wall. It doesn’t appear that the walls give protection to the resorts – they don’t surround the resort, they are decorative, running maybe 100 feet parallel to the roadway.

But what it means is that the Mexicans are experts in the building of walls. and obviously paying for the walls that they build. So is it surprising that Herr Trump thought of a border wall as being something that the Mexicans (as well as the Americans) would love, and that the Mexicans would want to pay for.

One other thing:  what is the purpose of these walls, from Mayan times forward.  Obviously to keep out people, or at least to discourage them from visiting.  And who were the people who were being kept out?  Largely, they were Mexicans.  Mexicans have for many centuries built walls to keep out Mexicans.  So, why would they object if their neighbor to the north built a wall to keep out Mexicans?  This is just what people do.

But what Donald is going to discover is that Americans don’t build walls like Mexicans, that Mexicans don’t pay for walls built by Americans and, probably, that their experience as builders of walls has also trained them as to how to get around or go through the walls.

Well, I guess this is all irrelevant, because we aren’t going to wind up with an impermeable border walls, but it did give me a different perspective and something to think about.


DrFinal Books Read in 2017 _ What Happened???

Most of my post never got posted.  I am not going to rewrite it all – but here are the books:

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright (Czechoslovakia during World War II and after, along with a memoir of the Korbel family)

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.A. Anderson (subject Shostakovich, his 7th Symphony, and the Nazi 3 year siege of Leningrad)

The Algeria Hotel by Adam Nossiter (memory of the Nazi years in Bordeaux, Vichy and Tulle, 50 years later)

Prison Journal by Joseph Timilty (what it’s like to serve four months in a federal prison)

The Superpower Myth by Nancy Soderberg (how the US reacted to Haiti, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Rwanda during the Clinton and Bush years)

Unvanquished by Boutros Boutros-Ghali (the struggle of a UN Secretary General tyring to get the United Nations to respond to the many problems of the world in the 90’s

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung – Life in, and Escape from, North Korea by a young member of the North Korean elite.

Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guangchen – a blind Chinese boy, from a rural family, becomes an advocate for the disabled in China and gets into real trouble.

Once Upon a Time in Russia  by Ben Mezrich – oligarchs and what they do

The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss by Fred Cook – Whittaker Chamberlain comes out looking like a snake

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman – Israeli fiction – a stand up comedian tries to figure out what went wrong wtih his life

The Jew in America by Burton Hendrick (1923) – a racial diatribe as to why German and Sephardic Jews are OK, but Polish Jews will never assimilate into American life.


OK, trying again.


RFinal Books Read in 2017

I was pretty lucky.  All of the books I picked up in the final few months of 2017 (with one exception – see below) are books that I would recommend to you.  Because there are a significant number of them, the descriptions will be mercifully brief.

1.  The Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guancheng (2015).  Chen lost his sight at an early age in rural eastern China where he lived with his parents in a small village, but never the less eventually graduated from law school and became a major activist for disability rights in China.  Such a major activist that he ran afoul of the government, was first kept in confinement and then in house arrest under terrible conditions.  His escape from house arrest, and his eventually attainment of permission to leave the country and come to the United States makes for exciting, and eye opening, reading.

2.  The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss by Fred J. Cook (1958). Whittaker Chambers comes across as an unreliable snake in this contemporary account that relies heavily on Congressional and courtroom transcripts.  Was Hiss a Soviet spy?  The Soviet archives seemed to provide information that he was, to many’s surprise, but now it seems that that information was just so much Russian disinformation.  What?  Russian disinformation?

3.  Unvanquished: a U.S. – U.N. Saga by Boutros Boutros-Ghali.  One thing I was convinced of reading this book.  The job of the U.N. Secretary General has to be the hardest in the world.  During Boutros-Ghali’s term, there were the Balkans, Haiti, Sudan, Cambodia, Rwanda…..Jeez.  And to make it worse, his relationship with the United States, and especially with then our U.N. representative, Madeline Albright, was pretty bad. Bad enough that we would not support him for a second term.  But in his book, Boutros-Ghali, admittedly a tough guy to get along with, comes out clearly on the side of Boutros-Ghali in this dispute.  A good review of the trouble spots of the world during the 1990s.

4. Once Upon a Time in Russia by Ben Mez


My Thoughts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinians

Everything is out of perspective.  The decision by Donald Trump to move the Israeli U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem should be a non-event. The Israeli government operates out of Jerusalem, and moving our embassy out of Tel Aviv really accomplishes little other than giving our embassy employees a shorter commute when they need to deal face to face with the Israeli government.  (OK, I know that it will increase the commute of our embassy personnel, and many of them will decide to move to Jerusalem, but that’s another story.)

But as usual, Trump didn’t handle the announcement of the move well.  Why not?  Because he didn’t define what he means by “Jerusalem” and in fact left the definition up in the air by affirmatively stating that he was neither defining the boundaries of Jerusalem or trying to tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians how to divide authority over the City, if in fact they ever decide to reach an accommodation on control of Jerusalem.

But much of the Israeli populace, including the government, is treating this like a much larger event than it seems to me that it is.  The official Israeli position is that Jerusalem cannot be divided again, and that Israel needs to exercise control over it all.  In saying this, I don’t believe that the government has adopted an official position about the status of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, but it has made it clear that places holy to other religions, and permission to freely worship at those sites for those properly in Israel, will be respected. Because Jerusalem cannot be divided, much of the Israeli population concludes that Trump has said that the position of the United States is that Israel should be able to control all of Jerusalem.  Hence, the celebrations.  But, the celebrations are premature, because that is clearly not what the president said.

From the Palestinian perspective, and indeed from what appears to be the perspective of the majority of the Arab and Muslim world, the Trump decision is as bad as it is good in the opinion of the Israelis.  For the Arab position, like the Israeli position, is that Jerusalem cannot be divided, but – as opposed to the Israeli position – the Arabs believe that they, or at least the Palestinians, should have full control over the entire city, and – again unlike the Israelis – they certainly have not declared that under their sovereignty, the Jews (or the Christians for that matter) would have access to the holy sites of those religions.  In fact, the Arab position, as evidenced by the many resolutions of various United Nations agencies and recently the General Assembly itself, is that the Jews have no historic or present right to any part of Jerusalem.

But there is one point where the Jews and the Arabs seem to agree.  Just as the Jews have extrapolated on the Trump announcement to conclude that Trump has stated the American position as given Israel exclusive jurisdiction over Jerusalem, the Arabs have reached the identical conclusion.  And because the idea of Jewish control over Jerusalem is anathema to the pervading Palestinian position, the Arabs view the president’s announcement as a tragedy. and one which requires the harshest response.

Jerusalem has about 900,000 residents.  Approximately 550,000 are Jewish, and 350,000 are Arab (almost all Muslim).  Neither group is about to leave; that should be obvious.  And because Jews and Arabs, by and large, live in differing neighborhoods, it is possible to divide the city on ethnic grounds, and it is conceivable that a two state solution could provide that one part of Jerusalem (West) is the capital of Israel and another part (East) is the capital of Palestine.  Of course, because Israel has expanded the boundaries largely into previously unincorporated areas of the West Bank, access to East Jerusalem from the West Bank is harder than it used to be.  This has worked to the detriment of the Palestinian position, and the Palestinians have logically concluded that Israeli activity in this regard is not over.  You would think that this would have led them to try to reach an accommodation with Israel earlier rather than later, but this has not been the case.

This is because a large portion of the Palestinian and broader Arab population believes that Israel has usurped all the land that the country maintains is its own, and any accommodation would be viewed as capitulation.  It’s position is as stated above, that Palestinians have the right to control all of Jerusalem, and that in fact they also have the right to control the remainder of what is now Israel.

Leadership on both sides today tend to support these opposed, and impossible to realize, positions.  The leaders were put into office because their positions reflect the general positions of the populace and, in turn, deepen the feelings on the street by their vocal support of these extremes.

Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and saying at the same time that the boundaries of the city, and the division of the city’s control, is therefore a non-event on a rational level.  The final determination of control over Jerusalem is being withheld as one of the final items to be negotiated by the “two states”.  Whether the embassy is in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv is, on this basis, without any import.

But, for their own reasons, both sides have decided that there is more to this decision than meets the eye.  That it presages an American position that Israel deserves everything and the Palestinians nothing, and that this has been the position of the United States all along, and that “aha, this proves it”.

There is nothing in the Trump statement to lead to this conclusion.  You need to read between the lines.  But, then, both Jews and Arabs are used to reading between lines.  All I can see is what I can see.  To me, both sides should ignore this move, and continue on with their regular activities.  But to them, I am being naive, and the world has changed.

So what will the Trump statement do?  Will it unleash the evil instincts that have always been just below (and sometimes above) the surface in the region, who were just looking for an excuse to erupt?  Or will the current unrest die down, and both parties come to the conclusion that a final agreement is now more important than ever?  Hoping for the latter, and fearing the former, we will just have to wait and see.






A Few Recent Books

There’s so much to say, but I never seem to have the time to say it the way I would like.  But I thought I should at least list the last four books I have read – all of interest.

  1.  Evan Thomas’ Being Nixon.  I enjoy Thomas’ books – I have read quite a few.  The most recent before this was his biography of Dwight Eisenhower, which I found compelling, and which changed my view of the Eisenhower presidency (to the positive). Being Nixon is a thorough biography of the man, and quite a balanced one, I thought.  Balanced not in the good things he did versus the bad things, but balanced more in the analysis of the man’s inner workings.  Nixon was clearly a complex fellow, filled with inner contradictions that both propelled and restrained him, keeping him from accomplishing all that he could have accomplished, and, yes, restraining him from all of the destruction that he could have wreaked.  Compared to the last Nixon biography I read (by Tim Weiner), Thomas’ book was a pleasure.  For Weiner, Nixon seemed to be evil incarnate, and even the good things he accomplished (his China opening, nuclear pact with the USSR, and his domestic accomplishments) were, for Weiner, either accidental or done for a hidden nefarious purpose.
  2. “A Fort of Nine Towers” by Qais Akbar Omar.  This well reviewed, and well written, book tells the story of young Omar who, with his family, was caught in the maelstrom that is Afghanistan.  From the Russian-backed Afghan Communists, to the Mujahedin to the entry of the Americans.  Five years of terror and internal displacement for young Omar and his family.  His was a carpet dealing family, and a successful one at that, but all of that (their house, their money, their inventory of 6,000 carpets) was lost.  They left Kabul, wandered the country looking for security, unable to get out.  They lost relatives and friends and saw others turn into monsters; they were lucky to escape with their lives.  Riveting, no question.  But I have to ask:  was it all true, or was it exaggerated?  I have not seen anyone suggest exaggeration – but it was so much, so many adventures, so many close calls, that I have to wonder.  Especially for someone who finally did make it to the U.S. (he’s now back in Afghanistan) and who earned a degree is creative writing.  Worth reading, for sure.
  3. William Iggiagruk Hensley’s Fifty Miles From Tomorrow, a story of growing up as a semi-nomad in north western Alaska in the 1940s and 1950s.  Hensley, who became a leader and champion of Alaskan statehood and the rights of its native peoples, was – as he describes it – a member of the last generation to live the life of the indigenous Alaskans, and quite a life it was – moving from place to place as the seasons changed, living off the land and the sea, always cold (especially when you had to go to the bathroom at night), lacking anything like privacy.  He was lucky enough to meet a Baptist minister who got him enrolled in a high school in Tennessee, and from there he came to DC where he went to George Washington University, and wound up with a fine career as an activist and leader of his fellow native Alaskans.  Fascinating sociological and political history.
  4.  Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a fictional account of a former member of Russian nobility, sentenced to a life time of home detention shortly after the Russian revolution, and lucky enough to live through everything in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol.  Everyone told me that I had to read this book, and I read it, but did I have to?  Not really.  As someone who has studied quite a bit about Russia in the 20th century, there was nothing for me to learn here (as there was for some), and the adventures of Count Rostov in the Metropol, as a lover of a famous actress, a ersatz grandfather of a young musical prodigy, and as the headwaiter of the hotel restaurant didn’t do much for me.  You may find it more to your liking.

Russia is a Special Place (and that’s not good)

We hear so much about Russia, of course, but the subject matter changes.  Today, everything you hear about Russia relates to the country’s attempt to hack into various systems to influence election results, or to increase fears, or simply to create a little chaos.  It’s easy to focus on the trees, and lose sight of the forest.  This essay will also focus on trees, but with the goal of giving the reader some idea of the forest.

Remember pre-1917 Russia, ruled by tsars who were the representative of God and who even could control the church, helped by a group of wealthy, sometimes well educated, aristocrats who led the military, the government agencies, commerce and agriculture, with the support (until the 1860s) of an army of serfs, and following the end of serfdom, a virtual army of peasants.

After years of turmoil, this fell apart in early 1917, when the Russian parliament (the Duma) took over under the leadership of Socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky.  The West concluded that this was a sea change in Russia (it was), and that Russia was now ready to join the democracies of the world (it wasn’t).  Within nine months, the democrats and socialists were out and the Bolsheviks were in, leading Russia (now the U.S.S.R.) into over 70 years of ugly totalitarianism.

When it was clear that Soviet Communism was not compatible with the ever modernizing world, Gorbachev tried to give Communism a friendly face, open to the world.  He did undo much of what Soviet communism had established, but he saw increasing political anarchy, economic failures, and falling support.  Boris Yeltsin took over with the good idea to banish communism altogether, and bring capitalism to Russia.  This he did, but the capitalism he encouraged was not the capitalism of the United States or of western Europe.  He wound up making a capitalism to serve his buddies, the then new class of Russian oligarchs who bled the country dry by buying state assets (industries, factories, mines, businesses of all kinds) for a song.  All at the expense of the rest of the country – the former serfs and peasants, and everyone else.

It may be the Yeltsin knew that he had gone a bit far, and he in effect designated as his successor a politician from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), who had been for most of his career a KGB official, and who it would assume would bring some order to the wild west that was Russia.  This has not happened, as Putin has learned to wield enormous power, and so far for a period longer than any post-Romanov Russian leader (a period with no end in sight).  Russia remains Russia – with a strong, powerful leader, the masses following behind, freedoms diminished as time goes by.  The tsar lives; his name is Vladimir. 1917 never happened.

Recognizing this is so is important in trying to decipher all of the news (fake or otherwise) today, let me suggest some books you might like to read.

  1.  In the last blog post, I mentioned the biography of David Francis, the American ambassador to Russia at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik takeover.  Standing on a Volcano: the Life and Times of David Rowland Francis, by Harper Barnes (Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001).  If you aren’t interested in Francis’ career in St. Louis (where he chaired the 1904 World’s Fair), skip that part and read “Part II”, dealing with Francis in Russia.  A unique view of 1917 in Russia, from the vantage point of the isolated and very uncertain American diplomatic personnel.
  2. I then read a not very well known book, titled Down the Volga in a Time of Troubles: a Journey Revealing the People and Heartland of Post-Perestroika Russia by Canadian journalists Marq de Villiers (Harper Collins, 1991).  de Villiers decided to explore the Volga River, from its source not far from Moscow to where it drains into the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan. The first half of the trip was made on a small river boat, with four or five Russian journalists; the second half he did solo, using a variety of types of transportation.  He stopped in each city, and a large number of small villages on the river, and in each spoke to people, whom he often ran into by accident.  This was during the Gorbachev years, when the USSR still existed, and Communism was being loosened.  Most of the places he visited were in terrible physical and economic shape, and most of the people, rather than being cheered on by Gorbachev’s reforms, were dispirited, certain that no Russian story has a happy ending, and afraid of their own futures.  Russia, it appeared, was ungovernable.
  3. Next came Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia by the late Paul Klebnikov (Harcourt, Inc, 2000).  Described as a biography of Berezovsky, one of the original and best know of the new Russian oligarchs, it is really a story of the extraordinary method of privatization of Russia’s state owned facilities in general – and how the oligarchs got rich with the help of the politicians whom they in turn helped in ways that would never be permitted here. Berezovsky was, for sure, one of the more interesting of the new Russian elite – he was in transportation, mining, media, and more; he was involved in ending the conflict in Chechnya. He was close to Yeltsin and one of his biggest supporters.  He became a supporter, but then an enemy of Putin, and that did it for the career of Boris Berezovsky. He would end up in exile in England, dead by hanging in his estate.  Suicide?  Murder? We don’t know to this day.  (And we can’t rely on Paul Klebnikov  to help us – this award winning investigative reporter was gunned down on a Moscow street in 2004 – again, we don’t have any idea who did it.)  But if you want to know how Russia’s privatization works, this book provides fascinating reading.
  4. I recently finished Red Notice: a True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Injustice by Bill Browder (Simon & Schuster 2015). Browder was the American hedge fund operator who, like the Russian oligarchs, found a way to make himself and his investors rich in Russia (not in a praiseworthy way, but by buying on the secondary market at a deep discount the vouchers issued to Russian citizens, many (most?) of whom sold them to brokers for a fraction of their eventual value.  Without giving the story away (you should read the book), at some point the Russians decided that this American and his international investors were making too much money off Russian privatization, and decided to close him down, again in ways that were immoral and illegal, but orchestrated from the highest levels of the Russian government.  Browder was named persona non grata in Russia, and was living in London, working with Russian and English lawyers and accountants to protect himself and his associates against a series of Russian civil and criminal charges.  One of his Russian attorneys was young Sergei Magnitsky, who took his role very seriously and even when things became very dangerous refused to leave the country.  He was arrested on trumped up tax evasion charges, convicted, sentenced, tortured and murdered in prison.  The book tells the entire story – including the  story of the now famous Magnitsky legislation in this country, targeting Russian officials who were involved in the persecution and murder of Magnitsky.  Even today, in spite of what would clearly appear to be incontrovertible evidence, the Russians (Putin on down) stick to their stories (talk about fake news).  If you are at all interested in this subject (and you should be), this book is essential.
  5. The last book that I am recommending I have not read yet.  Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017) is one of the world’s experts on Putin, having left Russia several years ago because of her fear as a lesbian married to another woman, with a child.  She has written an often quoted biography of Putin, and other books on contemporary Russia.  She is a very well respected analyst, and as you can tell from her title, her conclusion seems to be my conclusion.  I have read the review in the Washington Post, which was very positive.  It will jump up several places on my reading list.

What to take away from all of this?  Russia is not America. It is not western Europe.  It is Russia.  It has a complex legal system, subject to complete change, and rarely followed.  Everything important that happens is centralized from the top.  It will be along time before we can believe anything that comes out of the country, and an even longer time before we can count on them, no matter what they say.  They are willing to do everything (not an exaggeration – read the books) to get to where they want to go, and if they begin to falter, they will double down and deny they ever did anything.  Be aware; don’t be deluded.  In the 2016 election, many may have been convinced by their targeted fake news activities.  We must be smarter than that next time.


Russia and the St. Louis World’s Fair

So, I’m interested in all sorts of things, as long as they don’t depend on familiarity with calculus or astrophysics.  And quite often, I will find a book, or an article, that speaks to something which I find of interest.  But how often do I find a book that relates to two separate interests of mine, especially when the two interests seemingly have little to do with each other?

But I did find such a book:  “Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis”, by Harper Barnes, published by the Missouri Historical Society Press in 2001.

The two seemingly disparate subjects:  (1) The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and (2) Russia/USSR.  David Francis, a man you probably never heard of but who, at one time, was spoken of as a likely candidate for President, was intimately involved with both.

Francis was born in Kentucky in 1850, and came to St. Louis about twenty years later to attend a small school called Washington University.  He stayed in St. Louis, got involved in finance and politics (both very successfully), and at the age of 35, in 1885, was elected mayor, the youngest mayor the city had ever had, and one of the more successful.  Following four years in that office, he was elected governor of the State of Missouri.

He left the governorship in 1897, and devoted the next several years to what became his pet project, the St. Louis World’s Fair, of which he became Chairman and which made him a celebrity.  

St. Louis was the fourth largest cities in the country at the time, but was beginning to pay second fiddle in the Midwest to Chicago, to which it lost out as the site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  St. Louis was losing ground in part because the railroads had decided to go through Chicago, where the obstacles of the Mississippi River and a conservative financial leadership which didn’t want to spring for a second river bridge, were not found.

But Francis was not deterred, and dreamed of a Fair bigger than Chicago’s, overcoming odds and obstacles to succeed.  The scope and breath of the fair was mind-boggling.  Even St. Louis’ Forest Park was too small, and the then new campus of Washington University had to be added to the fair grounds. 900 buildings, only a few of which were built to last a harsh winter, over hundreds of acres.  Lagoons were built, waterfalls cascaded, everything lit with colored lights at night.  Buildings highlighting industries, states, foreign countries.  Exhibits of animals – and controversial exhibits of people, people like Philippine tribesmen, the Ainu from northern Japan, and others.  Iced tea and ice cream cones were introduced.  A wide variety of restaurants, and entertainments.  And if that weren’t enough – the 1904 Olympics. 
None of this would have happened were it not for the determination, the financial intelligence, and the political savvy of David Francis, and “Standing on the Volcano” tells the story very well (as it does the story of the Francis family, and the course of St. Louis history).

The story picks up a dozen or so years later, when Francis, still one of St. Louis’ wealthiest and most prominent citizens, is tapped by Woodrow Wilson to become ambassador to Russia, in spite of his age and lack of diplomatic experience.  World War I (the “Great War”) is raging, Russia a problematic country, but an important ally of France and England.

Francis fits right in in Russia – he loves the diplomatic life, and he loves the imperial capital of St. Petersburg.  But all is not well in mother Russia – resentment, always present, is building against Nicholas II, the economy is weak, and the Russians are getting tired of the war, and the loss of so many of their countrymen.

Francis remains ambassador to Russia when the United States enters the war, and when the first of the two revolutions of 1917 lead to the abdication of the tsar, and the formation of the never stable provisional government under the leadership of moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky.  He becomes an ardent supporter of the provisional government, convincing his home country to recognize the new Russia.  He remains the ambassador during the second 1917 revolution, when the provisional government resigns, when Lenin and his Bolsheviks take control and when Russia pulls out of the war because of public sentiment, governmental philosophy and fear of a German invasion

Francis is very much anti-Bolshevik.  He leads a number of ambassadors out of the new, but dangerous, capital of Moscow, and takes them north to the old town of Vologda, where they remain with the hope that the Bolsheviks will fall, and where they lend their support to the White Army and the Czech legion, fighting the Communists.

But, as we know, although the Allies invaded in the north, the Bolsheviks kept control, and Francis had to sneak out and go back home to St. Louis, where he lived for the remainder of his life (with an unsuccessful excursion to warmer climates).

The book is long, filled with things you know and more things you don’t, and it took me some time to get through it.  It is also a book that you generally don’t find at your neighborhood book store or library.  But it’s a well written book, Francis more than a worthy subject, the detail about the World’s Fair fascinating, and the view of Russia between 1916 and 1918 as seen from the American embassy (including the hardships of the American residing in the now USSR, the differences of opinions among American diplomats and other ex-pats, and their communications with Russian and other foreign officials) is something I have not studied before, and is very interesting (and totally new for mell.

The author, Harper Barnes, is listed as a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor, fluent in Russian.  He should be proud of this book.


Rotterdam (Holland) and Columbus (Indiana): Two Tales of Two Cities

So this morning, I watched the last two segments of the 2017 Rotterdam triathlon – the ITU World Finals. I saw the cycling and the running. Missed the swimming.

Now, I don’t even know what ITU stands for. I am not interested in the triathlon, although I now know that winner today was French, but that someone else was the winner for the entire year.

What I really liked was seeing the course that ran through Rotterdam. Just like when I was glued to the Tour de France, it was not to watch the cyclists, but the scenery.

I was in Rotterdam a long time ago, and just once. The old port city was virtually destroyed by bombing in World War II, and, as opposed to most of Europe,  the decision was made not to rebuild old Rotterdam, but to construct a new, modern Rotterdam. The triathlon course which ran by a portion of the port and central districts were interesting to see. If I had been smart, I would have followed the course with a map, but I didn’t think of it.

Seven hours or so after the end of the race, we went to see the new, highly rated film, “Columbus”. It is named for its setting, Columbus, Indiana, the home of about 60 architecturally distinguished buildings constructed over a 25 year period beginning in the early 1940s, many of which represent the modernist school of architecture.

The story line concerns a relationship between a recent Columbus high school graduate and the Korean born son of a well known scholar of architecture who becomes very sick while in Columbus to give a lecture.

But the background, beautifully filmed, is the architecture of Columbus. It was of particular interest to me because we were in Columbus in the summer of 2016 and we saw much, and possibly most, of what is shown in the film. And it looked better in the film than in person, in part because so much of the architecture is dated, although radical for its time. And the upkeep of the buildings vary.

It’s worth going to Columbus, and it’s worth seeing the film. The young Columbus woman is fascinated by architecture. The son of the Korean scholar is not. She tells him that she is not surprised, that most people in Columbus pay no attention to it. That it’s too familiar.

And Columbus is more than the architecture that drives its tourist business. It is home to some large industries and is very much a company town, with the seeming majority of its citizens living very modestly, in small one storey houses often in need of repair. The movie gives you a sense of this, too.

I guess I’m just interested in cities, and there are so many ways (film and TV sports being just two) to satisfy that interest visually. With YouTube, as another example, you can explore any place you wish. And on the internet, you can see a most everywhere live. What a world!

The War in Vietnam

I hadn’t heard of the book, and when I started reading through it, I did not know whether or not it would be interesting.  It was.

The book is Gordon Goldstein’s 2008 book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. For those who don’t remember Bundy, he was not the serial killer (that was Ted), but rather the National Security Advisor who served both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.  He was the epitome of those called by David Halberstam “the best and the brightest”.

Born into a wealthy, socially prominent Boston family, Bundy did his undergraduate work at Yale (Skull and Bones) and graduate work at Harvard (he was a Harvard Fellow, an exclusive program without the requirements of PhD candidates), and by the time he was 34, he was Dean of the Harvard Faculty.  His field was government, although it should be known that his undergraduate work was in mathematics, and his academic government work was fairly minimal.

He joined the Kennedy administration in time to see the first major Kennedy foreign policy defeat, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  From this, he saw Kennedy develop a fear of foreign policy adventures, which led to his administration’s keeping a low profile with troubles increasing in Vietnam, sending some military advisors, but vowing not to get involved in a war against the Communist North and not to send American combat troops.  It was enough that the United States was covertly involved in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government, although this in the end did not help the cause of the South, and apparently Kennedy had no idea that President Diem was going to be murdered in cold blood, or he would not have even authorized the covert assistance we gave.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson went back and forth on whether or not combat troops should be sent to Vietnam, listening to a variety of advisors, from super dove George Ball to the super hawks at the Pentagon and in the military.  Bundy was typically on the hawkish side, and certainly was not upset when Johnson made the eventual decision to commit the United States to the fight.  Nor was he against the large troop increases, even when it seemed clear that this was not a war that could be won.  American prestige, American credibility was on the line, and with the addition of hundreds of thousands of American troops, perhaps a negotiated settlement could be reached.  Of course, this never happened, and almost 50,000 additional American soldiers died, while we pretended that we were winning, or would win, or could win the war.  Bundy’s resolve wavered quite a bit as this useless escalation continued.

Bundy valued loyalty, both to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and maintained that he would not criticize either president for any decision made.  He kept up his vow until Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Defense Secretary, published his memoir, In Retrospect, in 1995 (Bundy had read it in draft).  Perhaps, because of McNamara’s candor, Bundy thought it was appropriate for him to give his thoughts as to the past as well.

This is where Goldstein came in.  Bundy knew Goldstein and asked him to work with him on his book, doing the factual research, while Bundy, approaching 80, searched his memory for the more subjective narrative.  The collaboration was working well when Bundy, suddenly and unexpectedly, died of a heart attack in 1996.

Bundy’s book never got written (his wife did not want a book published under his name posthumously, it appears), but Goldstein wrote his own book describing what he learned about the period collaborating with McGeorge (who was called Mac, not George, by the way) Bundy.

The result is a very well written book, uniquely organized as to lessons learned, largely chronological but not exclusively, about the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, the presidents themselves and their senior staff members, advisors and cabinet officials regarding the country’s foreign policy.

The book is very much worth reading, both as a review of the 1960s and because it provides some “inside the White House” insight that you might not find in many places.  The lessons are many, but they boil down to this:  you can get advice from many people based on their experiences, their intellectual or emotional make up, or their ideologies, and they are certain to vary, from one extreme to the other. And you are obliged to study all of these points of view – you are making a big mistake if you don’t.  But, if you are the president, you have to make the decisions and you (as well as the rest of us) have to live with them.  The buck really does stop there.

George Soros – It’s Unbelievable

Have you seen what’s going on with George Soros?  I quote from today’s Washington Times:  “A petition asking the White House to declare liberal mega-donor George Soros a domestic terrorist has garnered over 100,000 signatures, or more than enough to necessitate a response from the Trump administration……[The petition states that] George Soros has willfully and on an ongoing basis attempted to destabilize and otherwise commit acts of sedition against the United States and its citizens.’ through allegedly creating and funding organizations exclusively devoted to facilitating “the collapse of the systems and Constitutional government of the United States.”

Now, nothing could be more ridiculous than this.  But in fact (and I know this from some people that I know, who are otherwise fairly smart) many right wing Americans are convinced that George Soros is evil incarnate, and that declaring him a terrorist would be most appropriate.  Unbelievable.

George Soros, a Hungarian-American Jewish investor, is one of the world’s wealthiest men. Born in Budapest and a young teenager when the Germans invaded Hungary, he was hidden with false papers in the home of a non-Jewish friend of his fathers, who (for whatever reason) provided assistance to the German regime.  Young George accompanied him on some missions where his false father was apparently identifying Jews for the Nazis.  Based on this history, which saved Soros’ life, right wingers have decided not only that Soros was a self-hating Jew (whatever that really is supposed to mean), and that he was a willing Nazi sympathizer and supporter.  Some websites have even concluded that Soros was a German SS officer during World War II (putting aside the fact that the war ended when he was 15).  Have I said this before?  Unbelievable.

After the war, Soros went to London to study philosophy at the London School of Economics, and then (realizing that teaching philosophy after World War II was not going to result in his earning a good income) went into finance, finding himself quite adept at anticipating changes in equity, loan and currency markets.  He became very wealthy.  (Much of his wealth came from his anticipation of the collapse of the British pound and certain other currencies, and his shorting these currencies; his critics have claimed that he engineered the collapse of the currencies himself – something that is pretty difficult for one person to have done.)

He kept up his interest in and study of philosophy and its practical application, especially to social structure and political organization.  Having the resources at his command, and seeing where governments were failing their citizenry, he decided to set up a number of Open Society Foundations, supported by his own foundation, but by and large up to local leadership and direction.  His first efforts were in the Soviet Union and the countries freed from the Soviet grip during the 1980s and 1990s.  In all, it’s been estimated that he has donated $12 billion of his own money to these efforts.

Why have the right wing crazies (my term) targeted Soros?  Jealousy of his wealth?  Failure to understand his thinking?  Antisemitism?  Suspicion of motives (which can be influenced by Antisemitism)? Follow the leader?  I am not sure.

I wanted to learn more about Soros, so I picked up his 2006 book, The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror, to see if I could learn a little more as to why he has been personified by so many as the enemy.

Soros was a very vocal critic of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq (his reasons are those that now seem obvious – the entire Middle East would be destabilized, and Iran would be the winner).  He put a lot of money and effort in ensuring that Bush would not be elected to a second term.  He was obviously not successful, but he earned a lot of Republican enemies in the process. By the way, his main efforts to stop a second term for W were in voter registration drives – obviously a very un-American activity, to be certain.

The Age of Fallibility is a short, and unusual, book.  It is not Soros’ first, and he cites his others throughout, as his world view seems to have been very consistent over the past 50 years (he even quotes at length from a piece he wrote in 1961).  The first part of the book is about Soros’ philosophical stance, much of it based on his studies at LSE, and in particular on the teachings of Karl Popper and his book The Open Society and its Enemies.  From Popper, Soros got the name for his various foundations.

Much of the first part of the book relates to concepts such as reality and truth.  It’s important to search for truth, but it is impossible to identify truth (as I understand Soros) because so much of what one sees as reality is influenced by oneself. So, when one observes something, he is observing the object as he observes it, thus becoming a part of what he is observing and distorting the apparent reality as he does so.  Can you follow that?  Was I at all clear?  It helps explain, for example, why two people with different basic world views can look at the same item, or the same occurrence, and reach very different conclusions as to what they are seeing.  An important concept when thinking about today’s political realities.

I’m obviously not going to try to restate Soros’ full book; I encourage you to read it yourself, although the first part does require patience and attention.  When you get to the later parts, dealing with today’s political realities (today being 2006), it is easier to follow.

My brief analysis of Soros’ views is as follows:  There are “open societies” and “closed societies”.  Clearly, Communist and fascist societies (both of which Soros lived in, so he has personal experience) are “closed”, but so are any societies led by leaders or parties with fundamentalist ideologies. An “open society” is one that permits individuals to live their lives as much as possible in accordance with their own needs, desires and beliefs; it is a tolerant society.  A “closed society” is one where leadership is such that citizens need to conform to the party line, or risk being ostracized or punished one way or another.

Here we reach what I would call a paradox.  Soros, called by his enemies a “liberal”, would probably not call himself a liberal, at least as that term is understood today.  Soros is against, not for, big government. He believes in citizens taking action themselves (in his own life, through his Open Society foundations).  In many ways, Soros is more a Libertarian than a Democrat,  He supports Democratic candidates, not because he always believes what they believe, but because he finds the right wing Republican (and, with regard to foreign policy, the right wing ‘neocon’ positions) to be so wrongheaded.

The Open Society Foundations promote open societies, and teaching citizens how to strive for and operate open societies.  This is why he was so effective in the former Soviet occupied countries.  It is equally why today, in countries such as his native Hungary, which have become more “closed” and more right wing in recent years have also, like the American right, turned Soros into a bad guy.

The other reason that the right is so opposed to Soros is that Soros and the right have very different concepts of patriotism.  Soros’ concept of patriotism is to support your country as a citizen-country of the world; he is against nationalism, and he would certainly be against anything called “America First”. This is not because he doesn’t support his country, but because he believes that nationalism and American First-ism will lead away from, not towards, the goal of making the country the best it can be. He believes that American consumerism is an evil that has led to many of today’s problems – that we were stronger when we were implementing the Marshall Plan to rebuild other countries. He believes that globalism is here to stay, and that it should be encouraged and developed for the overall benefit of the planet, not that it should be manipulated for the supposed benefit of one country or another, and that his country should lead this effort.

He is also very concerned about the conservation of the resources of the planet and its energy sources.  He is very concerned about climate change.  He is very concerned about nuclear arms.  He is a strong believer in democracy, but does not think that democracy can be imposed from the outside, or can be rushed.

Soros is clearly very bright, and very serious in following what he believes is the right course.  He understands that, because of his enormous wealth (he is much richer than, for example, Donald Trump), he has opportunities that others do not have.  But he is not perfect.  Many of his efforts have failed, and he treats them as defeats, sometimes victims of circumstance, sometimes of bad planning.  He has an enormous ego, and I guess would be difficult to be around for long periods of time.  He is now in his upper 80s, and knows that his time is limited – whether he has provided for succession in his various enterprises, I am not sure.  He has a number of children, some of whom do work with him.

I hope I have done a decent job in describing Soros as I see him.  I have a biography of him, Soros, by Michael Kaufman, written about 15 years ago.  I know nothing about the book, but I plan to look at it soon to see if it adds to, or changes, my current views.

I certainly cannot see why Soros should be considered a terrorist any more than I should be.  But, I guess, anyone who supports open societies would be targeted by those who favor closed societies (even those people who don’t know that they favor closed societies – this gets us back to our discussion of truth and reality), and that an open society advocate with tens of billions of dollars behind him would naturally become the biggest target of them all.