Review by Jim Scott
Observations made many years ago by the late, award winning Lincoln historian, Richard N.Current, on ground breaking history books: “The more preposterous the assertions a book on history makes, the greater the initial acclaim it is likely to receive, especially from non-historians. What was new in it wasn’t true and what was true wasn’t new.” Timely now to reconsider this ground breaking narrative, which traced the historiography of anti-Black racist ideas in America, winning the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and widespread praise by historians and non-historians alike.
Now, four years later, Dr. Kendi (Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research), has reappeared on must-read lists with ‘Stamped’ and other solely anti-Black racist focused works. Despite the fusillade of adulatory reviews, criticisms persist, focusing on Kendi’s disappointing lack of comparative context across race or cultures within America’s crucible of systemic racism. Kendi’s analysis excluded virtually all non-anti-Black racist ideas; little on Native American genocide; nothing on outright racist Japanese internment and Chinese (virtually all-Asian) exclusion by aggressive, multi-generational national policy, among other racially based cultural and ethnic indignities; and nothing on differing assimilative parallels in non-American cultures containing significant Black minority populations. He remains publically dismissive of those criticisms on his narrow focus, responding that a call for “transnational analysis of racist differences in a book clearly focused on one nation-state is imprudent.” You decide for yourself.
Thus, time for this non-historian reviewer, having been an admirer of ‘Stamped’ four years ago, to review afresh.
The title ‘Stamped’ borrows an 1860 Senate declaration by then Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, objecting to funding Black education in Washington, D.C., in which he stated “…this Government was not founded by negroes nor for negroes” but “by white men for white men…the inequality of the white and black races was stamped from the beginning.”
‘Stamped’ is a big book divided into five analytical sections sandwiched between prologue and epilogue. Kendi’s prologue places this book as a paean to the altar of African American cries of victimology. Skillfully exercising political/historical entrepreneurship, he truncates the contour of disparities between Blacks and Whites, narrowly citing only population percentage differentials of relative wealth and incarceration (i.e., Blacks are only 13% of U.S. population but…), while omitting the same comparative method for unmentioned, non-narrative-supporting stats such as murders, other crimes, and metrics of social degeneration. This was a serious research shortcoming. Kendi then defines the good guys and bad guys in America’s historical racial drama: the racists–bad guys (who blame Blacks’ inferiority for the disparities) and antiracists-good guys (who blame White oppressive policies of discrimination and lack of opportunity). A good step, but he doesn’t stop there.
Ibram introduces and condemns a third group section after section, who rightly agree that oppression does play a key role, but who also add inferiority of education and lack of quality, non-menial work experience, and other attributes. This group he calls assimilationists, some dead, some modern, “who suffer from the racism of good intentions and historical complicitness” in anti-Black racism’s persistence. The group includes abolitionists, educators, wise and intentional men and women societal leaders, and as the book progresses, torturously and disappointingly includes Presidents Lincoln and Obama; patriarchs of distinguished thought Douglass and DuBois; heroic soldiers like Brown v. Board’s plaintiffs’ virtual armada of lawyers and sociologists and their Supreme Court, among others. In Kendi’s interpretation, this group has merely (unwittingly) confirmed African Americans’ unequal stature and power, and has done little to dissuade all Whites to abandon their superiority attitudes on race.
Not stopping there, Kendi accelerates into hyper-discomfort when deriding the modern “loud Black minority” (calling some out by name) who do not preach his standalone victimology narrative, and who decry Black self-sabotage, family instability, and blind leniency toward counterproductive behavior and its consequences.
Though racist and antiracist categories seem straightforward, calling assimilationists (past or present) anti-Black racists categorically, as does Kendi, is extremely bold, assuredly debatable, but that debate finds no home in this book.
The book’s analytical sections are ingeniously titled for a representative person engaged differently with race, slavery, civil rights, and America’s cultural landscape: Cotton Mather (Christianity); Jefferson (The Enlightenment); Garrison (abolitionism), Du Bois (Jim Crow); Angela Davis (“the movement”). This treatment reveals effectively the raw thread of anti-Black racism within American culture over the five lifetimes, supporting convincingly an unstated proposition that ‘Black Lives Mattered Indeed’, but merely as chattel or servants. But what has been substantially ignored, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the spirit that Blacks’ livelihoods also matter, implicit in much of what many (most?) of the maligned assimilationists have strived for, past and present. That spirit, one evoked by Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, i.e., the spirit of freedom from defilement and discrimination, was too muted in Kendi’s research and exposition. Had he acknowledged that that spirit lived and lives in at least some expression of the assimilationists’ efforts, perhaps this would have been a better book. Indeed, it is hard to deny that at least some Americans have adopted Baldwin’s spirit and have relegated “pre-Baldwin” self-doubts of “Negro” equality to the fetid trashbin of anti-Black racism’s errors.
Also disappointing is Kendi’s committed promotion of the victimology narrative, blinding him to a major factual error staining his historiography, i.e., treatment of affirmative action. He asserts that California’s 1996 anti-affirmative-action Prop 209 (which he calls another form of racist oppression) caused a decline in the percentage of African Americans at the University of California. He cited no post-Prop support for his important statement, though official U Cal results seem to show immediate and consistent increases thereafter throughout the U Cal system, which, if true, is an inconvenient truth. (Source: UC Office of the President, Data Management and Analysis.)
Concluding, the epilogue is his policy framework for extinguishing anti-Black racism.
His platform for the future rests on the book’s astute and actionable finding that racist policies produce racist ideas, not the reverse; hence, he concludes that an anti-racist policy framework will produce anti-racist ideas and behaviors. Disappointingly, to implement such a sensible framework he presents only one systemic strategy: “seizure of power by committed antiracists and immediate, sweeping national legislative coercion forcing wealth equality between Black and White America.” Really? This is hardly distinguishable from outright totalitarian fascism.
Perhaps, the better strategy would begin with the understanding that systemic American racism is intermeshed with America’s history visited on people of color (red- yellow-brown-black skinned). Kendi’s book is only part of the story. But the truly bad guys in his story (excepting assimilationists, whose complicity remains to be more convincingly demonstrated) may still find it difficult to say they are sorry, for that is the true measure of man, despite the fundamental difficulty in humans of any race to say “sorry.” Whites must come to explicitly understand that our nation’s march of progress among the nations of the world likely would have been so much more compelling without the race-rule trauma inflicted on non-Whites, trauma consisting of nothing less than the systemic abomination by a ruling class backed by laws, courts, municipal rules, commercial and social conventions. Going forward, Whites’ behavior must soothe with caring and justice the protracted agony that their ancestors and perhaps they, too, have caused and that has occurred intentionally and not as a disconnected series unintentional or minor wrongs within our history. Money transfer won’t fix it; love will. And then, let us all go forward from there with willful intent to do the right thing.
Everyone seeking a thought-piece to probe deeply into this vexing problem of systemic racism as it relates to Blacks (only) should take the time to read this important book, which fundamentally endures as an innovative, though perhaps not necessarily definitive, sweep of “racist ideas” and its historical transmission. But, do read it cautiously, and as Kendi implores the reader to do so, with an open mind.
Book Review by Jim Scott
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
After the publication of his book, Larson explained that his motivation for writing it was his intrigue with how New Yorkers dealt with the 9/11 violation of their hometown. Driven by that motive, he spring boarded his focus into speculating “how then did Londoners survive?” their violation, i.e., the horror of months of Nazi bombing during Winston Churchill’s first year as U.K. Prime Minister during World War II. In researching and telling his story, Larson opted, however, not to portray a typical London family’s experience, but instead, he crafted the domestic drama examining Churchill, his family, and his “Secret Circle” and how they went about surviving the airborne terror and fear of invasion.
Larson calls this work narrative history, flowing along a natural, narrative arc based on factually rich, archival material. He avoids creating composite characters, imaginary dialogue, or plausible “gap fillers” (unsupported by facts), which usually grease a slippery slope facing historical non-fiction genre writers, with whom Larson does not co-identify.
He succeeds brilliantly in telling us about Churchill’s world. He combines exceptional story-telling skill with a reservoir of footnoted material supporting his script, just in case the reader wants to do some fact checking. I chose not to do so, convinced by Larson’s formidable previous body of work attesting to his “telling it like it was” style and award-winning reputation for having done so. However, some historians dislike Larson’s self-identity of narrative historian, thinking him a talented storyteller but lacking a true historian’s understanding of context.
But do you really care to get into an academician’s rock throwing debate?
This is an important book, even an extraordinary one, and not merely another screed merely extolling the glorious wartime cheerleading by the great orator, Winston Churchill. Yes, that element is here on display, but the book’s added value is Larson’s immersion of the reader into the lives of a sharply class-stratified society, from the standpoint not of the fearless, gritty, heroic, suffering English and British Empire commoners, but from that of the debauched, debutante chasers & night club seekers, and partridge-hunting, English country house members of the powerful, out-of-touch leadership of the English upper crust. This Churchill-circle seemed dedicated to the pursuit of preservation of privilege and empire, not advancement of democracy or support of anti-fascism.
By lifting the veil from over these cloistered lives during a remarkable, even horrific, historical period, Larson has perhaps, inadvertently, answered the vexing question of why Great Britain’s politics after the end of the war changed so radically, by throwing out the ruling class including Churchill, in favor of massive, middle class social and economic reconstruction.
Book Review by Aashka Garg
Crescent City by Sarah J Maas is a young adult novel that combines magic with technology. All of the characters have so many different sides and you are constantly surprised by the plot twists. For the entirety of the book from the first to the last page it sucks you in and you fall in love with the characters as well as the world the Sarah J Maas creates.
Book Review by Aashka Garg
Beloved by Toni Morrison I have read it before and I decided to reread it. Toni Morrison was inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, a woman who escaped slavery by sheer force of will and the story is set after the Civil War. The book itself has times where the message is horrifying and the struggles and trauma that the characters go through are unbelievable and incredibly hard to comprehend.
See review below.
Book Review by Jim Scott —Searching for Paths to a Sounder Climate Future
• THE STORY OF MORE: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, by Hope Jahren
• CLIMATE CHANGE, A Very Short Introduction, by Mark Maslin
These are relatively short (200 pages), readable books by highly respected “climate faithful” scientists. As we hurtle toward Apocalypse, Jahren, a geochemist/geobiologist, and Maslin, a global climatologist, offer “pulpit” material for fellow believers and worthy rebuttals to deniers, delivering conclusions that climate change is already upon us.
“Better safe than sorry” is their message: we must and can act now to alter the future. Believers may thank these authors…Jahren, (no graphs, charts, or formulae) explaining human development's planetary impact … Maslin, (lots of graphs, charts, and formulae) describing “consensus” science and its projection models. Jahren (properly) advocates actions to take to “live in a more equitable world with a brighter future,” urging examination of one’s values (which inadvertently opens the door for solutions of those whose values may differ from those of dogmatic believers). Maslin (properly) recognizes “…that the two major problems facing humanity in the twenty-first century are global poverty and global warming.” However, he shall offend many (perhaps even some believers) by prioritizing the elimination of warming over the elimination of poverty by advocating the ‘less is more’ Kyoto Protocol & Paris Accord energy straight jackets.
Climate deniers, nevertheless, should not abandon yet their sandy beaches in which heads are buried, and suddenly become believers. Though Jahren and Maslin chip away at the deniers’ pillars [such as support for oil/gas industries; libertarian opposition to more regulation; and addiction to modern lifestyles with ever-expanding material prosperity], their books may inadvertently reinforce the silent climate agnostics’ caveats.
Lurking quietly between the lines, agnostics deny neither climate change nor global warming, but they gather around the inconvenient big question, “If so, why?” If popular causes are wrong, then proposed solutions are spurious. Agnostics reject politics getting so far ahead of the science. They scoff at the hysteria and magnitude of the inaccuracy of current models’ projections. They pine for three things, (1) better science (shuddering at past, non-scientific concepts resting on “consensus” (e.g., “flat Earth,” heavier objects falling faster than lighter ones” ), preferring instead the late Richard Feynman’s paraphrase of Einstein’s perspective on science: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”; (2) intelligent continuation of mankind’s 50-year thrust against abject poverty; and (3) abandonment of believers ignoring the good side of CO2 in food production and reduction of global poverty, plus believers’ singular focus only on the bad side of CO2 (only 0.04% of atmospheric content) vs. impacts of clouds, water vapor, winds and oceans, all conspicuously, inadequately evaluated, especially in the context of locally relevant, economic strategies. Thus, readers of Jahren/Maslin, be on guard.
Highly respected climate agnostics (such as the recently deceased Professor Freeman Dyson, a world-renowned theoretical physicist at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton) argue for the continued pursuit of a better evidence-based understanding of the Earth’s ecology, to radically reduce the yawning uncertainties in the flawed consensus models. Such scientific initiatives are being objectively pursued by Caltech- led Climate Modeling Alliance (with MIT and others), focusing on the poorly analyzed effects of clouds and oceans; and a major MIT-led geospatial program pursuing regionally differentiated (i.e., locally relevant) integrated models to replace information-poor, global average temperature-based, current models. Both programs expect within several years having scientifically derived & vetted projections (targeting reduced uncertainties) of the planet’s current and future conditions, i.e., the groundwork for identifying sounder political and economic strategies and letting chips fall where they may.
In the meantime, unless already fully informed on climate change, whether believer-denier-agnostic, please read Jahren and Maslin for valuable and inexpensive education, but do so in the spirit of three wise men (Einstein, Feynman, & Dyson).
Book Review by Jim Scott
On February 18, 1965, influential, white conservative leader William F. Buckley Jr. and lionized black writer James Baldwin debated at the University of Cambridge the proposition: “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin (yea), Buckley (nay). Political scientist Buccola, a respected researcher on Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, offers the first, book length exposition of the debate, including important, substantive background information on both debaters. Perfectly chosen opponents: to Baldwin, Buckley was “loathsome”; to Buckley, Baldwin was an “eloquent menace.”
Book title’s origin: Baldwin’s 1970 interview answer, when asked “about the (white) people being led to their doom by an attitude of mind,” drew from his electrifying 1963 book The Fire Next Time: “The fire is upon us.” This seemed appropriate, given the turbulent seven years between ‘book and interview’, with numerous assassinations, urban riots, Vietnam War, passage and implementation of civil rights laws.
This book was written not merely as debate history but more to explain how we got where we are today on race and rights, and to help signal what we need to do next on those issues. As history, the book communicates superbly why Buckley and Baldwin thought and did what they did.
But as an aid to understanding today and “next steps”, Buccola’s narrative falls short. He thinks that if conservatives had had less (political) power than they ‘ve had, and if liberals had more, things would be better for the “morally righteous” (i.e., Baldwin’s potential intended benefactors, white and black). This is unconvincing, for Baldwin’s moral righteousness crusade was based on freedom from defilement and discrimination; his passion demanded that chips be let to fall where they may in freedom’s wake, not be distributed either as gratuitous handouts or from the barrels of Malcolm X’s armada.
Since the passage of the civil rights legislation of the ‘60s, has more political power been either the solution or limitation? Or, better, could the solution have been found in better use rather than amount of power? Buccola fails to explore this possibility.
Liberals have held substantial political power, but arguably have dissipated its potentially positive impact on race by moving beyond extinguishing Jim Crow-style discrimination, to subsume powerful and dubious movements to establish affirmative action, disparate impact analysis, diversity assurance, even reparations, implemented by massive expansion of federal power, proliferating lawsuits and stifling bureaucracy, which seem to have led to serious dissipation of Baldwin’s inspirational fire: conservation of what should be conserved, i.e., freedom.
Moreover, conservatives’ political power has been and will continue to be counter-productive until they understand and eschew their movement’s early doctrinaire opposition to the civil rights agenda and realize how that has stained, perhaps even defined, their current image. Their blindness is appalling, but still being exhibited in continued deification of its past spokes-leaders such as pre-Buckley Judge Bork, and others since. Failure to condemn the yawning moral asymmetry of the bigot’s Jim Crow thrusts vs. minorities’ human and constitutional rights to live free, will continue to constrain conservatives’ political power.
Despite these fundamental shortcomings of Buccola’s book as a solutions’ guide, one should read his book for a purer understanding of the battle over racial justice and white supremacy that plagued our divided society in the 60s. But don’t expect much more.
Book Review by Claire Zito
I consider it a blessing to be a young woman growing up in the age of the #MeToo movement. While it has led to some tension and confusion, this is a fascinating time to be alive. The youth are constantly taking in information, and learning from strangers online about (oftentimes) what not to do. However, I have questioned whether seeing the life-changing consequences of adults on a daily basis due to toxic masculinity has ultimately led to resentment amongst young men. Boys & Sex provides the answer and so much more. Author Peggy Orenstein interviewed a thousand young men ages 14-25, asking them their opinions on many topics boys are often shunned from expressing. Reading this book has given me insight into many groups of young men I didn't quite understand, but now just might befriend. The biggest example being jocks. As a nerdy theatre kid in school, I didn't interact with them much primarily out of fear. But the unfiltered emotion in so many of the interviews helped me to understand their side of the story. When talking to customers about the book, I've found that no matter your relationship to a young man, you will find this to be eye-opening. Parents, teachers, and young men and women should all read this title.
Book Review by Soumyaa Das, bookseller
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
In 2018, I first heard of a girl in Sweden that protested against climate change by missing a day of school. As an environmentalist myself, I finally had some hope that large corporations and businesses might actually listen to this rebellious teenager and start saving our environment for future generations. However, as time progressed, I began to believe that there was no chance that we would be able to revert back to emission-free days. In fact, climate change is the most concerning topic for younger generations (millennials and after). Greta Thunberg excellently portrays my exact apprehensions. The imperative and assertive nature of this book is bound to inspire older and younger generations to fix their carbon footprint, and hopefully salvage what we have destroyed. After all, we only have 1.5 years to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.
Excerpt: "We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint - the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform - the bigger your responsibility. Adults keep saying: 'We owe it to the young people to given them hope.' But I don't want your hope. I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is."
Book Review by Jim Scott
I. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017
II. Letters from an Astrophysicist, 2019
Tyson is a contemporary American astronomer, science writer and communicator, perhaps as famous today as was the late-Carl Sagan in the ‘80s.
Sagan, as director of Cornell’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies and collaborator on Viking’s Mars probes, and Pioneer and Voyager probes outside the solar system, and Tyson, as director of Hayden Planetarium and television host of the National Geographic and Fox program series on the universe, have both earned prestigious public awards for their work. Tyson has openly demurred to the prospect of filling Sagan’s shoes. So be it. But do not his modesty tempt you to ignore these tidy books by Tyson!
His ‘Astrophysics’ is a triumph of clarity and succinctness. A small book of 200 pages, delivered in 12 chapters, starting provocatively with Ch. 1-The Greatest Story Ever Told”, ending with encouragement to the reader in Ch. 12 to grasp mankind’s place in the cosmos, and eschew the “childish view that the universe revolves around us.” In between, Tyson delivers accessibility to some of the most mind-numbing concepts that the overwhelming majority of the public would otherwise never seek, never taste, much less digest. Black holes? Inter-galactic space? Neutrinos?
But, then, you might ask, “So what?” Do we, who do not wish to spend countless hours in labs or behind telescopes, really care what brainiac astronomers-astrophysicists-cosmologists think about? Maybe, maybe not. Or, is this another unread, cocktail-table adornment signaling to your house guests how scientifically sophisticated and intellectually curious you are? Certainly not!
Tyson set out to capture your interest in joining him through his lens as a passionate educator in exploring the universe, and focusing on the nuts and bolts of his craft (astrophysics): that niche in the astronomer’s world that studies the physics and properties of celestial objects, including stars, planets, and galaxies, and how they behave; exploring the nature of space and time, exploring how mankind fits within the universe and how the universe fits within us.
Tyson may indeed capture you as he has me. Anticipating that, he has followed with ‘Letters’, a remarkably insightful, compact compilation of decades of his science correspondence (with whomever!), “a vignette of the wisdom (he) has mustered to teach, enlighten, and ultimately commiserate with the curious mind.” As in art, one might recall having read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, advising a student of poetry to feel-love-seek truth in understanding and engaging the world of art. “Go into yourself,” beautifully explained by Rilke.
Likewise, in science, brilliantly conveyed in Tyson’s thoughtful, sensitive letters.
Book Review by Jim Scott
The American Story, Conversations with Master Historians, by David M. Rubenstein
Recognized by award winning documentarian Ken Burns as “one of the best interviewers he knows,” David Rubenstein has written this book “to share with readers some of the wealth of historical knowledge that members of Congress have learned between 2013-2019,” i.e., during the running series of learning at the Library of Congress, Rubenstein’s Congressional Dialogues. His purpose in creating the 38-session series was to increase for our national legislators their personal level of historical knowledge, that it may inform them better of future challenges and perhaps “help reduce the partisan rancor” in Washington. Continue Reading ...
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