Book Review of “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present,” by Michael B. Oren

This is a tremendously entertaining and well-written history of America’s relations with the Middle East from the beginning of our country to the present day. Oren organizes his study around three motifs: power (the pursuit of American interests); faith (the impact of religions on attitudes and policies); and fantasy (romantic notions of the Orient that affected government policy).

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The history of religious zeal informing our policies toward the Middle East is especially intriguing. It has always been assumed that Zionism was the main driving force. Oren contends that, on the contrary, a much stronger role has been played by the concept of Restorationism, the belief held by evangelical Protestants that “by expediting the fulfillment of God’s promises to repatriate the Jews to their homeland, Christians could re-create the conditions of Jewish sovereignty that existed in Jesus’ time and so set the stage for his reappearance.” Oren tells stories about the lives of American missionaries in the Middle East and points to “the emergence of missionary dynasties capable of exerting far-reaching influence over America’s foreign relations” since leading wealthy missionary families occupied the same social circles as the country’s political elite:

Through their personal connections with decision makers, the missionaries and their backers could place evangelism and its advocates at the head of America’s overseas priorities, particularly in the Middle East.”

The joy over this empowerment, Oren wryly notes, was not shared by the region’s rulers.

In a rather amusing subplot to the story, Oren recounts how missionary after missionary tried to get Jews to become farmers in Palestine, so as to better approximate the conditions of the land when Jesus was there. The Jews, however, could not be less interested. It was not until the increase in pogroms in Russia in the late 1800’s that the Jews began en masse to see appeal in a safe haven, and then, even farming looked good.

Some other memorable anecdotes: Sol Bloom, impresario of the Algerian Village at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, sitting by a piano and making up (but not copyrighting) “a minor-key ditty…later replayed by countless cartoon snake charmers” to accompany the gyrations of Little Egypt; Mark Twain touring Europe, surprised to find himself the victim of antisemitism when the Viennese press dubbed him “Der Jude Mark Twain” (after observing that he had a large nose); and FDR meeting Ibn Saud in the Suez Canal aboard The Quincy – Roosevelt, paralyzed, dying, ashen and weak, and Ibn Saud “scarcely less ill” having to be winched onto the Quincy because he couldn’t make it up the gangplank.

Evaluation: I don’t think anyone can come away from this rather long (six-hundred pages) but rewarding history without having learned a great number of fascinating details about our history in the Middle East. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2007

Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th Century

Compiled by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A & M University, this list reflects the opinions of 137 leading scholars of American public address.

The top ten are shown below. You can see the whole list here.

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Links:

I Have A Dream Speech of August 28, 1963

John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address of January 20, 1961

Franklin Roosevelt Inaugural Address of March 4, 1933

Franklin Roosevelt War Message of December 8, 1941

Barbara Jordan Address to Democratic National Convention of July 12, 1976

Richard Nixon “Checkers Speech” of September 23, 1952

Malcolm X “The Bullet or The Ballot” Speech of April 3, 1964

Ronald Reagan on the Challenger Disaster of January 28, 1986

John F. Kennedy Speech on his religion on September 12, 1960

Lyndon Johnson “We Shall Overcome” speech on March 15, 1965

September 23, 1800 – Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush: “We Are To Be Pitied”

Gabriel, born in 1776, was a slave owned by Thomas Henry Prosser, who had a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Prosser was reputed to be a cruel master, but he did hire out some of his skilled slaves to other masters in and around Richmond, including Gabriel, who was trained as a blacksmith. In Richmond, Gabriel interacted not only with other hired slaves, but free blacks and white laborers. He also became exposed to the freedom rhetoric of the American Revolutionary movement, and heard news of the uprising of slaves in Saint Domingue. He came to believe that if American slaves rose and fought for their rights, poor whites and Native Americans would join them.

Gabriel began to recruit others, and by August of 1800 had formed an “army.” They were set to revolt on August 30, but a torrential rain made roads and bridges impassable, so they decided to wait until the next evening. But by that time, a few slaves, fearful of repercussions, told their masters about the plan. Governor James Monroe was alerted, and sent out white patrols to round up the rebels.

Governor (and later President) James Monroe

Governor (and later President) James Monroe

They were tried and convicted, and 26 slaves were executed by hanging; one more died by hanging while in custody. Of those not hanged, some were transported to other states, some were found not guilty, and a few were pardoned. By law, slaveholders had to be reimbursed by the state for lost property, so in cases where slaves were executed or transported, their masters were reimbursed for their total worth declared by the court. Virginia paid over $8900 to slaveholders for the executed slaves.

But the “trauma” to the whites was considerable.

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush:

You will hear an account of an attempt at insurrection in this state. I am looking with anxiety to see what will be it’s effect on our state. We are truly to be pitied.”

Those poor slave holders!

You can read the entire letter here.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Review of “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician” by Anthony Everitt

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt is a well-crafted, highly readable biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was a lawyer, orator, prolific and popular writer, and statesman of Ancient Rome. Everitt takes his information from some 900 letters Cicero penned (most of which were to his friend Atticus); many of his speeches (revised and edited by Cicero himself); and Cicero’s books on philosophy and oratory.

Cicero (January 3, 106 B.C. – December 7, 43 B.C.) wrote about the political events of his day: the rise of Julius Caesar, his assassination, and subsequent maneuvering to power of Mark Anthony and Octavian (later known as Augustus). He also set out to write a definitive work covering “the whole field in detail” of every philosophical system. Cicero had a son, Marcus, and a much-beloved daughter Tullia (who died while giving birth). He divorced his wife Terentia after some 30 years, although it is not clear why to historians. His second marriage lasted only a few months.

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Cicero was a life-long devotee of Republican government (and thus an opponent of Caesar). Ordinarily, opposing Caesar was not conducive to longevity. Cicero nevertheless lived to tell his tale for several reasons: Caesar was renown for his occasional leniency, Caesar enjoyed Cicero’s wit, and Cicero himself was a successful manipulator of people in general and alliances in particular.

Cicero longed for power, but always played a secondary role in Roman politics. He lacked the charisma of Caesar, as well as his deep understanding of politics. As Everitt observed, “Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balances prevented effective government . . .” But for Cicero, the solution to Rome’s crisis of inaction and inefficacy “lay in finding better men to run the government and better laws to keep them in order.” But a few good men were as hard to find then as they are today. Thus, Cicero’s advice and leadership, though valued by many, were bypassed by most. How well T.S. Eliot’s character of Prufrock captures Cicero!

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”

Cicero never understood that he was wrong, nor passed by an opportunity to tout his own insight, influence, and value. Eventually Cicero was put to death after Octavian added Cicero’s name on a proscription. (This was a posting of people wanted dead by the leadership. All property was then confiscated and turned over to the state after the killer was rewarded.)

Everitt brings Ancient Rome to life as if we were contemporaries of the protagonists. Ultimately, this attribute is what makes the story so enjoyable. This is an excellent book that makes the reader eager to find out more.

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Published by Random House, 2002

September 19, 1796 – George Washington Warns the Country About Political Rivalries

On this day in history, President George Washington’s Farewell Address to the People of the United States of America was published in the “American Daily Advertiser.”

The address is notable for many wise pronouncements, among them being his warning about political rivalries, about which he knew firsthand from dealing so long with, inter alia, the vicious competition between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

He expressed his concern on a number of developments disturbing the new country:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

…The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. …”

If he were watching us now, he would undoubtedly be shaking his head and saying “I told you…..”

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

Review of “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa” by Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild, an award-winning author of history, a journalist, and a Civil Rights worker, describes in gory detail the mass murder in the Congo that took place mostly between 1890 and 1910, under the aegis of Belgium’s King Leopold II. Greed for ivory, land, and rubber was behind the policies by Leopold that is thought to have reduced the population of the Congo by half: an estimated five to ten million lives. This figure does not include the numerous people subjected “merely” to amputation of hands and/or feet, an apparently common punishment meted out to family members of recalcitrant workers. (Cutting off hands was also the practice subsequent to executions to prove one had not “wasted” ammunition on nonhuman targets. Children were often killed with the butt of guns, also to save ammunition.)

King Leopolds ghost

Inhabitants were used as porters – taking luggage, wine, and pâté inland for the white overseers, and bringing back ivory and rubber. They also had to harvest the ivory and rubber and process it prior to transportation. Porters were generally chained together by the neck, so that, for example, if one fell into the Congo while working on a bridge, the whole line would be dragged in as well, meaning certain death for all of them. Women were imprisoned and chained (and often raped) while the men were out gathering rubber, to ensure their return. Food allotments for workers were not generous, and punishment was meted out with the chicotte, a whip made out of dried hippopotamus hide cut into a sharp-edge strip. Beatings could be fatal. It was also not unusual for whole villages to be burned and their inhabitants executed as ‘examples” to other villages.

The author maintains that Europeans of Leopold’s time thought of Africa “as if it were just a piece of uninhabited real estate to be disposed of by its owner.” But more than that, the black inhabitants were regarded as less than human beings. Hochschild pauses in his tale of horror to ask:

What made it possible for the functionaries in the Congo to so blithely watch the chicotte in action and … deal out pain and death in other ways as well? To begin with, of course, was race. To Europeans, Africans were inferior beings: lazy, uncivilized, little better than animals. … Then, of course, the terror in the Congo was sanctioned by the [white] authorities. For a white man to rebel meant challenging the system that provided your livelihood [as well as a very good livelihood for your superiors. Leopold himself is estimated to have taken some $1.1 billion (in today’s dollars) in profits]. Finally when terror is the unquestioned order of the day, wielding it efficiently is regarded as a manly virtue, the way soldiers value calmness in battle.”

Hochschild reports that a great deal of historical detective work went into the estimation of statistics “about something [officials] considered so negligible as African lives.” On the other hand, as he ruefully observes, much data is in fact available: many officials reported meeting their “death quotas” with enthusiasm. Not all of the population loss was caused by massacre: the author delineates three other closely connected causes of death: starvation, exhaustion, and exposure; disease; and a plummeting birth rate (as a result both of the death of so many men and of the reluctance of women to bring children into their nightmarish world).

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While most of the book focuses on the Congo, Hochschild’s last chapter summarizes the situation in some of the other colonial possessions. The French Congo, for instance, has a similar legacy:

In France’s equatorial African territories…the amount of rubber-bearing land was far less than what Leopold controlled, but the rape was just as brutal. Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies. Forced labor, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company ‘sentries,’ and the chicotte were the order of the day.”

Hochschild also tells the stories of some of those who tried to bring the atrocities to the attention of the public: the tireless white crusader Edmund Dene Morel, black journalist George Washington Williams, black missionary William Sheppard, and the Irish patriot Roger Casement. Casement was hanged by the British for treason in the fight for Irish home-rule. But his self-defense at his trial spoke to the Congo as well as Ireland, and inspired – among others, Jawaharlal Nehru to go on to seek his own nation’s liberation. Casement said in a speech following his conviction for treason:

Where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours…then surely it is braver, a saner and truer thing, to be a rebel…than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”

Evaluation: Hochschild is to be commended for trying to bring this true horror story back to life. There is still a need to learn from the dangers of power and greed. As he concludes, “At the time of the Congo controversy a hundred years ago, the idea of full human rights, political, social, and economic, was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today.”

Rating: 5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin, 1998

September 15, 1857 – Birthdate of William Howard Taft and Review of “President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath” by Mac Barnett

It may be that I have no sense of humor, but I have nothing positive to say about this book for kids about William Howard Taft, which purports to be about the 27th President of the United States, who also was the only president also to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But all this book tells you about Taft is that he was fat. And then it proceeds to make fun of him, portraying him as ridiculous, repulsive, and feckless.

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The illustrations by Chris Van Dusen are bound to make children laugh, which is also unfortunate, since they all show a vastly obese man in a bathtub with rolls of fat hanging over the side, who can’t get out, despite the efforts of many different people to help him.

In contradistinction to the man presented in this book, Taft was a talented man who had a number of accomplishments before, during, and after his presidency. He was Solicitor General of the United States, Governor-General of the Philippines, and under his good friend President Theodore Roosevelt he served as Secretary of War. He was also Roosevelt’s handpicked presidential successor.

As President, Taft continued Roosevelt’s trust-busting reforms and made an effort to help African Americans and unskilled laborers. He reorganized the State Department and instituted the program, still used today, of “Dollar Diplomacy.”

Upon leaving the White House in 1913, Taft taught at Yale Law School, worked to oppose prohibition, and advocated world peace, ultimately founding the League to Enforce Peace. From 1921 to 1930 he served on the Supreme Court.

President William H. Taft

President William H. Taft

Not one of these accomplishments are presented in this book. As far as any kid reading this will know, the only thing Taft was memorable for was for being fat, which equals, in this book, laughable and repulsive.

Evaluation: Given the one-dimensional and unfair presentation of President Taft, as well as the problem children have in school with acceptance, bullying, cruelty, and the rest, I find this book reprehensible.

Rating: 0.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2014