April 4, 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight to Bring His Killer to Justice

In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides has written a history book that reads like a suspense/thriller novel. His story follows the assassination of Martin Luther King by James Earl Ray. More than four decades after the event, Sides brings to life the characters involved and the era in which it occurred. He meticulously researched many of the minutia known about both the assassin and his victim during the period immediately preceding the killing and the three months thereafter, the time it took the FBI and numerous other law enforcement agencies to locate and arrest the killer.

James Earl Ray was a loner, a loser, and an extreme racist who had spent much of his adult life in prison. He was also remarkably resourceful, streetwise, and canny. Moreover, he seemed preternaturally inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The narrative begins in spring of 1967 with Prisoner #00416-J (as he was then characterized) serving a term for armed robbery in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, a maximum-security facility. He accumulated some cash through trading in drugs and amphetamines, which were plentiful in the prison. He escaped by hiding scrunched up under and among some freshly baked loaves of bread that the prison bakery had sent out for delivery to the ostensibly trustworthy prisoners working outside the prison walls. He was resourceful enough to escape to Mexico without leaving a trace. He returned to the United States in November 1967, taking a large cache of marijuana, assumed the alias of Eric S. Galt, and blended into an underworld of cheap hotel and rooming houses. He was someone no one ever noticed.

Martin Luther King was internationally famous for his work in breaking down the legal barriers of Jim Crow legislation in the South through non-violent protest. King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and had led a protest march to Washington where he delivered his “I have a dream” speech, a paean to racial justice. But by late autumn 1967, his career was decidedly on a downward trend. Black leaders impatient with the slow pace of reform, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, had captured the imagination of many disaffected black citizens, and had incited numerous urban riots. Moreover King’s well-defined goal of abolishing discriminatory legislation and government regulation had been achieved, at least theoretically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted, negating most of Jim Crow legislation through federal preemption.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

With the passage of these laws, King then turned his energy to ameliorating the lot of the poor of all races, and not just that of poor blacks. That decision did not sit well with all his entourage. Nevertheless, King turned toward organizing another march on Washington to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, this one with the laudable goal of eradicating poverty, but with little idea of how that could be accomplished and with no specific proposals toward achieving the goal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967

By this time, King was considered to be a thorn in the side of President Lyndon Johnson, but was hated by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover thought King was a communist, and was particularly concerned about King’s proposed mass gathering of poor people in a tent city in the Capitol. The FBI conducted a campaign of spying on King. Although it uncovered some of King’s sexual escapades and leaked them to the press (not to mention, to his wife Coretta), nothing seemed to come of the disclosures, which the press self-censored. It was clearly a different era in journalism.

On February 1, 1968, a horrible accident causing the grizzly death of two black men working as garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in King’s assassination. The two men were seeking shelter from some rain when the garbage truck on which they were working malfunctioned, caught both of them in its maw, pulled them into its grinding mechanism, and literally crushed them both. Their deaths triggered the formation of a labor union by the all-black garbage-collecting work force and an illegal strike (municipal workers were not permitted to unionize or to strike) to protest low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Memphis Garbage Strike, 1968

The city government resisted the strike vigorously, if legalistically. Substitute workers were hired, but not enough to prevent the garbage from accumulating throughout the city. The strike attracted the attention of national labor and civil rights leaders, including James Lawson, a friend of MLK. Lawson persuaded King to lead a march in Memphis. The march was organized independently of King’s organization. Without King’s leadership and discipline over young hot heads, however, the march turned into a riot of looting and vandalism. King was discredited and very embarrassed. King’s second trip to Memphis was much more successful than the first, since he and his organization were able to arrange a dignified non-violent protest march.

Sides’ narrative intersperses Galt/Ray’s peregrinations with King’s preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign. Galt became obsessed with the possibility of killing King, following his travels closely through the press. Galt learned King would return to Memphis and that he would be staying at the Lorraine Motel, a black-owned enterprise. Galt rented a room in a cheap boarding house that provided him a second story view of the Lorraine’s balcony and courtyard. He purchased a high power hunting rifle, a powerful optical scope, and soft-tipped ammunition. He knew little about guns, but said he needed a deadly weapon because he would be hunting large game.

King was basking in the aura of a successful march and standing on his balcony waiting for others in his entourage to join him for dinner. Galt fire one shot, hitting King in the jaw. The soft-tipped bullet then careened through his throat and into his shoulder. King died shortly thereafter in a hospital operating room.

Hotel Lorraine, immediately after the shooting

Several anecdotes add poignancy to the aftermath of the assassination. King had spent his last night with Georgia Davis, one of his mistresses. She attempted to get into the ambulance to accompany King to the hospital, but Andrew Young avoided some bad press by touching her shoulder and saying, “Georgia, I don’t think you want to do that.” Jesse Jackson smeared his shirt with King’s blood and tried to claim he was the last person to speak to King. Others in King’s immediate circle strongly admonished him for grandstanding.

April 3, 1968: Balcony of Hotel Lorraine, left to right: Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, MLK, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

King’s closest friends and successor, Ralph Abernathy, tried to carry on his legacy by completing the Poor People’s Campaign, which proved to be a disaster without King. Tens of thousands of people erected a tent city on the National Mall, but milled aimlessly for weeks, accomplishing little but incurring the ire of the national government and alienating many white former sympathizers.

The final one-fifth of the book covers Galt’s escape, his travel to Canada, England, Portugal, and back to England, where he was finally captured after the most exhaustive manhunt in history. He had sought to get to South Africa, where he thought the apartheid government might welcome him as a hero, or at least not extradite him.

The author shows how the FBI changed over night from trying to discredit King to trying to catch his killer. Much of the credit must go to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who may have hated Hoover as much as Hoover hated King. It was only through extremely arduous and thorough police work that Galt was identified as James Earl Ray and located at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Atty. Gen. Ramsay Clark with President Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: The book is fast paced, well-written, very detailed, and thoroughly researched. It manages to describe events without much speculation, basing its assertions on the testimony of the participants, particularly of the killer. The description of the police-FBI investigation reads like a crime thriller. Other reviewers have observed that it contains little that had not been written before, but it provides a sometimes heart-pounding refresher for people like me who have forgotten many of the details of forty years ago.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Doubleday, 2010

Note: Sides is also the author of, inter alia, Blood and Thunder, an exciting history of the exploration of the American West and the story of Kit Carson.

Review of “American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery” by Craig Unger

Craig Unger is an investigative journalist, writer, and analyst on national security. American Kompromat is a follow-up to his 2018 book, House of Trump, House of Putin, in which he made the case for Russian collusion. Kompromat, he explains, is the Russian term for compromising information which can be used in blackmailing, discrediting, or manipulating someone, typically for political purposes. It forms the basis for Russian intelligence control of human assets.

This book begins in October, 2020 with an examination of the leadership of Donald Trump before looking backward in time. Unger writes:

To most of the country, he was vulgar and vile, a misogynistic, racist firebrand, a buffoon who knew only his own pecuniary interests and prejudices and would stop at nothing to satiate them. He was clownish and repellent. But as the election approached, it became increasingly clear that he was far more dangerous than that suggested, that his buffoonery masked real demagoguery, that he was a tyrant who had mesmerized tens of millions of people, and that it didn’t matter to them what he said or did.”

And he wrote this even before the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

The author then goes on to present a wealth of material to establish that Donald Trump was cultivated and used by Russian intelligence to further their aims. Trump’s awareness of their efforts to control him was not necessary to the process. Unger writes:

From the KGB’s point of view, the most appealing quality about Trump was probably that he had a personality that was ideal for a recruit – vain, narcissistic, highly susceptible to flattery, and greedy.”

. . .

“Trump was a dream for KGB officers looking to recruit an asset…. Everybody has weaknesses. But with Trump it wasn’t just weakness. Everything was excessive. His vanity, excessive. Narcissism, excessive. Greed, excessive. Ignorance, excessive.”

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an influx of Russian Mafia and oligarchs into the U.S. who needed to launder billions of dollars, “a need that could best be filled by a wealthy real estate developer who had loads of luxury condos to sell and was willing to look the other way when it came to the source of the money.” This was a perfect set-up for the “perpetually bankrupt Donald Trump.”

Trump, Unger suggests, was compromised through “lucrative money-laundering schemes, sycophantic flattery, pie-in-the-sky Trump Tower Moscow projects, extravagantly well-paid franchising projects, and more.”

More critically, he details, “Russian intelligence had essentially hijacked Trump’s foreign policy in plain sight and nobody noticed,” especially because there was nothing explicitly unlawful about what they did. (The author quotes journalist Michael Kinsley’s observation: “The real scandal isn’t what’s illegal; it’s what is legal.”)

The author also discusses the ways in which it appears as if Donald Trump, Jr., Rudi Giuliani, and Trump’s Attorney General William Barr had also been compromised. With regard to Barr, the author goes into details of some of the shadier activity of Opus Dei,, the secretive, extremist right-wing Catholic organization. Barr’s affiliation with Opus Dei, the author avers, has influenced him to endorse an ideologically-driven understanding of religious liberty that reviles secularism, and a belief in extensive executive power, both of which helped further Trump’s autocratic and anti-liberal agenda.

As for deceased sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, he is included because he supposedly was in possession of the most kompromat of anyone, even more than the Russians. So far, however, what Epstein had or didn’t have has not been revealed, but even the threat of its existence is powerful. Epstein’s contact list was extensive, and included of course, Donald Trump.

At the very least, what this book shows us is that electing a president with Trump’s weaknesses was a foolhardy proposition – he would never even have received low-level security clearance for government work in normal circumstances.

Evaluation: This book is disturbing and scary, even without written confirmation of its conclusions. They are based on an overwhelming compilation of circumstantial evidence and bizarre behaviors, particularly with respect to Russia, that are not otherwise explainable.

That mystery aside, Unger’s book is effectively argued and riveting in its detailed description of the unseemly side of spy craft.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021

March 22, 1788 – Publication of First Installment of Bound Federalist Papers & Review of “Liberty’s Blueprint” by Michael Meyerson

In the seven-month period prior to the adoption of the Constitution, from October 1787 to May, 1788, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with a small contribution from John Jay) produced a series of outstanding essays popularly known as The Federalist Papers, designed to sell readers on the idea of ratification. The Federalist, as it is properly called, was more than just a sales document. Thomas Jefferson called The Federalist “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.” Meyerson summarizes the issues covered in The Federalist, including the balance of power among the three branches and different levels of government, the danger of factionalism, and the role of the courts, seeking to show why this brilliant collection retains relevance in the interpretation of the Constitution even today.

The first in the series of eight-five essays by “Publius,” the collective pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, was published on October 27, 1787 in the New York City newspaper “Independent Journal.”

federalistpapers

Federalist No. 1 encouraged the people of New York to support ratification of the Constitution approved by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787.

Although written for the New York press, newspapers around the country reprinted the essays.

Since all of the essays were signed “PUBLIUS,” the actual authors of some are under dispute, but the general consensus is that Alexander Hamilton wrote 52 (including the first), James Madison wrote 28, and John Jay contributed the remaining five.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

[You can read the full text of all of the Federalist Papers here.]

On January 1, 1788, the New York publishing firm J. & A. McLean announced that they would publish the first thirty-six essays as a bound volume; that volume was released on March 22, 1788, and was titled The Federalist Volume 1. New essays continued to appear in the newspapers; Federalist No. 77 was the last number to appear first in that form, on April 2. A second bound volume containing Federalist 37–77 and the yet to be published Federalist 78–85 was released on May 28. The last eight papers (Federalist 78–85) were republished in the New York newspapers between June 14 and August 16, 1788.

Meyerson suggests that appreciation of The Federalist has been compromised by the disagreement between “originalists” and “non-originalists.” Originalists contend, as explained by Justice Scalia in a speech in 2005, that interpretation of the Constitution should begin with the text itself, in an attempt “to give that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted by the people.”

Arguments in favor of originalism include that it provides the best mechanism for preventing judges from deciding cases based on their personal preferences instead of on legal principles. Moreover, the fact is that the legitimacy of the American polity is based on the Constitution as it was written. As Madison pointed out, repeated changes in the Constitution would lead people to assume their founding document [and therefore polity] was flawed and could or should be replaced.

The Federalist, Meyerson argues, can bridge the gap between the seemingly irreconcilable approaches of Constitutional interpretation. Understanding why it was written and what it contains can illuminate the answer to “how and when we should call upon the views of the framers….” Specifically, Meyerson points out that because Hamilton and Madison both attended the Convention, for which no proceedings were released, The Federalist “explains, in detail, the logic and reasoning behind the choices made by those who drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia.” No less importantly, The Federalist “showed how these choices reflected the goals and ideals of the population of their time.

Alexander Hamilton

Unfortunately, shortly after the generation of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Madison had a falling out over a number of issues, and Madison, “acquiescing to the views of Jefferson,” became a bitter enemy of Hamilton. Both Hamilton and Madison used The Federalist to argue against each other, even taking positions contrary to those espoused in the essays! As an example, Jefferson was incensed when President Washington (who Jefferson considered to be a puppet of Hamilton) declared neutrality in the war between England and France. Hamilton published some essays defending Washington’s position. Jefferson, an unrepentant Francophile even knowing the excesses of the French Revolution, wrote to Madison in July, 1793:

For God’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.”

Jefferson preferred to execute his dirty tricks through the agencies of others, Madison being one his preferred proxies. But in this instance, the problem for Madison was that Hamilton was making points consistent with what Madison had written in The Federalist Papers. Meyerson notes that “Madison reluctantly took up the challenge,” but was never able to rebut Hamilton.

James Madison

In fact, Meyerson advises us to use caution in relying on statements about The Federalist Papers made by Hamilton and Madison after ratification of the Constitution: “They used temporary, mutable stratagems, adapted solely to support the political positions they were championing at the moment.”

Meyerson suggests that if we avoid that trap, we will benefit greatly from reference to The Federalist Papers. He asserts “the history of the drafting and ratification of a document such as the Constitution simply cannot be irrelevant in understanding the meaning of unclear terms and enigmatic omissions.” Further, he opines “original meaning, whenever it can be recovered, should … prevail over the lesser acts of legislators and the preferences of jurists.” He points out how helpful it has been to have such a thorough understanding of what the words meant in the Constitution as opposed to the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, for which such documentation is lacking.

Nevertheless, he observes that sometimes it is not possible to uncover an original meaning. Additionally, we now have a “more evolved understanding” of some issues, such as the rights of minorities. Certainly we must not treat The Federalist as “holy writ;” however, the overall structure of our government has not changed in 200 years, and there is much in The Federalist that is instructive on the balance of power and dangers of usurpation by one branch or another.

Evaluation: This is an interesting overview of the writing of The Federalist Papers and the uses to which it has been put from our early Republic through the present Supreme Court. Meyerson tries to give both sides of the originalist – non-originalist issue, although his respect for the brilliance and continued relevancy of The Federalist Papers is clear. His book serves as a useful reminder that the Constitution is the legitimizing document of this country, and should not be trimmed to suit the political tides of the moment.

Published by Basic Books, 2008

Review of “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama

This is the first installment of Barack Obama’s promised two-volume memoirs. It covers his early life through his presidency up to the killing of Osama Bin Ladin in 2011. It is a thoughtful, self-reflective, well-written account of a very eventful time.

As Obama looks back, he questions some of his decisions, or at least acknowledges that there were legitimate questions about what he did. For example, he is quite aware of all the criticisms for his handling of the 2008 financial crisis and the appearance it gave of catering more to greedy bankers than the many ordinary citizens who suffered from their actions.

His approach to that crisis remains part of the disappointment progressives feel over Obama not delivering what they hoped he would. He seems keen to address them, writing that the image of him as “starry-eyed idealist” is not quite accurate. His is instead a pragmatic idealist, influenced by his grandmother. His attitudes and beliefs also show his academic influences: he graduated from Columbia University in 1983, enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1988 where he was the first black person to be president of the Harvard Law Review, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.

In any event, there were expectations from both liberals and conservatives that his decisions would reflect his race more than his education and temperament, but they never did. Ironically, his vice president, Joe Biden, now the president, has more freedom as a white man to institute policies that help Blacks, since he will not be seen as “biased.”

The perception of Obama by the right was not helped by his infamous description of the rural white working class — “They get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” He is still brooding over having said this, and the reaction to his remarks.

Obama also addresses his foreign policy moves with respect to Afghanistan and Libya, and it’s hard not to conclude that he still hasn’t come to terms with what would have been the correct approaches to those issues.

On a related note, he discusses his addition of Bob Gates, a Republican, to his administration as Secretary of Defense. He stated that he wanted help to push against his own biases. And in fact, the two men remained somewhat adversarial throughout Obama’s presidency. In Gates’s own memoir about that time, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War, Gates made some harsh observations about Obama, writing of Obama’s approach to the Afghanistan war, the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

In hindsight, it looks as if Obama would not entirely disagree with him.

Obama is still incredulous that he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. “For what?” he asks. The official statement claimed it was for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.” In addition, “The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

While Obama may disagree over whether he deserved the prize it is clear that he was, and remains, committed to “the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become.” In every political campaign in which he has supported Democratic candidates against divisive and racist Republicans, he has assailed his audience with the cry, “America! This is not who we are!” The 74 million who voted for Trump in 2020 tell a different story. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s isn’t worth hearing. He does indeed represent some of the best of American politics.

Evaluation: I listened to the audio version, read by the ex-president himself in his own inimitable cadence. To say listening to the book was sheer joy might be an exaggeration, but not much of one, particularly in light of the arrogant and ignorant rants of his successor. Throughout the book, Obama comes across as an honest, caring, intelligent human being willing to share his extraordinary experiences in a measured, guarded way.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Crown Publishers, 2020

Review of “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law” by Preet Bharara

Preet Bharara served as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from 2009 to 2017. In that position, as the New York Times noted, Bharara “made a name for himself as one of the nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors of public corruption and Wall Street crime.” During his tenure, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY prosecuted nearly 100 Wall Street executives for insider trading and other offenses. He reached historic settlements and fines with the four largest banks in the United States, and closed multibillion-dollar hedge funds for activities including insider trading.

Nevertheless, in March, 2017, he and 45 other United States attorneys around the country were abruptly told to resign by President Trump. This book is not about President Trump, however, nor about the decision by Trump to fire Bharara. Rather, this very entertaining book provides an overview of the criminal justice system by offering fascinating anecdotes about famous cases that went through Bharara’s office.

For those who love “true crime” podcasts or even “Law and Order,” this book will not disappoint.

The book is divided into four sections: Inquiry, Accusation, Judgment, and Punishment. Bharara has two main underlying themes. One is that all of the actors involved, on both sides of the law, are human beings, and have human needs, and make human mistakes. Another, but not unrelated to the first, is that rapport works better than coercion and brutality – especially in the information gathering stages, and that when the prosecution shows respect to the identity and needs of a perpetrator, it is infinitely more fruitful. [Or as my parents used to admonish me (uselessly, it’s sad to say), “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”]

The chapter on methods of interrogation is especially good at illustrating that point. Bharara contends that whether interrogations are done in peacetime or war, or on criminals or terrorists, some methods work consistently better than others. For example, Bharara provides evidence that the notorious torture of alleged terrorists by the CIA produced very little useful information. On the other hand, he maintains, kindness, empathy, and building relationships, rather than brute force, have proven effective in getting people to talk. What most perpetrators want, Bharara argues, is to be respected for who they are and to get to tell their own story, rather than having lawyers or media place them in unflattering boxes. Treat them like human beings, Bharara says, and they will start providing names, connections, and background. The least likely to talk or flip? Surprisingly, Bharara writes, it’s not Islamic terrorists as many people would guess, but police. Their code of silence, preventing the police from incriminating other officers for their wrongdoings, is a harder barrier to crack than even the Mafia’s Law of Omertà – the code of honor that places importance on non-cooperation with outsiders, especially those in law enforcement.

Some of the stories are shocking, and all are thought-provoking. Perhaps the saddest anecdotes come out of Bharara’s coverage of Rikers Island, in the section on punishment.

Rikers Island in New York is one of the world’s largest correctional institutions. Approximately 85% of those detained there have not been convicted of a crime, but rather are awaiting trial, either held without bail or remanded in custody. The others in the prison population have been convicted and are serving short sentences. But regardless of why they are in Rikers, prisoners must deal with shocking brutality. Reports indicate Rikers is notorious for violence within the walls — a place where inmates attack inmates, inmates attack correction officers, and correction officers attack inmates. An exposé in Mother Jones found:

“When it comes to ignominies, New York City’s island jail complex has it all: inmate violence, staff brutality, rape, abuse of adolescents and the mentally ill, and one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary confinement. Rikers, which hosts 10 separate jails, has been the target of dozens of lawsuits and numerous exposés. Yet the East River island remains a dismal and dangerous place for the 12,000 or more men, women, and children held there on any given day—mostly pretrial defendants who can’t make bail and nonviolent offenders with sentences too short to ship them upstate.”

Coming up with fair methods of punishment, Bharara writes, remains a troublesome problem with no clear solutions.

Evaluation: This book is rich with informative and thought-provoking observations about doing justice, and how much “being human” sometimes helps and sometimes interferes. Bharara has a good sense of humor, skill as a raconteur, and a great deal to offer through his experiences as U.S. Attorney. I did not expect this book to be so engaging, but was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed it and learned from it.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Knopf Publishing Group, 2019

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to this book on audio. The author narrates the book in his distinctive clipped speaking style. But he comes across as warm, intelligent, thoughtful, and caring, and dedicated to treating everyone – no matter the crime – with consideration and respect.

Published unabridged on 9 CDs (approximately 10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2019

December 24 – Birth of Jesus & Review of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

Zealot by Reza Aslan takes us through the history of early Christianity and the change from Judaism as a source of law to a new philosophy largely interpreted by the former Pharisee (an ancient Jewish sect) later known as St. Paul.

This book has been very controversial largely because of a rather ill-conceived and poorly conducted interview on Fox News that went viral on the Web. In that segment, the interviewer, who clearly had not read the book, and didn’t have any interest in the book’s contents, only wanted to indict Aslan for writing about Jesus when he is a Muslim. He had to point out repeatedly that he is a scholar and that his religious orientation should be irrelevant. The content of his work was not addressed. Nevertheless, all the attention propelled the book to the best-seller list.

cover

I am happy to address the content, which is quite good. Aslan doesn’t break any new ground, but he presents the early history before and after the start of the “Common Era” in an entertaining and accessible way.

Aslan reviews some of the prophecies that the story of Jesus was expected to validate. He then goes through the gospels and points out the contradictions, historical inaccuracies and fact-massaging that were clearly intended to ensure that Jesus would fit the description of the Messiah predicted by the Old Testament.

Aslan also explains some of the ways in which the stories told in the gospels would have been understood differently by the people at that time from the way we interpret them now according to our modern sensibilities.

Importantly, Aslan gives a brief accounting of some of the other would-be messiahs at that time in Jerusalem who were also claiming to be The King of the Jews or The Savior of the Jews or The Messiah. They were all beheaded or crucified. So why did the story of Jesus prevail? Aslan spends the remainder of the book telling us how and why that happened.

Evaluation: This is an informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. The information Aslan imparts is extremely valuable for those who have not read any early Christian history. The ground he covers has been plowed often before, but usually in a more inaccessible way. This is a history of Jesus for the people, and one that is thoroughly subscribed to by historians (if not theologians). Aslan does an excellent job of presenting it, in my opinion.

I listened to this book in audio form, and it was read by the author. I thought he was a great choice for a narrator, because he loaded his arguments with passion and conviction.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published unabridged on 7 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013

Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

You know without looking that a book subtitled A Brief History of Humankind is an ambitious undertaking. And when you see the book is only 416 pages long, you suspect the author must paint with a rather broad brush. But that approach might work if you step back far enough and enjoy the view from a great distance. So is such a book worth reading? In the case of Sapiens, I think the answer is an enthusiastic Yes!

The author has a PhD in history for the University of Oxford and now lectures on world history. His organizing principle for this book is that three revolutions greatly affected human history. They were: (1) the cognitive revolution—begun about 70,000 years ago; (2) the agricultural revolution—begun about 12,000 years ago; and (3) the scientific revolution, begun about 500 years ago.

The cognitive revolution probably began when humans began to walk upright instead of shambling along on four limbs like modern day apes. Standing upright allowed sapiens to scan their surroundings for game or enemies. More importantly, it freed their arms for throwing things or signaling and it allowed their hands to develop significant dexterity.

Mastering the use of fire brought some unusual consequences. It was not only a source of heat and light, it was a formidable weapon against larger animals. Harari argues that for most of their existence, men were in the middle of the food chain and only comparatively recently, with the development of weapons, have been able to hunt large game. The ecosystem has not had time to adjust to man’s current food chain primacy. Moreover:

“[h]aving so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

Most cultural historians point to the invention of agriculture as an event that freed man from some of the vicissitudes of primitive existence and fueled further development of the human brain. Harari disagrees. He argues that the life of a farmer required much more work than that of a hunter-gatherer. Moreover, most early farmers were virtually trapped on their lands in order to protect their crops from marauding scavengers like crows and other humans. The Agricultural Revolution, Harari avers, “left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” Extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure, he notes: “Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.” In other words, he claims, “plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.”

The aspect of human development that allowed us to take primacy over all other species was the sophistication of our language, a unique feature of which is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist. This in turn allowed us to create myths, which made collective cooperation possible.

Harari makes numerous interesting observations about the organizing myths of Sapien society. One of his most interesting chapters is about religion. He points out that when animism (the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence) was replaced by polytheism (a belief that the world is controlled by a group of powerful gods), the greatest impact was on mankind’s conception of mankind. He observes:

“Animists thought that humans were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world. Polytheists, on the other hand, increasingly saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans. Our prayers, our sacrifices, our sins and our good deeds determined the fate of the entire ecosystem. [emphasis added]”

Then polytheism was replaced by monotheism which Harari doesn’t see as a positive step. He explains that polytheism does recognize a supreme power governing the universe, standing behind all the different gods who take care of day-to-day matters. (In modern parlance, we might understand this as the gods who figure out which football team to favor in a match, which makes more sense than both sides counting on Jesus.)

Pantheon of Roman Gods

Since it is the multitude of lesser gods that are concerned with the mundane cares of humans, the supreme power is devoid of interests and biases. Thus, Harari argues, “polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance.” On the other hand:

“Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth.”

It is necessary, therefore, for monotheists to “strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.”

Unfortunately, monotheists have a bit of problem explaining away evil. Somewhat wryly, Harari contends:

“There is one logical way of solving the riddle [of evil]: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.”

Religious beliefs have limits in other ways too. The Scientific Revolution, which began about 500 years ago, has caused tremendous changes in the way people live and think. Harari maintains that a key to the revolution was the discovery of our ignorance. When man realized that not all knowledge was contained in sacred texts, he began to look elsewhere for knowledge. Then he discovered that he could learn about the world by examining it and challenging prior beliefs.

Galileo

One group of Sapiens, the Europeans, caught on to the implications of the scientific revolution faster than any other group on the planet. Modern science and the institution of capitalism allowed them to dominate the late modern world.

Harari concludes with some dour observations about the fate of our species. He says, “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.” He warns that we can’t be certain that modern science won’t create a replacement for Homo sapiens by fashioning beings who possess completely different cognitive and emotional worlds. He cautions:

“What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.”

Lastly, Harari wants to make sure we know that we are a danger to ourselves and other species. Harari believes the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before. He compares our powers to those of ancient gods but grouses that we are directionless. His final sentence is:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Evaluation: This book is chock full of incisive and trenchant observations and occasional humor, but its concluding mood is pessimistic. His next book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,, attempts to show the way out of the fix in which he leaves us in Sapiens.

Note: The hardback book contains photos, maps, and a timeline. You have to love a timeline that begins 13.5 billion years ago.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by HarperCollins, 2015

Review of “What’s the Big Deal About Elections” by Ruby Shamir

This book for older children begins by noting that almost everyone in the U.S. can vote once they turn eighteen, and asking, “Why does that matter? What’s the big deal about elections anyway?”

The main text is mostly in a question and answer format, with small text boxes on each page supplementing the information given in the main portion of the page. For example, one page asks “Why does government matter?” The book describes some of the government’s functions, such as building roads, schools, and parks, and keeping water and food safe. A text box talks about garbage collection, and what life was like in cities before departments of sanitation were established. In New York, for instance, “the city was so stinky that travelers could smell it from six miles away!”

In the section, “”Who votes?” A rosy picture is painted of the current status of voting rights. Voter suppression is mentioned only as a thing of the past.

There is no mention whatsoever of the following important and increasingly salient issues:

Racial and partisan gerrymandering – the act of politicians manipulating the redrawing of legislative district lines in order to help their friends and hurt their enemies – has been an ongoing problem in the country. (In fact, the word was coined by a writer in the Boston Gazette in 1812 in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry.)

Voter ID laws, part of a strategy to roll back decades of progress on voting rights, are depriving many Americans of the right to vote. [11% of U.S. citizens – or more than 21 million Americans – do not have government-issued photo identification. Obtaining ID Costs Money. Even if ID is offered for free, voters must incur numerous costs (such as paying for birth certificates) to apply for a government-issued ID.]

Voter purges, the often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists, and frequently used by Republicans, receive no mention. When done incorrectly, purges disenfranchise legitimate voters (often when it is too close to an election to rectify the mistake), causing confusion and delay at the polls.

Class barriers are not insignificant. In 2012, for example, more than 80 percent of Americans with an annual income over $150,000 turned out to vote, compared with less than half of people earning under $20,000. As the New York Times explains:

“They aren’t negligent: People who are paid hourly or juggle multiple jobs can’t afford to miss work and stand in long lines to vote. And this group includes a large number of racial minorities — precisely the people that the civil rights movement was undertaken to help.”

Closing polling places is another technique used to suppress voting by minorities, who tend to vote for the Democratic party. On Election Day in 2016, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina. These changes impacted hundreds of thousands of mostly would-be-Democratic voters, who did not have either the time off of work or transportation to enable them to get to open polls.

Allegations of voter fraud, while having been debunked, also contribute to efforts by by the Republican Party to justify restrictions on the right to vote.

As The Washington Post writes, “voter suppression is a crucial story in America.

The book also explains what happens in Washington, D.C. (with the author resisting the temptation to say “nothing”) and offers only an inadequate explanation of the thorny Electoral College problem. Just saying it is “baffling” seems less than satisfactory for such an important part of the voting system. She also does not explain the ways in which it has become very non-representational. Certainly many children will be aware that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for president in 2016 by more than 2 million votes, but lost the vote in the Electoral College to Donald Trump by 306 to 232, and therefore he won the presidency. That seems like a very important situation to clarify.

As US News and World Report explains:

“If the president were elected by popular vote, every voter’s ballot would have been given equal weight, or influence, over the outcome, and Hillary Clinton would have won. But, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s victory, the Electoral College gives different weights to votes cast in different states.”

For example, individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more influence, or weight, than those from California. California, as the Washington Post observes, is home to 12 percent of Americans, but holds only 10 percent of electoral votes. A similar pattern repeats in the country’s largest states.

Shouldn’t kids understand how this works? Would this not be a great subject for discussion, as it would stimulate thinking about fairness, historical precedents, and possible solutions?

The author also avers that any citizen can run for office, but elides over the role affluence plays in that determination. She states, “Elections are also about making sure the country is safe, prosperous, and fair well into the future.” That’s a bit of a misstatement, especially to the extent that winning elections is greatly influenced both by outright donations and by “dark money” which in turn ensures that those elected will work to perpetuate the income inequality that helped them gain power. (See, for example, our review of the expose Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)

Thus billionaires help elect officials who will push the agendas of the rich, and influence legislation to benefit their interests. After this last election, they were rewarded by a huge tax cut that benefitted the wealthy to the detriment of the poor and middle class. One wealthy donor, for example, gave $30 million to help elect Republicans in the 2016 election. He reaped a nearly $700 million windfall from the new tax law they then passed. These rich donors ponied up again for the 2018 election.

To make matters worse, after the tax bill passed, Republican leaders of Congress began calling for cuts to social security, medicare, and medicaid (which mostly benefit those with less money) to help offset the tax cuts for the rich. The relationship between money and Congress and the Presidency is so critical and so tied to policy initiatives, or the lack thereof, (consider, for example, the influence of a major lobbyist, the National Rifle Association), that it is unconscionable not to include any information about the interrelationship, or its moral considerations.

NRA donations to members of Congress

What about the effects of social media and foreign interference? Surely kids, many of whom have their own phones, should be apprised of the basics of evaluating information as well as the basics of how things work in theory.

The back matter includes a timeline that mostly highlights advances in the history of suffrage, and a list of sources for further reading.

Goauche Illustrations by Matt Faulkner are done in an appealing and colorful comic book style.

Evaluation: I am opposed to telling kids – especially older kids – fairy tales, especially if it prevents the development of their compassion, their ability to analyze and question authority, and their willingness to work for a better world. The age range for whom this book is intended, 7 and up, is surely able to comprehend more complexity and nuance than is provided here.

Nevertheless, the book does a good job in establishing a foundation for further exploration. And it would make an excellent guide for teachers who want to demonstrate the importance of ascertaining what is not included in works of non-fiction, and how that affects perceptions of reality.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2018

Book Review of “Rutherford B. Who Was He? Poems About Our Presidents” by Marilyn Singer

The poems in this book are immensely clever. In just a few rhyming and often very funny lines the author manages to convey the essence of each president’s time in office.

For example, this is the poem from whence the title comes:

“Rutherford B., who was he?
Honest and upstanding, or His Fraudulency?
He won a harsh election with disputes and appeals,
(and also quite possibly backroom deals).
He believed in suffrage, thought the South would comply,
that all would get to vote (which proved to be a lie).
He had faith in education and desire for reform,
but he chose to steer a middle path
and not stir up a storm.
He had radical thoughts and conservative ways.
He said so himself, did President Hayes.”

The poem about Theodore Roosevelt is succinctly informative, with the accompanying picture giving a perfect representation of his personality.

09.teddy

How compactly the author tells what happened to James A. Garfield:

“He won a close election, was eager to begin.
Got shot by a crazed office seeker.
Doctors likely did him in.”

The poem about Abraham Lincoln is serious, and is paired with one about Andrew Johnson that is very funny.

10.lincoln

As with many of the poems, the artwork accompanying the verse about Grant adds much to the composite portrait crafted by the combination of author and illustrator.

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Singer writes humorously of Truman:

“No one was brasher
than that former haberdasher,
more prone to fury
than that man from Missouri….”

The poems begin with George Washington and continue through and including the administration of Barak Obama.

10.gw

The ingenious mixed media illustrations by John Hendrix add wonderful details to the history of each president’s administration. His pictures are totally unpredictable and his inspired visual interpretations will have you shaking your head in appreciation.

The back matter includes short biographies of each president including a significant quote by each of them.

Evaluation: This is a fantastic way for kids to learn about the U.S. Presidents. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Disney/Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2013

Review of “True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump” by Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law who now serves as a legal analyst for CNN and “The New Yorker.” His book about the inquiry into Russian electoral interference as well as the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment can be summarized succinctly: Trump lied, lied, lied.

The main focus of the book is the investigation by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller into, as he was instructed by the Justice Department when appointed in 2017, “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” as well as any crimes arising from his investigation.

Toobin is critical of Mueller in several ways. One is the somewhat ironic criticism that Mueller followed the rules and tried to respect honor and fairness; Trump recognized no such boundaries, and Mueller should have anticipated that. Toobin also argues that Mueller wrongly did not investigate Trump’s finances. Toobin claims that Mueller thought such an investigation was unnecessary to prove intent even though it might have shown motive. [Other books, however, notably Michael S. Schmidt’s Donald Trump v. the United States report that Mueller was prevented from exploring that avenue by then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.] Toobin also laments that Trump gained further advantage when Mueller declined to subpoena Trump for a personal interview, and finally, when he opted not to characterize Trump’s guilt definitively in his summary, thus letting the new unabashedly sycophantic “Trump apologist” attorney general William Barr whitewash the report in Trump’s favor.

Toobin argues that “Trump’s victory over Mueller was tactical not strategic. The president and his allies outmaneuvered Mueller, but Trump’s character – and his behavior – didn’t change.”

Toobin is also critical of former FBI Director James Comey (again differing in this respect from Michael Schmidt), who he found to be sanctimonious and egotistical, definitely tipping the scales in the 2016 election toward Trump. He criticizes Rosenstein for having committed “malpractice,” and gives Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani “credit” both for steering Trump into the Ukraine disaster, and then deflecting attention away from Trump’s shenanigans.

Toobin ends the book with a withering criticism of Trump on his handling (or lack thereof) of the Corona virus. Trump, Toobin avers, responded to the coronavirus with the same belligerent dishonesty, vindictiveness, and blame shifting that characterized his treatment of Mueller and impeachment.

Somehow, Toobin points out, with all of Trump’s dishonesty and immorality, he survives and continues to wield power.

Evaluation: Toobin’s book is especially enlightening when it is read, as I read it, in conjunction with Michael Schmidt’s book. Both authors do an excellent job reporting on how Trump has managed to circumvent the law, but from slightly different perspectives. Coming together like a kaleidoscopic image, they provide a powerful lens into the Mafia-like operations of the Trump Administration.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2020