Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Betrayal of Liliuokalani

Since my youth, the islands of Hawaii have evoked strong images and emotions in me. I travelled there with my family when I was around 12, and for the first time I met an American living a totally different lifestyle. He was a friend of my brothers who had decided he was going to spend his time in the sun and surfing. For a rain-soaked kid from the Pacific Northwest, this seemed like an incredible adventure. So it happened that, when I was 19 years old and had an opportunity to travel, I bought a ticket for Honolulu, where I was to live, work, and surf for the next four months. As it was my first independent experience of traveling, I hold a special place in my memories for this time of my life.

I probably got spoiled. Hawaii is one of the few places I've been where I had the distinct feeling that I was in a special, sacred part of the earth. It is with this personal background that I have begun reading on Hawaiian history. The book I chose to start with is titled "The Betrayal of Liliuokalani" by Helena Allen. "The Betrayal" is not that good, unfortunately. In an attempt to be thorough, the author makes the classic History-class mistake of presenting the past as a collection of dates and names. It took some discipline to get past the first 200 pages.

The incredible story of how the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown, however, is too interesting to get diminished through poor writing. Non-native property owners were successful in getting American troops to land on shore to "protect (their) life and property". This was in response to the Queen's attempt to write a new constitution that was more favorable to native Hawaiians. With the implicit backing of the soldiers, a group of 13 non-Hawaiians established a provisional government. The president of the United States at the time, Grover Cleveland, wrote a letter condemning the action and demanding a reversal. Incredibly, this small group of men rejected the command of the President. Their reasoning was an amazing display of how clever legal maneuvering can undermine justice.

The provisional government stated that as they were the de facto government of Hawaii, they were an independent nation not subject to American law. Nevermind that these men were Americans and that their coup was only made possible through the force of the American military. Short of a war that Congress was reluctant to agree to, nothing more could be done. With the beginning of WWI, the strategic importance of these islands was recognized and the move from annexation to statehood was completed.

I hope to read more about Hawaiian history in other books. Somehow the tedious style of this book seemed especially incongruent for a place like Hawaii. I would also critique that the author was too one-sided in her perspective, but I am beginning to understand that the situation really was pretty lopsided. In fact, President Clinton made an official apology to Hawaii for the manner in which it became a state of the union.

Monday, November 12, 2007

All Our Relations

They say every story has two sides. Well, the other side to this story better be pretty damn good, because Winona Laduke has shown us the heart-wrenching Indian perspective in her collection of non-fiction titled "All Our Relations". Each chapter of the book addresses a specific environmental issue that various Indian tribes are facing. Although surely some accountability must lay with the Indian leaders themselves, many of the challenges these low-income communities face stem from outside decision making.

In an ironic twist, it appears that the "worthless" land that was designated for Native American reservations is actually enormously rich in natural resources. Unfortunately, the BIA, mining companies, and the military have used their power to successfully exploit this situation without due compensation to the peoples whose land it is, the Indians.

The general message of this book is that the Indian people who want to live a lifestyle more in accordance with their traditional values are being denied that right through the environmental devastation of their land. Some of the abuses that are occuring on Indian lands RIGHT NOW are: strip mining of uranium, nuclear waste storage, industrial pollution, clear-cutting of forests, and land appropriation. If this were happening to middle-class America and affecting our cities, we would be outraged.

Winona Laduke is perhaps best known as the Vice-Presidential running mate with Ralph Nader in 2000. She is a leading voice within the Native American leadership that argues for a holistic approach to politics. Ms. Laduke views each situation as a combination of environmental, economic, political and, above all, spiritual factors. I decided I wanted to read this collection of non-fiction after reading an interview with her and religious scholar Huston Smith. Of all the speakers in that book, she stood out to me as incredibly poised, compassionate, and intelligent. This book did not disappoint. I feel like I gained a tremendous insight into the world of activist Native Americans. More than that, I feel inspired to get better informed and see what part I can play to support these causes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Making Globalization Work

Joseph Stiglitz has managed to survive as the rarest of breeds: an establishment radical. During the Clinton years, he acted as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Afterwards, he left national politics to work with the World Bank as the Chief Economist. He won the Nobel Prize, for goodness sake. Throughout his time at the pinnacle of institutionalized power, Stiglitz has amazed/infuriated onlookers with his voice of dissent. His opinions are "radical" only in their context, however. Not a communist, anarchist, or socialist, he is a believer in markets and capitalism who wishes to transform the discussion of globalization from "Is it good or bad?" to "How can we make the most out of the globalization of the world".

Stiglitz wrote the inflammatory "Globalization and It's Discontents" after his experience with the World Bank. In it, he is very critical of the IMF policies and how undemocratic international financial institutions were pushing special interests at the cost of the developing countries. I read this book last year and really learned a lot. As a follow-up to that book, in "How to Make Globalization Work", Stiglitz wishes to move from critic to creator.

The major proposals set forth in this book seem reasonable to me. First and foremost, Stiglitz argues that we need to democratize the international governance of finance. The economic globalization of the world has taken place faster than the political globalization. Therefore, the democratic values so cherished in our nations are largely ignored in these crucial negotiations. Currently the WTO, IMF, and World Bank conduct their business in secrecy and with a disproportionate influence among it's members. To insure that the the developing world's voices are heard, we should demand more transparency and more equitable decision-making.

From this basic platform come several specific suggestions. Some of them are:
-Debt forgiveness of the poorest countries would enable them to invest more in development.
-The removal of agricultural subsidies in the developed world to provide opportunities for exports in the developing nations primary comparative advantage.
-A more narrow intellectual property protection to allow competitive development and give access to life-saving drugs for the millions in need.
-A recognition that global warming needs immediate attention. He proposes financial incentives to developing nations to NOT log their forests and an alternative to Kyoto that was based on taxation instead of national guidelines.

I believe that the thinking behind Stiglitz' proposals is solid. In fact, for all the tension between the "Kenynesian" and "Smith" camps, I would venture that Greenspan agrees with a large part of the economics. What seems to divide this two schools of thought more than the economics is the politics. Greenspan and the fundamentalist followers of Adam Smith tend to be more libertarian in their emphasis on individual rights and the lack of governmental intervention. Stiglitz and the Neo-Keynsians favor democratic governance as a means to provide for the community as a whole. This balancing act plays itself out in our Courts, our Senate floors, and, now it appears, in the Globalization. One of the things I appreciate about Stiglitz is his candor in accepting the reality of a politically-influenced economics.

This is a great read for anyone interested in learning how we can create a more humane globalization. It is decidedly "liberal", so know that going in. I consider myself fairly progessive and, still, at times I found the rights and respect due the developed countries were too-easily ignored. It does, however, do an excellent job of opening the discussion on globalization from it's current, limited perspective.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Island of the Colorblind

Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes. He is a neurologist out of New York who publishes his case studies. The studies read like biographies because Sachs' medical philosophy emphasises the person, and their role, in their illness. Each patient is experiencing something beyond the normal range of human experience and through these extraordinary circumstances Sachs is able to learn about how the brain functions ordinarily.

For example, in one of his studies published in "An Anthropologist on Mars", he meets a man who has been blind for his whole life. One day this man learns his "blindness" is actually the result of scar tissue covering his cornea, and that his actual visual receptors are fine. The entire medical community, Sachs included, assumed this man would have the surgery to remove his cataracts and, hoorah, be able to see. Well, when the bandages were removed the man was able to recieve light input, but his brain did not have the ability to organize this information into a coherent picture. It was discovered that seeing is not passive. Our experience shapes our understanding of the world, in a literal sense. Wow. It is through stories like these and, of course, the powerful "Awakenings", that Sachs' writing has changed the way I think about the world.

In "The Island of the Colorblind", Dr. Sachs is at his best. The book is a blend of natural and political history, medical analysis, and philosophic concepts. After reading the first 30 pages I felt a tremendous excitement to be reading. It was, strange enough, a "reader's high". What I was learning, coupled with the beautiful writing style, was actually making my heart beat faster and an endorphine rush charged through my body.

My favorite parts of the book are bookended in the introduction to the political history of the Pacific islands and towards the end when the concept of "deep time" is discussed in his ruminations on the cycads. The book is actually two separate writings on independent visits to the Pacific islands. The main thrust of the first segment, exploring a "colorblind" island and discovering how the loss of color affects the community, is diluted. The island is not totally colorblind (only about 12% are) and the novel insights the reader is expecting never fully materialize.

Likewise, the primary story line of the second half is centered on an investigation of a rare neurological disease in Guam that has puzzled scientists for years. Unlike his usual case studies, I didn't feel I got to know these patients that well. For readers familiar with Sachs's encephalitic patients, these stories seem familiar, but not as intimately portrayed.

In the last chapter on Rota, Sachs shares how his research into prehistoric plants give him a sense of the sublime time-scale we live in. He refers to this concept as "deep time". Deep time refers to an understanding of, and connection with, the almost inconcievable length of time that passes on a geological or evolutionary scale. For the vast majority of our life we are limited in our relationship to deep time. Rarely, and it happens to Sachs when he is amongst ancient ferns, we catch a glimpse of what 100 million years ago truly means. One gets the sense that for Sachs this could be described as a secular religious epiphany: witnessing the miracle of eternity.

I finished reading this book feeling inspired and humbled. A great read. For first time readers of Sachs, his "Awakenings" is still the masterpiece. And, for anyone interested in a casual introduction to his writing I would recommend one of his collections of cases.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Supreme Injustice

Alan Dershowitz is pissed. You should be, too, according to his book "Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000". In it, he convincingly argues that the Supreme Court ruled in a partisan manner that violated judicial ethic.

The book is essentially divided into two sections. First, he describes the legal decisions that took place amidst the election chaos in Florida at the time. Basically, the Supreme Court of Florida made a decision to allow a recount of the votes in specific counties. This verdict was controversial because there existed conflicting legislature with regards to Florida elections. One statute said there was a deadline for the elections, and another statute stated that any ballots with clear "intent" to vote needed to be counted. The Florida Court decided to give greater emphasis to the right to vote, and extended the deadline.

Here the Supreme Court enters the picture, claiming that the Florida court overstepped it's authority by interfering with what was a "political" matter. The recount is allowed to begin again, only to later be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. There wasn't an objective manner of tabulating the votes and therefore, according to the court, there was not "equal protection under the law". There ends the election, with George Bush becoming the President of the United States of America.

At first blush, there seems to be confusion, sure, but nothing improper. The second part of the book argues that these decisions, read with an understanding of precedent and judicial philosophy, were indeed misguided, if not outright malicious. The concern here is, first, the Court's decision to allow the hearing of the case in the first place. The Court's conservative justices had consistently argued for the importance of State's sovereignty in anything not specifically Federal. This was perhaps THE major platform for Scalia and Thomas' attack on liberal "judicial activism". Second, these same justices were consistently very literal in their treatment of "equal protection" cases. All the justices in the majority had written opinions emphasizing that discrimination must be shown to be intentional, and that there must exist a clear victim in order for the court to intervene. Somehow, without either of these supposedly necessary conditions, the Court shed it's espoused judicial restraint and decided our national election.

The sanctity of the Supreme Court has shielded it from the criticism that our elected bodies have grown accustomed to. Hershowitz takes the gloves off in this book and says that these justices have tarnished that hallowed reputation. Towards the end, he provides an opinion on an alternative method of selecting justices. Because today the process is so political, perhaps it is inevitable that they are chosen more for than ideology than their qualifications.

I really liked this book. Although emotionally charged, the writing is thoughtful. I perhaps give a greater benefit of the doubt to our Supreme Court justices, but their inconsistencies in this case merit significant discussion. The repercussions of those fateful 14 days have and will continue to affect our nation. The Supreme Court became more conservative with W's appointment of two new justices. Perhaps the war in Iraq would never have occurred. Truly a fascinating moment in history to learn about.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Active Liberty

Stephen Breyer is a Justice of the Supreme Court. His approach to interpreting law is largely guided by an attempt to understand what the intent of the law is, and to make a decision that provides for that intent to be carried out. This stance is typically contrasted with Justice Scalia's "literalist" approach, which aims to minimize subjectivity by strictly adhering to the language of the law and precedent. In Breyer's book "Active Liberty", the author provides examples which demonstrate why he believes his method is the best for fulfilling the democratic principles of our Constitution.

Early on, he defines "active liberty" as the right to participate in self-governance. "Modern liberty", then, is a freedom of individual rights. And while the style of interpretation (purpose-driven or literal) is where the battle seems to take place between these two judicial ideologies, it seems the real difference lies in which form of liberty is emphasized. Breyer favors the right to governance, and Scalia protects the individual. In both situations it is a matter of balance, and Breyer remarks that in close to half the cases the Court receives the verdict is unanimous.

As an insight into Breyer's decision-making process, he introduces the reader to his "reasonable legislator". While thinking about a law, he imagines what this fictional character intended to establish when he wrote the law. Scalia fears this invites too much subjectivity into a jurors' profession. Personally, I agree with Breyer, and really learned a lot from this short book. In the past I had read Rehnquist's "The Supreme Court" and thought that, while agreeing with his logic, something was missing from his conclusions. At the time, I couldn't put a finger on it. Breyer hit this problem on the head when he writes "why should courts try to answer difficult federalism questions on the basis of logical deduction from text or precedent alone? Why not ask about the consequences..?" This book helped me to better develop my opinion on Constitutional interpretation, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Seat At The Table

Huston Smith is perhaps the foremost American scholar on Comparative Religion today. His book "The World's Religion's", is a classic that combines great insight with readable prose. My admiration for this man, coupled with my interest in Native American thinking, gave me great excitement to read this book. Indeed, I was checking the mailbox as earnestly as the boy in "A Christmas Story" for my x-ray glasses.

Perhaps with such high expectations it is natural that I was somewhat disappointed. Smith never provides the intellectual backbone these interviews needed. Instead of guiding the discussion towards a thoughtful exchange of ideas, it often appears Smith is too eager to assure his guest that he agrees with them. When it is stated that women are naturally more developed spiritually than men, or when Huston's own religion of Christianity is attacked, Smith hardly whimpers. Of course, his silence is primarily due to his tremendous humility and an attempt to hear their opinions. However, I think that the book would have been stronger had he used those opportunities to challenge those conceptions and see where that dialectic would lead.

The most impressive speakers in the collection were Chief Oren Lyons and Winona LaDuke. LaDuke is best known as the Vice-President running mate with Ralph Nader during his Presidential candidacies. Both possess a charisma that stems from their political and theological convictions. I am interested in reading both of their works in the future. Some of the other guests were very simplistic in their "white man-bad" attitudes and I did not learn much from their vague condemnations of American culture. Overall, this book is a good place to start for someone who wants to learn some of the contemporary issues facing Native Americans. If you are interested in learning about Native American theology, I would look somewhere else.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Age of Turbulence

Little known fact: I originally intended to major in Economics. Thankfully, the beatniks in Comparative History convinced me a liberal arts degree with no professional future was more up my alley. However, my interest in the economy has stayed with me and I have read some of the the popular economists of the day: Stiglitz, Sachs, Altman, etc.

Alan Greenspan, in his book "The Age of Turbulence" shares many of their beliefs. In general, it seems, there is consensus that free markets work and that protectionism will hurt both poor and wealthy alike. None of the authors advocates a total laissez-faire approach, however. Greenspan, the most conservative of the bunch, spent his career as THE governmental interference in the markets for god's sake. Where Greenspan differs from his colleagues is in his politics and ideas about human nature.

To understand this side of Greenspan it is important to remember his early relationship with Ayn Rand. It is clear he sees himself as a Howard Roark of economics and is quick to categorize those without financial success as "losers". In his Randian view of mankind, as thus the politics best suited to deal with it, people are engaged in a massive competition from which the superior rise to the top. In fact, he argues in "The Age of Turbulence" that the remedy to massive income differential in the United States is best addressed by providing the people of lower incomes with more "skills" through education. However, SOMEBODY must do the labor of society, and those people should be compensated with a living wage.

He claims the protestors of the WTO are basically idiots who are against capitalism because it causes "stress". He also claims that they are not representative of the developing world, as they believe. These statements indicate an uninformed dismissal of the full spectrum of economic thought that is disconcerting considering his former role of influence and responsibility. Most of the protestors were and are in favor of utilizing the power of the marketplace. The concern, valid in my opinion, is when the WTO undermines democratically determined laws in the interest of trade. People have the right to govern themselves. And as for not truly representing the developing world, I think the breakdown of the Doha round of international trade negotiations clearly demonstrated there is a difference of opinion on whether the current world market adequately benefits the third world.

I would recommend reading the book. The first half is autobiographical and has fascinating insights into the personalities and interworkings of several presidencies. The second half is more economic theory, and I found it insightful, if sometimes contradictory. Without going into details, his ideas on income distribution and government fiscal policy left me with more questions than answers. But this is definitely a book that makes you think. And, his dry sense of humor and obvious intelligence make this a fun read.

The Great Deluge

Hurricane Katrina had such a large impact on New Orleans that I knew I would have to learn more about this tragedy if I wanted to better understand my new home. Even today, two years later, it seems every local has their "Katrina" story. Many talk about how they lived out of the city for a couple of years, or how their house was looted, or even how their family members died. These personal dramas form the narrative of one of our nation's worst natural disasters ever.

Author Douglas Brinkley is a professor at Tulane University and an accomplished historian. Among the many Katrina books, I decided his would be the best. After reading the book, I am not sure. Perhaps because he lives in New Orleans, Brinkley was unable to maintain a professional distance from the event. Instead, his personal anger and bias pervades the text. We get it: you hate Mayor Nagin and FEMA. The local and national leadership is portrayed as vain, cowardly, and incompetent. In contrast, the "everyday man" in New Orleans is given hundreds of pages of adulation and credit. And, while the text does demonstrate the errors of government crisis management, the truth is never so black and white.

I had a consistent feeling that Brinkley's caricatures of those in leadership didn't accurately portray the unbelievably difficult position they were in, and the effort they surely put forth. Likewise, while there were undoubtedly everyman heroes, there were also members of the populace who reacted to the disaster with opportunistic crime that seriously hindered the rescue efforts. Overall, the book had a memoir feel that focused more on story-telling than providing a traditionally historic insight into the hurricane.

Ethics for the New Millenium

I was reluctant to read the Dalai Lama for a few years. Because he was the most accessible author of Buddhism, I presumed his teaching would be "dumbed down" for a broader audience. I imagined I would best relate to little-known mountain mystics whose writings were only recently translated and discussed by a small number of literati. Eventually I ended that stubborn resistance with "The Art of Happiness". Although not by the Dalai Lama, author Howard Cutler provides a great introductory book to the ideas of his Holiness. Since then, I have come to regard the Dalai Lama as somebody whose wisdom and experience can provide tremendous guidance in my approach to life. Ethics for a New Millenium does not approach significantly different topics or ideas than the other books I have read by him since "The Art of Happiness". Instead, I found it to be a comfortable review of his ideas. This works great for me, because I find a consistent review of Buddhisms's simple maxims to be helpful in maintaining their influence in my day-to-day life.

Confederacy of Dunces

I had been recommended this book by good friends and family for years. Awhile back I started the read, but decided it was a cheap, modern imitation of Don Quijote: the larger-than life character humorously engages in a life "noble" only unto himself. However, as I arrived in New Orleans I decided I wanted to do a little "theme" reading. I am glad I did. This book is now one of my favorites, and I definitely think the character, although inspired by, is not limited to Cervantes' classic. In the story Ignatius attempts to make his way through a banal world through his percieved mastery of medival ethics, righteousness, and my favorite, geometry. I doubt I have ever laughed as much while reading as I did with this book. (David Sedaris is close, though) Also, the personal story behind the novel adds depth and interest. A local author of New Orleans committed suicide without ever publishing his work. A distraught mother convinced a reluctant Tulane professor to read his script, and the book eventually won the Pultizer. Yours in Anger, Nels