Tag Archive: non-fiction

Playing Politics with an Epidemic

Today’s book is And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts’s book is a masterwork of journalistic writing and activism. Twenty-five years have passed since it was published, and it still remains a classic. Shilts’s book focuses on the early years of the AIDS epidemic– the time period when people did not realize they even had an epidemic on their hands. It begins in an eerie manner, with a young Scandinavian doctor coming back from practicing medicine in central Africa in the last 1970s and dying of an unknown and devastating disease. From there, Shilts shifts his focus to the United States, chiefly the gay populations in San Francisco and New York, where the epidemic begins to take shape.

Shilts pulls no punches in this book. He unleashes a righteous fury at all the failures that allowed AIDS to take hold in both the United States and the world– the politicians who refused to grant funding for research, the doctors who were baffled by a disease that did not fit into a neat “box,” some members of the gay community for their wariness of the medical establishment, local governments for failing to recognize what was going on (especially the blood banks– many people died because of their refusal to face the facts), the US Government and CDC, and the infighting among certain researchers that slowed down the chances of getting a grip on the epidemic.

In the early years there were four mains groups of people who got AIDS, Haitians, hemophiliacs, Intravenous Drug abusers and Gays. And in the early years it was seem primarily as a “gay disease,” even though there was evidence that it could be spread among heterosexuals and through blood donations. For this reason, finding help for sufferers was an uphill battle, as the disease spread among members of society that were seen as “undesirable.” Almost everyone involved played politics with the disease, or were the victims of politics. What astounded me in the reading of this book was how it was so easy for the American people and government to deny the humanity of certain groups of people. Almost as if gay folks and drug abusers deserved this horrifying plague.  As Shilts puts it ” Later, everybody agreed the baths should have been closed sooner; they agreed health education should have been more direct and timely. And everybody also agreed blood banks should have tested blood sooner, and that a search for the AIDS virus should have started sooner, and that scientists should have laid aside their petty intrigues. Everybody subsequently agreed that the news media should have offered better coverage of the epidemic much earlier, and that the federal government should have done much, much, more. By the time everyone agreed to all this, however, it was too late. Instead people died. Tens of thousands of them.”

People died because people played politics with their lives in an astounding number of ways. Yet, heroes did emerge during the epidemic. The doctors who latched onto the new virus and kept trying to untangle it despite cuts to their funding and pressures from hospital administrators. The City of San Francisco for trying to curb the disease through innovative health measures (the City played politics too, but it did a heck of a lot better than other places with large populations of AIDS sufferers.) The gay community for fighting for help and for caring for those who were dying. And other, at times unlikely allies come to light, such as conservatives Orrin Hatch and J Everett Koop. Hatch fought for legislation to keep AIDS testing confidential, and Koop was the first member of the Reagan Administration to outline a multi-pronged,  sensible and pragmatic attack on the virus–much to the dismay of many of his more conservative supporters (the administration had muzzled him for five years, keeping him from speaking on the health crisis.)

The book is huge (600+) pages but it reads easily, almost like a mystery in the early portions. It contains a massive amount of information, names and dates, but it is a compelling read. While Stilts writes only on the AIDS epidemic you can’t help but wonder what would happen is some other new disease would pop up that was just as deadly– one likes to think that politicking and infighting would not ensue within the government and public health facilities that are supposed to protect us, but no doubt they would.

Last summer I was in San Francisco visiting a friend who is a doctor when we walked into an airy, bright store that sold all sorts of neat gift-shop sorts of things. My friend said to me quietly “This shop raises money to help care for those with AIDS and to help fund research locally. They also sell lots of neat stuff. Whenever we need a unique gift for someone we try to buy here. They do good work.”  San Francisco (and New York  as well as other cities) is a city that lost a generation of young people who did not have to die. The early years of the AIDS epidemic are fading from public memory, mainly because in developed countries the disease can be treated more as a chronic condition if you are lucky and have the means. People now talk about AIDS being an “African problem,” which it most definitely is, but few Americans want to realize that it remains a problem within their own country.  People still don’t want to talk about it or face the reality that is a terrifying disease that is transmitted sexually.

Read Shilts’s book. Read it to realize what happens when you mix a disease with ignorance, hate, and politics. Read it to understand that we are all human beings and as a collective humanity that we all suffer when a fellow human suffers from this disease. Read it so that we don’t forget, and so that we continue to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land

Can a man who grew up in a climate of violence and hatred, whose father was repeatedly arrested and detained for years on end, who himself was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, escape the cycle of violence and become an advocate for peace?  Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of the memoir Son of Hamas, seems to be living proof that the answer to this heartrending question, thankfully, is “Yes.”

Yousef is the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders and leaders of the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas.  Son of Hamas tells the gripping tale of his upbringing in the midst of overwhelming suffering, his arrest and decision to work as a double agent for Shin Bet, the countless narrow escapes he managed as he gathered information for the organization, his secret conversion to Christianity, and his ultimate decision to abandon espionage and immigrate to America, convinced that the ordinary means would never bring a lasting solution to the sad problem that is the Middle East.

The story is filled with tragic accounts of the violence that plagues the Holy Land.  From an early age, Yousef witnessed the deaths of his fellow Palestinians, the periodic arrests of his father, the ostracism his family endured as a result, and the seeming impotence of Palestinian attempts to overthrow their Israeli oppressors.  Little wonder that by the age of eighteen he shared the same hatred for the Israelis that many (though not all) Palestinians feel.  And yet, despite this painful and traumatic childhood, in the midst of his trials Yousef realized that there was blame to be had by all, both Israelis and Palestinians.  At first this led him to give up his plan to use his cover as a Shin Bet operative in order to murder the people who had arrested him.  Yousef spent the next ten years collaborating with Shin Bet, in the process saving countless lives from terrorist threats.  Nevertheless, he eventually came to the conclusion that his spy work would never bring lasting peace to his homeland.  Part of what led him to this conclusion was his slow but gradual conversion to Christianity.  Gripped by the message of Jesus, particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, Yousef abandoned his ancestral faith and, at first secretly, embraced Christianity.  It was only after he left the Holy Land that he relayed the devastating news to his father.

Despite this dramatic change, Yousef maintains a deep affection for his father and the rest of his family.  To me, this was one of the most moving aspects of the book.  Yousef’s embrace of Christianity has not led him to vilify his past or his family members.  Throughout the book he reverently describes his father as a man of deep faith and integrity, a man he loves and respects despite their religious disagreements.  Happily, this love runs both ways.  As a leader of Hamas, if Sheikh Yousef were to disown Mosab, he would effectively be pronouncing a death sentence on his firstborn son.  Amidst the feelings of pain and betrayal, the elder Yousef has chosen rather to protect his son.  In a phone conversation between father and son after the younger Yousef had left for the U.S., the elder tells his son, “No matter what happened, you are still my son.  You are part of me, and nothing will change.  You have a different opinion, but you still are my little child.”

In a postscript Yousef talks about why he chose to write the memoir, addressing the common cynical evaluations of such books as bids for money, fame, and power.  He denies such charges, noting that he could have had more than his fair share of these had he stayed in his homeland, and that he has turned down similar opportunities since moving to the States.  Rather, he wrote the book as a sign of hope for those who despair of ever finding a resolution to the strife in the Middle East.  If someone as embroiled in an organization like Hamas as he could find a way out, then there is hope that some day that land may find a real and lasting peace.  For those of my readers who are people of prayer, may it be our fervent prayer that that day may come soon.

Ten down, (at least) forty-two to go.


Having recently read one award-winning author by the name of Berry, I decided to pick up a book by a very different, also award-winning Barry, namely Dave.  As many of you probably know, Dave Barry is one funny man.  A regular columnist for the Miami Herald for a couple of decades, Barry has also written numerous books in the categories of both non-fiction and fiction (including children’s literature).

Today I read his Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway: A Vicious and Unprovoked Attack on Our Most Cherished Political Institutions, and I laughed almost without ceasing for the four hours it took me to breeze through it.  The book is a hilarious send-up of the absurdity of American political institutions, with absolutely no claims to providing actual, reliable information.  On the contrary, as Barry notes in the introduction, “So if you were concerned about encountering a lot of actual information in this book, relax!  There’s almost none.  To compensate for the lack of facts, I have included a great many snide remarks.”

Barry begins with a brief and very tongue-in-cheek account of the evolution of government from prehistoric times to the arrival of the pilgrims in the New World.  The account itself is a riot, but it is made even funnier by the accompanying illustrations, many of them involving giant prehistoric zucchinis (a recurring theme throughout the book).  The rest of the book focuses specifically on the U.S. government: its ever-expanding size, the highlights of a trip to Washington, D.C., the process of presidential elections, and the typical shape of a modern political campaign.  The book closes with two chapters ostensibly on the 2000 presidential election, though the first chapter has more to do with the madhouse that is South Florida and the second with the indecipherable nature of legalese and the general incompetence of the media, esp. television.

Despite its obviously humorous character, the book offers some perceptive criticisms.  Take for instance, Barry’s explanation of how people vote for presidential candidates:

“I believe that how a candidate looks and sounds is way more important to the voters than his position on anything, which is why the public periodically decides that it likes some politician who totally disagrees with some other politician that the public also likes.  The public to this day is crazy mad for John F. Kennedy, not because of his policies – nobody has a clue what his policies were – but because… he had class!  He was handsome!  His wife was beautiful!  He was President Beatle!”

Surely nothing like this has gone on in recent elections </sarcasm>.  Barry also has some hilarious (and yet borderline practical) suggestions for improving presidential campaigns, such as regularly injecting candidates with truth serum on the campaign trail, and requiring them to wear donor logos like NASCAR drivers.  There’s no doubt that these changes would make the campaigns more transparent, as well as more interesting.

One of the funniest sections of the book for me was his description of South Florida.  He devotes nearly an entire chapter to this description in order to make a case for kicking South Florida out of the Union.  His account is hysterical and his case strangely compelling, particularly for those who have spent any extended amount of time in the greater Miami area.

If you are even half as cynical about politics as I am, you will enjoy this book.  Though it was published ten years ago, it (sadly) still rings true today.  My only advice is not to read it in a library – you will be laughing too loud and people might look at you funny.  Other than that, enjoy, and keep an eye out for those giant prehistoric zucchinis – they sneak up on you.

Nine down, (at least) forty-three to go.


A Plea for Content

Continuing my curmudgeonly kick, I decided to pick up E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.  I distinctly remember my first encounter with the term “cultural literacy” in junior high or high school.  My mom suggested I buy my older sister a cultural literacy calendar for Christmas.  It seemed kind of nerdy, but not having a better idea, I went with it, and promptly ignored/forgot the term for some time.  I’m not sure when I started thinking about it again, but when I decided to join this blog, I decided to put the book on my reading list.  While it wasn’t what I was expecting, it certainly was a worthwhile read.

From what I gather, Hirsch’s book is not the most fashionable in education circles these days.  It is often maligned as a reactionary and triumphalist return to the Western canon, as a quick glance at the negative reviews on Amazon will attest.  Ironically, these reviews simply prove many of the points Hirsch makes in the book.  The basic argument can be summarized quite briefly.  Since the early part of the twentieth century, education has emphasized skills rather than content.  In so doing, even basic skills such as reading have declined.  In order to address the literacy crisis in the U.S., we must reclaim the importance of content, though not at the expense of skills.  The argument is more detailed and nuanced, but in a nutshell, that’s the basic thesis.

Hirsch makes his case drawing on a number of studies relating to reading ability and memory.  Fundamental to his thesis is the argument that reading well is not simply a matter of being able to decode the symbols and grammar of a language – though such skills are no doubt indispensable.  Rather, in order to read well, one also needs knowledge of a common cultural heritage.  All writers presume some knowledge on the part of their readers.  If they didn’t, every book, newspaper article, or blog post would be exponentially longer.  If a reader is missing the requisite cultural knowledge the author presumes, the reader will misunderstand the text.  Hirsch’s argument is that because of the emphasis on skills in education today, many students are missing this knowledge, this cultural literacy, and as a result are falling behind intellectually.  But Hirsch’s concern is not one of snobbish elitism.  Rather, he worries that widespread illiteracy will have negative economic and social consequences for the nation.

Nationalism plays a significant role in Hirsch’s thesis, though not the “rah-rah, we’re the best” sense of nationalism.  He argues that standardized languages are the result of the rise of the modern nation-state, which in turn spurred the development of national cultures.  For good or for ill, in order to thrive in society, a person has to be familiar with the nation’s culture.  This culture will obviously vary from nation to nation, but the point is that one must know one’s own culture before moving on to that of other nations.  Hirsch is thus not opposed to multiculturalism in principle.  He simply maintains that one can understand other cultures only after one has a firm grasp on one’s own.

Much has been made of the list that takes up approximately a quarter of the book.  Hirsch has been accused of advocating trivia, of elitism, of cultural imperialism, and of technological ignorance.  The last charge can be made only if one ignores the publication date of the book (1988).  The other charges stick only if one has failed to read the rest of the book.  Hirsch acknowledges the constant fluctuation of any such list, and he does not rely simply on his own expertise and that of his two colleagues who helped compile the list.  On the contrary, he and his colleagues ran the list by “more than a hundred consultants outside the academic world” (135).  The group of consultants had a diverse range of age, sex, race, and ethnicity.  Moreover, Hirsch does not advocate only superficial knowledge of this list.  Rather, he calls for both an extensive curriculum (introducing students to the basic terms needed for cultural literacy) and an intensive curriculum (in-depth study of one or two Shakespeare plays, for example).

One final word about triumphalism and cultural imperialism.  Hirsch is abundantly clear that national vocabulary (another word for the knowledge needed for cultural literacy) is in many ways arbitrary, bound up with a nation’s history.  His call for a largely Western, “white” canon* is not at all intended to denigrate the value of other peoples and cultures.  Rather, Hirsch’s point is that anyone wishing to work for change effectively in a society must be able to speak that society’s language.  On this day on which we honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is fitting to note that Hirsch holds up Dr. King as an example of someone who could speak the language of a culture and use it to work for social change.

On the whole I found Hirsch’s case compelling, though not unassailable, but this review is already too long for a blog post, so I’ll keep my criticisms/questions to myself.  Also, I promise I’m going to try to find some lighter reading for the next couple of posts.

Six down, (at least) forty-six to go.


P.S. Apparently one of the people who read the library copy before me also found Hirsch’s case compelling.  Good for him or her, but I think there’s a special circle in hell for people who write in library books. 😉

*This is not Hirsch’s own language, but rather how he is often caricatured.

Perhaps you’ve seen the ad campaign for the new search engine, Bing.  The basic structure of the ads is formulaic: someone asks a simple question, and the question sets the hearer off on a stream of consciousness, spouting search engine results that have nothing to do with the original question.  The campaign is called “Search Overload Syndrome,” and it’s not too far from the reality of what the internet is doing to our brains.  Or at least that’s the thesis of Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (minus the reference to the Bing ad campaign).

Carr is no Luddite: though an English major at Dartmouth, he has been riding the computer wave since before it really took off in the mid-80s, and he readily admits his addiction to Blu-ray, Wi-Fi, Netflix, Pandora, and YouTube.  Nevertheless, Carr doesn’t let this addiction blind him to the very real downsides to our growing dependence on multimedia technology, particularly the Internet.

As the dust jacket notes, the book is “part intellectual history, part popular science, and part cultural criticism,” and Carr pulls it off with aplomb.  Drawing on such diverse sources as Socrates and Plato, Augustine, Nietzsche, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and modern studies on neuroscience, he makes a compelling case that the new technologies have negatively affected our capacity for “deep reading,” and thus for deep thinking.  Usually when people debate new technology, be it the radio, the television, or the computer, the point at issue is the content the media provide rather than the medium itself.  Carr seeks to redress this deficiency.  Carr asks not whether the content available on the internet is good or bad – rather, he asks how the nature of the medium affects the way we think.

The Internet is not the first technology to alter the way we think.  Carr points to cartography and clocks as inventions whose effects extended beyond their original purpose.  Maps, of course, were originally intended to help people navigate and reach places they had never been before.  Once they came into common use, though, they offered human beings a new way to conceptualize the world.  A similar change accompanied the invention of the clock, which led society to conceive of time as discrete units and to construct more precise schedules.  Examples could be multiplied.  Upon abandoning writing by hand for an early version of the typewriter, Nietzsche noted how the device changed his writing style.  With each of these changes, there is both loss and gain.

Carr focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on the loss that the Internet has precipitated.  In my first post to this blog, I suggested that the Internet generates or reinforces ADD.  I made that claim simply based on experience.  It would seem that science actually backs this up.  According to Carr, studies have shown that the nature of the Net as a multimedia technology actually impedes our ability to memorize and to read carefully.  The reason for this is the way our brains work.  In a nutshell (and oversimplifying dramatically), Carr describes the Internet as a multimedia “distraction device.”  The combination of text, images, video, and audio overstimulates our brains and thus reduces our ability to focus.  Moreover, our reliance on technology has impaired our memory, making the act of memorization more rather than less difficult.  Unsurprisingly, one of the primary engines driving the explosion in this technology is money.  To take the most obvious example, Google has an investment in making us surf the web faster and faster.  The more links we click on, the more opportunities Google has to create new ads and thus to make more money.

Again, the book is not an anti-technology screed.  Nevertheless, Carr does raise some reasonable cautions about where this technology might lead us, and at what cost the information superhighway comes.  He also offers some (to my mind sad) prognostications.  Though he doesn’t expect the book to disappear completely, he does see society returning to a more stratified literacy, with only a small elite preserving the ability to read deeply, while society at large continues down the path toward shallow thinking.  Whether he is right remains to be seen, of course, but the science would seem to support his hypothesis.

On the whole, The Shallows is a quick and engaging read.  Carr has an easygoing style, and he covers a number of fascinating topics: the development of writing and different media, from clay tablets to parchments to the codex; neuroscience; the thoughts of poets and other deep thinkers on the way the brain works.  The structure of the book wittily reflects the nature of internet thinking, with digressions periodically disrupting the flow of the argument.  More seriously, he cautions us about the reduction of thought to information and data and the potential loss of our capacity for reflection and contemplation.  The book helped explain why my students don’t read books (Carr even quotes a Rhodes Scholar from Florida State – a philosophy major, no less – who says that he doesn’t read books!).  It also reinforced my decision to keep this book project going and to limit my time on the web.  Moral of the story: get off the blog, and go read a book!  Your brain will thank you!

Four down, (at least) forty-eight to go.


The Long Winter

My book today is The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin.

I picked this book up some time last year and started it (got about a chapter in) but never finished it. So I re-read the whole thing this week. The title of this blog post pulls from the children’s book The Long Winter where Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about living through the “Snow Winter” of 1880. Many of Wilder’s descriptions are spot on, but while that winter was recognized as epic, it would not be as brutal as the blizzard that followed 8 years later.

The Children’s Blizzard is about one of the most horrifying blizzards to ever hit the Great Plains region. On January 12, 1888 a blizzard hit the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota with such ferocity that it left hundreds dead in its wake. The majority of the dead were children, who as the blizzard hit, fled their flimsy  country schoolhouses for shelter and never made it home. The book interweaves the stories of immigrants, many Norwegian,  Swiss-German Mennonites, and poor Americans from the east. Laskin does a remarkable job resurrecting the stories of these immigrants, given that few left behind written sources. They came from Europe looking for the “free land” that they had heard about in the American Midwest, and quickly settled into a hardscrabble life. Added to the cast of the book are the Signal Corps meteorologists (before the National Weather Service, the weather was forecast by the Army– after this blizzard and another epic one that wrecked the NYC area, the government relieved the Army of their duty and created the National Weather Office.)  Like many government offices, the Signal Corps was beset with petty infighting and stupidity that helped contribute to the disaster.

Laskin vividly describes the weather conditions that lead up to the blizzard- that morning  was a warm day, which led many farmers to leave the house to try to complete chores before the next storm.  Children left for school, often without mittens, a hat, or a decent coat, rejoicing in the warmth. The blizzard bore down on them when they were in their plain, poorly constructed schoolhouses. Eyewitnesses described that it came with a roar- and that when one looked up, a black cloud approached with a wall of white– like an oncoming sandstorm only with snow so fine  and driven so hard by the wind that it tore the skin off your face if it was uncovered.The author also describes the freezing process, hypothermia, and how the people caught outside died. As the blizzard howled through the area, the temperature, so mild earlier in the day, dropped to 40 below.

The most gripping stories of course, are of  the children and their families. The orphaned girl who no one cared for who tried to fight the blizzard to make her way back to her home who somehow, miraculously, survived despite collapsing  in the middle of the storm. The Mennonite boys who refused to leave each other, even as it becomes evident that disaster was upon them. The schoolteacher who saved her students by tying them together so they would not get lost during the walk home, and then by finding refuge in a haystack. The Norwegian farmer, whose strong, sensible wife goes out into the maelstrom to save him and their cow.  The father who digs a hole for his son in a snowbank, lays the family dog on top of the boy and himself on top of both of them. When the blizzard ends, he is dead, but the dog manages to get the boy (who lives) to safety.  The stories are numerous–filled with bravery and are heartbreaking. These were people who were so poor that they lived in houses constructed of sod and tar paper,  who burned hay instead of coal, and who were willing to risk their life for their livestock–because a cow, a horse, or pig could be the difference between making it or financial ruin.

The land was free. So the immigrants who settled the harshest parts of the Midwest were told. But it wasn’t. It exacted a horrible toll of death and hardship. The prairie, which seemed to fertile, began to empty out in the beginnings of the 20th century. Those who survived faced the horror of the Dust Bowl years, which hastened the emptying out. Now, as Laskin points out the prairie is being reclaimed by those who were indigenous to it, Native peoples and buffalo– populations of both groups are now the highest in a hundred and thirty years.

This book serves as many things, first of all as a history of the Great Plains, but also (obviously) as a cautionary tale. Men thought they could tame the prairie, but they were wrong. The infighting among the Signal Corps (who forecasted the weather and who blew it in terms of notifying anyone) cost lives. We like to think that weather cannot inflict such disaster on us anymore, but most recently, Hurricane Katrina has shown us what happens when we think we are greater than Mother Nature.  Finally, the book raises one last (although mostly inferred) point– the prairies were not free. Thousands of animals, people  and an entire culture and way of life were slaughtered so that white Europeans and Americans could take advantage of all this “good, free,  land” in the name of Manifest Destiny. And the prairies exacted a horrible, heartrending revenge on those who believed they could tame it.

A sobering read, but engaging. The author’s writing style is highly accessible.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C