This has been a week of intellectual and emotional whiplash. Two nights ago, I presented my synopsis of the book The Next Decade by George Friedman. Tomorrow at the First Friday Book Synopsis, I am presenting All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera. And today, I presented The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This is a diverse set of titles – and each one raises great and serious questions. But the one for today for the Urban Engagement Book Club (sponsored by CitySquare), The New Jim Crow, will remind you that, for some, digging out and moving forward is a very, very difficult task. Here are some excerpts:
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises – the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-great grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.
Cotton’s story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals – goals shared by the Founding Fathers… Hundreds of years later, America is still not an egalitarian society… An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-great grandparents were.
What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all.
“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” (quoted from James Baldwin, to his nephew, The Fire Next Time).
I teach community college students, and guest lecture at a major, private four-year university. The starting point for each of these two groups of students is so very different. And the path ahead? Well, for one group, it looks promising, filled with hope; for the other, the future looks like an almost impossible challenge.
As the author says about the prison and ex-prison population, “a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all.” Starting place really matters!
I’m glad I read books this diverse. They remind me that the struggles are real out there, every day, for so many.
Every year about this time, probably because of Presidents Day, I re-read brief biographies. This year, I selected Ulysses S, Grant (1822-1885), 18th President of the United States. This is one of two, the other written by Josiah Bunting III that is part of Times Books’ “The American Presidents” series, with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. serving as general editor. Although both Korda and Bunting cover much of the same material, there are significant differences between their respective approaches to the18th president of the United States.
For example, Bunting clearly disagrees with, indeed resents the fact that Grant is generally remembered “as a general, not a president, [which] explains in part the condescension – there is no better word for it — from which pundits and historians have tended to write of him.” Bunting asserts that if judged by the consequences of Grant’s common sense, judgment, and intuition, his presidency, “so far from being one of the nation’s worst, may yet be seen as one of the best.”
Korda indicates no inclination to view Grant’s presidency as “one of the best.” He duly acknowledges the problems which awaited Grant after he was elected to his first term in 1869. “What did Grant’s reputation as a president in, however, (and continues to do so today whenever journalists and historians are drawing up lists of the best presidents vs. the worst ones), was the depression of 1873, which ushered in a long period of unemployment and distress, made politically more damaging by accusations that the president’s wealthy friends were making money out of it.” Given that the United States was growing too fast, in too many different directions at once, and the inevitable consequence was corruption and an unstable economy, “it would have taken a more astute man than Grant to slow things down or clean them up.”
This last observation by Korda is consistent with a contemporary assessment of Grant by the Edinburgh Review, one which Brooks Simpson quotes in his own study (Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction 1861-1868), and which Bunting also cites: “To bind up the wounds left by the war, to restore concord to the still distracted Union, to ensure real freedom to the Southern Negro, and full justice to the southern white; these are indeed tasks which might tax the powers of Washington himself or a greater than Washington, if such a man is to be found.”
In his Epilogue, Korda explains that he wrote this book because, from time to time, “it is necessary to remind Americans about Grant, first of all because his is a kind of real-life Horatio Alger story, exactly the one that foreigners have always wanted to believe about American life…and that Americans want to believe about themselves.” Yes, his presidency was severely flawed but as a general, Grant “defined for all time the American way of winning a war”: It must have an essentially moral base to earn and sustain the full support of the American people, it must take full advantage of its great industrial strength and depth of manpower, and it must apply aggressively – without hesitation — all of its resources to achieve the ultimate military objective, total victory.
However, Korda suggests that any politician contemplating the use of military force should first consider lessons which Grant learned from failed Reconstruction initiatives in the South: “armies of occupation are no substitute for political thought, and that generals are not be necessarily the right people to institute basic political reforms or to reconstruct society.”
It remains for others much better qualified than I am to comment on the relevance of that statement to America’s current military involvement in various parts of the world. However, I greatly appreciate Korda’s attempt to provide a balanced view of Grant in terms of his character, talents, and values…all of which served him so well on the battlefield but which proved insufficient to the political challenges that he encountered later as the 18th president of the United States.
Although I remain convinced that Atul Gwande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right is the single best source for information and counsel on how to formulate and then use a list most effectively, there are other worthy sources. For example, here is an article written by Martin Douglass for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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Everybody loves a good list, right?
In our time-starved world, numbered lists help readers (and writers) get to the main point while still allowing a little room for flavor. But to paraphrase Aristotle, too much of a good thing is not necessarily better.
In my last post, I compiled the “worst” of the “worst lists.”
Here’s my compendium of five of the best “5 Best” lists of recent years – and what they tell us about how to do this thing right:
1. “5 Best Career Tips for Young People” (US News)
Too many “Top 5 or “10 Most …” lists consist of things you or I could have thought of ourselves, given two minutes and an iPad. Not so these five tips, which were culled from the book, Generation Earn, by Kimberly Palmer. The advice is refreshingly counterintuitive (”Raise your rates”) and pragmatic (”Free up your time and energy by outsourcing chores”).
Lesson: Say something new
2. “The 5 Best Toys of All Time” (Wired)
This list of “best toys” include such time-tested classics as “Stick,” “Cardboard Tube” and “Dirt.” Yes, dirt. Not what you expected, right? Especially in the tech-geek environment of Wired. That’s what so fresh about it: it’s actually fresh. While seemingly tongue-in-cheek, the list actually says something profound about how technology can distort kids’ lives.
Lesson: Be counter-intuitive
3. “Top 5 Best Complaint Letters” (The Telegraph)
Disgruntled customers are always a good source of dark online humor. (As United Airlines, among many others, can tell you.) This compendium includes a Chrysler Neon owner who wrote: “I don’t want the car to explode while I’m in it. Frankly, I do want it to explode when no one is ….”
Lesson: When you can’t be funny yourself, quote funny people
4. “The 5 Best Unintended Uses for the Apple iPad” (PC Magazine)
At the height of iPad mania last April, PC Magazine released a collection of five user-generated videos showing people employing their iPad as a cat toy and a golf tee, among others. In a subtle way, it helped put the hype in perspective.
Lesson: Where possible, include video
5. “MyFiveBest.com” (MyFiveBest.com)
This website describes itself as “User Submitted Trivia and Opinion.” Users post their own lists of “five” things, which range from the serious (”Five Countries That Censor Your Internet”) to the strange (”Five Animals That Have Been Used as Weapons”).
Lesson: When you can’t create … curate Do you have any favorite “best lists” to recommend?
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Martin Douglass is the pseudonym of an Emmy-nominated former TV and magazine writer who threw it all away to get an MBA. He currently toils anonymously in middle-management at a large Midwestern corporation.
I have read and reviewed Hugh MacLeod’s two books, Ignore Everybody and Evil Plans, and now eagerly await his completion of a lengthy interview. He is a counter-intuitive thinker and a gifted writer but let’s not ignore or neglect his drawings now on sale (for uncommonly reasonable prices) at his website.
“Without further ado….”
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In Hugh MacLeod’s own words: