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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Ron Chernow’s eponymously titled biography of Alexander Hamilton is nothing short of epic. At a brisk 731 pages (not including extensive notes and index), Chernow’s tome is not something to lug around in airports or while lounging on the beach. Nevertheless, Alexander Hamilton is a titillating read about one of our nation’s foremost founding fathers. And unlike his compatriots Washington and Jefferson, the academic work on the first secretary of the treasury is comparatively absent, which makes Chernow’s work more illuminating.

Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies to an unwed couple, forever casting the future founder as an immigrant bastard. Despite his humble origins, young Hamilton was able to secure passage to North America and attend King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City. His studious years were spent assiduously arguing the colonies’ grievances against the tyrannical King George III. As war between Great Britain and the colonies erupted, men in greater situations saw talent in Hamilton and within five years of first arriving in America he became General Washington’s aide-de-camp throughout the American Revolution.

As Washington’s right-hand-man, Hamilton corresponded with the Continental Congress, fellow generals and field commanders, and anyone else who was needed to conduct the war. Though Hamilton endlessly prodded Washington for his own field command, the commander-in-chief needed Hamilton’s oral, written, and persuasive skills to help him conduct the war. Plus, Hamilton was fluent in French, a skill that also proved valuable in communicating with the marquis de Lafayette. Eventually Washington capitulated and assigned Lt. Colonel Hamilton a command during the Battle of Yorktown, where he fought valiantly and captured two redoubts.

Hamilton again proved invaluable to Washington when he served as the nation’s first secretary of treasury. Unlike the other cabinet members, Hamilton had exclusive access to the first president and was in a position to truly shape policy. As treasury secretary, Hamilton strengthened the federal government by having it assume states’ debts, by creating its first federal bank, by establishing a Coast Guard and by emphasizing the notion that a strong central government is vital for the fledgling nation to succeed. As the years grew, the bond between mentor and mentee tightened and Washington heavily relied on Hamilton for guiding the nation. Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, grew disillusioned over Hamilton’s influential access and the two became bitter rivals, ideologically opposed to one another. While Hamilton believed that Jefferson’s de-centralized, states-rights’ philosophy would inevitably lead to anarchy, Jefferson accused Hamilton for either attempting to re-establish American colonialism under Great Britain or conspiring to engender a homegrown American monarchy. No evidence has surfaced to support Jefferson’s claims.

Hamilton’s confidence inspired many men to invest in his talents; it has also established bitter rivals. Newspapers in the 1790s had more in common with 21st-century blogs than 20th-century periodicals; they were loose on facts and heavy on gossip. Hamilton endured character assassination after character assassination because of his heavy influence in Washington’s administration. Since Washington was too revered to be the target of smear tactics, Hamilton bore the brunt of the Republicans’ verbal assault. Like the lawyer he was, Hamilton responded to these attacks the only way he knew; he refuted them in writing and exploited weaknesses in his opponent’s political philosophies.

Pride got the better of Hamilton in one career-defining instance. Hypersensitive of being accused of being a cheat or an embezzler, Hamilton was livid over accusations that he swindled the Treasury and stored funds for himself or, that he was funding a British uprising. His opponents supposedly held some evidence—covert payments to a Mr. Reynolds. The evidence proved less nefarious, though no less scandalous. Mr. Reynolds extorted money from Hamilton so that he would keep secret the affair that occurred between Hamilton and his wife. Eventually the cat was let out of the bag and Hamilton’s political career was forever tarnished.

Chernow vividly describes the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and the cunning Aaron Burr. Though Burr was just one of Hamilton’s many enemies, he felt especially scorned after losing the New York gubernatorial race. Though Hamilton’s influence was probably inconsequential, Burr blamed him for his loss. Additionally, Hamilton slighted Burr’s character in the presence of a Dr. Charles Cooper and stated he possessed an even more “despicable opinion” of Aaron Burr. Burr, wanted to reestablish his political career, sought revenge and challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton reluctantly accepted, though secretly declared he was not going to aim and shoot at Burr. Burr had a different set in mind and shot Hamilton in the lower right abdomen. Hamilton died 34 hours after the duel on July 12, 1804.

Cherow’s Alexander Hamilton is exhaustive in scope and definitive in its detail on the first treasury secretary’s life. Ron Chernow successfully depicts Hamiton’s self-sacrificing contributions to the fledging years of the United States.

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The Bush administration is in its last two months. The United States is about to inherit its next president, a man who promises to bring considerable differences in both domestic and foreign policy. As Bush closes out his second term, I’d thought I would examine the policy choices and decisions made that defined his presidency. I’m taking a look at three books: Bush at War, Plan of Attack, and State of Denial, all authored by renowned Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. This first entry takes a look at the first, Bush at War.

Bush at War begins before the events of September 11th but swiftly shifts its focus toward the march to war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. All the characters are there: Bush and Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a host of other deputies and political advisers, including Karl Rove, Andy Card, and Dick Armitage. Woodward’s initial reporting was first published in 2002, and now that we are closing out 2008 it is interesting to see the dynamics between the players even before the war in Iraq started. Early on, Cheney and Rumsfeld were calling for a wider-ranging execution on the war on terror, emphasizing covert operations, special forces, and military and intelligence operations working outside of the public eye. The war would begin by neutralizing Al Qaeda but, according to their worldview, an American military bogged down in Afghanistan—a country that troubled both Alexander the Great and the Soviet Union—would be ineffective against this new twenty-first century threat. Secretary Powell, however, differed. His rationale was that Al Qaeda was the true threat and should be neutralized. The focal point should be on Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. A war against Iraq would be distracting and take resources away from attacking the real terrorists who attacked New York and Washington on 9/11.

Expanding the war, however, would be addressed in Woodward’s second book on Bush, Plan of Attack. Bush at War is an informative look on how Bush and his cabinet marched against Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld kept pressing his generals for more action and a leaner force. He was frustrated over the lack of substantive targets in the barren wasteland of Afghanistan and kept his generals to search for more targets. By the time the ground war got underway, Al Qaeda was already trenched in Tora Bora, the treacherous mountains that border Afghanistan with Pakistan.

Woodward has been criticized for portraying the president in a positive light, almost to the point of writing propaganda on his behalf. In an unusually secretive administration, Woodward had incredible access to cabinet members, the vice president, and even Bush himself. It would be almost unthinkable to see a writer from The Nation or another publication known to have liberal tendencies to have such access. In the writing, Woodward does seem biased in his description of Bush. Nowhere is there any criticism of the president for his decisions or his management abilities. In fact, Woodward’s  language in describing George W. Bush is more descriptive of a John Wayne or James Bond character—a man who is always calm and in control. Bush’s reactions to circumstances reminds me of almost a superhero character in a comic book. Okay, the city’s in danger, let’s fly there, fix the infrastructure,  and kill the bad guys. In other words, Bush at War’s characterization of the president is rudimentally two-dimensional.

Nevertheless, Bush at War is an important examination of the administration’s decision-making immediately following 9/11. Woodward’s book reads like an itinerary of the events leading from that horrid day to the Battle of Tora Bora in December of 2001. That reporting alone makes Bush at War an important resource.

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Eichmann in Jerusalem Book Cover

"Eichmann in Jerusalem" by Hannah Arendt

When the Israeli secret service kidnapped Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960, they expected to capture a monster. Instead Israeli psychologists were surprised to examine someone who they claimed were more normal than they. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt explores the concept of evil and discovers that Eichmann’s philosophy did not possess an irascible hatred toward Jews. Instead, Eichmann’s evil was less complicated, less ideological. The source of Eichmann’s crimes was not so much the supposed claim that the Germans were of a superior race than non-Germans, but rather the lack of thought with which drove Eichmann’s actions.

Adolf Eichmann was an officer within the SS, the much-maligned officer corps that was responsible for both expulsing the Jews from German territory and eradicating their existence. In other words, the SS-led by Heinrich Himmler-organized the ghettos, the concentration camps, and provided the logistics in getting the Jews there and killing them. Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel within the SS, provided the transportation for Jews to leave German territory and later the trains that delivered countless Jews to their death camps. Modeled after the Nuremberg Trials, the tribunal organized in Jerusalem charged Eichmann with “crimes against humanity” for orchestrating the logistics that transported millions of Jews to their deaths.

Surprisingly, Arendt objects to much of the trial’s procedures. The defense did not have the same preparation as the prosecution. While the prosecution had numerous lawyers, Eichmann for the most part had one defense attorney, Dr. Servatius. Moreover, the trial made no attempts to hide the overt reality that its purpose was much loftier than simply to provide justice to Eichmann. The trial served for posterity, to remind future generations of the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews. While Eichmann was a Nazi and a member of the SS, he could not possibly have solely shouldered the burden of the millions of deaths caused by the Nazi regime. By adopting all of the Holocaust as evidence against Eichmann (after all, Eichmann planned the logistics to get the Jews into the camps), Eichmann became a scapegoat for the Nazis and the German people in general.

Instead Arendt seeks a stronger explanation for Eichmann’s crimes. She summarizes the societal effects of a totalitarian government and contrasts it with the rules of a democratic society. Evil is thoughtlessness; it is a sort of “going with the flow” in a totalitarian government. In a democracy, people normally behave the rule of law and, for the most part, are only tempted to break the law. Most people do not succumb to those temptations. However, in a totalitarian society, this idea is turned on its head; corruption and evil become the norm and those elements in those environs shape people’s behaviors. People here only flirt with the idea of behaving morally and most people simply carry out their functions. Eichmann only knew to carry out his orders and to follow the rule of law (which was Hitler and his wish to exterminate the Jewish people) because society’s norms under Nazi Germany were allowed to shape his consciousness.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is a very weighty exploration of morality and much is crammed in its thin 298 pages. Arendt discusses the validity of the Jerusalem court, the complicity and lack of leadership in the Jewish councils that aided the Nazis to perform their atrocities, and the European countries that either complied or refused to extradite their Jews. France refused to expulse their Jews and Denmark refused to comply with any of the oppressive laws of Nazi Germany. But what is most interesting that supports Arendt’s thesis is that, after a short two years, the Nazis who resided in Denmark after its occupation no longer supported anti-Semitic actions and even sympathized with the Jews. It seems that once the Nazi functionaries were removed from the societal constraints imposed by Hitler, they were able to regain their moral consciousness.

In the end, Eichmann was convicted and hung. Hannah Arendt does not disagree with the court’s rulings, but the methods with which they were undertaken. Firstly, the methods with which Eichmann was obtained were questionable. Argentina did not have appropriate extradition laws for former Nazi officials to Jerusalem and Germany would not have taken him. Thus, Israeli officials illegally grabbed Adolf Eichmann and forcefully brought him for trial in Jerusalem. Secondly, the prosecution and defense did not have equal access to resources. The prosecution had more lawyers and was able to utilize documents the defense did not always have access to. Thirdly, the evidence brought forth by the prosecution did not necessarily have relevance to Eichmann’s actions. Such evidence was presented most likely in order to provoke emotion than to indicate Eichmann’s culpability of the crimes against the Jewish people.

Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of Adolf Eichmann’s atrocities during the Holocaust and the subsequent trial is an insightful work because it examines both the interrelationships of totalitarianism and moral consciousness within the self and global society’s responsibilities to bring those who commit these horrific crimes to justice. Any student of humanity, ethics and moral justice needs to grapple with these issues and Eichmann in Jerusalem provides a compelling framework to learn about the depths of morality, the human conscience, and how people’s worldviews are shaped within a totalitarian government.

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Can the cyclical nature of history be explained through science? Ecologist Peter Turchin attempts to do just that in his book “War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires.” Turchin argues that imperiogenesis (the birth of empires) occurs on the fringes of civilization, where members of one society interact with members of another. This interaction causes a higher level of asabiya (a term coined by 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun), or the level of social connectivity among groups. People living on these metaethnic frontiers recognize the cultural differences from the other society, thus feeling a stronger bond with fellow compatriots also living on the frontier.

Sound like an “us versus them” argument? Absolutely. Any casual scholar will recognize that history is filled with societies demonizing their rivals in order to subjugate their power and obtain their goals. Turchin, however, makes the argument that cycles of imperiogenesis and imperiopathosis (the decline and eventual death of empires) occur like clockwork. Is this so? Since this book is written with the general reader in mind, the mathematics have been omitted. Still, Turchin cites examples of where imperial decline coincides with decreasing levels of asabiya. The rise of competing aristocrats and their inability to unify against external threats led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Asabiya led directly to the strength and ascendancy of the Roman Empire. Conversely, the decline of asabiya weakened Rome’s prominence.

Does this theory explain most empires? Turchin’s argument is convincing but I’m undecided as to whether it defines all empires. The British Empire, for example, was the largest empire in the world yet it was nowhere to be found. Instead Turchin discusses the birth and growth of the United States, where the asabiya of frontiersman expanded American borders well into Native American territory and across the continent.

In all, Peter Turchin’s “War and Peace and War” illustrated how the internal affairs of civilizations affect their expansionist ambitions. Highly recommended.

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The source of suffering, according to Eckhart Tolle, is the ego. It contextualizes everything in terms of past and future. People tend to determine themselves based on their previous experiences and interactions, and define their future with those in mind. Tolle states that the key to escaping from this madness and entering enlightenment is to embrace the power of Now, by surrendering to what is in the moment. By fully engaging in the Now, you separate yourself from your ego and feel the absolute present. After all, time, Tolle says, is an illusion (there is no future or past, only Now) and timelessness is the true existence.

In 193 pages, Tolle provides wisdom reminiscent of eastern philosophies and shows us how to reach inner peace. Though brief, I couldn’t help but feel this book was too long for its message. I felt the author kept beating me over the head with his message of embracing the present, shutting off the egotistical mind, and adopting inner peace and salvation through stillness and inner peace. Even with its repetitive prose, I am still not one-hundred-percent certain exactly how I should embrace the Now.

Nonetheless, Tolle’s The Power of Now is a worthy read for those of you who feel frustrated with the gaps between what “should be” and “what is not.” Maybe it will help you reach one step closer to enlightenment. Then again, maybe not.

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Here’s a fact for you: Half of the world’s population live on two dollars a day or less. Keep that in mind when you feel as though you’re life isn’t going as planned or circumstances didn’t develop the way you had hoped.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs is on a mission. Leading after a brief forward by U2’s Bono, Dr. Sachs calls upon the Western governments to increase their foreign aid and investment in the extreme impoverished areas of the world. Lacking the infrastructure necessary for a modern functioning state, the poorest of the poor do not possess even an economic foundation upon which to build. The End of Poverty (Penguin, 2005) is Sachs’ soapbox that calls for a complete eradication of extreme poverty by 2025.

The first half of the book feels part-memoir, as Sachs described how his work shifted from traditional market-based, Western-focused economics to international development. Time spent at Harvard gave him the credentials and connections to advise the Bolivian government on its much-troubled economy. It was here where he started to realize the inefficiencies of the IMF and the World Bank, those two maligned international financial systems that are mostly accused of siding more with Western interests than in helping the poor. From there, Sachs moved on to Poland, Russia, China, and India, where he worked to stabilize monetary systems and battle Washington for donor aid. Sachs’s efforts won some hard-fought battles, as in the case of Poland–where a Zloty Stabilization Fund helped control currency conversions and prevented. He was also not so lucky with other countries. For instance, Russia’s economy lapsed just after the cold war because of the U.S.’s reluctance to finance its former rival, and the shock therapy prescriptions that economist recommended had the unintended consequences of privatizing state-controlled enterprises in hands of a privileged few.

The remaining chapters focus on the causes of extreme poverty and the solutions needed to elevate their countries’ economies. Sachs especially focuses on Africa, where HIV/AIDS, malaria, dysentery, measles, mumps, rubella, and a host of other preventable diseases ravage the population. It is truly a shame that a little preventive medicine and some drugs that are relatively inexpensive in the West are all that is needed; yet millions die because Africa cannot afford the cost. The lack of infrastructure is also problematic for an economy, since goods need to be transported and this proves difficult without adequate roads and communication. Geographic elements can also be a drain, especially in landlocked countries. Look at any map today and you will see the wealthiest areas have easy access to navigable waters.

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are also heavily discussed, since Professor Sachs was an advisor to then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The MDGs include halving the number of people who live in extreme poverty by 2015. This is possible, Sachs contends, but only until Western governments—especially the U.S.—fork up the money where their mouths are. The UN General Assembly wishes the West to contribute 0.7% of GNP to the MDGs. Currently, the U.S. is roughly 0.15-0.20%.

Sachs is optimistic and so was I until I read what Sachs demands what is required from the U.S. Roughly 80-100 billion dollars is needed for the next 10 or so years. This would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. I try to be an optimistic person, but aside from the Marshall Plan in World War II, the U.S. has never made such a financial commitment. The U.S. promotes capitalism as its culture, and capitalism does not spend on what it feasibly cannot calculate a return on its investment. Sachs convincingly makes a case that raising the per capita income of extremely poor countries will engender a platform of infrastructure, health, and education needed for growth–and that such growth can only help the global economy—but I find it difficult to imagine Sachs convincing the U.S. government to fork over such a large sum of money. The U.S. would rather spend such money on wars that it cannot win.

So where do we stand on the good life? I imagine that if you’re reading this, you are not living in extreme poverty—that is, you make more than 2 dollars a day. Take note that even if your circumstances seem unfortunate, there are others out there are who are even more in need, and could help from your service.
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The role of government in defining the good life is the subject of The Politics by Aristotle. Like his predecessor Plato, Aristotle sought to find the best type of constitution under which any given people could live. His conclusion: a mixed constitution (one that is neither fully an oligarchy or a democracy) provides the most stability and gives the population the greatest chance for the good life.

What is the good life according to Aristotle? In many ways his definition is similar to Plato’s. The good life is one of virtue. Good actions, said Aristotle, lead to individual fulfillment. But what are good actions? They are those that promote the well-being of the individual. To use today’s spiritual terminology, good actions promote the mind, body, and spirit. Excessive indulgences corrupt all three; activities that strengthen each leads to a life of virtue.

Balance may be a necessary component of virtue, but, according to Aristotle, is insufficient. To be virtuous, one must also recognize one’s place in society and meet those demands. For example, a hard-working slave is virtuous if he satisfactorily performs his duties for his master. Conversely, if a master mistreats on obeying and loyal slave, he is not virtuous. In sum, each has a role in society. To be virtuous, one should fulfill that role.

In that regard, the most virtuous constitution is that which leads the most people to the good life. Here Aristotle was more of a realist. He did not seek to define an unattainable utopia as Plato did. Citing historical events (most of which I am unaware and some are not known outside of the text), Aristotle pieces the best of the constitutions in his contemporary Greece. He found that the ideal monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are unstable in the long run, and eventually will degrade into tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy, respectively. According to Aristotle, the best form of government is one of a mixed constitution, what he called “polity.” A polity is not necessarily made up of equal parts monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, but rather, the most powerful faction gives some leeway to the other factions in order to promote stability.

Above all, I liked Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle’s constitutional ideas were revolutionary and influenced many throughout history, including America’s founding fathers. His ideas on public education, for example, were still radical even in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Still, I found his writing style obscure and difficult (perhaps it was the translation; unfortunately I cannot read ancient Greek) and his attacks on Plato seemed unfounded. In sum, read The Republic instead. Plato is better.

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