Notes from the Now

Posts Tagged ‘USA’

(Former) Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. [Updated]

In Chicago on November 23, 2012 at 12:01 am

I snapped this picture of  Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. when I saw him speak in January of this year at the Rainbow Push Coalition and have to say that seeing/hearing him in person was the first time I really understood why he was such a big deal.  In Chicago, we’re used to the second generation (the Daleys, the Strogers, etc.) not always being overly impressive as speakers or commanding as personalities, but Jackson Jr. was both.   It made it even more incomprehensible that someone as remarkable as the congressman would get involved with the Blagojevich’s of the world.

All said, I’m thinking of this as a tragedy – evenif it is one that turns out to be largely the congressman’s own doing.

One of the best articles I’ve seen on the Congressman was written before the election (and this entire story took a sharp turn) was in the NY Mag – “Jr. – Who Thwarted the Ambitions of Jesse Jackson’s Son”.

Definitely worth checking out.

Update:  “Recognizing the Long Arc Of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Congressional Service” at the Nation merits a read!

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Peace Corps Day – March 1st

In History on March 5, 2012 at 4:01 am

March 1st was Peace Corps Day – on March 1st, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order that led to the formation of the Peace Corps.

While I never say that the Peace Corps is the right thing for everyone, I do say that  the experience was very meaningful for me, and the Peace Corps is something that I make time to talk about with any student who is considering it.

Booklog: April 2010 (American Apartheid)

In Chicago, sociology on July 10, 2010 at 10:43 pm

In the spirit of completeness, let me look back to April of this year…

The only book I read was Massey’s classic “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass” which looked at the scale, mechanisms, and destructive effects of racial segregation in the American context.  Over the years, I’ve been shocked by how many people assume that the social & economic effects of  segregation are limited (they jump to this conclusion that there’s no difference between the enforced separation created by rigid structural boundaries that have pervasive effects and the discrete choices that individuals make to associate with persons with whom they share common traits).  While the idea isn’t in any way counter-intuitive to me, it is nevertheless nice to read a strong explanation of the mechanisms used to preserve segregation and how the cumulative effects have created structural problems in our society that will require significant attention long after our society overcomes its affinity for racial prejudice.

I’m going to try to read some of Massey’s later work to see how he addresses what I’d term the “reshuffling” of the segregated deck that has been brought on by gentrification, and also the remarkable escalation of the consolidation of wealth that we’ve seen in the past decade.

Reading On This Date: October 24…

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2009 at 2:05 pm

One of the benefits of having a list of books I’ve read over the past decade, is that I can post the occasional “what was I reading on this date X years ago” entry.

So looking at October 24th:

Currently, I’m reading the interviews that make up Vaclav Havel’s “Disturbing the Peace”.

Ulysses S. Grant

In History on October 19, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Over the weekend I watched the 4 hour PBS documentary on Ulysses S. Grant “Warrior – President” which I’d wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in the US Civil War and its immediate aftermath (and frankly, its continued reverberations 100+ years later).

It reminded me of a great book I read in 2006 (a gift from Sir O), by Josiah Bunting III on Ulysses S. Grant.   Bunting’s look at Grant was part of the well-regarded “American Presidents” series curated by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and presented Grant’s Presidency with the modern understanding of President Grant as the defender of the ideals of emancipation, civil rights, and the reconstruction of the union.  It’s a contrast to earlier notions (which were perhaps motivated by the Civil War’s detractors) that sought to discredit Grant the President by focusing solely on the scandals within and around his administration.   Bunting’s book, while short, is well-worth reading, and really sets the modern narrative for Grant (without turning a blind eye to the flaws of his administration).

The PBS documentary’s second half takes nice look at Grant’s life post-presidency, specifically his relationship with Mark Twain and the outpouring of support from the public while Grant wrote his memoirs on his deathbed.   It’s a heartwarming conclusion to a story that had great highs and great lows.

The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation

In History, literature, sociology on October 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Early this year, I read Pauline Maier’s document history of the Declaration of Independence. It looked at the Declaration as the end point of a process and made some fascinating comparisons to other document sources, the conventions of the day, the competing interests in the revolutionary movement, as well as the genius of the primary author (and of the drafting committee). The declaration itself was a fascinating hodge-podge of old & new, (and ‘er, “something borrowed & something blue”) that has shown itself to be much more than the sum of its parts.

Drew Hansen’s “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation” tries to do something very similar with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (audio). Hansen puts the speech in its context at the March on Washington, in the Civil Rights Movement of the day, and in Dr. King’s career up to that point. Hansen illuminates which aspects of the speech were part of Dr. King’s usual ministerial stump speech, which parts were crafted specifically for the context of the March on Washington, and what was simply inspiration that came to him at the moment.  In so doing, Hansen gives us tremendous insight into the man, the moment, and the times.

As interesting as the textual analysis itself was, Hansen succeeds most in putting the speech as a whole in its context during it’s time, in its immediate aftermath, and talking about the process (of decontextualization) that made it iconic.

For as much of a watershed moment as it’s “remembered” as being, and in spite of the powerful impact that it had on those who were listening at the times, the speech was essentially forgotten for most of the interval before Dr. King’s assassination.  King himself had begun to lose his luster as moving the struggle for civil rights outside of the South brought him new detractors, and challenging the Vietnam war further complicated his relationship with the powers that be.  Sadly, it is his martyrdom that allowed for his entire career to be looked at beyond the individual news-cycles of the day, and helped society at large to appreciate the affection that African-Americans had for Dr. King.   It is only further after the fact that the speech was recalled and elevated to be a stand-in for the entirety of the Civil Rights Era.

It’s tough to read something like this without comparing the story to the happenings in the present day, and there’s a consistency in the style (and substance) of the attacks — all usually prefaced with “I’m not a racist” — made on Dr. King and President Obama that’s startling and ultimately disheartening.   Dr. King suffered through a line of attack that should be familiar to the modern American — from being accused of trying to enslave the white man, to being a socialist, being more orator than “doer”, winning an under-deserved Nobel Prize, taking attacks on personal conduct/history — and ultimately came to understand that while he had seen the promised land, that he was unlikely to get there with us.

Fortunately, one piece of his legacy is still making the journey to that promised land with us.

Recent Lit Events Attended (Sept-Oct 2009)

In Chicago, Education, Events, news on October 7, 2009 at 9:18 pm

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen Ralph Nader speak about “Only the Super Rich Can Save Us” and Jacqueline Edelberg speak about “How to Walk to School” at the University of Chicago’s International House and Divinity School respectively.

To be perfectly honest, I’m still processing both talks and since neither book is one I’m going to read for a while (we’ll see what the wait at the Chicago Public Library is like for both of these), I don’t know to what degree I can say anything meaningful and coherent.

I can certainly clue you in to where I think I’m going with both these.

“Only the Super-Rich…” :: The very idea of utopian literature today is somewhat preposterous. Ours is an era that almost presumes that any attempt at significant change (not even “utopia”) will necessarily end in dystopia (you can’t change the military budget without demilitarizing, you can’t improve the healthcare system without ushering in socialism, any environmental protections are going bankrupt our business, etcetera. I’d add deregulation will cause the financial sector to collapse under the weight of it’s own greed, but that one actually happened). So, it’s an interesting move by Nader to take this tact to reminding us that things can be different. I don’t know how I feel about setting this up as “the left’s answer to the Fountainhead“, as I feel like the Fountainhead has already done enough harm. I like that Nader designed this as a civics course, but have some serious doubts about how well that’ll work as literature. All said, it’s interesting enough for me to check out from the library during the winter. I’m going to write about Nader himself and the rest of talk over at my regular blog sooner or later.

“How to Walk to School…” :: I think all I’ll say here is that it’s dangerous to think that every positive change can be systematized and turned into a model that’s replicable. It’s also dangerous to discount the uniqueness of the environments or the social capital of the individuals involved, or to dismiss the unintended consequences as being non-consequential. So even though it’s a very positive heart-warming story at Nettlehorst, I left the talk more concerned about how these individual instances get turned into banners for arm-chair policy wonks to run cookie cutter reforms under. I’m hoping that the book differentiates between what is unique to that neighborhood and what is more generally applicable in a better way than the talk did.

Zeitoun & Dave Eggers

In literature on September 25, 2009 at 3:55 pm

I don’t want to jinx this, but I’ve really enjoyed the first 50 pages of  “Zeitoun“.

Zeitoun is the story of a Syrian-American Hurricane Katrina survivor penned by Dave Eggers.  Eggers has a gift for this style of biography, working with the subject to tell the story, as evidenced by his excellent work with Valentino Achak Deng  on “What is the What?”

I didn’t start out a Dave Eggers’ fan, as I didn’t really like “AHWOSG“, but have become one as I’ve read “You shall Know our Velocity“, “How We Are Hungry“, and “What is the What” over the past few years.  I think Zeitoun will continue this trend.

Also: Eggers’ TED Wish was all about supporting public education, a topic dear to me.

Booklog: May 2009

In Africa, History, literature, sociology on June 13, 2009 at 11:29 pm

May 2009 was a remarkably busy month for me reading-wise!

Here’s the list:

Quick Notes:

  • I’ve now read three books by Dave Eggers (AHWOSG, What is the What, Velocity!), and I intensely liked the last two.  It makes me want to reread AHWOSG just in case I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it.
  • I already wrote about the first 50 pages of “Whatever it Takes”, but the rest of the book deserves a deeper reflection as well.  I’ve got an early book by Geoffrey Canada on my list, he’s clearly more than just a cause celebre.
  • Chesil Beach wasn’t my favorite Ian McEwan book (Saturday) but was clearly artful
  • I’ve given up on being bothered by the historical inaccuracies in Iggulden’s Genghis Khan books, and just try to enjoyed them for what they are
  • Weep Not Child is a beautiful tale of how colonialism (and its remnants) took advantage of the worst aspects of human nature
  • Legacy of Liberation — Wow!  What a wonderful book that really reveals the complexities of the characters and relationships in the ANC.  Thabo Mbeki is (rightfully) portrayed as a tragic hero.  More on this soon.

Catching Up: March and April 2009

In Africa, Chicago, History, photography, sociology on May 31, 2009 at 8:02 pm

The trouble with this kind of endeavor is that when you fall behind, you tend to fall way behind!

I’ll blame Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor for getting me behind on this project.  I wanted to say something meaningful about how easily the underground economies he writes about in 90s housing-project Chicago could stand in for situations of poverty anywhere. Changing the locations or currencies wouldn’t change anything essential about the kinds of social networks and webs that the poor need to survive in the face of the obstacles they encounter.  “Off the Books” is a bit of a tough read though, as it’s caught somewhere between an old-school ethnography and the kind of literary pop-sociology that’s in vogue these days.    I’ve got Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader for a Day” on the list for later this year (and saw Venkatesh speak at uchicago earlier this year).

Next, I indulged in a comparison of the photographic imagery of Harold Washington and Barack Obama.  We often forget the momentousness of the occasion of Harold Washington’s election as mayor of Chicago held for Chicagoans (of every sort) and African-Americans across the nation.   Harold Washington was elected Mayor of Daley’s Chicago!  Needless to say that without Washington, you simply do not create the environment from which a Barack Obama could rise to prominence.

Being obsessed with the professionalization of do-goodery, I was drawn to Michael Maren’s scathing look at USAID, the UN, and to a lesser degree the Peace Corps, in “The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity“, which focuses on his post-peace corps experiences in Somalia working with USAID, CARE, and Save the Children.  I’d like to believe that the wild west of rampantly unaccountable /unethical foreign aid and international charity that Maren exposes is a thing of the past.  I can’t really believe that it’s over though, and know that the structural ties between the foreign AID industry, the farm and pharmaceutical industries, the charities, and the US Government (and the UN too) are all still in place.   Maren’s accounting of his time in Somalia showed how the short-sightedness of the development industry exacerbated existing problems and created new (worse) problems, and ultimately did very little to help the intended people.  The open questions now are to what degree have these kinds of programs / problems been solved, and to what degree do they still exist?

I also read J.M. Coetzee’s Human Rights classic “Waiting for the Barbarians” in April.  That, I’ll write about separately.