As an editor, writer, and long-time-ago journalist (weekly newspaper division), I'm continually fascinated and often frustrated by the way human experAs an editor, writer, and long-time-ago journalist (weekly newspaper division), I'm continually fascinated and often frustrated by the way human experience gets translated into words. Since the U.S. is still in some sense a democracy, where it matters that citizens be aware of how their government works and what their elected representatives and other officials are doing, journalism matters – but it's become glaringly obvious to many in the last eight years that journalism as currently practiced has often failed at telling us what we need to know and interpreting it in ways that we can put to good use.
Margaret Sullivan's whole book is well worth reading for its account of how mainstream print journalism works, or at least is supposed to work, but its most important chapters cover her years as, in effect, a media critic from within the media, first at the New York Times then at the Washington Post.
Perhaps the most important chapter of all is entitled "Objectivity Wars and the 'Woke' Newsroom." Both "objectivity" and "woke" are, shall we say, contested terms these days. There's widespread disagreement about what they mean and whether "objectivity" is (a) possible or (b) desirable. The chapter opens by citing veteran journalist and editor Marty Baron, whose recent column on objectivity has been widely discussed and often disagreed with. (The disagreements often seem to hinge on the definition of "objectivity," whether it's possible, and if so what does it mean in practice.) Sullivan's own discussion is so valuable because it's deeply rooted in her own experience and her ability to see from a variety of perspectives, including those of reporters, editors, and, especially, readers.
Newsroom Confidential touches on how journalism, especially local print journalism, has been gutted by corporate power: hedge funds and others buying up smaller papers and even whole chains for their assets. It acknowledges the profoundly negative role of social media, where (somewhat paradoxically) many of us get most of our news, including the good stuff. I would have liked to see more attention paid to the role of economics in shaping journalistic practice and journalistic ethics, starting long before the digital era, but to be fair this book can't do everything, and fortunately it doesn't have to. What it does is quite valuable enough....more
As a regular listener of David Rothkopf's Deep State Radio podcast, I knew that the "Deep State" in the subtitle was not the "deep state" railed againAs a regular listener of David Rothkopf's Deep State Radio podcast, I knew that the "Deep State" in the subtitle was not the "deep state" railed against by Steve Bannon and his ilk, but I'm guessing that many prospective readers are going to be jolted by the notion that this "deep state" is not a mindless bureaucracy whose only raison d'être is to perpetuate itself.
Rothkopf addresses this cognitive dissonance in his introduction, "A Word of Thanks to the Deep State." It's a good place to start. I believe "government" is a good thing, from the most local level up to Congress and the White House, but when I tell people I lived in D.C. for 11 years, I assure them that "I didn't work for the government." I've regularly made snide remarks about "government bureaucrats" that were no better informed that the snide remarks people make about various ethnic or racial groups. If the Trump years and their aftermath have taught us anything, it's that these attitudes can have serious consequences.
In the subsequent chapters of American Resistance, Rothkopf focuses on the Trump administration's attempt to keep "undesirables" (e.g., Muslims and migrants from south of the U.S.-Mexico border) out; its attempt to turn the military into its own political tool; its efforts to do likewise with foreign policy, specifically in regard to Ukraine; its disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and finally the efforts to undermine the 2020 election and democratic process itself that led to the January 6 insurrection.
These overlap and run concurrently, of course, but the narrative makes clear that the more Trump and his circle get away with, the harder they push at what we used to assume were boundaries and guardrails. The narrative also makes clear that, bad as they got, things could have been a lot worse. Career civil servants and career military officers, along with a handful of political appointees, really did make a crucial difference.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of American Resistance is its insight into the motives of Rothkopf's hundred or so interviewees. Why did some choose to join the administration in the first place, when they had no respect for Trump, his politics, or his entourage? What prompted others to blow the whistle or to just say no to illegal or unethical directives? The common thread seems to be that their bedrock loyalty was to the Constitution and American democracy, not to Donald Trump or the Republican Party.
In this age where so much revolves around celebrities and personalities, this devotion to principle seems almost quaint. Nerdish. Naïve. But it seems to have saved the republic, at least for the moment. Rothkopf's last chapter is titled "Bullets and Boomerangs," from his belief that the bullet we like to think we've dodged is actually a boomerang, and boomerangs will return. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) summarizes it with typical clarity: "The GOP under Donald Trump's thumb has positioned itself outside the constitutional order. It does not accept the basic norms of constitutional democracy. It does not accept the rule of law or the concept of majority rule. And it does not accept elections that don't favor Donald Trump."
And some 74 million U.S. voters voted for Donald Trump in 2020, when all Trump's cards were laid out face-up on the table (although January 6 hadn't happened yet). Most of the GOP leadership still won't concede publicly that Trump lost the election. In other words, it's not over yet.
Before 2016, I was pretty blasé about "American democracy." Over the decades I've seen its principles ignored more in the breach than in the observance. What I've learned over the last six years or so is what a real breach looks like and why those principles are worth fighting for. David Rothkopf's book demonstrates the importance of having allies on the inside -- the "deep state" of the subtitle -- but it sure doesn't let the rest of us off the hook....more
I'm torn between 3 stars and 4 but am going with 4 because Whaling Captains of Color is such a well-researched and probably unique reference book. It I'm torn between 3 stars and 4 but am going with 4 because Whaling Captains of Color is such a well-researched and probably unique reference book. It rescues many, many whaling captains from obscurity and illuminates the ways in which some of them influenced and supported each other. The historical photos are wonderful.
For readers unfamiliar with the rigors (to put it mildly) of whaling, Skip Finley does provide plenty of detail on what was involved -- enough to make it clear why so many "greenies" (first-time crew members) called it quits after one voyage. The book's organization, however, makes it hard to get a feel for how the industry developed in the U.S. from the 17th century into the early decades of the 20th. I was surprised to learn that a few men still went a-whaling in the 1920s, although fossil fuels and electricity had replaced whale oil for lighting and lubrication. Whalebone, or baleen, the flexible material used in ladies' corsets, wasn't superseded by steel and other materials till the early 20th century.
What isn't surprising is that as whaling became less and less lucrative, it offered more opportunities to men of color: white working-class men had easier, safer ways to make their livings, and without leaving friends, family, and terra firma behind for two to four years at a stretch. As Finley discusses in chapter 9, "Identity," "it was no secret that the person who did not appear to be black had better options in life than one who did." The captains of color documented here often had mixed backgrounds: African, Wampanoag, Azorean, Cape Verdean. Portuguese names abound especially in the later decades of the 19th century.
The "meritocracy" that Finley describes was able to develop and continue because each whaleship was self-contained. Racism existed for sure, but for ship owners and investors what mattered most was return on investment. If a captain delivered, color took a backseat. Not a few of these captains became ship owners and/or investors themselves.
The onshore world was a different story. Before the Civil War, captains of color avoided Southern ports, where both crew and officers risked being kidnapped into slavery if they set foot on land. Once Jim Crow took hold after the war, Southern ports were no more welcoming. Small wonder that the whaling industry was long concentrated in New England before, late in the 19th century, its base shifted to San Francisco.
And virtually none of the successful captains of color were able to turn their whaling wealth into inheritance for their descendants and lasting uplift for their communities. Investment opportunities were few, in large part because the financial and business gatekeepers were overwhelmingly white men.
Whaling Captains of Color doesn't read like a novel, and if your primary goal is to learn more about whaling, you might do better elsewhere, but if any of the above intrigues you, you'll find that this book repays the effort....more
I love Nancy Springer's writing but am an infrequent dabbler in Arthuriana, which may explain (or excuse) why I missed this one for so long. Another wI love Nancy Springer's writing but am an infrequent dabbler in Arthuriana, which may explain (or excuse) why I missed this one for so long. Another writer mentioned I Am Mordred in Nancy's Facebook feed. I immediately made a beeline for it, liked it very much, and naturally I Am Morgan le Fay came next.
It did not disappoint. The pre-Arthurian world of warring lords is vividly evoked, and with it the ease with which a lady could become a concubine or a duke's daughter a refugee. The descriptions of places make it easy to conjure them in one's mind, and to see people moving through them. I loved watching young Morgan develop, an independent, sometimes wild contrast to her proper older sister, Morgause, as she grows up in hiding with Morgause and their protector and instructor, Ongwynn. It's not hard to understand how her resentment of Arthur, her half brother, takes root long before he becomes king and the two even meet.
Morgan slips in my esteem when she devotes all her magic to what she considers the well-being of her lover, True Thomas. She's as aware of her own flaws as she is of her power; Cernunnos, the horned god in Avalon, has cautioned and warned her, and she is not stupid. But, well, fate is fate, and the future will unroll as it will, though it makes Morgan's tale a little less satisfying.
It's still, however, a hell of a good novel....more
I wrote this after reading one chapter. The whole book lives up to it. Recommended for everyone who's trying to cope with what's going on now and workI wrote this after reading one chapter. The whole book lives up to it. Recommended for everyone who's trying to cope with what's going on now and working on how to get our country back on track.
"Just started this but already I recommend it to anyone who isn't familiar with the history of the GOP since the Reagan "revolution." Too many people, including pundits who should know better, think Trump is an aberration, that he came out of nowhere and now we can get back to normal. Milbank refutes that pretty well in his first chapter. (Fwiw, I lived through all of this as an adult, but I wasn't paying much attention to electoral politics. My bad.)"...more
It takes skill and empathy to write a novel first-person in the voice of someone everyone knows as a villain, and Nancy Springer pulls it off beautifuIt takes skill and empathy to write a novel first-person in the voice of someone everyone knows as a villain, and Nancy Springer pulls it off beautifully in I Am Mordred.
In many tellings, Mordred comes onstage late in the game, ambitious, deceitful, altogether evil. Not here. Here he meet him first as Tad, the young adopted son of a fisher couple on the coast, the sole survivor of a scheme to evade prophecy by sending all the boy babies to sea in a coracle. It works as well as Herod's attempts to evade the prophecy about the birth of a future "king of the Jews": the baby the slaughter was meant to kill becomes its sole survivor.
Mordred only learns his birth name when the sorceress lady Nyneve (a variant of Nimue) comes for him. Nyneve, who may be the only one in the kingdom who believes that fate can be changed, delivers him to the castle of King Lothe and Queen Morgause -- Morgause is his mother but Lot is not his father -- where he grows to manhood and eventually sets off for Camelot to become a knight of the Round Table.
Feared and/or hated by just about everyone, accepted but not acknowledged by King Arthur, Sir Mordred eventually sets out on a quest to understand and perhaps change his fate. His companion is the white brachet (hound) Gull, whom he has raised from a puppy and who is also the eyes of Nyveve. This is the key relationship in the novel, and the one that shows us what kind of person Mordred is.
The story ends the way we expect it too, of course, but here it's Mordred's compassion that makes the endgame inevitable. Nancy Springer wrote another "tale of Camelot," I Am Morgan le Fay. I can't wait to learn how she brings to life that other often-vilified Arthurian figure -- who does indeed make a significant though cameo appearance in I Am Mordred....more