Surviving Autocracy; Masha Gessen; 2020; Riverhead Books; 233 pgs, Notes, No Index
Another book with no index! This really annoys me. For a book like this, just indexing the proper names of people and places would take all of a day, and would help a lot. The book has a lengthy table of contents which makes up for it a little. Masha Gessen is a Russian born, gay, trans, activist and critic of Putin.
This book should be taken seriously, but I feel that for many, it will be seen as a testament to the bleeding obvious… namely that Trump, Putin, dictators, and dictator wanna-bes around the world, are all taking their cues from the same playbook. This book tries to illustrate this fact.
The book consists of 22 short, roughly chronological, chapters. It is a very fast read.
For those that have followed Trump history, this book is an analysis of Trump sins… sins that seemingly go on forever and are never challenged.
Betsy DeVos, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Rex Tillerson, Mick Mulvaney, Jared Kushner, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, and David Shulkin were separately accused of stealing millions for themselves.
Trump ran the most corrupt administration in US history... by far. He surrounded himself with crooks, yes-men, and people who have a loose grip on their principles. When those people compromised themselves just once, they were Trump property.
When Erdogan thugs beat up American protestors at the White House, Trump and the White House did nothing. Professional courtesy perhaps?
Kavanaugh was put on the Supreme Court in the closest vote ever (51 to 50), despite credible sexual assault accusations from Blasey Ford. Eighty-three complaints were filed against Kavanaugh during the hearing. All were subsequently dismissed! Why? Because it was too late. He was now out of reach on the Supreme Court!
Certainly one way to get power is hire an AG who is in the bag. Trump got that with Barr. Barr, like Trump, lied all the time, but as always, without consequence.
Language has taken a beating under Trumpism. Everything is either "terrific" or "treason". Trump whined endlessly about "witch hunts" while he was in power, without realizing that witch hunts are only conducted by those in power.
"Fake news" is an oxymoron. Is it fake, or news? It cannot be both. Trump and Putin use the same tactic: accuse the accuser of doing the same crime. They are the very fountain from which "fake news" springs.
Gessen points out the similarities between Trumpism and Post Modernism (PM). Few people know what PM is, in part because it is hard to define. The BC Skeptics, of which I was a part, held a meeting at SFU where the topic was Post Modernism. The presenter read a passage from a PM magazine. The text was on an overhead projector (remember those?) so the entire audience could read it and study it. Some of the smartest people I know were in that room and no one could offer up a clue as to what it meant. PM basically says that all past events are just stories, and stories are entirely subjective. There are no facts, just stories. PM got punked one day. Alan Sokal wrote an essay for publication in the largest PM magazine of the day. It was published. Then the author admitted he had merely written a paper in the style of PM and that was utterly devoid of insight. He deliberately contradicted himself several times. In other words, it was gibberish, but it was published gibberish. PM seemed to me to disappear (it just fell off my radar), but my philosopher friend Dale Beyerstein assures me it is alive and well.
Case in point: Who can forget Kelly Anne Conway and her "alternate facts"? PM statements are designed to sound deep and contemplative, when, in reality, they are shallow and rambling. A typical PM essay is basically just word salad, and if that doesn't remind you of virtually every Trump speech, you haven't been paying attention. This is not to say that Trump uses PM on purpose. He is not that smart. But his speeches, especially when he goes off script, are little more than rambling, aimless, self-contradictory examples of verbal diarrhea.
Trump even lies about the weather. The one thing in the world most people can agree upon is the weather, and Trump lies about it. Trump lied about the weather at his inauguration, saying it did not rain. Thousands of open umbrellas beg to differ. He also lied about the path of a storm, which he had changed with a Sharpie. He did not lie about a suggestion to use a nuke to stop a hurricane. He was just too stupid to know how stupid what he just said really was.
On his road to becoming a despot, Trump referred to the press as "the enemy of the people". Stalin would be proud. The press does have some accountability in all this. In their zeal to appear neutral, they are automatically taking sides… namely, the autocrats side. Autocrats want language to be so loose that nothing that anyone says can be called a lie. This is very close to the George Costanza defense: "If you believe it when you say it, is it still a lie?" The answer to this must be "yes".
In addition to the Hitler-esque Big Lie, another major authoritarian tactic is to separate "us" from "them". Recall the Jewish threat to NAZI Germany and the "caravans" that were going to destroy America? The people at the Mexican border come every year, like the tide, for their own reasons. One of those reasons is the international legal right to apply for asylum. Trump treated them all like animals, and literally called them that too. To be fair, both sides use language that can divide us when they speak of African Americans, or Muslim Americans, or even women. Unfortunately, this use of language is fuel for the fires on both sides. The only way to defeat this prejudice in America is to always emphasize, first and foremost, that all American citizens are equally American.
I am a student of World War Two and the parallels between Hitler and Trump are very scary. It seems that he got more Hitler-ish every year he was in power. Gessen argues that all of these changes are signs of encroaching authoritarianism. The US likes to think of itself as the world's greatest democracy. Americans crow about rights and freedoms constantly while members of one party secretly try to restrict the rights and freedoms of their fellow citizens, all while knowingly allowing a criminally stupid pathological liar to be their president.
It can happen again.
Freeze Order; Bill Browder; 2022; Simon & Schuster; 313 pgs, Links, acknowledgements
My main frustration with this book is that it has a lot of players and no index! There is no excuse for the lack of an index in today's world. As it is, for example, if you had forgotten who "Vladimir" is in the book, you had to read-back in the book to find a mention that defines him. This can be very frustrating when some players are referred to by both their first and last names alone.
This is the sequel to Red Notice, Browder's excellent book on a subject that has had a huge influence on international politics… namely the Magnitsky Act. This law, now adopted by more than 34 countries, including Canada, allows countries to seize the assets of international criminals and the sponsors of terrorism. Putin is the big fish in that pond, and he is worried. Much of his wealth resides outside Russia.
The book starts well before the book Red Notice was published and could be characterized as a diary of Browder's experiences as he published the book and pushed the Magnitsky Act around the world... And, of course, Putin's attempts to get him.
If you have not read Red Notice, you should do so before you read this book. Spoiler alert: if you have not read it but plan to, stop reading this now!
Browder set up a investment company in Russia which made millions. Putin stole the company and 230 million dollars, accused Browder of stealing that very same money, threw Browder's lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in jail, and tortured him to death. Browder created the Magnitsky Act to punish Russia and has made it his life's work. Putin wants him dead.
The book reads like a Hitchcock movie script (think The Man Who Knew too Much, or North by Northwest). The innocent victim (Browder) goes to a lawyer to get help fight to the Russians. The lawyer's name is John Moscow (really!). He digs into Browder's case and helps him. But months later, he was working for Putin! John Moscow used his inside knowledge to harass Browder in an attempt to get him onto Russian soil. This is against all legal tenets but it took many court appearances to get the western courts to eject Moscow from the case. One lesson of this story is that the law, designed to protect the innocent, can be turned into a deadly weapon in the wrong hands. Moscow is a perfect example of what everyone hates: a crooked lawyer.
The story goes on, at times almost comically, in its cloak and dagger clichés. The clichés turn out to be real. Another minor observation: the Russians (i.e. Putin) like to poison people, but they are really not very good at it. Quite a few have survived being poisoned, including a player in this story. Putin should stick to straight up assassinations, like Boris Nemtsov who was shot eight times right outside the Kremlin. A mystery truck had pulled up and stopped, blocking the surveillance camera's view. That story also figures in this James Bond plot.
The original 232 million dollars had exploded into 232 billion, much of which went through Danske Bank. As a person of Danish descent, this was disturbing to me, but the Danes wasted no time in busting the bad guys when this crime came to light.
I have nothing but admiration for Browder. He leads the life of a fugitive while fighting for a just cause.
The madness of Putin does not stop with Bill Browder. Now he is waging a war he cannot win in Ukraine.
Stalingrad The Fateful Siege 1942-194; Anthony Beevor; 1998; Penguin Books; 431 pgs; index
Another book about the first major defeat for the German Army of WWII. It is often called the turning point of the war. I would suggest that the war was lost in late 1941, when Hitler declared war on the US two days after Pearl Harbor, and the German Army was halted one hundred miles from Moscow.
There are a lot of good books about this battle, and this is one of them.
I will not summarize this book overmuch as I have already discussed the battle in other book notes.
Four million men invaded Russia. The German's were famous for their armored Blitzkrieg (lightning war), but they still used more than 600,000 horses! Oddly, had this not been the case, the battle of Stalingrad might have ended a little sooner. When you run out of ammo, you cannot eat your tank. Every German horse at Stalingrad ultimately became soup.
Stalin disowned his own son because he was captured by the Germans, which made him a traitor.
The Russian railroad tracks were a wider gage than the rest of Europe. The tracks had to be narrowed or the goods transferred to a new train. This was very costly for the Germans.
One German (Reichel), against orders, took a copy of the battle plan with him on a recon flight. He was shot down, and the Russians got the full skinny on what the Germans had planned. Stalin was too paranoid to take it seriously.
Both Stalin and Hitler loved to issue "Not one step back" orders. To Stalin's credit, he was smarter than Hitler. It took some doing, but Stalin finally realized that allowing an army to retreat could save the army. Not so for Adolph. His stubbornness got the entire 6th Army killed or captured.
During the harsh battle, one Russian was shot in the hand. He bandaged it and went to report that he had been wounded. He was taken out and shot. Why? Because he had obviously shot himself and had bandaged the wound to cover up his misdeed! Another Russian was captured, escaped and returned to his unit, only to be shot as a deserter.
During the summer, Hitler was told that the Soviets were producing 1,200 tanks a month. Hitler was outraged, in that he knew the sub-human Russians were not capable of those production levels, In fact, they are producing 2,200 a month. In 1942, Russian aircraft production almost doubled.
Hitler famously promoted General Paulus to Field Marshal in the hopes that this would cause him to kill himself, rather then be taken prisoner. He did not kill himself. Hitler had actually created four new Field Marshals, including Paulus, as a publicity stunt to distract from the disaster that was Stalingrad.
The last German broadcast from Berlin was a faked message from Stalingrad. It was heard in Stalingrad and outraged the those few soldiers who still cared.
We are watching a terrible conflict unfold in Ukraine. People are suffering and dying needlessly. And as awful as all that is, it is nothing compared to the hell on Earth that was the Battle of Stalingrad. About 10,000 civilians survived the battle.
A Pocket History of Human Evolution; Silvana Condemi, Francois Savatier; 2019; The Experiment; 128 pgs, index
I have very little to say about this book. It is a concise summary of our current understanding of human evolution, from the first words and stone tools to our modern tribal, warring, world. It is only 128 small pages long and summarizing a summary does not leave much but the title.
When was fire tamed? How did we become bipedal? These and many other questions are answered, although not always with great accuracy. That is to say, there is still much to learn. The evolution of humanity is complex. There was a lot of interbreeding which just makes things more complex.
Short though this book is, each paragraph contains something profound to think about.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.