Tuesday 1 September 2020

My Summer Reading Book Report

 This summer, on occasion, I have been opening my wheelchair out flat and lying down in the sunshine in the backyard here at the retirement residence  When I'm not doing that I am reading three books at the same time.  I suppose I am trying to make sense out of the crazy world in which we live by means of the books I have chosen.

The first of the books is a rather heavy volume written by John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor to US Pres. Donald Trump entitled "The Room Where It Happened, a White House Memoir."  As you might expect, Bolton is not a particularly favourable political personality to me.  He fiercely believes that might is right and the United States should be flexing its muscles as much as possible in the world.  His strong positions in this regard have influenced the last three Republican presidents, Reagan, Bush and Bush.  He wanted to be Secretary of State and clearly considered this job a consolation prize.  He lasted for 453 days.

Regardless of all that, I found his chronicle to be fascinating.  He always feels he knows what the right thing is to do, perhaps because of his long experience.  I am certain that he must've worn a body pack every day because he describes meeting after meeting in great detail including direct quotes from various people.   Bolton is a trained lawyer and writes like one.  I like that

The Oval Office that Bolton describes is one of constant confusion.  Everybody is trying to get the President's attention and the President, who does not read anything, is constantly making off-the-cuff responses which people are trying to interpret as government policy.  Bolton does not pretend that he was ever a close confident of the President and his exposure of administrative incompetence is overwhelming.  He is also very critical of most of the inner circle although, curiously, he seems to have some respect for Mike Pompeo.

A good example government incompetence is the response to the failed attempts to overthrow the Maduro regime in Argentina.. You will be aware that Venezuela is an economic basket case because of mismanagement and in early 2019 Juan Guido, the new young President of the National Assembly, announced that Maduro's reelection the previous year had been illegitimate and therefore the office of the Presidency of the country was vacant.  He said that he would become the interim President until free elections could be held. His position was quickly supported by Canada and most other countries in the Western Hemisphere.  The response of the United States was very confusing and Bolton explains why.

Bolton wanted to give American support, short of military support but in the way of very severe trade sanctions.  Because of business interests that various companies had in Venezuela the Treasury Department was not cooperative.  Pres. Trump would never give the issue enough attention for a position to be taken.  Despite the rioting in the streets, he was impressed by the fact that the military seemed to still support the President.  When Guido's wife came to Washington to make a personal plea for help, he seemed to be suspicious because she was not wearing a wedding ring and he kept asking afterwards what his staff thought of that "issue".  Finally, in a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin about other matters, Putin convinced him that Guido had no real support and apparently likened the Venezuelan leader to Hillary Clinton declaring herself President of the United States.  Putin lied and said that neither Russia nor Cuba and any role in propping up the Maduro regime.  That settled things.

Sometimes Trump's fickle character may well have been helpful to the world.  He did change his mind about escalating tensions with Iran, you may recall.  Needless to say, this was to Bolton's chagrin.

I believe John Bolton has publicly indicated he is voting for Joe Biden.

The second book I am reading is the immensely popular tell all by Trump's niece, Mary Trump.  It is called Too Much and Never Enough.  If Bolton wrote like the lawyer he is, Trump writes like the psychologist she is.  Mary Trump writes about her paternal grandfather, Fred, who built up a huge empire of low income apartment buildings in Brooklyn.  Invariably, he funded the buildings with government money obtained through his connections in the mid-twentieth century corrupt New York City Democratic Party.  Then, he ended up owning the buildings and cheating his tenants as much as he could.  I guess he was reminiscent of Scrooge.

His heir apparent was supposed to be Mary's father, Freddie, but, clearly, Freddie was not ruthless enough for the old man.  Much of the book is a tragic biography of the author's father.  Unlike Freddie, the younger Donald exhibited the sociopathic tendencies that Fred admired coupled with the brashness that was never present in the old man's character.  Donald was twenty-two when the old man gave him pretty well everything, titular jobs that were paid extremely well for no work and as much money as Donald ever wanted.  Donald took the enterprise across into Manhattan, something the old man always wanted but didn't seem to have the guts to do himself.

The book is subtitled "How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man". There is nothing in it that is overly surprising.  As a former criminal lawyer, I am very familiar with sociopaths and have seen many examples of their inability to empathize with other human beings.  Indeed, that is the Pres. Donald Trump that John Bolton describes, as well.

Mary Trump intends to vote for Joe Biden.

So where does this all take us as we cross our fingers and watch the next two months of the American election campaign?  In my case, I have turned to "Humankind, a Hopeful History", by Rutger Bregman. Bregman wrote the book in Dutch but my Dutch is not very good and so I am reading an English translation. (My Duch is nonexistent.)  This is Bregman's second book.  I read the first one last year and it convinced me, in no uncertain terms, that mankind needs to have a basic income in every national budget.

The thesis in this book is that while we are taught that human beings are supposed to be, by nature, selfish and governed primarily by self-interest, in actual fact we are hardwired for kindness, geared toward cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.   He contrasts the philosophies of Hobbes and Rousseau. Hobbes wrote to the effect that before there was organized civil society life was nasty brutish and short, as human beings were driven by fear, fear of the other or fear of death.Thus, we needed to put ourselves in the hands of a sovereign.  Rousseau believed that man was naturally good and it was the institutions which made man wicked.

Hobbes has lots of people on his side, starting with most organized religion, and there is a natural assumption that he is right. Bregman sets out to prove, and does so quite convincingly, that Rousseau is right.  He looks at the book the Lord of the Flies, a novel which describes boys being marooned on an island and dissolving into murderous anarchy.  He researches the author and notes that he came from a dysfunctional family background which would premis this conclusion.  Then he tells us about actual situations of the same nature, where the boys became cooperative and looked after themselves.

Bregman contrasts Neanderthal man with Homo sapiens and points out that the Neanderthal man disappeared largely because of fighting within the species, whereas we were cooperative and friendly to each other.  He shows us archaeological evidence.

He does tell us that power corrupts.  Power, of course, is given to individuals by the structures we create.  Leaders of revolutions usually have good motives but,"no sooner is one despot brought down than a new leader stands up and develops an insatiable lust for power."

It is a very interesting book but, of course, we can't tear it down all our structures and institutions without opening all of the negative opportunities that anarchy would bring.  What is to good to know, however, is that in the writer's view human beings are pretty good folk.

I think I will go out in the backyard and get some more sun.  .


  1. I applaud another well-written piece, David. Your writing always makes me think. I hope you are working on your tan.

  2. Vote for Joe!...thanks for sharing Mr Cooke. Always a pleasure reading your work