The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row

by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin

St. Martin’s Press, 2018

Anthony Ray Hinton’s story takes place in a dark realm that most of us in white, middle class America have little to do with and think little about.  This is the realm of criminal justice, courts, and prisons – specifically Holman Prison’s Death Row in Alabama.

Hinton was convicted of murder and sentenced to death at age twenty-nine, by a sloppy and flawed system that passes for justice in the State of Alabama.  That system is driven to convict someone – anyone – of a capital crime, in order to portray to the public an image of swift justice and tough punishment.  That system is fraught with corruption and racism, and thus is particularly harsh on those who are black, or poor, or both.  Once Hinton’s guilty verdict was reached and his death sentence passed, the State stubbornly resisted subsequent appeals based on accusations of error and misconduct at trial or discovery of new evidence.  The State of Alabama showed little interest in guilt or innocence; the important thing was to convict someone and then stand by it.

Hinton was twenty-nine when he entered Holman and fifty-nine when all charges against him were finally dropped and he was set free.  In the time it takes us to read The Sun Does Shine, we get from him a fair sense of what it’s like to spend thirty years on Death Row, living in bitterness and despair and occasional slim hope, riding the rollercoaster of a justice system more interested in following process than in determining actual guilt or innocence, and watching more than fifty fellow inmates marched by prison guards to “Yellow Mama,” Holman Prison’s electric chair.  Hinton’s 5-by-7-foot cell was thirty feet from the execution chamber.  He and other prisoners could hear and smell each electrocution.

That is how Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on Death Row.  Fortunately for him, though, Bryan Stevenson, attorney and founder of Equal Justice Initiative, learned of his case and went to bat for him.  Even then, it took nearly seventeen more years for Stevenson and EJI to get Hinton off Death Row.

By the way, Anthony Ray Hinton was innocent – a minor detail in the eyes of the State of Alabama.  Of the fifty-plus inmates who were executed during Hinton’s tenure on Death Row, many were guilty, some were innocent.  Statistically across the nation, one in ten prisoners on Death Row is innocent.  Hard to justify the death penalty with an error rate of that magnitude.  As of today, nineteen states and most developed countries have eliminated the death penalty.  Not Alabama.  Not Texas.  Not my state, California, where ballot initiatives to repeal the death penalty have been narrowly defeated twice in recent years.

Anthony Ray Hinton is a good man, and stronger than most of us have ever been called upon to be.  He was sustained through thirty years on death row by the love of his mother and of his best friend Lester, who visited him regularly at Holman and stood by him the entire time.  He formed new friendships among other inmates condemned to die, including a white man named Henry in the next cell, who belonged to the KKK and had tortured, killed, and lynched a young black boy, because Henry’s racist father had taught him to hate.  Hinton was also sustained by his friendship with Bryan Stevenson, another black man who proved to be more than just “God’s best lawyer.”

Hinton was sustained by love, hope, a sense of humor he never allowed himself to lose, and a capacity for forgiveness beyond anything I can imagine.

Upon leaving Death Row in April 2015, Anthony Ray Hinton was finally given the opportunity to begin his life at age fifty-nine.  He now works part-time at Equal Justice Initiative, speaks on prison reform, and has dedicated his life to ending the death penalty.

Read The Sun Does Shine, and meet a great human being.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

by James Comey

Flatiron Books, 2018

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership – every word of the book’s title and subtitle describe what every page of James Comey’s memoir is about.  Since the 2016 election, there has been much obfuscation of the distinction between truth and lies.  Worse, many Americans, even when not confused, don’t seem to care.  They’ve picked their side, truth be damned.

So let me be clear.  The following statement is a lie: “Jim Comey is a liar.”  Yes, this is a lie.  One thing Jim Comey is not is a liar.

Many Americans knew little or nothing of Jim Comey until the Hillary Clinton email investigations.  At that point he gained instant, unsought fame, and much hatred from Democrats, who blamed him for Clinton losing the election.  But it wasn’t that simple.  An argument could be made that Comey exercised some poor judgment or made a bad decision at the worst possible time in the election campaign.  But “liar” he was not, and as his story makes clear, he was in a no-win, impossible situation.  Those who read his book with an open mind will come to understand this.

Comey’s story – and his history of speaking truth to power – goes back much further than the 2016 election.  In the dozen or more books I read about the George W. Bush administration (you could argue that I’m a masochist), Comey played prominently in stopping a questionable electronic surveillance program conducted by the Bush administration in its overly-zealous war on terrorism.  He stood, nearly alone, for principle, and ultimately resigned as deputy attorney general over the surveillance program and subsequent administration policies on torture.

I have been predisposed toward Jim Comey ever since, and the events of the past two years, so vividly described in his memoir, have done nothing to dampen my regard for him.

Twelve years later, along comes Trump, a man who wouldn’t recognize truth if it hit him in the face and knocked him on his ass, a man who lies so much neither he nor the pols nor the media nor we the governed can keep it all straight.  The final chapters of A Higher Loyalty detail the series of unsought encounters with Trump that ended with Comey being fired as Director of the FBI.  Given the clash of character between these two men – almost an understatement –  the outcome was inevitable.

Not only is Comey’s whole story compelling; he writes compellingly as well, with exceptional candor, clarity, honesty, and frequent doses of dry humor.  (Comey believes, as I do, that humor is an important asset to those who occupy leadership positions.)

Comey understands and cares deeply about leadership.  Notably, he believes that an essential characteristic of effective leadership is the ability to maintain a balance between confidence and humility.  In his memoir he keeps coming back to this.  Comey, a confessed Republican (or ex-Republican?), saw this balance in Barack Obama.

In Trump?  Not so much.  Comey’s descriptions of his one-on-one dinner, meetings, and subsequent phone calls with Trump are positively chilling.

Yet another fundamental principle in Comey’s set of values was the need for the FBI to be independent, free of politics.  The 2016 election cycle and the current reign of His Royal Orange-ness has made this impossible.

Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is a superb work, and historically important for everyone to read.  Comey tells the truth consistently throughout.  In fact, the book’s final sentence contains all seven words of the book’s title and subtitle.

James Comey is not a liar.

Grant

by Ron Chernow

Penguin Press, 2017

Grant, a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow, excels as both biography and history.  Years ago, in my somewhat inexplicable fascination with the American Civil War, I read Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which were clearly and honestly written by the man himself, but covered his life only through the end of the war in 1865.  Thus, Chernow’s new biography, encompassing Grant’s entire life, caught my interest when it was reviewed last Fall in Time magazine.

Grant is my first exposure to Ron Chernow as a writer and biographer.  (Chernow also authored Alexander Hamilton, which is the basis of the blockbuster play Hamilton.)  Grant is without a doubt the best written biography I’ve read – ever.  Chernow brings Grant and many of the characters surrounding him to life.  And I learned more nineteenth century and Civil War history reading Grant than I had reading James McPherson’s classic Battle Cry of Freedom.

It seems that it can take a hundred years or more to properly assess the legacy of an American president.  This is certainly true in Grant’s case (and will probably be true of Barack Obama, if our republic lasts that long).  Although Grant actually enjoyed high regard during his lifetime as both a general and president, subsequently his reputation was tarnished, helped in part by Southern revisionism.  The short version is that he was a butcher and a drunk and a corrupt politician.  It is true that he struggled most of his life with occasional but infrequent bouts of alcoholism, but these lapses never interfered with execution of his responsibilities either as general or president.  It is also true that his approach to battle against the Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy was aggressive and often resulted in high casualties.  His two terms as president were marked by corruption and scandal, but this originated lower down in his administration, and he did much to rein it in once it was exposed.  Often he made unwise political appointments, as one of his flaws was an lifelong naivete in matters of business and capital.

But despite these faults, he was a man of impeccable integrity and honesty.  As a leader, he possessed a near-perfect balance of confidence and humility.  (In another post, we will see that this balance of confidence and humility is of paramount importance in our politics today.)

And in reading Grant, I learned several things that surprised me.  First, Grant was very likely our greatest civil rights president in terms of commitment and achievement, with the possible exception of Lincoln.  He was also, in my view, one of the greatest presidents of the nineteenth century, and arguably among the top five or six presidents in American history.

At 960 pages, the book’s sheer length will discourage many from reading it.  This is unfortunate.  I found Grant compelling, enlightening, uplifting, and ever relevant to where we find ourselves today as a nation.

Animal Agriculture: A Personal Bibliography

Since I first saw the documentary Cowspiracy in early 2015, I keep reading books about animal agriculture.  I read several books on the subject before I published my own in February, and I’ve read several more since.  I’m past the point where I need further convincing, so why do I continue?

(Imagine significant time passing between asking myself this question and coming up with some answers.)

Okay, here are some answers.  First, animal agriculture, a.k.a. factory farming, has been kept under wraps for too long, so there are many truths about it that need to be brought under public scrutiny.

Second, each of the books I’ve read so far has reinforced the others and, as well, added new insight or approached the subject from a new and different perspective.  I continue to learn more from each, and certain nuances of my values and conclusions continue to be challenged, even though I’ve made the most basic decisions already.

Finally, these books tell about more than just factory farming.  They examine the implications of modern industrial-age capitalism on an overpopulated planet.  They raise questions of human nature:  compassion and cruelty; confronting unpleasant truths versus turning a willing blind eye; whether or not humans are superior to other animals and thus entitled to exploit them; whether how we treat other animal species has bearing on how we treat one another.  This is deep stuff.

So here is a brief personal bibliography of books I’ve read thus far – or plan to read soon.  I’ve listed them alphabetically, because it’s impossible to rank them by worth.  I’ve also written a few words about each, so potential readers can decide which they want to pursue and in what sequence.  I’m confident that any one of these books will cause readers to examine their habits and beliefs in a new way.

Fortunately for humanity and the planet, there is a wealth of information available today on the history and the incredible complexity of animal agriculture.  It’s all out there just waiting to be digested by the broader population.

Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet – Dr. Richard A. Oppenlander

This is highly readable, concise discussion of the impacts of the food we eat upon climate and the environment.

I own Comfortably Unaware on my Kindle but haven’t read it yet; it’s in my near-term backlog.

Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

This is a deep, fresh, philosophical look at the practice of eating animals.  The author is an accomplished novelist, and this book is both thoroughly researched and brilliantly written.  It challenges the views of anyone who eats anything, even vegetarians and vegans.

I’m in the midst of reading Eating Animals now, and I’m finding it amazing.  I continue to learn more about animal agriculture.

Eating Earth: Environmental Ethics and Dietary Choice – Lisa Kemmerer

This book focuses on three aspects of our relationship with animals:  factory farming, fishing, and hunting.  The author explores the ethics of these practices, employing a wealth of facts, data, and graphics.  Eating Earth is thoroughly researched, and Kemmerer presents all her findings concisely, in a way that is visually appealing.  If you thrive on data, you will love Eating Earth.

Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food – Gene Baur

Gene Baur has dedicated his life to building awareness of what’s behind the meat and dairy products we consume, through his nonprofit farm animal rescue organization Farm Sanctuary.  This book is a thorough look at animal agriculture – with emphasis on animal treatment – as well as the author’s personal story.

I am honored to know Gene personally.  From his three decades as an activist, he has developed keen insights into human behavior that transcend our relationship with animals.

If Pigs Could Talk: The Case for a Plant-Based Diet – Roger Gloss

Yes, this is my own book, published in February 2017.  It’s intended as a concise handbook (70 pages), an introduction to the entire array of problems resulting from factory farming, and a roadmap to help readers who wish to move to a plant-based diet.  For anyone new to the subject, If Pigs Could Talk is a great place to start.  You can find it here.

Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat – Howard F. Lyman with Glen Merzer

Howard Lyman spent much of his life as a cattle rancher in Montana.  Mad Cowboy is his personal story.  He explains why he no longer eats meat and tells the story of his transition from farmer to politician to activist.

The Sustainability Secret: Rethinking Our Diet to Transform the World – Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn

This is the book version of the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.  Published subsequent to the release of the film, the book covers all the issues in the film, but in greater detail.  While the documentary builds a strong case against the environmental destruction from animal agriculture, the book reinforces it.

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins – Jonathan Balcombe

The world of fish, beneath the oceans’ surface, is even more hidden from most of us than what goes on in factory farms.  Jonathan Balcombe challenges our notions of how different fish are from us, and examines why this matters.

I’m pleased to count Jonathan among my acquaintances.  He owns a signed copy of my book If Pigs Could Talk and has spoken highly of it.  My signed copy of What a Fish Knows is unread as yet; it’s in my near-term backlog.  Stay tuned.

Porcelain: A Memoir

by Moby

Penguin Books, 2016

Moby’s memoir is not my normal reading fare.  My path to Moby and his book was indirect.  It went like this.

Moby is vegan, and has been since 1987.  I’ve been vegan only since last year.  But on my path to becoming vegan I had occasion to see Moby in person three times:  once with Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary (who has been vegan since 1985, a lighthearted point of contention for Moby); again at Soka University in Southern California, at a premier screening of Allison Argo’s stunning documentary The Last Pig; and most recently at Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, where Moby was interviewed by a book critic from the Orange County Register.  At the Frida I purchased my copy of Porcelain, which Moby graciously signed for me, even drawing a sketch of an alien similar to the one on the cover.

Moby’s life is nothing like mine, for which I’m extremely grateful.  He’s an eccentric artist, DJ, and composer of electronic music who immersed himself in the club and rave scene in New York City through the ‘80s and ‘90s.  A disproportionate number of his companions were alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts (of all persuasions), and prostitutes.  At times they used him and at times he used them.  Some of them were his lasting friends.  Ironically, he was straight, Christian (for a long time), drug-free (with exceptions), and a teetotaler (in between two enthusiastic bouts of alcoholism, first in his teens and again in his thirties).

Through it all he was insecure, afraid, self-destructive, and suffered frequent panic attacks.  But despite all of the depravity and squalor around him he remained an artist committed to his music.  He sought love in his own admittedly clumsy, desperate way. He is good-humored and refreshingly honest.  His honesty and his wry sense of humor illuminate his writing, along with occasional brief exhibitions of self-pity.  I admire him for his willingness to share his story so candidly and openly.

I should add that Porcelain is only the first part of Moby’s story, covering his life through 1999.  Part two is nearing publication, and I will likely read it, to see how Moby, now fifty-two, has put the pieces of his life together since the relative low point at which Porcelain ends.

Here is the bottom line for me.  From meeting Moby and reading Porcelain, I know that he is vegan over and above almost everything else and that he is refreshingly honest.  This is reason enough for me to want to see where his life goes in part two.

No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need

by Naomi Klein

Haymarket Books, 2017

Followers of my blog might notice that I’m predisposed to feature and praise the works of Naomi Klein.  Maybe even a little obsessive.  There’s a reason for this.  Naomi Klein is one of the greatest minds in North America today (I say North America because she holds both Canadian and U.S. citizenship).  She has dedicated her career – her life, in fact – to delving deeply into the most threatening crises facing modern civilization:  war, inequality, injustice, and climate change, to name but a few.

There are narratives surrounding these crises, stories we have been told for decades by our political and corporate leaders about how we are – or, in the case of climate change, are not – confronting these crises and what sort of approaches we are or are not pursuing.

Well, Klein turns these narratives upside down.  She turns over all the rocks and looks underneath them.  In all three of her prior books – No Logo, The Shock Doctrine, and This Changes Everything – she argues for a new narrative, one that better explains why we as a global society continue doggedly toward our own destruction, one that suggests the need for a radically different and better way forward.

Bringing It All Together

No Is Not Enough represents the convergence of all her prior work.  And Naomi Klein is one of the first to understand this convergence.  She synthesizes the trends and ideas from all three of her earlier works – corporate branding, shock politics, and climate injustice – and shows us how all of it explains how we ended up with Trump.  Thanks to Klein, I already had a good understanding of the pieces, but I still needed her brilliant synthesis to tie them all together.

This post is not a book report, but I’ll mention three key conclusions Klein reaches in No Is Not Enough, to entice you to read this brilliant book of ideas.  First, we were all shocked by the rise of Donald Trump, but we shouldn’t have been.  His election was rather the logical conclusion of three decades of neoliberal ideology, unregulated capitalism, and explosive growth of the corporate behemoth, all at the expense of the public sphere.

Second, the popular energy and level of engagement awakened by Trump’s election, while a “hopeful” sign, would have been far more effective and achieved substantive results had it coincided with the 2008 election of Barack Obama.  We should have been in the streets then.  Had the public demanded massive reform back then, rather than sitting back and expecting that Obama would fix it all, we would be better off today (and Trump would not have happened).  Big mistake.

And finally comes the lesson articulated by Klein’s title, No Is Not Enough.  We – all of us who were disengaged or cynical or resigned too long – need to have a vision of what “yes” looks like.  Klein, in collaboration with other great minds, has laid one out for us.  It is radical; it is bold; it will be incredibly hard to achieve.  But at this juncture, as we run out of time, the path she lays out is, in my view, our only hope to reverse the course of the world we are facing.

What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice

by Wen Stephenson

Beacon Press, 2016
I struggle to describe what lies inside Wen Stephenson’s book, and the impact it has made upon my worldview.  I’ve long been on board with the climate crisis and the fight for climate justice, but Stephenson’s book takes us to a whole new level.

If you could cross Bill McKibben with Chris Hedges – two truth tellers whom, if you follow my website and my blog, you know I hold in high regard – you might get something like Wen Stephenson.  Although his climate epiphany came somewhat recently, he completely understands that it might already be too late for continued human existence on planet Earth.  McKibben understands this, too, but keeps fighting anyway.  Hedges despairs for humanity not only on climate grounds, but on a broader moral basis.  We – humanity – have thus far failed miserably to confront our many ills.

In What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, Stephenson, too, makes the case for us to keep fighting, keep trying, despite the overwhelming odds against us.  He begins with a philosophical look at Thoreau, followed by some in-depth discussion with Bill McKibben of his fundamental views on the climate crisis.  Through the rest of the book Stephenson highlights the work of lesser known activists for climate justice, men and women – often young – willing to put their freedom and even their lives on the line, rather than meekly step back and await the coming apocalypse.  These are the same kind of people whose stories Hedges tells in Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.  In Hedges’s terminology, these people are possessed of “sublime madness.”

Stephenson himself grapples with the right words to frame the magnitude of the climate crisis and its intimate interconnections with social justice.  He tries this way:

“What I’m saying is, there’s a spiritual crisis, or struggle, at the heart of the climate crisis and the climate struggle – a crisis we’ve hardly begun to come to grips with, or even acknowledge.  The immense suffering that is now inevitable, within this century, on this rapidly warming planet is the result not only of an ‘environmental’ or ‘economic’ or ‘political’ crisis – or even a ‘moral’ one.  It’s all of these combined, and yet, if possible, more.  It’s what I can only call spiritual.”

Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, showed us, in sharp relief, that the climate fight is about powerful forces beyond merely science and nature.  Bill McKibben, in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, explained to us that the old planet we were comfortable living on and exploiting is already gone.  Wen Stephenson, in What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, attempts to elevate the intensity of the response to match the intensity of the crisis that Klein and McKibben have illuminated so well.  His book should become the spiritual guide to our conduct from this point forward.

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In

by Bernie Sanders

Thomas Dunne Books, November 2016

No, this is not Bernie Sanders’s campaign biography; the book wasn’t released until last November, the month of our recent disastrous presidential election.  Rather, Our Revolution is a post-election manifesto, covering three engaging and important topics:  (1) Bernie’s early life and political career, including what molded him into the humble, scrupulously honest man he still is today; (2) a detailed history of his unprecedented grass-roots campaign for president; and (3) a comprehensive presentation of Bernie’s detailed policies to restore some semblance of the American dream for everyone who lives in this country, whether citizen or hard-working immigrant.

I thought I already knew everything I needed to know about this man and his policies, but reading Our Revolution has taught me even more.  There are countless lessons, small and large, to be learned from the first page to the last.  A striking feature of his narrative, for me, was that as I read it, I could hear Bernie himself speaking every word.  Maybe that’s a sign of how much respect I have for this unique government servant and his refreshingly unique integrity.  The book also puts on display his personal warmth.  Contrary to the prevailing view during his campaign, Bernie Sanders is not grumpy.

Our Revolution is important because it represents two things: (1) a golden opportunity for the Democratic Party to recapture the hearts – and votes – of progressive Americans, an opportunity that it has taken a Party outsider, an independent, a self-described Democratic Socialist, to demonstrate to them; and (2) a clear roadmap in every area of national policy to truly – really! – “make America great again.”

As Bernie Sanders told us over and over again during his campaign, it was never about Bernie Sanders.  I’m forever grateful to him for continuing to pour his heart and his energy into spreading his message.  The revolution must continue, and this is how it must happen.

March – Books One through Three

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Top Shelf Productions, 2013, 2015, 2016

march-v1-3_2This amazing trilogy is a multi-year project of former civil rights leader and longtime U.S. Congressman John Lewis, in collaboration with his advisor Andrew Aydin and graphic novelist Nate Powell. John Lewis’s purpose in publishing this work is to ensure that future generations of Americans remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and continue to learn from our nation’s not always proud past. March is written as a three-volume graphic novel, totaling about five hundred pages, with the intent to make it more accessible and interesting to young people.

Lewis’s objective is similar to that of contemporary Germany, which continues to teach its high school students about the Holocaust. In the words of Spanish philosopher Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Racial segregation and denial of equality to blacks in the South is arguably in the same realm of moral contemptibility as the Holocaust, minus the nationally sponsored genocide. Southern states and cities, employing their own law enforcement agencies, enforced inferior treatment of blacks, resisted black voter registration, and intimidated and beat those who struggled against segregation. Southern whites and the Ku Klux Klan burned homes and churches, beat and sometimes killed black citizens while the criminal justice system looked the other way or gave them a pass in the courts. The federal government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson acted slowly and sometimes reluctantly, but it was the nonviolent civil rights protests – lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration drives, the freedom rides, the march on Washington in 1963, and the march to Montgomery two years later – that finally drew the attention of the nation and compelled the Johnson administration to intervene emphatically, culminating in Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

March was written for those of my generation as well. While all the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding, I was in high school in upstate New York, followed by my freshman and sophomore years of college at UCLA. I confess I was only tangentially aware of what was transpiring in the South. And even had I understood and fully appreciated the importance of this struggle for social justice, I’m sure I lacked the courage to travel there, as many northern whites did, and join the fight. I have a good friend, a few years older than I, who served in the Air Force and was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1961. He was more or less in the thick of it, but he told me recently that he, too, was oblivious at the time.

Although March is written with younger generations in mind, nothing is held back. The story is often angry and violent, and strong language is rampant because it was real. For those northerners who did have the courage to join the movement, “nigger lovers” were as detested by white southerners as “niggers.” Blacks died. Whites died.

Politics of course plays an overarching role. There is one moving scene where Nelson Rockefeller (remember him?) addresses the Republican National Convention in 1964. He warns the convention against the takeover of the Republican Party by “radical, well-financed, highly disciplined” conservative extremists – led, at the time, by Barry Goldwater. Rockefeller’s speech is greeted with a chorus of boos. And Lyndon Johnson, of course, fully realized when he signed civil rights legislation that the South would be lost to the Democratic Party for decades to come.

Anyone who believes the civil rights struggle was won in 1965 is deluded by the false narrative we still tell ourselves about American exceptionalism. The Supreme Court recently struck down provisions in the Voting Rights Act requiring Justice Department review of changes in voting regulations by certain states that, in the past, discriminated against minorities. No sooner was this ruling handed down than these same states cynically passed voter ID laws and restrictions that were blatantly crafted to suppress minority and Democrat votes. North Carolina and Texas are two leading examples. Lower courts have ruled against many of these states’ legislation and, thanks to the 4-4 deadlock in our current Supreme Court, North Carolina’s rules will not be in place in the November 2016 election.

Because of the same dysfunctional 4-4 Supreme Court deadlock – held firmly in place by Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold a confirmation vote on a ninth justice to replace Antonin Scalia (this in our dysfunctional Republican Congress) – the Texas law remains in place, since, unlike the North Carolina law, it was upheld in the lower courts. So if you have a concealed carry permit in Texas, go vote (Republican); if you have a student ID, too bad.

Mass incarceration and subtly entrenched bias by law enforcement, both north and south, are further evidence that insidious discrimination is still rampant in America. The transgender bathroom dilemma is yet another example, proving that our underlying penchant for intolerance is not restricted to race.

So John Lewis’s important graphic work March ends with Book Three, but the state of America, here and now in 2016, clearly calls for a fourth volume. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

America’s War for the Greater Middle East

by Andrew J. Bacevich

Random House, 2016

WarForGreaterMiddleEastCoverAndrew Bacevich, Vietnam veteran with a PhD in American diplomatic history and retired professor of history and international relations, has become a well-recognized wise man of American foreign policy.  In 2008 he wrote The Limits of Power, a semi-philosophical look at what he calls “American exceptionalism,” a symptom of which is the persistent employment of American military might to exert our will upon the rest of the world.  That small, compelling book has reshaped my worldview.

Now, with America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich has undertaken a history of our modern wars since Vietnam, all of which he convincingly aggregates under a single “War for the Greater Middle East.”  With the advantage of hindsight, Bacevich begins with a thorough analysis of the little remembered Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, in which the United States meddled (sometimes on both sides) throughout the Reagan administration.  In Bacevich’s lexicon, this was the “First Gulf War.”

He then connects the dots to all of America’s subsequent misadventures in the Greater Middle East.  The lack of overall strategy in the Iran-Iraq War – and consequent failure of America’s efforts to achieve its desired results – then sowed the seeds for Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91.  Desert Storm is commonly known as the First Gulf War, but in Bacevich’s history it is the Second Gulf War.  Desert Storm is also commonly viewed as an American military success, but Bacevich shows how it fell short, in turn sowing the seeds for Bush, Jr.’s ill-advised Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The latter endeavor, also known to us as “shock and awe,” thus became the Third Gulf War.  It consumed Bush 43’s entire two terms and much of Obama’s presidency as well.  Iraqi Freedom was unique only in that it was undertaken for even more naïve, shortsighted objectives than previous Middle East endeavors, and involved more hubris and incompetence than anything prior.  Bush 43 and his arrogant foreign policy advisors doubled down on earlier failures.  So much for learning from history.

In this narrative, Bacevich treats Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria as well.  The genius of Bacevich’s work is his considered analysis of how each of these misadventures is connected to every other.  True, Bacevich has the advantage now of hindsight, but few foreign policy analysts possess either the insight or the courage to explore these unflattering connections.

Since Barack Obama is our current president, and since this is an election year, it is fashionable today to lay the entire Middle East failure at Obama’s feet.  Bacevich’s answer to this exemplifies his wit and his depth of understanding.  “Washington suffered from the inverse of early-onset Alzheimer’s,” he writes.  “Short-term memory going back a week or ten days was perfectly intact; everything else was gone.”

In the end, almost forty years of effort by the nation with the most powerful military on the planet have yielded nearly nothing in the way of progress, whether it be quelling terrorism, spreading democracy, or stabilizing the Middle East as a region.  Bacevich argues rather that we’ve achieved the opposite.  In the final chapter, “Generational War,” he raises two obvious questions:  Why can’t we win?  And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out?  I’m sure most of us have asked these questions.  For plausible answers I urge everyone to read this excellent history.

I will, though, drop a hint, in Bacevich’s own words:

At the end of the day, whether the United States is able to shape the Greater Middle East will matter less than whether it can shape itself, restoring effectiveness to self-government, providing for sustainable and equitable prosperity, and extracting from a vastly diverse culture something to hold in common of greater moment than shallow digital enthusiasms and the worship of celebrity.

Thus America’s War for the Greater Middle East, too, is about American exceptionalism, not merely a philosophical look, but where the rubber meets the road.  Andrew Bacevich tells us the truth, and his keen insight into the destructiveness of our long-held myth of American exceptionalism merits our fullest attention.