Washington — How America Made its Capital City

Fergus M. Bordewich has written what is best described as a biography of Washington, D.C. In Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad Books/HarperCollins), Bordewich traces the history of America’s Capital City, telling that story with a compelling narrative and fascinating (and surprising) details.

The story of Washington the city is inseparable from the story of the Founders and their heirs — and the story of the new nation. The very existence of the city is a monumental achievement, and the establishment of a new capital for the nation did not make sense to all. New York and Philadelphia (and Philadelphia even more than New York) offered amenities and cultural institutions that Washington would not have for over a century and beyond. The new District of Columbia was largely a swamp, but the Founders has a bold vision. George Washington was himself determined to see the new capital express the grandeur of the new nation’s vision and commitment to democracy. When constructed, the Capitol was the largest building in the young nation, and the White House was the largest residence. Both basically stood in bare fields.

There is more to this story — much more, in fact. Bordewich’s account takes the reader only up to the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, by that time Washington the city was a fact, and the outlines of modern Washington were already visible. Washington: The Making of the American Capital is a great story that is well told.

An excerpt:

Today some 550,000 Washingtonians live at the core of a linear megalopolis with millions of inhabitants, extending deep into Maryland and Virginia. The tacit assumption that the capital would always be a white man’s city –no one even remotely imagined otherwise in the 1790s–has also been overthrown by time: today 57 percent of the city’s inhabitants, most of the leading members of its municipal government, and a significant portion of its business establishment are African American. The skeleton of L’Enfant’s grand plan survives, adapted to the exigencies of modern life. His boulevards continue to shape (and confuse) the flow of traffic, nudging the eye toward the magestic symmetries that lie half-buried, like an elegant palimpsest, beneath the modern cityscape. The White House remains where L’Enfant put it, although a more fearful age has hemmed it in with fences, barriers, and rings of invisible security to a degree that would have profoundly dismayed Americans of the 1790s, who expected even their highest officials to be easy of access, and available to them at almost any time. The Capitol, too, remains what the Founders intended, much larger and grander than it was two centuries ago, of course, but still framed by the proportions sketched by William Thornton on the steamy island of Tortola, and more than ever a magnet to the eye, proof to all of the astonishing persistence of American democracy.

1960 — The Rome Olympics and the Modern Games

The modern Olympic Games are barely a century old, but even within that relatively brief span the games have been transformed. Along the way, notions of athletic achievement, nationalism, individual rights, patriotism, gender, and race have been transformed as well.

David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, takes us back to the 1960 Olympics where so many of these changes began in Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World (Simon and Schuster). Those games started just one week after the espionage trial of Francis Gary Powers ended with his conviction in Moscow. The Cold War was at its height and the old order of the colonial age was breaking up. New ideals of individualism and new ideas of the role of sports in the culture and the economy were coming to the fore. All of these changes were on stage in Rome as the Olympic Games began.

Maraniss offers here a book that surprised me at many turns, and I found that reading Rome 1960 was a good way to watch the current games in Beijing with greater insight. As Maraniss argues, the shape of the modern games as we know them now was “coming into view” in Rome.

An excerpt:

Television, money, and drugs were bursting onto the scene, altering everything they touched. Old-boy notions of pristine amateurism, created by and for upper-class sportsmen, were crumbling in Rome and could never be taken seriously again. Rome brought the first commercially broadcast Summer Games, the first doping scandal, the first runner paid for wearing a certain brand of track shoes. New nations and constituencies were being heard from, with increasing pressure to provide equal rights for blacks and women as they emerged from generations of discrimination and condescension.

The singular essence of the Olympic Games is that the world takes the same stage at the same time, performing a passion play of nations, races, ideologies, talents, styles, and aspirations that no other venue, not even the United Nations, can match. The 1960 Games came during a notably anxious period in cold war history; almost every action in Rome was viewed through the political lens of those tense times.

In Time for the Olympics — Understanding China

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing will put the nation of China on the world stage as never before in modern times. The government of the People’s Republic of China is intent on making these games a great publicity gain for the nation. Beijing itself has undergone a great architectural transformation, even as the entire nation is in a process of great change.

But China, more clearly than most nations, is captive to its history — and there is no way to understand the China we will see on television in coming days without understanding China’s more recent history. The challenge lies in finding an adequate one-volume history.

Just in time for the Olympic Games, Jonathan Fenby has written Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present (Ecco/HarperCollins). Fenby’s work is the best one-volume work on modern China I have yet found, and it is must reading for anyone who wants to understand China at this crucial moment. Fenby, who writes and explains well, traces China’s history from the Qing dynasty, through decades of war and revolution, to Mao and the rise of Communist China, to the great shifts in Chinese life and culture as China enters a global age.

An excerpt:

This book has argued that, for all the manifestations of modernity, China’s history is not another country. Now, the cumulative effects of the process launched by Deng Xiaoping are leading to a phase that could be plucked right out of imperial dynasties or from the republic. If Mao was the strong, willful dynastic founder and Deng the consolidator who saw a way of renewing the mandate, Hu Jintao can be taken as a successor who holds the keys to power but cannot turn them as his predecessors did. True, there is no organized opposition to confront the Communist dynasty, no Red Army lurking in the backwoods, no political movement marshalling resistance in the countryside. But the regime faces a different kind of risk, which again has its roots in China’s early history. Since the First Emperor in AD 221, rulers have feared losing control of major forces in society, whether they take the form of questioning officials and scholars, military commanders, or, in the last decades of empire, the modernizing gentry. Today, those impelled by the rush to the market and material self-improvement march increasingly to their own drum. Interest groups, individuals and competing power centres proliferate within the overall supposedly unified structure. State -owned enterprises join private firms in playing the stock exchange and using their positions to maximize profits. The result is an authoritarian state which increasingly lacks authority, an empire without an emperor.

Child’s Play? A History

Howard P. Chudacoff has done what someone needed to do — write a history of children’s play.  In Children at Play: An American History, Chudacoff, who teaches at Brown University, traces how play has changed over time.  These changes reflect everything from the development of new technologies to big shifts in the understanding of childhood itself.

The fact is that children will play.  As Chudacoff remarks, “Kids still find ways to be kids.”  In the colonial era, children were more likely to be involved in “roving about” the outdoors and improvising games.  Later generations of parents encouraged more formal play and childhood itself was more celebrated.  Over time, play would be transformed by efforts to keep young boys off the streets, to teach adult roles through gender-specific play, and to free the natural creativity of the child.

More recently, play has been redefined by the development of technologies like computer games, by concerns about gender and child safety, and by changes in family structure and parenting.  The book is thought-provoking and insightful.

This excerpt suggests how changes in family life lead to changes in play — and in the relationships between parents and children:

In the twentieth century, two related forces converged to alter the playtime of preadolescents in significant ways.  Fist, the extension of compulsory schooling filled much of all children’s daytime hours, regardless of social class, incidentally strengthening peer cultures that increasingly socialized young people in play choices.  A partial reduction in a child’s family responsibilities, resulting in part from smaller family size and the spread of labor-saving electric appliances, helped create time after school and in the evening during which youngsters could interact with their peer group or play alone with a new cornucopia of commercial playthings.  And during the first half of the century, at least, this playtime often took place away from adult supervision in private bedrooms and other secluded areas of the home.

The Liberals’ Moment

The decade of the 1970s is now a generation behind us, but the cultural and political movements of that pivotal decade set the stage for so much of what we face in our current times.  In terms of national politics, two great developments stand out.  On the Left, the nomination of Sen. George McGovern became the pivotal event of the decade, even as the rise of a reinvigorated conservatism became the great event on the Right.

Author Bruce Miroff of the State University of New York at Albany takes his readers into the heart of the McGovern campaign in The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party [University Press of Kansas, 2007].  There is no way one can make sense of the modern Democratic party without understanding this campaign.  The issues of that campaign still define the Left, as do many of the individuals involved in the campaign (such as Bill Clinton).  The Liberals’ Moment should be read by all who want to understand our current political context — both liberals and conservatives.

An excerpt:

Despite the landslide defeat, the McGovern campaign bequeathed to the Democrats a talented, youthful cadre of strategists, organizers, and wordsmiths who as they aged would largely shape the evolution of the party over the following decades. Every presidential campaign brings new activists into electoral politics, and some stay for the long haul. But for Democrats, the McGovern campaign produced a more distinctive and influential generation of political operatives than any campaign since. We can identify McGovernites–a term I use descriptively, hoping to detach it from the pejorative implications it is often given by right-wing commentators. But we do not speak of Mondaleites, Dukakisites, or Goreites, and even the senior Clintonites were McGovernites further down the political road.

Many liberals would prefer to look back on the McGovern campaign with nostalgia rather than discomfort, as the last time they could feel passionate and honest as they rallied behind one of their own in a presidential election. Certainly, later insurgent liberals, who have never made it past the primaries, have not paid much heed to the electoral vulnerability of liberalism that the McGovern campaign made palpable. Yet any future campaign mounted by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party needs to grapple with these vulnerabilities. Several characteristics of the McGovern campaign that offered plump targets for the Republicans remain of great relevance today, and liberals cannot evade the problems that they pose if they want credibly to renew their claim to the party’s leadership.

The Family Bin Laden — Understanding the Times

The name of the Bin Laden family is now known throughout the world — a name of infamy.  But long before the events of September 11, 2001, the Bin Laden family was well established in Saudi Arabia and in much of the Arab world.  Journalist Steve Coll, winner of the Pulitzer Prize while at The Washington Post, traces the development of the Bin Ladens in a narrative that is indispensable to understanding the events of 9/11 and the challenge Osama Bin Laden and radical Islamic groups now represent.  The book, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, is both important and timely.

On of the most important contributions of this book is its tracing of the history of the Bin Laden family against the backdrop of developments in the Middle East and around the world.  Furthermore, he corrects many misunderstandings in the West.  A common rationale offered for the source or motivation for terrorism is poverty — but the Bin Ladens are a family of extreme wealth, royal access, and privilege.

An excerpt:

The family generation to which Osama belonged — twenty-five brothers and twenty-nine sisters — inherited considerable wealth, but had to cope with intense social and cultural changes.  Most of them were born into a poor society where there were no public schools or universities, where social roles were rigid and preordained, where religious texts and rituals dominated public and intellectual life, where slavery was not only legal but openly practiced by the king and his sons.  Yet within two decades, by the time this generation of Bin Ladens became young adults, they found themselves bombarded by Western-influenced ideas about individual choice, by gleaming new shopping malls and international fashion brands, by Hollywood movies and alcohol and changing sexual mores — a dizzying world that was theirs for the taking, since they each received annual dividends that started in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  These Bin Ladens, like other privileged Saudis who came of age during the oil shock decade of the 1970s, became Arabian pioneers in the era of globalization.  The Bin Ladens were the first private Saudis to own airplanes, and in business and family life alike, they devoured early on the technologies of global integration.  It is hardly an accident that Osama’s first major tactical innovation as a terrorist involved his creative use of a satellite telephone.  It does not seem irrelevant, either, that shocking airplane crashes involving Americans were a recurrent motif of the family’s experience long before September 11.

Two Biographies of Albert Einstein

The year 2007 saw the release of two important biographies of Albert Einstein.  Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson [Simon & Schuster] is my favorite work on Einstein.  Isaacson is CEO of the Aspen Institute and a former executive with CNN and Time.   His biography of Einstein is massive and comprehensive.  It is also well written and well organized.  Isaacson also took advantage of the availability of new Einstein letters and documents in his research.

An excerpt:

His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos.  A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein’s universe, one defined on the macro side by his theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanics that has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.

His fingerprints are all over today’s technologies.  Photoelectric cells and lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and even semi-conductors all trace back to his theories.  He signed the letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an atom bomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to mass hover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.

The other major biography is Einstein: A Biography by Juergen Neffe and translated from the German by Shelley Frisch [Farrar, Straus and Giroux].  Neffe, associated with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin,  gives primary attention to Einstein’s early and most productive years and deals more specifically with Einstein’s intellectual development.

An excerpt:

Einstein was one of the most renowned people ever to walk the planet.  Certainly no other scientist has come close to his degree of fame and mythic transfiguration.  His seemingly paradoxical nature — bourgeois and bohemian, superman and scalawag — lent him an air of mystery.  He could reconcile discrepant views of the world, but he was a walking contradiction.  Einstein polarized his fellow man like no other.  He was a friend to some, and enemy to others, narcissistic and slovenly, easygoing and rebellious, philanthropic and autistic, citizen of the world and hermit, a pacifist whose research was used for military ends.

The Defining Moment and the Art of Leadership

As acknowledged by his friends and his foes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the most significant Presidents in the nation’s history.  While debates over his policies, actions, and legacy will surely continue, his leadership gifts continue to impress historians across ideological boundaries.

Roosevelt’s self-understanding as a leader should be of interest to any student of the art and science of leadership.  For that reason, Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope has much to teach about the art of leadership.

Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek, notes that just hours before FDR was sworn into office for his first term, governors in New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania ordered the banks in their states to close.  This meant that 34 of 48 states “now had no economic pulse.”  President Herbert Hoover was “a study in failure” even as he possessed a “brilliant understanding of complex issues.”  What Hoover failed to understand was the crucial role of the President as national leader.  Understanding this was Roosevelt’s great gift.  He knew that the nation needed decisive leadership — and fast.  His first 100 days were filled with a flurry of presidential actions and words.  Roosevelt aimed at hope and exuded optimism.  Hoover had declared a bank “moratorium.”  Roosevelt declared bank “holidays.”  Alter’s analysis in The Defining Moment of Roosevelt’s words and actions during his first 100 days is a great read.

An excerpt:

FDR knew the consequences of failing to seize the day.  A visitor — unidentified in the press — came to him not long after the Inauguration and told him, “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history.  If it fails, you will be the worst one.”  “If it fails,” the new president replied, “I’ll be the last one.”

This sounds melodramatic to Americans in the 21st century, when freedom is flourishing in so many parts of the world.  But during the 1930s, democracy was on the run, discredited even by subtle minds as a hopelessly cumbersome way to meet the challenges of the modern age.

Freud and the Modern Mind

The makers of the modern mind are many, but few can match the influence of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s basic ideas have now become part and parcel of the contemporary mindset. His terms are now part of our vocabulary and his idea of the unconscious has formed much of the structure for the therapeutic culture all around us.

Peter D. Kramer looks at Freud’s influence in Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind. Consider these excerpts:

It is impossible to imagine the modern without Freud. Consider a single area, literature. The inner monologue or stream of consciousness, in the novels of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, bears the mark of Freud’s method of psychoanalysis, with its reliance on the patient’s flow of associations. In their use of dense symbolism and wordplay, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Vladimir Nabokov pay unwilling homage to Freud’s account of the complexly encoded effects of hidden desires.

Even after the limited “modern” era of the last century, we remain Freudians in our daily lives. We discuss intimate concerns in Freud’s language, using words like ego and defensiveness. We listen and observe as Freudians. As others address us, we make note of telltale incongruities that simultaneously hide and reveal unacceptable thoughts and feelings.

Freud believed that, using sex as the dynamic force, he could explain a range of psychological phenomena, from hysteria to blighted love life to slips of the tongue. Because his simple hypotheses often failed and because the social environment changed dramatically–the brutal World War was a turning point–Freud kept modifying and adding perspectives. The result was that he developed a highly eclectic psychology.

Stripped of its underlying premises, this psychology proved workable.

The account of mind and person begins with the premise that there are grave limitations to human rationality. Our thought, emotion, and character are partly products of animal drives. These drives have a developmental history. They change throughout childhood and after. In the course of development, the mind becomes segmented. Memory stores templates of important persons and interactions as they are experienced in childhood. Inner conflict emerges. The templates and the conflicting forces lead to limitations on the freedom to perceive accurately and behave adaptively in adulthood. Distortions of perception and self –awareness have characteristic forms–the various defenses. Guided self-examination can lead to improved self-awareness and then to less stereotyped behavior.

Kramer is absolutely correct in stressing that it is impossible to imagine the modern mind without Freud. Freud’s influence added fuel to the erosion of the Christian understanding of the human being, and his legacy remains with us now. Understanding Freud’s legacy is an important step toward taking the measure of the dominant secular worldview. Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind is a good start.

“The Winds of Faith” and The Looming Tower

The emergence of Al-Qaeda and other Islamic terror organizations is a story that demands far greater attention than most Americans have yet invested. Given the importance of this story — not only for understanding 9/11, but for understanding the present — this is a matter that demands a substantial education on the part of the American public.

Lawrence Wright, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, has written what I consider to be the definitive work on this narrative. The book is riveting and authoritative — as indicated by the Pulitzer Prize it both deserved and received. In The Looming Tower, Wright tells the story with a style and energy that makes the book hard to put down.

Consider this explanation of the allure of martyrdom to young men:

Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing in its rewards. A glorious death beckoned to the sinner, who would be forgiven, it is said, with the first spurt of blood, and he would behold his place in Paradise even before his death. Seventy members of his household might be spared the fires of hell because of his sacrifice. The martyr who is poor will be crowned in heaven with a jewel more valuable than the earth itself. And for those young men who came from cultures where women are shuttered away and rendered unattainable for someone without prospects, martyrdom offered the conjugal pleasures of seventy-two virgins–“the dark-eyed houris,” as the Quran describes them, “chaste as hidden pearls.” They awaited the martyr with feasts of meat and fruit and cups of the purest wine.

And this section dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 within Al Qaeda’s leadership:

While they waited for the mujahideen to rise up across Muslim lands and rush to Afghanistan, bin Laden and Zawahiri gloated over the success of the operation. “there is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots,” bin Laden boasted in a prerecorded videotape on al-Jazzera on October 7, the day after American and British bombers launched their first attacks on Taliban positions. “Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that. There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that.” Then he issues his call. “These events have divided the whole world into two sides–the side of believers and the side of infidels. May God keep you away from them. Every Muslim has to rush to make his religion victorious. The winds of faith have come.”

Portait of the Tyrant as a Young Man

The twentieth century has rightly been described as the century of “mega-death” — death on a scale unprecedented in human history. The century was also an era of “mega-murderers,” with tyrants such as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot perfecting the machinery of death. Tyrants in the past may have had similar visions of massive murder, but the machinery of modernity made death on this scale possible in the last century.

For Americans, the most morally awkward of these murderous tyrants is Joseph Stalin. The awkwardness is rooted in the fact that he, alone among these tyrants, was for some time a crucial ally of the United States during World War II and the effort to defeat Hitler’s Third Reich. At least some American leaders knew the reality about “Uncle Joe,” but this truth was largely hidden from public view during the war.

In Young Stalin, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore looks to the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of Joseph Stalin. The work is massive, authoritative, and captivating. Montefiore leads his readers to see the emergence of a murderous dictator — even in his youngest years.

Montefiore is an established historian and biographer of Stalin. His earlier work, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, looked at the career of Stalin — especially his years as the dictator of the Soviet Union. This book is, if anything, more interesting because it covers less-known territory.

The book reveals Stalin’s questionable paternity — a big issue in his troubled boyhood. He was abused by the man he called father and spoiled by an indulgent mother. He was surprisingly intellectual, passionate about reading books — especially forbidden books. He attended a Russian Orthodox seminary for boys as a candidate for the priesthood and was known there as “Soso,” the lead chorister.

Nevertheless, the violence and poisonous personality traits that would later be visited upon the world were visible early. Soso lost his faith and joined radical movements, eventually becoming part of the inner circle around Lenin, whose successor he became through more violence and murder.

Young Stalin is richly detailed. We read, for example, that the young Stalin, still a young boy, wavered in his faith after reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. All this leads to Stalin’s tyrannical rule. As Montefiore explains, the character of the young Stalin is important precisely “because the nature of his rule was so personal.”

In the end:

Soso was old, sclerotic and forgetful, yet until his death aged seventy-four, on 5 March 1953, the ageing choirboy remained the peerless politician, paranoid megalomaniac and aberrant master of human misery on a scale only paralleled by Hitlerite Germany. Responsible for the deaths of around 20 to 25 million people, Stalin imagined he was a political, military, scientific and literary genius, a people’s monarch, a red Tsar.