Thursday, August 24, 2017

My Amazon Review of David Thompson's " Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio"

From Youngstown, Ohio to Hollywood

David Thompson knows how to write. He has written a very entertaining book about four Jewish immigrant brothers from Youngstown, Ohio who make it in Hollywood and America. The book is a fitting edition to Yale’s Jewish Lives series, despite it being a biography of a movie studio rather than an individual.

As with most of the early movie studios Warner Brothers evolves from operating theaters to running a major studio in Hollywood. Along the way we witness the sibling rivalry among the bothers mostly pitting the oldest, Harry against the youngest, Jack. Harry stays true to his religion and his wife, not so much for Jack. Ultimately Jack wins and sells the company out from the other brothers in the 1950s and then buys it back to become its sole owner.  Harry dies of a stroke shortly thereafter.

The real guts of the book is how Warner’s evolved from making Rin Tin Tin movies in the early 1920s, to pioneering sound with Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer.” From there we go on to the realistic gangster movies that brought us such stars as Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Warner’s also brings us the great Busby Berkeley song and dance spectaculars. In “Gold Diggers of 1933” Joan Blondell sings one of the two great anthems of the 1930’s, “My Forgotten Man.” The other anthem was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”   So if you add to the gangster movies, “Gold Diggers”, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and “Petrified Forest” you get a real flavor of America in the 1930s. Because this is in the Jewish Lives series Thompson highlights the rolls of such Jewish actors as Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Peter Lorre and Lauren Bacall.

Of course no book on Warner Brothers would be complete without a full discussion of “Casablanca,” the best movie ever made that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and was directed by the Hungarian Jew Michael Curtiz. In a few short pages he takes us into the inside of making that movie.

There is much more in book with vignettes on Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Howard
Hawkes and Joan Crawford. My one minor quibble with the book is that Thompson throws in a few gratuitous comments about Donald Trump. Nevertheless it is a very enjoyable read. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

My Amazon Review of Craig Shirley's "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980"

The Return of the Gipper

Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has written a hagiographic account of how Ronald Reagan rebounded from his defeat at the Republican convention in 1976 to his nomination four years later. Shirley has written a breezy telling of what happened with lots of inside baseball. Reagan, of course is the hero and the villain of the piece is John Sears his campaign manager who deliberately kept Reagan out of the limelight in 1979. That gave rise to serious opposition, especially from George H.W. Bush. The unsung hero of the Republican return to power is party chairman Bill Brock who picked up the pieces after the narrow defeat of 1976 to Jimmy Carter and an across the board loss in the congressional elections of that year.

My problem with Shirley’s account is that there are too many errors in the book. Among those errors is his view that the economy was weak in 1978. To the contrary, the economy was in an all-out boom. That is the reason the Republicans made only marginal gains in the House and Senate races. He pays lip service to the roll of California’s Proposition 13 which set off a wave of tax cutting in the states and it help legitimize the Kemp-Roth tax cut the Republican were advancing. Without Proposition 13 there would be no Kemp-Roth. He also omits the Steiger Amendment which lowered the capital gains tax in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 1978. Change was in the air and Reagan knew it.

Shirley also misstates Lyndon Johnson record on civil rights. To be sure Johnson was slow to civil rights, but it was through his efforts that the first civil rights legislation since reconstruction passed in 1957 and 1959.

Shirley spends a great deal of time on Reagan’s opposition to the Panama Canal Treaties which became a cause celeb among the Republican right. The treaties passed and now 40 years later nothing really bad has happened. He should have noted that it was a political gimmick from the beginning. But it worked.

Finally although breezy reads well, the book needed much better editing and fact checking. Thus I can only rate it a modest three stars. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My Amazon Review of Graham Allison's "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap"

Collision Course?

Graham Allison the Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and former Dean of its Kennedy School has written a thought provoking book that should keep leaders on both sides of the Pacific awake at night. To Allison the rise of China to challenge the United States is a replay of the ancient Peloponnesian War where “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that it instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable” in the memorable words of Thucydides. By going through sixteen case studies where a rising power challenged an incumbent power Allison is careful to note that war is not inevitable, but it is likely.

The most glaring case study is that of the rise of Germany in the late 19th century to challenge the hegemony of England and the parallel rise of post-1905 Russia to challenge Germany on the continent created so much fear among the parties that the spark of an assassination in the Balkans heralded the onset of World War I.  In contrast the American challenge to England during the same time period led to a rapprochement between the two powers that exists through today. But what it took was England’s willingness to give America a free hand in the America’s. In the two cases I just cited economic rivalry preceded geopolitical rivalry.

So it is today with the U.S. and China. On purchasing power parity basis the Chinese economy is now larger than that of the U.S. and the fear of Chinese economic power is a constant drumbeat among American politicians. The question for the U.S. and China is the same that was presented to Sparta and Athens is whether or not an accommodation can be made. That would require either China pulling back on its ambitions to establish a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia or for the U.S. to accept the fact that Chinese ambitions are legitimate. Given what is going on with North Korea today it hard to tell whether diplomatic accommodations can be made. Of course for the U.S. to  cede Southeast Asia to China there would have to a high degree of confidence that the Chinese goals are limited just as the U.S. goals towards Latin America were limited at the turn of the 20th century.

To accomplish a modus vivendi will take a lot of hard work and remember the rise of China economically left in its wake abandoned factories throughout America just as the rise of Germany placed great stress on the British economy in the late 1800s. It is not going to be easy, but Allison is asking the right questions and pointing us in the right direction.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Donald Trump and the Big Lie

"The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous."

Joseph Goebbels

"All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.
It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying."

Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf"

"His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it."

OSS Psychological Profile of Hitler

It seems that Donald Trump has been taking lessons from Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Trump tells lots of small lies, but it all evolves around his Big Lie attack on "fake news." He characterizes every news story that is critical of him as "fake news." And he repeats it over and over so after awhile people come to believe it. To further his goal he set up his own propaganda Trump TV channel on Facebook. 

Nevertheless because more than a few Americans rightly believe that much of the news media is biased against Trump, it behooves the news media to get the story right. Otherwise if the news media gets it wrong it supports Trump's "fake news" argument and further entrenches his big lie. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

My Amazon Review of Richard J. Evans' "The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914"

The European Century

The distinguished Oxford Historian Richard Evans has given us a kaleidoscopic view of European civilization during the century it came to dominate the globe. A reader will learn a lot by going through this very long book (848 pages in the print edition without footnotes or endnotes.) In my opinion too long for the average lay reader. Evans offers us a bottom-up socio-political history where the focus is more on the average citizen and culture than the political elite.

In essence Evans discusses how Europe came to terms with the political earthquakes brought about by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and the industrial revolution. In 1815 the so called Concert of Europe is brought into being by Metternich as a conservative reaction to the French Revolution. That framework largely keeps the peace until 1848.  Nevertheless the ideas of the French Revolution bubble up and gradually work to democratize European society as the franchise is extended to more and more people. He highlights the conflict between the liberal reformers in the bourgeoisie and their more democratic counterparts whose visions extend to feminism and socialism.

Along the way nationalism becomes the most powerful force in Europe as Italy and Germany unify and the minorities within the decaying Austrian and Ottoman Empires revolt. It is those revolts that light the match that starts World War I.
Nationalism also becomes the motivating force in the establishment of European colonial empires in Asia and Africa. Territory abroad yielded political prestige home. The power of nationalism proves itself in 1914 when the previously anti-war socialist parties all vote for war credits in their respective nations.

All told The Pursuit of Power is well worth the read, but it will take a patient lay reader to get through it all.