In Search of an Historical Metaphor

I am crafting my list of essential reads for politics and policy in America (I’m calling it the Bull Moose List) with a view to sharing it on July 4 if all goes well.

I have just added to that list Cullen Murphy’s controversial Are We Rome? I know that Murphy’s thesis – that there are enough similarities between us and Rome in the fading days of the empire that we should take a hard look at ourselves – was inspired not a little by Bushian/Neocon overreach abroad when he wrote in the mid-aughties. His analysis was nuanced and his verdict equivocal.

I cannot but wonder how the book would come out today. Bush may well have been America’s Diocletian, but Donald Trump is looking increasingly like the Nero that only a decadent empire could raise to leadership.

The question that presses on me is this: is America more like Rome today than it was eleven years ago?

I fear the answer. But I will let you know more when I finish Murphy’s book.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences | The National Academies Press.

The National Research Council offers a thought-provoking account of why the rate of imprisonment in the US has quadrupled in the past decade and is disproportionately poor, young, minority, addicted, mentally ill, and badly educated.

The report makes the case that incarceration is now hurting our society rather than helping it, and recommends changes in policy as a result.

No doubt this the conclusions and recommendations will be vigorously debated. They should: it is time for a serious discussion about incarceration in this country that will result in our re-thinking the nature and purpose of our correctional institutions.

The book is available for a free download (or in paperback for $67.46) at the National Academies Press site.

The Roosevelts who despised each other: The untold story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth –

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Mark Peyser
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

I don’t often link articles from Salon, but this one is likely the perfect read for an Easter Sunday: a brief reminiscence of two cousins, one dubbed “Mrs. Democrat,” and one “Mrs. Republican,” who wielded power in Washington for decades on the twin engines of their heritage and their personal gravitas. In the process, they helped lay the groundwork for more women to step into roles of power and leadership in the US.

I will confess that I am a longtime fan of “Mrs. L,” not simply because she was Teddy Roosevelt’s favored child or because she was a Republican, but because she made it her life’s duty to tweak the nose of the Washington establishment. She demanded and received homage from presidents and power-brokers, smoked a pipe in her later years, and the sofa in her parlor boasted a crocheted pillow with a characteristic bastardization of the Golden Rule: “If you can’t say something nice about someone, come sit by me.”

Read the article, and pick up a copy of Marc Peyser’s book on the battle between the two women. It is a great read about Washington behind closed doors told through the story of two extraordinary women.

Getting it Right with Jefferson on Religion

Jefferson and religious liberty: The father of freedom

The Economist
2 January 2015

It is not uncommon for those arguing a point on the nature of the church-state relationship in America to refer back to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, who was instrumental in the formulation of that concept in an American context.

In this superb article, The Economist reminds all of us who would use Jefferson to support our particular view of religion in America to first have the intellectual honesty to read all of what he wrote on the subject without looking for points of agreement. We should instead take what he wrote for face value, and then decide what it means.

I spent my 50th birthday at Monticello, and have a growing stack of Jeffersonia in my reading pile. As The Economist notes, Jefferson’s beliefs on the topic were complex and evolved throughout his life. We would do well to respect – and understand – the nuances of his thinking.

Oh, and add Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson to your Bull Moose reading list.

Book of the Week: Rise of the Warrior Cop

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces
Radley Balko 

PublicAffairs; July 2013;
400pp Hardcover.

Given the events in Ferguson, it is clear that the time has come for us all to understand how our Boys in Blue are being turned into stormtroopers.

Balko is not one of those reporters who can be readily dismissed as a left-wing cop-baiter. His research has been widely praised, and he started his career at the libertarian Cato Institute. If anything, he is more right than left.

But that should not be the point. The problem is that supporting law and order does not mean giving the cops a blank check, any more than supporting business means giving the Fortune 500 or Wall Street unfettered reign over the nation.

Balko makes the case that we have done the former, and it is time to change course before it is too late. The events in Ferguson only make his point more timely, more poignant, and more urgent.

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