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June 2019

Nigger - The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Randall Kennedy, Pantheon, 2002, 240 pages)

It fills me with anxiety even to blog about THAT word.  But Randall Kennedy's Nigger should be required reading for every high school student in America. 

It’s “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets,” a word that whites have employed to wound and degrade African Americans for three centuries. Paradoxically, among many black people it has become a term of affection and even empowerment. Kennedy traces the origins of the word, its multifarious connotations, and explores the controversies that rage around it.

Should blacks be able to use the word in ways forbidden to others? Should the law treat it as a provocation that reduces the culpability of those who respond to it violently? Should it cost a person his job, or a book like Huckleberry Finn its place on library shelves? With a range of reference that extends from the Jim Crow south to Chris Rock routines and the O. J. Simpson trial, Kennedy takes on not just a word, but our laws, attitudes, and culture with bracing courage and intelligence. 


The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (Daniel Coyle, Bantam Publishing, 2018, 280 pages)

For many people, a thriving work culture is like art--"I'll know it when I see it."  Its usually pretty easy to spot a strong group culture.  But what makes for a strong group culture?  How does it start?  How does it thrive?  Those are the questions Daniel Coyle tackles in The Culture Code, and his answers are thought provoking and chock full of practical ideas.  Coyle believes that forming the bedrock of a strong team culture requires having the specific skills to “build safety,” “share vulnerability” and “establish purpose.”  He devoted four years to cracking the conundrum of what makes a culture great by taking a deep dive inside some of the world’s most successful groups: Pixar, the San Antonio Spurs, and the U.S. Navy Seals. 

Great read.  Well worth the time.


slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations (Nancy Duarte, O'Reilly Media, 2008, 296 pages)

More required reading for abusers of PowerPoint. 

Presentation software is one of the few tools that requires professionals to think visually on an almost daily basis. But unlike verbal skills, effective visual expression is not easy, natural, or actively taught in schools or business training programs. slide:ology fills that void.

Written by Nancy Duarte, President and CEO of Duarte Design, the firm that created the presentation for Al Gore's Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, this book is full of practical approaches to visual story development that can be applied by anyone.  The book combines conceptual thinking and inspirational design, with insightful case studies from the world's leading brands.  With slide:ology you'll learn to:

  • Connect with specific audiences
  • Turn ideas into informative graphics
  • Use sketching and diagramming techniques effectively
  • Create graphics that enable audiences to process information easily
  • Develop truly influential presentations
  • Utilize presentation technology to your advantage

Millions of presentations and billions of slides have been produced -- and most of them miss the mark. slide:ology will challenge your traditional approach to creating slides by teaching you how to be a visual thinker.


Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 2011, 560 pages)

Its by Robert Caro, so of course its worth reading!  Brilliant. 

Means of Ascent is the second volume in Caro's landmark, multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and it covers Johnson's "wilderness years," from his bitter defeat in his first run for the U.S. Senate in 1941 to his (stolen) redemption on his second try for the office in 1948. 

Two things struck me as I read this.  First, Caro could have just as easily titled this volume Means of Descent because Caro ably shows that there was virtually no low to which Johnson would not stoop to enrich and empower himself.  There are no shortage of epithets to waste on Johnson.  He had no fixed principles, went whichever direction the wind blew, and was, in his personal and political relationships, a true scoundrel.  Second, Americans have short political memories.  Much ado is made these days of President Trump and his past and present behavior, but Johnson was just as bad, if not worse. 


To Save the Catholic Church, Dismantle the Priesthood (James Carroll, The Atlantic, June 2019, 11 pages)

Thought provoking essay by James Carroll in this month's edition of The Atlantic.

Carroll is the author of 20 books, including his memoir, An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, Constantine's Sword: A History of Christian Anti-Semitism, and, most recently, the novel The Cloister.


“The Murder of a Soul”

To feel relief at my mother’s being dead was once unthinkable, but then the news came from Ireland. It would have crushed her. An immigrant’s daughter, my mother lived with an eye cast back to the old country, the land against which she measured every virtue. Ireland was heaven to her, and the Catholic Church was heaven’s choir. Then came the Ryan Report.

Not long before The Boston Globe began publishing its series on predator priests, in 2002—the “Spotlight” series that became a movie of the same name—the government of Ireland established a commission, ultimately chaired by Judge Sean Ryan, to investigate accounts and rumors of child abuse in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, nearly all of which were run.   

The Ryan Commission published its 2,600-page report in 2009. Despite government inspections and supervision, Catholic clergy had, across decades, violently tormented thousands of children. The report found that children held in orphanages and reformatory schools were treated no better than slaves—in some cases, sex slaves. Rape and molestation of boys were “endemic.” Other reports were issued about other institutions, including parish churches and schools, and homes for unwed mothers—the notorious “Magdalene Laundries,” where girls and women were condemned to lives of coercive servitude. The ignominy of these institutions was laid out in plays and documentary films, and in Philomena, the movie starring Judi Dench, which was based on a true story. The homes-for-women scandal climaxed in 2017, when a government report revealed that from 1925 to 1961, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, in Tuam, County Galway, babies who died—nearly 800 of them—were routinely disposed of in mass graves or sewage pits. Not only priests had behaved despicably. So had nuns.

In August 2018, Pope Francis made a much publicized visit to Ireland. His timing could not have been worse. Just then, a second wave of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal was breaking. In Germany, a leaked bishops’ investigation revealed that from 1946 to 2014, 1,670 clergy had assaulted 3,677 children. Civil authorities in other nations were launching investigations, moving aggressively to preempt the Church. In the United States, also in 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury alleged that over the course of 70 years, more than 1,000 children had been abused by more than 300 priests across the state. Church authorities had successfully silenced the victims, deflected law enforcement, and shielded the predators. The Pennsylvania report was widely taken to be a conclusive adjudication, but grand-jury findings are not verdicts. Still, this record of testimony and investigation was staggering. The charges told of a ring of pedophile priests who gave many of their young targets the gift of a gold cross to wear, so that the other predator priests could recognize an initiated child who would not resist an overture. “This is the murder of a soul,” said one victim who testified before the grand jury.

Attorneys general in at least 15 other states announced the opening of investigations into Church crimes, and the U.S. Department of Justice followed suit. Soon, in several states, teams of law-enforcement agents armed with search warrants burst into diocesan offices and secured records. The Texas Rangers raided the offices of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which was presided over by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. DiNardo had been presented by the Church as the new face of accountability and transparency when he came to Galveston-Houston in 2004. The rangers seized an archive of abuse—boxes of sex-allegation files along with computers, including DiNardo’s. The cardinal was accused of protecting a particularly egregious predator priest.

Before, during, and after his trip to Ireland, Francis had expressed, as he put it, “shame and sorrow.” But he showed no sign of understanding the need for the Church to significantly reform itself or to undertake acts of true penance.

One of the astonishments of Pope Francis’s Irish pilgrimage was his claim, made to reporters during his return trip to Rome, that until then he had known nothing of the Magdalene Laundries or their scandals: “I had never heard of these mothers—they call it the laundromat of women, where an unwed woman is pregnant and goes into these hospitals.” Never heard of these mothers? When I read that, I said to myself: A lie. Pope Francis is lying. He may not have been lying—he may merely have been ignorant. But to be uninformed about the long-simmering Magdalene scandal was just as bad. As I read the pope’s words, a taut wire in me snapped.

The wire had begun to stretch a quarter of a century ago, when I was starting out as a Boston Globe columnist. Twenty years earlier, I had been a Catholic priest, preoccupied with war, social justice, and religious reform—questions that defined my work for the Globe. One of my first columns, published in September 1992, was a reflection on the child-sex-abuse crimes of a Massachusetts priest named James Porter. I argued that Porter’s predation had been enabled by the Church’s broader culture of priest-protecting silence. Responding to earlier Globe stories about Porter, an infuriated Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, had hurled an anathema that seemed to come from the Middle Ages: “We call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.” It took a decade, but God’s power eventually came down on Law himself.

In tandem with the “Spotlight” series and afterward, more than a dozen of my columns on priestly sex abuse ran on the op-ed page, with titles such as “Priests’ Victims Victimized Twice” and “Meltdown in the Catholic Church.” I became a broken record on the subject.

I bring all of this up to make the point that, by the summer of 2018, as a still-practicing Catholic, I harbored no illusions about the Church’s grotesque betrayal. So it took some doing to bring me to a breaking point, and Pope Francis—whom in many ways I admire, and in whom I had placed an almost desperate hope—is the unlikely person who brought me there.

For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped going to Mass. I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of “fast and abstinence”—in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else—Who cares? It’s about time!—but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart.


You can read the rest of Carroll's essay on   

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 1982, 882 pages)

An oldie but a goodie.  Second time around for me; one of my favorite political biographies.  

Volume one of Caro's landmark (and soon to be five volume) biography of Lyndon Johnson.  In the Path to Power Caro reveals in extraordinary detail the genesis of the almost superhuman drive, energy, and urge to power that set LBJ apart.  Caro chronicles the emergence of Johnson’s political genius, it follows him from his Texas boyhood through the years of the Depression in the Texas hill Country to the triumph of his congressional debut in New Deal Washington, to his heartbreaking defeat in his first race for the Senate, and his attainment, nonetheless, of the national power for which he hungered.
Path to Power won the 1982 National Book Critics Circle Award.  Volume three, Master of the Senate, won Caro a Pulitzer Prize 2003.  


The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 2019, 352 pages)

Another home run by McCullough!

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people.  Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.