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Weekend Reader: ‘Notorious RBG: The Life And Times Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’

Adding one more item to her already considerable résumé, a few years ago Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court Justice to attain the status of Internet meme. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, is an joyful exploration of the life and career of the woman behind the diadem-topped icon that launched a thousand Halloween costumes.

To those who know Ginsburg as a meme first and a Justice second, Carmon and Knizhnik’s cannily researched book serves as an invaluable introduction to an extraordinary women, written with admiration, savvy, and wit. To those already well versed in RBG’s legal and judicial accomplishments, it’s a delightful and elegantly designed visual guide to the cultural impact one determined warrior for social justice can have when she becomes the stuff memes are made of.

You can read an excerpt below. The book is available for purchase hereRead our full review of the book here.

Of all of her clients, RBG was fondest of Stephen Wiesenfeld, a single father whose wife had died in childbirth. Bringing his case to the Supreme Court was a chance to show that sexism hurt everybody. While Stephen “played homemaker,” as the letter that brought him to RBG’s attention put it, his wife, Paula, had worked as a teacher and paid into Social Security. But only widows could get “mother’s benefits.” The law, RBG wrote in her brief to the Supreme Court on Wiesenfeld’s behalf, “reflects the familiar stereotype that, throughout this Nation’s history, has operated to devalue women’s efforts in the economic sector.”

Her argument went even further. “Just as the female insured individual’s status as breadwinner is denigrated,” RBG wrote, “so the parental status of her surviving spouse is discounted. For the sole reason that appellee is a father, not a mother, he is denied benefits that would permit him to attend personally to the care of his infant son, a child who has no other parent to provide that care.” Then she twisted the knife. Their young son, Jason Paul, RBG wrote, was another victim of a law that “includes children with dead fathers, but excludes children with dead mothers.”

RBG found out she won her case by flipping through her car radio on her way to Columbia. “My first reaction was that I have to get hold of myself or I’ll have an accident,” she told a reporter that day. “Then when I got to Columbia, I went running through the halls kissing the students who had worked with me on the case. And I am normally a very unemotional person.” She told another friend it had made her cry.

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“Given the purpose of enabling the surviving parent to remain at home to care for a child, the gender-based distinction of [the law] is entirely irrational,” Brennan wrote. Rehnquist, still a women’s rights skeptic, concurred, saying he was voting to strike down the law because it harmed the baby. At least he had taken that half step. RBG wrote of the case, “Wiesenfeld is part of an evolution toward a policy of neutrality—a policy that will accommodate traditional patterns, but at the same time, one that requires removal of artificial constraints so that men and women willing to explore their full potential as humans may create new traditions by their actions.”

She had perplexed and even angered some of her allies by bringing so many cases with male plaintiffs. After all, it was the Women’s Rights Project, not the men’s rights project. Much later, people would say RBG was a genius for presenting the male-dominated court with their brethren. The truth was more complicated. The choices men like Stephen Wiesenfeld made baffled, even angered the justices. Why would he want to act like a woman? In a way, it was easier to understand why a woman would want to act like a man. RBG firmly believed that for women to be equal, men had to be free. Decades later, an unnamed guest at a dinner party told the New York Times that RBG had fiercely interrupted another guest who mentioned she’d worked on behalf of “women’s liberation.” “She turned on him and said, ‘It is not women’s liberation; it is women’s and men’s liberation.’ I’d never seen her exercise such strength and vehemence.”

Nor was she interested in letting only one or two women into the old boys’ network. RBG firmly believed that more women in public life would benefit everyone, including men. “Men need to learn, and they do when women show up in their midst in numbers, not as one-at-a-time curiosities,” RBG remarked at the twenty-fifth anniversary of women at Harvard Law School in 1978. “Men need the experience of working with women who demonstrate a wide range of personality characteristics, they need to become working friends with women.”

Excerpted from Notorious R.B.G.: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, published in October 2015 by Dey Street Books. Copyright © 2015 by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. All rights reserved.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Read our full review of the book here.

Weekend Reader: ‘Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America’

Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act — “the crown jewel of the civil rights movement” — and the most fundamental democratic exercise continues to come under attack.

Give Us The Ballot by The Nation contributing writer Ari Berman, is an exhaustive history of the triumphs and setbacks of the movement to expand and protect the rights of all Americans to vote — from the streets of 1960s Selma, Alabama to the courthouses of today.

You can read an excerpt below. The book is available for purchase here.

In December 1964, Lyndon Johnson was in a jubilant mood. He’d just routed Barry Goldwater by twenty-three points, winning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52, the most lopsided victory in U.S. presidential history to date. Five months earlier, on his daughter Luci’s seventeenth birthday, he’d signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law that desegregated schools, restaurants, hotels, parks, and many other public places. When John F. Kennedy’s advisers urged LBJ not to push the bill following the assassination, the new president replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Johnson’s commitment to civil rights surprised his critics on the left and the right. He was the first southern president since the Civil War. His first vote in the House of Representatives in 1937 came against an antilynching law. His first major speech in the Senate was a defense of the filibuster, which had been used so often by southern Democrats to block civil rights legislation. He’d voted against every civil rights bill in Congress from 1937 to 1956. JFK put him on the ticket to win the southern segregationist vote.

Yet LBJ hadn’t had a change of heart so much as a change of circumstances and constituency. He was no longer a congressman or senator from Texas, but the president of the United States. He was now free to say what he believed.

Johnson could be crude and manipulative, but he was also unexpectedly compassionate. After graduating from Texas State University–San Marcos, LBJ taught fifth through seventh grades at a segregated Mexican-American school in the south Texas town of Cotulla, where his students showed up barefoot because they were too poor to afford shoes. LBJ cried when he told the story. “It was a genuinely uncontrolled emotion,” said Deputy Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a fellow Texan. “It was pretty deep and pretty impressive.”

Now Johnson wanted to cement the civil rights revolution by giving African-Americans and other long-disenfranchised minority groups the right to vote, a goal that previous civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, and 1964 had not accomplished. The ballot, the president believed, would give Mexican-Americans in Cotulla and blacks in Selma the power to change their circumstances. The vote was “the meat in the coconut,” he liked to say.

“I want you to undertake the greatest midnight legislative drafting that has happened since Corcoran and Cohen wrote the Holding Company Act,” the president instructed the acting attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, on December 14, 1964, referring to an obscure New Deal bill in 1935 regulating electric utilities that was written by two senior aides to Franklin Roosevelt. LBJ wanted “a simple, effective method of gettin’ ’em registered.” He urged Katzenbach and the top lawyers in the Justice Department to “scratch their tails” and “get me some things you’d be proud of, to show your boy, and say, ‘Here is what your daddy put through in nineteen sixty-four, -five, -six, -seven.’”

Katzenbach, who’d succeeded Robert Kennedy as the nation’s top law enforcement official after Johnson’s archrival left to run for the U.S. Senate in New York in the summer of 1964, was not thrilled with the new assignment. He’d spent eight months on Capitol Hill lobbying for the Civil Rights Act, which endured a fifty-seven-day filibuster by southern Democrats, the longest in Senate history. The office of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois had practically become his second home. Strong voting rights provisions were stripped from the bill to win congressional support.

“The 1964 Civil Rights Act was exhausting,” said Ramsey Clark. “It about expended our goodwill with the Senate and the House. President Johnson insisted we were going to have another round of civil rights legislation, this time on voting … There was no enthusiasm in the Justice Department, but Johnson insisted on it.”

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At the end of December, after consulting with lawyers from the Appeals and Research Section at the DOJ, Katzenbach sent LBJ three options, in order of preference, “to overcome voter apathy and discrimination.” Katzenbach’s top choice, a constitutional amendment prohibiting states from employing devices like literacy tests and poll taxes that disenfranchised minority voters, “would be the most drastic but probably the most effective of all the alternatives,” he wrote. It was also the most “cumbersome,” he admitted, because a constitutional amendment needed to be ratified by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of states. The second option would be to create a federal commission that would appoint federal officers to register voters for federal elections. The third option would be for the federal government “to assume direct control of registration for voting in both federal and state elections in any area where the percentage of potential Negro registrants actually registered is low.”

Civil rights activists favored the last option. “This approach would quickly provide political power to Negroes in proportion to their actual numbers in areas in which they are now disenfranchised,” Katzenbach wrote. “On the other hand, its effects on general voter apathy would be relatively minimal … Moreover, its constitutionality is more dubious than that of the preceding suggestion.”

In his State of the Union address a week later, Johnson vowed to “eliminate every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote.” Inside the White House, a debate raged among Johnson’s inner circle over how and when to push voting rights legislation. “Certainly I have absolutely no problem with the desirability of such legislation, but I do have a problem about the timing and the approach,” Lee White, one of LBJ’s top advisers on civil rights, wrote to the special assistant Bill Moyers on December 30, 1964. The Civil Rights Act was less than a year old, White argued, and the prospects for passing voting rights legislation did not look particularly favorable. White proposed that 1965 “be a year of test” on civil rights.

Horace Busby, a Johnson aide since 1946 from Texas, was less charitable. “To southern minds and mores,” he wrote to White and Moyers, “the proposals of this message would represent a return to Reconstruction.”

The mercurial Johnson wanted to keep his legislative options open. Four days after talking with Katzenbach, LBJ met at the White House with Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that week. King told Johnson that he would soon be launching a voting rights campaign in Selma, where only 2 percent of blacks were registered to vote. He asked the president for his support.

“Martin, you are right about that,” Johnson replied. “I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get voting rights through in this session of Congress.” The president’s ambitious Great Society agenda took priority. “I need the votes of the southern bloc to get these other things through,” Johnson said. “And if I present a voting rights bill, they will block the whole program. So it’s just not the wise and the politically expedient thing to do.”

King left the meeting dispirited. His voter registration drive in Selma would be aimed as much at the federal government as at the segregated South. “I think we’ve got to find a way to get this president some power,” King told Andrew Young as they departed the White House.

Excerpted from Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman, published in August 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Ari Berman. All rights reserved.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Weekend Reader: ‘Arms And The Dudes: How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became The Most Unlikely Gunrunners In History’

It’s a story so outrageous it could only be true. In 2007, three beach-bumming potheads — with a little gumption, luck, and mendacity — rose from the sandy shores of Miami to the height of geopolitical intrigue, becoming international arms dealers and private weapons contractors for the U.S. military.

Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History is Guy Lawson’s sprawling, meticulously researched, and compulsively readable account of the “improbable voyage” of three kids in their early twenties thrown into a picaresque mess of Albanian mobsters, Pentagon investigators, and Chinese weapons manufacturers — and something else too: the sobering story of the American government’s logistical and moral failings in the Middle East wars of the 00s, as illustrated by the strange odysseys of three dudes.

You can read an excerpt below. The book is available for purchase here.


In 2004 Efraim Diveroli did $1,043,869 in business with the U.S. govern­ment. In 2005 that number leaped to $7,238,329, as he liked to boast to his buddies David Packouz and Alex Podrizki. Diveroli was getting rich, and he reveled in his triumphs. He finally moved out of his tiny studio into a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the ocean in a building called Executive Condos. He hired a cleaning lady to come to his place once a week to get rid of the worst of the squalor. He treated himself to a black Mercedes. It was used, but still: the luxury sedan spoke to the status he’d achieved in such an improbable way at such a young age.

Smoking dope with David Packouz, Alex Podrizki, and their gang of Orthodox kids, Diveroli constantly bragged about the deals he was doing. Diveroli was younger than the other dudes in their posse, who were now in their early twenties and mostly going to college. Diveroli had always been the designated clown, the one who mooned patrons in the Eden Roc’s exclusive dining room and was willing to take up any dare. But his personality was changing as he grew more obsessed with business. So were his appetites.

“I started to see my first girlfriend,” Diveroli recalled. “She was a Jewish girl, artsy, pretty. My second love was drugs and alcohol. I loved to get high. I couldn’t enjoy life sober. I would wake up to a joint. I’d smoke another for lunch. In the evening, I’d drink and snort cocaine.

My buddies would all get high, too, but I was always the extremist, doing the most drugs and making an asshole out of myself when I was wasted. My girlfriend hated all the drugs—the weed, the Ecstasy, the mescaline, the ketamine, the hallucinogenic mushrooms, and probably some other shit I can’t remember.”

Nothing mattered to Diveroli as much as business and money and getting high. He started to fight with his girlfriend more and more often. The couple broke up, got together, and broke up again, every few weeks—an emotional roller coaster.

Then a friend told Diveroli that his girlfriend had cheated on him. Diveroli got drunk that night and drove over to her parents’ house, where she lived, parking his car on the front lawn.

“I started to bang on her bedroom window, demanding to talk to her,” Diveroli recalled. “Her mother came out and threatened to call the police—which she then did. In a matter of minutes the relationship was gone forever.”

Diveroli’s ex-girlfriend obtained a restraining order. The brush with the law could have chastened Diveroli, but he was heedless. He was too caught up in his new life as an arms dealer to care—or to worry that he might be spinning out of control.

On the contrary, Diveroli was convinced he needed to expand his business. He was going to turn AEY into a conglomerate. But his band­width was already stretched to the breaking point. He needed help. Whom in his posse could he trust? Who was smart, ambitious, and looking to make a lot of money?

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David Packouz was a few years older than Diveroli and studying science at college—an attribute that impressed the younger man greatly. They’d been friends since Diveroli was twelve and Packouz was sixteen, and both attended the same synagogue—or, to be more accu­rate, both skipped the services to smoke reefer and wreak havoc.

“Efraim would steal the yarmulkes of older kids,” Packouz recalled. “He’d pick on the boys with short tempers, the ones he knew he could get a reaction from. He’d run off with their yarmulke and they’d chase him and finally catch him and beat him a little. Then when they’d walk away, he’d steal the yarmulke again. He was an annoying kid who en­joyed being an annoying kid. My friends liked him because it was fun watching him annoy uptight people. I wasn’t so crazy about him.”

Now twenty-four, Packouz was good at school, but he couldn’t imagine spending his life as a scientist in a lab coat doing research. Privately, he longed to be a rock star. He spent hours practicing the guitar and dreaming of performing in front of arena-size audiences. His music was soulful, layered with complex movements, a blend of Pink Floyd, Alice in Chains, and Simon and Garfunkel—though he knew that sounded like a strange combination.

To get the chance to sing, sometimes Packouz went to open-microphone nights at clubs in Miami, but his main outlet was karaoke in a basement bar called the Studio. While others treated karaoke as an excuse to get drunk and bellow power ballads, Packouz took his per­formances seriously, concentrating on pitch and timbre as he imagined himself to be a real rock and roller. To develop a distinctive look, and to hide premature balding, he’d shaved his head, making his sharp blue eyes more striking.

“I planned on recording an album one day when I had enough money,” Packouz recalled. “But the truth is that I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself.”

To support himself, Packouz advertised his services as a masseur on Craigslist. He figured that massage beat flipping burgers for mini­mum wage, even if fending off the sexual advances of clients was often a problem.

But Packouz had found another way to make money. He told Diver­oli that he’d started to trade goods on the Internet to supplement his income. Packouz bought textiles online on websites like Alibaba.com, purchasing bibs and towels and sheets from manufacturers in Pakistan and India, then selling them to a contact in Miami who supplied old folks’ homes. The business was tiny, with deals worth only a couple of thousand dollars for each transaction, but he’d fulfilled a few contracts and was starting to concentrate more on the Web—in essence, the same twenty-first-century business model Diveroli was following on a much larger scale.

Apart from their burgeoning online businesses, the thing that Di­veroli and Packouz had most in common was money. Both were very, very interested in money. Diveroli was already well off, at least for someone so young, but the early wealth only made him want more. Packouz was effectively broke, but he didn’t want to stay that way. Mas­sage was never going to allow him the means to pursue a professional music career, he figured, nor would a job as a scientist. He was looking for a way to make a lot of money—the faster the better.

From ARMS AND THE DUDES: How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became The Most Unlikely Gunrunners In History by Guy Lawson. Copyright © 2015 by Guy Lawson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

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Weekend Reader: ‘Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary Of Deliberately Deceptive Language’

Spinglish is everywhere. It is the first language of press secretaries, PR reps, politicians, doctors breaking bad news, and much, much more. Anyone who has ever been “dehired,” or the victim of some “reality augmentation” (i.e. lying) knows how insidious Spinglish can be.

To negotiate the verbal minefield of misdirection, euphemism, and flat-out falsehoods, Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf have assembled the essential concordance of the language of spin — Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language.

You can read an excerpt below. The book is available for purchase here.

Do you speak Spinglish? Well, if you speak English, chances are you’ve been using Spinglish for a long time, most likely without even knowing it. For example, have you ever overslept and missed a meeting and blamed your absence on a “scheduling error”? Tried to weasel out of a parking ticket because of an alleged “meter malfunction”? Explained that a bounced check was merely the result of an “unanticipated negative cash-balance accounting issue”?

Or, when you noticed that your hospital had billed you for a “disposable mucus recovery system,” did you figure out they were charging you fifteen bucks for a box of Kleenex? Are you aware that whenever companies say “for your convenience,” they actually mean “for our convenience”?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you’re already on the road to mastering the devious vocabulary of verbal distortion, and with our indispensable bilingual dictionary as your guide, odds are you’ll soon be earning your B.S. in B.S.—or, better still, a coveted Spin Doctorate. And even if you’re a rank beginner, don’t despair: Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deceptive Language is virtually guaranteed to teach you how to succeed in business, politics—and everything else—without really lying!

But what precisely is Spinglish? Well, in spite of its polyglot-sounding name, it isn’t some foreign language. It’s just our native tongue, transformed into a sophisticated method of judicious miscommunication through the use of careful word choice and the artful rephrasing and reframing of familiar terms. To put it another way (which, of course, is what Spinglish is designed to do), it all comes down to making me sound better, or you sound worse, or both. I’m a freedom fighter, you’re a terrorist. I want to enhance revenues, you want to raise taxes. My product is artisanal, all-natural, and organic; yours is mass-produced, synthetic, and contains artificial additives.

Needless to say, any language can be used to convey or conceal all sorts of meanings and messages, but English is unique in its capacity for creative misdirection, thanks to a couple of remarkable linguistic resources. First, with over a million words, it has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world, and with more than a billion speakers, it is the most widely spoken.

And second, English basically consists of two completely separate and complementary sub-languages: Latin, from the Romans who conquered England and bequeathed us mostly polysyllabic (and often nicely evasive) formulations like “exterminate” and “circumlocution,” and the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Nordic, and Germanic vernaculars of our barbarian ancestors on the wrong end of the catapult who gave us short, simple, cut-to-the-chase words like “kill” and “bullsh*t.”

Of course, using language to control a narrative is nothing new. Long before George Orwell wrote 1984, our nation coined Orwellian terms like “Manifest Destiny” to rationalize a transcontinental land grab, “Indian reservations” to refer to concentration camps for Native Americans, and “Benevolent Assimilation” to describe the violent seizure of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, to name just a few.

It’s also important to distinguish between slang and jargon, which are spontaneously generated, and loaded language and weasel words, which are premeditated. Saying that a bunch of people who were fired were “given the boot” or that someone who died “kicked the bucket” is just colorful; describing mass layoffs with euphemisms like “downsizing” or “rightsizing,” or a death due to malpractice as a “negative patient care outcome,” is deliberately deceptive.

The fact is, not only has Spinglish been around for a long time, it’s everywhere: on Wall Street and Madison Avenue, inside the Beltway, in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, in the fields of Law, Medicine, the Arts—you name it, and if you can name it, someone can rename it to make it sound a whole lot better and promote it with a flurry of press releases flogged by a host of professional Spinocchios and hundreds of highly paid liars with fireproof pants ready to pull the genuine imitation faux wool over your eyes.

But now, thanks to this shoot-from-the-lip glossary of time-tested, tried-and-untrue terminology, you, too, can have just the right self-serving phrase at the tip of your forked tongue, and no matter how embarrassing the situation or awkward the silence, you’ll never be at a loss for misleading words again!

So apply some Sock-Puppet News-Job nose-growth-control cream, shown to be of significant value in limiting topical, prevarication-related nasal lengthening (your results may vary), put on that pair of Poppy-Khaki brand combustion-resistant trousers (certified 100% effective when worn with approved carbon-fiber undergarments), and issue a statement, run an ad, or just offer a simple explanation that tells it like it isn’t, it wasn’t, and it couldn’t ever have been.

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A sampling of Spinglish-English definitions

death panels. Government tribunals, which former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claimed were mandated by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, that would decide whether sick and elderly individuals were entitled to continued health care services. “The America I know and love,” Palin wrote on her Facebook page in 2009, “is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.” One problem with Palin’s assertion, which fanned a firestorm of opposition to Obama’s proposed legislation, is that it was utterly false: There was, and is, no provision in the Affordable Care Act which suggests the formation of such panels. Indeed, Palin’s statement earned her PolitiFact’s coveted Lie of the Year award.

elites. People defined by former Reagan administration official and Fox News commentator Linda Chavez as “learned souls” who “maybe should spend less time at Starbucks sipping double lattes over the Sunday Times and more time at church or the local high-school football game or in line at a Walmart. They might actually learn something about the values that drive most Americans.” Such uses of the word “elites,” comments linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, transfer suspicion “from the genuinely powerful to the people who used to be regarded merely as their clerks and factotums, and in the process suppresses real disparities of wealth and power. There are only the people who shop at Walmart and people who don’t, with the people who own the operation presumably away for the weekend.” (See also: diversity; “tax-hiking, government expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”)

“four years of unfortunate misunderstandings between the two nations.” A phrase used by the Japanese government, in a 2002 advertisement heralding friendship between the United States and Japan, to describe the period between 1941 and 1945.

great and good friend. The classic journalistic euphemism for “mistress,” coined by Time magazine to describe the relationship between Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst.

human rights abuses. A gentler way of saying torture and murder.

repression. Stability maintenance

tax and spend. Journalist Norman Solomon defines these as “the inevitable fiscal activities of any government, made to sound diabolical.”

From Spinglish by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf. Published by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf.

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