Categories
Reviews

Book Review: Demystifying Shariah

We moved to the Southeast side of Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1985 to be closer to my work. My daily commute was still long and it took me past a number of churches and the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids. I recognized the Islamic Center was different from the other religious edifices I passed, although I didn’t pay it much attention. The nearby Mother Mosque was the first mosque built in North America and Islam has a long, rich history here. In Iowa most of us are used to the valuable contributions of Muslims in the community.

That was before anti-Muslim sentiment rose to prominence in the United States, changing everything.

In her recently released book, Demystifying Shariah: What it is, How it Works, and Why it’s not Taking Over Our Country, author Sumbul Ali-Karamali writes about the recent change.

Between 9/11 and 2010, hate crimes against Muslims had actually declined in the United States. But in 2010 they spiked, for no easily discernible reason–no terrorist attacks by Muslims, no ISIS horror stories. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies two causes for the increase in hate crimes: (a) the deliberately engineered controversy about an Islamic cultural center, modeled on Jewish Community Centers, in New York, and (b) a report by lawyer and anti-Muslim propagandist David Yerushalmi and others asserting that Muslims were trying to impose shariah in American criminal courts.

Demystifying Shariah, Sumbul Ali-Karamali, pp. 189-190.

Ali-Karamali explained the “Islamophobia industry,” a network of individuals and organizations who disseminate anti-Muslim propaganda into the public discourse. At its center was claims “shariah law” was creeping into U.S. society and given time would impose Islam on hapless Americans. The phrase “shariah law” reflects a lack of understanding of what shariah is.

“Shariah itself mandates that Muslims follow the law of the land in which they live, whether the land is “Islamic” or not.

Why, then, have the last several years seen the rise of ominous new concepts like “creeping shariah: and “shariah takeover”? Amazingly enough, the current shariah scare, groundless and vituperative, is due largely to one man (David Yerushalmi).

Demystifying Shariah, Sumbul Ali-Karamali, page 189.
Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Demystifying Shariah covers the history of Islam from the birth of Muhammad around 570 CE to the present. For Americans who know Islam exists, yet know little about a religion with more than 1.8 billion world-wide members, it is a great way to learn more about shariah and Muslim-American communities. Knowledge is the best defense when right wingers attempt to scare us for political motivation. Ali-Karamali draws on scholarship and her degree in Islamic law to explain how shariah operates in the lives of Muslims and what it means in terms of law. As the title suggests, shariah is not taking over our country.

The book is organized into three major parts: the basics and foundations of shariah, including the birth of Islam; the story of shariah which addresses the scary stuff (like amputation and stoning) perpetuated by the Islamophobia industry; and recognizing Islamophobia and the causes of Muslim stereotypes.

Whether readers know a little or a lot about Islam or shariah, this book is worth reading. Ali-Karamali presents well-researched and useful information about the history of Islam and the rising consequences of Islamophobia in America after 2010.

A Star Trek fan, Ali-Karamali grew up in California answering questions on Islam because she was one of few Muslims in her schools and community. She’s still answering those questions. To learn more about her and her work, check out her website, https://subulalikaramali.com.

~ First published on Blog for Iowa

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: Our Time Is Now

If one needs a palate cleansing after the bitter taste of the Trump years, Stacey Abrams’ Our Time is Now is just the book to read.

I didn’t know what to expect going in. I knew of her close Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018. I followed the Georgia U.S. Senate runoff elections last month and knew she played a role in voter turnout after declining to be a candidate herself. If anything surprised me about the book, it was how timely is Abrams’ message as the Biden-Harris administration gets to work.

There are some key takeaways:

She emphasizes the importance of counting everyone during the U.S. Census. Undercounting the poor, persons of color, and other disenfranchised U.S. residents serves to further disenfranchise them. President Trump attempted to politicize the U.S. Census. President Biden reversed Trump’s executive actions and seeks to give the Census Bureau needed time to make the best count possible. That means a delay in states receiving information required for their decennial re-districting process. Biden knows what Abrams suggested: the U.S. Census is important to restoring political power to people.

Abrams emphasizes that people should vote. She also criticized the voter targeting methods use in the 2016 and 2018 Democratic campaigns. Voter registration continues to play a key role in citizens gaining political power. It goes without saying voting does as well. The conclusion I drew from the book was that no voter should be ignored during campaigns.

The book refreshes our collective memory about voter suppression efforts by Republican lawmakers. Abrams’ story was she overcame systemic voter suppression during her Georgia gubernatorial campaign by the sheer number of new voters they activated. The permanent solution is for voters to take control of the electoral process by electing more Democrats at every level. With Democratic control of state legislatures, it is less likely voters will be suppressed.

As a child I learned the importance of civic engagement. Unlike most Americans today, I study the issues and candidates, and vote in every election. I don’t know what happened yet we need to return to that basic tenant of governance. If we seek to retain government by the people, participation is required. That is Abrams’ message.

I read a lot of political books and Abrams’ book is well-written and relatable. If we seek to move our country forward, elect more Democrats. Stacey Abrams has provided a roadmap in Our Time is Now.

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: The Hidden History of American Oligarchy

In The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class, Thom Hartmann recounts three periods of increased hegemony of oligarchs in American society. He posits that with the inauguration of Joe Biden as president on Jan. 20, 2021, we citizens have work to do to reclaim our democracy from the control of wealthy Americans.

The history of increased influence of wealth in the United States is becoming well known. Stories about it appear frequently in newsletters, on radio and television, and in books and other publications. In this book, Hartmann adds a needed layer of historical context to the discussion.

Readers may be familiar with the Powell Memo, Citizens United, the rise of dark money interests coordinated by Charles and David Koch, and the power they wielded to take control of our government, including the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Donald J. Trump’s presidency is a logical extension of these influences. We left democracy behind and become an oligarchy ruled of, by and for the rich, Hartmann said. The next step is tyranny if democratic values don’t return to dominance.

“The United States was born in a struggle against the oligarchs of the British aristocracy,” Hartmann wrote. “Ever since then the history of America has been one of dynamic tension between democracy and oligarchy. And much like the shock of the 1929 crash woke America up to glaring inequality and the ongoing theft of democracy by that generation’s oligarchs, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has laid bare how extensively oligarchs have looted our nation’s economic system, gutted governmental institutions, and stolen the wealth of the former middle class.”

Hartmann lays out his argument in plain, easy to understand terms and gets to the crux of it quoting former President Jimmy Carter, “So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election is over…. The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.”

More simply put, Al Gore said in his 2013 book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, “American Democracy has been hacked.”

The book quickly works through the origins of oligarchy in America from the invention and wide use of the cotton gin, the rise of industrial robber barons, and the Reagan revolution. Hartmann’s focus is not only on reminding us of history.

In the final section Hartmann details a dozen ways to break the hegemony of the oligarchy. They include addressing media, taxing the rich, restoring election integrity, and rebuilding a progressive Democratic Party. While readers can’t do everything alone, the book serves as a roadmap for where progressives can go from here to combat the oligarchy.

Like Hartmann’s other Hidden History books, this one is a quick but important read for people who are engaged in progressive politics and seek a change from the power of moneyed interests and concentration of wealth among the richest Americans. The Hidden History of American Oligarchy is a must read. It will be released on Feb. 1, 2021.

~ First published on Blog for Iowa

Categories
Reviews

Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1917. Public Domain Photograph

The copyright of The Great Gatsby expired yesterday and a flurry of news articles spammed the channels. If Gatsby is the great American novel, like the country, it is far from perfect.

It remains a good book to read at the onset of summer, as I did for many years. It takes a certain experience of what summer meant in Midwestern culture to appreciate the book. That culture of my youth faded years ago. I no longer read the book annually although I keep a copy where I can find it.

What impressed me most about F. Scott Fitzgerald was seeing an 8 by 10 photograph of him at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas during a reunion with fellow Army officers. Organizers of the event were attending the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. The future author of The Great Gatsby was stationed at Leavenworth and the photo commemorated his stay. As we know, Fitzgerald was not a good soldier. He worried he would die in the world war without publishing anything. He later regretted not serving in combat. Such worries being part of what characterized his short life.

Upon reflection, it occurred to me Fitzgerald was not much different in his humanity. While I haven’t the drive or interest in being published he did, the army is a great equalizer and created a bond with him that was no abstraction.

I know The Great Gatsby well. Now that it’s in the public domain others are latching onto it, to revise or rewrite it. As someone suggested, there may be a Muppet version of the novel. The truth I increasingly face is whatever summer meant 50 years ago doesn’t exist any longer. There is no going back. This renders Fitzgerald’s fiction less relevant than it once may have been.

That people write about this copyright expiration with so many words is a sign that nothing like Fitzgerald exists in contemporary fiction. Writers are more like Gatsby himself not realizing what was important about the book is rooted in a time now gone. There is no green light at the end of the dock toward which to reach. It’s just us in the dark, craving something more than the commerce of society, yet not knowing what that might be.

I think I’ll read The Great Gatsby again this year and consider how to soldier on. Maybe I’ll learn something this time.

Categories
Reviews

Wildland Sentinel

Wildland Sentinel: Field Notes from an Iowa Conservation Officer

By Erika Billerbeck

Wildland Sentinel is a well-written account of Erika Billerbeck’s experiences as a conservation officer in the state park and wilderness refuge adjacent to where I live.

While I was well aware of the diversity of experiences in the area, the author provided a perspective I would not otherwise have had. Her descriptions of being a female conservation officer in a male dominated profession seem archetypal. She showed the other side of stories I read in the newspaper. She explained the other half of conversations I’ve had with friends and associates about what it means to go camping outside state park camp grounds.

Besides the excellent writing, the book is recommended as a primer of what the job of conservation officer entails. I look forward to seeing what else Billerbeck writes.

Categories
Reviews

Favorite Movies

Morning in Iowa.

Someone asked, “What is your favorite movie and why?”

I had to think. After considering some options I answered, “The Lion King because of the music.”

I’m not sure that was completely right.

I’m also not sure which movie was the last I saw on television or in a theater. In the time of the coronavirus I watch movies on my desktop computer, either from a disk or streaming. I do keep track of what I watch. The last was on line, Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Lands.

When our daughter visited in December 2014 we watched a video cassette recording of Christmas in Connecticut together, part of a series of “dinner and a movie” events we discontinued as a regular thing. In 2017 I watched The Brainwashing of My Dad from a disk on my desktop. It was a powerful story of a family where the father got caught up in right wing media hegemony to his detriment, and then came out of it — a happy ending. I also watched The Princess Bride (for the first time) on Amazon May 31, 2013. Too many cultural references to avoid it forever. Since 2012, I watched about 20 movies, not many.

When we talk about “favorite movies” what does that mean? For me it means films seen long ago, the memory of which persists. The Lion King fits that description and I would view it again. I’d listen to the CD of the soundtrack more. There are about a dozen movies that mean something to me.

Blade Runner: We saw this at a theater the first time Jacque and I did something together outside of work where we met.

Out of Africa: Because of the cinematography. It’s a gorgeous film and I don’t use the “g” word often.

The Conformist: Few films of that era stick with me the way this one does.

The Matrix: How could someone with a Cartesian outlook not love this movie?

In a Year of 13 Moons: I was obsessed with Rainer Werner Fassbinder the way he was obsessed with subjects and themes in this movie.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy: I recall my argument with Father Harasyn as a freshman in high school about whether J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were literature. I lost the argument and was not given credit for reading them. The movie is a faithful rendering of the book.

The 400 Blows: I was enamored of Francois Truffaut during graduate school. Not as much now, but still.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs: I could easily have been one of the peasants in this film. The cinematography of Ermanno Olmi was unlike anything I’d seen.

Apocalypse Now: The first film I saw in a theater after returning stateside from Germany. It alone launched an interest in movies that persisted for the following five or six years.

Patton: The go-to film for soldiers maneuvering in the Fulda Gap. We would show it on a film projector run by a diesel generator. I knew to carry several replacement bulbs for the projector when we left garrison.

The Sound of Music: Grandmother insisted our family see this together and she paid for the tickets. She would have been the Maria Rainer character if life had been kinder to her.

There are others yet few recent ones. As the holidays draw near, and we contemplate the events of 2020, there are worse things to do than consider things we love. Movies have been part of my life in society as they are for many.

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: What Unites Us

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner.

Because of Dan Rather’s long tenure at CBS News he reported on events that were important in my life and formative of a national consciousness such as one existed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His reflections on patriotism are staples of a certain view of the United States, one that is rapidly fading from sight. Rather’s framing of patriotism had hegemony for a long span. Such dominance is coming to an end. The frame has been broken.

There is a certain comfort in reading these essays. It is a false comfort because the United States has changed. We’ve entered a realm where, as Rather writes, what used to be valued no longer is. He asserts his view of patriotism is enduring. I remain skeptical.

We are a more diverse country where societal norms have broken down, resulting in an individualist, short-sighted view of what’s important. It’s everyone for themselves, exploitation of the commons on steroids, and wanton disregard for science that could prevent degradation of the environment.

In the crazy year 2020 has been with the coronavirus pandemic, ill-conceived foreign affairs, climate catastrophe, social unrest, and lack of proper governance, we need hope and Rather provides that. Yet it is not the hope we need. Looking forward our needs are more basic: survival is everything and our future survival as dominant species on the planet is in doubt.

In the maelstrom that is contemporary affairs What Unites Us is a fine meditation, a reminder of what once was. Reflection is important and useful, yet only if it spurs us into action to take care of ourselves and then work together with others in an increasingly integrated global society to improve our lot.

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: The Hidden History of Monopolies

In The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream, Thom Hartmann takes the reader from the founders’ fight against the monopoly of the British East India Company to the borking of the country by President Donald J. Trump.

Like his other Hidden History books, this one is a quick but important read for people who want or need to review the history and origins of today’s concerted, well-organized campaign by corporations to control commerce, government, and thereby our lives.

“Today, giant corporatism — the commercialization of just about everything at the expense of our civilization’s civic, spiritual, health, and safety values, and other conditions needed for the well-being of future generations confronting poverty, addressing planetary climate crises, and averting nuclear war — is crushing our democracy,” Ralph Nader wrote in the book’s forward. “It is corrupting our elections, and astonishingly enough, controlling the vast commons — public lands; public airwaves; vast pension and mutual funds; and industry-creating, government-funded research and development — owned by the American people.”

Thom Hartmann

We’ve heard the phrase “taxation without representation” as it pertains to the founding of the United States. Hartmann turns this around to what was really at stake: a monopoly on tea and other products sanctioned by the British government. It was concern with monopolies, the British East India Company specifically, not taxation that caused the Boston Tea Party. Founder Thomas Jefferson had monopolies on his mind even after the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789 according to Hartmann.

Nontheless, monopolistic practices grew during the 19th Century with the rise of industrialization. In his book The Robber Barons: The Classic Account of the Influential Capitalists Who Transformed America’s Future, Matthew Josephson described the rise of men like John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie and others who pioneered vertical integration of companies, a form of monopoly. Their actions led to significant control over oil, railroads, steel making, coal mining, banking and other industries during the Gilded Age.

Beginning in 1887 with the Interstate Commerce Act, the U.S. Government began to regulate big business. It was followed by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. If the founders opposed monopolies and they formed anyway, it was the role of government to regulate them. Hartmann well-describes this history.

It was president Ronald Reagan, under the guidance of Robert Bork and the Chicago School economists, who began de-fanging antitrust regulations.

Many of us are familiar with the July 1, 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court and how Senator Ted Kennedy rose in the well of the U.S. Senate to oppose the nomination within 45 minutes of its being made. Previously, along with Milton Friedman, Bork pioneered the phrase, “consumer welfare.” It changed everything.

“In essence, (Bork) argued, it didn’t matter where a product was produced or sold, or by whom,” Hartmann wrote. “All that mattered was the price the consumer paid. As long as that price was low, all was good with the world.” The corollary was that business profitability was another measure of antitrust. Since Reagan the latter gained preeminence. This is referred to as the borking of America.

By the end of the book I became highly agitated and outraged that our government has become an instrument of corporations intent on shaking down the American people, giving any return on capital to a group of about 100 billionaires as Hartmann describes.

The Hidden History of Monopolies is written in classic Hartmann style and can be read over a weekend. If readers are concerned about banking abuses, dairy farmer bankruptcies, insulin price fixing, the cost of internet and telephone service, big agriculture, and more, Hartmann traces their roots to giant corporations and a systemic borking of America that deregulated business and freed corporations from constraints.

Highly recommend.

Don’t have time to read the book? Here’s a fifteen minute interview of Hartmann by David Pakman that covers some of it.

~ Written for and first published on Blog for Iowa.

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: Save Me the Plums

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl

I’d not heard of Ruth Reichl before a news reporter recommended this book. I had heard of Gourmet Magazine and have no memories of ever reading it.

I liked the book for these reasons:

It provides a window into the New York world of Condé Nast. As a Midwesterner New York seems exotic even though my brother in law lives there. It’s important to gain a broader understanding of the publishing world and to know something about it. Save Me the Plums provides that.

We all need some light summer reading to escape the sh*t storm our current politics, public health crisis, and climate crisis create in 2020. The food writing in Save Me the Plums is unlike anything I’ve read. While not sure of the attraction of something that tastes like sea foam, Reichl takes us into a world few of my cohort experience for themselves.

The book is well written and that makes a difference.

Recommend, especially if one is part of the broader American food movement. One wouldn’t want to be Ruth Reichl yet her story is interesting, different and valuable.

Categories
Kitchen Garden Reviews

Book Review – A Cook’s Tour of Iowa

A Cook’s Tour of Iowa by Susan Puckett.

A Cook’s Tour of Iowa is a well-curated collection of culinary culture that represents a certain view of Iowa. It’s the picture Iowans can recognize. We also recognize many of the things mentioned as fading in cultural prominence.

As a resource for writing autobiography, the book conjures personal memories of Iowa things like the Grant Wood Art Festival, Maytag Blue Cheese, the African-American community in Buxton, Iowa, and many more. It is indispensable for that reason.

What is lacking is the diversity of what Iowa has become, even since 1988 when the first edition of A Cook’s Tour appeared. Our culture is also leaving behind things like VEISHA, Old Creamery Theater (no longer in Garrison, or Amana), and some of the festivals and events to which Puckett referred.

If we had an Iowa-themed dinner party, picnic or cookout, one might search the book’s contents for dishes to make for pure nostalgia. However, life in Iowa has become more than that.

I appreciate the work that went into A Cook’s Tour of Iowa. I may not open it often, but knowing it is there provides comfort as the food system changes along with the society that engendered it.