Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us

              Does the current state of the world seem overwhelming? Do our leaders often seem to be all about themselves and not about us? Is it easier to turn on a sitcom rerun than to sit through the news because we feel so helpless to change what’s going on?

            You’re not alone. Brian Klaas, a columnist for the Washington Post Assistant Professor of Global Politics at University College London, and author of the new book “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us” (Scribner 2021; $28), has taken on the task of interviewing more than 500 world leaders from the best to the worst– to answer questions like the following. Does power corrupt or is it that corrupt people are drawn to power? What personality types are drawn to power? Why are so many dictators sociopaths and narcissists? And why do even good people, once in a position of power, become authoritarian?

            Here is a brutal fact that will make you reach for remote and flip to an episode of “Green Acres” where the biggest problem of the day is whether Arnold the Talking Pig can take that trip to Hawaii he won.

            Democracies are dying with more and more countries sliding towards authoritarian rule says Klaas who writes that there are no countervailing forces.

            Indeed, Klaas who created and hosts the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast, says “There’s nothing that rewards being a sober moderate who believes in democracy and tries to govern by consensus.”

            Describing democracy as being like a sandcastle, one that can be easily wiped out by a big wave or successive small hits, Klaas gives Turkey as an example.

            “Initial coverage of Erdogan’s 2002 election was positive, showing him to be someone was a populist who would shake things up, go up against the elite and status quo, and bring democracy to Turkey,” says Klaas who looked back through New York Times archives to highlight how that country has changed for the worse. “For 19 years now, he’s chipped away at democracy instead.”

            Though the book’s subject matter might seem dull, it’s not. Klaas is a strong writer with a sense of humor and he is very capable of delivering telling anecdotes that reflect the changes a democracy can encounter and how quickly that can happen in a compelling way.

            “If you lose the battle for democracy, you don’t get to battle for taxes, infrastructure, healthcare, or any of the policies that change lives,” says Klaas, who earned a MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford (New College) and an MPhil in Comparative Government from the University of Oxford (St. Anthony’s). “In the places that I’ve studied where democracy has died, it’s still dead pretty much everywhere.”

            How to fix it?

            Klaas suggests becoming active. Call your congressperson or senator, run for local office, become politically active, and in general, participate in making changes to bring about change.

            “That’s the type of activity that ultimately can transform the political system at the national level,” he says.

            But there’s no time to delay.     

            “If we don’t fix it in the next two to four years,” he says, “it probably won’t get fixed.”

Follow Brian Klaas’s podcast Power Corrupts.

President Obama’s Annual List of Favorites

“As 2020 comes to a close, I wanted to share my annual lists of favorites,” Barack Obama, the 42nd President of the United States, tweeted to his 127.5 million followers. “I’ll start by sharing my favorite books this year, deliberately omitting what I think is a pretty good book – A Promised Land – by a certain 44th president. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did.”

Somehow, the President forgot to include adding one of my books to his list again. Well, there’s always next year.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Luster by Raven Leilani

Sharks in the time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Memorial Drive Natasha Trethewey
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Missionaries by Phil Klay
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Glass House by Emily St. John Mandel

The Poisoned City by Anna Clark

Like an accident in slow motion, Anna Clark, a Detroit-based journalist followed the crisis of toxic drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
“I had my head in it for years and it’s still there, I talk about it and I can’t get my head about how it happened,” says Clark, who has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico.
This obsession with the government’s failure to provide clean water in a once thriving manufacturing city whose population of about 99,000 is largely African American compelled Clark, who was a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, compelled her to research and write The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy (Metropolitan Books 2018; $30) which was an Amazon Best Book of 2018 . But she didn’t do so as a faraway observer. Clark, who graduated from the University of Michigan’s Residential College with highest honors, double majoring in History of Art and Creative Writing & Literature, and minoring in Crime and Justice and received an MFA from Warren Wilson College, has always been a doer.
For almost two years, citizens of Flint complained about the water, showing up at meetings with jars of the putrid looking liquid that came out of the faucets and talked about how people were getting ill from drinking it. The GM plant in Flint actually changed their water system because the city water was corroding the auto parts they manufactured.
“It wasn’t good enough for the machines, but it was good enough for the people?” Clark asks rhetorically. “I wanted to really dig deep. I loved the research and the long conversations with a lot of people. I traveled to Flint a lot, to attend events, meet people and just hang out. I audited classes at the University of Michigan on metropolitan structures, legal issues and water rights. There was so much information to connect. I really couldn’t stop until my publisher said I had to turn in my manuscript.”
Clark says most of the credit for the crisis being covered by major media sources is due to the city’s residents.
“They would go to Lansing to meet with legislators and attend meetings, the mapped where the symptoms were occurring,” she says, noting their work propelled the story to a national level which is when the state finally started took action. “I really think many people in positions of power didn’t think the people in the city mattered very much. The clear message is we don’t actually care to do anything sizable about it.”
But what happened in Flint could happen anywhere. Clark also sees this as an urgent public health care issue and one that is even more important as the national conversation is about dismantling safety regulations.
“Even people in less disadvantaged cities have lead in their popes,” she says. “At the base level of what a city should do for its citizens, I think safe drinking water is pretty basic.”


Ifyougo:
What: Anna Clark discusses The Poisoned City and then will be joined in conversation with Rick Perlstein, the author of several books. A Q&A will follow the discussion.
When: Thursday, January 24 at 6 pm
Where: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL
Cost: Free
FYI: 773-752-4381; 57th.semcoop.com

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger

Women’s anger is complicated, dating back to the days before they were allowed to vote and when all but a few careers were available to them. Even in the last generation or so, women have fought against discrimination in pay, employment—consider that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor could at first only get a job as a deputy county attorney even though she graduated from the prestigious Stanford University and what they wore (up until the 1970s even pantsuits were considered inappropriate in the workplace) among many other things. On a personal level, when my father returned from serving overseas during World War II, at least one of the men on the East Chicago Public Library board demanded that my mother resign because she was taking a job away from a man. Fortunately, other board members disagreed and she worked there until she was in her 70s, retiring after 50 years. Other women weren’t as lucky—many were asked to leave or fired so that men could be re-employed.Rebecca Traister_credit_Victoria Stevens

For New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Traister, a National Magazine Award winner for her coverage of the Harvey Weinstein scandals, writer at large for New York Magazine and contributing writer for Elle, the long-simmering anger women have felt is now brimming over. This is shown by the ever growing #MeToo movement and also what she sees as women’s reaction to Donald Trump and his policies that hurt women. In her newest book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Simon & Schuster 2018; $27) Traister wants to let women know their anger is potent.

“It’s consequential, it’s meaningful, valid and rational,” says Traister who discusses how women’s anger is often held against them and used to invalidate their feelings. “I think those are things that women are told are not true about their anger all the time. This book sort of serves as a guide and a reminder–to let women know that their anger is powerful, that it has historical precedence.”

Indeed, Traister argues that anger, when used to make changes, is a potent force.

“It’s the bottling up of anger, rather than the anger itself, that raises our blood pressure and makes us grind our teeth,” she says.

Though her book was written before the recent confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Traister says the  reaction to how the women who came forward were treated will also reverberate into the future—just as they did 26 years ago after the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

“#MeToo was an examination of how often sexualized harm was actually a tool of inequality within workplaces and within power structures where women faced all kinds of economic, professional, public forms of discrimination,” she says noting the harm being done wasn’t just sexual—it was also economic and professional. “What was being exposed were fundamental inequalities.

Ifyougo:

What: Chicago Humanities Festival, in conversation with Dr. Brittney Cooper

When: Sunday, October 28 at 3:30 p.m.

Where: Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 50 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston, IL

FYI: (847) 467-4000; chicagohumanities.org/events/207-rebecca-traister-good-and-mad

 

 

 

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