James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

4.0 Stars

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In A Higher Loyalty, Comey is attempting to define what good, ethical leadership should emulate and how he has always strived for honesty in his work. While he has been criticized as being sanctimonious and having a big ego, I think much of the criticism towards Comey does not reflect his grand ideals on ethics, integrity, and leadership, and why that lead him to that fateful day in October.

Surprisingly, this book had me laughing a lot. Comey’s humor comes through in an awkward yet endearing way, very much in line with most dad-jokes. One theme throughout the book was humility, even when it was juxtaposed against power and prestige. He introduces you to several key people, from Harry the Grocer to President Obama. Comey highlights specific points in his career and personal life and uses them to illustrate what he deems as ethical leadership.

Comey isn’t here to appease a specific base or to even defend himself against critics. His recountings in the book read very prosecutorially. He’s simply laying down the facts in the situations and showing you how he made decisions regarding multiple cases from Martha Stewart to Hillary Clinton. Comey will probably go down in history as the person who cost Hillary the election. He certainly was one of many factors. That day in October before he talked about investigating more emails from Weiner’s laptop, he was asked, “Should you consider that what you’re about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?” I think his response accurately sums up Comey’s view that the FBI should always remain independent and also explains why he made the decision to speak. He says, “It is a great question, but not for a moment can I consider it. Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost.” Comey truly believes this and while I believe there is valid criticism directed towards Comey, I do not think that critics are trying to understand that the independence of the FBI was his focus, as it should have been. Comey asserts that if the FBI started to act and think like every other partisan in Washington then the FBI would no longer have or deserve the public trust. He truly believes that the job of the FBI is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. He says, “we all have different roles, but the same mission.“

Current politics aside, there were several surprising aspects to Comey that I enjoyed. For one, I liked his almost old-fashioned, gentlemanly, philosophical approach to being a good person. Being somewhat of a former goody-goody myself, I could understand his aspirations.  I did not know that he was the one in charge of the Martha Stewart case. He says that he didn’t think the case was worth all the trouble. When deciding how far he would pursue the case against her, he decided to check how many people in New York who did not have wealth and status and power are imprisoned due to lying to a prosecutor — two thousand people a year. The case now didn’t seem so minor. And he pursued it.

Another surprising thing I learned about him was his disturbance upon discovering that over 80% of special agents in the FBI were predominantly white. He believed that the agency should reflect the people it is supposed to protect, and if it does not then it will not be effective. During his years as FBI director, he was able to recruit more people of color to the FBI. In the book, he says, “I was frightened by one trend. The special agent workforce since 9/11 had been growing steadily more white. When I became director, 83% of the special agents were non-Hispanic Caucasians. As I explained to the workforce, I had no problem with white people, but that trend is a serious threat to our effectiveness. In a country that is growing more diverse, which, in my view, is wonderful, if every agent looks like me, we are less effective. 83% would become 100% very quickly, if the FBI became known as “that place where white people work.” I also admire that Comey took the initiative to improve the workforce’s mentality by having them read Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He says it is one of the most important things he has ever read and he has re-read it several times since first encountering it in college. Personally, I think every American should read Dr. King’s letters. I admire that Comey did not shy away from the truth about the involvement of the FBI with Dr. King and Civil Rights. He aggressively states, “I wanted all agent and analyst trainees to learn the history of the FBI’s interactions with King, how the legitimate counterintelligence mission against communist infiltration of our government had morphed into an unchecked, vicious campaign of harassment and extralegal attack on the civil rights leader and others. I wanted them to remember that well-meaning people lost their way. I wanted them to know that the FBI sent King a letter blackmailing him and suggesting he commit suicide. I wanted them to stare at that history, visit the inspiring King Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its long arcs of stone bearing King’s words, and reflect on the FBI’s values and our responsibility to always do better.” In the age of Trump, where I no longer give white people the benefit of the doubt, I was super touched by Comey’s understanding of the importance of Dr. King and the FBI, and his refusal to not shy away from this topic.

Another chapter of his book deals with police brutality and a brief response to Black Lives Matter. He gave a speech at Georgetown University, saying, “we in law enforcement need to acknowledge the truth that we have long been the enforcers of a status quo in America that abused black people; we need to acknowledge our history because the people we serve and protect cannot forget it.” I think this is one of the most powerful lessons that law-enforcement can learn. Many people to this day don’t understand why black people still talk about slavery. Comey knew that as a white FBI director with long law enforcement experience, he could say things about law enforcement history and biases that others couldn’t. I commend him for using his privilege this way.

Probably my favorite parts of this book were his recollections of his interactions with President Obama. It is obvious that he gained a deep respect for President Obama. His first impression of Obama was his ability to focus on an issue, and he was surprised that the president’s view of the FBI’s job mirrored his own. Comey writes, “ it turns out he had a different conception of the FBI director than either I or most partisans assumed. He said, ‘ I don’t want help from the FBI on policy. I need confidence and independence. I need to sleep at night knowing the place is well run and the American people protected’.”  There were two other encounters that Comey details, one in which they discuss policing in black communities. In the end, Comey says, “I was trapped in my own perspective. A black person – who happened to be the president of the United States – helped me see through other eyes.” In his last meeting with Obama, he said, “Although I hadn’t supported President Obama when he ran for office, I had developed great respect for him as a leader and a person, and it was only at that moment that I felt the full weight of his imminent departure and what it would mean.”

 

And now to leave you with a few quotes from Comey about our current president:

“What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be. Nor did they ask how the United States may prepare itself to meet that threat.”

“The FBI and the Department of Justice are drawn into the most controversial investigations in the country, investigations that frequently involved prominent members of a presidential administration… The FBI is able to do that work credibly because it is not – and is not seen as- a tool of the president.”

“I remember thinking in that moment that the president doesn’t understand the FBI’s role in American life or care about what the people there spent 40 years building.”

“In what kind of marriage, to what kind of man, does the spouse conclude there is only a 99% chance that her husband didn’t do that.”

“The ‘leader of the free world’, the self-described great business tycoon, didn’t understand leadership. Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear – like Cosa Nostra boss – require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice. They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations – to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions require people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration – ‘love’ is not too strong a word – that build lasting bond and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.”

“Without all those things – without kindness to leaven toughness, without a balance of confidence and humility, without empathy, and without respect for truth – there is little chance President Trump can attract and keep the kind of people around him that every president needs to make wise decisions. That makes me sad for him, but it makes me worry for our country.”

“Our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty. “

I’m choosing to pair this book with a Mint Julep even though, in the book, Comey mentions drinking beer and having Pinot Noir on the flight back to Washington after finding out he was fired. The book was humorous and informative, and I think the combo of refreshing mint and slow burn of bourbon fit the tenor of this book.

Format: Hardcover.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

5.0 Stars

»»» Possible Spoilers Ahead «««

Processed with VSCO with c7 preset“We believe the one who has the power. He’s the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clear yet still imperfect picture”  (227).

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi weaves a multigenerational tale addressing the history, colonialism, and slavery of Ghana and America by following the stories of two half-sisters. One sister “marries” a white British slave trader because her tribe and family are in the business of selling their African brethren. The other sister is sold as a slave and ends up in America. Each chapter introduces us to a new descendent and a new struggle. Gyasi gives us a glimpse of each person’s life and their hardships. We meet Ness who tries to run away from her slaveowner and ends up captured; but secures freedom for her son, who in turn never knows his mother and grows up as a free man. Across the ocean, we are introduced to James, an Asante, who leaves the bloodstained wealth of his tribe to marry a poor girl whom he loves.

Gyasi’s narrative allows you to only have a portion of each person’s story. There is no end, no closure for some of these characters and that is one of the important lessons of her book. One of the great tragedies of slavery is how much history was lost. Descendants of slaves can only trace themselves back to a certain point – a point in which they were sold, traded, or an ancestor was killed. It is a haunting quality that aches in the minds of people of color today. Imagine being a child with brown skin having to listen, around Thanksgiving, as your white counterparts brag about being able to trace themselves back to the Mayflower or back to George Washington. There is a whole race of people in America who are excluded from that pride because their heritage leads them to slave ships, African slavers, and white slave traders. When white people boast about being able to trace their lineage back to the Mayflower, are they also sorry if they can trace their lineage back to the Confederacy?

This book makes you take a hard look at what being Black was and is like. Gyasi holds you captive in a slaves’ dungeon, sells you in the South, helps you run away from a cruel white master, urges you to leave your Asante lands and tribal wealth, makes you fight in the Civil War, gets you arrested by implementing the black codes, kills you at the hands of a white missionary, forms a union for Black workers, makes you a teacher of your colonizer’s language and religion, helps you escape the Jim Crow South, takes you to Harlem where you are forced to face colorism and the limitations of being too black and not black enough, through the doping and drug-addicted 80s, makes you live in Alabama, all the way to making you a college graduate and becoming your ancestor’s wildest dreams.

The narratives of these characters leaves you longing to learn more, but the point of the book is not to tell you each character’s life story. It is to build on the shared experiences of pain, regret, terror, ignorance, assimilation, pride and strength until what is forged is Black healing- American and African. The reconciliation of the history of colonialism and slavery, and what was lost by the atrocities of the slave trade births a healing that comes regardless of whether you can pinpoint where that pain started. It is a concept that eludes most people today unless you study Black history and Black writings. This is the great achievement of Gyasi’s book: it takes centuries of pain and history, and condenses it into 300 pages using stories that bring to life the subjugation, humiliation, pain, and terror of Black people based on the history of colonialism and slavery, without you having to be well-read and learned in Black history. If all you know about the Civil Rights Movement is that MLK had a dream, if you never cared to read Malcolm X, if you never asked yourself why Confederate statutes exist, if you simply never found it relevant to understand Black Lives Matter; then this is the book for you. It will open you up to centuries of pain and leave you with unfinished stories that have you longing to find out why? When? How come? How could this happen? And hopefully, that will lead you to other books on the history of race in America, which in turn will lead you to understand the current events around race and culture.

A few non-fiction recommendations:

•·• Letters from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King

•·• The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

•·• The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist

•·• The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

•·• Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi

•·• Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

•·• When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson

•·• Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Fiction recommendations:

•·• Beloved by Toni Morrison

•·• Half of the Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

•·• Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

•·• Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Quotes:

“If we go to the white man for school, if we just learned the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free” (223).

“Sonny would tell Marcus about how America used to lock up black men off the sidewalks for labor or how redlining kept banks from investing in black neighborhoods, preventing mortgages or business loans. So was it a wonder the prisons were still full of them? Was it a wonder that the ghetto was the ghetto? There were things that he used to talk about that Marcus never saw in his history books, but that later, when he got to college, he learned to be true. He learned that his father’s mind was a brilliant mind, but it was trapped underneath something” (285).

“…but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H‘s story without also talking about his Grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father‘s heroin addiction – the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin and Harlem in the 60’s,  wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the 80’s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the ‘war on drugs’. And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood we’re doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he gets so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table…And all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they would think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that justified putting his Great-Grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was” (289).

“How could he explain that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American dream, but by mere chance. He had only heard tell of his great-grandpa H from Ma Willie, but those stories were enough to make him weep and to fill him with pride. Two-Shovel H they had called him. But what had they called his father or his father before him? What of the mothers? They have been products of their time, and walking in Birmingham now, Marcus was an accumulation of these times. That was the point” (296).

I’m pairing this book with Dogfish Head’s Romantic Chemistry IPA. I chose this beer because the fruity notes of mango and apricot, ginger and the hoppy finish worked well together. The blend of fruity and hoppy seemed like the perfect combination for this book, bitter but with an underlying sweetness.

Format: Hardcover.

André Brink’s A Dry White Season

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2.5 Stars

While I enjoyed reading this book, I find myself highly judgmental of the protagonist. He is a white male living in South Africa who has never really understood the racial injustices faced by his black acquaintances until a series of events happens to a black man he knows. He has been content to enjoy his privilege and status as a white man in South Africa.

Now, to be fair, this book and the voice of the character in this book are directed to white people in South Africa who do nothing about the injustices that were going on. As a woman of color, I have had to accept the role of whites “leading the way.” I’ve had to accept how because of white feminists, we are able to have colored feminists. Somebody has to pave that road. Granted, it would’ve been great to be included from the beginning. This is a more complex issue that I won’t delve too deeply into with this review. I feel as though it is the same situation in this novel. I, personally, would prefer to hear the story from the black perspective. I would like the agency and the authority to be coming from the person who the racist injustice is acted upon, instead of that of the white savior. However, that is not the purpose of this novel. And that’s OK (I guess). It is still a very interesting read. It makes a statement for justice. It denounces the acts of violence and corruption that went on in South Africa; and it did it in a white voice for a white audience, to give them perspective and to hold them accountable.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with this novel was the “Affair.” The protagonist – a good, honest, church-going, exemplary white man – cheats on his wife at the end of the novel, but we knew that was coming. What really annoyed the shit out of me, was how the affair went down. The day before he fucked the new, younger chick, he fucked his old wife. And he was struck by how he was so shocked to see how old she had become. How after 30 years of marriage, her skin with wrinkled, her breasts were sagging, there with a mixture of revulsion and arousal…ugh… I’m sure his hairy balls weren’t dragging between his thighs. I was so glad that I already knew that this motherfucker dies at the end. (FYI, I’m the type of girl who still hates Robert Lowell for The Dolphin).

My judgmental critique on the protagonist aside, this novel does bring to light racial injustice. It highlights one of the most important relationships, that between a parent and their child. A child represents hope for the future. What happens in the black community when children are shot and killed and jailed? These are questions that in our modern, American society we are still facing. We have seen it in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Milwaukee, and all over the United States. The questions and the struggle for racial equality and racial justice are real and relevant to not only our American society but a global society. The Impact in the black community in regards to over-policing and racial profiling and racial stereotypes are disregarded by the more privileged of our society. A Dry White Season does an excellent job of highlighting this and showing how it’s not just a problem of a few racists in power. What we fight against when we fight against racial injustice is something far greater. For the protagonist, he comes to this conclusion toward the end of the novel:

“today I realize that this is the worst of all: that I can no longer single out my enemy and give him a name. I can’t challenge him to a duel. What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, something, a vague amorphous something, an invisible ubiquitous power that inspects my mail and taps my telephone and indoctrinates my colleagues and incited the pupils against me and cuts up the tires of my car and paints signs on my door and fires shots into my home and sends me bombs in the mail, a power that follows me wherever I go, day and night, day and night, frustrating me, intimidating me, playing with me according to rules devised and whimsically changed by itself.”

We face almost the same enemy in American culture, except that instead of wiretapping phones and slashed tires; we have indoctrination through white pride, racial stereotyping, inadequate representation, redlining and an eschewing of history to favor the white male.

Memorable Quotes:

“My time and your time is passing…but the time of our children is still coming. And if they start killing our children, then what was it that we lived for?”

” ‘One always reads about this sort of thing,’ he said absently. ‘One hears so many things. But it remains apart of a totally different world really. One never expects it to happen to someone you actually know.’ ”

“But if you were given a choice, Colonel: wouldn’t you rather be a white child in this country than a black one?”

“You’re white. ” as if that summarized everything. “Hope comes easy to you”.

I’m pairing this book with Einstok‘s Icelandic Toasted Porter. This is one of my favorite beers. It has a nice toasted malt taste and a medium-bodied mouthfeel. It balances the caramel and coffee flavors well, making it a pleasant brew for almost any book.

Format: Paperback.