Sunday, February 15, 2009

Three Interesting Guys

Recently, three pretty interesting people passed away. Of the three, you may have heard of one, but I think you'd find the other two interesting as well.

In April of 1985, I was finishing up my Master's Degree in Political Science at Eastern Illinois University. One evening, at a party, a group of friends and I decided to leave the party and road trip to Memphis, under the theme "Elvis is dead; we checked." I recounted that road trip in this post.

I knew that it was important to have photographic documentation of this historic event, and took my camera along. At some point, I was amused by the detritus from the trip that had accumulated in the back of my friend Alan's car-- the picture at the top of this post. If you look to the far left, you'll notice a book with a black and red cover. It was the textbook from one of my grad classes: Samuel P. Huntington's 1968 classic Political Order In Changing Societies.

Putting aside the silly notion that I was actually going to study on this road trip, I did actually read Huntington's book that semester. The book was controversial when it was published in 1968. It was just a few years after a wave of former colonies had become independent. The wide assumption was that this was a good thing across the board. Huntington pointed out that it was not necessarily smooth sailing once a country achieved independence and began to modernize. He asserted that if a nation brought in modern institutions, but the political and social institutions did not keep up with that modernization, that there could be conflict. I think that this aspect of the book has been borne out by history.

The book was also an examination of the imperatives of a third world leader. In a manner, it was a modern version of Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince. Poliitical Order In Changing Societies pointed out that many of the things the leader of a nation attempting to modernize were complex and often contradictory. A leader had to try to establish modern institutions without trampling on the old ones to the point of alienating the populace. A leader must try to increase political participation but stay in power. The leader of a developing country has a set of strategies to stay in power-- including creating an outside enemy. This particular aspect of Huntington's observations will be explored in a post soon regarding Israel and the surrounding states.

In the end, Huntington observed, the job of the leader of a developing country was to stay in power. It ran contrary to the assumption modernization would necessarily lead to democratization; conversely, if a society's political institutions did not keep up with the social modernization, violence and disorder can result. Today's Iran is clearly a result of this.

Huntington published another controversial and much-read book about ten years ago, Clash of Civilizations. In that book, he urged a fundamental shift in paradigm in understanding world politics, stating that peoples' cultural and religious identities would become more important than ideology. This is not necessarily a new view and one I don't necessarily agree with. Daniel Bell and others explored this idea in the sixties. But I admired Huntington, even if I frequently disagreed with him. He had the courage to follow his intellect, even when his ideas weren't popular.

The second interesting guy was Conor Cruise O'Brien. He would have been just a nice academic guy were it not for the fact that UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld read a review O'Brien had done in a literary journal. Somehow, Hammarskjöld felt like this meant Irishman O'Brien had the skills necessary to deal with an increasingly bloody and chaotic situation in the Congo.

The Belgian Congo was perhaps the worst of the worst of the African colonies. The Congo was owned not by Belgium, but by King Leopold II personally. As bad as the abuse and exploitation of the people in Europe's African colonies were in general, the Congo stood out.

In the late fifties and early sixties, the European powers saw the writing on the wall and started divesting themselves of their colonies. This included Belgium. However, Belgian companies did not want to walk away from the mineral riches of the Congo. After the Congolese formed a government, Belgian mining companies hired mercenaries and fueled a movement by the Katanga province to break away from the Congo-- and form a government friendly to European interests.

O'Brien walked into a horrific situation. Katangan troops, along with mercenaries, were murdering whole villages of people who supported the central government.

In his book To Katanga and Back, O'Brien recounted his dealings with Hammarskjöld and the UN, and the decisions he made-- to send UN troops in to capture (or kill) the mercenaries who were behind it. Using troops supplied by his native Ireland and newly independent Ghana, he was succeeding in this task, and saving hundreds, maybe thousands of lives in the process.

The response in the West was unbelievable. This was 1960-61, and the Cold War was in full force. Somehow O'Brien's inclination to choose the lives of darker-skinned people over the financial interests of Western mining companies meant that he was a flaming Red. He was called (among other things) "the Irish Castro." In retrospect, this was laughable; O'Brien, who later served as a member of the Irish parliment, was ferociously anti-IRA, pro-Israel and a conservative. He was later to write a laudatory biography of Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism (which indirectly led to me meeting Mr. O'Brien).

Hammarskjöld buckled to Western pressure and pulled O'Brien from his assignment. O'Brien was later to tell his side of the story in the aforementioned To Katanga and Back (a book I highly recommend). The Congan peacekeeping mission was taken over by a succession of people, and Hammarskjöld himself was to die in a still-unsolved airplane crash while on assignment in the Congo.

The Congo was to slip into chaos-- their president, Patrice Lumumba, was murdered, and after a great deal of struggle, in which Ernesto "Che" Guevara led rebel troops (futilely), the country came under the sway of Western stooge/kleptocrat Seko Mobutu. Mobutu was eventually overthrown, but the Congo remains a violent, poverty-stricken morass, unable to use the vast mineral wealth it has to move forward.

Mr. O'Brien continued to lead a distinguished life as a scholar and author. He published a book about Israel, "The Siege," a biography of Edmund Burke and a critical biography of Thomas Jefferson. He served as a conservative member of the Irish parliment and was eventually named the chancellor of Trinity University.

Around 1992 or 1993, I saw in the newspaper that Mr. O'Brien was doing a book-signing of his Burke biography in a downtown Chicago bookstore. I grabbed my worn copy of To Katanga and Back, hopped on the el and went to the bookstore.

Years later, I laugh at what Mr. O'Brien must have thought-- a guy with shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail, in an full-length World War II era coat, approaching him with a copy of the book he wrote more than 30 years before. I purchased a copy of his Burke biography, and approached him to sign it. I asked if he'd mind signing the Katanga book-- "I'd be delighted!" he told me. As we sipped brandy, we discussed Katanga; at the time, the war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia was full-blown. We discussed the similarities and differences between Katanga and Yugoslavia and the difficulties of peace-keeping.

Like Huntington, I didn't agree with everything Mr. O'Brien held dear, but I admire him greatly. In the end, he's someone who made a difference in the world. I think that he lived up to my favorite quote about activism, ironically by conservative Edmund Burke:

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

The third fascinating guy was gambler, mob guy and casino boss Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal.

It might seem odd, putting a guy who had a lifelong association with the mob next to a couple of scholars, but bear with me.
Part of my interest in Rosenthal was that, like me, he was a Chicago guy. He grew up on Chicago's rough west side, and became childhood friends with future mobster Anthony "Ant" Spilotro.

Rosenthal is best known these days by his thinly-vieled portrayal in Martin Scorsese's 1995 movie "Casino." Sam "Ace" Rothstein, was portrayed by Robert Deniro. The movie is one of my favorites, but do yourself a favor-- get ahold of the book "Casino," written by Nicholas Pileggi (who also wrote the movie screenplay). The non-fiction book portrays Rosenthal as a very intelligent and complex guy. He was a man who left nothing to chance professionally, yet married a woman who was an absolute mess. He made a fortune through gambling and mob ties, but was an intensely dedicated parent. He eschewed violence, yet had a lifelong friendship with the hyperviolent Spilotro. He was a case study in contradictions.

Rosenthal, who changed the face of Vegas-- he brought legal sports booking to the town-- was eventually banned from it because of his mob connections. Still, he made a fortune while he was there, and provided well for his kids. He got custody of them when their drug and drink-addled mother walked away. And when he died in October of 2008, it was of old age-- unlike his friend Anthony Spilotro, who, along with his brother Michael, was beaten to death by other mobsters and buried in an Indiana cornfield.


Phil said...

Fascinating exposition of three disparate lives. I've read pieces by O'Brien in NYRB, but did not know of his UN activity. As a boomer of a certain age (alright, 59), I recall the Congolese headlines of the time but, to my shame, my most vivid memory of the time is the dissonance of a male having the name "Patrice". I like to think I'm a more substantive intellect now, but don't jump to conclusions...

Glad I found your site (via Ms. Lea, and I have it bookmarked.

Mnmom said...

You always teach me something Mr. Yen, and add to my "must read" list.

Churlita said...

Wow. Those are some very distinct personalities there. I'm generally not a big non-fiction reader, but I find African history both fascinating and tragic. I might just have to see if I can find that book.

Warren Beatty said...

I totally missed the Lefty Rosenthal passing. I'd thought he died years ago. Thanks for the update.

Cheer34 said...

was Lefty part of the Murder Inc. gang?

Cheer34 said...

was Lefty part of the Murder Inc. gang?

Anonymous said...

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