From NPR: Hidden Figures

Many Americans are familiar with the astronaut heroes of the 20th century space race — names like Gus Grissom and Neil Armstrong. But who did the calculations that would successfully land these men on the moon?

Several of the NASA researchers who made space flight possible were women. Among them were black women who played critical roles in the aeronautics industry even as Jim Crow was alive and well.

“When the first five black women took their seat in the office in 1943, it was in a segregated office with a ‘colored girls’ bathroom and a table for the ‘colored’ computers,” author Margot Lee Shetterly tells NPR’s Michel Martin.

Shetterly, a Hampton, Va., native and daughter of a former Langley scientist, tells the story of these women in the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book has already been adapted for the big screen; the film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae premieres in January.

Read the Full Article at NPR

Re-watching American Psycho

By David Michael Newstead.

American Psycho shouldn’t be relevant in 2016. This amalgamation of 1980s references and social commentary should be completely out-of-date. But it’s not. Instead, it’s as if the main character has taken over politics and the internet, unleashing misogyny, anger, lack of empathy, and general derangement on the world. I re-watched the movie adaptation recently and it felt like American Psycho will have some kind of bizarre historical significance years from now, because the story unintentionally foreshadows something larger than just Election 2016. People without a filter.


Instead of the Debate

By David Michael Newstead.

You could watch the presidential debate tonight. Or you could stream a political movie like the comedy Dave, the drama Thirteen Days, or the Jimmy Stewart classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Russia Past & Present with Richard Pipes

By David Michael Newstead.

The Washington Post once called Richard Pipes one of America’s great historians. Pipes served on the National Security Council in the Reagan administration and did analysis for the CIA. Now a professor emeritus at Harvard University, his books include Russia Under the Old Regime, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, and Communism: A History. Today, Richard Pipes joins me to discuss the upcoming centennial of the Russian Revolution and the unusual state of U.S.-Russia relations in 2016.

David Newstead: How do you think the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution should be marked?

Richard Pipes: Of course, there were two revolutions in 1917. I would mark the February-March one with great ceremony, but I would totally ignore the October-November Revolution. The February Revolution was a democratic revolution accomplished by the population at large. And the October Revolution was a conspiracy and a seizure of power.

David Newstead: Is the world still feeling the impacts of that seizure of power?

Richard Pipes: For almost three quarters of a century the world felt it very, very powerfully. The Twentieth century was very much dominated by the Soviet Union and its actions. Today, no. Today, it’s pretty much history.

David Newstead: So, do you feel there’s any significance to Russian President Vladimir Putin being a former agent of the KGB?

Richard Pipes: Yes. He is not fit to be a democratic leader. A democratic leader listens to the population and does what the population commands. He is still mentally and psychologically very much of the Soviet mold.

David Newstead: What do you think is often misunderstood about the October Revolution that people should remember today?

Richard Pipes: People should remember that the Cold War and a great deal that happened in the Twentieth century was due to that. And it was all evil. And the only good thing about the Bolsheviks was that they created a regime that could resist the Nazis when they invaded them. And that was one great solid achievement of Bolshevism. Otherwise, I see nothing but evil.

David Newstead: In light of that, do you think Vladimir Lenin’s body should still be on display in Moscow?

Richard Pipes: No, he definitely should be removed.

David Newstead: You’ve also done a great deal of research on Russia under the Tsar. I’m curious what you think Tsar’s legacy is a hundred years after his downfall?

Richard Pipes: It’s ancient history, of course. But the legacy of the Tsars and of all previous Russian governments was that democracy was not good for Russia. And that Russia needs a strong ruler, even if he rules in an autocratic manner. And that is very deeply ensconced in the Russian political culture.

David Newstead: You were in the Reagan administration for a time. Do you feel the Reagan administration offers any lessons on how America should deal with Russia today?

Richard Pipes: No, because the situation is very different. When Reagan was in the White House, the Cold War was on. There’s no Cold War today. I mean, our relations with Russia are not terribly good, because of Putin and the administration. But it is not as dangerous as it was then.

David Newstead: I’m curious if you have any views on the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election right now?

Richard Pipes: Well, yes. They are participating in it. In my view, the Russians are friendly to a very bad candidate. Trump, if he’s elected, would be a disaster. And Trump is friendly to Putin and Putin is friendly to Trump and that’s not good. I hope that Russia changes its attitude to the rest of the world – that it becomes more cooperative and less hostile. But I am not very optimistic that this will happen.

David Newstead: It seems like Russian politics have been going in a bad direction for some time now…

Richard Pipes: It goes back to authoritarianism and hostility to the rest of the world. I’m afraid it is so. And I hope it will change, but I’m not very optimistic.

Read Part One

The Typewriter Revolution: An Author Interview

By David Michael Newstead.

I’ve been working to repair my grandfather’s old typewriter for some time now and part of that means learning as much as possible about these classic machines. Not surprisingly then, this led me to Richard Polt’s recent book, The Typewriter Revolution, which is an in-depth guide to the history and resurgence of typewriters. Packed with useful how-to information, what’s distinct about this book is its discussion on reassessing our relationship with technology, taking a step back from being constantly connected, and whether the analog approach is sometimes worth considering – even in the 21st century. Below, author Richard Polt joins me to talk more about these issues. And for the latest updates, check out Richard’s official blog here.

David Newstead: First, I loved the book. In it, you mention that you personally own 287 typewriters now. Is that right? And if so, where do you put all of them?

Richard Polt: By now I’m sure it’s over 300, but I’ve lost count. I have them in my office at work, my study at home, the basement, the attic, and the garage. I need to cut down!

David Newstead: The book highlights that typewriters created some of the first job opportunities for women in the business world that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Can you expand on this part of typing history?

Richard Polt: It was once assumed that business was a male sphere. Documents were produced by male clerks using pens. But the idea took hold that female dexterity was suited to operating a typewriter, just as women were good at using a sewing machine (Remington made sewing machines too). A big office that invested in a writing machine would also invest in a female writing machine operator—and that was a cheap investment, because early typists were paid little and would be dismissed if they ever got married. Still, this was a way in which women got a toehold in business, and it did eventually have far-reaching social consequences.

David Newstead:  In 2013, the Kremlin reportedly reverted to using typewriters instead of computers to prevent hacking. What’s your view on this decision, especially in light of current events? Should the U.S. government return to typewriters as well?

Richard Polt: I’m confident that the U.S. government does use typewriters for top-secret documents. Of course, governments around the world aren’t casting aside their computers, but for truly un-hackable communication, ink on paper is hard to beat.

David Newstead: You mention this multiple times in the book, but it bears repeating for a wider audience. You’re not anti-technology, correct? And neither are typewriter enthusiasts?

Richard Polt: Typewriters themselves are technological. They are sophisticated machines that could not have been mass-produced without modern technology. By using a typewriter, I experiment with establishing a healthy and enjoyable relationship with technological devices. By choosing an “obsolete” and non-digital device, I give myself the opportunity to step back from IT for a while and gain some perspective on our obsession with technical progress. However, I haven’t sworn off IT in general, since I need it for my work and social life, and I enjoy many of its possibilities.

There are a few diehard computer-haters who use typewriters exclusively, but most typewriter lovers, like me, use them in addition to digital technology, not instead of it. What the typewriter insurgency opposes is not computers, but a thoughtless mentality that assumes that digital is necessarily better, and that efficiency is the only consideration.

David Newstead: Is this book really a critique of planned obsolescence and our current throw-away culture more than anything else?

Richard Polt: That’s certainly part of it. As I say in the book, typewriters are an example of technology that was made to last. They are objects that can stay with you and help you for your entire lifetime. That’s a rarity now.

David Newstead: What’s one thing you’d want people to know about typewriters and the people who love them?

Richard Polt: We are generally a helpful, fun-loving, and very diverse bunch of people. If typewriters charm you, join us! If not, look for another thing that can bring balance, enjoyment, and focus to your life.

David Newstead: I don’t suppose you have experience with Cole Steel Portables?

Richard Polt: Yes, I do.

David Newstead: That’s the model I’m repairing that belonged to my grandfather. What’s been your experience with the Cole Steel?

Richard Polt: I remember that the escapement can be tricky. Can’t recall the details of how to adjust it.

David Newstead: That’s the part I have to fix. Or that’s what the repair guy said, at least. I’m thinking of taking it apart and putting it back together myself for my own knowledge. As for replacement parts, I keep thinking 3D printing will be the solution. Have you had much luck with 3D printing parts? Or what’s your view on it?

Richard Polt: I haven’t done it myself. A collector in Australia has successfully 3D-printed a carriage return lever. Right now, the technology is too crude to print delicate parts such as the ones found in an escapement, but I expect that it will improve.

David Newstead: Any closing thoughts?

Richard Polt: Let’s see… Brand-new manual typewriters are selling at Michaels craft stores; Lady Gaga wrote her latest song on her typewriter; Tom Hanks appears in the new documentary California Typewriter (I’m in it too); and a New York Times reporter credits the privacy of “snail mail” for providing Donald Trump’s 1995 tax return. The rebirth of typewriters and paper communication has already happened. Now the revolution is taking strides.

The Typewriter Revolution: Official Website

Previous Installment

Russia Past & Present with Peter Kenez

By David Michael Newstead.

Next year marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution and to reflect on the significance of those events I reached out to historian Peter Kenez. Kenez is a professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Cruz where he specializes in Russian history and the history of Eastern Europe. His books include The Birth of the Propaganda State, Varieties of Fear: Growing up Jewish under Nazism and Communism, and A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Recently, Professor Kenez joined me for an in-depth discussion on Russian history, politics, and propaganda.

David Newstead: There’s a new edition of one of your books coming out entitled The Soviet Union and Its Legacy. What are some of the main points of that legacy?

Peter Kenez: As far as the world is concerned, it’s one thing. And as far as the Russian people are concerned, it’s another thing. That is, the Russian people remember Stalin. A large number of them remember him very fondly, because Russia was propelled to be one of the two great powers. However silly it is, people do derive pleasure from being citizens of a major power. And that is what the Russian people today recall as the legacy of the Soviet Union. Namely, that “We were respected!” And people want to be respected. As far as the world is concerned, it was a great blow against Marxist ideology. People identify the Soviet experiment quite wrongly with Socialism of any kind. And that obviously is false on the face of it.

David Newstead: So, the Socialism of the British, the Swedish, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Socialism of the Soviet Union?

Peter Kenez: Certainly not!

David Newstead: One thing I did want to ask concerns your book The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization. Do you see any similarities between the propaganda techniques pioneered by the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago and the techniques of modern Russian?

Peter Kenez: No, I don’t. There are two kinds of historians: those who see patterns all the time and those to whom every event seems as something new. Now, obviously the similarities are always there. But how much stress are we going to put on it? My sense is that looking for the similarities is likely to confuse us, because our task is to look at the work as is. We should understand how effective propaganda can be and what are effective propaganda means.

Yes, obviously the Soviets were pathbreakers inasmuch as they believed that they were in possession of a blueprint for a perfect society. Consequently, for them to try to advocate for that blueprint seemed like a noble undertaking. So in their understanding, propaganda was not a dirty word.

Now, I think the power of propaganda goes only so far. What I mean by this is, it depends on your target audience. There is an audience that finds an appeal in what Donald Trump says. That doesn’t mean that he’s a superb propagandist. It means that he stands for something which resonates in the soul of many. So to ask “Who is the better propagandist?” it is pretty much an impossible question to me, because it does matter on your target audience.

In the Soviet case, this was not an issue. Because the success of Soviet propaganda was their ability to suppress every opposing point of view. This kind of approach to propaganda in the modern United States does not exist. And as far as I can tell in the foreseeable future, it could not exist. In Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Russia, it was easy to be a propagandist, because anybody who wanted to shout “What you are saying is silly. It’s not true!” was hit over the head. And that was that. It’s not that they were such clever propagandists. They had the means to suppress every opposing point of view. You know, it’s not that they hit on some brilliant ways to influence the human soul.

By the way, the Soviets were always convinced that the Americans in particular were much better than they were at spreading their message. But everybody thinks that the other side is the better propagandist. The reason for that is because as we live we find that people see the world differently and how can that be? How can that be that people don’t see what I see? The answer to this is, “Because they have been misled by propaganda!” And everybody always thinks that the other side is better at propaganda than their own side. The Russians were convinced that the Americans were very clever.

David Newstead: How does the Putin regime fit that description?

Peter Kenez: To be sure, the current Russian state has the means to achieve not complete uniformity and not a complete monopoly when expressing their views. But at the same time, what Putin has to say is that “We have been humiliated by the West!” This finds an echo in the current Russian soul. It’s not that they’ve been so clever as propagandists, but what Putin has to sell means something to the Russian people.

What is striking to me is how great a rebellion there is in the modern world against Liberalism and Putin is not standing alone. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the regime in Poland, Erdoğan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel, the close results of elections in Austria. And Trump seems to be a parody of all that. But nonetheless, it’s a parody of something which is an international phenomenon. What I am saying is that Putin is not standing alone. It’s not that there is something called Putinism that is so extraordinary. It’s not attractive mind you. I mean, I’m no fan. But there is so much that is unattractive in much the same way: nativism, suspicion of foreigners, rebellion against Liberalism, craving for identity. Brexit is another example. And Trump fits into this as a parody, but a parody of something that is genuine. I just saw the polls today as I was coming in here and Trump has something to sell. It’s not that he’s so clever as a propagandist. He represents something that reverberates in the soul of man.

David Newstead: Probably not our better angels.

Peter Kenez: We agree.

David Newstead: What’s the historical significance of a former agent of the KGB leading Russia? Recently, a harsh anti-terrorism law was passed there. And, of course, there’s the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party in America. Do these things relate to his background in your view?

Peter Kenez: I think that Putin was an ordinary Soviet man and his work for the KGB matters little.

David Newstead: Because a lot of your research has focused on Southern Russia and Ukraine, have you been paying attention to the current conflict there?

Peter Kenez: Very much so. I just wrote for the new edition new chapters on Putin and there, of course, Crimea comes up. What gave Russians today trouble was not the Ukrainians in Crimea, because there’s a rather small Ukrainian minority in Crimea. But in the Donbass region! The main reason that Putin found it necessary to take Crimea was that he assumed for good reasons that the lease for Sevastopol would not be renewed in 2017, which is the only base for the Russian Navy on the Black Sea. So, it had far reaching consequences.

David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I’m curious. Is the world still feeling the impacts of the Russian Revolution? And if so, how?

Peter Kenez: Every great historical event changes the world. The French Revolution changed the world. Hitler coming to power changed the world. In that sense, the Russian Revolution changed the world. There are continuities and there are abrupt changes. In the case of Russian history, the continuities are striking. But so are the changes followed by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

I do think that the 1917 Revolution was surely one of the great events of the 20th century. I cannot imagine Hitler coming to power without the Russian Revolution. I think that the German’s fear of Marxism and Communism was a major source of Hitler’s strength. This more than anything else enabled Hitler to come to power. And anti-Bolshevism was, of course, a main plank in his ideology. Without the Russian Revolution, that’s difficult to conceive.

This is not to blame Lenin for Hitler, but things are connected. You know, the famous Butterfly Effect of a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia and from this such and such things follow… The Russian Revolution was more than a butterfly. So, I don’t think that anybody would dispute that Nazism and Communism fed on one another, which is not to say that Nazism is like Communism or that there’s nothing to distinguish them. But the great communist appeal in the 1930s and, indeed during the Second World War, was precisely that the Soviet Union was the main bulwark against Nazism.

Let us just say, yes. The Russian Revolution was enormously significant. And even though after seventy years the Soviet Union disappeared, that does not mean it has not changed the world.

David Newstead: You’re well-known for writing several histories of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to ask your view on the legacy of the Whites and their relevance today?

Peter Kenez: Well, the interesting thing is those people who want to highlight the Whites in Russian history also look favorably on Stalin. The logic being, they wanted to make us great, they stood for Russia, and Stalin stood for Russia. So, you can have the White leader Denikin as a hero and Stalin as a hero at the same time. Obviously, what the Whites stood for has no future and they are really a throwback to a previous era anachronistic in the modern world. But inasmuch as they were passionate nationalists, they have an appeal. I mean, Denikin fought a war against Georgia, which was absurd. It was absurd given the fact that he also had to fight the Red Army!

David Newstead: One book I read said that the Reds outnumbered the Whites ten-to-one or something to that effect.

Peter Kenez: The Reds mobilized more people, it is true. They occupied more territory. The White Armies were much better led and much better organized. If a White Army and a Red Army met on the battlefield and they were the same size, the Whites were likely to win. And a large number of Red Army soldiers never ever saw combat.

Obviously, the Reds won. But it was not pre-determined. The Whites had things going for them, but they had more things against them since they lost. They were divided geographically. Their policy concerning the peasants was very stupid. If the peasants occupied land, the Whites took it back and returned to the landlords. Therefore, the peasants liked the Whites less than the liked the Reds and that’s very important. Anti-Semitism was also a great force for the Whites. Hatred of Jews and communists was a very powerful propaganda message for the Whites. And for Hitler, for that matter.

David Newstead: Tying the two together, I’ve heard the White Army loosely described as a proto-fascist movement.

Peter Kenez: Again, I shy away from comparisons. We have such a tendency to describe anything that we don’t like as fascist and that’s not very helpful for understanding the nature of that group. They were royalists. They wanted to bring back the old regime. And that’s not what fascism stood for. I mean, that they were anti-Semitic… Well, most people were anti-Semitic then. That’s not enough to make them fascists. To be sure, there is a continuity. Some of these White leaders ended up in Nazi Germany and contributed to their cause during the Second World War and they had a role to play. But in my mind, it’s not helpful to describe them as fascists. Resisting the modern age? Yes. Anti-Bolsheviks? Of course.

David Newstead: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Peter Kenez: You know, many people have made the point that the 20th century was from 1917 to 1991 in accordance with the existence of the Soviet Union. That is, the 19th century ended with the First World War and a new era started with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States becoming the only superpower. This century included the two world wars, included Nazism, included Communism, included all sorts of exciting moments.

Reads Part Two