Reading List: September 2021

The Supreme Court, and an Indonesian choose-your-adventure. I’ve started reading a book on the Russian Navy which will appear next month.

Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas (Bruce Murphy, 2003)

This Supreme Court biography opens with a quote (“William O. Douglas was the oddest duck to ever serve on the United States Supreme Court”) and an anecdote which is so biopic-worthy I won’t spoil it here. Why did I seek out this book? I heard about Douglas through experimental leftist opinions (asserting the environment itself has standing to sue in court) and making enemies over his romantic adventures. At 500 pages plus references, this book is sure to reveal more detail.
One thing which helped ground the timeline for me was that Douglas’s last years overlapped with Justice Rehnquist; Wikipedia says they bonded over a shared iconoclasm.

We start with a chapter about Douglas’s parents and home life, leading up to the loss of his father at 6 years old. Both sides of his family had an unusual history of illness, and also a nomadic / flighty / noncommittal nature which didn’t suit the 1890s frontier (as a nomad I have my own theories about this). The father was a minister rotating between churches, later moving his family to California (where baby William was left in the care of confused neighbors) and ultimately Yakima, Washington.

We follow Douglas through odd jobs in college, the debate team, influenza on campus, marriage, and a short career as an English teacher. After tending a sheep train out to Chicago to pay his travel to law school at Columbia, Douglas discovered he could embellish or hide his history out West. The later persona was said, according to classmates, to be ‘someone none of us recognized’. There was controversy around this book’s publication in 2003: Murphy wrote that Douglas’s portrait in uniform and lifelong claims to be a veteran were an exaggeration of a campus training squad similar to ROTC.
On Wikipedia, I saw that a reporter at the Washington Post investigated, and Douglas was eligible to be called for active duty, so the military and Arlington Cemetery did consider him to have been a Private.

Douglas was lucky to rise up as a corporate law professor during the disruptive rise of ‘legal realism’ and a wave of Depression-era bankruptcies. During a bid to draw him to the University of Chicago, Douglas was already called “the most outstanding law professor in the nation”. He lobbied and organized his studies around finding a role in the new SEC, and then became a standout candidate for a commissioner role. As one of the most publicly visible and effective members of the New Deal reformers, he became a close friend of FDR. During the court-packing debacle, he avoided comment while encouraging Yale’s law school to voice support. Some behind-the-scenes maneuvering and targeted SEC press helped land Douglas as FDR’s fourth appointment to the Supreme Court, with a quick confirmation.

Somehow the luck and networking seemed to taper off here. It’s unclear whether it was due to Douglas being too prickly for party politics, or the Supreme Court seeming like a good enough endpoint. FDR floated the idea of appointing Douglas to a wartime position or as his 1944 running mate (expected to replace him), but never followed through, leaving Douglas bitter at the political machine. Then he spurned Truman’s offers of Secretary of the Interior or Vice President, thinking he might have a chance at replacing Truman or becoming President after. This was a time of particularly hostile debate at the Court (even among FDR’s appointees) and Douglas was no peacemaker — the most bizarre examples being a fake opinion to deceive a clerk who was spying on him, and drafting a letter (never sent) to withdraw from their energetically debated judicial conferences “out of concern for [Frankfurter’s] health”.

The author unflinchingly brings up Douglas’s darker personal life: stretching the truth, insider trading, changing sides to avoid a rival justice, berating law clerks, and writing many travel books to balance his financial troubles. Anyone following the court knew of Douglas’s multiple marriages, but Murphy went beyond this to interview children and stepchildren for especially cutting commentary and anecdotes [note that Douglas’s fourth wife did a public appearance in 2016].

In Court analyses, Douglas is characterized as defending personal freedoms. He set the arguments for a right to privacy (“right to be let alone”) and a right to work (against employers requiring anti-communist loyalty oaths). Some more famous dissenting actions were staying the Rosenbergs’ executions, taking down contraception laws due to freedom of association in marriages, and warning about DDT (he was friends with Rachel Carson and would later help with Silent Spring). Yet he failed to defend the Japanese against internment (arguing only that individuals should be allowed to prove their loyalty).

The Wandering (Intan Paramaditha, 2020)

A year ago I watched Paramaditha’s talk at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and was fascinated by the concept of a choose-your-adventure travel book, translated from Bahasa Indonesia. You can listen to an interview with the author.
A few times I picked up my copy, but now finally read through a few paths, traveling from Jakarta to New York to Berlin and Amsterdam, into weddings and encounters with the devil. The chapter-length sections between choices makes for good travel reading.

The deeper meanings of “The Wandering” may have escaped me — there were some hints that it was about the differences between ‘expats’ and ‘immigrants’ based on passports, some points on Indonesian history and class consciousness, or relationships between people who you meet on the road (maybe based on the author’s life, given that the story starts in 2007?) but it would be tough to say, all roads lead to one conclusion, or that one happy path which I found must have been the right one.

Related to Previous Reads

After reading about the Benin Bronzes and the Smithsonian, I discovered the Museums and Race conference / channel through their video on union organization, and watched a few other videos about co-creation and funding. Would recommend.

The recent influx of Afghan refugees reminded me of Unsettled, the story of Cambodian refugees in the Bronx. Refugees can be incredible people and also harmed by a model minority / refugee exceptionalism view. Even skilled refugees can face challenges with credentials and language skills in their new lives in America.
You can donate needed items to the refugee program through the El Paso Armed Services YMCA Amazon Wishlist. When you get to the checkout, select the YMCA shipping address.