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On Ownership

This post is part of the continuing “On” series: others include On Capitalism, On Freedom, On Constitutionalism and On Privilege.

In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gecko – famous for the line that defined the 80s, “greed is good” – relates the secret of his success: “I own stuff.”

By acquiring ownership of appreciating assets, investors buy low and sell high, and real estate is a prime example of this. But as Iʻve come to own property, it has begun to dawn on me that one never really owns anything. There are many ways that a property can be foreclosed on, beyond simply failing to pay the “mortgage” (you actually pay the loan, the mortgage is the contract allowing foreclosure): failure to pay taxes (a tax lien), failure to pay maintenance fees, failure to pay any “mechanic” who does work on your house (a mechanic’s lien). Taxes in some high-value areas can be in the thousands per month, so even if you own your property free and clear, the cost of living there can be prohibitive, as much as a “mortgage.” Further, you donʻt really own property at the most fundamental level. The legal concept of “dominium” means that the sovereign owns all property at a level “beneath” your “ownership” – what you have is actually a bundle of protected rights to the property: the right to use and enjoy, exclude others, etc. (though this last right is abridged in Hawaiʻi due to Native Tenant Rights).

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At a conference on occupation at Cornell last May (my attendance was due to this article I wrote for The Nation), we looked at the term from various perspectives, including the simple occupation of land

As I write this, Hawaiʻi is in crisis. The basic necessity of a roof over oneʻs head is one of the most difficult “commodities” to afford, and hereʻs the thing: many of us are responsible for this state of affairs. Homeowners benefit from raises in housing prices, and have a vested interest in the continuation of this state of constant increase – that is, as individuals. Even this benefit is, in a sense, short term. When you sell your high priced property, you have to buy back in to an inflated market. Also, housing becomes much more expensive for your children, who youʻre trying to help get along in the world. It becomes a form of generational warfare. The situation is so extreme, that even renting is becoming a difficult proposition for many – credit checks, first and last monthʻs rent and/or deposits can make renting something only for the very well-off. (If you had great credit wouldn’t you be buying instead of renting?). According to an article in Civil Beat, thirty percent of renters are spending half of their income or more on rent, making them very vulnerable to shocks, like divorce, death in the family or medical problems.  Add this to the fact that most Americans donʻt have $1000 for emergency expenses, and the situation is dire indeed.

Ironically, some long-term studies show that property, when adjusted for inflation, has not had real increases in a century. Any exceptions to this are bubbles. So are we in the midst of a very protracted bubble? If so, we may want to change our long-term approach to wealth management. I wrote earlier that the wealthy are beginning to thinking about access rather than ownership, an this has begun to trickle toward the middle class and working poor. We need to begin to question the very fundamental assumption that the market is the best mechanism for allocating scarce resources, like real estate. There are some small moves in this direction: Kamehameha Schools (normally a very aggressive developer) is developing its Oʻahu North Shore lands in a way that takes some other factors into account. Priority for a new development in Haleʻiwa will be given to local (that is, North Shore, and often Hawaiian) families who fall into the “gap group” – imagine a teacher married to a fireman. They arenʻt in lucrative positions, but are a stable bet to pay their loan and stay in their house for decades, rather than sell at the first uptick in prices.

Perhaps we should try to return to traditional Hawaiian ways of thinking about ownership. According to a source I cite in my dissertation, Hawaiians had very few possessions. A man, for instance would own only a handful of items related to his trade. So the idea that one could own land was certainly foreign – even chiefs didnʻt own land – they controlled it for a period of time, until the next kālaiʻāina (land division).

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Means and Ends: Process and Results Orientation

With the Naʻi Aupuni convention under way, different styles of negotiating are being brought to light. Professor Williamson Chang wrote a public grievance against one participant who he saw as being obstructionist and belligerent. I heard that the group adopted, and insisted on, Robert’s Rules of Order (I happen know that Pokā Laenui, a participant, is a strong advocate). But the “debates” in the movement, and even more tellingly – their after effects, have often been focused on outcomes at the expense of process.

The very fact that Naʻi Aupuni is meeting at all is the outcome of a results orientation. The US Supreme Court (whose jurisdiction the organizers accept!) enjoined the election pending review. Following the letter of the law, rather than its spirit, Naʻi Aupuni organizers simply sidestepped the ruling and cancelled the election but continued with the convention.

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Which mode Hawaiians should adopt and encourage comes down to one question: Do you believe in democracy? Even though the Hawaiian Kingdom was an emerging democracy, not all Hawaiians in either the independence or Fed Rec movement do. But many more claim to believe in democracy, while being unwilling to tolerate its slowness, and tendency to produce compromises-that is to say, compromised results. The current Republican style of “all out war” – against Obama, Democrats, and it seems, sanity – does not serve as an inspiring example.

But a simple question faces us: do we want our way, or an outcome that everyone involved can live with?

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Interview with Marti Townsend, Executive Director of the Hawaiʻi Sierra Club

Marti Townsend is a graduate of Moanalua High School, Boston University, where she studied political philosophy, and the William S. Richardson School of Law at UH Mānoa. She began her career at Kahea: the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, later became Executive Director of The Outdoor Circle and was named Executive Director of the Hawaiʻi Chapter of the Sierra Club in 2015. I sat with her and Ikaika Hussey over pizza in Kalihi, which is something I do very often, but I wanted to get an interview with her before she became a celebrity – featured on the front page of Midweek – but they beat me to it!

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Now watch as I exert my very limited influence on policy makers (or at least shapers of policy) – I’d been wanting to ask Marti for a while now about the prospects of raising the HI5 redemption amount to 10 cents:

Umi Perkins [UP]: So what about raising the [HI5] redemption to 10 cents [up from 5 cents]?

Marti Townsend [MT]: Sure that’s a great idea. [But] the beverage industry is very powerful in Hawaiʻi. It was a significant battle to get the bottle bill passed, and they are constantly making efforts to dismantle it. There is actually a bill in the legislature to repeal the bottle bill, which is ridiculous. There hasn’t been a recycling program as successful as HI5.

Itʻs just ludicrous to think how much trash would be going into the landfill without it. But as successful as the HI5 program has been there is definitely room for improvement. You canʻt get a HI5 redemption for wine and spirits, which makes no sense. You also canʻt get it for laundry bottles or milk jugs. [It ends up going to] H Power which is not really recycling…

UP: Iʻm just thinking about houseless [“homeless”], for example. Right now [those who may use HI5 redemption as a source of income or revenue] have to get 20 cans to get a dollar. If it was 10 cents, they could carry 30 cans and get three dollars and get a meal, like at McDonalds. [Right now they’d have to carry 60 cans].

MT: I don’t know to what extent people have talked about things like the HI5 as a way to help support the disadvantaged in our community. We really don’t do enough for people who are down and out on their luck.

Ikaika Hussey [IH]: That’s a great idea – you solve two problems…

MT: There are great efficiencies we could get by combining programs. Doing different kinds of recycling. [Like] if we treated everything like the HI5 program.

UP: I always thought the bottle bill and H Power go together because you pull plastic out of the trash supply, [then] if it’s mainly paper…

MT: H Power is horrible. You should do a whole blog thing on Covanta. So Covanta is this company that makes money off of incinerators. It doesn’t matter if they produce electricity – they get paid. And if Honolulu can’t provide [enough trash] then they charge [the city anyway]. It goes against our recycling goals, because H Power wants to have more trash, not less.

UP: Oh, right.

MT: Unless you expand what can be in the [HI 5] program… Why can we not recycle 2 liter bottles? Itʻs the same quality of plastic.

UP: So what are the main agenda items for Sierra Club?

MT: Well, pass the good bills, defeat the bad bills.

UP: What are some of the good bills?

MT: Today we had a very successful hearing on divesting Hawaiʻi’s retirement system from fossil fuels. We’re hoping that we can show that it’s in retirees’ interest, to divest from fossil fuels instead of waiting until they become stranded assets, as a result of all the regulations on emissions.

UP: The [oil] industry is hurting so bad right now… I heard there are more jobs in solar now than in fossil fuels…

MT: Yeah, three times more jobs in solar than in fossil fuel-based energy jobs. It’s so exciting. But you know what’s sad is that it’s forseeable that Hawaiʻi will see a downsizing from HECO’s slow moving to approve new solar projects, the tariff to approve new solar programs. The solar industry was booming, and they kind of have a backlog, so theyʻre relying on that, now post [after] the PUCs decision on net metering and things like that…

UP: So there was a headline that said HECO will triple solar, when it was already scheduled to go up by seven times, so they were actually slowing the growth?

MT: They’re slowing the growth, right. That backlog will start to run out and I think you’ll start seeing solar companies closing because they won’t have enough contracts to keep their staff.

IH: it’s a race to the bottom.

MT: The problem is HECO shouldn’t be increasing the amount of coal they burn from the AES power plant which is in a predominantly brown community, and decreasing the amount of solar out there – it’s just backward

UP: So those companies that might close is separate from those that would already close just due to competition?

IH: So there’s a lot of them and they don’t have any differentiating offerings…

MT: Except for price…

IH: They’re just installers. Their technology is all the same. Their revenues are being squeezed because of the tie-in to the grid.

UP: That’s why Next Era wants to keep everyone on the grid?

MT: They want to keep everyone on big energy projects, whether it’s LNG [liquid natural gas] or big solar arrays, they want to keep control of energy production from beginning to end.

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The Greatest Books of Our Time

The literary critic Harold Bloom said that there are far too many books to read even if thatʻs all one does all day, everyday. So one needs some kind of reading list to work from. Iʻve called this the “greatest books of our time” because I canʻt claim to know the greatest books of all time. (It also evokes the title of the last book on the list, Child of Our Time). Here are my suggestions, allowing that I havenʻt read everything (Iʻd wager neither have you), and with some help from my group on Facebook called Building an Intellectual Culture:

1. The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse

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Hesse is certainly fond of binaries: wild vs. “civilized” (Steppenwolf), but here he is at the height of his powers. My godfather is a former professor of German, and says he got beyond Hesse at a certain point, but I canʻt see how.

2. Herzog, Saul Bellow

This may be dated, in terms of being a period piece for midcentury intellectuals, but his deeper understanding of the human condition earned Bellow the highest literary honors: he was the only person to win three National Book Awards and the Nobel Prize. Iʻm writing about him for Summit magazine – stay tuned.

3. Moby Dick, Herman Melville

E.L. Doctorow said Melville’s book (overlong as it is – he was paid by the word) was a monumental achievement, one not recognized in his own time – and who am I to disagree? Like Jonah and the whale, Melville tells us something sublime about our inner selves. (See Melville in Hawaiʻi).

4. Dubliners, James Joyce

Before he destroyed the English language (see Finneganʻs Wake, or as much as it as you can bear), Joyce mastered it. Ulysses was ranked the best novel of the 20th century by Time; Dubliners is more accessible.


5. King Lear, Shakespeare

Growing old before growing wise is perhaps a fate worse than the end itself. Shakespeare makes the fool the wise one in a way thatʻs surprisingly modern. He also hints at an answer to “the thing itself” – the essence of reality.


6. The Master, Colm Toibin

This pick may surprise people – Toibin was shortlisted, but never won, the Booker Prize. But his treatment of the subtleties of Henry James’s inner life has few rivals. Toibin is finally getting wide acclaim for Brooklyn, an inferior novel.


7. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

Widely credited with being the soul of Star Wars, that comparison cheapens Cambells contribution to elevating mythology (with the help of Carl Jung).


8. 1984, George Orwell

The first book I ever had a physiological reaction to, Orwellʻs dystopia is coming true 30 years after itʻs due date. Think only of the terms that have entered the popular lexicon: double think, thought police, new speak, Big Brother – and their alarming relevance today.


9. Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi, Samuel Kamakau

Number one on my Hawaiian list cracks the top ten here if only for its contribution to narrative style, incorporating genealogy into the tale in a way few book have (except maybe Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude).


10. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

Edgier than his counterpart Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky asks the existential question: why exist at all? His insights into the human psyche are nearly unrivaled.

The Second Team:

Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

Disturbingly cited in several murder attempts, Salinger seemed to capture the American hatred of phoniness – the originator of “keeping it real.”

The Stranger, Albert Camus

Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

I wrote about Lahiri’s novel The Lowland for Summit magazine, in which I quoted Interpreter of Maladies as an exemplar of her style.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

By showing the precise moment of colonization, itʻs become the classic of African and postcolonial literature.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

A kind of inverse of Achebe, Conrad shows the dark heart of the colonial project from the colonizer’s view, with its God-project and even the suffering it entails.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

The inverse of Orwell’s 1984 – the capitalist dystopia shows how pleasure, not just fear, can create a totalitarian state.

The Republic, Plato

The classic of political theory, Plato also hints at esoteric concerns with his parable of the cave.

Steppenwolf, Hesse

Honorable mention:

The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler

If  you wanted to know what the next 20-30 years held in store in 1980, you would have done well to read Toffler’s sequel to Future Shock. Some of his predictions, such as Mass customization – through 3D printing – are still coming true today.

Ishmael, Daniel Quinn

As I said in my post “The Generalists:”

Quinn’s Ishmael was a semi-underground cultural phenomenon. In its essence, it taught a generation of disillusioned seekers that the world isn’t here for us. This seems simple, but the amount of data that Quinn had to sift through in order to reach this conclusion was somewhat staggering.

Damien, Hesse

A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber

Below is Ken Wilber’s Integral map, which shows the four quadrants, or domains in which development (evolution) occurs. It is divided into sections based on the interior (thought, theory, ideas) and exterior (physical objects), individual and collective dimensions:


The Archivist, Martha Cooley

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

Hawaiian Antiquities, David Malo

Renascence, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Anything by Erich Fromm

Anything by Carl Jung

As I said in my post on Jung (which is consistently one of the most read post on the universe):

Jung is best known for his ideas of archetypes, introversion and extroversion, and the collective unconscious. His method led to an entire Jungian school of practice, including the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. In some quarters, his mystical writings on topics like alchemy and synchronicity have made him a kind of Godfather of the new age movement. In Jung, we see the intersection of standard, accepted scientific practices and occult mysticism. Jung maintained his entire career, however, that he was a scientist, not a mystic.

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A page from Jung’s Red Book

Inner Christianity, Richard Smoley

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault

Hawaiian Studies Professor Kalawaia Moore, a member of Building an Intellectual Culture, put Foucault’s Discipline and Punish on his list, and that’s probably the best of Foucault’s books, but Power/Knowledge is a more accessible collection.

Child of our Time, Miguel De Castillo

This one was very influential on me personally rather than a “classic” per se. It shows, as many of these great works do, that simply being with oneʻs family can be all one really needs from life.

Books that are supposed to be on a list like this but arenʻt:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Woody Allen once said of its storied length:

I once took a course on speed reading and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.

What can I say? Thereʻs a great miniseries happening right now, that I’m enjoying immensely.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Itʻs considered the first novel, but does that mean you have to read it? And why is it that the first novel is a satire?

Faust, Goethe

Most likely the only reason this isnʻt on the list is that Iʻm still reading it. Hereʻs a primer from Alain de Botton’s School of Life:

 Middlemarch, George Eliot

Iris Murdoch said this was her favorite novel, and she is one of my favorite novelists of all time. Thereʻs a bad movie version if youʻre interested.

 The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

The Guardian tell usNathaniel Hawthorne’s astounding book is full of intense symbolism and as haunting as anything by Edgar Allan Poe.

For a more mainstream reading list, see The Guardian’s “100 Best Novels Written in English:” 

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Public Schools that Work: Discussion with Amy Perruso, Part 2

I had been thinking about writing on public schools, particularly the ones that just seem to work. This got me thinking of doing a second discussion with Amy Perruso. Originally from Southern California, she is a graduate of USC. She is Social Studies department head at Mililani High School and has a Ph.D. in Political Science. She was recently elected as the Treasurer of the Hawai’i State Teachers Association (HSTA) on a progressive slate that is seen as a kind of upheaval that could lead to radical changes in the direction of the union. She is an award-winning teacher, recipient of awards from Walmart and the Hawai’i Council for Humanities History Teacher of the Year in 2012. Her students perform at a national level in History Day, Mock Trial and We the People, all of which are social studies civics and history competitions. She has taught, among other things, AP US History, Modern Hawaiian History and Participation in Democracy. We had a second chat on what works (and doesnʻt work) for public schools. You can read Part 1 of our discussion here.
UPDATE: Since this interview, Amy Perruso declared her candidacy as a progressive Democrat for the state legislature in District 19.
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Umi Perkins (UP): One thing thatʻs so strange about Hawaiʻi is that you can pay $1 million or much more for a house, and end up in a bad school district. On the “mainland” what youʻre paying for, often, is precisely the schools in the district. In Hawaiʻi, there are good public schools in moderate income communities. From what I can tell, Mililani High School is very successful across a range of academic measures, as well as athletic and scholastic competitions – you appear to be good at everything. Moanalua High School is similar, and both districts, which are moderate to middle income, are solid from elementary through high school. How do you account for this success, such as it is?
Amy Perruso (AP): I think there is a direct correlation between the relative success of the students in Mililani and their socio-economic status of their families. Not only did higher ‘original’ test scores when NCLB first rolled out buffer our Mililani schools from the most draconian measures for a long time, but those buffers (protection from intrusion of privatizing corporations like Edison, imposed mandated curricula, and hyper-control of teachers that pushed the most experienced and professional out of the classroom) continued to allow for exciting, interesting and student-centered approached to learning, focusing on inquiry and interdisciplinary exploration. This began to disappear even for us with Race to the Top. Any signs of academic excellence you now see are either echoes from the past or tightly tied to the corporatist neoliberal agenda.
UP: But that doesnʻt explain the relative mediocrity of other schools in affluent districts…
AP: I see your question. It is interesting and has everything to do with the ways in which public education is funded in Hawaii. We are funded not by property tax but primarily by General Excise Tax (GET). This a direct result of a historical refusal on the part of the socio-economic elite in Hawaii, beginning with plantation owners, to allow property taxes to be used for education of workers. In Hawaii, we have a radically segregated education system (public v. private), divided both along class and ethnic/racial lines. The public schools educate primarily the children of the ordinary worker, while private schools have flourished by appealing to more affluent families, especially in urban areas like Honolulu. Did you know that almost 40% of all school age children in Honolulu attend private school? From my perspective, children are the most important element of a school, and public schools in places like Honolulu are being robbed of a huge chunk of the children whose families are most focused on and supportive of education. We do not struggle with that problem as much in Mililani in part because of geographical distance from private schools.
UP: One more question (and itʻs admittedly a hard one): what do you see as the biggest challenge in Hawaiʻi public education and the best solution to this problem?
AP: I think that the most important problem facing public education is that we have unfortunately adopted of a model of educational reform that has been clearly debunked by international research. We need to move away, as rapidly as possible, from the model instantiated by NCLB, that is, a model based on competitive ranking, standardization, test-based accountability, deprofessionalization of teaching, and privatization. I agree with Pasi Salberg and other international advocates of progressive education who argue for investment in equity (not just excellence), collaboration and teams, time for play and creativity, existing and available innovation, and creating a culture that encourages resilience by celebrating the importance of risk-taking and failure. I think in Hawaii that means we have to do something we have never done before, and that is to fundamentally and systemically challenge the injustice of how young people in Hawaii’s public schools are being treated and educated, as if they don’t deserve the kind of education afforded to private school students.

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Building Government on Flimsy Foundations: Redesigning Constitutional Creation Processes

A very thoughtful piece from Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua.

KE KAUPU HEHI ALE

“Holderness coastal erosion” by Ian Dolphin, used via CC 2.0


Building Government on Flimsy Foundations: Redesigning Constitutional Creation Processes

by Noe Goodyear-Kaʻōpua

Hoʻokahua ka ʻāina, hānau ke kanaka.
Hoʻokahua ke kanaka, hānau ke aliʻi.[1]

The land creates the foundation upon which the people are born.
The people create the foundation upon which the chief is born.

 Ke Kaao Hooniua Puuwai noKa-Miki, 1916

Genuine nation-building must happen from the ground up. Instead, Naʻi Aupuni is attempting to slap a government together while neglecting basic principles of good governance: inclusiveness, transparency, and education. The convention, or ʻAha, that Naʻi Aupuni is convening begins today at the private Royal Hawaiian Golf Course, and both private security and HPD will be there to keep people out. Apparently unaware of the multiple layers of irony, Naʻi Aupuni issued a press release stating that: “In order to foster a good dialogue…

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The Most Underrated Books on Hawaiʻi

Because the Hawaiʻi publishing industry is dominated by a few presses, many books on Hawaiʻi fall through the cracks. Hereʻs a biased and unscientific list of some of them from a self-described “book Hawaiian” – me. This is quite different from the list of the “greatest” Hawaiian books, as many are written by non-Hawaiians and published outside of Hawaiʻi.

Moolelo no Kamehameha, Joseph Poepoe

As I said previously: So apparently Desha plagiarized (if such a concept exists in Hawaiian thought) from Poepoe, whose work is yet to appear in published form. It is still a valuable supplement to Kamakauʻs account of Kamehamehaʻs conquests. The Kamehameha Schools Press English translation is called Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekūhaupiʻo.

Turning Tide: The Ebb and Flow of Hawaiian Nationality, Niklaus Schweitzer

This is one of the most underrated, and hard-to-find gems on Hawaiian history and contemporary politics. Mainly because it was published in Switzerland, it didnʻt get anything like the circulation it deserved.

Schweitzer writes what many think, or wish they had thought: about the state of suspension that the Hawaiian Kingdom finds itself in. I still quote one of his phrases in my writing: “The Hawaiian movement is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary” – that is, it is building the infrastructure of a nation within the current paradigm, rather than trying to topple it.

Inventing Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Yuri Mykkannen

Mykkannen was, like me, a PhD student in Political Science at UH Mānoa. Unlike me, he was a complete outsider, who quietly dug through archival documents, summarizing what seems like thousands of pages, and synthesizing them into some of the more cogent thoughts on the Kingdomʻs legal and intellectual infrastructure in the nineteenth century.

No ke Kalaiaina, William Richards

This is not exactly underrated among scholars, but I have yet to find a complete copy in the UH system. This was more than a translation of Francis Wayland’s Elements of Political Economy; it was a conceptual translation of the system of capitalism for the chiefs in the 1830s.

Change we Must, Nana Veary

One of the most unlikely books to appear in print, Veary, a full-blooded Hawaiian who looks like my grandmother, shows the insights of, and connections between Hawaiian culture and Zen Buddhism. This unusual synthesis of East and Pacific offers an alternative to Christian syncretic efforts.

The Water of Life: a Jungian Journey through Hawaiian Myth, Rita Knipe

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Knipe compares two of the traditions Iʻm most interested in: Hawaiian culture and the  psychological work of Carl Jung. (My post on Jung is consistently one of the most read on the umiverse). Like Joseph Campbell, Jung showed the deeper psychic meanings of mythologies – and psyche, everyone seems to have forgotten, means soul.

 Pacific Gibraltar, William Morgan

Makana Chai reviewed the book, saying:

Although there are problems with the book, beginning with the title, sub-title, and cover, the strength of this book is as a compendium of primary source documents particularly on the movements of the USS Boston and its troops, the correspondence of U. S. minister John Stevens, the Blount and Morgan reports, and the Congressional debates about annexation. Written by a professor at the U. S. Marine War College, this book changed my understanding of history.

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