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Books on the Blend bookshelf

Here are a couple of books that are going up on the House Blend shelf. I’m in the midst of both.

The first is a wonderful book Pride and Politics: The Tale of a Big Story in a Small Town by Erin Quinn (Mix Multimedia/Hudson House, $17.95, paperback). Quinn, an award-winning reporter for the New Paltz Times and Woodstock Times, chronicles the historic same-sex marriage blitz in New Paltz, NY, led by the city’s young Mayor Jason West.

While it was big news in February 2004 when West married 24 gay and lesbian couples, this milestone in gay rights was overshadowed in by Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco marriages, which occurred around the same time. I’m glad Quinn, a native of the area, has given new life and detail to the events that occurred in New Paltz. From the book description:

Like a microcosm for the national debate that raged during the political campaigns in the fall of 2004, New Paltz was often divided by those who supported same-sex marriage and those who did not. Quinn recounts the national media frenzy that ensued, and details how New Paltz was a magnet for all sides of the American political spectrum. From visits by Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, Jr. and Ralph Nader to MTV and Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel, New Paltz was in the cross-hairs of those with vested interests in the civil rights debate.

With candor, compassion and humor, Quinn recounts the events as rumors first began to surface that the young Green Party mayor would conduct same-sex marriages and the touching moment when Billiam van Roestenberg and retired Army Major Jeffrey McGowan became the first gay couple married in New Paltz. She meticulously describes the legal actions, motions and procedures that lead the court to issue restraining orders prohibiting the mayor from performing same-sex marriages and the controversial charges the Ulster County district attorney leveled against West for violating New York State’s Domestic Relations Law. Quinn passionately relates the solidarity of the New Paltz community when it was invaded by protesting Christians on Palm Sunday and when the hope for a better America almost faded away with the November 2004 election results.

Quinn shares an intimate portrait of her town, its people and the diverse range of opinions and emotions surrounding the weddings. By examining the complex issue through the eyes of her neighbors, friends, collegues and her own family, Quinn provides the reader with a glimpse into the heart of the same-sex marriage issue and why it polarized the nation.

Also noteworthy is that Quinn, Jason West (Dare to Hope: Saving American Democracy) and Jeffrey McGowan (author of Major Conflict: One Gay Man’s Life in the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Military) are all New Paltz authors and held a panel discussion, “Family Values for New Paltz and the Nation” last week in at SUNY-New Paltz to discuss their common threads of their works — why gay marriage, Green politics, and DADT and the military have had an impact on social and political discourse on “family values” in America. I certainly would have loved to hear that talk.


Next is The UN Gang: A Memoir of Incompetence, Corruption, Espionage, Anti-Semitism and Islamic Extremism at the UN Secretariat (Doubleday, $15.98, hardcover), by Pedro Sanjuan.

Sanjuan, as you can tell from the title, is no fan of the UN. However, he speaks from his personal, behind-the-scenes experience there when he was appointed in 1983 by Vice President Bush as director of political affairs at the Secretariat, to monitor Soviet espionage activities. For UN-bashers, this is an cornucopia of anecdotes ranging from basic inefficiencies, to ties to organized crime, but overall I found it an entertaining read. How can you not find the absurdity of incompetence and corruption interesting — after all, I blog about that kind of stuff all the time…

On the day Pedro Sanjuan moved into his new office at the UN Secretariat in 1984, he had the foresight to unscrew his telephone receiver. Out fell a little packet of high-grade cocaine. When he confronted the undersecretary to the chief Soviet diplomat-really a KGB colonel and the top Russian spy-the agent laughed good-naturedly and congratulated him on passing the test.

…Sanjuan soon discovered that incompetence, corruption, anti-Semitism, and outright criminality were rife throughout the UN Secretariat. Among the shady activities that he personally observed or documented were rigged bidding for major service contracts; drug transactions conducted in the UN’s parking garage; sale of shotguns and beryllium directly out of the UN building; ties to global organized crime figures; use of UN Information Centers and other agencies to disseminate anti-US and pro-PLO propaganda; systematic theft and abuse of UN facilities and budgets in East Africa; graft and corruption in Vienna; widespread sexual harrassment; use of the UN employee’s lounge to plan anti-Israel and anti-US activities by Muslim delegates; open celebration of 9/11 by said delegates in the halls of the UN; and inexplicable tolerance of all of the above on the part of the secretary general and the US government.

If you Google this title, you’ll find reviews by right-leaning organizations that love this book because it clearly paints a horrible picture of the UN as Sanjuan experienced it. The book, even if you think the UN is a worthwhile, necessary entity, is quite effective in presenting the argument that the rampant corruption and disorganization hampers the UN from being effective on many levels. Whether the book reflects the whole truth is irrelevant; it’s one man’s experience.

I’m not sure that international politics can ever be neat and tidy (or “clean”) anyway, given the level of religious/ethnic/racial/economic conflict around the world, so reading these stories just don’t shock me, I guess. If you throw a bunch of diplomats and bureaucrats from around the world into one building, I would imagine it would look like organized chaos. Maybe I’m the one that’s too cynical. The only thing that is odd is that there isn’t more discussion or rebuttal regarding the charges leveled by Sanjuan. Then again, given the entrenched bureaucracy in the UN, I doubt any effort to respond, let alone change, would be slow in coming.

Other reviews:
* Daniel Drezner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago who has also served as an unpaid foreign policy advisor for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, doesn’t think much of the book.

Remember when Robert Reich published his memoir Locked in the Cabinet, and then Jonathan Rauch discovered that Reich had either made up or exaggerated certain events and quotes? Reich’s defense was that this was how he viewed the events at the time. The UN Gang suffers from the same defect.

Let’s put it this way — if I was a lawyer trying to indict the UN, there is no way in hell I would call Sanjuan as a reliable witness. If you think I’m exaggerating, either buy the book or check out Sanjuan’s web site (the quote from the review comes from this page) and draw your own psychological profile about Sanjuan’s world view.

* The Washington Times was, not surprisingly, quite favorable in its assessment of Sanjuan’s book. The review raises a point that I agree with, given that the book levels some serious accusations about corruption, but doesn’t outline enough strong recommendations for change.

Alas, Mr. Sanjuan devotes only a few pages to reforms needed to put the U.N. Secretariat on a track of transparency and efficiency. He outlines 10 such reforms for us. All are sensible; however, he gives us neither a prescription for achieving them, nor does he predict the odds of success (perhaps slim, given the vested interest of many members in the status quo).

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding