Good Reads: From women senators, to Appalachia’s woes, to a shadow war

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes a look at the women Senators who reach across the bipartisan divide, lessons to be learned from Nelson Mandela's human failings and personal greatness, Appalachia's drug problem, Journalist's waning public favor, and America's war against Al Qaeda in the Philippines.

Mike Theiler/Reuters/File
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland speaks on behalf of her colleagues.

Women in the Senate

Do women make better US senators than men? Jill Lawrence looks at that question, and the women of the Senate, in The National Journal. The 20 women of the Senate – 16 Democrats and four Republicans – may not always agree, but in an era of polarization, they demonstrate a remarkable commitment to collegiality. Nearly all say they bring collaborative problem-solving skills to the Senate. 

As Ms. Lawrence chronicles, “there is plenty of evidence, in the form of deals made and bills passed, that women know how to get things done” in the Senate – by leveraging their caucus and through bipartisan, bicameral consensus-building. Now, after decades of hard-fought gains by pioneering women senators, traditional “women’s issues” (such as health and education) are mainstream, making up roughly a third of the Senate docket. And women senators lead on key committees – budget, intelligence, and defense. 

Lawrence writes that “there are too few [women in the Senate], and their arrival on the scene has been too recent, to draw any conclusions” as to whether they are more effective than their male colleagues. But their personal connections and the bills they champion point to a needed cooperation missing in Congress.

Mandela, the patriarch

In a commentary in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, Colleen Lowe Morna, founding chief executive of the country’s Commission on Gender Equality under Nelson Mandela, writes, “If we are to learn from Mandela, we need to acknowledge that his gender legacy is chequered.” 

Mr. Mandela’s journey from “old-school patriarch to a modern husband in his third marriage” – teaches about the evolution of gender equality as well as his humble commitment to personal growth. The same holds lessons for societal progress now – and for Mandela’s feuding family, struggling with what Ms. Morna sees as the consequences of patriarchy.

Among them: Mandela named his eldest grandson heir to his tribal legacy, bypassing his oldest daughter. Morna questions “whether this legacy would not have been safer in the hands of an older daughter than in those of an ill-prepared, younger grandson” who has fueled family controversy. But Morna is certain that as a good leader, Mandela “would ask us to learn from his greatness and from his human failings.”

Telling Appalachia’s story

Brooklyn film director Sean Dunne turned a three-week chronicle of drug addiction in Appalachia into a harrowing and award-winning documentary. But the backlash from residents of Oceana, W.Va., (dubbed Oxyana for the widespread abuse of the prescription painkiller Oxycontin) has called into question the journalistic veracity of the film and the logic of Mr. Dunne’s evasive response to those who question the same. But as Alec MacGillis explores in The New Republic, the issue involves more than just a cultural clash of hipsters versus hillbillies.

Residents have taken issue with Dunne’s portrayal of Oceana as “a hellscape” where, in the words of one film subject, “Ain’t nothing but junkies and hookers hanging out on the streets.” But the film has also evoked “resolute self-scrutiny” of the region’s drug problem. Frustrated residents say the addiction pandemic in Appalachia gets little attention and few resources. Mr. MacGillis wonders if documentary filmmakers should tell that broader story.

Journalists lose favor

The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life has released its latest poll on which occupations Americans perceive as contributing to society the most. Not surprisingly, the military continues to be held in high regard (78 percent say the armed services contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being). Teachers rank second on the list of 10 professions. And lawyers rank at the bottom, close behind business executives – ironically the only group whose percentage has improved since the 2009 survey. 

Americans continue to have a “middling” view of clergy (just 37 percent of Americans feel they make a big contribution to society, and still only 52 percent among regular churchgoers). But perhaps most notable, since 2009, journalists have dropped the most in public esteem, particularly among women.

The shadow war you don’t know about

War correspondent David Axe has posted an excerpt of his forthcoming book “Shadow Wars” at – a long-form, social blogging platform. The post looks at America’s little-known “shadow war” fighting Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels in the northern jungles of the Philippines from 2001 to 2012.

All told, 600 US military and civilian personnel worked with the Filipino military over the past decade, officially only as advisers, unofficially waging a war, complete with drones and missiles (according to reports that the military denied). In February 2012, with a tip from an informant, the United States killed several key Al Qaeda leaders with an airstrike. 

Philippine President Benigno Aquino saw an opportunity to extend a hand to the rebels. Perhaps foreseeing further doom, the rebels cut their alliance with Al Qaeda and joined in peace talks. “With the signing of the peace deal,” Mr. Axe explains, “America could tentatively claim victory in its Philippines shadow war.” 

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