Wednesday, June 17. 2015
I figure enough books of possible interest come out each month to run a little feature noting 40 of them, but for a variety of reasons I've been lax and haven't run one of these since . . . July 3, 2014, so this is way late. I've tried at least to compensate by selecting the most obviously important books (at least as regards politics). I currently have 97 more grafs in the scratch file, and I still have a dozen or more pages of notes I took in bookstores on my NJ trip last fall. Maybe I'll manage to get a second batch together before my big trip northwest starts on Friday. Meanwhile, here's my top 40. Cover illustrations for those I've actually read in the meantime. (I also have, but haven't read yet, Alexander Cockburn, Thomas Geoghegan, Rick Perlstein, Joseph E Stiglitz's The Great Divide, and Astra Taylor.)
Christian G Appy: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015, Viking): In the 1950s we were brought up to believe that America was a force for good in the world. The Vietnam War destroyed that self-conception -- at least it did for me and for many of my generation. Appy's brief history reminds us of how dirty the war got -- he starts with a story of GIs playing "gook hockey" (using Jeeps to run down Vietnamese children) -- and reminds us how even LJB but especially Nixon and Kissinger extended the war beyond any hope of success, just to show the world their resolve, to demonstrate how much punishment we could inflict even in defeat. The book goes on to look at how the postwar memory has been sanitized, not least the propagation of a myth that the war was lost not by our brave soldiers but by the cowardly antiwar movement -- America's own Dolchstosslegende (as with Germany's, a license to resume further wars). Worse than defeat, America seems to have learned nothing from Vietnam. With this book, at least, you might learn something. Appy previously wrote Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides (2004), an oral history.
Karen Armstrong: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014, Knopf): One of the better writers on the history of religion, a Christian but not limited thereby. Her thesis in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2007) was that the religions that emerged in the first millennium BCE (as well as Greek rationalism) were developed primarily to limit and control violence, so it isn't surprising that she argues that wars today are not driven primarily by religion. I see the point, and recognize that religion provides a framework that supports many pacifists, but I doubt that would be my conclusion.
Anthony B Atkinson: Inequality: What Can Be Done? (2015, Harvard University Press): Economist, published his first paper on the subject back in 1970 when the problem seemed less dire, not that there was nothing to study then. Most likely an important book on the subject, not least for a lifetime's thought into how to overcome it.
Kai Bird: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (2014, Crown): Ames was a CIA operative in Beirut, killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy there. He evidently had uncommonly good contacts with Arab political figures as well as the ear of Americans up to president Ronald Reagan, which leaves Bird thinking that had Ames lived longer he might have nudged US policy in the Middle East a bit out of its horrible rut. Bird's memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis shows his own distinctive and idiosyncratic sense of the region.
Steven Brill: America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System (2015, Random House): First significant book on the political struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare). As you know, Obama tried to come up with a solution that would be non-controversial -- at least in the sense that all the interested business groups could buy in, with the hope that the Republicans would recognize the bill as kindred to their own proposals. None of that worked: the result was a system that no one loved or much cared for, a set of expensive compromises that solved some problems and created many more. The book is reportedly good on explaining the underlying problems as well as the backroom deals, but less critical about the act's shortcomings.
Wendy Brown: Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (2015, Zone Books Ner Futures): I read Philip Mirowski's Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste in search of an explanation of why the 2008 crash didn't lead to any serious rethinking of what is wrong with conventional economic thought (aka neoliberalism), but that long book didn't get much deeper than pointing out the mental rut no one dared escape. This looks to explain that logic and its grip.
Alexander Cockburn: A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture (2013; paperback, 2014, Verso): A journal of sorts, from 1995 to his death in 2012, offers a sharp (and often shrill) rewind of history, but reading samples here one finds much broader range than his fondness for slagging the Clintons.
Andrew Cockburn: Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2015, Henry Holt): This is the Cockburn brother who previously wrote Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, as opposed to Patrick (writes mostly about Iraq) and Alexander (until his death one of the new left's most prolific essayists). This is about the US drone program, which makes it possible for the US to surgically assassinate its enemies with unprecedented precision. Of course, the reality is a bit messier than the theory, but the logic of the process is more dangerous. Drone killing is remote, unilateral, shrouded in secrecy. Once a nation decides it can kill its way to victory, that mentality becomes locked in and is impossible to change: after all, victory is only a few notches down your kill list, and you never have to do anything compromising, like negotiating with the real people you've decided are your enemies. Other recent drone books: William M Arkin: Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (2015, Little Brown); Peter L Bergen/Daniel Rothenberg, eds: Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy (paperback, 2014, Cambridge University Press); Marjorie Cohn, ed: Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues (paperback, 2014, Olive Branch Press); Lloyd C Gardner: Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare (2013, New Press); Richard Whittle: Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution (2014, Henry Holt); Chris Woods: Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars (2015, Oxford University Press).
Patrick Cockburn: The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (paperback, 2015, Verso): Probably a revised reprint of last year's The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (paperback, 2014, O/R Books). Cockburn has been one of the most reliable reporters on Iraq, so is probably the first book one should look if you want to learn more about ISIS than the standard news media propaganda. He was close to the first out with a book, but there is lots of competition now, many written to drum up support for US entry in the war. Competing books include (all 2015 except as noted, paperback = pb): Carter Andress: Victory Undone: The Defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Its Resurrection as ISIS (2014, Regnery); Charles H Dyer/Mark Tobey: The ISIS Crisis: What You Really Need to Know (pb, Moody); Benjamin Hall: Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army (Center Street); Loretta Napoleoni: The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State (ISIS) and the Redrawing of the Middle East (pb, 2014, Seven Stories Press); Jay Sekulow: Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can't Ignore (pb, 2014, Howard Books); Andrew Sharp: The Rise of ISIS: The West's New Crusade (pb, 2014, Create Space); Jessica Stern/JM Berger: Isis: The State of Terror (Ecco). Of these, only Stern's book is particularly substantial -- she was on Bill Clinton's NSC and wrote the book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (2004), so she's built her career on the War on Terror, while co-author Berger wrote Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (2011). Napoleoni is the only leftist in the bunch. She writes about global capitalism as well as about terrorism, and has close to a dozen books: one intriguing title is Maonomics: Why Chinese Communists Make Better Capitalists Than We Do (2012).
David S Cohen/Krysten Connon: Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism (2015, Oxford University Press): The anti-abortion movement is unusual (although not unprecedented) in the violence its supporters have directed against its supposed enemies -- chiefly doctors and health care professionals. By violence I don't just mean the occasional murder or threat, but the whole range of harrassment directed against providers and clients.
Juan Cole: The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (2014, Simon & Schuster): A view of the Arab Spring, at least before it went sour, when it first seemed like an opening for secular progressives. Cole is an expert on Iraq's Shiites, and has written one of the most informative blogs on the Middle East for more than a decade.
Angus Deaton: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (2013, Princeton University Press): The "escape" seems to have been from the hardships that plagued life only a few centuries ago in "the developed world," more recently and sometimes still elsewhere. Deaton lists out such progress but also finds many setbacks -- I suspect that the persistance of inequality has much to do with these.
William Deresiewicz: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014; paperback, 2015, Free Press): Yale professor, sees America's top universities "turning young people into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their resumes and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life's most important questions." How old-fashioned not to think that careerism isn't the point of college? After all, exactly that education has long been held up as the answer to inequality -- if not for everyone, at least for the select few who give the system a gloss of meritocracy. Jane Jacobs, in Dark Ages Ahead, argued one of the key signs was "credentialism" -- an aspect of this same problem. Of course, that's a more general problem. This book seems to focus on elite universities, hence on future elites. That they're dumbing down is interesting, but only part of the problem.
G William Domhoff: The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy: Corporate Dominance From the Great Depression to the Great Recession (paperback, 2013, Paradigm): Sociologist, wrote one of the classic books on the distribution of wealth in America, Who Rules America? The Triumph of the Corporate Rich (1967, latest revision 2013). He shows how even during periods when liberals were able to reduce inequality (roughly 1933-69) business remained under the firm control of an upper class that never compromise their own power and were always poised to launch the conservative counterrevolution of the 1980s (once they lost their fear of revolution). Domhoff also wrote Class and Power in the New Deal: Corporate Moderates, Southern Democrats, and the Liberal-Labor Coalition (paperback, 2011, Stanford University Press).
Greg J Duncan/Richard I Murnane: Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education (paperback, 2014, Harvard Education Press): It's long been felt that equal opportunity is more important than equal outcomes, and that the key to equal opportunity lies in improving the public schools system. However, as the economy becomes ever more inequal, the public schools have an ever harder time compensating on the opportunity front, and it isn't clear to me that they're even getting the chance. I don't know how the authors proposed to overcome this but it looks to me like they're trying to solve the symptom rather than the cause: only by reversing the overall economic picture can you start to get some traction from reforming the schools. Duncan/Murnane previously edited: Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances (paperback, 2011, Russell Sage Foundation).
Stephen Emmott: Ten Billion (paperback, 2013, Vintage): The number is the projected near future population, raising the question of how such a population can be supported by available resources and technology -- basically an updated broadside along the lines of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. Ehrlich's book made short-term predictions of doom that didn't come true, so it's become much easier to deny the concern, but there can be no infinite trendlines, at least in a finite world: sooner or later something has to break. On the same subject: Danny Dorling: Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It (paperback, 2013, Constable). On Ehrlich, see Paul Sabin: The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth's Future (2013, Yale University Press).
Tom Engelhardt: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Probably just a collection of TomDispatch posts, worth tracking although a bit more effort into turning them into a current book would be nice. The focus on the so-called intelligence agencies is more relevant than ever as they seem to be driving US military intervention around the world -- the recent discovery and bombardment of the Khorasan group in Syria is a prime example. Then there is the broader issue of how those agencies manage to suck up so much money for doing mischief that has so little value to the American people. Secrecy is a big part of their recipe for success, so any exposure is welcome.
Steve Fraser: The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015, Little Brown): Throughout much of US history most Americans were quick to blame the rich for the inequities all around us, but in recent years that has changed -- giving the rich a free pass, which they have used to great political advantage.
James K Galbraith: The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014, Simon & Schuster): Important book, argues that the economic growth of much of the 20th century was inflated by a tendency to replace household work (not counted as GDP) with commercial outsourcing (counted as GDP), a trend that more recently has been if anything reversed. What this means is that economic growth will be harder to achieve in the future, so policies which depend on growth to work (like slowing down the increase of inequality) will be harder to achieve or fail completely. I should say this again: I thought Galbraith's The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (2008) was the best political book of the last decade.
Thomas Geoghegan: Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press): Labor lawyer, first book was a fine memoir -- Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back (1991) -- then a few books more narrowly on law before he wrote an eye-opening book on the German welfare state, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? (2011). This seems to be more of a political manifesto, and while I'm skeptical that unions are going to save us, I'm not going to reject any of his arguments out of hand. Next up on my reading table.
Marie Gottschalk: Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (2014, Princeton University Press): This so-called "bastion of freedom" is the world's largest jailer, its justice system trapped in a spiral where the only fixes for past mistakes it can conceive of are more mistakes of the same sort. One blurb: "sheds new light on the relationship between criminal justice and the ideological shape, material conditions, and institutional structure of the broader political economy." Looks like an important book.
David Graeber: The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015, Melville House): Radical anthropologist, best known for Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), but more recently wrote The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013) based on his involvement with Occupy Wall Street. The focus here is on bureaucracy, how it actually works, and how that affects our perceptions of how the world works (hint: not very well).
Johann Hari: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015, Bloomsbury USA): Wide-ranging history of the world's futile efforts to ban drug use, starting with the first prohibition one hundred years ago and leading up to at least one country that sensibly legalized the whole gamut. Lessons: "Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. And the drug war has very different motives to the ones we have seen on our TV screens for so long."
Chris Hedges: Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015, Nation Books): Extended screed on the many wrongs of the American state, and a call for resistance, rebellion, revolution. Hedges is such a skilled journalist he has little trouble filling out the critique and making it seem reasonable. Harder to gauge as an action manual, but that's always the hard part.
David Cay Johnston, ed: Divided: The Perls of Our Growing Inequality (2014, New Press): Various papers, with overviews by Barrack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Adam Smith, and more topical papers, most pretty basic -- focusing perhaps more on the fallout at the bottom of the scale rather than the real action at the top.
Jonathan M Katz: The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (2013; paperback, 2014, Palgrave Macmillan): The only American news correspondent based in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake, details the international relief effort ($16.3 billion in pledges) and how little it relieved.
Harvey J Kaye: The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (2014, Simon & Schuster): Everyone knows that the US fought WWII for freedom, but hardly anyone knows about FDR's inspiring definition of what freedom means, probably because two of those four freedoms got junked almost immediately in America's postwar fight to oppose communism and (under more favorable terms to the US) to restore imperialism. I read Cass R Sunstein, who's hardly my idea of a visionary political thinker, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution -- and Why We Need It more Than Ever (2004), so I have an idea what Kaye is pushing for. I always saw FDR as a man of the upper class, whose aim was always to save capitalism from its own contradictions. But one thing all the Calvin Coolidge worship in the Republican Party has done is to make FDR relevant -- indeed, necessary -- again. These days, those four freedoms look like a pretty good deal.
Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014, Simon & Schuster): Canadian political writer, has written a series of bestselling books which seem to sum up the left's thinking about the rot of capitalism -- No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2000) on globalization, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) factoring in the terrorism wars, and now this one taking notice of climate change.
Jeff Madrick: Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged the World (2014, Knopf): Author of one of the best historical context books on the recent crash -- Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (2011, Knopf) -- broadens his critique to include a number of key ideas in economics. The ideas range from established zombies to key insights that are often misunderstood and misapplied (like Adam Smith's "invisible hand"). Some economists, like Alan Blinder, were not amused.
John Micklethwait/Adrian Wooldridge: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (2014, Penguin): Journalists for The Economist, they've written upbeat books on globalization (A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization), conservatism (The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, and fundamentalism (God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World). Their new riff is that the future belongs to the elites that are most effectively to usurp the power of the state. In this, they're more impressed by Singapore and China than the US, where the rich are trying to destroy democracy lest it ever yield to the masses.
Sendhil Mullainathan/Eldar Shafir: Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013, Times Books): A piece on behavioral economics, answering much with little: "scarcity creates a similar psychology for everyone struggling to manage with less than they need." Of course, without scarcity there would be no economics, which is a big part of the reason businesses and economists work so hard to enforce scarcity. Also why so much changes when you imagine a transition to post-scarcity conditions. I doubt the authors will go there, but they should give you lots of reasons why you should.
Rick Perlstein: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014, Simon & Schuster): Third huge volume in the author's history of the right-wing in America, following Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Not a flashy period for the rise of the US right, but unless you believe Reagan was some sort of deus ex machina, the shift found some kind of traction in the half-decade's turmoil.
Robert D Putnam: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015, Simon & Schuster): Sociologist, most famous for his study of the breakdown in social bonds in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). He returns to his lower middle class home town here, tracks down what happened to his high school class, and finds that fate has been tough, with fewer and fewer Americans enjoying the opportunity for upward mobility. This won't come as a surprise to anyone who can unpack statistics, but the case examples may make an impression where numbers numb.
James Risen: Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (2014, Houghton Mifflin): "War corrupts. Endless war corrupts absolutely." Risen has broken several major stories about that corruption, and adds a few more here. I'm not sure it rises to the level of synthesis of the above quote, but it should contribute to one.
Shira Robinson: Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel's Liberal Settler State (paperback, 2013, Stanford University Press): After 700,000 Palestinians fled the war zone in what became Israel, the remainder (now 15% of Israel's population) were offered a peculiar form of citizenship ("how to bind indigenous Arab voters to the state while denying them access to its resources"), setting up a tension that continues to the present day. This looks to be one of the few books to address this topic.
Joseph E Stiglitz/Bruce C Greenwald: Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress (2014, Columbia University Press): Lectures from a series named for Kenneth J. Arrow, focusing on the role of learning throughout the economy and society, but "lectures" sells this short -- this is a substantial book, well over 500 pages, and likely an important one (not least given how little regard the right has for learning).
Joseph E Stiglitz: The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (2015, WW Norton): Another volume on inequality, following the author's The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012). This is probably a second choice in that it's built from essays written over several years, but Stiglitz is a brilliant economist and the problem is so huge and sweeping you have to come at it from many angles.
Astra Taylor: The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (2014, Metropolitan Books): Looks like this creates a strawman argument about what a democratic marvel the internet is then knocks it down showing how "a handful of giants" have cornered it and usurped it for their own nefarious ends. Then she tries to rescue the strawman from the giants. She has made documentary films before, including one on Slavoj Zizek and one she converted into the book, Examined Life: Excursions With Contemporary Thinkers (paperback, 2009, New Press).
Zephyr Teachout: Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (2014, Harvard University Press): For a variety of reasons, American politics has always been easy to tempt with corruption. The founding fathers struggled with the problem: George Washington famously strived to counter any suggestion that he might put his personal interests above the public's, while Aaron Burr was possibly the most notorious of many who sought office as a path to seeking riches. So there's a lot to write about here, especially lately. As is often the case, the problem may exist perpetually, but it only becomes really severe when we let our guard down, either by losing the sense of public interest or by glorifying the naked greed of self-interest. Both are flagrant problems these days.
Martin Wolf: The Shifts and the Shocks: What We've Learned -- and Have Still to Learn -- From the Financial Crisis (2014, Penguin): Chief economics commentator at the Financial Times in London; previously wrote Why Globalization Works (2005) and Fixing Global Finance (2008), which now seem to be part of the problem. At least he recognizes that there are problems, and Krugman sees value in most of his proposed reforms.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
The author does not allow comments to this entry