Thursday, August 10. 2017
This is only the second Book Roundup I've done this year -- the last one was back on April 26, with the second most recent, on August 21, 2016, dating from almost a year ago. Limiting myself to 40 blurbs per post, I should be able to do one of these every other month (six times a year), but it's hard to get into the right research mode. Still, when I do, I tend to overshoot, coming up with two or more posts in rapid succession (five is my current record). Right now I only have 18 leftover blurbs in the scratch file, but I expect it won't be hard to round them up to a second post.
I suppose one thing that helps thin them out is that I recently started adding a section listing books without blurbs -- gives me a way I can note the existence of something without having to take the time to write much. I don't count those books under my 40 limit. On occasion I've also noted paperback reprints of previously noted books, and there are some of those below. The Thomas Frank and Jane Mayer books were written before the 2016 election, but they turned out to be the year's most prophetic books (note that both paperbacks have post-election I-told-you-so afterwords).
Most recently I've been reading Hacker and Pierson, a book that's been sitting on my shelves a fair while. Its paean to "the mixed economy" could be sharper, but its review of the political forces that stripped us of past keys to prosperity is reasonably thorough. I would add that the more you forget about how things work, and the more you adopt ideas that are just plain wrong, the deeper you enter into what the late Jane Jacobs recognized as "the coming dark age."
Going through this list, some books that I either already have or am particularly likely to pick up are Andrew Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East, Michael Chabon/Ayelet Waldman: Kingdom of Olives and Ash, Michael J Hudson: J Is for Junk Economics, Ibram X Kendi: Stamped From the Beginning, Nancy McLean: Democracy in Chains, Nathan Thrall: The Only Language They Understand. I'll also note that my wife is currently listening to China Miéville: October. One thing I've learned from this book so far is that the Bolsheviks came out on top because they were the only party willing to walk away from the disastrous World War.
Tariq Ali: The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism War Empire Love Revolution (2017, Verso Books): One expects that the centenary of the Russian Revolution will produce the usual spate of new books, so this is nominally one of them. But for a good while now we've known that in his last couple years Lenin was unhappy about the drift of his revolution, so it's never been quite fair to blame him for the whole dead weight of the Stalinist system. Not sure whether Ali can freshen him up in any useful way, but it's worth noting that the hopes that many people held for the workers' paradise weren't wrong, even if they were somewhat misplaced. Forthcoming [Sept. 19]: Slavoj Zizek: Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through (2017, Verso Books).
Jon Bakija/Lane Kenworthy/Peter Lindert/Jeff Madrick: How Big Should Our Government Be? (paperback, 2016, University of California Press): Looks like each author gets separate chapters around the question. The only one I'm familiar with is Madrick, who wrote The Case for Big Government (2008), so you know where he's going. Right-wingers have argued for shrinking federal government back to an arbitrarily small percent of GDP, a level not seen since Calvin Coolidge, although few of them are on record in favor of shrinking the federal government's most cancerous tumor, the Department of Defense, proportionately. Even so, they've shown no allowance for the ways the world has changed since the 1920s, such as the much greater complexity of the marketplace, the need for a much more skilled and knowledgeable workforce, the need for modern transportation and communication networks, the impacts of larger population and production on the environment, and many other things -- even if (like me) you think the growth of the "defense" and "security" sectors (i.e., war and repression) is largely bogus. I would go further and argue that public takeover of dysfunctional markets like health care would be a good idea, as well as some way to subsidize creative development of products that can be freely mass-produced (like software and many forms of art). I don't see how you can map any of these needs to a fixed size, so size itself isn't a very good measure.
John Berger: Portraits: John Berger on Artists (2015, Verso Books): Art critic and novelist, died earlier this year at 90, his early books Art and Revolution (1969), The Moment of Cubism (1969), Ways of Seeing (1972), and About Looking (1980) had a huge effect of me personally. This is a collection of 74 pieces on more/less famous artists, starting with the Chauvet Cave Painters but quickly jumping to Bosch (6) and Michelangelo (11), and ending with ten names born post-1950 (most, sad to say, unknown to me). The sort of book you're bound to learn a lot from. Tom Overton edited this, and also: Landscapes: John Berger on Art (2016, Verso Books). Also recent: John Berger: Confabulations (paperback, 2016, Penguin Books); Lapwing & Fox: Conversations Between John Berger and John Christine (2016, Objectif).
Heather Boushey/J Bradford DeLong/Marshall Steinbaum, eds: After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality (2017, Harvard University Press): Large (688 pp) collection of essays on Thomas Piketty's pathbreaking book Capital in the Twenty-First Century and the myriad problems associated with increasing inequality.
Michael Chabon/Ayelet Waldman, eds: Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation (paperback, 2017, Harper Perennial): Connecting with Breaking the Silence, a number of well known writers (mostly novelists) took a tour of Israel and its Occupied Territories, and chronicled what they found as they bear "witness to the human cost of the occupation."
Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016, WW Norton): Interesting question, most likely one the biologist/primatologist has much fun poking holes in. More or less related: Jennifer Ackerman: The Genius of Birds (2016, Penguin); Jonathan Balcombe: What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux); Charles Foster: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide (2016, Metropolitan Books); Sy Montgomery: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness (paperback, 2016, Avila); Virginia Morell: Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel (paperback, 2014, Broadway Books); Carl Salina: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (paperback, 2015, Picador).
Bill Emmott: The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World's Most Successful Political Idea (2017, Economist Books): British, editor of The Economist, same basic shtick as Edward Luce: The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Blames Moscow, Beijing, but also Washington, and locates "the west" as much in Tokyo and Seoul as in Europe, the idea being the promise of neoliberalism (if not necessarily the reality): "It relies on the operation and staunch defense of several principles, first among them relative equality of income and opportunity as well as openness . . . An open society is thus one of porous borders rather than of walls, friendly to free trade agreements as opposed to protectionist tariffs, outward-looking rather than nationalist." Perhaps the idea wouldn't be fairing so poorly if the practice did a better job of delivering the promised broad-based wealth. The recent Brexit vote provides a detailed map of who wins and loses from open borders.
Niall Ferguson: Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist (2015, Penguin Press): Hagiography, based on access to private papers, the first installment of a "magisterial two-volume biography," written by a pseudo-scholar with politics and morals flexible enough for the task. Anyone else would subtitle the second volume War Criminal, even if the time frame had to extend beyond 1976. But my guess is that Ferguson is thinking of The Realist, a suitable philosophical refuge for idealists once their hands get bloody. Myself, I'm more inclined to call this period The Bullshit Artist, then look for something even more scatological to follow.
Peter Fleming: The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself (paperback, 2015, Pluto Press): Argues that "neoliberal society uses the ritual of work (and the threat of its denial) to maintain the late capitalist class order," despite all sorts of technological and cultural changes that could reduce the class-definitional role of work toward the sidelines. In the US you might want to substitute "jobs" for "work," and I-don't-know for "neoliberal society" -- the corporate-political system? Also wrote Resisting Work: The Corporatization of Life and Its Discontents (paperback, 2015, Temple University Press).
James Forman Jr: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (2017, Farrar Straus and Giroux): How many black politicians got wrapped up in the post-1970 "war on crime" and its attendant mass incarceration. Forman worked six years as a public defender, a stark contrast to other jobs on his resume, like Supreme Court clerk and Yale Law School professor.
Thomas L Friedman: Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Anyone who can get away with as many clichés and as much cant as Friedman must truly feel blessed. However, the very facts and trends that makes him so optimistic signify little more than mental rot to me. For more, see Matt Taibbi's review.
Kelly Fritsch/Clare O'Connor/AK Thompson, eds: Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (paperback, 2015, AK Press): Recalling Raymond Williams' Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), the activist-editors and forty-some contributors attempt to map contemporary movements by their jargon, terminology, language. Probably a worthy undertaking, interesting to me because I opened a file recently under the same rubric, but not to explore language so much as to offer a framework for hanging short topical essays on. Williams' book goes deeper into history and etymology -- he was, after all, primarily a literary critic. Best case this one does too. Worst case it tries to codify some form of "political correctness" -- to pick a term that postdates Williams' work.
Bruce Cannon Gibney: A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (2017, Hachette): Author is a venture capitalist, a guy who made a fortune mostly betting on high-tech start ups, so it's rather ripe for him to blame a whole generation for the short-sighted squandering of the unprecedented wealth many Americans enjoyed after the Great Depression and WWII. He berates "a generation whose reckless self-indulgence degraded the foundations of American prosperity . . . [who] ruthlessly enriched themselves as the expense of future generations . . . turned American dynamism into stagnation, inequality, and bipartisan fiasco." That all happened, and I think it is fair to say that the Boomer generation, which grew up with postwar prosperity and its focus on individual freedom was further removed from the previous generation than is generally the case, but those effects the author describes as sociopathic were just one political strain in a broad spectrum, that of the resurgent right-wing and its promotion of often predatory greed. Perhaps the author has some other political agenda, but offhand this looks like he's representative of the rarefied class that captured the nation's wealth then blamed the less fortunate for their "entitlements." Just who are the real sociopaths here?
Joshua Green: Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency (2017, Penguin): Campaign reporting, focusing on Bannon -- presumably the Devil in the title, although it's since become clear that he picked a very leaky and unstable vessel for his machinations. I have no idea what Bannon's been able to accomplish since moving into the White House. During the campaign he provided Trump with a gloss of fascist aesthetics and a whiff of ideological coherence distinct from the usual run of conservative nostrums -- that probably contributed to Trump's win, but was far less significant than Hillary's failures, the lock-step support of the Koch/Republican machines, and the amazing gullibility of so much media and so many people. On the other hand, one might cast Trump as the Devil, and explore why Bannon would invest all his hare-brained ideological fantasies in such a shoddy salesman. I suppose because doing so made him famous, and in America fame is merchantable (and money is everything).
Chris Hedges: Unspeakable: Talks With David Talbot About the Most Forbidden Topics in America (2016, Hot Books): Conversations, evidently the publisher has a series of these. Hedges was a divinity student who left the church and became a prize-winning war journalist, then the more he saw the more he moved to the left. Among his books: American Fascists, written back in 2007.
Michael Hudson: J Is for Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception (paperback, 2017, Islet): Presented as a "companion" to his 2015 book, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy. Starts with an "A-to-Z" of key economic terms, nothing that "economic vocabulary is defined by today's victors -- the rentier financial class," and working to unmask their spin. Follows up with several scattered essays, like "The 22 Most Pervasive Economic Myths of Our Time," "Economics as Fraud," and "Methodology Is Ideology, and Dictates Policy." He was one of the first to recognize the real estate bubble of the 2000's and predict its bust -- a now obvious point that all but a few conventional economists missed.
Frederic Jameson: An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (paperback, 2016, Verso): Marxist literary critic and political theorist -- I must have a copy of his 1971 Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories in Literature somewhere upstairs -- takes a shot at sketching out his utopia in the lead essay here, followed by nine responses edited by Slavoj Zizek (only other author I recognize is novelist Kim Stanley Robinson). I haven't read any of his later books, most recently (all Verso): Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016); The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms (2015); The Antinomies of Realism (2013, Verso); Representing 'Capital': A Reading of Volume One (2011); The Hegel Variations: On the Phenomenology of Spirit (2010); Valences of the Dialectic (2009).
Matthew Karp: This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016, Harvard University Press): When I think of southerners running US foreign policy, I think of James Byrne's decisive role in launching the Cold War, and later Lyndon Johnson plotting a coup in Brazil as well as "Americanizing" the civil war in Vietnam. But this goes back to the first half of the nineteenth century, before the South tried to secede from the union, a period when prominent southerners agitated to expand American power south and west, and thereby to buttress and advance their system of slavery. I suppose you can start with the Louisiana Purchase and the Monroe Doctrine, as well as the Mexican War and the annexation of Texas, but there were other schemes that didn't come to fruition, notably the desire to annex Cuba as a "slave state."
Ibram X Kendi: Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016; paperback, 2017, Nation Books): I've long thought that the "definitive" history was Winthrop Jordan's monumental White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, which won the National Book Award for 1968, but that book was focused more on the early development of Anglo-American racism. Those ideas have since been recapitulated (sometimes with mutations) in many ways up to the present day -- the key to Kendi's own National Book Award winning tome. Many reviewers describe this book as "painful" -- often citing the skewering of otherwise admirable abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison for adopting racial stereotypes (the book consists of five parts built around individuals: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, Garrison, WEB DuBois, and Angela Davis). I don't know whether the author adopts a fatalist position on the racist ideas, but I believe that their persistence has everything to do with increasing inequality, much as the origins of those ideas had everything to do with exploiting negro labor. As Kendi argues: "Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America."
Naomi Klein: No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): Describes Trump as "a logical extension of the worst and most dangerous trends of the past half-century" -- trends Klein has made a career of writing about; e.g., No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2000), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014).
James Kwak: Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality (2017, Pantheon): A primer on how "Economics 101" is wrapped up in political biases which promote inequality, passing it off as the genius of markets. Another book along the same lines: Joe Earle/Cahal Moran/Zach Ward-Perkins: The Econocracy: The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts (paperback, 2016, Machester University Press); also Michael Hudson: J Is for Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception (paperback, 2017, Islet).
Guy Laron: The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East (2017, Yale University Press): Fifty years later, has the advantage of recently declassified documents. "The Six-Day War effectively sowed the seeds for the downfall of Arab nationalism, the growth of Islamic extremism, and the animosity between Jews and Palestinians." The latter started much earlier, but the war led to a massive increase in the number of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, and started the great land grab known as the Settler Movement -- so, yes, it did much to poison relations. I don't know if Laron discloses anything new about the run up to the war -- 90% of the book is on the events before the war itself -- but it seems pretty clear to me that Ben-Gurion regarded the 1950 armistices as temporary stays while Israel gathered strength to launch new offensives to grab the various territories they've long coveted. Their military success changed the nation's psychology, as they stopped paying heed to world law and opinion, and set out on their own arrogant path, trusting only in their own brute force and cunning.
Chris Lehmann: The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (2016, Melville House): A book on how often throughout America's history Christianity has upheld and celebrated economic iniquity -- "the pursuit of profit, as well as the inescapability of economic inequality."
Edward Luce: The Retreat of Western Liberalism (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press): British political writer, has covered both Washington and New Delhi for Financial Times. No relation to Henry Luce, but you get the feeling he'd like to occupy a similar perch, but where Henry proclaimed "the American century," Edward bemoans its eclipse, lamenting both the decline of western power in the world and the erosion of Democratic norms in the west. At first blush, this all has a whiff of "white man's burden" to it. Not sure if that's fair, but one should note that the assault on liberal democracy in America and elsewhere comes almost exclusively from entrenched elites whose "populist" pitch is purely cynical.
Nancy McLean: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (2017, Viking): This traces the Koch political machine back to the ideas of an Nobel prize-winning economist, James McGill Buchanan (1919-2013), a president of the Mont Pelerin Society, distinguished senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and professor at George Mason U. -- although the reality has more to do with the Kochs' money than with Buchanan's ideas (which included the book Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism). Should be an interesting book (in my queue, anyway).
Viet Tranh Nguyen: Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016, Harvard University Press): Vietnamese novelist, moved to US at age 4, won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer, writes about how most or all sides remember the war and aftermath he grew up in.
Thomas M Nichols: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017, Oxford University Press): My own impression is that we don't lack for expertise, but as inequality increases so does the temptation for experts to hire themselves out to private interests, which in turn makes people more suspicious of experts. The author seems more inclined to blame the internet for 'foster[ing] a cult of ignorance" -- but that strikes me as a secondary effect.
PJ O'Rourke: How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016 (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press): Famed right-wing humorist, not that he was ever very funny -- if you ever bother to scan through conservative editorial cartoons you'll get a sense of how low the bar is -- but do you really want to bother with lines like this: "America is experiencing the most severe outbreak of mass psychosis since the Salem witch trials of 1692. So why not put Hillary on the dunking stool?"
Ilan Pappé: Ten Myths About Israel (paperback, 2017, Verso Books): Only ten? Some are big ones, long since debunked, like that Palestine was "a land without people" (therefore perfect for "a people without land"), that Palestinians who fled their homes in 1947-49 did so voluntarily, and that Israel had no choice but to start the 1967 war. I don't have the full list, but they evidently extend to Israel's rationalizations for its periodic assaults on Gaza and the question of why people who have repeatedly sabotaged the "two state solution" still insist it's the only one possible. Pappé has written many important books on Israel and the Palestinians, especially The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007), and more recently The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (2014).
Keith Payne: The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die (2017, Viking): Textbooks on inequality invariably start with lists or charts of numbers -- after all, the most straightforward thing you can do with money is count it. However, the problem with inequality has never just been who gets (deservedly or not) what. Every bit as important is how it makes us think and behave toward each other. Several books have explored these ways -- e.g., how inequality worsens health care outcomes, even beyond the correlation between inequal societies and crappy health care systems -- although this promises to delve deeper into experimental psychology.
Charles Peters: We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America (2017, Random House): Founder and long-time editor of The Washington Monthly, a journal I've long admired both for its heart-felt liberal bearings and its shrewd analysis of what government can and cannot do. And while he would like to point us toward "fairer and more equal," the trajectory he's recognized since 1970 has been pointed the other way. (Although I've lately discovered that he coined the term "neo-liberal" and seems to have a dark side -- especially an antipathy to unions, which for many years were the most effective and practical advocates for "a fairer and more equal America.")
Kate Raworth: Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (2017, Chelsea Green): The doughnut image depicts "a sweet spot of human prosperity" -- where economics should aim for widespread human satisfaction, as opposed to the 20th-century (and earlier) obsession with scarcity and growth. The seven ways are better captured by their subtitles: from GDP to the Doughnut; from self-contained market to embedded economy; from rational economic man to social adaptable humans; from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity; from 'growth will even it up again' to distributive by design; from 'growth will clean it up again' to regenerative by design; from growth addicted to growth agnostic. The last few years have seen a rash of books complaining about how economic theory is shot through with false and damaging assumptions, so it was only a matter of time before someone tried to build a new understanding around more contemporary goals.
TR Reid: A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System (2017, Penguin Press): Author of a very good international survey of health care systems, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care (2009), tries to work the same magic by comparing tax codes around the world. While he's probably correct that the US tax code (plus the huge state-by-state variations and wrinkles for other taxing authorities) is "a fine mess," and that other nations have come up with "tax regimes that are equitable, effective, and easy on the taxpayer," the whole issue seems much less important. It is, however, something that Republicans obsess on, as with most things usually with an eye toward making it much worse.
Walter Scheidel: The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (2017, Princeton University Press): A rather depressing argument: he argues that inequality has been the default state of civilization ever since agriculture started producing surpluses that predatory elites could seize. The exceptional periods of leveling only seem to occur due to wars and other disasters. One might still hope that reason might come to our rescue, but empiricists are unconvinced.
Gershon Shafir: A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World's Most Intractable Conflict (2017, University of California Press): Fiftieth anniversary of 1967, when Israel dismantled its internal military occupation and seized new territory from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, allowing them to bring back military occupation on an even larger scale. Author has written a number of books on the conflict, going back as far as Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflit 1882-1914.
Thomas M Shapiro: Toxic Inequality: How America's Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future (2017, Basic Books): We certainly need more books that come up with vivid examples of how inequality poisons social and political and economic relationships, which is what this title promises. Focuses on race, which follows up from the author's previous The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. One thing that should be obvious is that you can't achieve racial equality in an era of increasing wealth/income inequality.
Steven Slowan/Philip Fernbach: The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (2017, Riverhead): "Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don't even know how a pen or a toilet works." (For the record, I can answer both of those, although never having read about pens -- unless Henry Petroski's book on pencils ventured there -- I'd have to offer a guess there, based on other principles I understand.) But the basic idea is sound. I'm not sure what the authors draw from this, but I'd say that one important thing is that as we become ever more dependent on advanced technology, it becomes ever more important that we develop social relations that increase trust. This in turn implies several changes: we need to cultivate more widespread expertise; we need to make that information more open; and we need to shift incentives for experts toward openness and generosity and away from selfishness and exploitation. I should also add that this has generally been the direction over the last couple centuries, hand in hand with technological advancement. But all this is increasingly at risk because various business and political interests find it more profitable to appropriate and monetize "knowledge" -- for a sketch of the possible outcomes here, see Peter Frase's Four Futures.
Wolfgang Streeck: How Will Capitalism End? (2016, Verso): Depicts a world of "declining growth, oligarchic rule, a shrinking public sphere, institutional corruption, and international anarchy," adding up to instability, probably collapse, certainly a need for profound change. Contradictions of capitalism has been a staple of Marxist thought for 150 years now, so even if the author doesn't come up with an answer to his question, he has plenty of theory to build on. Streeck also wrote Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (2nd edition, paperback, 2017, Verso).
Nathan Thrall: The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine (2017, Metropolitan Books): Hard to think about the conflict without considering how to end it, especially if you're an American, since we've long assumed that our mission on Earth is to oversee some sort of agreement. Thrall has been following the conflict closely for some time now, and writes up what he's figured out: that the only way it ends is if some greater power wills it. The title has a certain irony in that the Israelis, following the British before them, have often said that violence is the only language the Palestinians understand. But as students of the conflict should know by now, the only times Israel has compromised or backed down have been when they been confronted with substantial force: as when Eisenhower prodded them to leave Sinai in 1956, when Carter brokered their 1979 peace with Egypt, when Rabin ended the Intifada by recognizing the PLO, or when Barak withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000. Since then no progress towards resolution has been made because no one with the power to influence Israel has had the will to do so -- although Israel's frantic reactions against BDS campaigns shows their fear of such pressure. On the other hand, one should note that force itself has its limits: Palestinians have compromised on many things, but some Israeli demands -- ones that violate norms for equal human rights -- are always bound to generate resistance. What makes the conflict so intractable now is that Israel has so much relative power that they're making impossible demands. So while Thrall would like to be even-handed and apply external force to both sides, it's Israel that needs to move its stance to something mutually tolerable. The other big questions are who would or could apply this force, and why. Up to 2000, the US occasionally acted, realizing that its regional and world interests transcended its affection for Israel, but those days have passed, replaced by token, toothless gestures, if any at all. It's hard to see that changing -- not just because Israel has so much practice manipulating US politics but because America has largely adopted Israeli norms of inequality and faith in brute power.
Bassem Youssef: Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring (2017, Dey Street Books): Egyptian, dubbed "the Jon Stewart of the Arabic World," had a popular television show during the brief period when that was possible -- the brief, unpopular period of democracy sandwiched between the even less popular (but who's counting?) Mubarak and Sisi dictatorships.
Other recent books also noted:
Gilad Atzmon: Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto (paperback, 2017, Interlink)
Nir Baram: A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank (paperback, 2017, Text)
Mark Bowden: Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press)
Noam Chomsky: Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): interviews by CJ Polychroniou.
Joan Didion: South and West: From a Notebook (2017, Knopf)
Richard Falk: Palestine's Horizon: Toward a Just Peace (paperback, 2017, Pluto Press)
Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (2017, Twelve)
Henry A Giroux: America at War With Itself (paperback, 2016, City Lights Press)
Al Gore: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (paperback, 2017, Rodale Books)
Jeremy R Hammond: Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (paperback, 2016, Worldview)
Yaakov Katz/Amir Bohbot: The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (2017, St Martin's Press)
China Miéville: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017, Verso)
Vijay Prashad: The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (paperback, 2016, University of California Press)
David Roediger: Class, Race, and Marxism (2017, Verso Books)
Alice Rothchild: Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine (paperback, 2017, Just World Books)
Raja Shehadeh: Where the Line Is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine (2017, New Press)
Peter Temin: The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy (2017, MIT Press)
Also, some previously mentioned books new in paperback:
Andrew J Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016; paperback, 2017, Random House): A self-styled conservative, but a useful critic of militarism in post-Vietnam America (see 2005's The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War). As the Cold War wound down, the military pivoted to focus on the Middle East, most dramatically with the 1990-91 Gulf War, which turned into a 12-year containment project aimed at Iraq, and boosted by 9/11 backlash into a massive war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more clandestine operations from Libya to Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan.
David Daley: Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy (2016; paperback, 2017, Liveright): More nuts-and-bolts on how the right-wing -- the financiers of the Koch Bros. dark money networks -- has plotted its takeover of American democracy, especially by targeting and capturing state legislatures.
Thomas Frank: Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016; paperback, 2017, Picador): Shows how the Democratic Party, especially since the arrival of Bill Clinton in 1992, has triangulated its way into the good graces of bicoastal urban elites more often than not at the expense of the party's old base -- people they could continue to take advantage of because the Republicans have left them nowhere else to go. This was damning and embarrassing when it came out last summer, and after white working class voters flocked to elect Trump over Hillary people started pointing to this book as prescient. Paperback includes an afterword where the author gets to "I told you so." Real question is whether the Democratic Party moving forward can learn from its mistakes. A good place to start is here.
Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper (2016; paperback, 2017, Simon & Schuster): Argues that ever since Madison and Hamilton crafted a strong federalist constitution, America has benefited from a strong activist government, one that regulated commerce to limit market failures, that made major investments in infrastructure, and eventually built a modern safety net -- lessons that too many Americans have forgotten as narrow-minded business interests have sought to capture government for their own greedy ends.
Jane Mayer: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionairse Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016; paperback, 2017, Anchor): To assess the disaster of the 2016 elections, it is not only important to look at the shortcomings of the Democrats -- start with Thomas Frank: Listen, Liberal before you move on to Jonathan Allen/Arnie Parnes: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign -- but also at what made the Republicans so effective, mostly a huge clandestine political machine only marginally connected to the RNC and/or the Trump Campaign, largely funded by the Koch Bros. and their fellow travelers. This is the best book on the latter, and the paperback as an "I told you so" afterword. Still, Mayer's excavation of these misanthropes has only barely begun.
Thursday, April 27. 2017
I haven't done a Book Roundup since August 21, 2017, so I should have about six months worth of books saved up. I don't, but managed to quickly bag my limit (40 per post), and I'm far from done, so will likely follow this up with a second (and probably third) part before long. I posted four of these in 2016, five in 2015, three in 2014, five in 2013, four in 2012, six in 2011. The main purpose is to keep myself abreast of what's being published, at least in my main areas of interest -- politics, economics, and history -- although I sometimes stray (albeit almost never to literature, a luxury indulgence I haven't had time for in many years).
This whole series has been plagued by long breaks then sudden flurries of research, usually resulting in clusters of 2-3-4 closely spaced posts. At this point I have about thirty more notes written up, and I'm nowhere near caught up. But perhaps my methodology isn't up to snuff. I usually start with my Amazon recommendations then click on various "related" books, but that approach has lately been yielding diminishing returns. (I wonder if their algorithm's slipped or maybe it's becoming more corrupt -- it is, after all, a form of advertising -- or my own data has gotten confused by buying way too many cookbooks.) In the past I've supplemented this by collecting lists at bookstores and libraries, but I hardly ever frequent them anymore.
The other thing that's undercutting my ability to pull forty notes together is that a while back I started adding uncommented notes at the end of posts. At first I was thinking of books that might be worth knowing about but which I didn't have anything non-obvious to add to. One source of these are public figures like Mikhail Gorbachev, Olivier Blanchard, and Sheldon Whitehouse -- I almost includes Elizabeth Warren but decided instead to make a point on Middle Class. Then there are books that don't seem that promising, and books that would just elicit comments similar to past books (the latest Robert D Kaplan has moved into that category. But almost instantly that gave me an out for books I might have written about but don't feel like digging into at the moment. And, as usual, I've grouped some related books under one I wrote about -- not necessarily the best (how would I know?) but the one that got me going.
I have thirty more books in my scratch file, and will continue to collect them for a few more days, so expect a follow up post sooner rather than later (hopefully with more paperbacks; for some reason they're exceptionally hard to find just using Amazon). Given how long it's been, I'll note that I've read (or at least started) five of these books (Peter Frase, James Galbraith on Greece, Wenonah Hauter, Gail Pellett, and Matt Taibbi), have a couple more on the shelf (Dean Baker, the other Galbraith, Bernie Sanders), and plan on ordering a couple more (JVP, John W Dower, maybe Pankaj Mishra). Also, Laura's played the audio of Shattered, so I've picked up some of that, too. (Should be required reading for anyone who thought the Clinton machine had any credibility left 24 years after the populist promises of 1992 -- or for that matter any mechanical skills. I'm not sure whether I can exempt myself, inasmuch as, despite quite a bit of awareness to the contrary, I never doubted that Hillary could have been elected in 2016, nor that she would helm a much less obnoxious administration than the one we got with Trump.)
Jonathan Allen/Arnie Parnes: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign (2017, Crown): Purports to offer inside dirt on Clinton's failed presidential campaign. Of course, had she won we'd read this differently: perhaps as a triumph over adversity, or maybe just as a vindication for democracy, showing that the people could still see past the shortcomings of the candidate. On the other hand, the fact that she lost, and lost to so unpopular and despicable a candidate as Donald Trump, turns this into a scab you want to pick at -- in the end she lost because too many people hated her more than they feared him, and while that wasn't wholly her fault, she was far from faultless.
Carol Anderson: White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016, Bloomsbury USA): Flips the tables on complaints of "black rage" in response to recent police shootings of unarmed blacks to point out the long history of intemperate rage and resistance of whites at every advance of civil rights since the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
Dean Baker: Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer (paperback, 2016, Center for Economic and Policy Research): How various rules and policies increase inequality, and how different rules could reduce the concentration of wealth. Book available free online as a PDF or ebook.
James Brennan: Against Democracy (2016, Princeton University Press): Philosopher, argues that democracy is inefficient and often misguided, mostly because it pretends that people who don't know shit are entitled to make decisions about how everything is run. Brennan argues for a "epistocracy" -- rule by a small number of people who have qualified by taking rigorous tests (developed no doubt by the epistocracy). Sure, maybe those properly qualified could settle their differences by voting, but the process could just as well be narrowed to ever smaller (more qualified) elites until it achieves the ultimate efficiency of dictatorship. Lots of problems with this: one is that rulers quickly develop interests that run counter to public interests, like self-perpetuation. For all its flaws and corruptions, democracy at least gives lip service to the notion that government serves all (or at least most) of the people, and provides remedies when leaders get out of hand. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for the rest. I suspect what he really appreciated about democracy was that it allowed the voters to periodically take leave of him without having to sever his head. Brennan is reportedly writing books Against Politics and cowriting one called Global Justice as Global Freedom: Why Global Libertarianism Is the Humane Solution to World Poverty. Now if only he can come up with a definition of libertarianism that doesn't suspiciously resemble feudalism.
Noam Chomsky: Requiem for the American Dream: 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (paperback, 2017, Seven Stories Press): Derived from a documentary film made mostly of interviews with Chomsky. Principles (from chapter titles): 1. reduce democracy; 2. shape ideology; 3. redesign the economy; 4. shift the burden; 5. attack solidarity; 6. run the regulators; 7. engineer elections; 8. keep the rabble in line; 9. manufacture consent; 10. marginalize the population. That needs some fleshing out, but this is probably a fairly succinct primer on an important issue.
Tyler Cowen: The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream (2017, St Martin's Press): How much more proof do you need that "the dream is dead" than that this right-wing hack should come along, lecturing how stupid you were to have ever fallen for the idea in the first place? It may help to point out here that what American Dream always meant was the notion that prosperity should be widely shared -- within the grasp of practically everyone (aka the Middle Class, which is to say the condition of sufficient equality where virtually no one is so poor they cannot share in the nation's increasing prosperity). On the other hand, Cowen's resignation to the oligarchy has less to do with insight and vision than with who signs his checks. Books like this must make the rich feel inevitable and invincible.
Katherine J Cramer: The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (paperback, 2016, University of Chicago Press): After 2016, when Wisconsin voted down Russ Feingold's Senate run and went with Trump for president, after three statewide wins for weaselly governor Walker, you have to admit that Republicans have had remarkable success at capturing Wisconsin -- the subject here.
Christopher de Bellaigue: The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times (2017, Liveright): The start date was when Napoleon invaded Egypt, an event more often remembered as the first salvo of European dominance of the Middle East). This deals with the spread of (and reaction to) cultural and intellectual ideas -- what others have called modernism -- from Europe to the intellectual centers of Islam (Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran).
John W Dower: The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): Perhaps our most important historian of Japanese-American relations both during and after WWII, Dower took an interest in Bush's Iraq War schemes when warmongers cited the US occupation of Japan and Germany as successful models for what the Bush administration could do in Iraq. He pointed out many ways in which Iraq was different, but also stressed how the US had changed in ways that made us less fit. I expect a big part of this book to expand on those insights (although possibly not as much as his 2010 book, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq.)
Peter Frase: Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (paperback, 2016, Verso): Speculative post-capitalist futurology plotting out broad options based on two axes based on distribution of wealth in a world of plenty or scarcity. Frase calls these options communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism. Written before last year's election, which suddenly tilted the odds toward the later.
James K Galbraith: Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2016, Oxford University Press): Galbraith's Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis (2012, Oxford University Press), turned out to be a dry compendium of research, meant for specialists, but this primer should be clear and compelling. He did, after all, write two of the most important (and quite accessible) political-economic books of the last decade: The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (2008), and The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014).
James K Galbraith: Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe (2016, Yale University Press): America's best economist offers a view of the Euro crisis, informed by having worked as an advisor to the Syriza government in Greece. No nation suffered (or continues to suffer) more than Greece for the inflexibility of the Euro system and its rigid control by German bankers.
Anne Garrels: Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Before jumping to conclusions about Russia's president, perhaps a good idea to look at Russia itself. This focuses on Chelyabinsk, a city deep in Siberia best known as one of the centers of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program. Garrels is an NPR correspondent who spent several years in occupied Baghdad -- see Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent Ann Garrels (2003; paperback, 2004, Picador). Other recent books on Russia and/or Putin (aside from Satter, which I treat separately): Charles Clover: Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia's New Nationalism (2016, Yale University Press); Karen Dawiska: Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (2014; paperback, 2015, Simon & Schuster); Steven Lee Myers: The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (2015, Knopf; paperback, 2016, Vintage Books); Mikhail Zygar: All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin (2016, Public Affairs).
Mark Hannah: The Best "Worst President": What the Right Gets Wrong About Barack Obama (2016, Dey Street Books): As Obama's second term comes to a close, it's tempting to start looking at his legacy, which Hannah views through the peculiar prism of the most ungrounded, counterfactual attacks any president has had to suffer. Still, vilification of political opponents is old hat in America, even if now it seems more unhinged than ever. The other part of the problem with Obama is that he hasn't clearly changed much, but he also has this idea that small incremental changes will have larger long-term consequences, and those are hard, perhaps impossible, to accurately gauge now. I suspect that Hannah is trying to claim those changes now, and I don't know that he's not right to do so. On the other hand, Trump is frantically trying to reverse as much of Obama's legacy as possible -- something Obama's focus on small changes makes all the easier.
Wenonah Hauter: Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment (2016, New Press): US petroleum production had been declining ever since Hubbert's Peak was hit in 1969, but at least in the short term new technologies like hydraulic fracturing has made it possible to recover more oil and to open up substantial amounts of natural gas trapped in shale deposits. On the other hand, all this new production adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and fracking introduces new environmental problems -- so much so that opposition to it has become a potent political movement. Hauter herself heads an organization called Food & Water Watch, and previously wrote Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America (paperback, 2014, New Press).
Chris Hayes: A Colony in a Nation (2017, WW Norton): A look at race relations, keyed off the shooting in Ferguson, MO, expanding on the theme that there remain a managed colony of black people in America, separate and very different from the concept of an egalitarian nation commonly experienced (at least the lip-service) by whites. Hayes previous book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, was one of the most insightful, accessible, and powerful books on increasing inequality.
Richard Heinberg/David Fridley: Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy (paperback, 2016, Island Press): Heinberg has written a number of books on the limits of basing our energy needs on oil, starting with The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003) up to Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (2013), and he's generally been a pretty pessimistic sort, one book even titled The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (2011). On the other hand, the cost of renewable energy sources has been plumeting (especially solar cells), opening up the possibility of transitioning to renewables with relatively little disruption (except, of course, to fossil fuel companies). Related: Lester R Brown: The Great Transition: Shifting From Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy (paperback, 2015, WW Norton); Gretchen Bakke: The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future (2016, Bloomsbury USA).
Arlie Russell Hochschild: Strangers in Their Own Land (2016, New Press): Sociologist sets out to explore "a stronghold of the conservative right" in Louisiana, finding "lives ripped apart by stagnant wages, a loss of home, an elusive American dream," a context for trying to understand their self-defeating political choices. Made a list of "6 books to understand Trump's win," compiled by people who probably don't understand it themselves. Also on that list: J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis (2016, Harper).
Jewish Voice for Peace: On Anti-semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice in Palestine (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): Essay collection probing various aspects of the frequent charge that advocating peace and justice in Israel/Palestine is anti-semitic. JVP has been an important group in America in the campaign to end the Occupation precisely because their activism is rooted in common Jewish values, which has put them in a uniquely authoritative position to dispute this canard.
Robert P Jones: The End of White Christian America (2016, Simon & Schuster): Head of something called the Public Religion Research Institute argues that since the 1990s White Christians have both demographically and culturally become a minority in America. Not sure what he does with this insight, but but it does correspond to many Republicans losing grip not just on power but on reality -- as you'd expect, it's a question that only matters to people wrapped up in White Christian identity, especially those nostalgic for an America that honored and privileged their prejudices.
John B Judis: The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (paperback, 2016, Columbia Global Reports): Short (184 pp) and topical overview of what passes for populism both on the right and the left, both in Europe and America. It takes a peculiar perspective to see all those stances as related. Even shorter: Jan-Werner Müller: What Is Populism? (2016, University of Pennsylvania Press); also: Benjamin Moffitt: The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (2016, Stanford University Press).
Sarah Leonard/Bhaskar Sunkara, eds: The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century (paperback, 2016, Metropolitan Books): Editors associated with The Nation and Jacobin collect some essays to sketch out "a stirring blueprint for American equality," starting with the recognition that the present system is an oligarchy. They imagine finance without Wall Street, full employment achieved by limiting work hours, and many other things.
Pankaj Mishra: Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Mishra has written several books on how various Asian intellectuals reacted to modernism, especially given how Europeans presented it wrapped up in self-serving imperialism -- a much trickier subject than figuring out why so many westerners are so full of rage as their world of myth slips out of any illusion of their control. Nor would he ever stop at the West, unlike chroniclers of "populism," because he knows anger circles the world, taking all sorts of form.
Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016, Crown): Former Wall Street quant, defected to the Occupy Movement and now writes a blog as mathbabe. The "big data" she writes about is mostly used by businesses to target sales pitches, to qualify mortgages and loans, and other things that effectively discriminate against the poor or statistical analogs, not least by warping their experiences in self-perpetuating ways (she talks about "siloing" people which strikes me as an apt metaphor, especially since in my part of the country silos are often death traps). Of course, government also uses "big data" and while I wouldn't say they're up to no good, they too often aren't doing you any favors with their own siloing. I'm not so sure the math itself is at fault, but we'd have to turn the power relationships around to give it a chance -- e.g., collect data about everything public on the market and give consumers tools to access it in a consistent and even-handed manner. As it is, "big data" is becoming an increasingly effective tool for managing and manipulating people, one that helps those in power exercise more power than ever.
Iain Overton: The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey Into the World of Firearms (2016, Harper): Mostly on the US but Overton journeys through twenty-five countries looking into many aspects of gun proliferation -- "meets with ER doctors dealing with gun trauma, SWAT team leaders, gang members, and weapons smugglers." No idea how deep this goes, but it reflects critically enough that Amazon's gun nuts have buried it in negative ratings -- they seem to be even more vigilant than Israel's hasbaraists.
Gail Pellett: Forbidden Fruit: 1980 Beijing, a Memoir (paperback, 2015, VanDam): A new left feminist I knew in St. Louis before she moved on to Boston and New York, working in radio and video (including NPR and Bill Moyers). Along the way she spent a year at Radio Beijing as a "foreign language expert," "polishing" news propaganda. That was 1980, post-Mao, a transitional period as the party regime was starting to stabilize after the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four -- interesting times, as the old Chinese curse put it.
Elizabeth Rosenthal: An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back (2017, Penguin Books): With the health care industry sucking up close to 20% of America's GDP these days -- double from a couple decades ago when the gold rush really accelerated with vulture capitalists snapping up previously non-profit hospitals. This promises a big picture look at how business is organized, how they subvert markets, how they game both supply and demand sides, and how they grapple with public policy which hopes to contain costs but is influenced largely by lobbyist money.
Zachary Roth: The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy (2016, Crown): The 2010 sweep reinforced for Republicans the idea that all they have to do to win is keep undesirable people from voting. Since then, they've passed dozens of state laws to make it harder for people to vote: this recounts those efforts, looks at the right-wing money behind those campaigns. This is not just an assault on democracy, it's an attempt at negation: it starts with the Republians' assumption that their group is more worthy than others, and follows that anything they can do to increase their power is justified.
Bernie Sanders: Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In (2016, Thomas Dunne): Came out post-election, recognizing that the same platform would be relevant regardless of who won. And while we all supported Hillary figuring she'd be slightly more aware of the problems and slightly more amenable to real solutions, with Trump in the White House and the Republicans controlling Congress (and oh so much more), this looms as the only real way forward for anyone who wants a fairer and less conflict-ridden society (even mainstream Democrats should be supportive of that, given the alternative).
David Satter: The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin (2016, Yale University Press): Fourth book on Russia, all harshly critical, so much so that the Russian government expelled him in 2013 as a general nuisance. This new book seems to recapitulate and update his previous ones: Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (1996), Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003), and It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (2007). A quote from the second book: "Influenced by decades of mendacious Soviet propaganda, [Russia's reformers] assumed that the initial accumulation of capital in a market economy is almost always criminal, and, as they were resolutely procapitalist, they found it difficult to be strongly anticrime. . . . The combination of social darwinism, economic determinism, and a tolerant attitude toward crime prepared the young reformers to carry out a frontal attack on the structures of the Soviet system without public support or a framework of law." It's hard to overstate how much social and economic damage their "reforms" did, nor to appreciate how popular Putin became as the strong man who ushered in a new era, both by winning back Chechnya and covering up Yeltsin's corruption. Satter returns to the 1999 apartment bombings that gave Putin his excuse for attacking Chechnya -- if true (and I find them credible) a remarkably cruel and cynical turn. While I worry that most anti-Putin fulminations are themselves cynical efforts to relaunch the Cold War -- the lost love of the neocons, Satter has a knack for making them make sense.
Ganesh Sitaraman: The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic (2017, Knopf): Argues first that the US constitution was designed to counteract class inequality -- in no small part because "compared to Europe and the ancient world, America was a society of almost unprecedented equality, and the founding generation saw this equality as essential for the preservation of America's republic." Every expansion of democracy since has been linked to putting the nation on a more equal footing, so it's no surprise that the rise of oligarchy today is so eager to limit the franchise, not to mention burying it under mountains of money.
Timothy Snyder: On Tyrrany: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (paperback, 2017, Tim Duggan): Historian, I know him mostly from his late collaborations with Tony Judt, but he has two major books on the Nazis and Eastern Europe, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History Warning (2015). His "warning" from the latter: "our world is closer to Hitler's than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was." This short (128 pp) post-Trump book draws further ties between the genocidal "tyranny" of the WWI era and our own times: another warning.
Andy Stern: Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream (2016, PublicAffairs): Former president of the SEIU, one of the few unions which has grown in size since 2000, bucking trends that have been driven by technology and politics. He recognizes that technology has entered a phase where it's more likely to destroy jobs than to create new ones (the main theme of James K Galbraith's The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth), and he recognizes that this has been a major source of the growth of inequality, and consequently an increasingly inequitable society. His basic income scheme counters inequality while making technological trends less disruptive. When I think along these lines, I tend to think of not just recirculating cash into the hands of workers but also of giving workers equity in the companies they work for, ultimately democratizing the workplace. But for as far as it goes, a basic income is a good idea. Other recent books along these lines: Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek (paperback, 2016, The Correspondent); Philippe Van Parijs/Yannick Vanderborght: Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (2017, Harvard University Press); and Nick Srnicek/Alex Williams: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (paperback, 2015, Verso).
Joseph E Stiglitz: The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe (2016, WW Norton): Probably the definitive book on why the Euro has straitjacketed Europe's economy following the 2008 financial meltdown. The idea behind the Euro was to extend and simplify the Common Market with a common currency, but that market was never integrated politically (like, say, the United States) so the central bank, and effectively the single monetary policy, could be effectively captured by German national interests. In pre-recession years this helped fuel housing bubbles in southern Europe and Ireland, which burst in 2008, but left those nations with particularly severe debt overhangs, denominated in Euros so they couldn't compensate by inflating their own currencies. Greece was hit hardest of all, partly its own government's fault, and when the Greek people resisted by electing a left-wing government, the Germans came down even harder, dictating a crippling austerity regime. Stiglitz reviews all this and offers several sensible ways out. If there's a fault it may be that focuses on what is technocratically possible as opposed to the politics that got us here and keep us from fixing it.
Matt Taibbi: Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus (2017, Spiegel & Grau): Quickly patched together from reports covering the election -- you know, the one where it was absurd that Trump would win until the day he did, giving the whole affair a certain whiplash. Still, Taibbi was more sensitive to Trump's supporters and conscious of Hillary's faults than most, so he helps even when he's not totally right. But then he's always been sharp, which he proves here by quoting 20+ pages from his book on 2008 and making it seem as timely as ever. By contrast, Maureen Dowd called her campaign journal The Year of Voting Dangeously: The Derangement of American Politics (2016, Twelve) -- borrowing her subtitle from Taibbi, whose 2008 book was The Great Derangement.
Michael Waldman: The Second Amendment: A Biography (2014; paperback, 2015, Simon & Schuster): Two parts: the first a history of the original debate surrounding the framing and adoption of the second amendment ("the right to bear arms"); the second covers the various Supreme Court rulings on the amendment, most recently ones broadening the right of individuals to own firearms. Needless to say, those were different debates and sets of issues. The original, I've long felt, was a way of reserving to the states the option of starting the Civil War, so became obsolete once that happened. Today the key issue has more to do with the acceptability of violence for resolving public disputes. Unfortunately, the federal government's practice of imposing its will abroad through force of arms sets a bad example for everyone under it, leading to all sorts of futile arms races, even much legal ambiguity over when lethal force may or may not be used.
Elizabeth Warren: This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class (2017, Metropolitan Books): Originally from Oklahoma, one of the few to clearly recognize what was happening during the 2008 banking meltdown, the principle architect of a major tool for ending the consumer abuses which contributed so much to that debacle, acts which gave her a measure of fame from which she won a US Senate seat from Massachusetts. All that plus her aggressive tone against Trump in 2016 positions her to be a credible presidential candidate in 2020, so figure this to be a position stake-out. That's good enough for me, but I want to quibble about her Middle Class usage. The Middle Class is not an entity that one can care for to the exclusion of rich and poor. Rather, it is the effect you get when the economic system is relatively equal -- when differences between most people (blue collar and white collar, manual laborers and professionals) are inconsequential, when all those people have similar opportunities and intergenerational hopes. To get a Middle Class you need institutions, both public and private (like unions), and policies that equalize differences, primarily by leveling up (you move poor people into the Middle Class by supporting them, and you fold the relatively well-to-do back into the Middle Class by reducing their intrinsic advantages). And that's basically what progressive politicians like Warren mean when they say "Middle Class." But the reason they say "Middle Class" instead of "equal" is that they (and/or their target audience) have bought the right-wing's propaganda that the poor are responsible for their own destitution, usually because lack some essential character trait that the "Middle Class" prides itself on. Secondly, "Middle Class" gives the Upper Class a pass, a green light to keep on doing what they're doing -- such as using government as a tool to keep pulling away from the rabble -- but at least "Middle Class" doesn't challenge them the way old-fashioned Populism did. That comes in handy for politicians who are still dependent on the rich for most of their funding.
J Kael Weston: The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016, Knopf): Former US State Department officer, spent seven years in these wars, writes at great length (606 pp) on the human cost of those wars, though possibly only to the Americans who fought them -- a lot of looking in the mirror here. That may be sufficiently damning, but is far from the whole story. And I have to wonder how critical he can be about American intentions given how long he kept trying to serve them.
James Q Whitman: Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017, Princeton University Press): Well before Hitler came to power, the US codified the set of racial discrimination laws known as Jim Crow. It's pretty well known that South Africa's Apartheid system was based on the American model, but what about Nazi Germany's Nuremberg Laws? Yes and no: "the ultimate, ugly irony that when Nazis rejected American practices, it was sometimes not because they found them too enlightened, but too harsh." Even so, the slope from discrimination to genocide turned out to be much steeper in Germany, probably due to the extraordinary pressures of fighting a loosing war. While interesting in itself, a more interesting book would examine Nazi views of America's own Lebensraum campaign -- the series of wars that drove Native Americans off the land, making room for white settlers. Indeed, the US was the pioneer for white settler colonies all around the world (most recently Israel).
Other recent books merely noted:
Ryan Avent: The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016, St Martin's Press)
Olivier Blanchard/Raghuram G Rajan/Kenneth S Rogoff/Laurence H Summers, eds: Progress and Confusion: The State of Macroeconomic Policy (2016, MIT Press)
Derek Chollet: The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America's Role in the World (2016, Public Affairs)
Angela Y Davis: Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (paperback, 2016, Haymarket Books)
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (paperback, 2015, Beacon Press)
Michael Eric Dyson: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Serman to White America (2017, St Martin's Press)
Mikhail Gorbachev: The New Russia (2016, Polity)
Pamela Haag: The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture (2016, Basic Books)
Jerry Kaplan: Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (2015, Yale University Press)
Robert D Kaplan: Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World (2017, Random House)
Walter Laqueur: Putinism: Russia and Its Future With the West (2015, Thomas Dunne)
Giles Merritt: Slippery Slope: Europe's Troubled Future (2016, Oxford University Press)
Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (2016, Spiegel & Grau)
Arkady Ostrovsky: The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev's Freedom to Putin's War (2016, Viking)
George Papaconstantinou: Game Over: The Inside Story of the Greek Crisis (paperback, 2016, Create Space)
William J Perry: My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (paperback, 2015, Stanford Security Studies)
Kenneth S Rogoff: The Curse of Cash (2016, Princeton University Press)
Jeffrey D Sachs: The Age of Sustainable Development (paperback, 2015, Columbia University Press)
Chris Smith: The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests (2016, Grand Central Publishing)
Rebecca Solnit: The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports From the Feminist Revolutions (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books)
Sheldon Whitehouse: Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy (2017, New Press)
Jason Zinoman: Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night (2017, Harper)
Selected paperback reprints of books previously noted:
Mark Blyth: Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2013; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press)
Steven Brill: America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System (2015; paperback, 2015, Random House)
Noam Chomsky: Who Rules the World? (2016; paperback, 2017, Metropolitan Books): Essay collection.
Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015; paperback, 2016, Basic Books)
Theda Skocpol/Vanessa Williamson: The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2012; updated ed, paperback, 2016, Oxford University Press)
Sunday, August 21. 2016
Time for another collection of 40 short notes on recent books -- my modest attempt to keep track of what's being published primarily in the fields of politics, history, economics, and social science (not that other personal interests don't slip in occasionally). These are mostly gathered by trolling around Amazon, checking my "recommended" lists, following up on cross-references, reading (and occasionally quoting) the hype, blurbs, sometimes even reviews. Few of these books I have any in-depth knowledge of, so they hardly constitute reviews. Last batch of these came out on July 7, before that April 26.
Christopher H Achen/Larry M Bartels: Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (2016, Princeton University Press): Political scientists argue against the conventional view that voters make rational political choices by pointing out how their views at least as much shaped by primordial identities, a hint of what's become obvious as the red-blue divide has gone beyond analysis and prescription to selective embrace of facts. Still, title suggests something more, like pointing out how these distortions have opened up opportunities for politicians to do things contrary to the positions they adopt when campaigning. Those things are mostly favors for special interests -- favors that wouldn't stand a chance if "representatives" were actually responsive to voter views.
Mehrsa Baradaran: How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy (2015, Harvard University Press): "The United States has two separate banking systems today -- one serving the well-to-do and another exploiting everyone else." Actually, I doubt the "well-to-do" are served all that well either, but the "payday lenders" and "check cashing services" that people frozen out of the legit banking system deserve a harsher word than "exploiting." Baradaran advocates a "postal banking" system that would provide minimal cost banking services to everyone.
Samuel Bowles: The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (2016, Yale University Press): Lectures -- I imagine this poised against the Thaler/Sunstein notion of nudges which assumes that wise managers can concoct incentives that lead seemingly free economic actors to do good deeds, although he could be countering the older laissez-faire conceit that markets miraculously do good on their own. It was, after all, no coincidence that the new vogue for Friedman, etc., in the 1980s was accompanied by rejection of public interest and a coarsening of civil concern.
Rosa Brooks: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon (2016, Simon & Schuster): Law professor, New America Foundation fellow, married a Green Beret, was a "senior advisor at the U.S. State Department" and "a counselor to the US defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011," but also daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich, one of America's finest lefty journalists: I'm not sure how all that adds up (blurb suggests: "by turns a memoir, a work of journalism, a scholarly exploration into history, anthropology and law, and a rallying cry"), or whether. An excerpt I read pushes a Walmart analogy way beyond ridiculousness, especially in assuming that the military, like Walmart, produces tangible and desirable (albeit shoddy and ethically dubious) goods. The military has, for instance, become the only big government institution beloved by conservatives out to discredit all other big government. Part of this is that, as Brooks points out, it crowds out saner alternatives, yet that's not just successful lobbying from organized interest groups -- an important group of Pentagon boosters simply don't want sane.
Noam Chomsky: Who Rules the World? (2016, Metropolitan Books): Another essay collection, so not wholly devoted to the title question -- probably just as well, as there's no good answer. Still likely to include his usual rigorous accounting of US misbehavior in the world (one chapter is "The US Is a Leading Terrorist State"). Other recent Chomsky titles I haven't noted before: How the World Works (paperback, 2011, Soft Skull Press); On Anarchism (paperback, 2013, New Press); Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013 (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books); What d Kind of Creatures Are We? (2015, Columbia University Press); On Palestine (with Ilan Pappé, paperback, 2015, Haymarket Books); Because We Say So (paperback, 2015, City Lights); also several reprints of older books (mostly from Haymarket Books), and the DVD Requiem for the American Dream.
Stephen S Cohen/J Bradford DeLong: Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy (2016, Harvard Business Review Press): An argument that history is key to understanding how the American economy grew, and a compact history of government intervention in the American economy going all the way back to Alexander Hamilton.
David Cole: Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law (2016, Basic Books): Points out a number of cases where Supreme Court rulings merely formalized changes in public opinion brought about by political activism -- sample cases include marriage equality and the individual right to bear arms, but it isn't hard to think of more cases, including the 1930s reversal on New Deal programs.
David Daley: Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy (2016, Liveright): Title evidently a technical term coined by a Nixon operative to boast about some of the "dirty tricks" used to tilt the 1972 presidential election his boss's way, but is generalized here to cover the story of how the recent deluge of GOP-leaning money has helped that party to gain political power way beyond what you'd expect in a representative democracy. Gerrymandering is one not-so-secret aspect of this. Lesser known is the REDMAP project -- especially how the Republicans targeted state legislatures -- that opened up so many opportunities to stack the deck.
Charles Derber/Yale R Magrass: Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016, University Press of Kansas): Not just schoolyard bullying, but we live in a society that increasingly lets the rich and powerful bully the poor and weak, that prizes wealth and power, treats their lack as a personal disgrace. These are all consequences of inequality, but they also correlate with the US stance as the world's superpower, the one nation that is free to tower over and bully all others. This is one book that seems to get all that: "The larger the inequalities of power in society, or among nations, or even across species, the more likely it is that both institutional and personal bullying can become commonplace."
Dan DiMicco: American Made: Why Making Things Will Return Us to Greatness (2015, St. Martin's Press): Former CEO of Nucor, "the largest and most profitable U.S. steel company" although as far as I an tell they mostly melt down and recycle in non-unionized plants far from America's old Rust Belt. Recently DiMicco was named to Trump's economic advisory board, with the strategic word "Greatness" hinting this book might be a blueprint for Trump's agenda. Still, I doubt there's anything new here: there's still a good deal of manufacturing in America, and such companies can be profitable if you can keep the vulture capitalists who dominate Trump's board from bleeding them dry. The bigger problem is how to get more of the profits of business back into the paychecks of workers, and there DiMicco is more problem than solution.
Tamara Draut: Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (2016, Doubleday): Cover features the banner "FIGHT FOR $15 AND A UNION." The new working class isn't the old blue collar one, but "more female and racially diverse" employed in bottom end service jobs that don't pay enough to live on much less secure the old notion of middle class equality. A decade ago Draut wrote Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Something Can't Get Ahead, and they've only fallen further behind, which is why they're (finally) fighting back.
Ben Ehrenreich: The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (2016, Penguin Press): American journalist, son of Barbara Ehrenreich, has also written a pair of novels, details considerable time spent in Israel/Palestine observing the military occupation, and perhaps more importantly the people subject to that occupation.
Rana Foroohar: Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business (2016, Crown Business): If I recall correctly, the title comes from Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign speech where he derided the 47% of Americans who owe no federal income tax as "takers" -- as parasites living off the better off classes (i.e., those without effective tax dodge scams). Still, another reading is possible: some businesses still make things, but others (notably Romney's Bain Capital) just take profits out of the economy through various financial shenanigans. Everyone knows that the latter have grown enormously over recent decades. What this book does is explore the effect of all this financial "taking" on the older practice of making things, which as everyone also knows has declined severely in America. Pretty sure the two are linked. Hope this book helps explain why.
Robert H Frank: Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy (2016, Princeton University): Short book, argues that the rich tend to underestimate the role of luck in their success, or overestimate the role of merit -- flip sides of the same coin.
Steve Fraser: The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (2016, Basic Books): The term dates from the 1969 New York mayoralty election, about the same time the "hard hat" riots against antiwar protesters reinforced Nixon's idea that a conservative "silent majority" had been victimized by "liberal elites" -- a term that ultimately had more traction than "limousine liberal." Fraser recently wrote about how Americans lost their sense of class struggle in The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of Organized Wealth and Power, to which this adds a significant case study.
Chas W Freeman Jr: America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East (paperback, 2016, Just World Books): Former US diplomat, was denied a job in the Obama administration because he was considered unacceptably equivocal about Israel. Shortly after that, he wrote America's Misadventures in the Middle East (paperback, 2010, Just World Books). Presumably this is all new material, succinct even, as it only runs 256 pages.
Michael J Graetz/Linda Greenhouse: The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right (2016, Simon & Schuster): Of course, the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts moved even further to the right, but Nixon's appointment of Warren Burger to replace Earl Warren started the rightward shift. This book explains how and why. I'll add that this represented a reversion to form for the Supreme Court up to the New Deal. Maybe now we should recognize how fortunate we were to have grown up in an era when the Supreme Court took an active interest in expanding individual and civil rights.
Karen J Greenberg: Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State (2016, Crown): Having written a book on Guantanamo and edited one called Torture Papers, the author is in a position to sum up the marginal rationalizations used to trample two centuries of legal principle just to facilitate the security state's defense of its own power and secrets. While many of these examples were started by the Bush administration in its initial panic over 9/11, most have been continued under Obama, with some policies -- like extrajudicial killings -- greatly extended.
Seymour M Hersh: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (2016, Verso): Short book on how the US sent a team of Navy SEALs deep into Pakistan to assassinate the nominal leader of Al-Qaida. Hersh casts doubt on many of the stories the Obama administration spread about its exploit.
Elizabeth Hinton: From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016, Harvard University Press): Author starts with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, which includes a simultaneous "war on crime," a set of policing policies that Republicans (and Bill Clinton) kept building up while at the same time tearing down the welfare programs. It is probably no accident that Johnson's programs were launched while America was increasingly mired in war in Vietnam, and even less so that police became more militarized during the so-called War on Terror. In between you get the War on Drugs. The idea there was probably that in post-WWII America "war" is the magic word for unity and determination, but after Vietnam most Americans were tired of war, and anti-drug laws criminalized a wide swath of society, which gave increasingly well-financed police a wide license to pick and choose. The result is that "the land of the free" became the world's most pervasive prison state.
David Cay Johnston: The Making of Donald Trump (2016, Melville House): Journalist, previously wrote a couple books on how the political system is rigged to favor the rich -- Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill). Not an in-depth biography (288 pp), but probably as good as any quick primer on the Republican nominee. Other new books on Trump (aside from the jokes I mention under Trump's own book): Michael D'Antonio: The Truth About Trump (paperback, 2016, St Martin's Griffin -- reissue of 2015 book Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success; Michael Kranish/Marc Fisher: Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power (2016, Scribner); Marc Shapiro: Trump This! The Life and Times of Donald Trump, an Unauthorized Biography (paperback, 2016, Riverdale Avenue Books); Mark Singer: Trump and Me (2016, Mark Duggan Books); and, of course, GB Trudeau: Yuge! 30 Years of Doonsebury on Trump (paperback, 2016, Andrews McNeel).
Mark Landler: Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power (2016, Random House): Journalist, interviewed over 100 "inside sources" to discover that Clinton was invariably hawkish as Secretary of State, while Obama usually started skeptical but often gave in to the hawks he surrounded himself with -- far be it from to seriously reject any orthodoxy. I doubt Landler further explores how often Obama's policies backfired, as he seems more entranced with his "team of rivals" collaboration story -- the common ground of those alter egos.
Marc Lynch: The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (2016, PublicAffairs): Wrote The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (2012), a more hopeful title but in case after case popular uprisings have given way to civil war, as the ancien regimes have violently clung to power, as jihadists have come to the fore, and as foreign governments (notably the US) have interfered to advance poorly understood interests.
Benjamin Madley: An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (2016, Yale University Press): There is evidence that the population of Native Americans was reduced by as much as 90% from pre-Columbian levels to the end of the 19th century, and it's not much of a stretch to call that genocide. This book deals with just one narrow front, in California where the native population dropped from about 150,000 to 30,000 in the years covered -- roughly the period of California's Gold Rush. On the same subject: Brendan C Lindsay: Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 (paperback, 2015, University of Nebraska Press). Related: John Mack Faragher: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016, WW Norton).
George Monbiot: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature (2016, Verso): British journalist, has written about science (degree in Zoology), climate change, and all sorts of political matters, which gives him a broad view of the "mess" of our times. This one's an essay collection, columns written 2007-15, that illustrate his title rather than exploring it systematically. Still, I did track down the title piece, which indicts neoliberalism traced back to the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947.
Peter Navarro: Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (2015, Prometheus Books): Another Trump "economic adviser," the only one with any academic credentials, which as this book shows means zilch. Trump has a whole range of complaints about China ranging from currency manipulation to short-changing on patent rents. But Navarro sees something different: a mirror image of the US expanding its economic grasp into Asia under a cloak of the threat/promise of military power. The implication is that if the US ever backs down, China will pounce -- certainly not that China's military was built as a defense against intimidation from the world's sole superpower." Navarro previously co-wrote (with Greg Autry): Death by China: Confronting the Dragon -- A Global Call to Action (2011, Pearson Press). Chinese-American conflict has become a staple, both for business writers and empire strategists; e.g.: Thomas J Christensen: The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (2015, WW Norton); Thomas Finger: The New Great Game: China and South and Central Asia in the Era of Reform (paperback, 2016, Stanford University Press); Aaron L Friedberg: A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (paperback, 2012, WW Norton); Lyle J Goldstein: Meeting China Halfway: How to Diffuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (2015, Georgetown University Press); Robert Haddick: Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific (2014, Naval Institue Press); Bill Hayton: The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (paperback, 2015, Yale University Press); Anja Manuel: This Brave New World: India, China and the United States (2016, Simon & Schuster); Liu Minglu: The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (2015, CN Times Books); Henry M Paulson Jr: Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower (2015, Twelve); Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (paperback, 2016, St Martin's Griffin); also, one I've mentioned before: Robert D Kaplan: Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014; paperback, 2015, Random House); and one I somehow didn't mention, Henry Kissinger: On China (2011; paperback, 2012, Penguin Books).
Daniel Oppenheimer: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (2016, Simon & Schuster): Profiles that go "deep into the minds of six apostates -- Whitaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens." Reagan seems an odd choice for any book concerned with the mind, but the rest are far from original thinkers, more like notorious cranks, and can only be counted as reshaping the century in the sense that they allowed themselves be used as tools for the right-wing. Some blurb writers I respect liked this book, but it's hard to see why it should matter.
Thomas Piketty: Why Save the Bankers?: And Other Essays on Our Economic and Political Crisis (2016, Houghton Mifflin): Author of the major work on economic inequality Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), picks these scattered essays from a monthly column published in France (2008-15).
Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters: Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics (paperback, 2016, Anchor): Author previously co-wrote (with David Brock) The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine and The Benghazi Hoax: The Truth Behind the Right's Campaign to Politicize an American Tragedy. The PR outfits may have started out just trying to spin the truth, but they quickly found themselves creating whole untruths from scratch, and what worked for tobacco and climate denial was seized upon by the right-wing for their own political machinations.
Yakov M Rabkin: What Is Modern Israel? (paperback, 2016, Pluto Press): Argues that Zionism is rooted not in anything Jewish but in Protestant Christianity's reading of Biblical prophecy, compounded by "Europeean ethnic nationalism, colonial expansion, and geopolitical interests." That doesn't quite explain why the idea came to be embraced by many Jews, both among those who settled in Israel and among those scattered elsewhere.
Andrés Reséndez: The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Slavery in America (2016, Houghton Mifflin): Before Columbus imported slaves from Africa, he tried enslaving the natives he "discovered." The Spanish crown supposedly ended this practice in 1542, but by then slavery had already had a calamatous effect on decimating native populations, and the story didn't end there. Most likely an eye-opening, pathbreaking book.
Jeremy Scahill: The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program (2016, Simon & Schuster): Previously wrote about early US use of drones for extrajudicial assassinations in 2013's Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Since then drones have become ever more central to Obama's continuation of Bush's Global War on Terror, which makes this an important book.
Jean Edward Smith: Bush (2016, Simon & Schuster): Big (832 pp) history of the eight years when GW Bush was pretty clearly the worst president the United States has ever had to suffer through, written to remind us of just that fact, all the more urgent since so many media hacks and even President Obama -- originally elected when the memory was clear in the minds of the electorate -- have let so much of his record slip from their minds.
Jason Stahl: Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (2016, University of North Carolina Press): Surveys the history of right-wing financiers' efforts to stand up a faux academia to propagate their pet theories, and increasingly to fabricate their own facts, in hopes of dressing up their self-interested politics. But academia turned out to be too grand a vision, as they descended ever more into cranking out made-to-order political propaganda. And they've increasingly turned into a jobs program for conservative politicians, a security net for out-of-work ideologues.
Robert Teitelman: Bloodsport: When Ruthless Dealmakers, Shrewd Ideologues, and Brawling Lawyers Toppled the Corporate Establishment (2016, PublicAffairs): During the 1970s there arose a mania for building companies by mergers and acquisitions, a practice which led to the growth of diversified conglomerates as well as big companies snuffing out their competitors. Not clear to me whether Wall Street led the way or jumped on the bandwagon, but this went hand-in-hand with the financialization of the American economy, a process which increased inequality in lots of ways. The ideologues come into play with their justification of the supreme importance of shareholder value, regardless of who gets hurt.
Donald J Trump: Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America (paperback, 2016, Threshold Editions): Cover an orange smudge on an American flag against a not quite uncloudy blue sky, a vast improvement over Trump's scowl on the hardcover that came out last November as Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. Like the title swap, the juxtaposition between crippled and great is so confusing it's hard to tell which is the past and which is the future. Meanwhile, the short (170 pages gets you to "Acknowledgments") campaign prop is full of such simplistic pablum you could use it for a second grade reader -- if, that is, you don't mind turning our children into sociopaths. By the way, if you want more Trumped-up propaganda, check the usual suspects: Ann Coulter: In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome! (2016, Sentinel); Dick Morris/Eileen McGann: Armageddon: How Trump Can Beat Hillary (2016, Humanix Books); Wayne Allyn Root: Angry White Male: How the Donald Trump Phenomenon Is Changing America -- and What We Can All Do to Save the Middle Class (2016, Skyhorse Publishing).
Yanis Varoufakis: And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe's Crisis and America's Economic Future (2016, Nation Books): Economist, became Finance Minister when the leftist Syriza party won in Greece, precipitating a crisis within the Eurozone resulting in Greece being forced to suffer punitive austerity and Varoufakis leaving the government in disgust. This appears to aim at something more general, but the author's unique experience offers a distinct starting point. Varoufakis has a similar previous book, The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy (3rd ed, paperback, 2015, Zed Books).
Dov Waxman: Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel (2016, Princeton University Press): There have always been segments of the Jewish population in the US that have been critical of Israel, but especially after the 1948 and 1967 wars Israel enjoyed deep support among American Jews. That has begun to shift, mostly along generational lines, as Israel has moved hard to the right politically, as its militarism and human rights abuses have proven ever more difficult to justify on security grounds. This book looks at that, and to do so fairly you have to look at the issues that underly these divisions.
Edward O Wilson: Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life (2016, Liveright): Legendary biologist/entomologist (the study of bugs), has increasingly turned to writing about how much damage people have done to the natural world, and at 86 isn't done yet. He has a case, and his anger is justified. Still, the notion that the earth cares, much less is fighting back, is a fanciful conceit, flattering to the same people who scarcely comprehend what they are doing -- not so much to the earth as to ourselves.
Richard D Wolff: Capitalism's Crisis Deepens: Essays on the Global Economic Meltdown (paperback, 2016, Haymarket): Lefty economist, has been tracking economic crisis since 2009's Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, and for that matter did something about it, being closely associated with the Occupy Movement. Short, topical pieces written over several years.
Other recent books also noted:
Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:
Thursday, July 7. 2016
Here's another batch of forty book blurbs as I try to keep up with what's being published in my main areas of concern: politics, history, economics, occasionally something else. This batch isn't especially up to date: I went to work on this tonight for the first time in several weeks and found that I had already picked out 38 books, so I added two more from my scratch file. Real catch-up research begins after this post, but at this point the scratch file is pretty close to bare, so it may take some time to fill it out.
"Also noted" books are just that. They are more/less relevant and as such notable but for one reason or another I didn't feel like taking the time to write more. No "second notice" paperback reprints this time, mostly because the list is rather short. Maybe next time.
Peter Bergen: United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists (2016, Crown): Interviewed Osama bin Laden beck before he became infamous, turning that into a career as a terrorism expert (i.e., Islamic terrorism -- he doesn't seem to recognize any other kind. His books range from Holy War, Inc to The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader to Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.) He notes that some 300 Americans "have been indicted or convicted of terrorism charges" since 9/11, so he thought he'd look into their backgrounds and how they became such fearsome terrorists. Don't know whether he also looks into tactics used by law enforcement to identify these terrorists, since getting indicted by the US government is a pretty low bar.
Howard Brick/Christopher Phelps: Radicals in America: The US Left Since the Second World War (paperback, 2015, Cambridge University Press): Part of a series of history books, so the subject and scope were assigned (and thankfully not by David Horowitz). What follows is organized chronologically, moving from old left to new left to the broad smorgasbord of quasi-left protest and advocacy efforts that followed -- last two chapters are "Over the Rainbow" and "What Democracy Looks Like."
Douglas Brinkley: Rightful Heritage: Franklin D Roosevelt and the Land of America (2016, Harper): Brinkley has written several books about America's national parks and wilderness areas, including an obvious predecessor to this one, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (2009). TR was better known as an outdoorsman, but FDR greatly expanded the national park system, and his public works projects made those parks accessible to millions of Americans.
Gail Lumet Buckley: The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights With One African American Family (2016, Atlantic Monthly Press): A family history going back six generations, starting with Moses Calhoun, a "house slave" who became a successful businessman in post-Civil War Atlanta, following two branches of the family -- one that stayed in the South, the other migrating to Brooklyn. The author is the daughter of Lena Horne, and previously wrote The Hornes: An American Family, and American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military From the Revolution to Desert Storm.
Peter Catapano/Simon Critchley: The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments (2015, Liveright): A broad overview of what academic philosophers are thinking about these days, a big book (816 pp) of essays originally published as "The Stone" by the New York Times. Wide range of pieces, many touching on politics (or at least ethics, not unrelated), only a few going back to the canon (one title I like: "Of Hume and Bondage"). As a former philosophy major I'm intrigued, but maybe not enough. I will say that virtually none of the author names are familiar to me.
Jefferson Cowie: The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (2016, Princeton University Press): As I understand it, Cowie is arguing that it's impossible to construct a leftward shift like the New Deal in current or future America because the actual New Deal appeared in circumstances that cannot be reproduced today. Cowie's argument is that the 1930s were a unique, "a temporary cessation of enduring tensions involving race, immigration, culture, class, and individualism" that occurred in the 1930s. Immigration was curtailed significantly in 1923, while race iniquities were locked in the deep freeze of segregation -- a non-issue only in the sense that the New Deal could largely ignore it (often by not challenging racial discrimination). Arguably, this meant a more homogeneous society, one where people could care more for others because the others weren't that different. Then WWII came along and bound together everyone -- an effect today's wars don't have because they involve so few people. I think it's more likely that the class consciousness that had been brewing since the robber baron era threatened to boil over during the Depression, but faded in the postwar affluence, especially when Cold War ideology took hold and made capitalism seem more like freedom than wage slavery. And as manufacturing gave way to service jobs, it became harder to regain that class consciousness, even as economic situations worsened. In today's environment it's easy to blame the lack of class consciousness on racial and ethnic and cultural divisions, but those differences have always existed. While major obstacles to a new New Deal persist, I think we're growing closer to seeing through the petty differences and distractions of the past.
Lee Drutman: The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate (2015, Oxford University Press): As late as the 1970s most corporations didn't have their own lobbying offices, whereas now many have 100 or more lobbyists on staff. This looks to be a pretty thorough analysis of what happened, why, and how all that lobbying distorts politics and policy.
Richard Engel: And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East (2016, Simon & Schuster): NBC's "chief foreign correspondent," a post which has put him in front of cameras in various Middle Eastern hot spots, including a brief period when he was abducted in Syria. I've never found his reporting especially astute but perhaps this is a better forum for reflection. Has two previous books: A Fist in the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During, and After the War (2004, which makes the word "after" stand out, as if he bought "Mission Accomplished" hook, line and sinker), and War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (2008).
Tim Flannery: Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis (2015, Atlantic Monthly Press): Australian paleontologist, I first ran into him with his broad sweep The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples (2001) although he had previously written a similar book about his homeland: The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (1994). His interests then moved to climate change, writing The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change (2007) and Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future (2009), and this follows in that vein, trying to find some hope in geoengineering -- which even if it can compensate for too long denial, is hardly a solution to too much denialism.
Lily Geismer: Don't Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2015, Princeton University Press): Focuses on the high-tech corridor of Route 128 around Boston, but that's just part of a more general movement, as the Democrats have embraced socially liberal professionals, especially in high-tech, to make up for their losses of unionized workers -- indeed, they've aided and abetted the destruction of unions in part because there's more money in professionals and similarly-minded businesses.
Gary Gerstle: Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government From the Founding to the Present (2015, Princeton University Press): A history of America refracted through a pair of concepts about governmental power. Funny thing is that the people who talk the most about liberty are often the same ones most eager to use the power of the state to impose their will on a reluctant citizenry. Gerstle previously wrote the similarly sweeping American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century.
Rebecca Gordon: American Nuremberg: The US Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes (2016, Hot Books): Previously wrote Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States (2014, Oxford University Press) and Cruel and Unusual: How Welfare "Reform" Punishes Poor People (2001), drawing on her Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory. This one, too, seems to focus more on torture than the grosser war crimes that seem so obvious to me.
Jacob Darwin Hamblin: Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (2013, Oxford University Press): The story here is about how the US military has been working ever since the start of the Cold War to figure out how the US can create environmental disasters and use them as strategic weapons: inducing droughts in the Soviet Union is just one example. Not sure if this is covered, but the US military continues to war game global warming -- the idea may be taboo among right-wing politicos, but the realities impinge on global military strategy (ranging from African droughts to submarine cover in the Arctic).
Richard L Hasen: Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections (2016, Yale University Press): The title a play on the Citizens United ruling, where the right-wing Supreme Court concocted a scheme to eliminate limits on campaign spending and in principle turn elections into auctions among the superrich. Hasen, a professor of law and political science, has covered this beat before, notably in The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown (2012).
Joan Hoff: A Faustian Foreign Policy From Woodrow Wilson to George W Bush: Dreams of Perfectability (paperback, 2007, Cambridge University Press): I don't normally list books this old, but when I see a blurb line like this I have to make a note: "Like no book since William Appleman Williams' The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Hoff's study powerfully demonstrates that a better future for America (and the world) lies in coming to terms with the corrupt bargains of the past." Of course, she could have started with William McKinley but that was plain greed -- no one tops the sanctimonious arrogance of Wilson and Bush, plus you get the Dulles Brothers, Henry Kissinger, and Oliver North sandwiched in the middle.
Harold Holzer/Norton Garfinkle: A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity (2015, Basic Books): "Rather than a commitment to eradicating slavery or a defense of the Union, [the authors] argue, Lincoln's guiding principle was the defense of equal economic opportunity." They do figure that the emancipation of slaves was a step toward such opportunity, but also bring up other efforts, casting the first Republican president as "the protector not just of personal freedom but of the American dream itself." In other words, the opposite of the party which seeks to crush that dream today.
Nancy Isenberg: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016, Vintage): A history of the white underclass in America going back to colonial immigrants, many of whom sold themselves as indentured servants, continuing through generation after generation of impoverishment and the various forms of approbation heaped on them by the more affluent -- I rather wish she had used the term "waste people" for the title. Author previously wrote Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr and co-authored (with Andrew Burstein) Madison and Jefferson.
Susan Jacoby: Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion (2016, Pantheon): Looks into the history of various people converting to one religion of another, with Saul/Paul a prominent early example, and Muhammad Ali and George W Bush among the more recent. Secularism has been a repeated theme in Jacoby's writing, especially Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004).
Greg Jobin-Leeds/AgitArte: When We Fight, We Win: Twenty-First Century Social Movements and the Activits That Are Transforming Our World (paperback, 2016, New Press): I can't say as I consider all of the author's examples as victories, but it is clear that they all resonate with substantial numbers of (mostly) young people, to such point that they've become reference posts for more conventional political campaigns. I suspect a more accurate title might be If We Don't Fight, We Won't Win -- and by "fight" I mean a quaint term from an earlier era: organize.
Fred Kaplan: Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (2016, Simon & Schuster): A lot of grey lines here, especially ethically where propaganda and censorship blend into espionage and subversion, where the lack of blood may make transgressions seem more acceptable, where state and non-state actors cloak themselves in similar obscurity, where one's dirty tricks may be another's terrorism. I can't help but feel disgust over virtually every aspect of the subject. More or less related: Richard A Clarke/Robert Knake: Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It (paperback, 2011, Ecco); PW Singer/Allan Friedman: Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2014, Oxford University Press); Shane Harris: @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex (paperback, 2015, Mariner Books); Marc Goodman: Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It (2015, Doubleday); Richard Stiennon: There Will Be Cyberwar: How the Move to Network-Centric War Fighting Has Set the Stage for Cyberwar (paperback, 2015, IT-Harvest); Adam Segal: The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age (2016, PublicAffairs).
Robert D Kaplan: In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond (2016, Random House): Travel journalist and imperialist pundit/apologist (or in his own mind strategist), started out writing propagandistic books on Ethiopia (Surrender or Starve: The Wars Behind the Famine) and Afghanistan (Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, followed by his more substantial Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (1993), remembered today for its background on Yugoslavia just before it was dismembered, but actually the longest section of the book his caustic portrait of Romania. Here he returns in 2013-14 and evidently finds the same hellhole he knew before.
Kevin M Kruse: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (2015, Basic Books): Argues that the idea that the United States "is, was, and always has been a Christian nation" originated in the 1930s when opponents of FDR, including corporations like General Motors and Hilton Hotels, recruited conservative clergymen to attack the "pagan statism" of the New Deal. That line of attack gained more traction after WWII when "godless communism" became a more plausible enemy, and Dwight Eisenhower proved a particularly useful idiot for the meme. This complements the similarly themed Steve K Green: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (2015).
Charles R Lister: The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (2016, Oxford University Press); Middle East/terrorism wonk, has been involved with "a two-year process of face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups," a background which has resulted in a substantial (540 pp) book with a reputable publisher. That certainly doesn't give him equal access to all sides, nor the sort of distance academics will eventually require to chart the history of this tragic war. But he is likely to shed light on the granularity of the opposition groups, and the extent to which they have gravitated towards Jihadism as the war evolved and the situation on the ground deteriorated.
Erik Loomis: Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe (2015, New Press): With the ability to move workplaces to anywhere in the world, you get a "race to the bottom" where economic incentives tend to favor the lowest standards of regulation, including pollution controls and health and safety standards for workers. The result, predictably, is a rash of disasters (the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 is one example cited). Of course, this only gets worse as unions and their political allies are weakened.
Robert W McChesney/John Nichols: People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy (2016, Nation Books): A major thrust of business in recent years has been to eliminate the cost of jobs by employing new technology, which (along with shipping jobs overseas) has allowed profits to soar while weakening workers. The authors have separately and together written many books on media control and workers' political struggles, and every year gives them more fodder to write about.
Joy Newton-Small: Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works (2016, Time: 1): Don't know whether this book is serious or not, but either way I couldn't resist noting the title. Blurb says the author is "one of the nation's most deeply respected and sourced journalists" and adds that she gathered "deep, exclusive and behind-closed-doors" interviews with dozens of notable women in politics, including Sarah Palin and Valerie Jarrett. Broad, indeed.
Henry Petroski: The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure (2016, Bloomsbury USA): Author of numerous books on engineering looks primarily at America's highway system, how it was built, how it is falling apart, and how (when and if) we try to repair it. I doubt he gets very deep into the politics and economics of it all, which is the main reason infrastructure is deteriorating so, but the technical understanding is bound to be interesting. Related: Earl Swift: The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (2011; paperback, 2012, Mariner Books)
Wendell Potter/Nick Penniman: Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It (2016, Bloomsbury): Few things are more obvious than the insidious effect money has on American politics: even when it doesn't decide who wins, it determines who runs, on what issues, and after election day it becomes even more influential. No doubt the vast majority of Americans would love to see something done about this corruption, but the issue is promptly forgotten after each election, perhaps because the winners are by definition those most skilled at playing the game. Every books post I do has something on this, and no reason to think this book is exceptional, but it's as good as any to hang the issue on this time. Some others I haven't mentioned yet: Robert E Mutch: Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform (2014, Oxford University Press); Derek Cressman: When Money Talks: The High Price of "Free" Speech and the Selling of Democracy (paperback, 2016, Berrett-Koehler).
Stephen Prothero: Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America From Jefferson's Heresies to Gay Marriage (2016, Harper One): Seems intuitively right, although the extreme vitriol of anti-abortion activists and their hegemonic sway over a party that is only really seriously dedicated to making the rich ever richer seems like some kind of counter-example. Prothero's 19th century examples are bound to seem quaint, but I've long been struck by how much Mormons and Muslims have in common, and today's anti-Muslim backlash is actually rather tame compared to 19th-century anti-Mormonism. More narrowly cultural issues are probably even clearer: I can, for instance, remember how nuts certain Christian clergy went over rock and roll, but odds are you can't.
Jedediah Purdy: After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (2015, Simon & Schuster): A philosophical digression on life in the era of humans, moving as we have ever further from the systems of nature which preceded us. Author was regarded as some kind of prodigy when he first appeared in 1999; has since become a professor of law and moved from cultural issues to more weighty, which doesn't necessarily mean better, thoughts.
Steven Radelet: The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World (2015, Simon & Schuster): The 2000s, in particular, saw the US ruled by the most slovenly pro-business regime in history, yet they only achieved anemic growth by inflating a bubble of fraud and debt (all wiped out when the bubble burst). On the other hand, during the same decade much of the "developing world" accelerated its development (especially China, India, and Brazil), and virtually everywhere saw remarkable progress against poverty, disease, and so forth. This is their story. I wonder whether the book notes that peace and relatively progressive governments were critical factors.
Lisa Randall: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (2015, Ecco): Physicist, teaches particle physics and cosmology at Harvard, writes popular science books on the side, previously: Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (2005), Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (2011), and Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space (2013). This one develops a theory that dark matter had something to do with a comet which hit earth 65 million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs, but that's just one of many fascinating interconnections.
Simon Reid-Henry: The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World Is Better for Us All (2015, University of Chicago Press): Considers inequality "the defining issue of our time," but takes a longer view historically, going back to the 18th century, and a broader one geographically, spanning the former colonial world. The common denominator is evidently politics: above all else, inequality is the result of rigging the game. Somehow manages to cover this with remarkable brevity (all in 208 pp).
Dani Rodrik: Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science (2015, WW Norton): Economist, specialty is globalization and development -- most important insight I've gained from him is that any nation that adopts more liberal trade policies also needs to expand its safety net to compensate for the victims (something the US did the opposite of). This seems to be a general purpose economics primer, going back to Adam Smith and working up basic models and their math.
Kenneth Scheve/David Stasavage: Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe (2016, Princeton University Press): After studying the ebb and flow of progressive income taxation in twenty countries over two centuries, the authors conclude that "governments don't tax the rich just because inequality is high or rising -- they do it when people believe that such taxes compensate for the state unfairly privileging the wealthy," mostly citing wars requiring mass mobilization as the prime example. No doubt marginal tax rates in the US rose during WWII and further in the early years of the Cold War, but they had previously risen when the Great Depression highlighted the unfairness of a system that had greatly favored the rich and caused great harm to everyone else when it failed.
David Sehat: The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (2015, Simon & Schuster): Sure, politicians of every conceivable stripe have looked to the nation's Founders when they could find (or plausibly invent) a congruence of interests -- a stance where infallibility begats inflexibility. Of course, those Founders were hardly of one mind. Sehal focuses on Thomas Jefferson, who strikes me as the one least likely to regard his own position as eternal, but evidently provides a focal point for a history of constitutional politicizing. Sehat previously wrote The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011).
Rick Shenkman: Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (2016, Basic Books): More of a journalist than anything else, has long been interested in the murky margins of dis-knowledge -- an early book was Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History, but more to the point is Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (2008). Not sure about the stone age, but one mistake many of us make today is to flock behind the loudest, most self-confident alpha male we can find (the GOP does its best to breed them). Another is that many of us readily buy into easily manipulated identities. I imagine that most of this you could easily figure out on your own, much as it pains us to think about it.
Wen Stephenson: What We're Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015, Beacon Press): A survey of the "new American radicals" who focus on climate and environmental issues, their focus having more to do with their understanding of human rights -- how environmental degradation hurts people -- than conservative (and hubristic) notions of "saving the earth."
David Talbot: The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government (2015, Harper): Big (715 pp) biography of Eisenhower's CIA Director, the brother of Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a pair responsible for some of the most egregious acts of Cold War America, ones that continue to reverberate down to the present day. A more succinct version of this story is Stephen Kinzer: The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013). Oddly enough, Talbot previously wrote a book with pretty much the same title: Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2007; paperback, 2008, Free Press).
L Randall Wray: Why Minsky Matters: An Introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist (2015, Princeton University Press): Hyman P Minsky (1919-96) matters because of his unique insights into the instability of modern finance, a point he made well before it became obvious in the 2008 financial meltdown. Until that happened, you might recall, much of the economic profession was dedicated to assuring us that such a breakdown couldn't possibly happen -- that we had entered an "age of moderation" where Milton Friedman's minor corrections to the money supply was all the world needed. Keynes, who had much to say about how to fix depressions, has made a similar comeback, but Minsky was always an outlier.
Other recent books also noted:
Tuesday, April 26. 2016
It's been about two months since my last roundup of book blurbs (Feb. 24). I started to cherry pick some important political books -- frequently noted writers like Andrew Bacevich, Thomas Frank, Jacob Hacker/Paul Pierson, Adam Hochschild, as well as Matthew Desmond's much touted Evicted -- but I wound up filling out this set of forty with the older entries in my scratch file. Almost have enough left over for a second forty, so that could come later in the week, or next week, or next month -- not clear at the moment.
Julian Assange, ed: The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire (2015, Verso): A big chunk of data from leaked US diplomatic documents in 2010-11, edited, indexed, with notes on context -- I've seen this described as an "executive summary" to an Internet-searchable cache of 2.3 million documents. People went to jail, or were otherwise harassed, to make this information public. Other people should go to jail for what it shows.
Andrew J Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016, Random House): Vietnam veteran, conservative critic of America's imperial overreach, especially since his important The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War appeared in 2005 in the wake of Bush's ill-fated invasion of Iraq. That book helped explain why American politicians lost their fear of getting trapped in foreign quagmires. Here he moves from the toxic effects militarism has had on American civil society to the endless chain of disasters US entanglement in the Middle East has caused going back to the 1980s. Very likely another important book.
Yochai Benkler: The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest (2011, Crown Business): Title comes from the free software ethos of Linux (with its happy penguin logo) and Hobbes' politico-philosophical landmark where the unfettered pursuit of self-interest turns into a war of all against all. It shouldn't be hard to show that cooperation is more productive -- indeed, the main thing that companies do is to build a sheltered space where workers can build together, even in a world where competition between companies can be cutthroat. Adam Smith, for instance, imagined an "invisible hand" but what he really demonstrated was the productive advantages of a division of labor. Author previously wrote The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006, Yale University Press).
Phyllis Bennis: Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer (paperback, 2015, Olive Branch Press): One more in a series of short primers (Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, Ending the Iraq War, Understanding the US-Iran Crisis, Ending the US War in Afghanistan), provides the basics, the history, a firm understanding of international law, and a common sense critique of American imperial hubris. Probably quite useful, but one thing I wonder about is how the idea of ISIS elicits such a knee-jerk reaction from the American psyche: the Syrian Civil War was widely regarded as such a complete mess that US intervention would be foolish, yet as soon as you uttered the words "Islamic State" the US plunged back into war, both in Syria and Iraq, and ISIS has turned into the magic word to justify US bombing in Libya and Yemen. This reaction has proved so instantaneous and unthinking I'm not sure that even Bennis can negate it.
Ari Berman: Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): A history of the civil rights movement, especially the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act. The book comes shortly after said Act was gutted by the Roberts Court. Congress should have responded by extending the Act's protections to all states, especially since the Republicans discovered they do better when voter turnout is low and started passing restrictive "voter ID" laws all over the country.
Wendell Berry: Our Only World: Ten Essays (2015, Counterpoint): Kentucky tobacco farmer, poet, essayist, recently passed into his 80s, can be cranky about new technology but has great sensitivity to communal life and the natural world. Recent essay collections have tended to collect older works, so I'm not sure if the essays in this "new collection" are really new. I am sure that the old ones are very much worth your time.
Beth Buczynski: Sharing Is Good: How to Save Money, Time and Resources Through Collaborative Consumption (paperback, 2013, New Society Publishers): One thing I've come to realize is that damn near none of the things I own is in use at any given time, nor does the percentage grow much over days, week, months. I assume that's at least part of what's going on here. (I have a cousin who lives in a retirement community where the houses are tiny but nearly everything imaginable is available in shared buildings -- when I visit, it always strikes me as something of a communist paradise.) So this seems like a reasonable idea for a lower cost, higher value, sustainable future, not that I doubt the devil is in the details. Other books along these lines: Rachel Botsman: What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (2010, Harper Business; paperback, 2011, Collins); Lisa Gansky: The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing (paperback, 2012, Portfolio); Chelsea Rustrum/Gabriel Slempinski/Alexandra Liss: It's a Shareable Life: A Practical Guide on Sharing (paperback, 2014, Shareable Life); Jay Walljasper: All That We Share: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us (paperback, 2010, New Press); Malcolm Harris/Neal Gorenflo, eds: Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis (paperback, 2012, New Society Publishers).
Horace Campbell: Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya (paperback, 2013, Monthly Review Press): It's pretty clear in hindsight that the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 took a bad situation -- a civil war as Muammar Gaddafi used military force to try to suppress a popular revolt -- and turned it into chaos and who knows what? You'd think this would be cause for reflection, but the intervention came and went too fast to get onto book schedules, and since then little has been published other than the right wing's Benghazi! propaganda, so I thought I'd search out what's available. This book, very critical of NATO, was the first I found. Some others: Alison Pargeter: Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi (2012, Yale University Press); Vijay Prashad: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (paperback, 2012, AK Press); Ethan Chorin: Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution (2012, Public Affairs); Maximilian Forte: Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO's War on Libya and Africa (paperback, 2012, Baraka Books); Francis A Boyle: Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade US Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution (paperback, 2013, Clarity Press); Christopher S Chivvis: Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (paperback, 2013, Cambridge University Press); Hugh Roberts: The Fall of Muammar Gaddafi: NATO's War in Libya (2016, Verso).
Satyajit Das: The Age of Stagnation: Why Perpetual Growth Is Unattainable and the Global Economy Is in Peril (2016, Prometheus Books): Well, it does seem like the economies of the United States and Europe haven't bounced back from the 2008 financial meltdown like they did from previous recessions, and lately we've seen downturns in China and other "developing countries" that had fared so well in the previous decades. Das attributes all of this to the low interest "easy money" policies used to fight the recession and the overall growth of debt (especially public debt). I see this same stagnation, but I'm more inclined to attribute it to deliberate political policies protecting the issuers of all that debt while letting everyone else slide into an ever deeper mire. What makes this even more disagreeable is how neoliberals use debt as a cudgel to argue for austerity. An unspoken alternative would be to liquidate much of that debt, which would go a long ways toward reversing the increasing inequality trend (and all of its vile consequences).
Matthew Desmond: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016, Crown): Stories of tenants and landlords in poor parts of Milwaukee c. 2008-09: the struggle to meet the rent for bad housing in hard times, "a cycle of hurt that all parties -- landlord, tenant, city -- inflict on one another." Seems to be one of the more important books on American poverty in recent years.
Cynthia Enloe/Joni Seager: The Real State of America Atlas: Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States (paperback, 2011, Penguin Press): A short (128 pp) book of maps and charts slicing and dicing the US economy and society in various ways. For instance, one map shows military deaths in Iraq by state: Texas (414) is a close second to California (468), and Oklahoma (76) is more than 50% higher than Kansas (47) (per capita would be more revealing, although it would reduce the OK/KS ratio).
Keith P Feldman: A Shadow Over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (2015, University of Minnesota Press): Takes the thesis that the US relationship to Israel belongs more to US domestic than foreign policy, and explores how US racial attitudes influence that policy. I imagine there's something to this, especially in the 1980s when Israel was one of South Africa's last close allies, but I imagine one can find less explicit evidence earlier -- especially as you don't have to go back very far to get past the taboo against explicit racism. Deeper down, both Israel and the US are colonial outposts of colonial outposts of Europe, and heirs of its crusader mythos -- Jews were long considered outsiders to all this, but one can argue that in colonizing Palestine they became "white," approximately even "Christian" (as the recently popular "Judeo-Christian" terminology shows).
Norman G Finkelstein: Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel's Assaults on Gaza (paperback, 2014, OR Books): Chronicles three major assaults on Gaza since Israel dismantled its settlements in the blockaded territory: codes names Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012), and Protective Edge (2014). Finkelstein examines the logic behind these attacks, concluding they "have been designed to sabotage the possibility of a compromise peace with the Palestinians, even on terms that are favorable to [Israel]." Seems to be a collection of essays, less detailed than the book he wrote on Cast Lead: 'This Time We Went Too Far': Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion.
Ronald P Formisano: Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor (2015, Johns Hopkins University Press): Argues that rule by the rich (plutocracy) undermines both the poor and "the middle class" -- which I take to be a way of saying "democracy." Or as Louis Brandeis put it: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; we can't have both." I think inequality is a very important topic not so much because it is unfair and unjust as because it introduces all sorts of twists and distortions into how we relate to each other. Author previously wrote The Tea Party: A Brief History and For the People: American Populist Movements From the Revolution to the 1850s.
Thomas Frank: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016, Metropolitan Books): After three notable books on the rise of the right -- What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (2008), and Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (2012) -- Frank takes a hard look at the Democrats who have aided and abetted the far right's stranglehold on politics. Given how the Republicans have gone from bad to worse without totally marginalizing themselves, this may seem to be an untimely subject to bring up, but politics is not just a game where you tote up points and celebrate the winner: it's how we as a democratic society try to cope with real problems, and that process has become perverted to a staggering degree. Frank is not the first writer on the left to notice that "liberal" leaders like Clinton and Obama often give up rather than fight for the people who elected them -- cf. Chris Hedges: The Death of the Liberal Class (2010), or for that matter the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Rose George: Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate (paperback, 2014, Picador): One of those books on basic, everyday life, and the technology and business that makes it possible. Author previously tried this with another important topic: The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters (2008).
Stanley B Greenberg: America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation's Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century (2015, Thomas Dunne): Pollster to hegemonic Democrats like Clinton and Gore, consultant to companies like Boeing and Microsoft, and all around hack reassures us that the future is rosy and won't be clouded by a Republican Party which is self-destructing as we speak. He seeks the nation "turning to Democrats to take on the country's growing challenges," continuing "the social transformations that are making the country ever more racially and culturally diverse, younger, a home to immigrants, and the metropolitan centers that foster a rising economic and cultural dynamism."
Dave Grossman/Gloria DeGaetano: Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence (1999; rev ed, paperback, 2014, Harmony): Grossman was a Lt. Col. who had second thoughts and wrote On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995; paperback, 1996, Back Bay Books). I don't think there is a simple relationship between witnessing violence in fictional contexts and killing (or for that matter between watching porn and sex crimes), although I also don't doubt that habituation and desensitization can lead some people to become more dangerous. And I'm particularly suspicious of video games, where the point seems to be not just to kill but to develop an automatic reflex to do so thoughtlessly. But I'd worry more about the morals conveyed by our national celebration of "the troops" and their "heroism" -- by the nearly constant practice of war by the United States over the last 75 years. That the military itself is so gung-ho on games is a bad sign, but probably has less to do with violence today than the proliferation of their other favorite toy: firearms.
Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper (2016, Simon & Schuster): Once upon a time Ronald Reagan told a joke -- something like "the scariest words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'" -- and some people took it as profound insight and blew it up into a nihilistic war against any and all forms of government activity, especially the kind that tries to actually help people. Hacker & Pierson have written a number of important books -- Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (2005), The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement and How You Can Fight Back (2007), Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer, and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (2010) -- and now this one, where the remind us that public investment has long been a foundation of prosperity here, and why the movement against it makes us poorer.
Adam Hochschild: Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): As Franco turned to Hitler and Mussolini to support his movement in Spain's civil war, many others around the world, including 2800 Americans, rallied to the cause of Spanish democracy, becoming (in the terminology of the post-WWII CIA, "premature antifascists." This tries to tell their story, while picking up a few others like George Orwell. Author has written several notable books about (mostly British) protest movements against war and colonialism, such as King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, and To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.
Philip T Hoffman: Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (2015, Princeton University Press): Economist, sees the answer in economics, basically the relatively intense competition between late medieval European states involving nearly continuous war. Their rivalry favored whoever could advance science and technology for destructive purposes, and whoever could solve the financial problems of such military adventures. Along the way, Hoffman rejects various other theories, like those of Jared Diamond (Guns Germs and Steel, which as I recall includes similar economic arguments among others). Evidently doesn't address the obvious next question, which is why Europe made such a mess of the world it conquered. Both rise and fall, after all, are intimately related.
Jessica Hopper: The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (paperback, 2015, Featherproof Books): She mostly writes for Pitchfork, which I don't read enough to have any sense of who she is or what she likes. Pitchfork's business model is based on the ideas that bits are cheap and so are writers, so make the latter crank out plenty of the former -- always more than it takes to glaze my eyes over. Her title is provocative, and not just because Ellen Willis and Lillian Roxon are dead, or because others like Ann Powers went straight into books without bothering to gather up their numerous short pieces. Still, the main reason I mention this book is to throw in a plug for Carol Cooper's Pop Culture Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race: Selected Critical Essays (1979-2001), which belies Hopper's title.
Philip K Howard: The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government (2014; paperback, 2015, WW Norton): Lawyer, political theorist, wrote The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America (1994), followed by The Collapse of the Common Good: How America's Lawsuit Culture Undermines Our Freedom (2002) and Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans From Too Much Law (2009). His big point -- that too many laws and regulatory rules, and lawyers and bureaucrats, has turned into a trap that has all sorts of bad effects, from inhibiting common sense to sapping freedom -- is something that we can all relate to, but still you have to wonder who benefits? For instance, lawsuits have never been the great leveler of theory, but sometimes they do manage to bring corporate abuses to an end. Howard wants to get rid of most lawsuits, which sounds laudable but not if doing so leaves us without recourse to right wrongs. It turns out that Howard is founder and chair of Common Good, a "nonpartisan, nonprofit legal reform coalition" trying to implement his recommendations. He seems to have support from members of both political parties, but most of the names mentioned in his Wikipedia page (which reads like PR) are Republicans (Jeb Bush, Alan Simpson, Mitch Daniels) and mouthpieces like David Brooks. Still, I imagine someone could rewrite Howard's books to arrive at a more progressive result -- although that may involve equalizing access to lawyers and lobbyists before cutting back on the overkill. Howard, by the way, wrote another book that is alarming and self-discrediting on the surface: The Lost Art of Drawing the Line: How Fairness Went Too Far (2001): nothing then or since suggests that we're suffering from too much fairness.
Ian Kershaw: To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (2015, Penguin): Part of a series called The Penguin History of Europe, joining the two world wars and the turbulent interwar period -- Arno Mayer called this period "the 30 years war of the 20th century." Kershaw has written several big books on the tail end of this period, including Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941 (2007) and The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany (2011). On the same time period, Heinrich August Winkler: The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914-1945 (2015, Yale University Press), even longer (1016 pp).
Peter H Lindert/Jeffrey G Williamson: Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1780 (2016, Princeton University Press): The authors crunch numbers for a much longer stretch of American history than anyone else has done before, and find two time stretches where inequality rose steeply: from the 1970s to today, as you damn well know by now, and from 1774 to 1860, which actually predates the legendary robber baron period of the late 19th century and the great bubble of the "roaring '20s" -- two periods where the wealth of the very richest was especially conspicuous. Meanwhile there were three periods when the wealthy took serious hits: during the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression.
Mike Lofgren: The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (2016, Viking): Previously wrote The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted (2012) -- no idea whether he's someone who can be trusted politically, but in a nutshell that sounds like the story of our times. Leaving aside the Republicans for the moment, one thing that has made Democrats so useless is how readily Clinton in 1993 and Obama in 2009 abandoned a great many of their campaign promises as soon as they had to face with Washington's entrenched bureaucracies -- more or less what Lofgren calls "the deep state." This especially seems to be the case with security and treasury, where new advisory jobs always seem to go to old hands. But I suspect the extraordinary influence of lobbyists and donors -- not technically part of the state, but perhaps promiscuously intertwined with it -- is at least as large. And one can throw in big media (mainstream and otherwise) which are always vigilant to police what politicians can think and say.
Branko Milanovic: Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016, Belknap Press): Looks at inequality in a global context, finding that while inequality has been increasing within nations (especially the US), it has been falling among/between nations -- in large part because large developing nations like China and India have been promoting middle class incomes at the same time the US has been destroying them. A follow up to the author's The Haves and the Have-Notes: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (2010).
Ilan Pappé, ed: Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid (paperback, 2015, Zed Books): Various papers on comparisons and analogies, the upshot is that Israel is becoming every bit the international pariah state South Africa's apartheid regime became. Don't know if the book gets into this, but there are significant differences. Most importantly, Israel has become almost independent of cheap Palestinian labor, whereas South Africa was literally built on cheap labor.
Susan Pedersen: The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (2015, Oxford University Press): A history of the world from 1920-1939 as seen through the League of Nations, the international organization created in the wake of World War I to ensure world peace. It, of course, failed, largely because the great powers were still preoccupied with their imperialist and colonialist rivalries and grudges.
Richard J Perry: Killer Apes, Naked Apes & Just Plain Nasty People: The Misuse and Abuse of Science in Political Discourse (2015, Johns Hopkins University Press): "Delivers a scathing critique of determinism" -- the notion that human behavior is genetically fixed or inherently programmed, particularly for violence. The title reminds me of certain bestsellers from back in the 1960s and 1970s, although I had thought they were pretty well debunked by now.
Serhii Plokhy: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015, Basic Books): Ukraine has lately become a major flash point in the West's renovated cold war to contain and isolate Putin's Russia, so it's about time someone wrote a history of the nation itself rather than consigning it to a sidebar in the history of Russia. Of course, most of its long history is subsumed under Russia or any of a number of other invading tribes or nations -- early chapters include "The Advent of the Slavs," "Vikings on the Dnieper," "Byzantium North," and "Pax Mongolica" before there is any hint of "The Making of Ukraine."
Robert Pollin: Greening the Global Economy (2015, MIT Press): Leftist economist, I found his book Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (2003) insightful. This short (176 pp) book argues that it is possible to replace fossil fuels with renewables -- indeed, it is happening -- and grow the economy as a result.
Bill Press: Buyer's Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down (2016, Threshold Editions): It's certainly true that "in many ways President Obama has failed to live up to either his promises or his progressive potential" -- I've often been critical both of his strategic vision and of his tactical choices -- but I (and policy-wise I'm easily to the left of Bernie Sanders) think "remorse" suggests much more disillusionment than nearly any Obama voter feels. (Remorse is more like Lyndon Johnson, who campaigned to save us from the belligerent madness of Barry Goldwater, then promptly plunged us into the Vietnam War.) So I wonder what's up here, not least because I associate the publisher with right-wing cranks (e.g., Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, Oliver North).
Ray Raphael: Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past [Tenth Anniversary Edition] (2004; rev ed, paperback, 2014, New Press): Remarkable how many stories people think they know about the American Revolution have been transformed over the ages into myth -- what the author calls "cherished fabrications." Raphael has written many books aimed at broadening and deepening understanding of the period by stripping away those myths, so this is his core text, newly revised. His other books include: A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (2001, New Press; paperback, 2002, Harper Collins), and including Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation (2009, New Press); Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive (2012, Knopf); and Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get It Right (2013, New Press).
Eric Rauchway: The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (2015, Basic Books): George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are widely regarded as sainted presidents, but in many ways Franklin Roosevelt's many accomplishments are more remarkable -- he's just never had the sort of activist beatification committee that has managed to deface vast swathes of America naming shit for Ronald Reagan. This story deserves to be retold, not least because we are still plagued by goldbuggers -- probably the single dumbest idea still held by any reputable politician in America.
Nicholas Stargardt: The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 (2015, Basic Books): Attempts to create a broad portrait of how the German people viewed and were engaged in the German war against Europe, notably finding that "the Wehrmacht in fact retained the staunch support of the patriotic German populace until the bitter end."
Jim Wallis: America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (2016, Brazos Press): Edits a Christian evangelical magazine called Sojourners tied to a Protestant religious sect he helped found, but has steered away from "Christian conservative" politics, recently writing books that take up political themes: like God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (2005), and Rediscovering Values: On Main Street, Wall Street, and Your Street. Here he tackles the history and legacy of racism, and appeals to end it.
Karine V Walther: Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921 (2015, University of North Carolina Press): Time framework extends from the Greek War of Independence (1821) to the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22) -- curiously that period skips over the Barbary Wars (1801-05) when the US first tangled with the Ottoman Empire -- "excavates the deep history of American Islamophobia, showing how negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims shaped US foreign relations from the Early Republic to the end of World War I." I imagine thee is some evidence of that, but I've long been under the opposite impression: that US foreign policy toward the Ottomans was relatively benign, and only became more consequential once the oil industry got involved.
Ellen Willis: The Essential Ellen Willis (paperback, 2014, University of Minnesota Press): A pioneering feminist polemicist who early on wrote some notable rock criticism, since her death in 2006 her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, has done a fine job of collecting her various writings for posterity -- before this general collection there appeared Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011), and reissues of Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll and No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (both 2012, all University of Minnesota Press paperbacks). I've never been much of a fan -- partly because she seemed to be too glib about war for a leftist, partly because of a tone I recall in her feminism, like wrapping oneself in a flag -- but I don't doubt that these books are chock full of interesting insights.
Tim Wise: Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America (paperback, 2015, City Lights): It isn't enough for the rich to steal from the poor. They also demand that we praise the rich for their successes, and condemn for poor for their failures. Wise wrote a rather similar book in 2014: Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future. Before that he mostly wrote about racism, which works much the same way.
Recently I decided that I needn't write a full paragraph of every book worth noting, so I started building a list. Here are a few examples that may (or may not) pique your curiosity:
I used to append a few paperback reissues of books I had previously written about, with additional blurbs, but I've tended to skip that recently. Since I've been collecting at least some, I'll list them here:
Wednesday, February 24. 2016
Seems like these book blurb columns involve a lot of "hurry up and wait," or vice versa. Last one was August 9, and before that August 4, August 1, and July 31, 2015. At that point I was so backlogged I was able to pump out four 40-book posts in a little more than a week. I don't have nearly that much backlog now -- certainly enough for one more post, but at the moment a bit shy of two (current backlog count is 61, including a couple books that won't be out until April). Still, if I keep researching, I may get that third post.
I'm so far behind that I've managed to read several of these books: Padraig O'Malley: The Two-State Delusion, Roberto Vivo: War: A Crime Against Humanity, and Sarah Vowell: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. I've also started Jane Mayer: Dark Money, and have Robert J Gordon: The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Joseph Stiglitz: Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy waiting on the shelf.
Diane Ackerman: The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (2014; paperback, 2015, WW Norton): She has written poetry, children's books, and some fifteen non-fiction books, some quite personal but a couple taking on very broad topics -- like A Natural History of the Senses (1990) and A Natural History of Love (1994). This one explores the many ways humans have reshaped the world to their own tastes and interests, an extraordinarily profound story, one that's hard to wrap one's mind around if only because the change has been so pervasive.
Mary Beard: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015, Liveright): A history described both as sweeping and concise (608 pp) of Rome and its Empire from foundation up to 212 CE when Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all non-slaves throughout the empire -- as good a date as any to avoid having to deal with the Empire's decline and fall.
Bill Bryson: The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (2016, Doubleday): An American who writes humorous books about the English language and travels (thus far to English-speaking countries) and occasionally stretches for something like A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003). Born in Iowa, he's spent most of his adult life in Great Britain, writing Notes From a Small Island (1996) before moving back to the US, and now this second travelogue to Britain after returning. Probably charming and amusing, smart too.
Hillel Cohen: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929 (paperback, 2015, Brandeis): Israeli author, has written two important books on Arab collaborators before and after Israel's founding -- Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration and Zionism, 1917-1948 (2008), and Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967 (2010, both University of California Press) -- reviews the pivotal 1929 Arab riots, which led to expansion of the Haganah forces, and in 1936-39 the much larger and deadlier Arab revolt. As for "year zero," historians can pick and choose; e.g., Amy Dockser Marcus opted for 1913 in Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2007, Penguin).
Michael Day: Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall From Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga (2015, St Martin's Press): Biography of the Italian media mogul who parlayed wealth and power into three terms as prime minister of Italy, which helped him gain even more wealth and power, give or take occasionally getting "bogged down by his hubris, egotism, sexual obsessions, as well as his flagrant disregard for the law." All the timelier given how Donald Trump threatens to repeat the feat. By the way, Berlusconi is currently estimated to be worth about three times what Trump is ($12-to-$4 billion), but that's after Berlusconi has been prime minister, and before Trump becomes president.
EJ Dionne Jr: Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond (2016, Simon & Schuster): Journalist, leans liberal, has covered politics for a long time and written books like Why Americans Hate Politics (1991), They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives will Dominate the Next Political Era (1996), Stand Up, Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge (2004), Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right (2008), and Our Divided Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2012). Much wishful thinking there, oft frustrated by the increasingly fervent (do I mean desperate?) right-wing, which he finally tries to face up to here.
Reese Ehrlich: Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (2014, Pegasus): It may be decades before anyone writes a definitive history of the many facets of Syria's civil war, if indeed it is over then. Meanwhile, we get small facets of the story from many scattered observers, and I doubt this one is any different (despite the forward by Noam Chomsky, who is nearly always right, unpleasant as that may be). Other recent books on Syria (aside from ISIS, which are probably more numerous): Leon Goldsmith: Cycle of Fear: Syria's Alawites in War and Peace (2015, Hurst); Nader Hashemi/Danny Postel, eds: The Syria Dilemma (2013, The MIT Press); Emile Hokayem: Syria's Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (paperback, 2013, Routledge); David W Lesch: Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (rev ed, paperback, 2013, Yale University Press); Jonathan Littell: Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising (2015, Verso); John McHugo: Syria: A Recent History (paperback, 2015, Saqi); Christian Sahner: Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (2014, Oxford University Press); Bente Scheller: The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads (2014, Hurst); Stephen Starr: Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (rev ed, paperback, 2015, Hurst); Samar Yazbek: The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (paperback, 2015, Rider); Diana Darke: My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution (paperback, 2015, Haus); Robert Fisk et al: Syria: Descent Into the Abyss (paperback, 2015, Independent Print); Robin Yassin-Kassab/Leila Ali-Shami: Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (paperback, 2016, Pluto Press).
Jack Fairweather: The Good War: Why We Couldn't Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan (2014, Basic Books): I remain stumped about what was so good about the war. The fact that American public opinion was more unified in favor of attacking Afghanistan than Iraq didn't make a bit of difference. The war may have polled as high as the war against Nazi Germany, but there was no depth, no commitment, beyond the polling, and even less understanding. The book is probably stronger on why it all went so wrong.
Richard Falk: Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (paperback, 2014, Just World Books): A collection of essays since 2008 when Falk was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights issues in Occupied Palestine (his tenure there ended in 2014). Falk was a law professor who took an early interest in war crimes, especially regarding the Vietnam War -- cf. Crimes of War (1971, Random House), written and edited with Gabriel Kolko and Robert Lifton. He also has a newer essay collection out, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring (paperback, 2015, Just World Books).
Henry A Giroux: The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine (paperback, 2014, City Lights): Canadian educator and culture critic, has written books like Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (2011, Peter Lang). Essays include "America's Descent Into Madness" -- "The stories it now tells are filled with cruelty, deceit, lies, and legitimate all manner of corruption and mayhem. The mainstream media spin stories that are largely racist, violent, and irresponsible -- stories that celebrate power and demonize victims, all the while camouflaging their pedagogical influence under the glossy veneer of entertainment" -- and "The Vanishing Point of US Democracy."
Robert J Gordon: The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War (2016, Princeton University Press): For 100 years after the Civil War, technological advances dramatically stimulated growth and raised living standards. However, from about 1970 on, growth rates have slowed markedly, and we seem to have entered a period of long-term stagnation. James K Galbraith, in The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth, made a similar argument, but this goes much deeper into the changes wrought by the century of high growth. As for the future, we've already seen one consequence of slack growth: to keep profit levels up to expectations, investors have sought political favors and increasingly engaged in predatory behaviors (something often called financialization). Sooner or later the other shoe is bound to drop, as workers (and non-workers) who had been promised growth and wound up suffering from stagnation inevitably seek to regroup. Meanwhile, as Gordon points out, things like increasing inequality further dampen growth, further fueling the need for change.
Greg Grandin: Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman (2015, Metropolitan Books): More like America's premier war criminal, a point we need to keep stressing as he continues to woo war-friendly politicians of both major parties. Grandin, whose books include Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006), wants to delve deeper, going beyond Kissinger's own acts to explore his influence on America's peculiar self-conception as an empire. I'm not sure how much neocon nonsense can really be pinned on Kissinger, but if I did wonder this would be the place to start. Amazon thinks if you're curious about this you'll also be interested in Niall Ferguson: Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist (2015, Penguin Press). You won't be.
Ran Greenstein: Zionism and Its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine (paperback, 2014, Pluto Press): Surveys various political movements and thinkers based in Israel/Palestine who rejected the politics of Zionist dominance, starting with Ahad Ha'am in the 19th century, continuing through the Communist Party, the various Palestinian movements, and the Matzpen movement up to the 1980s.
Ann Hagedorn: The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security (2014; paperback, 2015, Simon & Schuster): As I recall, when Bush I set out to attack Iraq in 1990, the US moved over 600,000 troops into position. When Bush II decided to invade Iraq, the US went with a little over 100,000 troops. The main difference was that in the intervening years the Military had contracted out vast numbers of support jobs -- logistics, food, that sort of thing. Over the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the outsourcing expanded to security, and the mercenaries they hired became increasingly common and unaccountable for their actions. (You may recall, for instance, that when Fallujah first revolted, the Americans they hung from that bridge were contractors.) That's what this book is about. I'm a little surprised Hagedorn wrote this book, since the main thing I had read by her was a magnificent slice of history, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (2007; paperback, 2008, Simon & Schuster).
Jeff Halper: War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification (paperback, 2015, Pluto Press): Head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and author of one of the most trenchant short analyses of Israel's "matrix of control" over the Palestinians, takes a deeper look at Israel's technologies of control, including how they are exported elsewhere in the world.
Doug Henwood: My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (paperback, 2015, OR Books): All the dirt on Clinton, at least as viewed from the left, a perspective which reveals her as a corporate shill and inveterate warmonger. Henwood mostly writes about economic issues, in Left Business Observer. Other books tackling Clinton from the left include: Diana Johnstone: Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton (paperback, 2015, CounterPunch), and Liza Featherstone, ed: False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (paperback, 2016, Verso [June 16]).
Alistair Horne: Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century (2015, Harper): Argues that the many major wars of what the late Gabriel Kolko summed um as Century of War (1994) turned on excessive hubris of one side or the other ("In Greek tragedy, hubris is excessive human pride that challenges the gods and ultimately leads to total destruction of the offender" -- in reality the US has been a repeat offender without paying the ultimate price). Huge topic, but to provide depth of battle detail Horne limits his study to six cases: Tsushima (1905), Mononhan (1939), Moscow (1941), Midway (1942), Korea (1950), and Dien Bien Phu (1954).
Michael Hudson: Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy (paperback, 2015, Islet): Unorthodox economist, has seen this coming for a long time and written many books about it -- most recently The Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and Global Crisis (2012), and more presciently an essay on "the coming real estate collapse" in 2006. As I've tried to point out, the function of debt today has little to do with putting savings to productive work, and much to do with allowing people who can't afford it to keep up appearances until they crash. Needless to say, this is unsustainable -- not that governments haven't struggled heroically to keep the bankers solvent.
Rafael Lefevre: Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (2013, Oxford University Press): I pulled this out of the long list of Syria books (see Reese Ehrlich) because it stands out: the focus is on the 1982 Hama uprising and Hafez Assad's brutal suppression (over 20,000 killed, mostly in an artillery barrage of the liberated city). The Muslim Brotherhood led the uprising, and returned two decades later as an activist faction in Syria's "Arab Spring" demonstrations -- also met brutally, resulting in the civil war that has killed another 200,000 (not that any of these estimates are proven).
Les Leopold: Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (paperback, 2015, The Labor Institute Press): Labor economist, previously wrote a couple of primers on how Wall Street has ripped off America -- The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity (2009), and How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away With Siphoning Off America's Wealth (2013). Has lots of "easy-to-understand charts and graphs," goes beyond explaining predatory finance to note how other key issues ("from climate change to the exploding prison population") are connected to economic inequality, and offers activists a guide for doing something about this central problem.
Mike Martin: An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012 (2014, Oxford University Press): Author was attached to British forces occupying Helmand in 2006 -- a Pashtun province on the southern border of Afghanistan, also the locale for Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012, Knopf) -- but speaks Pashto and was able to record the bewildered thoughts of the locals, as well as the equally confused thinking of the occupiers. The levels of misunderstanding here should give anyone pause. Noteworthy here that he extends his coverage of the conflict to include both Soviet and US/UK forces, occupations with more than a little in common.
Paul Mason: Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Argues that capitalism will change in the near future, mutating into something new, shifting the economy away from its basis on "markets, wages, and private ownership." He adds, "This is the first time in human history in which, equipped with an understanding of what is happening around us, we can predict and shape the future." I have no idea how he works this out, but I started thinking about "post-capitalism" back in the 1990s. In my case the initial insight was the realization that it is possible to engineer economic systems and thereby consciously direct development instead of waiting for the invisible hand to lead us around. I also realized that the infinite growth required by capitalism must sooner or later give way to ecological limits. These appear to be common themes, but of course the devil's in the details. I would reject, for instance, Hayek's rule that all planning leads to tyranny, but I don't think you can just hand-wave that; there's too much history to the contrary.
Jane Mayer: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016, Doubleday): Give a guy a billion dollars and all of a sudden he thinks he can recruit some politicians and hoodwink the public into voting fot them. It's really just a case of extraordinary hubris, a sense of self-appointed privilege combined with utter disdain for democracy. Take the Kochs, for instance -- Mayer has already reported on them in The New Yorker, and they seem to account for a big chunk of this book, but they are hardly alone. As I recall, Newt Gingrich blamed his loss to Mitt Romney in 2012 to only having one billionaire backer vs. five for Romney. In this state of corruption, sometimes a handful of voters can shape history, maybe even prevent democracy from working to the benefit of the majority.
Sean McMeekin: The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923 (2015, Penguin): The old adage is "history is written by the victors" -- a rule which has served to distort and largely bury one of the major stories of the early 20th century: the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Even David Fromkin's brilliant A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 skips over the revolt of the Young Turks and the two Balkan Wars that set the stage for the Ottoman entry into the Great War, which has the effect of making much of what the Ottoman triumvirate did during the war seem nonsensical (and possibly insane). McMeekin attempts to correct this partly by starting earlier, but also by researching deeper into newly opened Ottoman and Russian archives. But also, I suspect, because history has finally shown the Anglo-French "victory" to be hollow and bitter indeed.
Aaron David Miller: The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President (2014, St Martin's Press): Washington on the cover. His most striking trait was a desire to be seen as disinterested, a leader who only sees to the public interest, never to his personal one. Needless to say, such people are scarce today, not so much because they don't exist as because they don't promote themselves in the manner of would-be presidents. On the other hand, there are great egos who would dispute this thesis, notably Donald Trump, who hope to lead a nation to its greatness, doing all manner of great things. For such cases, I can imagine two books: one explaining why they will fail, the other why what they sought was never desirable in the first place. I doubt that Miller has written either.
Ian Millhiser: Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted (2015, Nation Books): Reminds us that throughout history the Supreme Court has more often than not been an entrenched conservative activist -- it is only thanks to Franklin Roosevelt (and a few successors, with Nixon starting the revanchist return) that we have been fortunate enough to have grown up with a Court that actually expanded human rights. Of course, the recent growth of the conservative cabal has given the author more to complain about. Indeed, the subtitle could well be the Roberts' Court's motto.
David Niose: Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America From the Attack on Reason (2014, St Martin's Griffin): Legal director of the American Humanist Association, has focused defending the secular nature of American democracy -- his previous book was Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans (2012; paperback, 2013, St Martin's Griffin) -- but is worried not just by the right's religiosity but by its increasingly dogmatic attacks on reason.
Padraig O'Malley: The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine -- A Tale of Two Narratives (2015, Viking): Author has extensive experience in the reconciliation of conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa, giving him some perspective here. Hard to tell whether the focus on competing narratives is just a license to spin bullshit, but he's right that the power imbalance is what precludes every effort at reconciliation. Actually, I'm curious how he works this out -- as someone who occasionally thinks of writing a book along these lines: why is something so seemingly easy to reason out so impossible for the people who need to do it? The answer, of course, has to do with relative power: in particular, the one side who feel they don't have to do anything.
Dirk Philipsen: The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What do Do About It (2015, Princeton University Press): Gross Domestic Product is a measurement of the overall size of an economy (usually expressed per capita), but it is at best a very coarse number, tied to growth in marketable goods and services, but not so much to a better, let alone a sustainable, standard of living. Many other writers have questioned the value of GDP as a measurement; e.g., Joseph E Stiglitz, et al., Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn't Add Up (2010).
Ted Rall: After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan (2014, Hill & Wang): A "graphic journalist," Rall made two extended trips to Afghanistan, one shortly after 9/11, the other ten years later, recording his observations here, as well as some history -- if you don't know it, at least it goes down fast and easy. Recent Rall books include The Book of Obama: From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt (paperback, 2012, Seven Stories Press), and Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia Is the Next Middle East (2nd ed, paperback, 2014, NBM Publishing). Before that, The Anti-American Manifesto (paperback, 2010, Seven Stories Press), which I found excessive, shrill, unfunny. More recently, Rall wrote and illustrated Snowden (paperback, 2015, Seven Stories Press) and Bernie (paperback, 2016, Seven Stories Press).
Pierre Razoux: The Iran-Iraq War (2015, Belknap Press): Big (688 pp) book on one of the largest and longest wars of the last fifty years, lasting from 1980-88, costing close to a million lives -- little understood in the West, the US in particular taking an attitude that both sides should kill off the other. This book evidently goes beyond the immediate conflict to look at how other nations related to, and encouraged, the war. Also available: Williamson Murray/Kevin M Woods: The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History (paperback, 2014, Cambridge University Press). Before these books, the standard was probably Dilip Hiro: The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (paperback, 1990, Routledge).
Robert B Reich: Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015, Alfred A Knopf): Supposedly one of Bill Clinton's longtime buds, taught government, staked out his politics in 1989 with The Resurgent Liberal, then in 1991 wrote The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism which contain two major concepts, one spectacularly wrong (his idea that as trade policies liberalize the US will more than make up losses in manufacturing jobs with new "symbolic manipulator" jobs), the other alarmingly right (that the rich were withdrawing from community life to their gated communities and retreats, from which they will cease to care about the fate of the lower classes). Clinton liked this thinking so much he made Reich Secretary of Labor, a job Reich filled capably if not exactly happily (cf. his memoir, Locked in the Cabinet). Since leaving Clinton, he has continued to wobble leftward, writing optimistic books about politics (Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America in 2004) and business (Supercapitalism in 2007), on the other hand reacting when it all goes wrong (Aftershock in 2010 and Beyond Outrage in 2012, the subtitle still ending with How to Fix It. So figure this as more of everything: after all, the only thing wrong with capitalism is the capitalists, who somehow in their personal greed forgot that the magic system is supposed to make life better for everyone.
Dennis Ross: Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Author has been an advisor to three US presidents helping them to screw up numerous efforts to bridge the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in the meantime has worked for Israeli think tanks, his most consistent allegiance. In other words, he is an American who can always be counted on to take the position that "Israel knows best" -- his maxim for reconstructing a longer stretch of history. ("Ross points out how rarely lessons were learned and how distancing the United States from Israel in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush, and Obama administrations never yielded any benefits and why that lesson has never been learned.") If the title seems oblique, read it this way: the surest way to doom any chance for peace for Israel and Palestine is to involve Dennis Ross.
Andrew Sayer: Why We Can't Afford the Rich (2015, Policy Press): Shows how the rich ("the top 1%") have used their political clout "to siphon off wealth produced by others," and goes further to argue that their predation is something the rest of us can no longer afford -- a far cry from the common notion that we are so obligated to the "job creator" class that we need to sacrifice our own well being to stroke their egos. Author has previously written books like: Radical Political Economy: Critique and Reformulation (1995), The Moral Significance of Class (2005), and Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life (2011).
Kevin Sites: Swimming With Warlords: A Dozen-Year Journey Across the Afghan War (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): War reporter, previously wrote In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars (paperback, 2007, Harper Perennial), and The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War (paperback, 2013, Harper Perennial). Sites first entered Afghanistan to join the Northern Alliance in 2001, and on his sixth tour retraced his footsteps in 2013 to ask what has changed. Some stuff, but it's not clear for the better.
Timothy Snyder: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015, Tim Duggan): The recent author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) narrows his focus on the Nazi Judeocide, not just what happened but on why. He comes up with a rather original theory of Hitler's mind, something about resources and ecology, and adds that "our world is closer to Hitler's than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was" -- hence the "warning." I wonder whether obsessing on the need to "save the world" isn't itself an invitation to overreach (not to mention overkill). But then I tend to think of the Holocaust as a contingent quirk of history, not some cosmological constant.
Joseph E Stiglitz: Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy: An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity (paperback, 2015, WW Norton): Practical proposals for reducing inequality, restoring the sense that the United States is "the land of opportunity, a place where anyone can achieve success and a better life through hard work and determination." That reputation has been blighted by stagnation as the rich have managed to use their political and economic clout to capture an ever-increasing share of the nation's wealth. Stiglitz, one of our finest economists (Krugman's preferred term is "insanely great"), has been working on this problem for a while now, including his books The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012), and The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (2015).
Roberto Vivo: War: A Crime Against Humanity (paperback, 2015, Hojas del Sur): Born in Uruguay, CEO of "a global social communications media firm" in Buenos Aires, has put together a global history and virtual legal brief to outlaw war. The impulse is sensible -- common recognition of the law, whether from respect or fear, is the main reason we haven't sunk into a Hobbesian "war of all against all" mire -- and indeed at some points enjoyed broad international support. That's probably true today, too, but it only takes one country that insists on flexing its muscles and putting its self-interest above peaceful coexistence to spoil the understanding. In the 1930s, for instance, Germany and Japan were such outlaw countries. Today it's mostly the United States and Israel (and one could argue Saudi Arabia, Russia, and/or Turkey). Vivo makes his case logically and succinctly, but he doesn't really face up to the infantile nations that put so much stock in their warmaking skills and so little in international law.
Sarah Vowell: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (2015, Riverhead): Starting with an MA in Art History, she went into radio, wrote some essays, and found a niche writing popular history, starting with Assassination Vacation, her travelogue to the historical sites of murdered presidents. Since then her histories have become more conventional: The Wordy Shipmates (2005, on the Puritans), and Unfamiliar Fishes (on the takeover of Hawaii). Here she recounts the American Revolution by focusing on Washington's French sidekick, and the early nation viewed from Lafayette's 1824 return visit.
Lawrence Wright: Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David (2014, Knopf; paperback, 2015, Vintage Books): A day-by-day account of the 1979 Camp David negotiations between Egypt and Israel over return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and, as it turns out, damn little else -- still, the only significant time that Israel could be bothered to sign a peace agreement with a neighbor. (I don't much count the later treaty with Jordan.) Wright previously wrote The Leaning Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006, Knopf), a valuable book on the thinking behind the attack.
Next batch of 40 sometime next week.
Sunday, August 9. 2015
Once again, I skipped Weekend Roundup for more book blurbs. I doubt that's much of a loss, given how last week's news was so dominated by the first Fox Republican Presidential Debate Orgy -- really, if you have nothing more enlightening to talk about than Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and/or Chris Christie (swap any of a dozen other names into this list if you so desire), you should cancel your news show and slot in a nice golf match or bowling or something. Otherwise you run the risk that the Republicans' insane attacks on the Iran deal might leak through to weak-minded Democrats -- Sen. Chuck Schumer is the latest to disgrace himself (OK, here's a link).
Aside from the Republicans, who'll still be around next week, and certainly won't be any smarter or less disgraceful then, the most common news story this past week was the shooting atrocity, practically an everyday occurrence. (A foreign exchange student was killed just outside his dorm here in Wichita this week.) Those, unlike the Republicans, are terminal events, but no doubt there will be another fresh batch of them next week to.
Meanwhile, back to the books. This is the fourth installment in a little more than a week, and will probably be the last for a while. I just have a handful more entries in my draft file, and a couple of them are for books that aren't scheduled for publication until September-October. My catchup project has involved going through close to a dozen notebooks where I jotted down book names when I was in bookstores or libraries over the last few years. I'm not quite done with that, but have managed to fill up four posts -- 160 books. Some of the notebooks are rather old, mostly yielding books published in 2008-09 (between the lists I've found several Borders discount coupon numbers), but the main one I haven't gotten to was filled out in New Jersey last fall. I'll keep working on that, and maybe it'll yield a fifth post, or maybe it'll just get me started for a post this fall. We'll see.
Stanley Aronowitz: The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movement (2014, Verso Books): Unions have taken a beating, especially in the private sector, over the last 30-40 years, dropping from representing more than 30% of American workers to less than 10%. The "death" part is an old story, so what about the "life" part? Or the "new" bit? I read Thomas Geoghegan's Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press), which has some specific ideas on things that can be done to breathe new life into the labor movement, but I don't see what Aronowitz has up his sleeve. I do recall his early book, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (1974), and know that he's been working this issue for most of his life, both as scholar and activist.
Shlomo Avineri: Herzl's Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State (2014, Blue Bridge): Herzl wasn't the first Zionist, but he headed the World Zionist Organization until his early death (1904) and wrote two books (The Jewish State and The Old New Land, the latter a novel) articulating his vision for what became Israel in 1948. He was notable during his life for appealing to imperial powers to adopt the Zionists as a colonization project, and he painted a much more starry-eyed picture than what actually transpired. But then don't all imperialists start out starry-eyed?
Zygmunt Bauman: Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? (paperback, 2013, Polity): Short (100 pp) essay by a philosophy prof, evidently picks apart various arguments ("finding them one by one to be false, deceitful and misleading") to arrive at "no." I'm not inclined to disagree, especially on the so-called "trickle down" theories (unless that trickling is aided by redistributive tax policies). I don't know whether Bauman considers the argument that the extravagances and idiosyncrasies of the rich may on occasion create something of lasting cultural value -- e.g., the Taj Mahal -- that would never have been created in a more egalitarian society. On the other hand, such arts only attain popular value when they have been opened to the public. (The policy which would promote this would be a confiscatory estate tax, which would encourage the rich to build monuments to their memory while also ensuring public access in due course. It would also limit that aristocracy problem.)
James Bradley: The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia (2015, Little Brown): Americans have been fascinated by China from first encounters, and as Bradley shows contributed to the opium wars, used the "open door policy" to carve out fortunes, developed a fateful alliance with the Kuomintang that continued into exile on Taiwan, fought nasty wars against the "red menace," and invested lavishly when China opened up to foreign capital. All that while, one might argue that those Americans understood nothing, not so much because the Chinese world was impenetrable as because Americans were so blunt and dull. Thomas has written a number of books about the US in East Asia, notably The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (2009, Little Brown). This seems to be where he tries to sum it all up.
HW Brands: Reagan: The Life (2015, Doubleday): A bid for a comprehensive single-volume biography (816 pp) of the mediocre actor, corporate shill, and demagogic (albeit absent-minded) politician who spent eight years as one of America's most corrupt presidents. Brands is a capable historian who's knocked off biographies on Ben Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and both Roosevelts -- I read his A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008) and recommend it, especially if you don't know much about the man or the era -- as well as some broad-brush books like American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (2010). On the other hand, I already know too much about Reagan, and I'm not likely to enjoy (or benefit from) any author who is not as repulsed by the man and his movement as I already am. I did, after all, live through this travesty. (And I've read Sean Wilentz: The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 , so it's not like I haven't tried.)
Richard Davenport-Hines: Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes (2015, Basic Books): A new biography of the great liberal economist, a figure whose relevance has only grown since the 2008 "Great Recession" happened -- although it seems like most political leaders and central bankers have yet to acknowledge the point. Also relatively new (and brief: 136pp): Peter Temin/David Vines: Keynes: Useful Economics for the World Economy (2014, MIT Press).
Alain de Botton: The News: A User's Manual (2014, Pantheon): British philosopher/social critic, originally from Switzerland -- has also written novels and appeared on television -- asks the question: what is our constant preoccupation with news doing to our minds? He picks apart various common story lines -- disasters, celebrity gossip, political scandals -- and tries to put their impacts into the context of everyday life. Previous books include: How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997); The Architecture of Happiness (2006); Relgion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012); How to Think More About Sex (2012).
DW Gibson: Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today's Economy (paperback, 2012, Penguin Books): A collection of interviews, some 480 pp, about just that -- reviewers compare this to Studs Terkel's Working, and to James Agee, high praise indeed. My own view of getting fired is that it's increasingly often like getting shot down by a random sniper -- you have little sense of it coming, it seems to single you out in a way that leaves you very isolated (and often feeling somewhat guilty), and in an instant you lose something you may never be able to put back together again. (In some ways that describes me after I was fired by SCO, although I had more of a safety net than most folks do.) Sure, there are differences: getting fired in America today is not a random act -- some people, including old guys like me, are statistically more likely to get hit -- nor is it an isolated act -- public policies that promote (or simply permit) mergers, union busting, outsourcing or offshoring of jobs, or other forms of corporate predation often result in mass firings.
DW Gibson: The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century (2015, Overlook Press): More interviews, but where the author's previous Not Working traveled around the country to focus on how getting sacked affects a wide range of people, here he focuses on one city (New York City, of course) and a phenomenon that affects people in various ways (although higher rent is one common denominator).
Benjamin Ginsberg: The Worth of War (2014, Prometheus): Most recently wrote The Value of Violence (2013, Prometheus), so this is a sequel as well as a doubling down. His arguments are much like those who delight in the "creative destruction" of capitalism, except with more blood and guts. Still, in both cases, what makes the argument sanitary is that the violence/war he praises is comfortably in the past ("few today would trade our current situation for the alternative had our forefathers not resorted to the violence of the American Revolution and the Civil War"). Maybe he has something more in mind -- he does see that the modern state is rife with implicit violence ("the police, prisons, and the power of the bureaucratic state to coerce and manipulate"), and he's right that we are less free of violence than we'd like to think, but by rationalizing war instead of rejecting it, he's not doing us any favors. He's written many other books, mostly anti-government tracts like The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power (1986), but also: How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism (2013, Rowman & Littlefield). I have no idea how he makes the leap from his subtitle to his title, but it's kind of like noting a few worthwhile technical advancements that were developed during a war and concluding that war is a good thing.
Steven K Green: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (2015, Oxford University Press): Author has written several books on church-state relations -- The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (2010, Oxford University Press); The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Church-State Doctrine (2012, Oxford University Press) -- and returns here to dissect the oft-repeated claim that the founders intended a Christian republic.
Raymond J Haberski Jr: God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (2012, Rutgers University Press): Americans have long been conceited about their uniqueness in the world, and this gradually cohered into the notion of a civil religion -- something which got a huge boost during the Cold War era, as the American brand alternately stood for freedom and capitalism. All nations claim to fight for God, but few have bound them together so unquestionably as the US has done.
Gary A Haugen/Victor Boutros: The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (2014; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press). The authors are primarily talking about "common violence like rape, forced labor, illegal detention, land theft, and police abuse" but more organized forms of violence are even more effective at depressing a population and locking them in poverty. One thinks, for instance, of the total inability of the US occupying forces to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq when faced with even relatively sporadic insurgent violence. Nor does the violence have to be "eruptive" -- the enforcement of economic sanctions depresses economies and pushes people into poverty (e.g., Gaza, or 1991-2003 Iraq, although the latter got worse). The authors argue that ending "common violence" requires effective criminal justice systems. Although you can find worse examples around the world, that doesn't let the US off lightly.
Steve Inskeep: Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (2015, Penguin Books): In case you ever got queasy about Stalin moving whole nations to the barren margins of Russia, beware that he got the idea from an American, Andrew Jackson, who ordered the Cherokee (and other tribes) uprooted and moved from North Carolina to Oklahoma (then designated "Indian Territory"). The story, retold here with uncommon focus on the Cherokee chief, is commonly known as the "Trail of Tears." Ready why. The author, by the way, was last seen writing about Pakistan: Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi (2011, Penguin Books).
Alyssa Katz: The Influence Machine: The US Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life (2015, Spiegel & Grau): I don't know how common this is, but in Wichita at least the Chamber of Commerce is extremely Republican and very active in pushing state politics to the extreme right. Evidently this is more widespread: "Through its propaganda, lobbying, and campaign cash, the Chamber has created a right-wing monster that even it struggles to control, a conservative movement that is destabilizing American democracy as never before."
Walter Kempowski: Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich (2015, WW Norton): History from a thousand scraps of paper -- diaries and letters from ordinary civilians, soldiers and prisoners of both sides, here and there some bigwig, a contemporary picture of the Reich in ruins. Kempowski (1929-2007) assembled ten volumes of diaries like this, as well as writing a number of novels, but this is his first book translated into English.
David M Kotz: The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (2015, Harvard University Press): Economist, "one of the few academic economists to predict it [the great recession in 2008]," rehashes the neoliberal economic policies that led to the crash. Not clear, though, what the "fall" is, sine no matter how hard they got tripped up, the politicians haven't been forced to rethink the standard approaches.
Jonathan Kozol: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America (2012, Crown): Bernard Goldberg wrote a book a while back listing "101 people screwing up America." Most were good people, but you could sort of see where their political stances ticked off Goldberg (Noam Chomsky, for instance, even though he's almost always right). However, the one thing I couldn't forgive, or even see anything but pure moral rot in, was his picking on Jonathan Kozol, a teacher who's never done anything more than expose how poor children are treated shabbily in our public schools. The only book of his that I've read was his first, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967), but he's written a dozen others, notably: Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (1988); Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (1991); and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005). Here he revists people he knew as children and growing up, over some twenty-five years, a mix of success stories and all-too-common failure.
Mark Kurlansky/Talia Kurlansky: International Night: A Father and Daughter Cook Their Way Around the World (2014, Bloomsbury USA): The elder author has written a number of popular history books with built around food -- Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), which led him to The Basque History of the World (1999); Salt: A World History (2002); The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (2006); and Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man (2012). The idea here is to spin the globe, land on a country, and fix dinner appropriate to that country. They wrote up a year's worth of meals, including the recipes. The sort of book I might be able to write, although his randomizing approach ventures further than I have. He also wrote two other books I've read (and recommend): 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (2004), and Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).
James Mahaffey: Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (2014; paperback, 2015, Pegasus): A survey of an important problem, although the author previously wrote a book proselytizing a brilliant future for the nuclear power industry -- Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (2009, Pegasus) -- and sometimes he seems a little glib here: e.g., Chapter 3: A Bit of Trouble in the Great White North; Chapter 6: In Nuclear Research Even the Goof-ups are Fascinating; Chapter 8: The Military Almost Never Lost a Nuclear Weapon. Fukushima Daiichi is at least called a tragedy, although you wonder whether he felt that for Japan or for the industry.
Joshua Muravchik: Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel (2014, Encounter Books): Author notes that as late as 1967 Americans and Europeans overwhelmingly favored Israel in its conflict with the Arabs, but the tide of public opinion in the west has markedly turned against Israel. I doubt the author attributes this shift to the "facts on the ground" Israel has so assiduously constructed -- the occupation, the settlements, the failure to resolve the world's largest and most persistent refugee crisis, the denial of basic civil rights to Palestinians, Israel's periodic bombing of neighboring countries, the growing power of an increasingly racist right-wing. Rather, he looks at the public relations battle, how Israeli Hasbara has been countered in various forums (especially among the democratic left, which he accuses of a new "leftist orthodoxy in which class struggle was supplanted by noble struggles of people of color").
Michael B Oren: Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (2015, Random House): Author of what is probably the standard military history of the 1967 war (at least from the Israeli side, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East; I can't think of anything remotely comparable from the Arab sides) and a long history of US adventures in the Middle East (Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present), Oren is also a political activist of Israel's right-wing, serving as Israeli ambassador to the US 2009-13. So this is a memoir of his advocacy, which primarily involved beating the war drums against his fantasy view of Iran while avoiding doing anything constructive about the real conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Adding to the surrealism is that Oren was born in the US, citizenship which he only renounced in 2009 -- a background which helps him promote the myth that the two nations should really act as one, with Israel calling the shots.
Timothy H Parsons: The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall (2010; paperback, 2012, Oxford University Press): His examples: Roman Britain, Muslim Spain, Spanish Peru, Napoleonic Italy, British India and Kenya, Vichy France. I imagine you could add your own examples, especially as the dynamics reappear in case after case -- although his cases vary in many respects, such as time (four centuries down to six years), integration of local elites, the religion of the rulers and the degree of conversion, the empires are inevitably driven by exploitation and instinct for survival to make themselves unwelcome. One can also argue that the world's tolerance for empires is declining, even cases which cloak their control as ingeniously as the US does.
Henry M Paulson: Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower (2015, Twelve): Head of Goldman Sachs, Treasury Secretary to GW Bush, some insider, close enough much of the book can be done as memoir. There are whole shelves of books on China's economic rise and the threat that implies to American economic supremacy (as if the latter is even a real thing in this age of multinational corporations and unrestricted capital flows).
Richard Reeves: Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II (2015, Henry Holt): Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into WWII, the government began rounding up Japanese-Americans and trucked them off to spend the war in concentration camps -- a story which in the muddled mind of Wesley Clark became a template for a new wave of camps for troubled Muslim youths, but which most Americans with any awareness recall as one of the more shameful episodes in American history. Racism against East Asians has largely faded in recent years, but was rampant well past WWII, and it was at the root of this.
Richard Rhodes: Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (2010; paperback, 2011, Vintage): No idea how I missed this, having read all three of Rhodes' previous books on the subject: The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986); Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995); and Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007). This volume attempts to tie up various loose ends, and spends a lot of time on Iraq, less on securing the former Soviet Union's arsenal, the dismantling of South Africa's bombs, North Korea, and the NPT -- less so on the French and Chinese projects that produced bombs in the 1960s, on Israel-India-Pakistan (the latter developed a bomb by 1990, the former two in the 1970s), the Iran controversy, and various other countries that worked on bombs but abandoned them (he mentions Taiwan and South Korea, both pressured by the US). Probably enough material left over for a fifth book. Doesn't look like he's going to find closure any time soon, although it's likely that Iran will soon be as dormant as Iraq seems now.
James S Robbins: This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (2010; paperback, 2012, Encounter Books): Put this on a shelf with Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999) as a piece of Monday-morning quarterbacking, an attempt to argue that the United States needn't have lost in Vietnam -- that in fact the troops were winning the war but the American people and their leaders let them down. Part of this view is the notion that the Tet Offensive in 2008, when Vietnamese forces penetrated to the center of most Vietnamese cities, spent so many resources that by the time the offensive was beaten back the Vietnamese were near defeat. But at the time, it didn't look that way: what the Tet Offensive showed, graphically, was that the propaganda coming out of Washington, justifying the war and touting future victory, was plain horseshit. Same for these revisionist ploys: they depend on the same sort of magical thinking that makes all American war planning seen invincible. How rational people can continue to believe this after the actual track record both in Vietnam and later in Afghanistan and Iraq is unfathomable, but the DOD and CIA have plenty of jobs for people who persist in this fantasy. One clue why is the reason I couldn't bring myself to write "NVA" or "VC" above -- I wrote "Vietnamese," because America's enemies there were the Vietnamese people, and the US couldn't claim victory there without killing nearly all of them. The cold fact is that had the Army not thrown in the towel and quit in 1973, had each administration after the other hung tough and kept the killing going, however many Vietnamese are left would still be fighting America today. The revisionists are offering a formula not for peace but for perpetual war, and that war is wrong not just because it can never be won -- it's wrong because it was never right in the first place.
Jan Jarboe Russell: The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II (2015, Scribner): In addition to the mass internment of Japanese-Americans, FDR set up a concentration camp in Texas where the US kept whole families of German and Italian natives (many US citizens), on the theory that they could be traded both Americans trapped behind enemy lines by the outbreak of war -- something called "quiet passage."
Shlomo Sand: How I Stopped Being a Jew (2014, Verso): Short essay (112 pp), from a relentless critic of Israel's system of identity classifications (Jew, etc.), hard-and-fast rules he's argued against in several previous books: The Invention of the Jewish People (2009, Verso); The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (2012, Verso).
David Satter: It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway (paperback, 2013, Yale University Press): Explores current Russian attitudes to the Soviet Union, including the fact that many Russians "actually mourn the passing of the Soviet regime." Satter previously wrote two of the more important books on recent Russian history: Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (1996) and Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003). For a different angle on this, see: Peter Pomerantsev: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014, Public Affairs).
Eric Schlosser: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013; paperback, 2014, Penguin Press): Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, no nation has used nuclear weapons in war. One might chalk that up to the idea, much touted by the very scientists who invented the thing in the first place, that nuclear weapons have made war unthinkable, although you'd also have to concede that it was not for lack of "thinking about the unthinkable" by the world's Dr. Strangeloves (Herman Kahn even wrote a book with that title). It's also the case that no one has accidentally set a nuclear bomb off, the prospect that Schlosser writes about. The "Damascus accident" occurred in 1980 in a Titan missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas (a few miles north of Little Rock): a dropped tool punctured a fuel tank, which caused the missile to explode, but the nuclear warhead on top of the missile didn't detonate (although the explosion did spray radioactive materials hither and yon). Needless to say, this wasn't the only such accident. Schlosser covers a wide range of them, the engineering problems they presented, and the politics on all sides.
Frederick AO Schwarz Jr: Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy (2015, New Press): Former chief counsel to the Church Committee on Intelligence -- you know, back in the 1970s, the last time Congress seriously tried to figure out what the CIA had been up to. Much of what we know about the CIA was aptly summed up by Tim Weiner: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007). They've been able to get away with such incompetence and criminality only inasmuch as they've been able to keep what they've done secret. Indeed, secrecy hides rot and degeneracy everywhere it occurs in government.
David K Shipler: Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword (2015, Knopf): Journalist, wrote a basic book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (2004), has lately turned his attention to threats to fundamental American liberties -- The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties (2011), and Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America (2012). I'd expect this to be the balanced book on freedom of speech issues that Kirsten Powers' The Silencing isn't. I wonder how far this goes into the recent vogue for extending corporate powers under the guise of free speech -- e.g., the "right" to engage in unlimited campaign graft.
Jason Stanley: How Propaganda Works (2015, Princeton University Press): I read a book on sales closes once and it included some helpful advice on how to keep from being sold something you don't want: recognize the close. Like a good close, propaganda needs to sneak up on you to be effective, so if this book does reveal the secrets, it will help you see through them, and take back control over your own mind. Although anyone can construct propaganda for any position, in real life propaganda is very unbalanced. Part of this is that it's expensive, something the rich can afford while the poor cannot. Also, propaganda is needed for positions that cannot be argued by appealing to logic, facts, and the general welfare, and those are overwhelmingly concentrated on the right. For example, one of the better ones was Bush's proposal to allow timber companies to shred public lands: they called this the Health Forests Initiative. Likewise, Stanley's examples are mostly from the right. Stanley previously wrote Know How (paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press).
Bettina Strangneth: Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (2014, Knopf): Author picks through "more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann's own recently discovered written notes -- as well as seventy-three extensive audio reel recordings of a crowded Nazi salon held weekly during the 1950s in a popular district of Buenos Aires" to construct a portrait of the Nazi war criminal in exile, and concludes that his self-effacing act on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, which led Hannah Arendt to coin the term "balanity of evil" -- was just an act.
Bert Randolph Sugar: The Baseball Maniac's Almanac: The Absolutely, Positively, and Without Question Greatest Book of Facts, Figures, and Astonishing Lists Ever Compiled (3rd edition, paperback, 2010, Skyhorse): Caught my eye because I used to belong to a club called Baseball Maniacs, but pretty sure none of us got any royalties. Basically a trivia book, chock full of statistical lists, some pretty obvious but most involving multiple selection criteria; e.g. "3000 Hits, 500 Home Runs, and a .300 Batting Average, Career": just Hank Aaron and Willie Mays; "Players with 2500 Career Hits, Never Having a 200-Hit Season": 29 players topped by Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, and Cap Anson (who never played a 100-game season until he was 32 and only topped 140 once), and including great hitters who walked a lot, like Rickey Henderson, Mel Ott, Barry Bonds, and Ted Williams. The old players I recognize, like George Gore (a teammate of Anson's with a lifetime .301 BA), still the player born in Maine with the most base hits. Instantly obsolete, of course, the kind of book that's unlikely to be updated in the future -- it would be easy to replace it with a free website. Sugar has several list books like this, but his real interest is boxing.
Elana Maryles Sztokman: The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom (2014, Sourcebooks): Jewish feminist, has written two other books on Israel's politically established Orthodox Judaism -- The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (2011, Brandeis); Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (2013, Brandeis) -- and their increasing insistence on segregating and bullying women over what they consider immodest dress. She should probably write her next book on Orthodox homophobia -- an Orthodox recently stabbed six people in a Jerusalem Gay Pride parade. Also on the evolution of Israeli Orthodoxy: Marc B Shapiro: Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites It History (2015, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization).
David Vine: Base Nation: How American Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015, Metropolitan Books): Even skipping the better known war zones, there are hundreds of bases, costing on the order of $100 billion per year. Their presence is one reason the US shares blame for the regimes they reside in, and one reason the US is repeatedly dragged into the world's wars -- even ones we're not directly responsible for. Closing those bases is an essential step to extricating the US from war abroad, with all the damage that causes both there and here.
Nikolaus Wachsmann: KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Attempts to provide a complete history of Nazi Germany's concentration camps -- KL for Konzentrationslager -- from the beginning in March 1933 when the target was ostensibly "social deviants -- an ever-expanding definition that came to include everyone who suffered the Fuhrer's ire. Big job, big book (880 pp). Other books continue to come out, most showing that no matter how definitive the big book looks, there's always more misery to uncover: Sarah Helm: Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (2015, Nan A Talese); Elissa Malländer: Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (2015, Michigan State University Press); Dan Stone: The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath (2015, Yale University Press); Kim Wünschmann: Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps (2015, Harvard University Press).
Michael Walzer: The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (2015, Yale University Press): "Many of the successful campaigns for national liberation in the years following World War II were initially based on democratic and secular ideals. Once established, however, the newly independent nations had to deal with entirely unexpected religious fierceness." Examples are: India, Israel, Algeria. Walzer's skill at rationalizing "just wars" is always suspect, but he raises a fair question. I wonder whether he recognizes the role of the US (and other post-colonial powers) in promoting religious reactionaries to undermine socialism? Or that the violence needed to liberate those nations was itself fertile ground for religious reaction?
Especially on the old lists, there were a lot of books that I didn't feel like writing up, mostly because they're no longer timely (or recent), but some just because I didn't have much to say about. So I figured I'd just list them here. In a couple cases I've added a very short explanation, but mostly I'll let the titles/subtitles speak for themselves. I also saved a few of the more recent ones, so this is likely to become a regular feature (given that books worth noting the existence of but not worth spending much time on are likely to be published in the future; in fact, in a couple cases I threw away blurbs that didn't say anything to file the books here).
Tuesday, August 4. 2015
I started doing these book blurb "roundups" in April 2007. This is the 57th such column, so I've averaged about 7 per year. I don't recall when I introduced the 40-book limit, but that should add up to a little more than 2000 books over 8 years. (The actual cumulative file has 3319 paragraphs in it, of which a couple hundred are probably redundant blurbs -- most often written for paperback reprints.) This last week I've been trying to catch up with the last 12 months -- a break in my postings, although I had taken notes and written a few entries during that time. That yielded a column on June 17 and two more last week, with this the third. Forty books here leave me with a little more than twenty in the draft file. I'm going to try to round them up to a fourth installment later this week. The main thing that's slowing me down is that I have at least eight notebooks with lists of books I jotted down at various bookstores, and I'm slowly going through them, trying to decipher my atrocious handwriting, and look things up. Some of the books are worth adding, but many more are dated -- in fact, I'm finding a lot from around 2010 (along with notes on Borders coupons; frankly, I haven't been to many bookstores since Borders was shut down). More on that later.
Meanwhile, here's another forty books from the last year or two. My interest in collecting these is to get a sense of the public debate on important political/social/economic issues and their history (although sometimes my interests are a bit wider than that). With very few exceptions, these are not books I've read, or even actually looked at. The information is mostly gathered by browsing through Amazon or (rarely) other websites, so it depends on published summaries, blurbs, occasionally reader comments, and sometimes by looking at the partial preview scans.
Ali Abunimah: The Battle for Justice in Palestine (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Palestinian blogger, previously wrote One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, tries to remain hopeful.
Hisham D Aidi: Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (paperback, 2014, Vintage): Explores musical subcultures among Muslim youth around the world, primarily hip-hop but also rock, reggae, and more traditional forms like Gnawa. Also seems to know the history where bits of traditional Muslim music worked into blues, jazz, and other genres we don't associate with the Muslim world. I see no mention of metal here, but it's worth noting Mark LeVine: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (paperback, 2008, Three Rivers Press).
George A Akerlof/Robert J Shiller: Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception (2015, Princeton University Press): Two Nobel Prize economists who built their careers by exploring cases where markets fail, co-authors of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (2009). Proper functioning of markets depends on perfect information, but that rarely exists. That leaves a lot of opportunity for profit through fraud, and that's what this is about.
David Bromwich: Moral Imagination: Essays (2014, Princeton University Press): A dozen essays, three in Part Two on Abraham Lincoln. The ones I'd be most interested in reading: "The Meaning of Patriotism in 1789" and "Comments on Perpetual War" with its sections on Cheney, Snowden, and "What 9/11 Makes Us Forget." I read an essay of his on American Exceptionalism that doesn't seem to be here, unless it's the better-titled "The American Psychosis" (or "The Self-Deceptions of Empire").
Paul Buhle/David Berger: Bohemians: A Graphic History (paperback, 2014, Verso): Buhle was editor of Radical America way back when. A historian, he had an interest in comics long before graphic novels became commonplace. This explores the counterculture before the word was coined. Buhle also collaborated on: w/Nicole Schulman: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (paperback, 2005, Verso); w/Sharon Rudahl: Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (paperback, 2007, New Press); w/Howard Zinn/Mike Konopacki: A People's History of American Empire (paperback, 2008, Metropolitan Books); w/Denis Kitchen: The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics (2009, Abrams); w/Harvey Pekar: Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (paperback, 2009, Hill & Wang); w/Harvey Pekar: The Beats: A Graphic History (2009; paperback, 2010, Hill & Wang); and he's written two "For Beginners" books -- which, by the way, is a good place to start on anything they cover: FDR and the New Deal for Beginners (paperback, 2010, For Beginners); Lincoln for Beginners (paperback, 2015, For Beginners).
Ha-Joon Chang: Economics: The User's Guide (2014, Bloomsbury Press): A basic economics primer from a Korean economist who's been known to cast a critical eye on capitalism and its myths of development strategy; cf. his Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective (2002), Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (2007) and 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (2011).
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me (2015, Spiegel & Grau): Short (176 pp) book, a memoir as a letter to a teenage son, life lessons and all that, an Afro-American essayist being compared to James Baldwin but from a different (but not that different) era. Previously wrote The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir (2009).
Paul Collier: Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World (2013; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press): A more general book on what we narrow-mindedly call immigration, Collier is the author of several books on things that generate migration, including: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (paperback, 2007, Oxford University Press); Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (2009, Harper; paperback, 2010, Harper Perennial); and The Plundered Planet: Why We Must -- and How We Can -- Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (2010; paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press). Book's original subtitle (in UK): Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century.
Tom Engelhardt: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Another collections of columns from the author's TomDispatch website, on various aspects of the US security state and its shaky pretensions to empire.
Rory Fanning: Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): A former Army Ranger, a member of the same unit that killed Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, leaves the military and tries to find the America he once thought he was serving. Turns out his service was not in vain -- it was just suspended for a few years due to his wrong turn into the Army.
Robert A Ferguson: Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014, Harvard University Press): America's criminal justice system is broken, in large part because those who run it seem unable to grasp the notion that punishment should be limited, both for practical reasons (like declining effectiveness) and because it systematizes brutality.
Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015, Basic Books): Written by "a Silicon Valley entrepreneur," argues that with recent and expected advances in automation and artificial intelligence the future will offer ever fewer "good jobs" (or for that matter jobs of any sort). The result will be unprecedented unemployment -- made worse, I'm sure, by the conservative mantra that forces people into ever poorer jobs. By the way, that's also pretty much the point of James K Galbraith: The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014, Simon & Schuster).
Brandon L Garrett: Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations (2014, Belknap Press): Although we've lately seen some large fines, none of the people who wrecked the economy in 2008 (except Bernie Madoff, I guess) have been so much as threatened with jail terms -- surprising given the magnitude of fraud in some of the cases.
Jonathan Marc Gribetz: Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and Early Zionist-Arab Encounter (2014, Princeton University Press): Explores how Jews and Arabs interacted in the early days of Zionist settlement, especially under Ottoman rule before the British tilted the tables in favor of Zionism. Gribetz argues that at least within this period the two peoples didn't see themselves in nationalist terms, but were separated on other bases (like religion and race). It occurs to me that the Ottomans provided just that framework, one which changed dramatically when the English took over (when Zionists adopted British colonial attitudes and tactics, while both sides realized that nationalism would provide a path to independence).
Tim Harford: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run -- or Ruin -- an Economy (2014, Riverhead): Author of a series of book that try to explain economics with everyday examples, attempts to make the leap from micro to macro here. Not sure whether he's up to it, especially given the summaries I've read. I've read one of his book, and don't remember a thing about it.
Andrew Hartman: A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015, University of Chicago Press): The phrase "culture war" is brandied about so often that you probably know what Hartman is writing about -- a laundry list of hot-button issues ("abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, feminism, and homosexuality") that the (mostly religious) right got worked up about since whenever, their hysteria more effective once they aligned with the right-wing Reagan juggernaut. But to call this a "war" posits a skirmish where both sides attack the other: in fact, the attacks almost all come from the right, and what they're attacking is most often an extension of basic civil and human rights contrary to the most cherished prejudices of the right. Note that the list above doesn't include theocracy, which is what most of the huff is really about.
Dale Jamieson: Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed -- and What It Means for Our Future (2014, Oxford University Press): Author, a philosopher, seems to accept the basic science of climate change -- indeed, "in his view, catastrophic ecological damage is a foregone conclusion" -- but has more trouble with why so many people have trouble coming to grips with the issue. One thing he focuses on is lack of agency: the sense that what little we can do as individuals doesn't matter. Not clear that he digs behind this sense of powerlessness to look at the economic interests that benefit -- at least within the narrow confines of their accounting systems -- from filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Related: George Marshall: Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (2014, Bloomsbury Press).
Mark LeVine/Mathias Mossberg, eds: One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (paperback, 2014, University of California Press): A collection of essays that attempt to work out how two states, defined not by territory but by their respective citizenship cohorts, might work to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don't see the term, but this looks like a refinement of the bi-national notion that pops up periodically when prospects for two-states or one-state look especially grim, but never seems more than an idea. This is, indeed, "thinking outside the box" (a chapter title).
John R MacArthur: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency is Impossible (paperback, 2012, Melville House): Written after Obama had nearly finished his first term but before his reelection, it's clear that the author didn't consider his first term progressive -- well, neither did I. Also early enough to include a blurb by George McGovern, who knows a few things about what can happen to a smart and fundamentally decent human being when he dares run for president. And while running is bad enough, one recalls how both Clinton and Obama abandoned issues they ran on almost the instant they entered the White House. MacArthur's previous books include The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy (2000).
Michaelangelo Matos: The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (2015, Dey Street Books): The one critic I try to follow regularly for his insights into techno or electronica or EDM or whatever you call it -- I still remain blissfully ignorant of the distinctions between the dozen or so subgenres my favorite Detroit-area record store uses. So I grabbed this as soon as it came out, and some day hope to get around to it.
Jane McAlevey: Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (paperback, 2014, Verso): Trying to revive the American labor movement, from the front lines, by a (relatively) successful labor organizer.
Robert W McChesney: Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy (2014, Monthly Review Press): Professor of communications, media critic, has a pile of books, mostly on how media in America is perverted by corporate control, and the ill effect that has on democracy.
David Ohana/David Maisel: The Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites Nor Crusaders (paperback, 2014, Cambridge University Press): Attempts to explain Zionism through the symbolic opposition and entanglement of two story lines: one that roots the Israelis unshakably deep in the history of the land, the other that recognizes their conquest from outside but proclaims it divine.
Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty: Summary, Key Ideas and Facts (paperback, 2014, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform): Short (112 pp.) summary of Piketty's bestselling book: the most important book to have appeared recently on increasing inequality, the central political problem of our time.
Thomas Piketty: The Economics of Inequality (2015, Belknap Press): A short (160 pp) general text on inequality, older than last year's monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century -- most likely a translation (and possibly update) of 2004's L'économie des inégalités.
Katha Pollitt: Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (2014, Picador): One of the few books I've seen recently that seeks to regain the moral high ground on the issue of reproductive rights, of which access to safe abortions is essential. A longtime feminist flag-waving columnist, her essays were previously collected as Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (paperback, 2006, Random House).
Jake Rosenfeld: What Unions No Longer Do (2014, Harvard University Press): A history of the decline of labor unions in America, and what we as a nation lose by no longer having unions to advocate for American workers sharing a more equitable stake in the economy. Several more recent books on the decline (and/or hoped for revitalization) of unions: Stanley Aronowitz: The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movement (2014, Verso Books); Steve Early: Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (paperback, 2013, Monthly Review Press); Raymond L Hogler: The End of American Labor Unions: The Right-to-Work Movement and the Erosion of Collective Bargaining (2015, Praeger). Thomas Geoghegan, in Only One Thing Can Save Us Now: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press), argues for treating the right to join a union (which is enshrined by law under the Wagner Act but virtually unenforceable) as a civil right, under civil rights law.
Peter Schweizer: Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets (2013, Houghton Mifflin): Would seem like an equal-opportunity politician-hater -- previous book was Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison but he's also written tomes flattering conservatives (Makers and Takers: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less . . . and Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals) and slamming government (Architects of Ruin: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation). The fact is that the entire political system is open to corruption, and insiders of both parties are protective of it: indeed, they're pretty much selected for their ability to raise money. Still, there are differences: on the one side there is the party that acknowledges that there is such a thing as the public interest and occasionally considers the desires of people without money, and on the other side there is the celebrates the naked pursuit of self-interest and does everything it can to allow businesses and property owners to rip your off. Obama promised much during his campaign, and one thing promised he did absolutely nothing on was to work to limit the influence of money on politics. Whether he was sincere or not is almost beside the point: as you can see by the alignment of the majority in the Citizens United case, the leading promoters of corruption in politics today are conservatives, in large part because they realize their is to anti-popular that the only way they can win is to bury the issues in expensive propaganda. Still, the likely error here is thinking that politicians are shaking down business (extortion) rather than business corrupting the politicians. To test what's really happening you should weigh the relative economic slices. One thing you'll find is that politicians work pretty cheap.
Richard Seymour: Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made (paperback, 2014, Pluto Press): Prescribing austerity to cure a recession is much like the mediaeval practice of bleeding patients, and backed by about as much science and logic. British writer, sees austerity as class struggle, as an attack on the working class, as if the recession didn't do damage enough.
Pat Shipman: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (2015, Belknap Press): Co-author of The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind (1993, with Erik Trinkaus), also wrote The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human (2011). The former book did much to give us a sense of how modern neanderthals were, so the question of their extinction continued to puzzle, advancing speculation (or whatever) here.
Les Standiford: Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles (2015, Ecco): The story of the Los Angeles Water Company and construction of a 233-mile aqueduct to move water from the Sierra Nevada to the desert valley that became Los Angeles -- a story vaguely familiar if you've seen the movie Chinatown, or read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986, revised 1993).
Wolfgang Streeck: Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (paperback, 2014, Verso): Lectures providing a brief history and critique of neoliberalism since the 1970s, focusing on how the business doctrine interacts with (undermines) democracy.
Richard H Thaler: Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (2015, WW Norton): One of the first economists to look at irrational behavior in economics (as opposed to the usual math-simplifying assumption of rational actors), became better known when he teamed with political theorist Cass Sunstein for Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Presumably more analysis here, and less of the wonkery they call "libertarian paternalism."
Laurence Tribe/Joshua Matz: Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution (2014, Henry Holt): On the very divided Supreme Court, which seems to tip one way or the other on uncertain whims, sometimes as extreme as the Citizens United ruling which practically turns elections into auctions.
George R Tyler: What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class . . . and What Other Countries Got Right (2013, BenBella Books): Author has a background in international non-profits, particularly regarding pharmaceuticals, so he not only understands the nuts and bolts of increasing inequality, he knows how more robust safety nets outside the US have cushioned the blow.
Kenneth P Vogel: Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp -- on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich, Hijacking American Politics (2014, Public Affairs): Sort of a "who's who" of the big money players in American politics, some notorious like Sheldon Adelson and the Kochs, others more discreet. American politics has always been highly corruptible, all the more so as the nation's wealth is increasingly captured to a tiny elite.
David Weil: The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done About It (2014, Harvard University Press): The reason is worker's loss of power/leverage. Weil specifically focuses on outsourcing but that's only one piece, and indeed the threat of outsourcing is often effective at cutting the knees from under workers. Loss of worker power lets companies do other dastardly things, but even if they are less malign, the loss of interest lets all sorts of rot set in. Weil sees better regulations as helping without denying companies "the beneficial aspects of this innovative business strategy." Another approach would be unions.
Tim Weiner: One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (2015, Henry Holt): Author of two sprawling histories, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007) and Enemies: A History of the FBI (2012). As more of Nixon's tapes are opened up more precision is added to the history, not that the general lines weren't adequately revealed at the time. I mentioned this in a long list of recent Nixon books under the entry for Douglas Brinkley/Luke A Nichter: The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, but felt it was worth singling out. For one thing, this is likely to be the most damning of the non-fringe books, and no one deserves a more jaundiced critical eye than Nixon.
Eric Weisbard: Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (paperback, 2014, University of Chicago Press): As I recall, pop/rock seemed like a single mass culture in the early 1970s, but even then radio stations were coming up with various genre/formats to attract desired advertising niches, and by the '80s it was all over: one could listen to pop/rock all the time and never come across a top-ten single (excepting Madonna). In retrospect, other genres had split off well before the 1970s, and each makes for its own peculiar view into its own slice of the culture. This book looks back on the main ones, with the last chapter's post-millennial fragmentation the only one I have no sense of.
Darrell M West: Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust (paperback, 2014, Brookings Institution Press): Billionaires are different from mere millionaires. Many of the latter have the sort of economic security that ensures they can survive misfortunes and will never go wanting, but they are still need to do the accounting to keep their fortunes in shape. Billionaires are not just secure. They are so secure they have money they can't think of any conceivable use for other than to remake the world in their own image. US politics has become little more than a plaything for billionaires, much like polo ponies in olden days but far more dangerous.
Saturday, August 1. 2015
As I noted yesterday, I had fallen way behind on my book blurb roundups -- almost a year missing until my June 17 post. (By the way, I blame Amazon for much of this, since their immensely useful website is all but guaranteed to crash my browser within a half-dozen pages. Lately I've been using the Chromebook's browser for Amazon, an awkward workflow but less troublesome.) I picked out most of the top political books for the June 27 post, and added most of the top historical books yesterday. That leaves a wide scattering of other subjects -- all at least nominally non-fiction. I don't generally track music books, but there are a few of those here. Some science too -- the main thing I read back in the 1980s, although I've scarcely had time for it in the last decade-plus (although I have at least tracked most of the climate catastrophe books). Some books lead to lists of related books, where I hope the titles are self-explanatory. And there are more of the usual political and historical books -- perhaps a bit more marginal given I've already picked through them in recent posts. Sometimes I pick out a right-wing book to argue with (Brooks, Gairdner, Powers, and Voegeli fit that bill below). Sometimes I don't have much to say about a left-wing book but want to note it anyway.
Sometimes I jump the gun before deciding that a book is really interesting, and those pieces tend to get stuck in my draft file until I finally flush them out. I have enough left over for at least one more post, so I may do that tomorrow (instead of Weekend Update, the file for which is empty at the moment).
Only one book below I have the cover cached for (i.e., I've already read), although I've also bought a copy of Steele's The Open-Source Everything Manifesto.
Samuel Avery: The Pipeline and the Paradigm: Keystone XL, Tar Sands, and the Battle to Defuse the Carbon Bomb (paperback, 2013, Ruka Press): On Alberta's tar sands and why they represent such a threat to irrevesibly amplify global warming. Also available: Andrew Nikiforuk: Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (rev ed, paperback, 2010, Greystone Books); William Marsden: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care (2007; paperback, 2008, Vintage). If you want to explore the other side, there's Alastair Sweeny: Black Bonanza: Canada's Oil Sands and the Race to Secure North America's Energy Future (2010, Wiley), and Ezra Levant: Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands (2007, paperback, 2011, McClelland & Stewart) -- the latter is an anti-Arab rant, and the former plays on that prejudice while declaring everything else squeaky clean.
Robert B Baer: The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins (2014, Blue Rider Press): Ex-CIA agent, wrote about his career in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (2002); also Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (2003), and The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower (2008). Not clear how critical and/or complicit he his, but this manual for assassins may try to have it both ways -- as if there are two sides to the story.
Alex Berezow/Hank Campbell: Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (2014, Public Affairs): It should be clear by now that there is no single omnipresent Left in America, especially given how easily writers can construct strawman examples to kick about. This book picks on ones that the authors at least associate with the left, although from the list I see many (if not all) of the issues focus more on what corporations do with science and what the potential risks may be than on the science itself. Still, I do know people who might be considered left-leaning who understand very little of science and sympathisize with all sorts of nonscientific nonsense, but that's no less true of ignorant right-leaning people. What is different about the right is the number of people who seriously reject not just the policy application but the scientific principles behind climate change and evolution.
John Brockman, ed: What Should We Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): One thing that should be clear by now is that people aren't very good at assessing risks, especially ones that are large and/or distant, but also ones that are near and/or familiar. This book promises the clarity of science, but many of the pieces are a bit fuzzy ("Tim O'Reilly forsees a coming Dark Age; Douglas Rushkoff fears humanity is losing its soul" -- those are pieces that actually intrigue me more than meteoric catastrophes or financial black holes). Brockman, by the way, has a whole cottage industry editing books along these lines. Recent ones include (all Harper Perennial paperbacks): What Have You Changed Your Mind About?: Today's Leading Minds Rethink Everything (1/2009); This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future (12/2009); Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future (1/2011); This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (2/2012); This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (1/2013); Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (10/2013).
David Brooks: The Road to Character (2015, Random House): Always one to jump out in front of a fad, this is a timely guide for those who want to blame social, economic, and political failures on those who have lost out, on their intrinsic character -- a lack of the sort of virtues that are assumed to lead to success. Those virtues, of course, are the usual conservative homilies. As a self-help book this might have some value, but Brooks is nothing if not a political hack, so when, say, he praises civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin for their "reticence and the logic of self-discipline" he really means to dismiss all the others who don't show enough deferrence to the conservative order.
Noam Chomsky/Andre Vltchek: On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (paperback, 2013, Pluto Press): Chomsky has a tendency to batter you with long list of facts, and one of his favorite lists is the violent, anti-democratic acts of the US and its allies around the world. Unpleasant as the beating is, if you aren't aware of those facts you're likely to fall for the usual sanctimonious explanations that conspire to keep the list growing.
Robert Christgau: Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (2015, Dey Street Books): Memoir from childhood growing up in Queens through college at Dartmouth and several newspaper jobs through his stretch as music editor at the Village Voice, ending in the early 1980s. Disclosure: he's a friend, and I make a couple brief appearances in the book, plus one in the acknowledgments. More prominent in the book is his wife, Carola Dibbell, who it should be noted has a new novel out, The Only Ones (paperback, 2015, Two Dollar Radio).
Niles Eldredge: Extinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life (2014, Firefly): Paleontologist, co-author (with Stephen Jay Gould) of the "punctuated equilibria" theory of evolution, which was suggested by the general lack of transitional finds in the fossil record. Illustrated, almost an art book. For a more technical book, see Eldredge's recent Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species From the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond (2015, Columbia University Press). Over the years I've read a lot by Eldredge, but hadn't noticed: The Fossil Factory: A Kid's Guide to Digging Up Dinosaurs, Exploring Evolution, and Finding Fossils (with Douglas Eldredge, paperback, 2002, Roberts Reinhart); Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene (paperback, 2005, WW Norton); Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life (2005, WW Norton); and Concrete Jungle: New York City and Our Last Best Hope for a Sustainable Future (with Sidney Horenstein, 2014, University of California Press).
Peter Finn/Petra Couvée: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (2014, Pantheon): The book was Boris Pasternak's famous novel, Doctor Zhivago, banned in the Soviet Union -- an opportunity the CIA seized upon by publishing it in Russian as a propaganda coup. The authors managed to get hold of CIA documents on the affair, most likely Russian sources as well.
William D Gairdner: The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree (2015, Encounter Books): Author is Canadian, previously wrote books like The Trouble With Canada and The Trouble With Democracy, and the publisher is right-wing, so I don't expect he comes up with much of an answer. I'd say that polarization reflects increasing inequality, which by definition means we have less in common, and that leads to less respect for one another. In a polarized society, people are less likely to compromise on the self-interest of others (unless they are compelled, so the power to do that is increasingly sought). While some of these traits are even-sided, others are asymmetrical. In particular, the right is much more fond of using force to achieve its ends (war, violence, guns, jail). On the other hand, the left is more likely to recognize the humanity of the right than vice versa: the left's definition of "us" is broadly inclusive, the right's is exclusive. And the goals are fundamentally different: the right seeks to preserve the wealth and privilege of the few, whereas the left prefers to share the wealth among all people. Gairdner may muddy this up a bit by sticking to "conservative" and "liberal" labels.
Atul Gawande: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014, Metropolitan Books): Surgeon, has written several eloquent books on his craft, the health care industry, and sometimes how they don't mesh very well. For instance, hospitals often spend a lot of time and effort (for a lot of money) doing fruitless procedures on people who are dying anyway, often causing more suffering than they can alleviate.
Russell Gold: The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (2014, Simon & Schuster): It's long been known that you can boost oil production by pumping liquids into oil fields to force the oil toward the producing wells. That's been done in Saudi Arabia since the 1940s, but hasn't been cost-effective in the US until recently. Hydraulic fracturing goes a step further, opening up oil- (and gas-) saturated shales that otherwise would be too dense to produce. The US has a lot of gas-shale, and that's the base for the so-called boom. US oil production has been diminishing since its peak in 1969, and we're seeing similar limits and declines all around the world -- a phenomenon that validates the "peak oil" hypothesis. Fracking, therefore, to some observers looks like a reversal of the laws of physics rather than just the next increasingly-expensive recovery methods. My view is that the boom is temporary, and that in the US in particular, where there is so little effort aimed at conserving petroleum resources, it's something that we'll burn through pretty quickly (while depositing all that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, trapping solar energy and cooking the planet). Other recent books (2014 unless noted): Ezra Levant: Groundswell: The Case for Fracking (Signal); Michael Levi: The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future (2013, Oxford University Press); Alex Prudhomme: Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press); George Zuckerman: The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters (2013, Portfolio); but also see: Walter M Brasch: Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster (paperback, Greeley & Stone); and Richard Heinberg: Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (paperback, 2013, Post Carbon Institute).
Richard Goldstein: Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s (2015, Bloomsbury USA): A memoir by a good candidate for America's first rock critic, who started writing "Pop Eye" for the Village Voice in 1966. By the time I started reading him he was mostly writing about politics, which was fine with me.
John Michael Greer: Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (paperback, 2014, New Society): Prime concern is economic sustainability, which he doesn't find much evidence of in the US. Has a number of doom and gloom works, aside from his interest in organic gardening.
Mohsin Hamid: Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London (2015, Riverhead): Novelist from Pakistan, has lived in those other towns (currently a UK citizen), collects essays on "life, art, politics, and 'the war on terror.'"
Simon Head: Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (2014, Basic Books): Focuses on Computer Business Systems (CBSs) used to run large businesses, including the supply chains of Walmart and Amazon but also the financial shenanigans of Goldman Sachs. That this sort of technology is used to automate jobs and suppress wages has long been obvious. But who gets dumber as a result?
Bob Herbert: Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America (2014, Doubleday): Former New York Times opinion columnist travels around America and finds much to worry, and complain, about.
Matthew W Hughey/Gregory S Parks: The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (2014, NYU Press): Looks at how Republicans talk about Obama and finds various ways they exploit lingering racism in America.
Kojin Karatani: The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (paperback, 2014, Duke University Press): Japanese philosopher, has written about Kant and Marx in the past (Transcritique: On Kant and Marx), revisits Marx somewhere between anthopology and globalization.
Edward D Kleinbard: We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money (2014, Oxford University Press): An attempt to reframe government taxation/spending debates not on traditional left-right terms but in terms of return on investments regardless of size. I think this is fundamentally right, although the devil will be in the details. There are many useful and important things that government can do more efficiently and more effectively than the private sector -- indeed, there are some that the private sector will only do if plied with exorbitant bribes. Nice to think we're smart enough we can figure this out, but there's little evidence of that.
Jon Krakauer: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015, Doubleday): A small city, population nearly 70,000, home of University of Montana so about 15,000 students. Local authorities were notoriously lax investigating rape complaints, so Krakauer investigated and this is what he found out. FWIW, I've read five previous books by Krakauer (out of six).
Daniel J Levitin: The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (2014, Dutton): Brain book, verging into self-help territory. Author has a couple of books on music: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Information overload is a real issue, and a reliable method for coping is something one might desire. However, as long as misinformation is profitable that will be a tall order.
Charles Lewis: 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity (2014, Public Affairs): IF Stone used to say, "all governments lie." Still, we'd be better off with fewer lies, which I suppose is the point of this. But getting to the truth is surely a more complex process. Lewis is such a stickler for the certainty of truth that his title refers to a documented count of "lies that led to the war in Iraq." Sure, there were lies, many of them, but some were big and some were small, some flowed automatically from others, most from misperceptions about how the world works and how American force functions in that world. Correcting for lies is a worthwhile step, but understanding why powers lie and being able to detect when they do even if you don't know what the truth is are more important still.
William McDonough/Michael Braungart: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance (paperback, 2013, North Point Press): An architect and a chemist, previously wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remking the Way We Make Things (2002), an engineering ethic that not only dispenses with planned obsolence but goes much farther.
Kirsten Powers: The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech (2015, Regnery): Billed as a "lifelong liberal," worked in the Clinton administration, etc. But note the publisher, that she's a "Fox news contributor," and that her blurb authors are: Charles Krauthammer, Brit Hume, Juan Williams, Eric Metaxas, Ron Fournier, and George F Will. Or just the subtitle: no one on the left actually refers to the left as such, partly because we realize what they call the left we know to be a wide range of often conflicting views with no effective organizational unity. (We can, of course, speak of the right, with their daily talking points endlessly drummed into their marching base via Fox News, although lately even some of them seem to be going off message.) I have no idea what actual examples Powers has come up with -- maybe the old anti-PC rant that people should be able to express themselves as racists without fear of objection or challenge. It's true that occasionally someone says something racist on mainstream media and gets canned for embarrassing the network, but it's not the left that owns those media. For most of my life the right has been the far more serious threat to free speech -- most chillingly during the McCarthy period, but even now there's a concerted right-wing effort to purge universities of left-leaning professors (something David Horowitz, who uses "left" repeatedly in his book titles, is very active at). One can also mention efforts to prosecute (or "hold in contempt") journalists who reveal classified secrets -- James Risen is a prominent recent case. Since Obama's DOJ went after Risen, and Powers' people regard Obama as part of "the left," maybe that made Powers' list? I doubt it, since that's just the sort of thing the right would do given the opportunity. If you want to find out about real threats to free speech, check with the ACLU.
Diana Preston: A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare (2015, Bloomsbury Press): Historian, has written about the Boxer Rebellion, the Lusitania, and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima (2009), and with her husband has written historical fiction pseudonymously as Alex Rutherford. Her six-week window here was April to June 1915, during which the Germans introduced submarine warfare, aerial bombing (from a zeppelin), and poison gas (chlorine) -- innovations which "forever changed the nature of warfare." Her title, by the way, isn't original; see Robert Harris/Jeremy Paxman: A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare (paperback, 2002, Random House). Still, the notion that less discriminate forms of killing are "higher" is perplexing.
Arundhati Roy: Capitalism: A Ghost Story (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Short political broadside from the famous Indian novelist, critic, and activist. She has a bunch of these, including: Walking With the Comrades (paperback, 2011, Penguin); Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (paperback, 2009, Haymarket); An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (paperback, 2004, South End Press); Public Power in the Age of Empire (paperback, 2004, Seven Stories Press); War Talk (paperback, 2003, South End Press); Power Politics (2nd ed, paperback, 2002, South End Press); The Cost of Living (paperback, 1999, Modern Library).
Asne Seierstad: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): In 2011 Breivik killed eight with a bomb and shot and killed sixty-nine more at a Labour Party youth camp -- crimes he justified with a lengthy racist tract. Seierstad, from Norway, has written well-regarded journalism about Afghanistan (The Bookseller of Kabul, Iraq (One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, and Chechnya (Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya).
Micah L Sifry: The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn't Transformed Politics (Yet) (paperback, 2014, O/R Books): "This is a book for social and political activists." The Internet promised more democracy. It didn't exactly deliver less, but it wrapped it up in so much noise it made many things harder to sort out, and harder to do. By offering us more connection, it's wound up making us more isolated. I read some of this and see the problems, but only a limited slice is available in the preview: any answers he has seem to be beyond the cut. Ain't that just typical?
Ken Silverstein: The Secret World of Oil (2014, Verso): Focuses more on the corruption of the finance and trading sides of the industry, as opposed to more mundane matters like exploration and production. Needless to say, there is a lot of corruption to report.
Vaclav Smil: Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature (2012, MIT Press): Rather technical assessment of how much of the Earth's biosphere has been captured by human beings, and how this affects the carrying capacity of the planet. Important info for that population bomb debate.
Robert David Steele: The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth, and Trust (paperback, 2012, Evolver Editions): Author started out as a spy, but found that the shroud of secrecy in his business wound up distorting everything. He came up with the idea of Open Source Intelligence as a way of untangling the subversion, then picked up the lessons from Open Source Software and tried to generalize that into Open Source Everything. Needless to say, this sounds right to me -- at least until proven otherwise.
John Paul Stevens: Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (2014, Little Brown): Brief book by retired Supreme Court justice wants to tinker. The subjects: the "anti-commandeering" rule; political gerrymandering; campaign finance; sovereign immunity; the death penalty; the second amendment (gun control).
John Szwed: Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (2015, Viking): Biography of the legendary jazz singer, timed to come out 100 years after Holiday's birth. Szwed has written excellent biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and Alan Lomax, as well as the essential primer, Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz (2000).
Dominic Tierney: The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts (2015, Little Brown): Military theoretician, so no chance he'll advise avoiding conflicts let alone wars. But he's aware that the US hasn't won, by any definition, much of anything since WWII, and that the problem lies in the nature of the conflicts (which American thrashing only aggravates). His formula is surge-talk-leave. This assumes there's some tangible goals short of occupation, but that's probably another book/author. (I could imagine that the credible threat of US invasion might cajole some sort of power-sharing agreement -- that's sort of what happened with Bosnia/Serbia -- but that's hardly the American way.) Author previously co-wrote Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (2006) and wrote FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle That Divided America (2007) and How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (2010).
William Voegeli: The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion (2014, Broadside Books): A new twist on an old complaint, that liberal programs to help the less fortunate don't work (help the less fortunate) because, well -- fill in the blank. Being an asshole, Voegeli doesn't really care why they don't work, since he rejects the notion that compassion is a good reason to do anything, and he regards people who are compassionate as "unfit to govern" -- most conservatives agree, but try to palm off their mean-spiritedness as something a bit more palatable, like "tough love" (lest they look like assholes). I doubt that Voegeli is really doing his kind any favors here. It strikes me that both conservatives and liberals are more or less equally likely to empathize or be compassionate, but the kind of people conservatives care about is much more limited (to people most like themselves), whereas liberals are less picky about the people they care for. This leads Voegeli to a key misunderstanding: most programs he decries as compassionate (because they benefit people he would regard as pitiable if he wasn't such an asshole) are seen by liberals as self-help -- after all, they help people not unlike oneself.
Janine R Wedel: Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt our Finances, Freedom, and Security (2014, Pegasus): Any doubt that American policy is primarily driven by the profit motive, both for the elites that control it and the corporations that bankroll them, should be dispelled here. This not only delegitimizes policies, it is more often than not dysfunctional, guaranteeing that the sponsored policies will fail. Wedel initially studied corruption in Poland. Then she came home, to see how it is really done.
Edward O Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth (paperback, 2013, Liveright): Invented something I never trusted that he calls sociobiology, but he is one of the foremost writers on the impact of human beings on nature, and there is no doubt that humans have conquered earth, for better or worse. Or maybe this book is just about insect societies? -- another of his major topics.
Stephen Witt: How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy (2015, Viking): Business writer focuses on how file sharing works and rose in prominence, undermining the recorded music industry.
James Wolcott: Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (2013, Doubleday): Bio doesn't mention Village Voice, where I know him from, but the music reviews go back that far, and are complemented by pieces on film and TV, books, other things a literate raconteur would bump into over the last 30-40 years.
Friday, July 31. 2015
I neglected these short book blurbs for close to a year -- July 3, 2014 to June 17, 2015 -- so I'm still catching up. In fact, I have so much written at this point I'll try to do another tomorrow. For today's selection, I've tried to focus on history books. (Last entry was focused on political books.)
Tariq Ali: The Extreme Centre: A Warning (paperback, 2015, Verso): British Marxist, novelist, filmmaker, part of the old New Left Review crowd, wrote a book in 2002 which excoriated extremists on both sides of the terrorism wars (which he dubbed the Oil Wars -- see The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity). Now he finds comparable trouble in the so-called center, focusing on the UK and Europe where the traditional parties of left and right compete to support corporations.
Edward E Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014, Basic Books): Argues against the notion that slavery was pre-capitalist or even anti-capitalist by pointing out the how especially in the cotton industry technical innovations (hence capital) were developed to make slavery more productive and profitable. But showing that slavery was compatible with capitalism doesn't lighten its burden -- if anything, the opposite. Some of this was anticipated by Walter Johnson: River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013, Belknap Press). Also related: Sven Beckert: Empire of Cotton: A Global Industry (2014, Knopf).
Max Blumenthal: The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015, Nation Books): The title reminds you that while Israel only took six days to defeat the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, seizing large slices from each's territory, they spent six-and-a-half times as long poking, probing, and pounding the tiny, defenseless Gaza Strip -- with no tangible gains, a repeat of three previous military operations that prooved equally fruitless. Blumenthal's recent Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013, Nation Books) revealed a profound racism (loathing) growing in Israel's dominant right-wing, so I hope this book goes beyond accounting the casualties and recording testimony of the survivors to get at the viciousness that powers these recurrent eruptions of Israeli wrath. Blumenthal's book is the first out on this latest round, but the following aren't what you'd call dated: Gideon Levy: The Punishment of Gaza (paperback, 2010, Verso); Norman Finkelstein: This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion (paperback, 2010, OR Books); Noam Chomsky & Ilan Pappé: Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians (paperback, 2010, Haymarket Books); or for that matter, Amira Haas: Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege (paperback, 2000, Picador).
Daniel P Bolger: Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (2014, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Three-star general, had commands both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Concludes: "at the root of our failure, we never really understood our enemy." True, but "we" also didn't understand much of anything else, least of all how ill fit the US military was for occupying foreign countries. It's refreshing that Bolger admits that the operations were failures, but he doesn't seem to understand that the relentless focus on killing/capturing "enemies" created its own failures, as did the very alien-ness of the US military.
Joel K Bourne Jr: The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World (2015, WW Norton): The Green Revolution in the 1960s seemed to background Robert Malthus' population theories, but they're coming back as population grows, land remains constant, technology fails to bridge the gap, and other threats (like global warming) are increasing.
Douglas Brinkley/Luke A Nichter: The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Verbatim transcripts (784 pp of them), the precise history Nixon wanted you to hear, and some he didn't. Good to have this in book form, but I can't imagine wanting to read it. For some reason we have an avalanche of Nixon books, in addition to Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014, Simon & Schuster): Patrick J Buchanan: The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority (2014, Crown Forum); John W Dean: The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (2014, Viking); Elizabeth Drew: Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall (paperback, 2015, Overlook Press); Don Fulsom: Treason: Nixon and the 1968 Election (2015, Pelican); Irwin F Gellman: The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1951-1961 (2015, Yale University Press); Ken Hughes: Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (2014, University of Virginia Press); Jeffrey P Kimball/William Burr: Nixon's Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (2015, University Press of Kansas); Ray Locker: Nixon's Gamble: How a President's Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration (2015, Lyons Press); Michael Nelson: Resilient America: Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government (2014, University Press of Kansas); James Robenalt: January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever (2015, Chicago Review Press); Douglas E Schoen: The Nixon Effect: How His Presidency Has Changed American Politics (2015, Encounter Books); Geoff Shepard: The Real Watergate Scandal: Collusion, Conspiracy, and the Plot That Brought Nixon Down (2015, Regnery); Roger Stone: Nixon's Secrets: The Rise, Fall and Untold Truth About the President, Watergate, and the Pardon (2014, Skyhorse); Evan Thomas: Being Nixon: A Man Divided (2015, Random House); Tim Weiner: One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (2015, Henry Holt). Gellman's book is the second part of a multi-volume effort. Treason, by the way, refers to Nixon's back-channel efforts to undermine LBJ's peace talks, elsewhere known as the Chennault Affair. Fulsom previously wrote Nixon's Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America's Most Troubled President (paperback, 2013, St. Martin's Griffin). Weiner has written good books about the CIA and FBI, so I suspect his is the most useful of the new books. I read Gary Wills: Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man back when it originally came out (1970) and that's as deep as I ever want to get into that man's mind.
Tom Burgis: The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth (2015, Public Affairs): While Africa has about 30% of the world's reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals, and 14% of the world's population, its economies have remained stagnant (e.g., only 1% of the world's manufacturing). The looting began under European colonialism, but continues today, enabled by the corruption of elites. Related: Celeste Hicks: Africa's New Oil: Power, Pipelines and Future Fortunes (paperback, 2015, Zed Books); Luke Paley: The New Kings of Crude: China, India, and the Global Struggle for Oil in Sudan and South Sudan (paperback, 2015, Hurst).
Bryan Burrough: Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (2015, Penguin): Investigates various fringe radical groups in the 1970s -- the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, FALN, the Black Liberation Army -- who resorted to violence to advance their frustrated political ideals, and the federal agents who hunted them down (who themselves "broke many laws in its attempts to bring the revolutionaries to justice"). Also on the FBI's suppression of left radicals: Aaron J Leonard/Conor A Gallagher: Heavy Radicals: The FBI's Secret War on America's Maoists: The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980 (paperback, 2015, Zero Books).
Sarah Chayes: Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (2015, WW Norton): Previously wrote The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (2006), which indicted pretty much everyone for failing to secure a better future for the Afghan people after the US pushed the Taliban out in 2001. She supported that war, and wound up advising the US military, which puts her in an odd position: she identifies corruption as a major security problem for the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but misses the fact that the US has never been able to stand up non-corrupt governments anywhere, because American foreign policy is driven by the profit motive in the first place -- you didn't really buy into that altruistic humanitarian horseshit? But corruption delegitimizes government and leads to opposition, and often violence.
Meghnad Desai: Hubris: Why Economists Failed to Predict the Crisis and How to Avoid the Next One (2015, Yale University Press): Several variations on this book have appeared, and no doubt more will. Although economists are often asked for predictions, their models are more likely to seek an equilibrium that disallows crisis -- and in turn gives them little reason to research past crises. Still, one way to approach this would be to identify exceptions that did predict the crisis, then ask why no one paid much attention to them. One reviewer notes that lack of any mention of Hyman Minsky "leaves a gaping hole in an otherwise admirable book." I'll add that while failure to predict the crisis was a problem, a bigger one was inability to recognize what it all meant once it happened. Krugman, for instance, didn't predict the crash, but he knew exactly what was going on when it happened.
Don H Doyle: The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (2014, Basic Books): A survey of how the war was viewed abroad, finding that monarchists hoped to see the Union (and democracy) fail, while radicals (like Karl Marx and Giuseppe Garibaldi) "called on the North to fight for liberty and equality." Both sides sent diplomats abroad to argue their cases. I don't see much about economic interests here. The best known is England, which leaned toward the Confederacy as a backward source of raw materials (mostly cotton), possibly fearing the Union as a potential competitor in manufacturing -- no doubt some English continued to oppose slavery, but that doesn't seem to have overridden economic interests. On the other hand, the Union tended to play down the issue of slavery in justifying the war effort, at least domestically. I wonder whether their case abroad differed.
Douglas R Egerton: The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era (2014, Bloomsbury Press): A new history of the post-Civil War period, focusing on the striking advances of newly-emancipated black office holders and the systematic violence they were met with, and finally defeated by.
Barry Eichengreen: Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses -- and Misuses -- of History (2015, Oxford University Press): Similarities and differences between 1929 and 2008, how the memory of the former affected the response to the latter (and, I hope, how forgetting lessons from the former slowed down recovery from the latter). One thing I noticed at the time was that the initial output drop was almost exactly the same both times, but was soon limited by the much larger public sector in 2008 and much more responsive public policy (especially the frantic cycle of bank bailouts), but having averted a crash as bad as in 1929, the policy czars underestimated the damage, nor were they forced by public opinion to produce necessary reforms. Author has mostly written about currency issues; e.g., Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1918-1939 (1996), and Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System (2011).
Richard J Evans: The Third Reich in History and Memory (2015, Oxford University Press): Author of a sweeping three-volume history of the Nazi movement -- The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (2005), and The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany From Conquest to Disaster (2008) -- returns for a review of how Hitler and company have been remembered. Seems to be an essay collection rather than a systematic treatment, but so much has been written about the subject that one can cover a lot of ground just reviewing whatever books come your way.
Eric Foner: Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (2015, WW Norton): America's foremost historian not so much of the Civil War per se -- that would be James McPherson -- as the penumbra surrounding it (aboltionism, reconstruction) adds another piece of the story, detailing how slaves escaped to freedom in the North, and how free blacks were often seized by "slave catchers" and forced into bondage. I read Foner's first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War back when it was originally published (1970).
Howard W French: China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (2014, Knopf): Not sure how important this is, but China (or Chinese businesses) have been looking to grab a larger slice of Africa's raw resources -- evidently this involves immigration as well as investment. This is reminiscent of western governments and companies, before and after "independence" but perhaps novel as well, given how inexpensively China can move their own people into place. French previously wrote A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa (2004).
David A Grimes/Linda G Brandon: Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation (2014, Daymark): Grimes is a doctor, so this focuses on health care matters. Clearly, availability of safe legal abortion procedures was a big advance over illegal and often dangerous procedures. Not clear how far this goes into how abortion rights changed political, economic, and social issues but a book could be written there, too.
Nisid Hajari: Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition (2015, Houghton Mifflin): Another book on the bloody history of the British Empire's final "gift" to India: partition in 1947, which led a million deaths, many millions displaced, and set the stage for future wars, subterfuge, and terrorism between India and Pakistan. I've read Alex von Tunzelman's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007), which focuses more on the Mountbattens, and Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (2007), but there are many other books on this subject, including fictions like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. This is reportedly one of the best.
Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015, Harper): From the emergence of modern humans c. 70,000 years ago, a mix of genetics and sociology used to construct a hypothetical prehistory, regardless of the title -- "packed with heretical thinking and surprising facts" one reviewer says.
Dilip Hiro: The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan (2015, Nation Books): The partition of India in 1947 led immediately to one of the greatest carnages of the post-WWII era, remembered through a continuous conflict that errupted in two more major wars between India and Pakistan and numerous threats and crises. Hiro, b. in Pakistan, has written dozens of books on the Middle East and South and Central Asia -- his reference book The Essential Middle East: A Comrepehsive Guide (2003) is one I keep on an easy-reach shelf; his A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East (2013) would be an update -- so he's well positioned to cover this story.
Bruce Hoffman: Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (2015, Knopf): Author is some kind of "terrorism expert" -- wrote Inside Terrorism (rev ed, 2006, Columbia University Press), and, w/Fernando Reinares: The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden's Death (2014, Columbia University Press) -- so sees mandatory Palestine as a rare case study where Israeli terrorism "worked": as such, he rather narrowly focuses on the Irgun and LEHI (Stern Gang) from 1939-47, as opposed to the broader question of the militarization of the Yishuv from the death of Joseph Trumpeldor (1920) through the formation of Haganah and Palmach, the Arab Revolt (1937-39), WWII, and the final integration of Irgun and LEHI into the IDF in 1948. No doubt this has a lot of detail as far as it goes, but the broader book seems to have been an afterthought -- little more than jiggering the dates. Also note that it's easy to overrate the effectiveness of Irgun/LEHI terror, since the UK had basically decided to quit Palestine after suppressing the Arab Revolt. Also that the "soldiers" didn't remain "anonymous" for long: Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir parlayed their notoreity as terrorists into successful political careers (both became Prime Minister).
Gerald Horne: The Counterrevolution of 1776: Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014, NYU Press): Argues that by 1776 Britain was increasingly likely to abolish slavery, so one major motivation for the American Revolution was the desire of slaveholders to preserve their peculiar institution. Conversely, slave revolts in the British Caribbean were increasing, and likely to spread to the American colonies. Author previously wrote Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the US Before Emancipation (paperback, 2013, NYU Press), and Race to Revolution: The US and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow (paperback, 2014, Monthly Review Press). An earlier book with a similiar thesis is Alfred Blumrosen: Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (paperback, 2006, Sourcebooks).
Ayesha Jalal: The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (2014, Belknap Press): A history of Pakistan from 1947 to the present, its Muslim identity, cold war alliances, and ever troublesome relations with India, Afghanistan, and ultimately the United States. Other recent books on Pakistan: Hassan Abbas: The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (2014, Yale University Press); Faisal Devji: Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (2013, Harvard University Press); C Christine Fair: Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War (2014, Oxford University Press); Laurent Gayer: Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (2014, Oxford University Press); Husain Haqqani: Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (paperback, 2015, Public Affairs); Feroz Khan: Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (paperback, 2012, Stanford Security Studies); Aqil Shah: The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan (2014, Harvard University Press); Rafia Zakaria: The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (2015, Beacon Press).
Tony Judt: When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010 (2015, Penguin): Selected essays from the late historian, including his famous essay recanting his early Zionism. The title refers to a famous quote that one's views should change in accordance with changing facts.
David Kaiser: No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War (2014, Basic Books): Covers the period before the attack on Pearl Harbor at least back to 1939, showing how Roosevelt worked to better position the US to fight a war that he considered inevitable. I doubt that this goes into the question of to what extend Roosevelt provoked the Japanese attack (let alone the old conspiracy buff argument that he knew in advance of the attack and didn't tip the military off to maximize the outrage). One Amazon reader panned this, saying "spoiled by a slap at George Bush." A comparison of the two wartime presidents, how they managed their wars, and what the accomplished (or failed) might be worth a book of its own. Related: Nigel Hamilton: The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-42 (2014, Houghton Mifflin).
Fred Kaplan: John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (2014, Harper): A substantial (672 pp.) biography of the sixth US president, his term four years in the middle of a career that started as a teenage diplomat during the revolution and ended as one of the strongest voices against slavery in the House of Representatives.
David Madland: Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn't Work Without a Strong Middle Class (paperback, 2015, University of California Press): It shouldn't be hard to make this point. The US economy grew at robust rates from 1945-70 when strong unions were able to capture a fair share of productivity gains, raising the working class to a middle class standard of living. Since then growth rates fell, unions were busted, virtually all productivity gains went to business, and a series of asset bubbles and busts combined with financialization led to a vast increase in inequality, hollowing out the middle class. I don't know whether Madland has a solution. Thomas Geoghegan does, in Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press).
James McPherson: The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (2015, Oxford University Press): Far and away the bloodiest conflict in American history -- the last real war fought in American soil -- and not always remembered as the triumph for justice all American wars are meant to teach. The afterwar (what us northerners call Reconstruction) certainly divided political life for another century only to be if not re-fought at least re-litigated in the 1960s. Since then the legacy has become stranger, so it would be interesting to get McPherson's take. By the way, while he has wound up writing many books on military aspects of the war, the first book I remember him for was The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union (1965).
Mark Perry: The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur (2014, Basic Books): This seems to focus on the relationship between MacArthur and Roosevelt (and Marshall) rather than the later period, with MacArthur's successful occupation of Japan and disastrous direction of the Korean War -- as I recall, the title comes from this latter period. Perry has written extensively about WWII-era generals.
Richard Rhodes: Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made (2015, Simon & Schuster): Rhodes has written a fine trilogy on the history of nuclear weapons (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, and Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race) and an important book on the Nazi invasions of Poland and Russia (Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust). The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) immediately preceded those stories, so directly that the US labelled Americans who volunteered to defend democratic Spain against Franco "premature anti-fascists." I don't see the point in blaming Neville Chamberlain for appeasing Hitler's demand for the Sudetenland while ignoring the western powers' failure to stand up to Hitler in Spain. I suppose at this point the best-known book on the Spanish Civil War is Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (2006), but I'd rather read Rhodes.
Bruce Riedel: What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89 (paperback, 2014, Brookings Institute Press): Longtime CIA analyst and Afghanistan hack dates the end of the Afghan War from the point when the Soviet Union withdrew, even though the country has experienced peace at no time since then. But in 1989 the CIA clearly concluded that "we won": one wonders how critical Riedel can be, but surely he recognizes some irony there -- not unlike, say, GW Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment.
Eugene Rogan: The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015, Basic Books): After a century of losses, especially in eastern Europe, and ten years after a coup that brought a triumvirate of Young Turks to power, the Ottomans allied themselves with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Great War of 1914. Not clear how much decline this book covers, but the fall came quickly, with the Ottoman's Arab provinces partitioned between Britain and France, the Armenian population decimated, and Ataturk's nationalist movement defeating an invading Greek army and consolidating control of Turkey. This winds up being a very important piece of history, one previously covered by David Fromkin in one of the best-named books ever: A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 (1989).
Simon Schama: The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD (2014, Ecco): With a second volume (When Words Fail: 1492-Present) scheduled for November 15, with a PBS tie-in (the first season DVD, covering five episodes, is out). Schama also did a 15-hour PBS A History of Britain, accompanied by three volumes.
Nancy Sherman: Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015, Oxford University Press): Philosophy professor, held a post at the Naval Academy, seems to have had a lot of contact with damaged returning soldiers. I'm suspicious that her "philosophical engagement" is meant to enable more war, but one can certainly find reasons here that argue for less. Also interested in her proposed changes for military courts, which have traditionally treated "shell shock" harshly as some form of cowardice. We seem to have given up any thought of reforming criminals, but right now soldiers are held in such empathy that we may be open to trying to save them, and there may be some lessons there. The book, however, doesn't seem to address cases like Henry Kissinger, where moral lapses are caused not by trauma but by cunning.
Emma Sky: The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015, Public Affairs): Author went to Iraq to work for the Occupation in 2003 and stayed at least through 2010 (she was political advisor to US General Odierno). Touted as "an intimate insider's portrait of how and why the Iraq adventure failed" -- which is to say highly biased, but even blaming others (like "the corrupt political elites who used sectarianism to mobilize support") reveals much about one's own culpability. (She's British, so has a little distance from the Americans, but prefers the Americans she worked with -- Petraeus, Odierno, Crocker -- to the ones she didn't, and ultimately puts a lot of blame on Iran for the resurgence of sectarian violence under Maliki, a relationship her insider status didn't provide her privvy to.)
Cass R Sunstein: Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice (2015, Oxford University Press): Political theorist, closely associated with Obama (although that probably does both of them a disservice and makes it all a bit creepy; Robert Reich with Clinton is a similar case, although Reich at least is consistently on Clinton's left). Co-wrote a book with Richard H Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008) arguing for a "libertarian paternalism" which gives people a fig-leaf of options while encouraging them to take the defaults selected for them. He follows up here with examples of how having choices can be burdensome. No doubt, but in a political and economic system so rife with corruption as ours is, it matters who sets defaults, how, and why. Sunstein's recent books seem aware of this, especially Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (paperback, 2015, Yale University Press); also: Simpler: The Future of Government (2013; paperback, 2014, Simon & Schuster); Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State (2014, University of Chicago Press); and Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter (with Reid Hastie; 2014, Harvard Business Review Press).
Adam Tooze: The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014, Viking): Author of a huge WWII book, Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2007), looks at the first world war or its aftermath with an eye toward the economy -- after all, economic capacity ultimately proved decisive in both wars.
Nick Turse: Tomorrow's Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa (paperback, 2015, Haymarket Books): One of the few journalists covering nearly every facet of the US military in the world today, and the only one I've seen trying to keep track of the increasing wave of undeclared and unpublicized operations in Africa.
Gernot Wagner/Martin L Weitzman: Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet (2015, Princeton University Press): Tries to put a price tag on global warming, factoring in various risky scenarios, some quite severe. We generally know that denialism is rooted in specific economic interests (chiefly coal and oil). But how do those interests stack up against others that have little to gain by doing nothing and potentially much to lose?
Bernard Wasserstein: On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (2012, Simon & Schuster): An encyclopedic survey of Jewish life all across Europe up to the start of World War and the Holocaust.
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.
Wednesday, September 17. 2014
Every year dozens of books are published about a topic that only a handful of Americans care about: specifically, those with cushy "think tank" jobs, plus a few military officers and State department bureaucrats who aspire to those jobs. Most assume that the US has a rightful role running the World Order, with some fretting that China or some other nation is going to butt in and offering sage advice on how the US can secure its rightful role. Against these stalwart hegemonists, now and then someone will argue that a "multipolar" isn't such a calamity, but they are in the minority, and are still so obsessed with dominance they needn't fear about losing their status as Very Serious Thinkers.
The books, of course, are nonsense, predicated on unexamined ideas: that chaos and war are the natural state of the world, that order is so valuable you have to accept it from whoever can impose it, that inequality is the best we can do given man's venal nature. That is, of course, the way conservatives think about everything. Unfortunately, it is also the way liberals usually think about the foreign world, given how readily they have sucked up the prejudices of the West's imperial past. In 2003 Jonathan Schell published an antidote to that kind of thinking, a book called The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. It was published just as the neocon ideology had become fashionable and powerful enough to "create new reality" in Iraq, and predicted failure for such hubris. Ten years later the results should be clear, but still the foreign policy elite natters on, too absorbed in their own prejudiced thoughts to have noticed their failures.
Case in point: a new book called World Order by America's most venerable war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Fortunately, we don't have to actually read the book: we can skim through the New York Times' review by John Micklethwait -- editor-in-chief of The Economist, the kind of journalist who makes his living chronicling the rarefied world of conservative "think tanks." (Micklethwait's most famous book is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which every 4-5 pages reiterated the mantra that conservatives are America's "idea people." He also wrote A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization  and God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World , extolling the wonders of free capital flows and fundamentalism, respectively. His latest is The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, about how the future belongs to oligarchies that are able to usurp the powers of the state.) Rarely has reviewer and subject been so perfectly matched to bring out the worst in a book.
However, before we dive into the review, I should point out that there is an alternative approach to international relations that is wholly absent in the thinking of Kissinger and Micklethwait: the idea that order can be obtained through the consent of equal nations with a common commitment to basic, inalienable human rights and a just body of international law. In the wake of two horrific world wars, and the advent of even more destructive nuclear weapons, that idea got so far as the founding documents of the United Nations -- before that body got turned into a cartel of superpowers -- and the basic ideas have reappeared occasionally since. I could elaborate more, but for now just keep the idea in mind.
The first quarter of Micklethwait's review is sheer flattery:
It's not as if Kissinger didn't have the ear of the Bush Administration after 9/11. He was, after all, Bush's first pick to chair the commission that would report on the 9/11 attacks. (He turned the job down for fear of having to disclose who his consulting clients were.) If he had any reservations about Bush's approach to Iraq or anything, he was remarkably circumspect about voicing them. And since when has Churchill been an expert on anything? He always said he hadn't been elected to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, but no one did more to wreck it, which he repeatedly did by insisting on substituting his prejudices for any understanding of or empathy for the empire's subjects. On the other hand, Kissinger's own record is nearly as bad. The suggestion that he would have handled Syria and Ukraine better than Obama has -- admittedly a low bar -- overlooks how much his own policies contributed to those conflicts today.
The Westphalia treaties ended the 30 Years War in 1648 with a set of agreements between nations/states/cities to respect each other's autonomy and work with each other in prescribed ways. This later led to an ever-adjusting set of alliances to maintain a balance of power -- which mostly worked to keep the peace in Europe (and to export war to the third world) until its colossal failure in 1914. Kissinger always thinks in the past, and far enough back as to ignore recent novelties like the European Union, so balance of power is the best he can do. Unlike the neocons, he recognizes that the US isn't the sole power in the world, one suspects this has less to do with realism than with the fact that it takes multiple powers to balance.
After all, while the neocons hate Kissinger, he has never really reciprocated. The reason, I think, is that both worship power. It's just that the neocons think they have so much power they can create their own reality, and Kissinger, well, he's never been to type to point out "the Emperor's new clothes" -- he's too much of a flatterer for that, too worshipful of power.
The review goes on and on iterating Kissinger's past examples, a litany of Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, Talleyrand -- curiously enough, courtiers like Kissinger and not the monarchs they served. Kissinger goes on to belittle the European Union:
For Kissinger, historical change not accomplished by force hardly counts. Then he explains Putin and Russia:
Again, nothing like a historical factoid to explain away current behavior or policy. This one is about as facile as trying to explain the Bush occupation of Iraq as the latest wrinkle on Manifest Destiny. It may indeed be that a nation capable of the former is predisposed to the latter, but that leaves a lot of intervening history unexamined in favor of a pat answer.
I suppose this is where you notice that Micklethwait is British: he can't quite fall for the poor, tiny, beleaguered Israel line that is political orthodoxy in the US. Kissinger has been around the block enough to know better too, but to say so would take principles, or courage, neither a Kissinger staple. Propounding ignorance about Islam, on the other hand, takes neither. It's right up his alley.
Another remarkable example of Kissinger's ability to look at al the complexities of history and only see power relationships, then to take the narrowest thread and explicate it through some totally unrelated event in European history. Sure, Britain united India politically -- more Bismarck than Napoleon, I'd say, until they also split it into two warring halves -- but they also destroyed India economically. (One thing I wonder is whether Kissinger would have been so successful had stayed in Europe, where his audiences and patrons might actually know much of the history he revels in.)
Middle Kingdom? Another example of forcing the present into the distant past so he can avoid having to understand what's happening there. I like the line -- "Good men do not become soldiers" -- but modern China does not lack for soldiers, or for nails. While modern China must in some sense continue to reflect and resonate ancient China, the nation's remarkable economic growth of the past 20-30 years is more due to forced modernization. This is a modern (perhaps even postmodern) phenomenon -- unexplainable through ancient history, but also non-analogous to the processes that created similar results in Europe and America. In particular, China (and most of East Asia, Japan a partial exception) achieved its wealth without building on imperialism, so is unlikely to look at the world the same way Europe and America do. Needless to say, that's a thought Kissinger is incapable of.
One of my favorite rock lyrics is from the band Camper van Beethoven, and goes like this: "If you weren't living here in America/you'd probably be somewhere else." There are several problems with being self-centered. One is that you can't see yourself as others see you, and as such you have no clue when you do something wrong. Back when the US army was smaller than Bulgaria's it still did things that were wrong -- 1890, the very year Micklethwait cites, was the date of the Wounded Knee Massacre -- but those wrong things were much smaller in scope and more isolated from the rest of the world than they are today. I don't know why Kissinger/Micklethwait complained about the size of the 1890 army. Back then, the US was already the most prosperous nation in the world, without getting into the trap of managing overseas colonies (although it often treated Central America like one). Nor was the US isolated: with the possible exception of the UK, no nation traded more all around the world. What more do they want?
The notion of America as an "indispensable nation" dates from WWII, when latent industrial might turned the tables against the Axis -- although we conveniently forget that most of the actual fighting was carried out by the Soviet Union and China. Unfortunately, Americans had too good a time in that war -- a massive Keynesian stimulus, strict profit controls, and a sense of common purpose pushed a previously depressed economy into overdrive, while all of the war's destruction took place elsewhere. By the time the war was over, over half of the world's industrial capacity resided in the US, and America alone had the financial power to jumpstart the world economy. After some early gestures to build a peaceful world community, Truman got distracted and decided that the US should side with capital in the international class war, so efforts like the Marshall Plan were turned into political weapons against not just the Soviet Union but the whole working class. The "Cold War" somehow managed not to destroy the world, but the US repeatedly supported desperate attempts by colonial powers to recapture their empires, and corrupt dictators and oligarchs when independence was inevitable, while isolating nations that had the gall to turn toward communism. Ultimately, the big loser of the Cold War wasn't the Soviet Union, which gave up the game, but America's own middle class democracy.
Micklethwait, possibly echoing but at least distilling Kissinger, described the Cold War thusly:
After the Soviet Union fell, America's foreign policy elites were beside themselves with triumphal glee -- proclaiming The End of History and looking forward to The Clash of Civilizations -- but their triumph was little more than a con. Had Reagan's rhetoric caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate, why did communist states the US confronted much more aggressively (like Cuba and North Korea) stay communist? If communism was a dead end, how was China able to post the world's strongest economic growth record over the last 25 years? Moreover, when you sift through the real rubble of the "Cold War" you find enormous chasms where the US took the wrong side of history and left enormous destruction in its wake: the "chaos in the Middle East" that Micklethwait bemoans is largely the result of America's Cold War embrace of Salafist jihadism -- a program, by the way, initiated in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger came up with the bright idea of propping the ultraconservative Saudi monarchy up as a US proxy in the Middle East (and soon thereafter Afghanistan). To say "America's moral order worked" is well beyond insane.
This isn't to say that the US should have no role in the world (although that would clearly be an improvement over the one the US has practiced for nearly seventy years now). Clearly there are useful and valuable things a large and rich nation can do in the world -- the $750 million Obama just proposed to fight the ebola epidemic is a nice gesture (although, as Nick Turse recently documented, the US has a terrible track record of running "humanitarian projects" in Africa). But what needs to be done is for the US to meet other countries in forums that give everyone a fair and equal shake, and for that to happen the US has to stop throwing its weight around, trying to bully everyone else into submission. More specifically, the US needs to develop a genuine commitment to peace and human rights, to equality and justice, to a sustainable stewardship of the earth. To do that, a good first step would be to stop listening to Henry Kissinger. In fact, a good step would be to extradite him to the Hague, to finally be tried as the war criminal he was (and is).
Thursday, July 3. 2014
Last New Book Notes was on April 2, the one before that on February 11, so this is about when I should be coming up with another collection of forty blurbs. If anything, I'm a little late, but then I always seem to be late. Actually, I have another batch of forty in the draft file, so I may well come up with a second post this week.
Anyhow, these are the most interesting titles I've noticed on real and virtual bookstore shelves recently:
Julia Angwin: Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (2014, Times Books): A journalist surveys the surveillance nation -- not just the NSA but your phone company and Google too -- senses that the response to surveillance will be self-censorship to the point of losing freedom, and tries to figure out ways to cope, even to carve out some measure of privacy.
Gary J Bass: The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013, Knopf): About the 1971 revolt and war that split Bangladesh off from Pakistan, and how Nixon and Kissinger were so wrapped up in their Cold War machinations they didn't notice (nor did they care) that millions of people were perishing. Bass has a rotten history as one of those liberal hawks who invariably wants the US to jump into wars everywhere there's a chance to save lives, and this is a case that suits him to a T. (As I recall, Noam Chomsky cited India's intervention as one of the very few cases where a war actually did some good.) And it never hurts to be reminded that Nixon and Kissinger were war criminals of the highest order. Still, beware the hidden agenda.
Michael Burleigh: Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965 (2013, Viking): Given the years covered, most of those faraway wars were revolts against European (and American) imperialism, many of which got caught up in the Cold War as the United States forsake liberalism in favor of any tinpot despot who could be counted as anticommunist. That adds up to a pretty big book (668 pp) with "18 distinct story lines of terrorism, counter-terrorism, intrigue, nationalism, and Cold War rivalry." Good chance he spreads himself thin, as well as missing the upshot -- which is that the Cold War was primarily responsible for undermining democracy and undoing the middle class in America.
Tyler Cowen: Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation (2013, Dutton): New York Times pundit, on the conservative side, does at least approach real problems while denying that they can be fixed (often by reassuring us that the right people are working on it). E.g., his brief on the economic decline of the middle class was The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. This book is about how inequality is good because, well, it generates more millionaires.
Robert F Dalzell Jr: The Good Rich and What They Cost Us (2013, Yale University Press): The pictures on the cover depict George Washington, Oprah Winfrey, and two guys in the middle -- I gather one is John D. Rockefeller, who despite the enormous foundation that still bears his name was never much regarded as "good," for the public at least. Probes the contradiction between a public committed to democracy and one that seems to celebrate the rich.
John Demos: The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic (2014, Knopf): A study in racism, really, as Demos examines a school set up by New England evangelists for "heathens" from around the globe -- Henry Obookiah, from Hawaii, was a famous student here -- and how the Connecticut community reacted to that school.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything (2014, Grand Central): A memoir of sorts, about the search for truth or knowledge or understanding. One of the few people I'd read anything by.
Graham Farmelo: Churchill's Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race (2013, Basic Books): One can argue that early in WWII Britain had the best shot at inventing the atomic bomb, and that Churchill for one reason or another ceded that lead to the US -- that seems to be the thrust here, and it would probably be interesting to find out what Churchill did and did not understand about the project, although in the end it's hard to see it mattering much. The British Empire could hardly stand on its own let alone pay for the mother country's disastrous wars, so it was no surprise that Britain emerged from the war reduced to America's loyal (and dependent) sidekick -- something else Churchill may or may not have understood, but ultimately couldn't do anything about.
Carlotta Gall: The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014 (2014, Houghton Mifflin): Longtime war reporter argues that the US war in Afghanistan failed because the "real enemy" wasn't the Taliban. It was Pakistan. That's not exactly news, but it opens up more questions than it answers, and more importantly it leaves unexamined America's contribution to its own failure.
Timothy F Geithner: Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises (2014, Crown): Obama's Secretary of the Treasury was already deeply involved in the struggle to save the big banks as head of the New York Fed in 2008. I doubt he has much to say about other financial crises, but for the one he experienced first hand he's happy to take credit for saving not only the banks but the bankers who ran them into the ground. As for the rest of the economy, well, that's more complicated, and as far as I can tell not something Geithner reflects on much, or even cares about.
Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013, Little Brown): Stories showing how underdogs can leverage their weakness to get ahead, or something like that. I don't have a strong opinion on him one way or the other: he has a knack for making trivial points, and a great fondness of success even when it's pretty superficial, but sometimes he runs across something interesting or important and he's rarely stupid or inelegant about it.
Anand Gopal: No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (2014, Metropolitan): Focuses on three examples (a Taliban commander, a member of the US-backed government, and a village housewife), showing through each how the occupying Americans are viewed in Afghanistan, and therefore the limits of what they can hope to do.
Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State (2014, Metropolitan Books): A lawyer, Greenwald reacted to the Patriot Act by becoming a blogger focused on how the security state is encroaching on civil liberties -- a transformation he explained in his book How Would a Patriot Act? Since then he's found more and more to worry about, most dramatically when Snowden passed him leaked info about NSA spying.
David Harvey: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (2014, Oxford University Press): English Marxist, has been picking at the scab of capitalism for many years, churning out books like Limits to Capital (2007), A Short History of Neoliberalism (2007), and The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010) -- I read the latter and found it tedious but deeply insightful. No surprise that he finds capitalism rife with contradictions -- many are obvious even casually -- or that they periodically crack up but that "end" has proven elusive.
Ann Jones: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars: The Untold Story (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Former NGO worker, wrote Winter in Kabul: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan about what she saw in Afghanistan in 2002, and two more books following the casualties: War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women and the Unseen Consequences of Conflict, and now this short book on maimed US soldiers -- the real VA scandal.
Robert D Kaplan: Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014, Random House): Former travel writer to uncomfortable backwaters, has proven to be useful enough to the US security state he got appointed to the Defense Policy Board, where he's probably regarded as a deep thinker. No doubt he'd like nothing better than to stir up a Cold War with China, giving the Pentagon cover for buying up another generation of war toys.
Harvey J Kaye: The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (2014, Simon & Schuster): The Four Freedoms -- "Franklin Roosevelt's vision of a truly just and fair America" -- was war propaganda and thus easily forgotten once FDR died and the war against Germany and Japan was concluded. They are, however, something we can and should aspire to today, especially given the beating at least two freedoms (from want and from fear) have taken from the right in recent decades. Kaye previously wrote Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (2005, Hill and Wang).
Lane Kenworthy: Social Democratic America (2014, Oxford University Press): Argues that the US has been progressing slowly toward the social democracy common in most wealthy nations, but isn't that a stretch given how hard it is to talk about such things in their customary terms? So I expect this is longer on prescription than description, but mapping popular programs like Social Security and Medicare into the social democratic matrix is a step toward realizing what we're missing.
Benjamin Kunkel: Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (paperback, 2014, Verso): Short "crash course" in the latest Marxist/Leftist thinking on the economy -- names dropped include Zizek, Harvey, Graeber, Jameson. Previously wrote the novel Indecision.
Costas Lapavitsas: Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (paperback, 2014, Verso): British economist, previous book focused on Eurozone issues, sees "financialization" as the root of most of our current evils. There can be little doubt that most of the profits capitalism produces these days go to the financial sector, and it would be interesting to understand why.
Nathan Lean: The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (paperback, 2012, Pluto Press): One of many (mostly but not all critical) books on the fear of and hatred against Muslims that has been cultivated in the US and Europe recently, concurrent with the US War on Terror and the termination of Israel's "peace process." Lean sees a right-wing conspiracy as responsible, with the Israel lobby at least complicit. I suspect it's uglier and dumber than that, in part because the hatred has overshot US neo-imperial goals, turning right-wingers anti-war (as we saw with Syria). Other recent books (no idea if they're any good or not): Chris Allen: Islamophobia (paperback, 2010, Ashgate); Carl W Ernst, ed: Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance (paperback, 2013, Palgrave Macmillan); John L Esposito/Ibraham Kalin, eds: Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century (paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press); Peter Gottschalk/Gabriel Greenberg: Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (2007, Rowman & Littlefield); Deepa Kumar: Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (paperback, 2012, Haymarket Books); Stephen Sheehi: Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims (paperback, 2011, Clarity Press); John R Bowen: Blaming Islam (2012, MIT Press); Walid Shoebat/Ben Barrack: The Case FOR Islamophobia: Jihad by the Word; America's Final Warning (2013, Top Executive Media). I could also mention: Jack Shaheen: Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2nd ed, paperback, 2009, Olive Branch Press); and Martha C Nussbaum: The New Religious Intollerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012, Belknap Press).
Michael Lewis: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (2014, WW Norton): A book on high-frequency trading, entertaining and informative no doubt, with something of a moral centre even though the journalist is inordinately fond of rich people.
Isaac Martin: Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (2013, Oxford University Press): That would be the Tea Party, the best irate mob money can buy, which gave an air of faux populism to some of the most extremely reactionary ideas of the last few decades, struggling above all against the idea that the government should serve the people who elected it. Title here reminds one of the Frances Fox Piven/Richard A Cloward classic, Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977; paperback, 1978, Vintage Books).
Mariana Mazzucato: The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (paperback, 2013, Anthem): Two myths seem especially prevalent today: that public investment only comes at the expense of private investment, and that that's a bad thing. I can think of others, but that's not necessarily the point here: she seems to be focusing on technology and business subsidies governments give out that are ultimately snapped up by private sector investors -- an obvious case in point is support of "green energy" sectors like wind and solar (efforts so hated by the oil-bound Kochs).
Suzanne Mettler: Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream (2014, Basic Books): Until the 1970s public support of higher education tended to make American society and economy more equitable, but that has since changed. Personally, I think education has long been overrated, especially as a panacea, but lately it's higher costs and mountains of debt have turned into a cruel trap. The real roots of inequality are political, and the very suggestion that you can compensate for that by raising an educated caste is itself part of the problem -- maybe even one that prefigured the political shift?
Ian Morris: War: What's It Good For? (2014, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Edwin Starr could answer that in far less than these 512 pages: "absolutely nothing." Morris likes to jump all over the place, as in his previous Why the West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, but his bottom line seems to be "war made the state, and the state made peace." I'm tempted to add: but only after making war unbearable, and even now way too many people haven't learned the lesson.
Ralph Nader: Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (2014, Nation Books): Given how extensively the "grass roots" right has been underwritten by the same corporations Nader decries, I have to question the wisdom of any such "alliance" -- even when left and right may agree on a point, such as the TARP bailout slush fund, all the two sides can conceivably do is to block something particularly foul. What they can't do is to create something that would work fairly, because the right is fundamentally set on destruction of the public sphere. Still, if obstruction is the sole goal -- as in keeping Obama from bombing Syria, or allowing the NSA to spy on all Americans -- sure, there's some potential there.
Richard Overy: The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 (2014, Viking): Attempts to broaden our understanding of the air war over Europe by including the experiences of the bombed, especially in horrific fire storms like Hamburg and Dresden. The US edition omits a complementary survey of the German bombing of England, some 300 pages from the UK edition (The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945).
Nomi Prins: All the President's Bankers (2014, Nation Books): Wrote one of the better books on the finance meltdown (It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street). This seems to go deeper into the historic relationship between bankers and politics, as if JP Morgan had anything to do with our current mess. Of course, he probably did, and Andrew Mellon and David Rockefeller and Walter Wriston too.
David Reynolds: The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (2014, WW Norton): One hundred years after the Great War (as it was known at the time, WWI as it was renamed, or the opening of the "30-years war of the 20th century" (as Arno Mayer reconceived it), we're suddenly seeing an avalanche of books on the subject, with much arguing over how it all started, and much detailing of the exceptional gore (WWII was much worse on civilians, but rarely matched the earlier war for pitched battles -- Stalingrad was an exception, but still couldn't match Marne). This book at least tries to make good use of the intervening century. I've noted a fair number of these books separately (Christopher Clark, Geoffrey Wawro), but also: Tim Butcher: The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War; Prit Butlar: Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914 (Osprey); Charles Emmerson: 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (2013, Public Affairs); Peter Hart: The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War (2013, Oxford University Press); Max Hastings: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (2013, Knopf); Paul Jankowski: Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War (Oxford University Press); Philip Jenkins: The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade; Nick Lloyd: Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I (Basic Books); Margaret MacMillan: The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013, Random House); Gordon Martel: The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 (7/1, Oxford University Press); Shawn McMeekin: July 1914: Countdown to War (2013, Basic Books); William Mulligan: The Great War for Peace (Yale University Press); Michael Neiberg: The Military Atlas of World War I (Chartwell); TG Otte: July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914 (Cambridge University Press); William Philpott: War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War (Overlook); Ian Senior: Invasion 1914: The Schelieffen Plan to the Battle of the Marne (8/19, Osprey); Gary Sheffield: Morale and Command: The British Army on the Western Front (Pen and Sword); David Stone: The Kaiser's Army: The German Army in World War I (7/24, Conway); Kristian Coates Ulrichsen: The First World War in the Middle East (7/25, Hurst); Alexander Watson: Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I (10/7, Basic Books).
Amanda Ripley: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way (2013, Simon & Schuster): Like TR Reid in The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, Ripley travels around the world searching out what seems to work and offering it as an alternative to what doesn't work in the US: an easy approach that avoids theory but also misses many of the pitfalls theory introduces. I doubt however that the process will work as well, because it's easier to define what a good health care system is -- one where fewer people get sick and stuck in that system -- than what would make for a good education system: indeed, much of the "theory" out there is really a dispute over what education should do (e.g., make people smarter vs. train people better to fill assigned slots).
Dana Roithmayr: Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage (2014, NYU Press): Examines how racial advantages and disadvantages have persisted despite the establishment of supposedly color-neutral legal rights and systems.
Jake Rosenfeld: What Unions No Long Do (2014, Harvard University Press): Have much political clout for one thing, which is a problem given how much our system depends on countervaling powers to keep from going insane in favor of one interest group -- mainly business. But also they don't seem to care as much about the broader groups of people who aren't unionized, effectively leaving them without political representation. (Arguably, American unions have always been weak there, but still.)
Daniel Schulman: Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty (2014, Grand Central): Much in the news recently for their efforts to destroy democracy in the US (err, to safeguard the freedom of second-generation oil billionaires), this gives you some background on who they are, where they and all their money came from, and how they've evolved from John Birch Society paranoids to Tea Party astroturfers.
Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things to Me (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Short (100 pp) collection of essays, the title one about male mistakes in talking to women, and others about war, Virginia Woolf, and the IMF.
Joshua Steckel/Beth Zasloff: Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty (2014, New Press): The author left his job at a ritzy private school to try to guide poor kids into college, and illustrates that task with profiles of ten students, the innumerable problems they faced, and some measure of success, sometimes.
Matt Taibbi: The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (2014, Spiegel & Grau): Defines "the divide" as: "the seam in American life where our two most troubling trends -- growing wealth inequality and mass incarceration -- come together . . . what allows massively destructive fraud by the hyperwealthy to go unpunished, while turning poverty itself into a crime." So this expands upon his previous fraud-focused book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America (2010), broadening the context, and probably looks back to his earlier work on politics.
Elizabeth Warren: A Fighting Chance (2014, Metropolitan): I don't put much stock on books by politicians, but before she ran for office she co-write The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke (2004), a timely issue if ever there was one. This one is more of a memoir, but the path from where she came from to where she is now feels authentic, and her grip on how policy affects ordinary people is smart and shrewd.
Geoffrey Wawro: A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire (2014, Basic Books): Focuses on Austria-Hungary, which gambled on its ability to seize Serbia and lost everything in the first world war -- a failure he finds rooted in the previous decline of the empire.
John F Weeks: Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy (paperback, 2014, Anthem): Uh, sure. Even if economics somehow managed to only study the actual workings of the economy it would be most useful to the rich for uncovering opportunities to profit, but in fact most economists not only study capitalism but are in thrall to it and more than willing to propagandize on behalf of the rich, even making arguments that contradict well known maxims. Weeks is far from the first author to notice this.
Some books previously mentioned that have since come out in paperback. Normally I'd write a bit on each, but I've had trouble researching this section, and it turns out that my draft file is mostly stubs (some rather old), so for this time (at least) I figure I should just flush it:
Maybe with a fresh start I'll write more next time. Usually there's an implied recommendation in the paperback listings -- I don't go out and look to see if books I have no interest in have been reprinted -- but the only ones above I have read are: Louisa Thomas' fine book on her ancestors (most famously Norman Thomas); and three books on Israel (Rashid Khalidi, Shlomo Sand, and Patrick Tyler). I do, however, have Corey Robin, Christia Freedland, and Breaking the Silence on the shelf and mean to get to them sooner or later. Several others are things I'd like to read if I can find the time.
Saturday, June 28. 2014
Tweeted this today:
The book is Daniel Schulman: Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. B&N has it on sale for 35% off -- a much better deal than Amazon offers (looks like the publisher is one of those Amazon's been trying to shake down). B&N's website lists is as the 7th best selling book in politics & current events, just ahead of Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance and Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State. Wichita is the home turf of the Koch family and their company, probably the second (or third) largest employer in town, so you'd think their would be more than average interest in the book here -- certainly not zero. So you don't have to be paranoid to wonder whether someone's arm's been twisted a bit.
I've seen a couple excerpts from Schulman's book in Mother Jones, and they strike me as basically fair:
I've also seen a piece (don't have link) where Schulman speculates that the Koch's libertarianism could help steer the Republicans back to more moderate positions on "culture war" issues. I've never seen any evidence of this. Presumably, for instance, as libertarians the Kochs support abortion rights, but no enough to break with any Republican who comes close to them on money issues. And they should be against drug prohibition and every aspect of America's military presence in Asia and Africa, but those issues never seem to factor into their political patronage.
Wednesday, April 2. 2014
Another batch of new book notes. Last one came out on February 11 and cleared out a backlog of 52 books -- more than my usual 40 limit. I imagine I can do these posts monthly or so, and indeed with my research unfinished, a little less than two months has filled this post (40 titles) and left me with 33 in the queue. Notably, that queue includes a few books that are either just out (Michael Lewis: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt) or forthcoming (David Harvey: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism [April 4]; Nomi Prins: All the President's Bankers [April 8]; Matt Taibbi: The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap [April 8]; Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State [May 13]). Given the importance of those books, another column should be due soon.
Sasha Abramsky: The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (2013, Nation Books): Fifty years after Michael Harrington's The Other America, we still live in a land of poverty and want -- even more so now than then, as the trendline is getting worse and the political will to do something about it has vanished. Mixed views on this book suggest that jumping between anecdotal description and broadside prescription doesn't reall handle either end, but the problem is real enough.
Bill Bryson: One Summer: America, 1927 (2013, Doubleday): Pick a year, any year. Bryson picked the one when Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, the Mississippi flooded, and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, among other things (e.g., "the four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression"). Good chance Bryson could turn any year into something vastly entertaining and deeply informative.
Ian Buruma: Year Zero: A History of 1945 (2013, Penguin Press): Every year things change a little, but an astonishing number of big things changed in 1945: the world war ended with Japan and Germany unconditionally defeated, the holocaust and the atom bomb were revealed, European colonial control over Europe and Asia had been undermined (but it would take some years to fully fracture), the map of Eastern Europe was quickly redrawn, various revolutions erupted, economies were in ruins (except for the US, which was never stronger), millions of people had been displaced, the "cold war" was quickly brewing (although at the same time the UN was forming). Much to write about, including the simultaneity of all that change.
David Brion Davis: The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014, Knopf): The author's third The Problem of Slavery book, the trilogy spread out over 45 years -- hard to overstate how important the first volume was in changing our view of slavery and racism. This picks up the story around 1820, focusing on the UK and US with a side glance at Haiti.
Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin): His two previous books -- Guns, Germ and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004) -- were high concept comparative mega-histories, sweeping and thought-provoking. Here he returns to his anthropology roots, writing about primitive societies, no doubt including a lot of New Guinea, since that's his specialty. Still, big questions abide: the transition to agriculture 11,000 years ago was not without its down sides, and those problems percolate up to the present.
William Easterly: The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014, Basic Books): Author writes on development economics -- e.g., The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good -- so he could be taken as one of the experts he disparages. But he cuts against the grain, and has no shortage of examples of ideas that haven't worked. Also, his argument for "respect of the individual rights of people in developing countries" seems right, as is his point that "unchecked state power is the problem and not the solution" (here we're talking about the predatory effect of dictators, not the fevers of the tea party).
Yuval Elizur/Lawrence Malkin: The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox (2013; paperback, 2014, Overlook): On the special roles and privileges of the ultra-orthodox in Israel, an often sore point for secular Jews in Israel, and I suspect one of the forces that relentlessly pushes Israel to the right, further estranging it from the rest of the world.
Lee Fang: The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (2013, New Press): The "vast right-wing conspiracy" (in Hillary Clinton's apt phrase) has been carefully built up since the 1970s, and swung into full gear in 2009 to disrupt and undermine newly elected president Obama and the Democrats' "fillibuster-proof" congressional majority, and they did a remarkable job of it. This book goes into how they did it, how they manufactured a viable critique and enough noise to pose as grass roots momentum.
Caroline B Glick: The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East (2014, Crown Forum): Not a single state in Israel/Palestine where everyone lives with equal rights under equitable laws, though Glick dresses up Jewish dominance in various guises, including her claim that census data "wildly exaggerated the numbers of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza." So this does start to shift away from the "two-state solution" that gets so much lip service but no actual support from liberal Zionists, including virtually all American politicians.
Frances Goldin/Debby Smith/Michael Steven Smith, eds: Living in a Socialist USA (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): A mixed bag of essays, none afraid of the "S-word" but while some take the traditional tack and blame capitalism (e.g., Paul Street's "Capitalism: The Real Enemy") and some try to imagine post-capitalist (Rick Wolff) or ecosocialist (Joel Kovel) economic forms, others are likely more reformist, either intent on mitigating excesses of capitalism or using government to make amends. A big part of the reason socialism has come to be more respected of late is that the right uses the scare word so loosely, it now covers all sorts of modest reforms few old leftists would even recognize.
Daniel Gordis: Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul (2014, Schocken): Born in Poland, in his youth joined the fascist Betar movement, emigrating to Palestine in the 1940s where he quickly rose to head the Irgun, an ultra-right-wing paramilitary organization responsible for many of the worst atrocities of Israel's "War for Independence." Once the Irgun was integrated into the IDF, he went into politics, establishing himself as an extreme right-wing demagogue until he was suddenly invited ("without portfolio") into the "unity government" which launched Israel's expansionist 1967 war. A decade later he became Israel's first Likud Prime Minister, consolidating and furthering the nation's drift into militarism. He reluctantly signed a peace agreement which returned the Sinai to Egypt, allowing reopening of the Suez Canal, then plotted to destroy the PLO once and for all by invading Lebanon -- the act which, for me at least, destroyed the last shred of credibility that Israel possessed. This looks to be a sympathetic biography, which doesn't mean you'll come away liking the little monster.
Gershom Gorenberg: The Unmaking of Israel (2011; paperback, 2012, Harper Perennial): I read this a few years ago and was surprised I hadn't mentioned it here before. You can think of this as a kinder, gentler version of (not alternative to) Max Blumenthal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Both deal with the rot at the heart of a nation dedicated to the domination of one group over all others. The shadings differ a bit, with Gorenberg more concerned with the established religion, but religion wouldn't be so critical if it weren't needed to justify the occupation. Gorenberg previously wrote The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, which similarly soft-pedaled the origins of the settler movement while at least acknowledging the facts.
Greg Grandin: The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014, Metropolitan Books): One story here concerns New Englanders establishing colonial outposts in the south Pacific in the early 19th century, killing seals and selling them in China. Not sure what else you get here, but Herman Melville seems to be one prism into looking at early post-independence America, an "age of freedom" but also an "age of slavery."
Husain Haqqani: Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (2013, Public Affairs): Of course, I doubt that the US could have done anything to make a success out of the 2001 Afghanistan intervention -- I think they sealed their fate in 1979 when they decided it would be such fun to arm religious fanatics to kill Russians -- but high on the Bush administration's list of tactical errors was their utter inability to come to a mutual understanding with Pakistan. (Nor did Obama do any better when he gave that pompous ass Richard Holbrooke the assignment.) Haqqani has been a Pakistani diplomat and is currently a professor at Boston U, so he's likely to be intimately acquainted with the sort of incomprehensible nonsense that makes for such epic misunderstandings.
Jacqueline Jones: A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama's America (2013, Basic Books): Rather than write a sketch history of racism in America, Jones takes six individuals including a slave in colonial Maryland and an auto worker in recent Detroit, real people to stand the various myths of race and the realities of power against.
John B Judis: Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (2014, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Looks specifically at the years 1945-49, when the US had conquered the Axis powers and was starting to establish itself as a global hegemon, probing deep into why Truman sided with Israel and what that meant for the evolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Alison Weir: Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the United States Was Used to Create Israel (paperback, 2014, CreateSpace) covers the same ground, much more briefly. I've been reading Judis and am impressed with his depth and balance.
Michael B Katz: The Undeserving Poor: America's Enduring Confrontation With Poverty (1989; updated and revised, paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press): One effective way to keep poor people poor is to blame their poverty on their supposed shortcomings -- perhaps the title should be The Deserving Poor, since that's the thrust of interests which seek to deflect blame for impoverishment.
Stephen Kinzer: The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013, Times Books): A biography of two of the major architects of the Cold War, all the more potent when they controlled both the official (State Dept.) and clandestine (CIA) policy-making agencies, and weren't the least averse to going behind the back of the president who appointed them. Kinzer approached this story when he wrote one of the better accounts of the CIA coup against Iran in 1953 (All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror), then went on to take a longer look at American mischief (Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq).
Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014, Henry Holt): Five massive waves of extinctions have occurred since the Cambrian period when most modern phyla came into existence, with each defining boundaries between geological ages, something we can discern with the perspective of millions of years. Kolbert is suggesting that the sheer quantity of species extinctions that have occurred in recent years is well on its way to adding up to a sixth major extinction event, and she's traveling around the world gathering and checking out evidence. Not the first book on this subject -- cf. Richard E Leakey: The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind (paperback, 1996, Anchor); Terry Glavin, The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind (2007, Thomas Dunne); and for that matter a couple classics: David Quammen: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biography in an Age of Extinction (paperback, 1997, Scribner); and Paul S Martin/Herbert Edgar Wright, eds: Pleistocene Extinctions: The Search for a Cause (1967, Yale University Press) -- but likely a succinct, thought-provoking summary.
David Landau: Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon (2014, Knopf): Having just referred to Begin as Israel's "little monster," it's no contest who the corresponding "big monster" was. Sharon could never be described as Begin's henchman: Begin bears responsibility for the Lebanon war, and more importantly for letting Sharon run it, but none for the actual details of how Sharon ran the war. Sharon had been a great favorite of Ben Gurion's and Dayan's, but what they loved him for wasn't doing what they wanted but invariably going much farther: he not only destroyed things, he did so at levels and degrees his "superiors" couldn't dream of asking for. His Lebanon War was like that, leading to the massacre of thousands of Palestinians, and his suppression of the second Intifada was like that. Still, it is important to realize that Sharon wasn't insane (unlike, say, Begin, whose tortured mind seemed to be stuck constantly replaying the Holocaust). He could make a tactical retreat when he needed to regroup, and on some level he seemed to be completely cynical about politics and everything else -- the real reason he was capable of such brutality was that he knew he would be adored for it, although it also helped that he was utterly indifferent to what anyone else thought or care about. And that he was so successful for so long ultimately says much more about his country than it does him. Reviewers say this is "scrupulously fair," which is to say it's mostly warts because that's what his supporters admired so much about him. Anything less would be a disservice.
Jill Lepore: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013, Knopf): Benjamin Franklin's sister, who unlike Shakespeare's sister was a real person we actually know a good deal about, not that anyone bothered to focus much on her before. Lepore started as a notable historian of 18th century America, but then developed a knack for semi-popular nonfiction pieces in the New Yorker and learned to bounce masterfully between past and present, as in The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History.
Antony Lerman: The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey (2012, Pluto Press): British Jew, in 1960s worked on a kibbutz and served in the IDF, later returning to England, working in think tanks, eventually turning into a critic of current Israeli policies.
Ian Haney López: Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014, Oxford University Press): For obvious examples, recall the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (the "Willie Horton" one, not that the other was much better), then think of what else those elections delivered. López previously wrote White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race.
Bill McKibben: Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (2013, Times Books): Author of one of the early books on global warming -- The End of Nature (1989) -- and many other books, writes about how he was increasingly drawn into political action, including leading protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. One step along the way was his activist manual: Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community (paperback, 2007, St. Martin's Griffin)
Betsy Medsger: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (2014, Knopf): The inside story of a small group of people who broke into an FBI office in Media, PA, and collected and leaked secret files about FBI operations aimed at harrassing the civil rights and antiwar movements. Hoover had used his extraordinary power base to blackmail presidents as well as to further his reactionary political goals, a secret program that couldn't survive exposure -- so this burglary was the beginning of the end of his reputation and reign of terror.
John Nichols/Robert W McChesney: Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (2013, Nation Books): $10 billion spent on the last election, and what do we have to show for it? Politicians of two parties beholden to money. That money distorts politics is one of the few things virtually everyone agrees on, yet it never emerges as a reform issue because the candidates themselves are selected precisely for their ability to raise money.
William Nordhaus: The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013, Yale University Press): Economist, has his name added to recent editions of Paul Samuelson's legendary economics textbook (at least since 1985), and previously weighed in on the economics of global warming in 2008: A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies; also Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming (2003), and Managing the Global Commons: The Economics of Climate Change (1994). A moderate and sensible guide to the science plus a lot of ideas on modeling risks and costs -- should be an important book.
Ilan Pappé: The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (2014, Verso): A history of Zionism as ideology, how its fundamental ideas infuse Israeli culture, especially in institutions like the school system and reinforced through the media. Focuses on the framing of the 1948 "War for Independence" in its initial "official" narrative and later post-Zionist and Neo-Zionist incarnations.
Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014, Belknap Press): Presumes not to update Marx but to dance on his grave, celebrating not only increasing inequality but the fact that wealth inequality is increasingly inherited -- with the risk that workers may once again feel that they have nothing to lose in revolution except their shackles. "The main driver of inequality -- the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth -- today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values." Meanwhile, most Marxists will tell you that those returns are fraudulently jacked up, so not even more inequality can keep the machine running. Nonetheless, what happens at the bottom is all too real. Piketty's future is what he calls "patrimonial capitalism" -- pretty much the same sort of aristocracy the bourgeois revolutions struggled to overturn.
Kenneth Pollack: Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (2013, Simon & Schuster): Ex-CIA analyst, wrote an influential book advocating war with Iraq, then turned around and became a dove rather than a "real man" on Iran in his book The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. Evidently, he still feels we need his advice -- possibly because it wasn't taken last time, although diplomatic breakthroughs since this was printed have rendered much of the tough posturing he felt necessary to retain his credibility has suddenly become irrelevant.
Jonathan Porritt: The World We Made: Alex McKay's Story From 2050 (paperback, 2013, Phaidon Press): An expert on sustainable development strategies jumps ahead to 2050 to look back on how those strategies saved the world, through the eyes of a 50-year-old fictional Alex McKay, recalling not only what happened but how such change came about -- a mix of disasters and activism. Porritt previously wrote Capitalism as if the World Matters (paperback, 2007, Routledge), which gives business a positive role to play even if they don't seem up to it.
Gareth Porter: Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (paperback, 2014, Just World Books): One of the few journalists to see through Israel's relentless propaganda about Iran's "nuclear program" in what should be a very important book. Porter's Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam was an eye-opener in showing how US failure in Vietnam was rooted in arrogance.
Diane Ravitch: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools (2013, Knopf): Follow up to The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010). Back in the late 1960s, after I dropped out of high school, I read a ton of books on education, of which the best was Charles Weingartner/Neal Postman: Teaching as a Subversive Activity, followed by Paul Goodman: Compulsory Mis-Education/The Community of Scholars. Those at least were books that recognized problems that I actually saw and attempted to overcome them. So my reaction here is that Ravitch is probably right as far as she goes, but, my oh my, has the level of discussion deteriorated. The last sensible thing I've read on education was Jane Jacobs: Dark Ages Ahead, and I don't see any indication that Jacobs is wrong. But I may be being too pessimistic, because the actual teachers and students I have known lately seem smarter and more dedicated than the ones I encountered back in the day. Unfortunately, I don't think they're getting those traits from school.
Barnett R Rubin: Afghanistan From the Cold War Through the War on Terror (2013, Oxford University Press): For many years one of the most insightful experts on Afghanistan, Rubin disappeared from public discourse when he signed on as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke and stayed on after Holbrooke died. His insider status -- he was also involved in the Bonn talks in 2001 and various other UN efforts -- no doubt informs this book, and probably compromises it as well. Leslie Gelb: "If published a decade ago, the insights in Barney Rubin's book could have prevented the Americanization of the war in Afghanistan." How lucky for Obama then to have co-opted the person he most needed as a critic?
Orville Schell/John Delury: Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century (2013, Random House): Goes back as far as the 19th century Opium Wars to get a handle on the intellectual threads that transformed China from peasant communism to a cutting-edge industrial powerhouse. Schell is one of the best-known historians of China.
Ari Shavit: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2013, Spiegel & Grau): A "feel good" book about Israel for a time when one has to wonder, but the heroic personal stories establish an air of such exalted wonderfulness that one can admit to historical atrocities like the forced exile of the entire Arab population of Lydda and then write it off by declaring it as one of the necessary founding blocks of today's wonderful Israel. Imagine something like Dee Brown rewriting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and then turning around and explaining that every positive accomplishment in America since has only possible thanks to that act of slaughter.
Rebecca Solnit: The Faraway Nearby (2013, Viking Adult): Essays, I take it, "about arctic explorers, Che Guevara among the leper colonies, and Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, about warmth and coldness, pain and kindness, decayand transformation, making art and making self." She has a dozen or more books, all on things that fascinate me, yet I've only managed to make it through one slim one.
Alan Weisman: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (2013, Little Brown): Previously wrote The World Without Us (2007, Thomas Dunne), a speculation on how the Earth would adjust if human beings were to vanish. In this sequel, he asks how likely that is, how many people can the Earth sustain, and whether exceeding those limits -- depleting resources, changing climate, etc. -- could cause a population crash.
Hugh Wilford: America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East (2013, Basic Books): Previously wrote The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008). Robert D Kaplan popularized the term "Arabists" some while back in his book about US State Dept. Arab experts and how they tended to align with their subjects, especially against Israel. (I don't know that anyone's bothered to coin a term for pro-Israelis in State and the CIA, but a comparably long list of names could be rounded up.) So one "great game" has been between Israel and the Arabs, another between the US and the UK over influencing the Arabs (a game the UK surrendered around 1970), and another between the US and the USSR -- any of which could be the subject here.
Tim Wise: Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (paperback, 2014, City Lights): Obviously could write a lot more on this subject than 216 pages. Has mostly written on race politics in the past, a typical title: Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male (2008).
Some recent paperback reissues of book previously listed in hardcover. These are just a few of those I had noted, and I haven't done up-to-date research on them:
James Carroll: Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World (2011, Houghton Mifflin; paperback, 2012, Mariner Books): Sweeping history of both the real and imagined city in the various monotheistic religions and imperialist polities that try to claim her. Most recently, and importantly, that means Zionist Israel and its ongoing conflict, both for and against the past.
Lizzie Collingham: The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin Books): Moves from a first book about Indian curries under the British imperium to a worldwide inquiry into how food and famine were considered and acted upon by all sides in World War II -- a story which certainly includes the great Bengal famine.
Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012; paperback, 2013, WW Norton): Important book by one of our most important economists, showing not only the structure of increasing inequality in America today but how that inequality stagnates the economy.
Patrick Tyler: Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country -- and Why They Can't Make Peace (2012; paperback, 2013, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Israel is the world's most militarized nation, its ruling caste so invested in its military identity that as soon as one supposed enemy folds they conjure up another: soon after they signed the peace treaty with Egypt they invaded Lebanon; unsatisfied they supported Iran in its 1980s war against Iraq, and when Iraq fell (to the US in 1990 and again in 2003) they started fantasizing that Iran was out to get them with nuclear weapons. Tyler dates this back to the early 1950s when David Ben-Gurion turned on his former protégé Moshe Sharrett for considering peace initiatives. I think Ben-Gurion's war lust goes deeper, and that it has been more deeply ingrained in Israeli society, but this book covers the basic history.
I've read three of these books (Carroll, Stiglitz, Tyler), and can recommend all of them. The Collingham book looks to be very interesting.