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Saturday, October 22, 2022
Last Book Roundup was on May 1, the second of a burst of two. This one should have a follow up relatively soon, although this one was so difficult to pull together that it's hard to imagine when the next one will be ready. This is not for lack of books I know about: my draft file has nearly 300 books noted (at least before adding the short note section below, but those are in theory still eligible for a longer write up). My rule of thumb is to publish a post when I get 40 books for the top section, but a smaller number might make more sense, especially given my tendency to tack on supplementary lists. We have a lot of Russia and China this time: Abelow, Brands, Gaeotti, Hoffman, Short. A special case of sublists is when I list previous books by authors (Levine, Lopez, Mead, Moyn, Scialabba; I don't count Chomsky here because I'm only listing new books by him and co-author Prashad).
Two sublists are things I haven't done before: Under Short, I give you a select list of other books on Putin, as well as a much more indiscriminate one of books I hadn't noted before. In theory, you could look them up, but that would be a pain. It would be nice to break the big file up into topical ones, and try to sort out the potentially useful titles from the rest, including some way to flag right-wing nonsense (to varying extents: Brands, Concha, Hegseth/Goodwin, Jones, Mandelbaum, Mead, as well as a number of sublist selections).
I also sorted the Leibovich sublist into two sets: one of books which (like Leibovich) offer useful reporting on Trump (especially in his last months in office), and a second one of self-serving memoirs, mostly of Trump associates. Normally, I would have lifted one of those items to the head of the list, but none seem worthy. On the other hand, a couple books that could have been developed as longer items got stuck on sublists (under Milbank, Corn is a book that I'm actually reading). I also left Shrecker under Bunch, as the two books seemed complementary. On the other hand, I did wind up breaking Haberman out of its original perch under Leibovich. And I wound up writing an entry for Hoffman's old (2011) book as an anchor for Khodorkovsky's new one. Hoffman's book is also relevant to the Short (Putin) list, but stands a bit apart.
As I've explained repeatedly, this is basically a research exercise, meant to gain a sense of the state of knowledge and understanding of the world, reflected in book form. With few exceptions, the descriptions are based on blurbs, samples, and sometimes reviews, mostly from digging through Amazon (as unpleasant as that often is). The only books below that I've read much from are: DeLong, Leibovich, Corn, and Smil. I've ordered copies of: Cooper, Levine, Milbank, Moyn. I've also read other books from: Bunch, Chemerinsky, Chomsky, Fischer, Hochschild, Hoffman, McKibben, Draper, Purdy, Gessen, Satter, Tomasky, and further down: Berry, Heinberg, Meier, and Rushkoff.
Benjamin Abelow: How the West Brought War to Ukraine: Understanding How US and NATO Policies Led to Crisis, War, and the Risk of Nuclear Catastrophe (paperback, Siland Press): A short (88 pp) summary, valid as far as it goes, but unlikely to shed much light on why the "provocations" led to such an egregious response from Putin. I would argue that although the US wanted to expand NATO to grow its arms market, and found that the easiest way to sell expansion was to fan old and new fears of Russian power, they never had the slightest desire to actually go to war with Russia, and it's strange that Putin could ever think so. On the other hand, while traditional economic ties and Russia's imperial legacy suggest why Russians like Putin think of Ukraine should be a subservient satellite, those attachments don't justify invasion and destruction, with its attendant risk to Russia's world standing. Several blurb writers, like Noam Chomsky, praise Abelow's telling of one part of the story that is widely ignored in the US, but there are other stories that need to be integrated. For more general books on Russian history, see Galeotti below. For books specifically on Putin, see Short. Here are a few more books on the Ukraine-Russia War, a few written since the 2022 invasion, a few more going back to 2014:
Walt Bogdanich/Michael Forsythe: When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World's Most Powerful Consulting Firm (2022, Doubleday): Major consulting firm, their services are available anywhere a company wants to squeeze a little extra profit from their business, or rationalize and cover up their own misdeeds. A blurb from Joseph Stiglitz reads: "Every page made my blood boil as I read about McKinsey's flawed reasoning and vast profits made from ethically dubious work for governments, polluting companies and big pharma." Somewhere in my readings, I remember a piece of advice given to would-be managers: if they really want to scare their employees, just threaten them with bringing McKinsey in.
Kevin Boyle: The Shattering: America in the 1960s (2021, WW Norton): A "lively" history of the decade, expanding the decade a few years on either side, by a historian whose previous books were on civil rights and labor. I'm not sure how well this lives up to its title, a catchphrase that denotes some catastrophe that befell America, whereas I would argue that we started to find a new unity and vision that was then squelched and perverted by the political reaction of the 1970s (Nixon) and 1980s (Reagan), leaving Democrats too traumatized to even attempt to recover. I have no idea whether this book continues to ostracize the left movements of the extended 1960s, or hopes to find a way to move forward by sifting through the rubble.
Hal Brands/Michael Beckley: Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China (2022, WW Norton): The authors, professors and senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute, start from a belief common among American foreign policy mandarins: "The Sino-American contest is driven by clashing geopolitical interests and a stark ideological dispute over whether authoritarianism or democracy will dominate the 21st century." That's dangerous nonsense on several levels: neither country depends on propagating its political system abroad: the US likes to talk about democracy, but is more interested in business, demanding that its "allies" open themselves to global profiteering, and pay up monopoly rents. Conflicts with the US happen when countries decline to submit to American dictates on how they do business. China is the big one, because it's the largest economy, it has the most foreign trade, and it follows a go-along-to-get-along philosophy, making it easier to deal with than the US often is. But also note that US foreign policy is largely (and increasingly, or so it seems) defined by the marketing of US arms: "allies" are countries (democratic or not) that buy US arms, "enemies" are countries that buy from someone else like Russia and China (or build their own and try to compete, like Russia and China). The "danger" comes in mostly because arms races are destabilizing, regardless of who promotes them. Also note that within this mindset, other commodities can be viewed as security issues, including chips, oil, even food. Recent (and a few forthcoming) books on China (many more in previous reports):
Will Bunch: After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics -- and How to Fix It (2022, William Morrow): Ever since WWII college has been sold as the ticket to success. Early on, we made an effort to promote opportunity by keeping the costs low, but as inequality increased, and the unions which protected blue collar workers were undermined, the powers that be realized that the penalties for not getting a higher education were such that they could charge more for access to privilege. One goal was to stifle political dissent (aka free thinking). Another was to restore the advantages of the wealthy. Of course, they couldn't fully revert to the elitism of the pre-WWII university system, but by shifting costs to students and suckering them into increasingly deep debt, they effectively closed the doors of the class system while maintaining a hint of openness. Granted, poor but truly exceptional students could still rise through the gauntlet but by then they were likely to be properly acculturated -- Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are good examples of this. Related:
Erwin Chemerinsky: Worse Than Nothing: The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism (2022, Yale University Press): Author has a number of books on The Conservative Assault on the Constitution (2011), as well as the more positive We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century (2018). So you can guess what he thinks of the legal theory Antonin Scalia popularized as Originalism. My own take is that it's awfully convenient to have a theory that says the law should mean whatever you think the original authors must have intended. Of course, it's bullshit, but not uncommon among conservatives, who love to claim long pedigrees for whatever their current prejudices dictate. A second problem is how Originalism fights the notion that constitutional law should be flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions.
Noam Chomsky/Vijay Prashad: The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power (2022, New Press). Based on conversations, although the former's knowledge and understanding of American power is encyclopedic, and seemingly on instant recall. Prashad wrote one of the broader (and deeper) histories of the modern world: The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World. Related:
Joe Concha: Come On, Man! The Truth About Joe Biden's Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Presidency (2022, Broadside Books): Starts by railing about "open borders, record inflation, and skyrocketing crime." In what universe are those even things? "The withdrawal from Afghanistan left thirteen U.S. service members dead and hundreds of Americans stranded as Afghans fell from airplanes." The entry of the U.S. into Afghanistan (remember GW Bush?) left 2,426 American soldiers dead, and millions of Afghans displaced (or worse). Biden ended that, not on the best terms imaginable, but given the cards he was dealt. "Though Biden may seem like a doddering idiot, stumbling from one mistake to the next, his blunders always hew closely to progressive dreams for American policy." Like making sure all Americans have food to eat, and health care that doesn't bankrupt them? No: "Dreams like saving the planet by attacking Elon Musk and strengthening the middle class by making gas prices higher than Hunter Biden in a motel room."
Ryan Cooper: How Are You Going to Pay for That? Smart Answers to the Dumbest Questions in Politics (2022, St Martin's Press): Good idea for a book, but I was thinking more literally: a compendium of dumb questions (like the title one), each followed by a smart answer. Rather, Part I at least is a discourse in the history of economics, with something called "neo-propertarianism" singled out for especially harsh rebuke. He seems to mean neo-liberalism, but without any noble intents or rationales, which brings it back to old-fashioned capitalism, another term he'd rather duck. I've only seen the TOC for Part II, which offers more topical chapters: labor, healthcare, "the social climate," inequality, "a new collective American freedom," and finally "How to Argue with Propertarians."
J Bradford DeLong: Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century (2022, Basic Books): An economist teaching at UC Berkeley, the author has published a modest blog as long as I can remember, generally echoing and reinforcing the liberal views of Paul Krugman, all the while working on this "magnum opus" on the biggest question of our time, which is what's changed during our time. His 20th century is a long one, from 1870 to 2010, his starting date reflecting an American (as opposed to a British) bias: the industrial revolution may date back a bit earlier in England, but it really takes off after the US Civil War. The end date seems arbitrary, but the decade since doesn't (yet) have a lot to show for itself. We've seen extraordinary technological advances in this period, for the first time generating material wealth way beyond population growth. DeLong pegs the break at 1870: before then new technology was converted into population growth, but not per capita wealth, and the endpoint following the debacle of neoliberalism in the 2008 recession. He doesn't insist that the end point is terminal, but does note that the progress of the long century has repeatedly been interrupted by backsliding into war and recession, obstacles largely triggered by reactionary politics -- something we have yet to overcome, and a mental problem that may be getting even worse.
Gary Dorrien: American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory (2021, Yale University Press): Big book (752 pp), includes chapters on the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, also on later figures who extolled socialism without a party framework, and winds up with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but the first couple chapters start with the Christian formulation of a "social gospel" and with Jewish Universalism. Dorrien has written 18 books, six with Theology in the title, and one subtitled Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism. It's good to be reminded of this history, and that the impulse behind social justice has always acted as a counterweight to the more touted focus on individualism.
David Hackett Fischer: African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (2022, Simon & Schuster): Notable historian, one I first encountered in his Historians' Fallacies (1970), although his main work was Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), which meticulously traced cultural threads from England to America. Here he tries something similar, only with the much more deliberately obscured connections from Africa through people brought to America as slaves. It's remarkable that he's come up with so much material (960 pp). Also on early American history:
Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents (2022, Farrar Straus and Giroux). Intends a defense of "classical liberalism," which he traces back to late 17th century arguments "for the limitation of the powers of government through law and ultimately constitutions, creating institutions protecting the rights of individuals living under their jurisdiction." To do that, he has to rescue his preferred doctrine from later "neoliberalism," but also from conventional "left-of-center" political interests: those who recognize that the more complex the world becomes, the more we need reasonable government regulation that limits the tendency of the rich and powerful to prey on the poor and weak. That doesn't leave him with much more than abstract principles to stand on, making it hard to convince people such hyper-individualism is in their interest.
Mark Galeotti: A Short History of Russia: How the World's Largest Country Invented Itself, From the Pagans to Putin (2022, paperback, Hanover Square Press): One thing that's become painfully obvious in the last six months is that the Americans who direct or report on foreign policy understand very little about Russia in general and Putin in particular. They also seem to be blind to America's own contribution to the rewarming of the Cold War (see my Abelow comment above; I suppose I should reiterate my standard disclaimer here: nothing the US has done with Ukraine or NATO justifies Putin's invasion, and nothing Putin has done or can do will rectify the errors the US has committed). I don't know whether Galeotti is a good or bad observer of Russia, but in 2019 he published a short book called We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, and the chapters there cover a lot of sensible ground. This book here boils Russian history, including Putin, probably up to the eve of the invasion, down to 240 pp, which probably isn't enough but is certainly more than most Americans know. He also has a book coming out in November on Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, which was mostly written before the invasion but at least deals with it. There are a couple other competing histories of Russia, as well as more specialized tracts:
Maggie Haberman: Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America (2022, Penguin): New York Times reporter assigned to Trump starting with his campaign, pictures a younger Trump on the cover because she goes back further to merge her reporting and observations with a background character study. As such, this appears to be one of the more definitive tomes in a ridiculously large shelf of writings on Trump. Coming so late may seem to diminish its immediate usefulness, but as one of the more comprehensive studies, its utility may grow, especially once we have the luxury of regarding Trump in hindsight. (I originally listed this with similar books under Leibovich below, but decided it merited its own note.)
Oona A Hathaway/Scott J Shapiro: The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (2017; paperback, 2018, Simon & Schuster): A history of the 1928 Paris Peace Pact, which is isn't exactly recalled today as having "remade the world," and for that matter is hardly remembered at all (even as, using the name better known in the US, the Kellogg-Briand Pact). The book puts it in a much broader context, after a Part I on "Old World Order," in the first half of Part II ("Transformation") before it gets blown up by WWII, winding up with Part III ("New World Order"), where the first three chapters merit some pondering: "The End of Conquest," "War No Longer Makes Sense," and "Why Is There Still so Much Conflict?"
Peter Hegseth/David Goodwin: Battle for the Amerian Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation (2022, Broadside Books): Fox News host, reduces his co-author to a "with" credit, but Goodwin is the one with experience in what they call "classical Christian education," where they "assigned the classics, inspired love of God and country, and raised future citizens that changed the world." Much as they seek to brainwash children to follow their political prejudices, they fear their enemies are doing the same, and winning: "Today, after 16,000 hours of K-12 indoctrination, our kids come out of government schools hating America. They roll their eyes at religion and disdain our history." It's possible that public education has become more liberal, but in my day public schools were well stocked with teachers dedicated to installing conservative identities in pupils. My own radicalism was not taught to me but found on my own after I became aware of the hypocrisy and worse of the established powers. The authors might counter than even in the 1950s education was gripped by liberal ideals -- most dangerously with the notion that learning was good for its own sake -- which introduced the possibility of doubt. (They do, after all, declaim a "century of miseducation.") I was taught that America's wars were just and advanced freedom (most notably those against monarchy, slavery, and Nazism), which raised the question what the US was trying to do in Vietnam. I was taught that the founding principle of the Declaration of Independence was that "all men are created equal," yet even then it was a major struggle to secure basic civil rights for all. Despite occasional school prayers (and the rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance), I don't remember God being a major part of school, but I got plenty of that in church (which, finally, also backfired). What makes this book worrying is that it seems to be a blueprint for the right-wing political movement to impose ever more draconian and dim-witted restraints on what it is permissible to discuss in school: in effect, turning them into indoctrination camps like we were taught Communists ran. I'm concerned that these schemes will turn future generations into brainless automatons at a time when we more than ever need people skilled in critical thought, but that effect will be mitigated by rebellion. Perhaps even more so, I see this kind of schooling as a cruel punishment of children who are anxious to learn and find their way in the world, but are still awfully naive and gullible.
Adam Hochschild: American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis (2022, Mariner Books): Historian, has written several books about the emergence of conscience as dissent from imperialism, starting with King Leopold's Ghost about the depradation of the Congo, backtracking to the anti-slavery movement (Bury the Chains), then forward to dissent against World War I (To End All Wars). This moves to America and picks up toward the end of the "war to make the world safe for democracy," with its "lynchings, censorship, and the sadistic, sometimes fatal abuse of conscientious objectors in military prisons," through the first great Red Scare, the collapse of the American left, and the closing of immigration.
David E Hoffman: The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (2002; paperback, 2011, Public Affairs): This book is rather dated now, but written two years after Putin's rise to power, it provides a portrait of the oligarchy he was given by Yeltsin's corrupt mismanagement of the transition from state control to "shock treatment" markets. The scheme adopted for distributing assets let those most able to raise quick crash -- often the same crooks who ran Russia's black markets -- to grab immense fortunes dirt cheap. Part one profiles six: Alexander Smolensky, Yuri Luzhkov, Anatoly Chubais, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky. After the many disasters that befell Russia in the 1990s, Putin had his hands full. His first move was to rally the military to take back Chechnya (which had effectively broken away in what's now called the First Chechen War). That gave him some popular support, but to consolidate power he needed to bring the oligarchs under control, which started with the prosecution of Khodorkovsky. I was reminded of this when I came across the following book. We should beware that some of Putin's loudest critics are oligarchs who fell out of favor (cf. Bill Browder). Of course, there are other oligarchs who saved their empires by remaining loyal to Putin.
Alex Jones: The Great Reset: And the War for the World (2022, Skyhorse): TV crackpot, in the news recently for losing a libel case filed by the families of victims in a school shooting he claimed was fake news. Joe Rogan says "he's the most misunderstood guy on the planet." Roger Stone says he's "the most maligned patriot in the country." Tucker Carlson says "maybe Alex Jones is onto something." The best Donald Trump can come up with is Jones's "reputation is amazing."
Mark Leibovich: Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washigton and the Price of Submission (2022, Penguin Press): Journalist, has written profiles of the rich and famous in technology and football, as well as in Washington, which he depicted as a den of thieves in his book This Town (2013: "There are no Democrats and Republicans anymore in the nation's capital, just millionaires"). The rich have often demanded subservience, but few more so than Donald Trump. Leibovich chronicles the flattery and groveling of Republicans desperate to curry favor with Trump. I recall an early cabinet meeting where they went around the table, where everyone had to praise and thank Trump -- none more so than "chief of staff" Reince Priebus, who ultimately offered a blurb for this book: "It's a hundred times worse than you've been hearing." More recent (and some forthcoming) books on Trump:
We also have more memoirs from the Trump administration and fellow travelers. None of these appears to merit its own section head:
Bruce E Levine: Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person's Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian -- Strategies, Tools, and Models (paperback, 2018, AK Press): "The capacity to comply with abusive authority is humanity's fatal flaw." Although this talks of tools and models for resistance, the intro focuses on why anti-authoritarians should be valued in the first place. As it is, much social effort has been directed at breaking such people, sometimes going to the point of declaring them mentally ill. Much of this resonates with my own life, where anti-authoritarianism was an unknown but defining trait of my teenage years. Strange to see someone writing about it now, but then authoritarians have never left us, and in some respects are making a comeback. Levine also wrote:
Barry Lopez: Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World: Essays (2022, Random House). Nature writer (1945-2020), bibliography is about half fiction, though titles there tend to read like Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven, Crow and Weasel, and Lessons From the Wolverine. One title here is "Our Frail Planet in Cold, Clear View." Introduction by Rebecca Solnit. Selected nonfiction:
William MacAskill: What We Owe Each Other (2022, Basic Books): Oxford philosophy professor, cofounded the Centre for Effective Altruism ("which has raised over $1 billion for charities"), based on his working concept about how we should be living our lives. He's gotten a lot of press in the last couple months, which makes one naturally skeptical, although I am at least impressed that one of his rave reviews comes from Rutger Bregman, whose Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World is itself a powerful argument that we can make the world much better through practical steps. Still seem a stretch that, as one Amazon reviewer put it, "people might look back in millions of years and say this was the most important book ever written." Related:
Michael Mandelbaum: The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022, Oxford University Press): Implies the hits just keep on coming, but his time divisions -- Weak 1765-1865, Great 1865-1945, Super 1945-1990, and Hyper 1990-2015 -- suggest he's not so sure about the Trump effect (probably too early for him to weigh in on Biden), and that's the least of his problems. During the so-called "weak" period, Americans successfully fought two wars of independence against Britain -- that was Madison's view of the War of 1812, and while the war results were mixed, it finally ended Britain's attempts to control American shipping -- and an expansionist war against Mexico, as well as minor scraps with Barbary pirates and the opening of the China trade, and it ended with a Civil War where the Union became the technically most advanced fighting force in the world. American power was always base on economic power, which exceeded Britain's by the end of the 19th century. With WWII the US economy reached 50% of worldwide GDP, and in its fight against Germany and Japan, the US built a network of bases that straddled the globe, less concerned with empire -- which the war had proven was no longer a viable principle for ordering the world -- than with protecting a vast expansion of corporate business interests. Still, it's sheer hubris to call American power in that period "super," and even more so "hyper." US economic power started to slip after its WWII apogee. By 1990, Europe had achieved parity with the US, and Japan was richer per capita, and China was starting its rapid rise. The Soviet Union collapsed less because the US outbid it in the arms race than because Eastern Europe wanted to join in the bounty of Western Europe. Since then, the US has not only become an ever-smaller slice of the world economy, its enormous arms advantages have proven to be useless and often counterproductive, although that doesn't seem to have sunk into the blinkered brains of the people who work the "hyperpower" grift. The Table of Contents doesn't seem too bad here, so this is probably a decent recounting of the history, but looking over his past book list, he strikes me as a hack or an idiot, and possibly both. QED: in 2011, he was co-author of That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, with Thomas Friedman (who is definitely both).
Bill McKibben: The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened (2022, Henry Holt): Seems like he's been writing the same book over and over since his critical book on climate change, The End of Nature (1989). I guess it was the one that convinced me some years later when I read it on a midsummer trip to Florida, although I never stopped hating the much-too-sharp "end of nature" dividing line, and always suspected him of being a sanctimonious scold. The twist here is that it's structured as a memoir, so we should get a glimpse of his class and educational background (Harvard), but at 240 pp I wouldn't expect much detail on the devolution of the American Dream. As for "graying," he's ten years younger than me, so he missed out on the 1950s, the decade when we really enjoyed burning cheap gasoline.
Walter Russell Mead: The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People (2022, Knopf): Big (672 pp) tract on the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States, and its supposed benefits for the Jewish people, with pretensions of "demolish[ing] the myths that both pro-Zionists and anti-Zionists have fostered over the years" -- always in favor of the prevailing security doctrines. Blurbs are all from reliable supporters of Israel, most firmly ensconced on the right. As Dan Senor puts it a bit too revealingly, "Walter shows that US support for Israel is ingrained in American political culture and critical to America's strategy for world order." I can imagine architects of American world order not binding themselves so helplessly to Israel, but none since James Baker (or maybe Dwight Eisenhower) have so much as entertained the thought. This book is intended to make it even harder to break the common bonds of colonialism and occupation. Mead has also written:
Dana Milbank: The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party (2022, Doubleday): Washington Post columnist, but (hopefully) not just recycling his recent columns, as the promise here is to offer some historical context, showing that today's Republicans are linear descendents of at least several decades of past Republicans, with Newt Gingrich a key transitional figure on the way to today's gallery of crazy. (I would have started with Nixon and Reagan, although I can see arguments for older and less successful figures, like Goldwater and McCarthy.) The mainstream press seems to be the last haven of reporters desperately trying to find rare voices of reason among Republicans. On the other hand, consider how similar is the title of Thomas Frank's 2008 book: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation. Related:
Samuel Moyn: Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (2022, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Author has a background of writing about human rights, which gives this book a peculiar frame of mind, asking whether war can be made humane (I'd say certainly not) as opposed to a different question, whether a war can have an effect which is on balance humanitarian (I'm doubtful but it's harder to be certain, because it's conditioned on an unknowable future). Americans have argue in favor of both, and especially since the end of the Cold War those arguments have come to dominate debate over whether to go to war: at least public debate, where advocates of war like to dress their motives (most often revenge or intimidation) with higher-minded arguments. Also by Moyn:
David Pepper: Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind the Lines (paperback, 2021, St Helena Press): Lawyer, has written several novels (political thrillers), examines how Republicans have taken over statehouses and used them as political forums for suppressing votes, gerrymandering, pushing their culture war agendas, and tripping over each other in competition to shower business interests with special favors. I would expect something on ALEC here: the Republican organization that crafts model laws for state legislature, leading to the systematic sweep of bad ideas across every state Republicans have seized power in. (A prime example of their work is the "stand your ground" laws promoting gun violence.)
Jedediah Purdy: Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening -- and Our Best Hope (2022, Basic Books): Serious thinker, was touted as a homeschooled genius from West Virginia in 1999 when his first book appeared (For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today -- as I recall, he was anti-irony), but even then had graduated from Harvard and would go on to Yale Law School, a post as an Appeals Court clerk, a fellow at the New America Foundation, then on to teaching law at Duke. Six books later, he sensibly writes: "Politics is not optional, even though we may wish it were." The basic reason is that if you don't stop them, people who seek to take over and use government for their own private interests will enjoy a free run to loot and pillage. On the other hand, people rarely perceive public interests clearly, due to flaws in the system and in the people who campaign in it. Seems likely to me that the 23 years since he first wrote have pushed him to the left, even if he remains a stick-in-the-mud.
George Scialabba: How to Be Depressed (2020, University of Pennsylvania Press). Author made his reputation as a social critic with freelance book reviews, eventually collected in several volumes. This is sort of a memoir: a collection he's kept of notes from various psychiatrists who have attempted to treat his depression over the years (he was 72 when this came out), which as Barbara Ehrenreich points out, winds up being "a devastating critique of psychiatry." His other books:
Matthias Schmelzer/Andrea Vetter/Aaron Vansintjan: The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism (2022, Verso). Argues that "economic growth isn't working, and it cannot be made to work." Needs to be more specific. It's a common liberal convenience to see growth as the solution that benefits all, therefore saving us from having to tackle inequality. Of course, in a resource-limited world, growth cannot be infinite, which makes the inequality problem all the more pressing. As growth is so tightly bound up with capitalism, many sketches of a more equitable degrowth society go by "postcapitalism," a word this title points at.
Peter Shinkle: Uniting America: How FDR and Henry Stimson Brought Democrats and Republicans Together to Win World War II (2022, St Martin's Press): I generally accept the argument that Franklin Roosevelt thought American involvement in WWII was inevitable, and that he rather relished the leading the nation in that fight. That's likely why he chose to run for an unprecedented third term. True, he ran as an anti-war candidate in 1940, but so had Wilson in 1916. While Wilson quickly changed course in 1917, leaving a lot of ill-feeling even after winning the war, Roosevelt was patient, waiting for right moment, which was served up by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, followed immediately by declarations of war by Japan and Germany. Anti-war sentiment on both the right and left evaporated almost immediately. This book suggests another reason for such unity in entering the war: in 1940, Roosevelt laid the groundwork by inviting prominent Republicans to take over the War Department (Henry Stimson, Secretary of State under Hoover) and the Navy (Frank Knox, 1936 VP nominee). A chart early in the book shows that many more Republicans were given strategic positions even before Pearl Harbor. The bipartisan alliance survived the war, and even in the hyper-polarized present both parties can be counted on to line up behind wars like Afghanistan and Ukraine. (Iraq had a few dissenting Democrats, but every one of the 2004 presidential hopefuls rallied to the cause. The only 2008 exception was Obama, who closed ranks with the hawks after becoming president, and who kept one Republican Secretary of Defense, then later replaced him with another.) I have serious reservations against calling WWII "the good war" -- it was horrible any way you slice it, ultimately turning the US as genocidal as its opponents, leaving the "losers" destroyed and the "winners" insufferably conceited and soulless -- but FDR made it look so easy few appreciate what a remarkable job he did in running it. No later US president has come remotely close.
Philip Short: Putin (2022, Henry Holt): Weighing in at 864 pp, this is billed as "the first comprehensive, fully up-to-date biography of Vladimir Putin," but its July release means it's missing an all-important chapter on the decision to invade Ukraine in March and the still on-going war, with Putin challenged as never before by international sanctions, internal dissent, and military frustration. Author has previously published biographies of François Mitterand, Pol Pot, and Mao, as well as a book from 1982 called The Dragon and the Bear: Inside China & Russia Today. I've cited numerous books on Putin the past, most notably:
Some recent ones I had missed:
Daniel Sjursen: A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism (paperback, 2021, Steerforth Press/Truth to Power): Author spent 18 years in US Army, taught history at West Point, retired a Major (long using that rank as part of his byline). I don't much like it when an author claims their book to be a true story, but in Sjursen's world of antiwar conservatism everything must be cut-and-dry. In any case, he has a lot of myth and rationalization to cut through, and does so in a sensible 688 pp. Seems like I've read a bunch of this online, and while truth may be elusive, he's rarely wrong.
Vaclav Smil: How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going (2022, Viking): Bill Gates' favorite author, a Czech-born Canadian scientist with several dozen books, mostly relating to energy policy. The title tempted me to pick this up -- after all, good policy must be rooted in "how the world really works" -- but learned little I didn't already know, and found his imagination overly constrained by fossil fuels. (Perhaps this should have been expected, given that one of his titles from as recent as 2015 is Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century.) He has lots of books, but I'll only note a couple recent ones:
Michael Tomasky: The Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity (2022, Doubleday): Political writer, edits Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, has a couple books, including one in 1996 announcing that the left is dead (Left for Dead), and one in 2019 that tried to salvage the center (If We Can Keep It), seems to have rediscovered the progressive sympathies he always claimed to have -- probably because the title has been presented as an ovearching concept for Biden's Build Back Better agenda. He has some suggestions, like critiquing economics that put self-interest over public needs, and recognizing that such traditional American ideals as freedom and democracy need to be grounded in a sense of shared equality, which has been all but killed by the neoliberal consensus.
Gaia Vince: Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World (2022, Flatiron Books): For the last 30-40 years, we have been divided into two camps: one recognized that people were changing the atmosphere in ways that would affect global climate, with far-ranging risks but couched in assurances that we could save ourselves through more/less easy reforms; the other denied that climate change this was happening, or denied that it would make much real difference, or trusted in God and/or capitalism to swiftly correct any problems that did occur. Perhaps we need a third approach, which admits we've failed to prevent climate change but takes seriously how to deal with the myriad problems it causes. One such problem is that as climate changes, some parts of the world will become uninhabitable, and others will become unsuitable for current uses. This will push many people to leave their current homes, and seek new abodes, and often new occupations. That's what this book is about: noting, for instance, that in 2018 1.2 million people in the US were displaced by extreme conditions, up to 1.7 million in 2020, as the US "averages a billion dollar disaster every eighteen days." Other parts of the world are in even more peril. ("In India alone, close to a billion people will be at risk.") There are other reasons why people move away from their homes, and that's been happening for some while, but it would be surprising if it didn't accelerate in coming years. How well we handle this change will say much about us as people, and about our future.
Brian T Watson: Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We'll Face (paperback, 2019, Anvilside Press): I could imagine writing a book like this, which starts with a long laundry list of systemic problems (Capitalism, Technology, Webworld, Politics, Media, Education, Human Nature, The Environment, Human Population, Transportation, Miscellaneous Forces) then winds up showing how any (let alone all) of them are unlikely to be solved (that chapter is called "Possible Reforms and Their Likelihood"). I'd shuffle the deck a bit -- in the 1990s, when I started thinking along these lines, I started with resources and environment, but back then I at least had some faith in reason to see a way through technical obstacles, but that idea has taken a beating ever since. So I see no more reason to be optimistic than the author, not that I would deny that the very act of looking into the abyss implies a certain unreasoned hope. Missing here is recognition of the unknown: e.g., no mention of pandemic a mere year before Covid-19 hit. While climate was most likely mentioned under Environment or Population, it's at least as much a headline as "Webworld." Another big topic is war: both as a cause of destruction and as a likely consequence, in both its conventional and annihilationist modes. Bibliography is just a list of mostly familiar books relevant to each chapter.
Additional books, with very brief (or in most cases no) comments. There is no count limit here per post (although I kept a lot of books back for lack of time to consider them; current count = 232). It's possible I will write a further entry on these at a later date.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020; paperback, 2021, WW Norton): Previous subtitle: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. List of "protagonists" runs from Idi Amin to Donald J Trump.
Wendell Berry: The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice (paperback, 2022, Shoemaker).
Alan S Blinder: A Monetary and Fiscal History of the United States, 1961-2021 (2022, Princeton University Press).
Cori Bush: The Forerunner: A story of Pain and Perseverance in America (2022, Knopf): US Representative (D-MO).
Jelani Cobb/David Remnick, eds: The Matter of Black Lives: Writing From the New Yorker (2021, Ecco): 848 pp.
Ted Cruz: Justice Corrupted: How the Left Weaponized Our Legal System (2022, Regnery): The only "weaponizing" going on is on the right. If Cruz were more perceptive, he'd be a happy man.
Mike Davis: Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (1986; 1999; 2018, paperback, 2018): His first book, reprinted with similar covers along with: City of Quartz (1990), Ecology of Fear (1998), Late Victorian Holocausts (2001), Planet of Slums (2006), Buda's Wagon (2007), and The Monster Enters: Covid-19, the Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism (2020, a revision of his 2005 book The Monster at Our Door).
Ludo De Witte: The Assassination of Lumumba (2001; paperback, 2022, Verso).
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion (2021, Beacon Press).
Russ Feingold/Peter Prindiville: The Constitution in Jeopardy: An Unprecedented Effort to Rewrite Our Fundamental Law and What We Can Do About It (2022, Public Affairs): Former US Senator (D-WI).
Phil Gramm/Robert Ekelund/John Early: The Myth of American Inequality: How Government Biases Policy Debate (2022, Rowman & Littlefield): Former US Senator [R-TX], a prime architect not just of increasing inequality but specifically of the 2008 financial meltdown.
Max Hastings: The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962 (2022, Harper): "Author of twenty-eight books, most about conflict."
Richard Heinberg: Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (paperback, 2021, New Society).
Will Hurd: American Reboot: An Idealist's Guide to Getting Big Things Done (2022, Simon & Schuster): Former US Congressman (R-TX) and CIA officer.
Andrew Kirtzman: Giuliani: The Rise and Tragic Fall of America's Mayor (2022, Simon & Schuster).
Henry Kissinger: Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy (2022, Penguin). Sections on: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Le Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher.
Arthur B Laffer/Brian Domitrovic/Jeanne Cairns: Taxes Have Consequences: An Income Tax History of the United States (2022, Post Hill Press): Supply-side guru, argues that economies boom when cutting marginal taxes, lag when taxes goes up. Almost always wrong.
Andrew Meier: Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty (2022, Random House): 1072 pp.
Scott Nations: A History of the United States in Five Crashes: Stock Market Meltdowns That Defined a Nation (2017; paperback, 2018, William Morrow): 1907, 1929, 1987, 2008, 2010 (the "flash crash").
Benjamin Netanyahu: Bibi: My Story (2022, Threshold Editions): Former Prime Minister of Israel. Note far-right publisher.
Michael Ratner: Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer (paperback, 2021, OR Books). Worked for Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild. Died 2016.
Douglas Rushkoff: Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires (2022, WW Norton): The most obvious are Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, with their rocket ship companies promising literal escape from Earth, but the mentality in the tech world is more widespread.
William Shatner/Joshua Brandon: Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder (2022, Atria Books).
Sheldon Whitehouse/Jennifer Mueller: The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court (2022, The New Press).
Richard D Wolff: The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself (paperback, 2020, Democracy at Work).
Julian E Zelizer, ed: The Presidency of Donald J Trump: A First Historical Assessment (paperback, 2022, Princeton University Press): Historian, similar books on Bush and Obama.