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Book* [10 - 19]
Friday, March 15, 2019
I've fallen way behind here. The last Book Roundup appeared way back on April 21, 2018, eight months after the previous one on August 18, 2017 (full list and archive is here, but it's one long file). The way this works is I pick 40 books per post, and write a few words on each, mostly based on descriptions and comments at Amazon, plus whatever else I happen to know or find. (Given the long delays, I've actually read thirteen books from this batch, and bought several more.) I've been known to do multiple posts in quick succession when I catch up from far behind, and will likely follow this one up with another (or two or maybe three) in pretty quick order.
In addition to the chosen 40, I list many more books in uncommented lists, either under selected books where they seem to be related, or at the end. I've included related book lists all along, especially when I would find a cluster of related titles and didn't find reason to comment on them individually. More recently I started appending a generic list of books without comment, and since they're easy, I've turned them into a time-saving measure (which also makes the list more comprehensive). Again, due to the long lead time here, you'll find more below than ever before.
In the past, I've added extra lists of paperback reissues of books I've previously noted -- especially books I had since read and wanted to write more about. None of them this time, but perhaps in the future. As far as domain, the chose books are primarily on politics, history, and the social sciences (especially economics), although I'll make an exception here and there, whatever strikes my fancy. My main reason for doing this is to familiarize myself with what people are writing about issues I care about.
: Read: Gregg Carlstrom: How Long Will Israel Survive?; John Dower: The Violent American Century; Ben Fountain: Beautiful Country Burn Again; Thomas Frank: Rendezvous With Oblivion; Robert Gerwarth: The Vanquished; Masha Gessen: The Future Is History; David Satter: The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep; Jill Lepore: These Truths; Kevin Peraino: A Force So Swift; Michael Ruhlman: Grocery; Quinn Slobodan: Globalists; Sarah Smarsh: Heartland; Timothy Snyder: The Road to Unfreedom. Waiting on the shelf: Tom Engelhardt: A Nation Unmade by War; Steve Fraser: Class Matters; Michael Tomasky: If We Can Keep It.
Alan I Abramowitz: The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump (2018, Yale University Press): One of several recent books that try to make sense of recent changes in partisan alignment, especially as right and left have become more stuck with their limited party options. This one focuses on "an unprecedented alignment of many different divides: racial and ethnic, religious, ideological, and geographic." OK, with Trump, mostly racial. Other recent books:
Andrew J Bacevich: Twilight of the American Century (2018, University of Notre Dame Press): A collection of essays since 9/11/2001, 480 pages. He's a conservative anti-war, anti-intervention, soldier-turned-scholar, has written a bunch of books in the meantime, including: The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005); The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008); Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (2010); Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013); and America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016). Entitled to a lot of "I told you so's."
Becky Bond/Zack Exley: Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything (paperback, 2016, Chelsea Green): A primer for grass roots political change, written by two "digital iconoclasts" who have worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Title probably a nod to Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. There are actually quite a few activist primers out recently, such as:
Bryan Caplan: The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (2018, Princeton University Press): As a high school dropout, I should sympathize with the argument that our education system is inefficient and ineffective, that much of what is taught there is of little value, and that people can learn essential life skills otherwise. And that should be even more true now than it was when I was in school, as the system since then has evolved into more of a credentials mill than a source for widespread knowledge development. Elements of Caplan's critique are certainly correct, but his proposal -- spend less on general education and more on vocational training -- misses some key points. In particular, in an increasingly complex technological civilization people need more knowledge just to function as responsible citizens. Just as important, they need to be able to reason independently, and to continue to learn for the rest of their lives. I managed to do that, for the most part in spite of my formal education, but rather than throwing everyone else into the deep end to see who swims, wouldn't more people be better off if we changed the educational system to help people learn and develop -- rather than just train people for the jobs we think we need now?
Gregg Carlstrom: How Long Will Israel Survive? The Threat From Within (2017, Oxford University Press): A decade ago, Richard Ben Cramer wrote what I thought the best single book on the intractable problem of the Zionist State's continuing domination over the Palestinian people in Greater Israel. His simple thesis was that Jewish Israel was divided into a half-dozen very distinct tribes that were being held together by their common enemy: the people they displaced in settling Israel. Thus, they had to keep feeding the conflict, lest they lose themselves as a people. That's what they've done since then, ever more intransigently, to the point where it's rotting the nation from within. We got our first really good picture of how pervasive this is in Max Blumenthal's 2013 book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (not that close readers couldn't recognize the problem much earlier, even before the 1948 War of Independence). Carlstrom adds a few more years onto Blumenthal's story. Not pretty, although I suspect that had he waited a year or two into the Trump era, where the US has totally given up any pretense of independence, the story would be even grimmer.
Elizabeth Catte: What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (paperback, 2018, Belt Publishing): Examines the history of Appalachia (especially West Virginia) and various stereotypes that have been popularized, especially by J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis (2016), a book that journalists discovered looking for explanations of why Trump was so successful there.
Amy Chua: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (2018, Penguin Press): Stresses the role of group identity in elections both in the US and abroad. Chua has in the past been especially sensitive (maybe a bit chauvinistic too) to how the Chinese diaspora rose to economic prominence and political antipathy all around southeast Asia -- cf. World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability -- so I imagine she builds on that here, a much broader (though not necessarily deeper) foundation than our recent carping about identity politics.
Tom Engelhardt: A Nation Unmade by War (paperback, 2018, Haymarket): Another collection of essays from the author's TomDispatch website, where he and a few dozen regular contributors have meticulously chronicled the frustrations and failures of the post-9/11 "global war on terror" -- a vain and desperate defense of the worldwide empire American neocons claimed as its triumph over communism. Actually, that empire had always been based on more than a little self-delusion, and its costs and contradictions had already become evident when one of Engelhardt's writers, Chalmers Johnson, wrote The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004). Engelhardt follows up, recounting the attendant chaos and confusion. Also, by other Engelhardt writers:
Ronan Farrow: War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (2018, WW Norton): Based on interviews with Secretaries of State from Henry Kissinger to Rex Tillerson, this reports on the decline of the US State Department. There is certainly an interesting book to be written on this, but it needs to be paired with the increasing power of military and intelligence sectors, and how both reflect a shift as Washington politicians have lost faith in international institutions and law, preferring to act unilaterally (at most giving lip service to an ad hoc "coalition of the willing"). In the "sole superpower" view of neocons like John Bolton, diplomacy is disparaged not just as ineffective but as an admission of weakness. The curious thing is that there is absolutely no evidence that the US acting on its own is anyway near as effective as diplomacy. Such a book would also note that the shift to the now dominant neocon view has mostly been driven by a blind, unthinking "alliance" with Israel, such that the more Israel defies international law and censure, the more isolated, bitter, and ineffective the US becomes.
Ben Fountain: Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution (2018, Ecco Books): Author of a well-regarded novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, sees America has stuck in some sort of eighty-year cycle, leading to crises -- the first two were the Civil War and the Great Depression -- requiring major upheavals to put the nation back on track. Much of the book is election reporting, which sounds like old (and much too rehashed) news, but none of the books I've seen so far really makes sense of 2016's nonsense, so maybe we should give continuously referring back to history a chance. One thing that's a pretty safe bet is that Fountain's not going to argue that Trump is the answer to the present crisis, unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt. Still, even as Fountain writes about 2016 and the bad feelings evident there from all sides, his real subject is the coming crisis -- 2020, maybe even 2024, surely not much further out. But even there, don't expect history to repeat itself. Buchanan and Hoover were procrastinators, not least because they didn't see any way out of their dilemmas, but Trump is a man of action, corroding and breaking everything he touches. It's only a matter of time before his damage can no longer be shrugged away as fake news.
Thomas Frank: Rendezvous With Oblivion: Reports From a Sinking Society (2018, Metropolitan Books): Collection of scattered essays, which makes this seem less coherent than Frank's recent string of books -- Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016), Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (2012), The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation (2008) -- although the net effect does much to prove how prescient The Wrecking Crew's analysis was.
Steve Fraser: Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion (2018, Yale University Press): The story of how the subject of class has repeatedly been expunged from American history and consciousness, taking a half-dozen case moments from the Mayflower to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech as examples. Fraser wrote about this same subject more broadly in The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015), noting that with Occupy Wall Street the pendulum was suddenly flipping back.
Robert Gerwarth: The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End (2016; paperback, 2017, Farrar Straus and Giroux): On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered, signing an armistice ending the war they launched in 1914 by invading Belgium and France. For Western Europe (and America), that ended what was then called the Great War, but by then the Russian Tsar had been overthrown, replaced by a revolutionary Soviet, and multi-ethnic empires in Austria-Hungary and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) had also collapsed. For several years after, war, revolution, and reaction continued in Eastern Europe, at least up to 1923 when the Communists consolidated power in Russia and a nationalist government in Turkey had driven both foreign and native Greeks from Asia Minor. In the longer term, the Treaty of Versailles, dictated by the victorious imperialist powers of Britain and France, was widely viewed as unjust, an insult that festered and grew into a second, even more deadly World War. Another recent book that covers this territory is Prit Buttar: The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917-21 (2017; paperback, 2018, Osprey), the fourth volume in Buttar's history of the Eastern front, following: Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914 (2014; paperback, 2016, Osprey); Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915 (2015; paperback, 2017, Osprey); and Russia's Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-17 (2016; paperback, 2017, Osprey).
Masha Gessen: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017; paperback, 2018, Riverhead): Chronicles the failure of Russia to develop a liberal democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Soviet Communism, by tracking a small number of individuals -- mostly intellectuals, descendents of Soviet-era elite families who tended to become liberal opponents of Yeltsin and Putin. Tends to view the willingness to submit to an authoritarian state as rooted in psychology rather than as the sort of ideological belief system Timothy Snyder claims. Other books by Gessen and/or on Putin and Russia:
Steven M Gillon: Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism (2018, Basic Books): Officially, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by governor Otto Kerner (D-IL), a group appointed by President Lyndon Johnson following riots in Newark and Detroit. They took a fairly hard look at racism and poverty, and recommended bold new programs to end both. You'd think that was the right in line with Johnson's "Great Society" agenda, but Johnson rejected the report, and Nixon built his campaign -- especially in his 1972 bid to pick up Wallace voters -- on race baiting. Gillon regards the failure to follow up on the report as a failing of liberalism, but what really damaged Johnson and Humphrey was their leading role in the Vietnam War, followed by the crippling loss to Nixon, and later to Reagan.
Anand Giridharadas: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018, Knopf): As more and more of the world's wealth sinks into the clutches of the very rich, a few of them are stepping up with offers of philanthropic aid, offering to somehow turn the world they're sucking dry into a better place -- without, of course, undermining their exalted place in it. Related:
Jeff Goodell: The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (2017; paperback, 2018, Back Bay Books): Makes sense: Earth climate warms, ice melts, flows into sea, which rises, flooding coastlines, where many of the world's largest cities are. Goodell has written several books related to climate change, like Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (2007), and How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate (2010). Every Roundup the shelves of climate change books grows ever more imposing:
Chris Hedges: America: The Farewell Tour (2018, Simon & Schuster): Author has become increasingly gloomy about the state of the nation -- one might trace this through such books as American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2007), Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle (2009), The Death of the Liberal Class (2010), The World as It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, and Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015), winding up with this combination of high moral outrage and down-and-out journalism. Seems to mostly be reissued columns, which makes for a relatively scattershot book.
Michael Isikoff/David Corn: Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump (2018, Twelve): With the Mueller investigation not even done rounding up even the usual suspects, this is probably just a quickie trying to sum up what little is known about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. What is pretty clear is that Russia-backed hackers weighed in forcefully for Donald Trump, although it seems like sheer scapegoatism to credit the Russians with more influence than the Kochs and Mercers and other quasi-independent Trump backers. I'd be especially surprised if they have any "inside story" on why Putin would wager such a risky bet. Most of the speculation I've seen seems to be little more than projection. Isikoff and Corn wrote a decent book on the Iraq War (Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War), which recommends this over most competing books, like:
Kathleen Hall Jamieson: Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President: What We Don't, Can't, and Do Know (2018, Oxford University Press): A subject sure to be much written about, especially as the Mueller investigation sorts through and eventually discloses (or leaks) its evidence, but for now this is probably the most comprehensive, detailed analysis we have of what Russian hackers did in 2016 and what the effect was (see Jane Mayer's article in The New Yorker). Jamieson has written/contributed to a bunch of books analyzing elections, going back to Everything You Think You Know About Politics . . . and Why You're Wrong (2000, Basic Books).
Jill Lepore: These Truths: A History of the United States (2018, WW Norton): House historian for The New Yorker, her less popular early work includes The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1998), and New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005), which prepared her well to write a book about the use and abuse of history by the Tea Party Movement (The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History). This is, as advertised, a single-volume history of American political life and ideals, at once huge (960 pp) and schematic, with an eye for telling details (many I never knew).
Daniel J Levitin: Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era (paperback, 2017, Dutton): Interesting case example of what happens when Donald Trump gets elected president. Levitin is a neuroscientist who's written books like The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, and A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics: A Neuroscientist on How to Make Sense of a Complex World (which in a saner world would just be a basic update of Darrell Huff's 1954 classic How to Lie With Statistics). So he started with a recognition that human brains are fighting a losing battle against complexity, "information overload," and the flood of calculated misinformation, then panics when he sees where the nonsense he had tried to reason with has gotten us. This new title is actually just a revision of his Field Guide, where circumstances actually seem to call for a fresh review. I expect more books along these lines will appear. For now, I also note:
Michael Lewis: The Fifth Risk (2018, WW Norton): Journalist, has written a stack of very readable books, nominally on finance and business but mostly about interesting people. This one goes into three government bureaucracies -- the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce -- and finds people who for years now have been doing useful, important work there, and takes a look at what Trump and his minions are doing to those people and all that work. Mostly they are shredding data, and purging the departments of the workers with the expertise to collect and analyze that data. It seems that facts and data have become troublesome for profit seekers in industries that have Trump's ear. This is refreshing compared to the reporters who get all the muck they can rake from twitter feeds, the Washington gossip mill, and playing "gotcha" watching talk shows. Sure, those things are symptomatic of the rot in Washington, but the real stink you're going to have a hard time escaping will be coming from out-of-the-way places, like Lewis' chosen departments.
John Meacham: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (2018, Random House): Biographer, has written books on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and GHW Bush, takes a sweeping look at American history, specifically the struggles for expanding rights and greater economic opportunity -- a legacy that we (as opposed to certain conservatives) take pride in when we think of American history (as opposed to numerous other threads that we increasingly find shameful).
Yascha Mounk: The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It (2018, Harvard University Press): The election of Donald Trump has produced a tidal wave of books on how the ignorant masses are rising up to turn to fascism against liberal democracy, as if the effete corruption of the Clintons actually represented the latter. To the extent that Trump gives off the stink of authoritarianism, such books may be warranted, but the bigger problem is how the center-left parties have turned their backs on their natural supporters. Not sure what Mounk's proposal is, but the way to save democracy is to make it pay off. More books along these lines:
Lawrence O'Donnell: Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics (2017, Penguin Press): Broadcast journalist, something I assume moves him to the shallow end of the pool, but this is not a bad time to take another look at the 1968 election: like 2016, a time when a very unpopular and untrustworthy Republican managed to eke out a victory because many people trusted the establishment Democrat even less, most of all because the latter was associated with the longest and bleakest war(s) in American history.
Kevin Peraino: A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 (2017, Crown; paperback, 2018, Broadway Books): Chronicles a single turning-point year as Mao's revolutionary forces swept through the major cities of eastern China, while Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalists retreated to Taiwan, and Madame Chiang -- a major figure in her own right -- was frustrated in her lobbying efforts in New York and Washington. Some more context would have been useful -- fortunately I had previously read James Bradley's The China Mirage: The hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, which laid out the romantic relationship between missionary-minded Americans and the Soong family (most notably Mme. Chiang). Still, I don't know much about Mao's gains up to 1949, or American thinking on China until the blame game of "who lost China?" took over, after the fact. Some more recent historical books on China:
Michael Ruhlman: Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (2017, Henry N Abrams): Food writer, first noticed (by me at least) for his memoirs on studying to become a chef -- The Making of a Chef (1997) and The Soul of a Chef (2000) although I also have his tip books The Elements of Cooking (2007) and Ratio (2009) but only one of his cookbooks -- Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing (2005) -- rarely if ever used (although it sure seems like a good idea). This is a history of grocery stores, bound to be interesting -- as one reviewer put it, "a lot of memoir, a smattering of rants, endless lists."
Quinn Slobodan: Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018, Harvard University Press): A history of neoliberal thinkers starting with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, their roots in the old Hapsburg Empire, their Geneva School in the 1920s-30s, moving in to the Mount Pelerin Society up to the World Trade Organization. Focus is mostly on Europeans, with some political support from the US right but neither author nor subject seems to have much respect for American economists like Milton Friedman. One thing that is striking is that while the degree of overt racism varied, all were concerned with replacing crumbling colonial regimes with private ownership, in effect ensuring that imperialism would survive by privatizing it.
Sarah Smarsh: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (2018, Scribner): Author "was born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side." Grew up on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita (also in Wichita), and seems to have kicked the fates of her mother and grandmother, while still remembering enough to write movingly about people like herself.
Timothy Snyder: The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018, Tim Duggan Books): Historian, has written a couple of major books on the especially bloody and cruel war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for eastern Europe. I've long been bothered by his tendency to treat Hitler and Stalin as political equivalents, a sloppiness broad enough to let him slip Putin into the same mold. His key here is the obscure Vladimir Ilyin, offered here as the architect of a "politics of eternity" which binds Putin to the totalitarians of yore. Snyder does his best to chronicle Putin's offenses against liberal democracy, up to and including his shadow war with Ukraine, but his focus on ideology (and demonizing Putin) slights other possible factors, like the economy. Despite the subtitle, Europe and America are scarcely mentioned.
Jason Stanley: How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018, Random House): Philosophy professor at Yale, previously wrote How Propaganda Works (2015). Focuses on actual politics in the US here, which means you can count him among the minority who believe that certain common political ideas and strategies fit the F-word framework. One obvious point makes it into his subtitle: the rallying of a self-considered nationalist core into a political movement defined in opposition to all sorts of others that diverge from the model. Republican propaganda has increasingly been build around that focus from Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Trump. The second obvious point is the willingness of the fascist leaders to run roughshod over democratic processes, to reduce law to a tool of power, and to use violence as a means for asserting their power. The Republicans aren't yet as vicious and brutal as fascists under Musolini and Hitler, but they lean that way, and their followers respond emotionally (if rarely phsyically) to their taunts.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (2018, Random House): Fourth in a series of books that seek to approximate a logic of how the world works -- Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan started off by looking at statistics and its exceptions. One point here is that the world is run by determined minorities imposing their will. Other points: "For social justice, focus on symmetry and risk sharing"; "Ethical rules aren't universal"; "Beware of complicated solutions (that someone was paid to find)." The title -- a phrase I've always found suspicious -- is also given unconventional examination: "Never trust anyone who doesn't have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will benefit, and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them." Maybe, but I also don't trust people who want you to put more of your skin in their game. They're looking to make you pay for their mistakes.
Sandy Tolan: Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land (2015, Bloomsbury USA): Author of one of the best books ever on the Israel/Palestine conflict -- The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (2007) -- returns with another very specific, concrete story of Palestinian and Israeli musicians transcending the conflict through "the power of music," but also "determination and vision."
Michael Tomasky: If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saed (2019, Liveright): Political analyst, writes for Daily Beat and New York Review of Books, a resolute centrist adrift in a world where the center hasn't held. Starts with a "chronology of polarization" that almost exactly matches the four era division I've been threatening to write about. His command of history is strong, even if I'd nitpick a bit. Ends with a "fourteen-point agenda to reduce polarization" that strikes me as mostly crap, some specific ("reduce college to three years and make year four a service year"), some vague ("vastly expand civics education"). And like most centrists, he's much more bothered by the left than the right ("insist on a left that doesn't contribute to the fracture"). I probably need to read this, but I'm not likely to be happy with it.
Lawrence Tribe/Joshua Matz: To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment (2018, Basic Books): For some people, it's impossible to think of the colossal mistake American voters made in November 2016 without thinking of rectifying it through given constitutional means: impeachment -- a feeling which goes deeper with each scandal or other embarrassment (i.e., almost daily). The rest of us don't deny the requisite "high crimes and misdemeanors" the constitution calls for, but recognize that impeachment has been a purely political matter since it was first contemplated as a way to get rid of the almost universally loathed John Tyler. Tyler dodged impeachment; Andrew Johnson was impeached but not removed from office; Richard Nixon wound up resigning before the House voted. Bill Clinton was impeached in the most cynical of all such affairs, but Republicans in the Senate never had a prayer of mustering the two-thirds majority. As long as Republicans hold power in Congress Trump is safe, not least because Trump has done very little that offends them. Still, if you want to read about impeachment (or the 25th amendment, which allows the cabinet to stage a political coup with mere consent of Congress), there are plenty of books to choose from. Tribe is probably first choice because of his long practice writing about the Supreme Court -- most recently Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution (paperback, 2015, Picador). Also recent:
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (2018, Oxford University Press): Author of an eye-opening book on Google -- The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) (2011), with previous books on Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Proprety and How It Threatens Creativity (2003), and The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control Is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (2004). Not a technophobe or luddite, but casts a wary on the business manipulations of your formerly private life. Some other recent books on web society:
Sean Wilentz: No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding (2018, Harvard University Press): Wide-ranging American historian -- his masterpiece is The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, but he's also written (much less reliably) The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (2008). Here he expands on a theme that Jill Lepore emphasizes in These Truths: A History of the United States: that many of the founders of the American Republic were conscious of the problem of slavery, especially as it contradicted their revolutionary appeals to liberty and equality.
Bob Woodward: Fear: Trump in the White House (2018, Simon & Schuster): I suppose every time I do one of these I should pick out a recent Trump book and hang a list under it. This one is probably the best-selling, with its usual load of insider dirt. Some others:
Robert Wuthnow: The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (2018, Princeton University Press): I get why farmers and small town dwellers find the federal government distant and aloof, but what makes them think they're so different from other people in America? Part of this is that they're more invested in a cult of self-sufficiency: they feed themselves, fend for themselves, and don't see why others shouldn't do so as well. Such views have made them easy pickings for the cynical political manipulators on the right, but they are probably justified in their suspicion that the changes in what Hillary Clinton calls "the more dynamic parts of the nation" is at the root of their relative decline. Wuthnow previously wrote Small Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future (paperback, 2016, Princeton University Press).
Anne Applebaum: Red Famin: Stalin's War on Ukraine (2018, Doubleday).
Michael Beschloss: Presidents of War: The Epic Story, From 1807 to Modern Times (2018, Crown).
Max Boot: The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right (2018, Liveright).
Preet Bharara: Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law (2019, Alfred A Knopf).
Timothy Caulfield: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness (2015; paperback, 2016, Beacon Press).
Amy Chozick: Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling (2018, Harper).
Chris Christie: Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics (2019, Hachette).
James R Clapper: Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence (2018, Viking).
Mike Davis: Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx's Lost Theory (2018, Verso).
Michael Eric Dyson: What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America (2018, St Martin's Press).
Daniel Ellsberg: The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017, Bloomsbury).
Norman G Finkelstein: Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom (2018, University of California Press).
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Leadership: In Turbulent Times (2018, Simon & Schuster).
Alan Greenspan/Adrian Wooldridge: Capitalism in America: A History (2018, Penguin Press).
David Harvey: Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (2017, Oxford University Press).
Seymour M Hersh: Reporter: A Memoir (2018, Knopf).
Eric Holt-Giménez: A Foodie's Gide to Capitalism (paperback, 2017, Monthly Review Press).
Robert Kagan: The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World (2018, Knopf).
Robert D Kaplan: Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World (2018, Random House).
Naomi Klein: The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists (paperback, 2018, Haymarket Books).
Stephen Kotkin: Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (2017; paperback, 2018, Penguin Press).
Andrew G McCabe: The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump (2019, St Martin's Press).
Ralph Nader: To the Ramparts: How Bush and Obama Paved the Way for the Trump Presidency, and Why It Isn't Too Late to Reverse Course (2018, Seven Stories Press).
Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2018, Houghton Mifflin).
Michelle Obama: Becoming (2018, Crown).
David Quammen: The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (2018, self-published).
Alissa Quart: Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America (2018, Ecco).
Ben Rhodes: The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House (2018, Random House).
Dani Rodrik: Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy (2017, Princeton University Press).
Helena Rosenblatt: The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (2018, Princeton University Press).
Arundhati Roy/John Cusack: Things That Can and Cannot Be Said: Essays and Conversations (paperback, 2016, Haymarket Books).
Bernie Sanders: Where We Go From Here (2018, Thomas Dunne Books).
Neil Sheehan/Hedrick Smith/EW Kenworthy/Fox Butterfield/James L Greenfield: The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War (paperback, 2017, Racehorse Publishing).
Robert Skidelsky: Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics (2018, Yale University Press).
Neil deGrasse Tyson/Avis Lang: Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military (2018, WW Norton).
Yanis Varoufakis: Adults in the Room: My Battle With the European and American Deep Establishment (2017, Farrar Straus and Giroux).
Alex Von Tunzelmann: Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower's Campaign for Peace (2016; paperback, 2017, Harper).
Vicky Ward: Kushner, Inc. Greed. Ambition. Corruption. The Extraordinary Story of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (2019, St Martin's Press).
Thomas Weber: Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi (2017, Basic Books).
Gordon S Wood: Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (2017; paperback, 2018, Penguin Books).
Lawrence Wright: God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State (2018, Knopf).
Saturday, April 21, 2018
It's been eight months since my last Book Roundup -- a major lapse on my part. I started working on this a few months back, then lost track again. At this point I suspect I'm far enough behind that I'll need two more columns just to catch up, but at this point I'm only 15 books into the next one, so don't expect them to come out bang-bang-bang like previous catch-ups. One thing that will slow down the pace a bit is that I've started to simply note the existence of additional books following the forty I've written something on. Usually this is because I don't have anything non-obvious to say. Often, it's just that the book is worth knowing about, but unlikely to be worth reading. Some I may return to eventually, should I change my mind.
Given my delays, I've actually managed to read several of these books: Allen Frances: Twilight of American Sanity, David Frum: Trumpocracy, Mark Lilla: The Once and Future Liberal, and Sean Wilentz: The Politicians & the Egalitarians. I'm also about 400 pages into Steve Coll: Directorate S, and I've bought copies but haven't yet gotten to Jennifer M Silva: Coming Up Short, Amy Siskind: The List. I can't really say that any of these books are "must read," but I have learned things from each.
My main complaint about the Coll book is that by focusing on the CIA, ISI, and NDS (the Afghan counterpart) he's very rapidly skipped over the most ill-fated US decisions, like the conviction that the US can simply dictate Pakistan's behavior, and the blanket rejection of any possible Taliban role. But he also only barely touches on the CIA's continued support of their Afghan warlord clients even after the Karzai government was formed. I'm currently up to 2009, with McChrystal still in charge of the surging military, and Holbrooke still among the living (if not among the functional) -- two things I know will change soon.
Kurt Andersen: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (2017, Random House): Big picture history of America, strikes me as like one of those creative writing assignments meant to let your imagination run wild -- probably helps that the author has a couple of novels to his credit. Still, shouldn't be hard to fill up 480 pp. with stories of America's tenuous love/hate relationship to reality. Nor has the election and regime of Donald Trump given us reason to doubt that we're living in a Fantasyland. And clearly Trump was on the author's mind -- probably the reason Alec Baldwin hired him as co-author of their cash-in book, You Can't Spell America Without Me: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President Donald J. Trump (A So-Called Parody).
Benjamin R Barber: Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming (2017, Yale University Press): Political and cultural theorist, wrote a book I was impressed by back in 1971, Superman and Common Men: Freedom, Anarchy and the Revolution, and a couple dozen books since then: two that intrigued me but always seemed a bit too flip were Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World (1996) and Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007). Turned his eye toward cities with his 2013 book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, to which this is a sequel, focusing on the relative energy efficiency of cities. Sad to read that he died, about a month after this book came out.
Ronen Bergman: Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations (2018, Random House): Big (756 pp) book by the Yedioth Ahronoth military analyst. I doubt there are many secrets here -- Israel has a long history of bragging about its secret agency exploits -- but the scale of the killings may come as a surprise. Some time ago, I spent time looking at a database of prominent Palestinians, and the sheer number of them killed by Israel was pretty eye-opening.
Max Boot: The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam (2018, Liveright): Another attempt to find a scapegoat for the American failure in Vietnam, in this case arguing that if only American leaders had followed the advice of CIA operative Lansdale everything would have worked out for the better. This is an appalling argument in lots of ways. For one thing, Lansdale did have an outsized influence on the decision to cancel elections and stick by Diem's corrupt and vicious regime. Beyond that, Lansdale's successors were always going to view the war as a test of American resolve and power, and they were always going to be contemptuous of the Vietnamese and profoundly uninterested in their welfare. The real tragedy of the war in Vietnam was the failure of America's class of strategic thinkers to learn some humility and restraint following their imperial overreach, as is evidenced by repeated failures in numerous more recent wars.
Paul Butler: Chokehold: Policing Black Men (2017, New Press). One of several recent books on how the criminal justice system is stacked against black men, written by a former federal prosecutor who's been there and done that. Previously wrote Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice (2009). Also see: Angela J Davis, ed: Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment (2017, Random House); Jordan T Camp/Christina Heatherton, eds: Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (paperback, 2016, Verso Books).
Ta-Nehisi Coates: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017, One World): A collection of essays, some new, including "Fear of a Black President," "The Case for Reparations," and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration" -- important work. Still, I never quite got the feeling that "we were in power" during Obama's two terms, even the first two years when Democrats had large majorities in Congress but let Max Baucus decide life and death issues; meanwhile Robert Gates was Secretary of Defense and Ben Bernanke chaired the Fed.
Steve Coll: Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2018, Penguin Press): Coll's second book about America's misadventure in Afghanistan (and schizophrenic alliance with Pakistan), bringing the story started in Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) up to date. Of course, the post-9/11 US invasion and still ongoing occupation of Afghanistan hasn't exactly been a secret, but presumably this focuses more on the CIA role there rather than chronicling the ham-fisted DOD and their NATO proxies. No doubt an important book, but I expect it leaves much uncovered.
Peter Cozzens: The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West (2016, Knopf; paperback, 2017, Vintage Books): Covers every front over a 30 year stretch, 1861-1891, during which white Americans fought numerous wars, brokered treaties (and often broke them), ultimately herding Native Americans into a few barren reservations and closing the frontier. Author worked for the State Department, and has written a number of military histories of the Civil War.
Larry Derfner: No Country for Jewish Liberals (2017, Just World Books): A Jewish journalist from Los Angeles, typically liberal, moved to Israel and surveys the intolerant, closed, often vicious society he encounters. I've maintained for some time now that constant war even more than greed and corruption (both plenty in evidence) has been responsible for so many Americans abandoning their liberal traditions. Same thing applies to Israel, even more so given the relative intensity of their militarism (a universal draft, for Jews anyway) and their incessant cult of victimhood.
EJ Dionne Jr/Norman J Ornstein/Thomas E Mann: One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported (2017, St Martin's Press): Quickie from three authors who've made careers explaining, as Dionne put it in his 1992 book, Why Americans Hate Politics -- the others are best known for their 2012 dissection of Congress, It's Even Worse Than It Looks. Dionne seems to be the unshakable optimist -- another of his titles is They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era -- but these days I find the assumption that there will still be "one nation after Trump" to be ungrounded.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (2018, Twelve): Seems to be a sequel to her 2009 book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, her critical instincts sharpened by another decade of getting older (78) and more acquainted with mortality. I've been expecting her to write a major book on the high cost of being poor in America -- a subject she's written several essays about recently. Hope she gets to that. I might also wish she'd explore the inner madness of the Trump voter, but she anticipated all that in her 1989 book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.
Jesse Eisinger: The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives (2017, Simon & Schuster): Investigates the fact that none of the bank executives responsible for the 2008 meltdown and ensuing recession were ever charged with crimes (although eventually a number of substantial fines were paid by newly profitable companies the public had bailed out, most often leaving their management in place). Nor is it just bankers who seem to be able to get away with whatever. Blames timid prosecutors, but to make sense of it all you'd have to work through the lax regulation companies are subjected to, and the widespread respect civil servants seem to have for money and well-heeled executives.
Neil Faulkner: A People's History of the Russian Revolution (paperback, 2017, Pluto Press): One-hundred years later, emphasizes the revolutionary parts of the Russian Revolution, the parts that tore down one of the most corrupt and decadent aristocracies in Europe and tried to build a broad-based alternative -- before violence and paranoia took its toll. In today's post-Soviet era we're inclined to see the revolution and its aftermath as continuous tragedy, which is only true if you forget the injustices of the world it swept away.
Allen Frances: Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump (2017, William Morrow): Argues that Trump is not technically insane, but raises many pertinent questions about whether America as a whole. The opening section on truths Americans reject and myths they embrace is a garden variety liberal list, but this gets more interesting when he goes on to root our understanding of psychology in Darwin rather than Freud. Tricky terrain: I think easy psychological labels are misleading, yet don't doubt that deeply seated mental processes are serving us poorly when we think about politics these days.
David Frum: Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (2018, Harper): Former Bush speechwriter, has of late argued that Republicans should pay more heed to the needs of their base voters and less to their moneyed elites, which makes him sympathetic with the popular impulse of Trump's campaign and critical of the reality of his administration. Useful mostly for detailing the myriad ways Trump is bound up in corruption, and unflinching in its criticism of other Republicans for condoning and enabling his treachery. Would be more trenchant if only he realized that corruption is the coin of the Republican realm -- not just a side-effect of a political philosophy dedicated to making the rich richer but a way of keeping score.
David Goodhart: The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (2017, Hurst): British editor of Prospect magazine, wrote a previous book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration, takes the Brexit vote and Trump's win as signposts for a right-wing revolt he deems to be populist. I regard those wins as flukes: possible only because serious economic interests were lucky enough to find themselves with enemies that could be blamed for all the evils of neoliberalism. Most elections don't break quite like that -- e.g., the post-Brexit UK elections.
Linda Gordon: The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (2017, Liveright): The original KKK was formed in the 1970s to restore white supremacy in the South through the use of terror. Its work was largely done by the 1890s with the adoption of Jim Crow laws across the South and into parts of the North. In the 1910s Woodrow Wilson extended Jim Crow to the federal government, and the movie Birth of a Nation romanticized the old KKK, leading to a resurgence that grew beyond the South. This is the history of the latter movement, how it grew and why it crumbled (not that remnants haven't survived to the present day).
David Cay Johnston: It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America (2018, Simon & Schuster): Journalist, has written several books on how the economic system is rigged for the rich, and has also written a couple of books about one such rich person in particular: Donald Trump. Therefore, he started well ahead of the learning curve when Trump became president. Hopefully he goes deeper as a result. Probably a good companion to Amy Siskind: The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump's First Year.
Gilles Kepel: Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West (2017, Princeton University Press): French political scientist and Arab expert, wrote Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2000 in French where the subtitle was Expansion et Déclin de l"Islamisme; 2002 in English with an afterward on how 9/11 seemed like a desperate ploy to reverse the decline -- thanks mostly to GW Bush it worked), with a steady stream of books since then. This covers recent terror attacks in France and their socioeconomic context. Also new is a thin book by the other famous French jihad expert, Olivier Roy: Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State (2017, Oxford University Press).
Sheelah Kolhatkar: Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street (2017, Random House): About Stephen A Cohen and SAC Capital, although the former was never indicted for his hedge fund's insider dealing.
Robert Kuttner: Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? (2018, WW Norton): Could have filed this with the warnings against right-wing populism, but this goes deeper, seeing the global expansion of capitalism since the 1970s, and especially the tendency of those same capitalists to game supposedly democratic systems, at the root of the crisis. The problem has less to do with authoritarian wannabes and their fans than with corporate managers and financiers seeking to exempt business from any form of public restraint. The results may still bear some formal resemblance to democracy, but not the kind where most people can force the system to treat them fairly. When you think of it that way, the question becomes "has democracy survived global capitalism"? One could answer "no."
Brandy Lee: The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (2017, Thomas Dunne Books): The "consensus view of two dozen psychiatrists and psychologists [is] that Trump is dangerously mentally ill and that he presents a clear and present danger to the nation and our own mental health." Sounds about right, but then I recall having long ago become a fan of Thomas Szasz's work, particularly his The Myth of Mental Illness, and I myself have been diagnosed as mentally ill by various shrinks, both credentialed and not. Indeed, I doubt it would be hard to sketch out unflattering psychological portraits of anyone who's become president since 1900 (I'm hedging a bit on McKinley but Teddy Roosevelt was mad as a hatter, and half of his successors are comparably easy pickings). Indeed, there's little reason to expect that people we elect to the nation's highest (and presumably most coveted) office should be even close to "normal." On the other hand, Trump is certainly an outlier, especially in his lack of understanding how government works, perhaps even more importantly in his lack of concern for how his acts affect people. Psychologists have compiled a thick book of diagnoses for traits like that (e.g., see "sociopath"), but much of that behavior can also be explained by looking at his class background -- how he inherited and then played with his wealth, parlaying it for fame in his peculiarly own ego-gratifying terms. Moreover, psychoanalyzing him misses the fact that he rules through other people, who while having their own fair share of foibles have aligned thermselves with Trump more for political and/or ideological reasons -- and that, I think, is where we should focus our critiques. (Not, mind you, that I doubt Trump's stark-raving bonkers.)
Mark Lilla: The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017, Harper Collins). Short essay rushed out following the Trump election. Argues that liberals need to seek the moral high ground by focusing on universal rights and values instead of what he sees as their recent indulgence in cultivating "identity groups." "Identity politics" is a term much bandied about, near-meaningless with ominous overtones, probably because the right has been rather successful at fragmenting people into tribes and motivating them to vote to thwart the plans of rival tribes. On the other hand, literally everyone votes because of some identity they've developed -- which need not be ethnic or racial or religious, but could just as well be class or even a sense of the positive value of diversity. Liberalism would be an identity too, except that liberals have been running away from the label for 30-40 years now, which has only encouraged conservatives to pile on. Lilla at least is trying to reassert some universal values.
Angela Nagle: Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump the Alt-Right (paperback, 2017, Zero Books): Short (156 pp) survey of "culture war" rants on the internet, mostly from the "alt-right" but takes a few jabs at supposed lefties for balance. Argues that there's way too much of this stuff, and (I think) that we'd be better off with more taste and mutual respect (as long as that doesn't seem like some sort of radical leftist stance).
Rachel Pearson: No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine (2017, WW Norton): By "front lines" she means the leaky bottom of the safety net, where patients can get diagnosed but are left untreated because they too indigent or not indigent enough.
Kim Phillips-Fein: Fear City: New York's Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (2017, Metropolitan Books): In 1975 New York City risked bankruptcy, and one famous newspaper headline read: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Banker Felix Rohatyn intervened, staving off the crisis but forcing the city to adopt various changes, including ending its practice of free college. Phillips-Fein previously wrote an important book on the rise of the right in America: Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement From the New Deal to Reagan (2009), and sees this as yet another chapter in that rise -- all the more notable today as austerity is the right's standard answer to public debt.
Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018, Viking): Author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, continues expanding his case for optimism at a time when contrary evidence is so overwhelming it threatens to bury us. I think he has a point -- indeed, a number of them -- but one shouldn't fail to notice that anti-Enlightenment, anti-Progressive thinking has grabbed considerable political power (at least in the US), so much so that most Americans regard war as a permanent condition, and many see no problem with inequality hardening into oligarchy.
Robert B Reich: The Common Good (2018, Knopf): For better or worse, a true liberal. His most famous book, The Work of Nations (1991), was built around one of the worst ideas of our time -- one which, I might add, was the reason Bill Clinton hired him as Secretary of Labor -- and also offered one of the sharpest observations of how life was changing due to increasing inequality. The latter: how the rich were separating and isolating themselves from everyone else, most obviously by moving into gated communities and even more rarefied spaces (like Trump Tower and Mar-A-Lago). The former: his idea how Americans could survive the ongoing process of financial globalization, including the decline of manufacturing industries, by retraining workers to become what he called "symbolic manipulators." In point of fact, it was never possible for more than a tiny sliver of American workers to become "symbol manipulators," it was a convenient rationalization for neoliberals like Clinton to embrace globalization and growing inequality. One might argue that ever since Reich left Clinton's cabinet, he has been trying to do penance for his role there. He's written another dozen books, trying to defend key liberal ideas and save capitalism in the process. This at least is on a key idea that has taken a beating from conservatives: the idea that there is "a common good" as opposed to numerous individual goods that markets allow competition for. He also notes that the common good is built from "virtuous cycles that reinforce and build" as opposed to "vicious cycles that undermine it." We have been stuck in the latter for decades now, and it's cumulatively taking a huge toll. So this is an important concept, even if I don't particularly trust the messenger.
Richard Rothstein: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017, Liveright): Going back as far as the 1920s, argues that what we think of as de facto segregation has been significantly shaped by law and public policy, even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 supposedly put an end to all that.
Jennifer M Silva: Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press): Short book based on one-hundred interviews with young working class adults in Massachusetts and Virginia, finding their opportunities limited and fleeting as the right-wing attack on unions and the welfare state has focused more on kicking the ladder out for future generations than on wrecking the lives of their elders. Silva also did interviews for Robert D Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
Amy Siskind: The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump's First Year (2018, Bloomsbury): "A national spokesperson, writer and expert on helping women and girls advance and succeed" -- a noble career, no doubt, derailed by her decision to compile weekly blog posts on all the unprecedentedly strange things Trump and his minions have done as they were reported. Early on she came up with 6-9 items per week, but over time that list grew to as many as 150, a quantity that not only means much is slipping through the cracks even in our 24/7 news obsession, but which has overloaded and numbed our sense of outrage and even our ability to analyze. This compiles a year of those reports, a mere 528 pages. Good chance this will endure as an essential sourcebook for the year.
Ali Soufan: Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (2017, WW Norton): Former FBI agent, famed for his expert interrogation of terror suspects -- he's the subject of a chapter in Lawrence Wright's The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, and author of the book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda (2011).
Cass R Sunstein: #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (2017, Princeton University Press): Occasionally interesting MOR Democratic theorist, takes his shot here at trashing the internet for propagating self-selected, self-confirming nonsense that divides people into hostile camps incapable of empathy with or understanding of anyone but themselves. This, of course, has been pretty much the high-brow critique of media since Gutenberg, the main point that it detracts from people blindly following whatever experts are sanctified by whoever has the power to do that sort of thing. I suppose there's some truth this time around, but I'd look at the vested interests using social media for their propaganda (ok, they call it advertising) before concluding that "the media is the message."
Charles J Sykes: How the Right Lost Its Mind (2017, St Martin's Press): Former "longtime host of the #1 conservative talk-radio show in Wisconsin," now "a regular contributor to MSNBC," features a Trump-like hat on the cover and evidently focuses on how conservatives wound up flocking to Trump. Sounds like he's failed to make the necessary distinction between why the Right lost its mind and things the Right did after having lost its mind. The former would be an interesting book, although it actually isn't so mysterious: the only real political principle behind conservatism is the defense of wealth and privilege, and that's intrinsically a hard sell in a real democracy, so the Right has to hide their soul behind a lot of incidental sales pitches. The latter is just sad and pathetic, like so much recent American history.
Heather Ann Thompson: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (2016, Pantheon; paperback, 2017, Vintage Books): A major history of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, its brutal suppression, and the decades-long legal fight that followed. When this happened my philosophy 101 professor at Wichita State was so disturbed he ditched his lesson plan to talk about what happened. Later I became friends with a lawyer who put most of her career into this case, the extraordinary Elizabeth Fink, so it feels like I've tracked this story all my life. The enduring lesson is how much contempt and disdain people in power have for the people they condemn as criminals, and how that hatred and fear can lead them to do things as bad or worse.
Katy Tur: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History (2017, Dey Street Books): NBC News correspondent assigned to cover Trump's campaign, where she evidently fact-checked, challenged, and generally made herself a nuissance, while visiting 40 states and filing 3800 live television reports. Sounds like it must have been much worse than "craziest" implies.
Richard White: The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (2017, Oxford University Press): A new volume in The Oxford History of the United States, originally planned by C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter back in the 1950s, with the first volumes appearing in 1982 (Robert Middlekauff on 1763-1789) and 1988 (James M. McPherson on the Civil War), and David M. Kennedy (whose 1929-1945 volume came out in 1999) taking over after Woodward's death. Each of the eleven period volumes (plus a 12th on US foreign relations) is close to 1000 pages, and the few I've looked at (3 remain unpublished) are remarkably imposing tomes.
Sean Wilentz: The Politicians & the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics (paperback, 2017, WW Norton): A major historian, though much more reliable on The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln than on The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2000, offers a book of scattered essays, mostly book reviews. Useful for reminding ourselves how prevalent the egalitarian impulse is in American history, and how often pragmatic politicians fall short of even their own professed ideals.
Lawrence Wright: The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (2016; paperback, 2017, Vintage Books): Author of one of the best general histories of Al-Qaeda and 9/11, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), updates the story with scattered pieces -- mostly profiles of more or less related individuals although nothing like a comprehensive update of the ensuing history.
Other recent books also noted without comment:
Alec Baldwin/Kurt Andersen: You Can't Spell America Without Me: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President Donald J. Trump (A So-Called Parody) (2017, Penguin Press).
Krystal Ball: Reversing the Apocalypse: Hijacking the Democratic Party to Save the World (2017, Pelican Media).
Hillary Rodham Clinton: What Happened (2017, Simon & Schuster).
James Comey: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (2018, Flatiron).
Melinda Cooper: Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (2017, Zone Books).
Corey R Lewandowski/David N Bossie: Let Trump Be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency (2017, Center Street).
Keith Olbermann: Trump Is F*cking Crazy (This Is Not a Joke) (2017, Blue Rider Press).
Leo Panitch/Sam Gindin: The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (paperback, 2013, Verso Books).
Yanis Varoufakis: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism (paperback, 2017, The Bodley Head).
Michael Wolff: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018, Henry Holt).
John Ziegelman/Andrew Coe: A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (2016; paperback, 2017, Harper).
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
Book Roundup (4)
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
Book Roundup (3)
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 shakey 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 occassionally 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 othern 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.