November 15, 2017

Van Jones’ messy truth about the Democratic and Republican Parties

A hopeful critique: Beyond the Messy Truth by Van JonesBeyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

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More than half the American people complain about Donald Trump. But few are doing something about it. Van Jones is one of the exceptions.

Van does not mince words. “There is evidence that Trump is crazy,” he noted in a Nov. 5 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, “but he has also driven us crazy.” Van’s new book advises us how to treat that craziness.

In Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, his third book, Van writes at the outset that “the same political dynasties that screamed the most against Trump’s ascendance . . . created the mess that opened the door for him in the first place.” And he makes clear that those “dynasties” are the Clintons and the Bushes. To remedy the mess that resulted from the neoliberal views that have dominated their years in government—and remained largely unchallenged under Barack Obama—Van advocates bridging the gap between conservatives and liberals by finding common ground on issues where our values overlap. He takes both political parties to task for blocking the way for activists on both Left and Right to meet on that common ground. And both liberals and conservatives come in for harsh criticism for our failure to grasp how we might come together on some critical issues despite the dramatic contrast in our values.

Beyond the Messy Truth consists of seven short chapters. The first addresses the dilemma we Americans now find ourselves in. Each of the two following chapters is devoted to an “open letter” to one of the two major political parties. A fourth chapter explains what Van calls the “whitelash” that elected Donald Trump. It’s followed by two other chapters that detail Van’s own work on both sides of the aisle to address some of the most urgent issues of our time. Here, he lays out an agenda for action on these issues: reforming the criminal justice system, ending the addiction epidemic, and creating jobs for the millions of people who are either already shut out of employment opportunities or will become unemployed as automation continues to take its toll. The concluding chapter expresses Van’s optimism that the agenda he lays out is not just necessary but also possible.

Here, for example, is Van in his letter to liberals: “It is one thing to say, ‘I disagree with you because we have different values and priorities.’ It’s quite another to say, ‘I disagree with you because you are an uneducated idiot—a pawn—and a dupe.’ The prevalence of the latter set of arguments is why the Democratic Party stinks of elitism.”

In each of the two cases, Van enjoins us to “honor our traditions,” uphold religious liberty, respect all Americans, “fix the party,” and “solve real problems.” Liberals, he notes, tend to be disrespectful to both churchgoers and white working-class voters—and we’re “addicted to the bickering and infighting.” (“We cannot win against the worst of the right if all of our best weapons are pointed at one another.”)

Conservatives fail by disparaging Muslims, who might otherwise be their allies, since they tend to be both religiously observant and conservative. And today’s Republicans seem to have forgotten their core commitment to limited executive power, small government, and freedom of speech and religious practice. (“Would [our founders] approve of a U.S. president attacking the credibility of independent judges merely on the basis of their heritage . . .? Would they stand by idly as the executive branch tramples on the rights of the press?”)

Van Jones is best known as a commentator and reporter on CNN. But his work as a leading activist is far more consequential. In fewer than fifty years, he has founded or co-founded numerous social enterprises, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, Rebuild the Dream, the Dream Corps, and Magic Labs Media. He has also collaborated with other public figures including Newt Gingrich,  Prince, and Patrick Kennedy in launching nationwide initiatives on such topics as criminal justice reform, the opioid epidemic and heroin addiction in our inner cities, and training “100,000 young women and men from underrepresented backgrounds find success in the tech sector” (#yeswecode). In other words, Van walks the talk. Many of the views he expresses in Beyond the Messy Truth reflect his own years of work on these issues.

For further reading, see “How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history,” “5 books that explore our broken criminal justice system,” “Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?,” and “Van Jones: Making sense of the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and Barack Obama’s shift from candidate to President.” You might also be interested in my post, “35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.”

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

November 7, 2017

This book will challenge everything you know about ancient history

Against the Grain by James C. ScottAgainst the Grain by James C. ScottAgainst the Grain by James C. Scott

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott

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Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent, South China, the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan, and Central America. To secure enough food once their population had grown to a level unsustainable by hunting and gathering, those communities turned to agriculture. Food surpluses, seized by local rulers, enabled the establishment of the empires that dominated the world.

However, as modern scholarship has shown, little of that is true. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott tells a somewhat different story that will challenge everything you’ve been taught about ancient history.

For example, by about 10,000 BCE, small human communities had begun to form, domesticating plants and animals, irrigating crops, and growing some of their own food while obtaining the rest from the land around them. In other words, humans were tilling the soil thousands of years before the first empires even began to form. Even “[s]lavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples.” However, “civilized societies” perpetuated and expanded the institution. “As Adam Hochschild observed, as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage.”

The conventional view that life grew gradually better once states and then empires (“civilization”) had begun to take shape is simply wrong. Archaeological evidence has shown that people lived longer and healthier lives as hunter-gatherers. Their diet was more varied, and they suffered fewer diseases. They grew taller and lived longer. They worked far less time to secure food, fuel, and other resources than farmers engaged in backbreaking work tilling wheat, barley, rice, millet, or other grain crops. (Why the emphasis on grain? Because only with predictable and measurable grain crops could elites collect taxes.)

Early human communities were, as Scott asserts, “multispecies resettlement camps.” Both humans and animals clumped together in ever-larger numbers. Because of the crowding, epidemic disease became common among both people and animals. Infant mortality soared. Domesticated animals steadily became smaller than the wild species from which they originated. Humans, too, grew shorter and died earlier, partly from a diet almost exclusively limited to grain and partly from the effects of disease. “[V]irtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in a strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’”

“[A]n even-handed species history would give the state a far more modest role than it is normally accorded,” Scott notes. The earliest states were fragile, ephemeral constructs that frequently fell to the ravages of disease or marauding pastoralists. They were “minuscule affairs both demographically and geographically. They were a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly twenty-five million in the year 2,000 BCE . . . Even at the height of the Roman and early Han ‘superstates,’ the area of their effective control would have been stunningly modest.” Nonetheless, historians typically focus on states and empires (since written records make history possible, and writing came into use only in settled communities). But it was not until about 1,600 CE that established states encompassed most human populations—in other words, fewer than 500 years ago. For many thousands of years before then, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists greatly outnumbered the grain-growers who lived in cities.

Against the Grain is full of surprises. What I’ve cited above is only a smattering of the book’s revelations.

Here’s another: Fire was first harnessed by hominids 400,000 years ago, long before we human beings appeared on the scene. Scott regards fire as the most consequential tool in human history. Fire made cooking possible. In turn, cooking “allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it . . . It allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before”—and archaeological evidence shows this is associated with the increasing size of our brains.

Reading Against the Grain is likely to upend your understanding of ancient history. But it’s tough going. I found myself rushing to the dictionary on virtually every other page. Scott uses words that I would swear have never seen the light of day anywhere else but obscure academic papers and technical dictionaries.

James C. Scott confesses in his preface that he is “an amateur” historian but “a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist and environmentalist by courtesy.” Against the Grain offers a multidisciplinary approach to ancient history—what elsewhere is called “Big History.” Although Scott primarily turns his attention to Mesopotamia, where the first states appear to have been established, he extends his arguments to all the other regions where “civilization” first emerged.

If you’re intrigued by this new, multidisciplinary approach to history, you’ll enjoy seeing my post, Great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history.

To learn more about the world we have inherited, check out 61 nonfiction books about history reviewed here. This book is on that list.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

November 1, 2017

The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics

inherited PTSD: Survivor Cafe by Elizabeth RosnerSurvivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner

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“I carry the words; I pass them on. I listen to the stories and tell them again.” Thus writes Berkeley novelist and poet Elizabeth Rosner in her deeply moving new memoir, Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory. The stories are the recollections of Rosner’s parents, both of them Holocaust survivors, and of countless others she interviewed in researching the articles incorporated in this book. Interspersed among these sometimes shocking stories are accounts of her three visits to Buchenwald, where her father was imprisoned as a teenager during the last year of the war, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The phenomenon of inherited PTSD

Thus, Survivor Café is a memoir, but it is far more than that. Rosner set out to understand the impact of her parents’ experiences in the war on her own life. She read deeply in the literature about the Holocaust and about the phenomenon of epigenetics, “the study of environmentally induced changes passed down from one generation to the next.” This emerging field is controversial and its research easily overdramatized. However, interpreting the findings narrowly, Rosner found in it an explanation for her own deep feelings about the Holocaust—and those in other second- and third-generation offspring of survivors. As others have observed, the overwhelming majority of Holocaust survivors experienced PTSD in later life. And “PTSD, it turns out, has an impact on the very wiring of the brain, and these changes are transmitted to the offspring.” Rosner quotes a Viennese psychoanalyst “who used the term ‘transposition’ to describe the unconscious cross-generational transmission of massive trauma by Holocaust survivors.” I’m confident that this phenomenon is not universal, but I’m equally certain that it’s common. I’ve seen it in action.

Beyond the Holocaust

In the United States today, “survivors” are often taken to mean those who directly experienced the Nazi Holocaust and lived to talk about it. When analysts broaden their scope, they might refer to other documented examples of genocide in the 20th century, most notably the Armenian, Cambodian, and Rwandan tragedies. In Survivor CaféRosner further expands the term to encompass those who experienced the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as African-American slavery, with brief references to other incidences of genocide. She also includes the Japanese internment in World War II, which was surely traumatic for those who experienced it though it did not directly lead to large loss of life. Those examples make her case.

However, Rosner includes many references to other, far different atrocities that led to inherited PTSD. She cites 9/11, the Sandy Hook school massacre, and the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among others. Instead, to stick to a narrower interpretation of inherited PTSD that is limited to genocidal incidents, she might well have explored the subject with survivors of the Ukraine famine in the 1930s, China’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and 60s, the Biafran war in the 1960s, the Bangladeshi war for independence in the 1970s, and the ongoing civil wars in what is currently called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Every one of those events has caused the death of at least one million people, and most of them far more, leaving tens of millions of survivors. There are other, less dramatic examples of genocide as well. As so many observers have remarked, the last century was an extraordinarily violent time in human history.

A quirky chronology

Survivor Café is eloquently written and abounds with insight. Rosner has clearly thought deeply about her subject for a great many years, and she has conducted methodical research to flesh out her own perspective. However, in one respect the book is not an easy read: it clearly represents the author’s attempt to mesh together several previously published articles. The result is a quirky chronology, with Rosner’s account jumping from one decade to another and back again in a fashion that is disorienting at times. There is also some repetition, in which the same event or the same source is described in much the same fashion at two different points in her account. But it’s easy enough to shrug off these relatively minor problems. Survivor Café is, in the end, an illuminating piece of work and a worthy addition to the extensive literature of the Holocaust.

I’ve found fiction to be a rich source of insight about the Holocaust. You might wish to see my review of All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won. You may also be interested in The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa. My review is at A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust. I’ve also reviewed The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd: A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto.

This book is included in 19 good nonfiction books about World War II (plus 10 novels).

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

October 18, 2017

“Illegal immigrants” come to life in this sensitive personal account

Illegal immigrants: The Far Away Brothers by Lauren MarkhamThe Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

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For those of us who live in comfortable surroundings in well-ordered towns such as Berkeley, the day-to-day realities of life as experienced by undocumented migrants may be impossible to understand. Most of what we know comes from news reports and occasional exposés about the efforts of the Trump Administration to expel what Right-Wing politicians have insisted we call “illegal immigrants.” In The Far Away Brothers, Berkeley journalist Lauren Markham brings the lived experience of two young Salvadoran migrants and their family under a spotlight. The picture she paints is nuanced and moving as well as sobering.

Identical twins Ernesto and Raúl Flores were seventeen years of age when, separately, they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas with the help of coyotes. Though in so many ways their experience is unique, they also stand in for the tens of thousands of young Central Americans who flooded across our southern borders earlier in this decade—and for many of the millions of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans who now reside in the United States. Nearly all recent refugees from Central America were driven north by the gang violence and official corruption that are now endemic in the region. However, as Markham makes clear, economic motives also loomed large. Abject poverty conjures up visions of prosperity in “El Norte” among many Central Americans, as it does in many other people around the world.

As I read about the often horrific circumstances that confronted the Flores brothers over the three-year span described in the book, I couldn’t help but think about the sharply contrasting experience of my father’s parents, who emigrated from Russia early in the 20th century. Their lives in the shtetl where they had lived, plagued by repeated pogroms, were at least as difficult as those of the Flores twins in El Salvador. Also, it was no easy feat for them to make their way through the vastness of the European continent and then across the Atlantic in steerage. But the welcome they received at Ellis Island, though decidedly chilly, was in no way comparable to the repeated violence and official hostility that met the Flores brothers both on their way and after their arrival.

As the author makes clear, the massive migration of young Central Americans to the United States is, in a large sense, the consequence of US policy in the region throughout the 20th century, but especially in the 1980s. In El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala alike, our government actively supported local efforts to stamp out local insurgents in the name of anti-Communism—murdering tens of thousands of peasants in the process. Large numbers of young men fled to the US to escape that violence. Many succumbed to the lure of crime and were imprisoned in California. There, in prison and on the streets of Los Angeles, the most violent gangs that victimize Central America today were formed (Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, and Barrio 18). Today, these gangs are enormous, multinational criminal enterprises. They’re responsible for an outsized body count in our cities and a major share of drug trafficking in the US today. In a real sense, then, we’re paying the price of our government’s intervention in Central America in the last century. And so are tens of thousands of migrants from the region.

The Far Away Brothers is Lauren Markham‘s first book, but the Berkeley author and journalist has been writing fiction, essays, and journalism for several years. The book is based in part on her work at Oakland International High School since 2011, where the Flores brothers attended classes on and off, and more generally on her “thirteen years of experience working with, interviewing, and reporting alongside thousands of refugees and migrants like the Flores twins.”

After reading The Far Away Brothers it’s difficult to see how today’s “illegal immigrants” are in any substantive way different from the Irish, Chinese, Italians, and Jews who made their way into the US in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

You might also be interested to see my list of 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

October 4, 2017

Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history

conspiracy theories - Fantasyland - Kurt AndersenFantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

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You will be amazed. In Kurt Andersen‘s shocking 500-year survey of US history, Fantasyland, you’ll learn just how truly exceptional America is—and not in a good way.

Who is responsible for “fake news?”

If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on “fake news,” guess again. Andersen relates countless incidents of purportedly true accounts of satanic cults, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, vaccines causing autism, and other once-pervasive delusions on ABC and NBC News and other mainstream media over the years. Even that paragon of accurate journalism, The New York Times, has fallen prey to such nonsense from time to time. Is it any wonder, then, that ludicrous conspiracy theories should multiply on the World Wide Web, where any nut can say anything anonymously without fear of contradiction?

Who spreads conspiracy theories?

Equating The New York Times with Breitbart and Russian hackers as purveyors of fake news would be highly misleading. Andersen doesn’t do that. As he notes in another context, “There are different degrees of egregious.” However, he is clear that “fake news” and conspiracy theories are by no means limited to the so-called “Trump voters” pilloried by professional journalists and commentators.

Huge numbers of other Americans have left the realm of rationalism for Fantasyland. Consider Scientology, the antivaccine movement, hysteria about GMO food, alien abductions, homeopathy, and the national missing-children panic of the early 1980s. None of these delusions and conspiracy theories are solely identified with any class, region, or race. And popular New Age gurus such as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle, all of whom sometimes spout nonsense, have not attracted notably large followings among the creationist set. Similarly, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Bill Maher, and other popular show business celebrities have promoted delusional beliefs. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Unfortunately, as Andersen makes abundantly clear, far too few Americans take that sentiment seriously—and, in that respect, the United States stands out clearly in comparison with all other developed nations.

The religious roots of America’s infatuation with fantasy

Andersen’s account begins early in the sixteenth century with the establishment of English colonies in present-day Virginia and Massachusetts. In both cases, conventional wisdom has it that the search for religious freedom drove early colonists to American shores. That’s only partly true, and only in the case of New England. Andersen explains that the primary motivations for all the earliest European expeditions were visions of gold and the Northwest Passage. And the Puritans—they only later called themselves Pilgrims—who landed south of Boston were in no way motivated by religious “freedom.” They had set out to establish a theocracy intolerant of any religious practices that departed even slightly from the rigid prescriptions of their faith.

However, in Protestantism, with its view that “every man [is] his own priest,” there lurked a fatal flaw in its commitment to conformity: if “every man” was “his own priest,” what was to stop them from inventing their own religions? In fact, as American history clearly shows, that is precisely what has happened over the five centuries since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Beginning not long after the landing at Plymouth Rock with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Americans have demonstrated unending creativity in devising variations, often radical variations, on Christianity, from Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the numberless evangelical Protestant denominations.

In every case, these new belief systems rested on fantasy. And there, Andersen argues, lies the rub. Most Americans seem willing to suspend disbelief to worship on the basis of precepts any self-respecting science fiction writer would reject as improbable. (If you think I’m exaggerating, read The Book of Mormon as written by Joseph Smith, or Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by by Lawrence Wright.) Interestingly, Andersen cites studies by scholars at Yale and the University of Chicago that found “the single strongest driver of conspiracy belief [is] belief in end-time prophecies.”

Andersen frequently cites findings from public opinion surveys to telling effect. “Nearly all American Christians believe that Heaven (85 percent) and Hell (70 percent) are actual places,” he writes. Focusing on “the solid majority of Protestants, he adds that “at least a quarter of Americans . . . are sure ‘the Bible is the actual word of God . . . to be taken literally, word for word.'” And “more than a third of all Americans . . . believe that God regularly grants them and their fellow charismatics magical powers—to speak in tongues, heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on.” Elsewhere, Andersen notes, “According to Pew, 58 percent of evangelicals believe that Jesus will return no later than the year 2050. (And only 17 percent of all Americans said they thought He definitely wasn’t coming back during the next thirty-three years.)” With such beliefs so widely held, fake news and “alternative facts” can be no surprise.

The problem is far broader than fanciful religious beliefs

Fantasyland is far from limited to the religious sources of Americans’ predisposition to fantasy. Andersen regards shopping malls, planned communities, Civil War reenactment and Renaissance Faires, fantasy sports, theme restaurants, People magazine, cosmetic surgery, pro wrestling, computer games, reality TV, and Disney theme parks as other signposts of our infatuation with the unreal and the impossible. It’s difficult to argue with this on a strictly logical basis. Andersen makes the case. Yet I find it a stretch too far to imply that such phenomena are in any way equivalent to fantasies such as widespread voter fraud, hysteria about vaccines, and the pernicious practices of Scientology, all of which have real-world consequences and sometimes lead to physical harm and even death. However, Andersen implies that, because of conditioning by these seemingly inconsequential realities, Americans are peculiarly susceptible to dangerous conspiracy theories.

Another author examined America’s religious history in an excellent recently published book. I reviewed One Nation, Under Gods by Peter Manseau at America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book. Earlier, I had reviewed two other books with insight about American history: Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout (Citizens United, bribery, and corruption in America) and Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal (When religion dominated the views of American conservatives). And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017. This book is one of them.

September 20, 2017

America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book

religious history - One Nation Under Gods by Peter ManseauOne Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

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If you’ve wondered how anyone could insist that the United States is a “Christian nation” when so many other faiths are practiced within our borders—and so many Americans shun religion entirely—you should enjoy One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau. In fact, if you yourself believe that claim, it’s even more important that you read this surprising and revealing book. One Nation Under Gods is an ideal companion volume to Howard Zinn’s classic secular history, A People’s History of the United States. Together, the two books provide a well-rounded picture of American history as it really happened, not as we were taught it in high school.

And the perspective advanced in One Nation, Under Gods is mirrored in the news: “Last week, in a report entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity, the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) concluded that white Christians were now a minority in the US population. Soon, white people as a whole will be, too.”

Surprises galore in America’s religious history

In One Nation Under Gods, Manseau surveys the country’s religious history from the arrival of the Conquistadores and the Puritans to Scientology, the Right-Wing evangelicals, and New Age cults of recent years. To illustrate each of the major belief systems that have flourished (and sometimes faded away) over the centuries, Manseau offers a lively sketch of each faith’s earliest practitioner, or in cases such as the Mormon Church, the founder.

One Nation Under Gods is full of surprises.

  • For instance, did you know that a North African Muslim explored large swaths of what is today the United States nearly a century before the fabled landing at Plymouth Rock—and did so far more extensively than his Spanish Christian masters?
  • That twenty percent of the African slaves brought to America were Muslims?
  • That the theology espoused by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was derived in significant part from the oracular vision of an Iroquois leader named Handsome Lake?
  • That many of America’s leading intellectuals of the nineteenth century—Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman—were heavily influenced by a traveling Hindu lecturer and the sacred writing of the Hindu faith?
  • Or that the first woman prosecuted as a witch in Salem was a Caribbean Indian woman named Tituba whose practice of her traditional religion induced two young girls in a preacher’s household to imitate her “heathen” practices? (Tituba escaped the gallows. The two girls didn’t.)

I certainly knew none of these things. And these examples merely scratch the surface of the revelations in Manseau’s delightful book. I suspect you’ll learn a lot, too.

Religious intolerance in American history

The central theme in One Nation Under Gods is the extraordinary diversity of religious beliefs that have captivated Americans over the centuries. Manseau provides abundant evidence that religious diversity was a reality from the earliest days of English settlement in America, giving the lie to the rigid conformity demanded by Puritan preachers in seventeenth-century New England. Names familiar to any religious scholar—Anne Hutchison and Roger Williams, for example—represented only an early stage in the splintering of the Puritan faith. As settlement moved further into the wilderness, more and more distant from the churches of the towns, the lure of Christian faith grew ever dimmer.

However, it might as well be said that the book is a study of religious intolerance in our history. From John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the leaders of whichever version of the Christian faith held sway at any one time went to great lengths to stamp out competing belief systems. (Manseau demonstrates that both anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese anger was based at least in large part on intolerance of the Buddhist religion.) The dogmatism of today’s Right-Wing evangelicals who demand “prayer in the schools” is only one manifestation of this history.

About the author

Peter Manseau is the religion curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, DC. One Nation Under Gods is his fourth book.

You might also enjoy my reviews of two books about Scientology. One is at Scientology revealed in a definitive investigative report. The other: Inside Scientology: set up your own religion, and make a billion dollars. I also reviewed another excellent book of religious history in America: Joseph Smith: the remarkable man who founded the Mormon Church. And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

September 12, 2017

Historical perspective on “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

Book exploring the "Right-Wing conspiracy"Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

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In Dark Money, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer exposed the dominant role of what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class” behind the rise of the Radical Right in America—what then-First Lady Hillary Clinton famously called “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy.” In Democracy in Chains, Duke University professor Nancy MacLean probes the historical roots of the radical libertarian ideology they profess. Together, the two books deepen our understanding of the misleadingly-named “conservative” movement that has come to dominate American politics in the second decade of the 21st century.

The historical roots of today’s “conservative” movement

MacLean’s argument is essentially simple. Dig down to the intellectual roots of today’s Radical Right, she asserts, and you’ll find John C. Calhoun‘s spirited defense of slavery in the 19th century and Harry Byrd‘s campaign of massive resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. Contemporary “conservatives” don’t acknowledge the racist roots of their ideology in the “states’ rights” arguments of the past. They advocate “economic liberty” grounded in a “free market,” citing the work of Right-Wing economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedich A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman. While acknowledging the influence of these and other intellectuals on what has come to be called the conservative movement, MacLean persuasively argues that instead the principal figure in the evolution of the ideas at the core of today’s Radical is a lesser-known Nobel Prize-winning economist, James M. Buchanan.

“The vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

In a detailed exploration of Buchanan’s work at a succession of Right-Wing campuses, chiefly the University of Virginia and George Mason University, MacLean points to his decades-long partnership with Charles Koch and other ultra-wealthy donors as the central thread in the ascendancy of the Right. “In the eventual merger of Koch’s money and managerial talent and the Buchanan team’s decades of work monomaniacally identifying how the populace became more powerful than the propertied,” she writes, “a fifth column movement would come into being, the likes of which no nation had ever seen.” She characterizes her account as “the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance . . . a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” This movement’s hidden agenda—and it has been consciously hidden for many years—is to end public education, abolish Social Security and Medicare, close down the U.S. Postal Service, repeal minimum wage laws and prohibitions against child labor, eliminate foreign aid, close the Environmental Protection Agency, and eventually end taxes and government regulation of any kind. In other words, given the stealth nature of this radical libertarian movement, Hillary Clinton was right on-target when she called it a “vast Right-Wing conspiracy.” But why has so much time and money gone into this effort? Buchanan had a simple answer to that question: “‘Why must the rich be made to suffer?'”

Criticism of Democracy in Chains

Given MacLean’s obviously negative perspective on these developments, it’s no surprise that her book has been bitterly criticized by commentators on the Right. For  example, one critic, writing in the Washington Post, referred to “dubious claims” in MacLean’s account, challenging the importance she ascribes to Buchanan’s work and the relevance of the resistance to desegregation in 1950s Virginia. Others have questioned her scholarship. Judging from what I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that these critics have actually read MacLean’s book.

What “economic liberty” really means

Buchanan espoused “public choice theory.” In his view, which won him the Nobel, democracy inevitably leads to overspending because the majority continually forces politicians to fund new government services. The taxes required to fund these services constrain the “economic liberty” of wealthy people and corporations. Buchanan’s intellectual descendants call these privileged people and their business enterprises “makers,” as opposed to the rest of us, who are “takers.”

MacLean observes in her conclusion that “There is another, biting irony to note: the goal of this cause is not, in the end, to shrink big government, as its rhetoric implies. Quite the contrary: the interpretation of the Constitution [they seek] to impose would give federal courts vast new powers to strike down measures desired by voters and passed by their duly elected representatives at all levels—and would require greatly expanded police powers to control the resultant popular anger.”

Reviews of related books

My review of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is here: How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics. You might also be interested in Robert Reich explains how to make capitalism work for the middle class. And, for another take on the origins of today’s Right-Wing movement, see my review of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted. It’s at How today’s conservatism grew in the cotton fields of California. And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

August 29, 2017

Richard A. Clarke asks, can we avoid a dystopian future?

dystopian futureWarnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy

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There is no lack of dire predictions about the future. Hundreds of dystopian novels, especially the flood of books in that genre for young adults, have portrayed innumerable variations on future catastrophes. I became so intrigued about all this attention to a possible dystopian future that I wrote a book about it. It’s called Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. Now I’ve found someone far better positioned to assess the likelihood that some of those dystopian scenarios might come to pass: Richard A. Clarke. In collaboration with his colleague R. P. Eddy, the former U.S. counterterrorism czar under three presidents has written Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. This is a deadly serious inquiry into the reality underlying predictions of a killer pandemic, sudden massive sea rise, a devastating meteor strike, runaway artificial intelligence, and other chilling possibilities.

Accurate predictions of a dystopian future

In Warnings, Clarke and Eddy dive deeply into the expert predictions of scientists, engineers, and journalists who have stuck their necks out, often against enormous resistance, to warn the U.S. cassandra about seemingly unthinkable possibilities. They call these stubborn and courageous individuals Cassandras (after the princess of Troy in Greek mythology whose accurate predictions of disaster were forever doomed to be ignored). However, in every case, Clarke and Eddy’s Cassandras have been anything but ignored—although some have labored for decades to be heard.

Warnings is not simply a study of the brave people who have risked their careers to make exceedingly unpopular predictions based on their expertise. The authors have undertaken to analyze the factors common to most Cassandras, deriving a “Cassandra Coefficient” based on four critical components: the character of the threat or risk itself and how it is received; the expertise and personality of the would-be Cassandras; the extent and character of resistance from the Cassandra’s critics; and the receptiveness of the decision makers they hope to influence.

Eight “Cassandras” who were ignored

In the book’s first part, “Missed Warnings,” Clarke and Eddy relate the stories of eight Cassandras whose predictions were ignored. Included are the military analyst who predicted Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in time for it to have been prevented; the meteorologist who warned about the certainty of massive hurricane damage to New Orleans before Katrina; the seismologist who is even today pleading with authorities to mitigate the damage of the catastrophic earthquake that is certain to strike the U.S. Northwest; and others. It’s a sobering account.

Will these later Cassandras be ignored, too?

The second part of the book, “Current Warnings,” portrays the efforts of seven people who today are clamoring to be heard about the danger of such potential catastrophes as a massive meteor strike, a devastating pandemic, and runaway genetic engineering, among others. Each is a grim cautionary tale. In each chapter, the authors report on their interviews with the experts they portray as Cassandras. If you’re prone to worry, these accounts may keep you up at night. Every one of the threats related in these chapters has the potential to yield a dystopian future.

Richard A. Clarke served as counterterrorism czar under Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Following his departure from the White House in 2003, he gained widespread attention nationally with his harsh criticism of the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11. He is the author of five nonfiction books and four novels. I reviewed another of his books at An authoritative insider’s take on the threat of cyber war.

You might also be interested in my list of 24 compelling dystopian novels, with links to my review of each one.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

August 8, 2017

An eye-opening book about air

air we breatheCaesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean

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Ever heard of dichlorodifluoromethane? (That’s CCl2Fto you chemistry students.) Well, guess what? You inhale seven trillion molecules of the stuff every time you breathe. Yes, it’s in the air we breathe. That’s just one of the lesser revelations in Sam Kean’s eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable new survey, Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us. 

As the title will suggest to the careful reader, the central conceit in Kean’s book is that “roughly one particle of [the last breath Julius Caesar took after he was stabbed] will appear in your next breath.” Apparently, this “how-many-molecules-in-X’s-last-breath exercise has become a classic thought experiment in physics and chemistry courses.” Not in mine, though. I don’t remember much about those courses, but I’m sure I would’ve remembered that.

In Caesar’s Last Breath, Kean will take you on a fast ride through the 4.5-billion-year history of Earth’s atmosphere and then through the more than one hundred different gases that comprise the atmosphere today. Yes, more than one hundred. Individual chapters—and “interludes” placed between them—tell tales about each of the major substances. Everybody knows about nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. But there’s also carbon monoxide (CO), nitrous oxide (N2O, known as laughing gas), methanethiol (CH3SH), and all manner of others. However, this is no mind-numbing laundry list of unfamiliar substances. Kean uses each one as a lever into the history of atmospheric science. And along the way he strays—delightfully—into topics that may be only tangentially related to the air we breathe.

In fact, Caesar’s Last Breath is as much about the scientists, famous and not, whose discoveries over the centuries have helped us understand the nature and the effects of each of the major gases in our atmosphere. If you’re at all familiar with the history of science, you’ll recognize the names Fritz Haber, Joseph Priestley, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Robert Boyle, Henry Cavendish, Humphry Davy, and so many others who have made the world around us easier to understand. Don’t think for a minute, though, that Kean simply offers up the usual dry recitation of each scientist’s discovery and how he made it. No. Instead, the author tells us things we never knew, or at least things that I never knew, about these fascinating people.

For example, Henry Cavendish, the man who discovered hydrogen, was autistic and “communicated with his domestic staff via notes.” He was also filthy rich. “During his lifetime, Cavendish had more money in the Bank of England than any other British subject.” Joseph Priestley, the co-discoverer of oxygen, was a Protestant minister whose investigations prompted a mob in Birmingham to burn down his church and his home, hoping (without success) to see him burn inside it. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, who tried to take sole credit for the discovery of oxygen, was an aristocrat who went to his death on the guillotine in the French Revolution. Lavoisier had been a rapacious tax-collector, and if anybody deserved such a fate, he probably did. And Albert Einstein teamed up with fellow nuclear physicist Leo Szilard to invent a better refrigerator. (They actually invented several and made a pile of money from them.) You’ll also meet people whose names you’re highly unlikely to know but will probably never forget, including the man who proved why the sky is blue, “the worst poet who ever lived,” and Le Pétomaine (the Fartomaniac), who became the highest-paid performer in France for his wildly popular act in which he sang and did impressions by passing gas.

Caesar’s Last Breath is full of fascinating and sometimes hilarious sidelights such as these. For example, did you know that “[B]efore 1850 people routinely committed suicide rather than face surgery?” (I didn’t, and I’ve read a bit about the history of medicine.) It was only in the mid-19th century that anesthetics—first nitrous oxide, then ether, and finally chloroform—finally started coming into use.

Sam Kean‘s writing style is informal, to say the least. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “catookus” in print anywhere else.) You can easily imagine him talking to you and laughing pretty much half the time. Given the aridity of so much of typical science histories, Caesar’s Last Breath is a delight.

If this book intrigues you, you might take a look at Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books. This one is included.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

July 25, 2017

How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history

Steve BannonDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

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Donald Trump has been in the White House for six months as I write. His approval rating today (July 25, 2017) stands at 38.9%, according to an average of national polls on Nate Silver’s widely read blog, FiveThirtyEight. His disapproval rating is nearly 20 points higher. These numbers establish him as the most unpopular president since World War II as measured six months into his term (although Gerald Ford came close because of his pardon of Richard Nixon). Meanwhile, Trump’s major initiatives—the ban on Islamic refugees, the plan to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, the pledge to spend $1 trillion on rebuilding infrastructure, and the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—have all failed to gain traction so far. Given all that, combined with his proclivity to lash out in fury at friend and foe alike, Donald Trump has become the Republican Party’s worst nightmare (not to mention the rest of us)..

The new book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by BloombergBusinesweek senior national correspondent Joshua Green attempts to explain both why the notoriously self-promoting developer and reality-TV star came to be in the White House—and why his presidency is failing. The case Green makes, singling out alt-right provocateur Steve Bannon for a large measure of the responsibility, is persuasive if not entirely convincing. He writes, “Trump needed him. Practically alone among his advisers, Bannon had had an unshakable faith that the billionaire reality-TV star could prevail—and a plan to get him there.” At another point, Green notes that “Trump wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Bannon.” However, whenever an analyst looks for a single explanation for a complex historical event, it’s always best to view it with a skeptical eye. History is rarely so easily explained. If there is anything close to a single explanation for the chaos, incompetence, and amoral behavior in the White House, it lies in the singular personality of Donald Trump himself.

In Devil’s Bargain, Green weaves together three stories: the unfolding of Trump’s presidential campaign before Steve Bannon took charge during its last two months; how Bannon came to hold the extremist beliefs he professes; and how the relationship between Trump and Bannon grew, matured, and eventually cooled. The focus is on the election campaign, with an insider’s description of the Trump campaign on election night, November 8, 2016, opening and closing the book. Green writes well, star journalist that he is. Though a good deal of what he writes has come to light in press reports during the past year and a half, Green tells the tale well. It’s full of personal observations that could only have come from the players themselves.

In a recent post, Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, I reviewed Shattered, two other journalists’ take on the election, but from the perspective of the Clinton campaign. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes found the explanation for Clinton’s loss in the character and the conduct of the candidate herself. By contrast, Green leans toward viewing Steve Bannon as primarily responsible for Trump’s victory. Just as Allen and Barnes overlooked the four decades of the country’s steady drift rightward, Green seems to underestimate the role Donald Trump himself in winning the presidency. It’s clear to me that Trump possesses limited intelligence, but he is unquestionably shrewd and manifests unusually sharp political instincts (even if he doesn’t often follow them as president).

In Green’s view, Bannon believes most of what he professes. He seems to think that Trump believes very little of what he says.  For example, Green observes that when Trump met Bannon, “his views changed. Trump took up Bannon’s populist nationalism.” At another point he notes, “Trump ran against the Republican Party, Wall Street, and Paul Ryan, but then took up their agenda.” Certainly, Trump’s views have flip-flopped again and again, and Green documents many specific instances in which Trump clearly took a stand on an issue strictly because it helped advance his campaign. But Green overlooks the pattern of Trump’s virtually nonstop lying. It’s difficult to tell whether the erstwhile reality-TV star believes in anything at all other than his own importance.

Devil’s Bargain may not be the last word on one of the most important presidential elections in American history. But in the absence of anything even more authoritative, it’s an excellent beginning.

This is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.

Given my interest in US politics, it will be no surprise that Devil’s Bargain and Shattered are not the only books I’ve read about the contemporary political scene. For my review of another, John Judis’ The Populist Explosion, see Donald Trump: populism, or fascism? Two others are at How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics and Al Franken’s memoir is revealing, insightful—and funny.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.