January 6, 2008
If you’re still casting about for a New Year’s resolution, try this one on for size: Take some time this year to learn about economics, particularly the voodoo sort so beloved of the fantasy-based community called American conservatism. Now is a great time to do it.
While the conservative bookshelf groans under the weight of screeds loaded with childish insults (insert title of Ann Coulter book here) and historical “analysis” that would disgrace a middle school student (Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is the current, overripe example), a series of progressive writers appeared last year to take on wingnut dogma about free markets and “supply side” mumbo-jumbo.
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is the most commanding of the bunch: Klein demolishes the notion that “free” markets lead to free societies, documenting the ways in which the wingnut religion of privatization, unfettered trade and drastic cuts in social spending have wrought havoc around the world. She also demonstrates the rather sinister penchant of Milton Friedman’s acolytes for treating disasters and upheavals — the flooding of New Orleans, the invasion of Iraq, the collapse of the Soviet Union — as a chance to create laboratories for their cherished beliefs, regardless of the human cost.
Equally compelling is Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, which complements Klein’s book by reminding us that the American middle clas did not arise from the magic of the marketplace, but from New Deal economic policies which helped raise the standard of living for many Americans — a benefit that has been systematically undermined by the corrupt Gilded Age rapacity of the Bush administration.
The list goes on: Robert Kuttner’s The Squandering of America and Jonathan Chait’s The Big Con are also worth your time after you take on the titles described above. The Bush adminstration’s seven misbegotton years of power have done us the service of demonstrating the bankruptcy of conservative ideas as anything other than a tax scam for the wealthy. Our side has better, and more humane, ideas for America’s future. These books will show you how to argue for them.
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A man who can write a line like “The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn’t an S.S. storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore” is a man no intelligent adult need ever take seriously again. But Jonah Goldberg, the author of those words, wants his book Liberal Fascism to be taken seriously, and John Holbo gives it a shot at Crooked Timber. Holbo also speaks for many of us when he wonders why David Oshinsky was so gentle with Goldberg in his New York Times Book Review piece on Liberal Fascism. Oshinsky, the author of highly respected books on Joseph McCarthy and the Parchman Farm prison, is a serious person; how strange that he took an above-the-fray tone with this unserious pisher, whose magnum opus (along with Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home) mainly serves to demonstrate the death of conservatism as an intellectual force.
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The tale of the frog who tried to kiss the princess, only to get thrown back into the pond, or, How Poddy-N Tried to Move In On Jackie K After Her Husband Was Murdered, as told by Craig Unger in his new book The Fall of the House of Bush.
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Maybe you’ve been eyeing that new Criterion seven-disc DVD edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of the celebrated 1929 novel by Alfred Doblin. Ian Buruma’s piece in the New York Review of Books will tell you plenty about the novel, which does for lowlife Berlin what Ulysses did for lowlife Dublin.
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Finally, let us note the passing of George MacDonald Fraser, author of the brilliant Flashman series of historical novels. Fraser was charming in person but a nasty old fart Tory in his opinion columns. Nonetheless, the Flashman novels — which take Harry Flashman, the cowardly villain of Tom Brown’s School Days, and land him in the thick of just about everything that happened during the Victorian Age — are superbly readable concotions of black humor, relentless action, in-depth history and satire on the nature of heroism. Start with Royal Flash, in which Flashman’s affair with Lola Montez draws him into a conspiracy plotted by Otto von Bismarck, then move to Flash for Freedom, in which Flashman is gulled into signing on with a slave ship and gets a complete tour of the Atlantic slave trade, complete with stints as a slave himself and a breakneck escape that brings him face to face with a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln. After that, explore at your whim — though you’ll want to avoid Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, the worst of the series — and have fun.