Sunday Bookchat

March 1, 2008

The New York Times bestseller list has lately been cluttered up with wingnut junk like An Inconvenient Book and Liberal Fascism, so let’s give a warm book-buying welcome to Greg Mitchell and his soon-to-be-published So Wrong For So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed On Iraq. The advance notice from Kirkus Reviews (picked up by Editor & Publisher, which Mitchell edits) certainly ought to whet everyone’s appetites:

Kirkus, the most respected of the pre-publication review outlets, notes that the book “gathers some five years’ worth of Mitchell’s media-watchdog opinion pieces from that august journal, consistent in their opposition to the Iraq misadventure and prescient… Mitchell was one of the first to question New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s coziness with the administration and its claims through her of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s bunkers. He was also quick to criticize MSNBC news host Chris Matthews’s assertion, on that very day of Bush’s mission-accomplished declaration, ‘He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics.’ “Visiting such points on the timeline as the Pat Tillman death-by-friendly-fire coverup, the Miller affair (and her subsequent buyout) and the suicides of several American soldiers in protest against corruption, Mitchell charts how disastrously wrongheaded the war has been from the start, and how numerous and various the wrongheaded have been.“A lucid chronology of error, worthy of shelving alongside the best of the Iraq books to date.”

Firedoglake is hosting an online discussion with Mitchell on March 16. In fact, Firedoglake is hosting discussions of lots of great and promising books — just looky here.

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The death this week of William F. Buckley has occasioned any number of obituaries that extol the late conservative pundit’s personal charm and capacity for friendship. Since Buckley had a particularly warm place in his heart for the savage dictators Francisco Franco of Spain and Augusto Pinochet of Chile, let us note the recent passing of Chilean author and activist Patricia Verdugo, who exposed the blood-soaked history of Pinochet’s rule in a series of books that helped pave the way to legal action against the butcher and his thugs.

This Guardian obituary gives the pertinent facts:

Of Verdugo’s 10 books, it was the fourth, Los Zarpazos del Puma (The Claws of the Puma, 1989) that became her most influential work – and the most important single example of Chilean investigative journalism to make a difference. It recounts the extra-judicial murder of 75 prisoners by the so-called “caravan of death”, a military unit that travelled the country in a Puma helicopter in October and November 1973, following the coup.

Drawing on wide-ranging evidence, including the testimony of local military commanders, Verdugo uncovered the connection between the cluster of deaths, and found a paper trail that directly linked Pinochet, who ordered the mission, to the crimes committed by his agents. The book, Chile’s all-time bestseller, sold more than 100,000 copies. From 1998, it formed the basis of the first Chilean criminal investigation pursued against Pinochet himself.

Verdugo’s father, a union leader and Christian Democrat, was one of Pinochet’s victims. Her 1999 book Bucarest 187 describes her long search for the truth about his death, and details her eventual discovery that he had died during “submarine torture” in which his head was immersed in a container of liquid. Sort of like the waterboarding technique our president and his conservative apologists are so taken with.

By all accounts, Buckley was a pretty nice guy in person, but if his collected works were to be placed alongside Verdugo’s, it would be pretty obvious which writer brought true moral vision to the tasks of the day. Buckley was an apologist for the dictator that Verdugo exposed. If any one writer should be honored this week, it is Patricia Verdugo.

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As Barack Obama’s political momentum continues to build, conservative writer Shelby Steele has published A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. In the New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney places A Bound Man alongside Obama’s own writings and finds Steele’s book to be “a thin and unhappy meditation” that, by trying to paint Obama as a man in thrall to Sixties notions about black identity, reveals Steele himself to be the man trapped in outdated thinking.

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You’d never know it from the wingnut ravings against illegal immigration, but the border between Mexico and the U.S. is more than just a line on a map: it’s a dynamic, complex region in its own right where politics, crime, health, the environment and security issues are part of an ever-changing political and social landscape. Fernando Romero’s Hyperborder: The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and Its Future is an ambitious, deeply researched survey of this fascinating semi-nation created by NAFTA. Josh Kun, reviewing the book for the Los Angeles Times, offers a taste of the book’s antic mix of fact and speculation:

Romero’s goal is not simply to document present conditions but also to strategize for the future. He dreams up 38 prophecies in a playful folio of fake news articles. Dry objectivity suddenly becomes border science fiction: Mexico will be the capital of nursing homes for Americans. It will feed a black market for water. The United States, Canada and Mexico will form a union. The Silicon Valley will be replaced by the Nano Valley in Baja California. The most sought-after college graduates will come from “bi-cultural universities.” Speaking fluent Spanish will be a prerequisite for the U.S. presidency in 2020.

Like all good science fiction, Romero’s scenarios are born of current realities, and for him — despite massive inequities — the key reality is interdependence, so much so that “one nation’s future depends on the other,” he argues. More Coca-Cola is consumed per capita in Mexico than in any other country; money sent home from the U.S. exceeds local incomes in five Mexican states, and Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in both countries.

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They glorify violence! They corrupt the nation’s youth! They have given rise to indecency and endanger the pillars of society!

Are they rappers? Video games? Skateboards? No they’re comic books. Generations before Bettin’ Bill Bennett and Holy Joe Lieberman started babbling about V-chips and moral values, congressmen were intoning against the mortal threat of comic books. David Hajdu deals with this early example of cultural fear-mongering in his upcoming book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, and here’s a sample of the excerpt that appears in Bookforum:

After a week of hearings, the Gathings committee came to no conclusions and recommended no legislation but made news with an updated version of the charge that comic books inspired juvenile crime. The final person to provide testimony was the mother of a minor accused of murder, who said comics and “girlie” magazines had poisoned her son. Robert Hearn, then sixteen, was one of four underage young men from the Detroit area accused of stabbing a gas-station attendant to death during a robbery attempt in Pontiac, Michigan. “We definitely feel that these books were a contributing factor—if not more than that,” Mrs. Dwight Hearn told Gathings’s committee as she wept. “He was always a good boy. He never got into trouble. But a few months before this he started reading these things. He would just lie on the bed and read his comic books. . . . He started talking like the hoodlums in the stories. He said his father was silly for going to work.” Next thing, young Hearn quit Sunday school and his barbering class, broke up with his girlfriend, and started smoking marijuana and drinking. Papers across the country picked up the story without reference to the Kefauver-crime-committee report, which had cast doubts on the claims of a causal link between comics and delinquency.

From Fredric Wertham to our current rabble of grandstanding moralists isn’t much of a leap.

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The greatness of Wikipedia. The purpose of bookshelves. The bill for Iraq and what else it could have paid for. The career of renowned author and essayist Harlan Ellison. Read on!


6 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. slippytoad Says:

    Wow. Every time I learn something new about William “Fuckhead” Buckley, I despise him a little more.

    I’m glad he’s dead. Glad, glad, glad.

  2. Bubba Says:

    Check out this new book about the Iraq war – from 1914 when the British Invaded.

    The Mesopotamia Mess

  3. ozma10 Says:

    It’s really difficult to hear Buckley being spoken of as this great ‘intellectual’. The talking head shows today are remembering his great intellect and contribution to politics and social policy. What the F#$*?????

    He was a partisan political hack. End of story. And him.

  4. Batocchio Says:

    Thanks for the tip on Verdugo especially.

    As for the comic books bit — yeah, there’s some interesting footage on that whole thing, some of it covered in Comic Book Confidential. But it’s an old story. Cultural scolds are almost always full of crap.

  5. Brantl Says:

    I, too, am amazed at the canonization of Buckley, he was a disingenuous hack.

  6. Guinnevere Says:

    I’m still not recovered from the ignominy of William F’Buckley’s (thank you, Lily Tomlin…) having given the commencement address when I graduated from university. Oh, the horror – the horror!

    As Brantl says, he was a disingenuous hack.

    I might add, he was an _elitist_ disingenuous hack who obviously grooved on mincing words and (in his mind) devastating his opponents with his wit. It looked to me more like he was baffling them with bullsh*t.

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