Weekend Bookchat

February 21, 2009


“The more I see of America they less I think it is a land of laughs,” said Louis Adamic (above), one of the great forgotten American authors of the mid-20th century. In a way, Adamic was to Los Angeles what Studs Terkel was to Chicago — he watched its transformation under the hands of hucketers, oil men and land barons.  AK Press has just reissued his 1931 classic Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America, an epic which examined why so mmuch blood was spilled in the struggle to organize American workers. Adamic’s politics got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he died under what can only be called mysterious circumstances: he was found in his head in his burning New Jersey farmhouse, a bullet in his head that may or may not have been self-inflicted. Adamic’s other books are overdue for revival, but Dynamite is a terrific place to start. Here’s a fine writeup in the Los Angeles Times, and Wikipedia has a pretty decent entry.  

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Frederik Pohl is renowned as a master of science fiction, but recently he found himself living in a horror story when he discovered that he would be spending weeks on a South Seas cruise with nothing but FoxNoise for information.

Pohl, an intrepid man, found a way to rise above such adversity:

Along about the tenth day, I finally figured out that, if I tuned to that channel but turned the sound down to zero, I would never have to hear the crazy-making utterances of Hannity, O’Reilly, et al anymore but could get a rough idea of what was going on in the world from the news crawl at the bottom of the screen, which, relatively speaking, was only mildly toxic.

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It is usually the case with Washington scandals is that the real outrage is not the transgression, but the behavior that is considered normal. This is the subject of Robert G. Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, which focuses not so much on the spectacular excesses of the likes of Jack Abramoff  as the steady erosion of democracy by the need to find money for hugely expensive political campaigns and the eagerness of lobbyists to provide that money. Kaiser follows the rise and fall of Gerald Cassiday, who started out as a lawyer for migrant workers and an aide to George McGovern, then ended up as a high-rent shill who pioneered the use of earmarks. Here’s a podcast interview with Kaiser on The Bat Segundo Show, an NPR radio feature and a Book TV feature from C-SPAN 2.

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From the commanding heights to the bottom of the barrel — watch Milton Friedman’s legacy collapse. Calling all theorists — it’s time to read Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galatica. Or maybe not.

Weekend Bookchat

February 15, 2009

This space is frequently used to ridicule conservatives and Republicans, but in honor of the atmosphere of love and affection generated by the Valentine’s Day weekend, Weekend Bookchat will take this opportunity to step forward and praise Wingnut Nation for its leadership role in recycling.

 Because when one surveys the illiterary annex of the winger aviary, it becomes clear that there is no conservative argument so tired, so lame, so overworked or so played out that some ambitious illiterateur won’t scrape it off the bottom of the aviary and repackage and yet another bold, fresh pile of right-wing thought. Consider, for example, Andrea Peyser’s suavely titled new — that is, “new” — book Celbutards, an attack on Hollywood  liberals. As Steve M. puts it:

Wow, a right-wing attack on the likes of Rosie O’Donnell, Barbra Streisand, and Sean Penn. What a blazingly original book idea.

No, seriously — I bet this is a great book. After all, it was a great book when Bernard Goldberg wrote it and called it 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is #37). And it was an even greater book when Laura Ingraham wrote it and called it Shut up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America. And it was an even greater book when Michael Savage wrote it and called it The Political Zoo (“Serving as resident biologist and zookeeper, Dr. Savage asks that you watch your step when approaching the widemouth copperhead Ted Turner [also known as Mouthus desouthus], do not feed the ego of stuffed turkey Alec Baldwin [Notalentus anti-americanus], and please keep your children with you at all times around wolf boy Bill Clinton [Fondlem undgropeum]”).

Bloody hell, do these people have any new thoughts? Do they think this stuff is funny? Still? “Hanoi Jane”? Still?

“Still”? Of course still! If there’s one thing you can count on parrots to do, it’s take to the air in a flock to fly around in circles making identical screeching noises. No sooner have you wiped away the wingnut complaints about press being biased in favor of Barack Obama than Bernie Goldberg’s A Slobbering Love Affair:  The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media is deposited on the shelves of your local big box.

Which is why I can predict that  no matter how great Peyser’s book may turn out to be, it will only be dwarfed by the sheer awesomeness of aspiring New Media tycoon Roger Simon’s Blacklisting Myself, an attack on — yes! — Hollywood liberals. Because after conservatives have lied us into a disastrous war, destroyed the economy and laid the foundation for future disasters, what else is there to do but wheel out some creaky Jane Fonda jokes? Or tell everybody that Michael Moore is fat? After all, Dinesh D’Souza did it ahead of them all with The Enemy at Home, and he can leave his gated community without being pelted with eggs, so where’s the downside? 

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A look at conservative labor relations. Is jazz dead? Like the man said, that depends on what you know. And leave it to a science fiction writer to come up with a big new idea for writers and authors.

Weekend Bookchat

February 7, 2009


Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East surveys the actions of eight presidencies — from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush — and finds an almost unbroken line of ineptitude, mendacity, bad faith and hubris, from the Suez Crisis to Bush’s lie-driven campaign in Iraq. Tyler draws on newly available archival material and offers some jaw-dropping anecdotes from the history of America’s role in keeping the Middle East ablaze. The sainted Henry Kissinger, who still enjoys a baffling reputation as a master politician and diplomat, comes off particularly badly:

. . . Henry Kissinger, entrusted with a message from Nixon to Brezhnev calling for joint superpower action to end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and then proceed to a just settlement of the Palestinian question, simply decided, in mid-flight to Moscow, not to deliver it. Nixon’s message, Tyler writes, “threatened to undermine the record Kissinger was seeking to create; that he and Nixon had run the Soviets into the ground and they had protected Israel”. The truth was that the Russian leaders had reacted cautiously and moderately when war broke out, and that Nixon himself had a statesmanlike grasp of what was necessary. But a joint US-Russian initiative “would have thrust Kissinger into the thankless and perilous task of applying pressure on Israel”. So he simply dumped the message. He later encouraged Israel to violate the ceasefire that was supposed to end hostilities so that it could better its military position. With these acts of disobedience – acts which were also, as Tyler says, arguably unconstitutional – Kissinger closed off the possibility that the 1973 war could have been ended on terms which would have left Israel in a less powerful position, making it more amenable to an ensuing push for a settlement by the Americans and the Russians.

Tyler also demonstrates  the problems caused by the “special relationship” between America and Israel:

Tyler does not go quite as far as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, for whom the Israel lobby lies at the heart of American foreign policy; but he is nevertheless a keen critic of the special relationship between the United States and Israel. Indeed, what is perhaps most striking is the constant American appeasement in the face of Israeli aggression. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sitting here watching it on CNN!” Reagan yelled down the telephone to Menachem Begin in 1982, after the Israeli leader had reneged on a promise not to bombard Beirut. But in typical fashion, Reagan did nothing about it – a pattern that has been repeated, by and large, ever since.

Meanwhile, Tyler writes that Bill Clinton fumbleda one-in-a-lifetime chance to capitalize on  “a great convergence: the end of the cold war, the advent of Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership and the PLO’s decision to recognise the Jewish state.” By letting himself be manipulated by Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Clinton tried to force a settlement and had the whole thing blow up in his face. He then blamed Yassir Arafat and everyone except himself for the collapse.

The manifold failures and disasters of the Bush administration have left Barack Obama with one hell of a mess to clear up, but one can only hope he might find time to read Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble. He might not be able to improve the situation, but as Tyler makes clear, simply not making things worse will put him miles ahead of his predecessors.

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How did so many public fixtures come to be named after Ronald Reagan? How did so many people come to believe that this dozing fantasist, whose administration was a carnival of corruption and who presided over embarrassing military failures ,  single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union, reduced the size of governmentand revived the American economy through tax cuts and positive thinking?

Why, the  way just about everything else beloved of conservatives, from crackpot economic theories to fake bestsellers, comes into being: a small group of dedicated crusaders with access to wingbucks lobbied for them round-the-clock, then created the illusion they had come about through overwhelming public demand. Will Bunch, in his new book  Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, chronicles the rise of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project in 1997, and argues that its rewriting of history (a creation of a fantasy version of a president whose legacy is, at best, highly debatable) is a hindrance to the present and fitire of America

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The memoirs of a renowned editor give us a glimpse of a vanishing era in American publishing — and an amusing look at how a neocon blowhard got wild-man lessons from Norman Mailer. A cultural history of Americans and their automobiles.

Weekend Bookchat

January 31, 2009


When the Great Depression sank its claws into American society, the jobless men wandering the countryside in search of work used slang to pay tribute to Herbert Hoover, the president who oversaw their slide into ruin:  hobo villages along railroad tracks were dubbed Hoovervilles and  jackrabbits caught for food were called Hoover Hogs. How will the venacular of the Next Great Depression pay tribute to  George W. Bush?  Will subdivisions full of foreclosed McMansions be known as Bushvilles? Will toxic foodstuffs prepared in unsanitary factories be known as Bush bait? The Boy Emperor may be out of power, but we’ll be feeling the effects of his reign for years to come, so it will be interesting to see if the New Hoover is commemorated as cuttingly as Hoover Classic.

To see if the old Depression has any lessons to teach the new Depression, check out this Firedoglake discussion with Enis Carter about his new book  Posters for the People: Art of the WPA, a collection of  posters produced by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s and 1940s, using the efforts of  hundreds of out-of-work artists. The posters remain wonderful examples of pioneering graphic design, such as the one above advertising “Victory Concerts” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Meanwhile, here’s a good, concise new biography of Hoover himself by William Leuchtenburg. Ezra Klein hosts a discussion of Dean Baker’s Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy.  James K. Galbraith reviews Robert Samuelson’s The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath and finds that recent events have made its free-market dogmatism seem rather quaint, and more than a bit ridiculous.  

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 Ann Coulter’s new book, Liberals Are Poopyheads Who Make Ka-ka in Their Pants, has been out for a few weeks now but the bulk-order bimbo has yet to say anything truly, remarkable hateful in order to promote it. Oh, she’s made the usual winger noises about liberals loving terrorists, but so far there’s been nothing to compare with her accusing the 9/11 widows of enjoying the deaths of their husbands, and while the book is loaded with the usual Coulter combo of lies, distortions and confabulated nonsense, it all sounds like the same swill already ladled out in her previous books. Liberals Are Poopyheads remains stalled at the second tier spot on the Times nonfiction list, held back by Malcolm Gladwell’s two-month-old book and hard pressed by another cute animal book on the third rung. Meanwhile, Barack’s Obama’s two books have re-entered the list and will probably rise in the coming weeks. I’m betting it’s only a matter of time before Coulter feels the need to stir things up with some truly deranged utterances. Think she’s going to use the N-bomb on the Obamas? You know it’s there behind those vacant eyes, straining to get out.          

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Editor & Publisher columnist Greg Mitchell is one of the good guys, and he has a good new book out about Obama’s presidential victory: Why Obama Won: The Making of a President 2008. Every copy sold will make Ann  Coulter cry.

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Plenty of  people piled on Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Day poem, so here’s a couple of eloquent defenses: one from Moira Weigel, the other from Nordette Adams.

Weekend Bookchat

January 4, 2009


We begin the new year with an overwhelmingly important piece of old business to address: What should — and can — be done about the Bush torture cabal? This is the subject of three recent books: Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values by Philippe Sands; The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book by Michael Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh. Writing about them in the New York Review of Books, David Cole reminds us that the Bush torture program has, along with fouling America’s moral standing in the world, created the first great challenge for the Obama administration:

In the long run, the best insurance against cruelty and torture becoming US policy again is a formal recognition that what we did after September 11 was wrong—as a normative, moral, and legal matter, not just as a tactical issue. Such an acknowledgment need not take the form of a criminal prosecution; but it must take some official form. We have been willing to admit wrongdoing in the past. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, officially apologizing for the Japanese internment and paying reparations to the internees and their survivors. That legislation, a formal repudiation of our past acts, provides an important cultural bulwark against something similar happening again. There has been nothing of its kind with respect to torture.

We cannot move forward in reforming the law effectively unless we are willing to account for what we did wrong in the past. The next administration or the next Congress should at a minimum appoint an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the United States’ adoption of coercive interrogation policies. If it is to be effective, it must have subpoena power, sufficient funding, security clearances, access to all the relevant evidence, and, most importantly, a charge to assess responsibility, not just to look forward. We may know many of the facts already, but absent a reckoning for those responsible for torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment — our own federal government — the healing cannot begin.

This is not an issue that can be fobbed off with Broder-level banalities about “national healing” and “putting the past behind us.” Healing cannot take place until the source of the infection has been cleansed. There will probably never be a full reckoning for the crimes committed in America’s name under George W. Bush, but at the very least there should be a full accounting of what was done and who did it.

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Marcia Angell reviews three books about the overlooked and ongoing problem of the cozy relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the research physicians whose work certifies and promotes the value and safety of different drugs:

Take the case of Dr. Joseph L. Biederman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Thanks largely to him, children as young as two years old are now being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a cocktail of powerful drugs, many of which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that purpose and none of which were approved for children below ten years of age.

Legally, physicians may use drugs that have already been approved for a particular purpose for any other purpose they choose, but such use should be based on good published scientific evidence. That seems not to be the case here. Biederman’s own studies of the drugs he advocates to treat childhood bipolar disorder were, as The New York Times summarized the opinions of its expert sources, “so small and loosely designed that they were largely inconclusive.”

In June, Senator Grassley revealed that drug companies, including those that make drugs he advocates for childhood bipolar disorder, had paid Biederman $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees between 2000 and 2007. Two of his colleagues received similar amounts. After the revelation, the president of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the chairman of its physician organization sent a letter to the hospital’s physicians expressing not shock over the enormity of the conflicts of interest, but sympathy for the beneficiaries: “We know this is an incredibly painful time for these doctors and their families, and our hearts go out to them.”

The potentially disastrous consequences of drug companies influencing and funding research into the safety of their own products should be obvious, but as Angell notes, even many medical schools hold equity stakes in the very companies that help fund their research.

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Will the prestigious Man Booker Prize be one of the literary victims of Bernie Madoff’s disastrous Ponzi scheme. The Man Group, a hedge fund that has supported the award since 2002, was heavily invested in funds linked to Madoff, but the word so far is that funding for the award — and its big cash prize — will not be affected. We’ll see.

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Upcoming book discussions at the TPM Cafe: Rose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters (Jan. 5-9); Randall Stross’s Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know (Jan. 12-16).

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Science writer Chris Mooney reviews two new books about climate change and muses on the problem of explaining a long-term tragedy to a country (and journalists) preoccupied with short-term concerns. Axl Rose’s literary influences.  Wanted: Volunteers to help proofread over 30,000 titles in the Project Gutenberg digital library. Karl Rove reveals George W. Bush’s reading lists, which Mark Tran finds unexpectedly revealing. And a master crime novelist is mourned by his fans.

Weekend Bookchat

December 13, 2008

One of the most unlikely offshoots of the government’s efforts to end the Depression and get the American economy up and running again was the Federal Theatre Project, which gave a leg up to Orson Welles, John Houseman, Sinclair Lewis and scores of other actors, writers and artists. That program, and the Republican rage that finally killed it, is the subject of Susan Quinn’s terrific new book  Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times. Reviewer Scott Eyman explains:

The reaction to all this on the part of Republicans in Congress can be imagined—”boondoggle” was the most polite word employed—but the virulence spread; Ms. Quinn writes that “bureaucrats at the state level refused to cooperate across state lines, especially in the Midwest.”

And, to be blunt, a lot of the productions had to compromise with despicable local mores; in Jacksonville, a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was cast entirely with white people who blacked up when necessary, which sounds like a scene from one of Christopher Guest’s lunatic fancies.

IT WAS THE 1938 Congressional elections that brought the W.P.A to an end, with the Republicans taking 13 governorships and eight senate seats, and doubling their holdings in the House. It was a strong rebuke to Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court—easily the stupidest thing a great politician has ever done. The new Republican majority in Congress went about the long-dreamt-of business of killing the New Deal, with the Federal Theatre Project as collateral damage.

The new Congress brought the elevation of one Martin Dies Jr., a singularly uncharming man who in time would run the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dies was a Texan who praised the Confederacy because it kept the South, he said, from being overrun by “ignorant niggers.” Ms. Quinn thus makes the point that the first victim of the Red Scare was the New Deal.

With the Bush recession crippling the publishing industry and draining sources of arts funding across the board, maybe the Federal Theatre Project is an idea whose time has come — again.

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Wouldn’t you know it? For all the misery yet to come, the Bush recession has produced one benefit for . . . the Bush family! Bushology, the planned tell-all book about the Bush family from the preznit’s former sister-in-law Sharon Bush, has been shelved because of the terrible economic climate and overall drop in book sales. Bush and her agent now hope to cut a deal for a television mini-series.

Meanwhile, anyone looking for good, juicy reading about Duby and his ckan can try The Book on Bush by Eric Alterman and Mark J. Green, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugliosi, The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush by Dennis Kucinich, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush by Kevin Phillips, for starters.

Weekend Bookchat

November 29, 2008

The New York Times list of the 100 Notable Books of 2008 doesn’t have any truly egregious entries — true, they have Thomas Friedman’s latest book, but there’s nothing like Liberal Fascism or its ilk, and there are some outstanding liberal and progressive books, such as Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Maybe this is the time for Weekend Bookchat to solicit nominations for the best progressive books of 2008. Either leave your nominations in the comments section or e-mail them to steve[dot]theopinionmill[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Put on your best white sheets and head for the nearest bookstore to reserve your copy of Ann Coulter’s upcoming book. Coulter is already well known as the author of such bulk-order bestsellers as Liberals Are Stinky, Liberals Are Poopyheads and, most recently, Liberals Make Ka-Ka in Their Pants.

According to recent news reports, Coulter’s upcoming tome, entitled Liberals Are Stinky Poopyheads Who Make Ka-Ka In Their Pants, will apparently recycle already exhausted wingerwhines about the mass-market media favoring Barack Obama over John McCain.

Apparently in a pre-emptive effort to keep herself from yawning at the tediousness of her own argument, Coulter has arranged for her jaw to be wired shut. Unconfirmed reports have it that Coulter may be using this as the springboard for a Madonna-like image makeover more in keeping with her personality and ethics.

(Say, now — there’s an idea. Imagine the Cenobites from the Hellraiser films recast as the Wingobites. Along with Ann Coulter, there would be Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and of course William Kristol as Pinhead and Bill O’Reilly as the Engineer.)

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The attempts to defame the legacy of independent journalist I.F. Stone continue. At the Paper Cuts blog, D.D. Guttenplan steps up to defend Stone against yet another smear. Guttenplan has a new biography of Stone coming out this sumer, but it will have to go a long way to top Myra McPherson’s recent All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone.

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Having kept silent during the weeks and months when he was being used as a political weapon against Barack Obama, ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers has been making the print and radio rounds to talk about his radical past and his book Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Actvist. He’s been interviewed by Terry Gross and Walter Shapiro, and getting not unmixed reactions from people who aren’t quite prepared to accept Ayers’ presentation of himself. It should be noted that Ayers does at least this much right: he reminds us of the horribly divided state of the nation in the late 1960s, the sense that the tools of democracy were no longer effective for reining in a government on a bloody rampage in Vietnam.

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Attention, lit-mart shoppers! Why not pick out some black authors for white people? Take another look at H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Read an interview with the authors of Unjust Deserts: How the Rich are Taking our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take it Back.