Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


By some fateful coincidence, I find myself writing this review on the 55th anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder. The coincidence feels significant, if only because this is probably one of the most crucial books in my reading life. I originally encountered the little paperback in university—borrowed from a roommate who had to read it for a class. Though I had only the vaguest idea of who Malcolm X was, the book transfixed me, even dominated me. Every page felt like a gut punch. My love of reading was substantially deepened by the experience. One decade later, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has lost none of its power.

This book has so many things going for it that it is a challenge to focus on a few. For one, Haley has beautifully captured Malcolm X’s voice. You can really hear him speak through the page—with humor, with wit, with passion, and most of all with righteous anger. (This time around, I listened to Lawrence Fishburne’s excellent audio version, which brought an extra dimension of realism to Malcolm’s voice.) What is more, the story that he tells is simply a good story on any terms, even if it were all made up. His childhood poverty, his gradual introduction into the ‘hustling life’ (as he called it), his incarceration, his conversion, his betrayal, his journey to Mecca—a novelist would have difficulty coming up with anything better.

But what is most valuable book is, as Malcolm X himself says, its sociological import. The first time I read this, I thought of it mainly as a historical document. Yet the sad truth is that Malcolm X’s story is still very much possible—indeed, a reality—in the United States. All of the essential ingredients are still there: segregation (de facto if not de jure), limited job opportunities, and mass incarceration. Indeed, while some things have gotten better, and much has remained the same, in some ways things have gotten worse. For example, the US certainly imprisons more people nowadays (disproportionately POC) than in Malcolm X’s day. There is still a direct pipeline from the failing public school in the black neighborhood to the prison cell.

Malcolm X is often contrasted with Martin Luther King, Jr., for presenting a “violent” alternative to King’s non-violence. But the perspective that Malcolm X consistently articulates cannot be simply boiled down to violence. His essential point is that, if any group of people in the world had been treated like black people in America have been—enslaved, lynched, legally disenfranchised, economically shut out, thrown into jails—then they would be well within their rights to fight back, “by any means necessary.” One can hardly imagine a group of, say, German immigrants, after undergoing such an ordeal, marching “peacefully” for their rights. Few ethical or legal codes prohibit self-defense. And it is the height of moral hypocrisy to hold the oppressed to a higher ethical standard than the oppressors.

The best response to this I know is from James Baldwin, who, while conceding the premises, wrote: “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.” In other words, if blacks did unto whites what whites did unto blacks, they would do spiritual damage to themselves. Now, not being of any religious bent myself, I at first treated this as a vaguely mystical sentiment. But I have to admit that, during the presidency of Donald Trump, I gradually came to see the real, practical truth in this statement. Racism is really a kind of psychic rot—not localized simply to our attitudes about race, but spreading in all directions, poisoning our sense of justice, spoiling our intelligence, stultifying our emotions. Though Malcolm X never gave up his insistence on the right to self-defense, he agreed with Baldwin in treating racism, not simply as a matter of prejudice to overcome, but a gnawing cancer at the heart of the country, capable of destroying it. And, for my part, I am no longer inclined to view such statements as merely rhetorical.

So in addition to being a thrilling story, wonderfully told, The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents us with a challenging indictment of America—still as true and valid as when he spoke it, fifty five years ago. I think any citizen will be improved by wrestling with Malcolm’s story and his conclusions. But let us not forget the personality of Malcolm, the man—someone who radiates genuine charisma. For my part, what I find most appealing and inspiring in Malcolm X is his intellectual side. Deprived of a formal education, he largely educated himself in prison by reading voraciously. And this curiosity stayed with him all his life. He recounts the thrill of debating college students—white and black—during his speaking tours, and speaks wistfully of going back to school to get a degree, and filling up his days studying all sorts of arcane subjects. In a saner society, Malcolm X would certainly have become a respected member of the intelligentsia, pushing the bounds of knowledge. It is up to us to create such a society.



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Review: A Promised Land

Review: A Promised Land

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barack Obama rose to national prominence after giving the speech of his life at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I remember it. I was 13 at the time, on a camping trip in Cape Cod, listening to the speech in a tent on a battery-powered radio. Though I was as ignorant as it is possible for a human to be, I was completely electrified by this unknown, strangely-named man. “That should be the guy running for president!” I said, my hair standing on end. Four years later, I watched Obama’s inauguration in my high school auditorium, cheering along with the rest of the students, and felt that same exhilaration.

I am telling you this because I want to explain where I am coming from. Obama was the politician who introduced me to politics, so I cannot help but feel a special affection for him. You can even say that Obama was foundational to my political sensibilities, as he was president during my most sensitive years. This makes it difficult for me to view him ‘objectively.’

In this book Obama displays that quality which, despite him having almost nothing in common with me, made it so easy for me to identify with him during his presidency: his bookishness. He is clearly a man delighted by the written word. And Obama is able to hold his own as a writer. While I do think his prose is, at times, marred by his having read too many speeches—his sentences crowded with wholesome lists of good old fashioned American folks, like soccer moms, firefighters, and little-league coaches—the writing is consistently vivid and engaging, pivoting from narrative to analysis to characterization quite effortlessly. If Obama is guilty of one cardinal literary sin, it is verbosity. This book—700 pages, and only the first of two volumes—could have used a bit of chopping.

Obama is notorious for his caution, his conservative temperament, his insistence on seeing issues from as many perspectives as possible. But what struck me most of all in this book was his confidence. Aiming to justify himself to posterity, I suppose, Obama spends the bulk of this book explaining why he made the right decision in this or that situation. Indeed, Obama attributes even his few admitted missteps to noble intentions gone awry.

As Obama goes through the first term of his presidency, explaining how he tackled the financial crisis, healthcare, global warming, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the central tension of his presidency becomes apparent: the conflict between idealism and realism. Obama the speaker is, as I said, electrifying—soaring to rhetorical heights equaled by very few politicians. And yet Obama the president does not soar, but plods his way forward, examining the earth for any pitfalls five steps in advance. Indeed, I think Obama’s philosophy of governance could by fairly described as technocratic, preoccupied with effectiveness rather than liberty or justice.

This, I would say, is the central flaw in Obama’s governing philosophy. Obama ran for office with a simple message: the promise that we Americans could put aside party loyalty and work together towards a common goal. But this both underestimates and overestimates the forces that pull us into competing factions. In other words, this is both naïve and slightly cynical. Naïve, by failing to understand that politics is about power, and that there was more power to be gained through division than unity. But cynical, by considering our differing political ideologies to be superficial and ultimately unimportant.

Obama seemed to believe that the goals were obvious—that we all basically agreed on the sort of country we wanted to live in—and that the only thing needed was somebody competent enough to actually get the job done. Admittedly, this is quite a compelling idea, even an inspiring one in its way; and Obama is a very convincing proponent. But the limits of this thinking are on display all throughout this book. Obama is constantly making pre-emptive concessions to the Republicans, thinking that a market-friendly healthcare plan, or a strong commitment to killing terrorists, or a more modest stimulus bill will win them over, or at least mute their dissent. The consequence is that, in his policy—such as the deportations or the drone strikes (hardly mentioned here)—he is sometimes unfaithful to the principles he so eloquently expounds at the podium.

I am being somewhat critical of Obama, which is difficult for me. He was subjected so much silly and unfair criticism during his presidency that it can feel mean to add to this chorus of contumely. And I do not wish to take away from his very real accomplishments. Compared to either the administrations that came before or after his, Obama’s presidency was an oasis of calm, sensible governance. Though the fundamental change promised by his campaign failed to materialize, by any conventional standard Obama’s policies were successful—helping to heal the economy, expand healthcare, and slowly disentangle us from foreign wars.

It is also difficult to criticize Obama because it is clear that so much opposition to him was fueled by racial resentment. Obama was continuously subjected to a double-standard, constrained in the things he could do or say. No story better illustrates this than the Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy. After Obama rightly called the decision to arrest a black Harvard professor on his own property ‘stupid,’ the political backlash was so fierce that he had to recant and subject himself to an insipid ‘beer summit.’ And, of course, the moronic birther controversy speaks for itself. In short, it is difficult to imagine the opposition to Obama’s policies being so fierce and so persistent had he been a white man.

I listened to a part of this book on January 6th, the day of the Capitol Riot. After watching the events unfold on the television all day, I decided I could not take anymore, and went out for a walk. As I strolled along the Hudson River, I played this audiobook, listening to Obama narrate his presidential campaign. The contrast between that time and this was astonishing. I could not help but feel nostalgia for those days of relative innocence, when Obama’s “You’re likable enough, Hillary” qualified as a scandal. But I also could not help wondering to what extent, if any, Obama was responsible for what was becoming of my country. If he had embraced bolder initiatives, rather than striving to be as respectable as possible, could he have staved off this backlash of white rage? It is impossible to say, I suppose.

In the end, if I came away somewhat disappointed from this book, it is only because the Obama I found did not measure up to the messianic figure I embraced as an adolescent. But that is an unfair standard. Judged as a mere mortal, Obama is as about as impressive as any person can be—a man of prodigious talents and keen intelligence, whose presidency provided a relief from the onslaught of Republican incompetence. For that we can say, thanks, Obama.



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Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting black communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has turned what could have been a routine re-publication of old essays into a genuine work of art.

The bulk of this book consists of eight essays, all published in The Atlantic, one per year of the Obama presidency. But Coates frames each one with a kind of autobiographical sketch of his life leading up to its writing. The result is, among other things, a surprisingly writerly book—and by that I mean a book written about writing—a kind of Bildungsroman of his literary life. Even on that narrow basis, alone, this book is absorbing, as it shows the struggles of a young writer to hone his craft and find his voice. And that voice is remarkable.

But this book is far more than that. Though the essays tackle diverse topics—Bill Cosby, the Civil War, Michelle Obama, mass incarceration—they successfully build upon one another into a single argument. The kernel of this argument is expressed in the finest and most famous essay in this collection, “The Case for Reparations”: namely, that America must reckon with its racist past honestly and directly if we are ever to overcome white supremacy. Much of the other essays are dedicated to criticizing two principal rivals to this strategy: Respectability Politics, and Class-Based Politics.

First, Respectability Politics. This is the notion—popular at least since the time of Booker T. Washington—that if African Americans work hard, strive for an education, and adhere to middle-class norms, then racism will disappear. Though sympathetic to the notion of black self-reliance, Coates is basically critical of this strategy—first, because he believes it has not and will never work; and second, because it is deeply unjust to ask a disenfranchised people to earn their own enfranchisement.

His portraits of the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—are fascinating for Coates’s ambivalence towards their use of respectability politics. Coates seems nearly in awe of the Obamas’ ability to be simultaneously black and American, and especially of Barack Obama’s power to communicate with equal confidence to the black and white communities. And he is very sympathetic to the plight of a black president, since, as Coates argues, Obama’s ability to take a strong stance regarding race was heavily constrained by white backlash. Coates is, however, consistently critical of Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on hard work and personal responsibility (such as his many lectures about black fatherhood), rather than the historical crimes perpetrated against the black community.

Coates’s other target is the left-wing strategy of substituting class for race—that we ought to help the poor and the working class generally, and in so doing we will disproportionately benefit African Americans. The selling point of this strategy is that, by focusing on shared economic hardships, the left will be able to build a broader coalition without inflaming racial tensions. But Coates is critical of this approach as well. For one, he thinks that racial tension runs far more deeply than class tension, so that this strategy is unlikely to work. What is more, for Coates, this is a kind of evasion—an attempt to sidestep the fundamental problem—and therefore cannot rectify the crime of racism.

The picture that emerges from Coates’s book is rather bleak. If the situation cannot be improved through black advancement or through general economic aid, then what can be done? The only policy recommendation Coates puts forward is Reparations—money distributed to the black community, as a way of compensating for the many ways it has been exploited and disenfranchised. But if I understand Coates correctly, it is not that he believes this money itself would totally solve the problem; it is that such a program would force us to confront the problem of racism head-on, and to collectively own up to the truth of the matter. Virtually nobody—Coates included—thinks that such a program, or such a reckoning, will happen anytime soon, which leaves us in an uncomfortably hopeless situation.

The easy criticism to make of Coates is that his worldview is simplistic, as he insists on reducing all of America’s sins to anti-black racism. But I do not think that this is quite fair. Coates does not deny that, say, economic inequality or sexism are problems; indeed, he notes that these sorts of problems all feed into one another. Furthermore, Coates reminds us that racism is rarely as simple as a rude remark or an insult; rather, it is as complex, diffuse, and widespread as an endemic disease. Coates’s essential point, then, is that racism runs far more deeply and strongly in American life than we are ready to acknowledge—mainly, because persistent racism undermines most of our comfortable narratives or even our policy ideas, not to mention our self-image.

For a brief moment, after Obama’s election, we dreamed of a post-racial America. But, as Coates shows, in the end, Obama’s presidency illustrated our limitations as much as our progress. This was apparent in the sharp drop in Obama’s approval ratings after he criticized a police officer for arresting a black college professor outside of his own house. This was shown, more dramatically, in the persistent rumors that Obama was a Muslim, and of course in Trump’s bigoted birtherism campaign. And this was shown, most starkly, by the fact that Barack Obama—a black man entirely free of scandals, of sterling qualifications, fierce intelligence, and remarkable rhetorical gifts —was followed by Donald Trump—a white man with no experience, thoughtless speech, infinite scandals, and who is quite palpably racist.

As so many people have noted, it is impossible to imagine a black man with Trump’s resumé of scandals, lack of experience, or blunt speaking style approaching the presidency. Even if we focus on one of Trump’s most minor scandals, such as his posing with Goya products after the CEO praised Trump’s leadership, we can see the difference. Imagine the endless fury that Obama would have faced—and not only from the Republican Party—had he endorsed a supporter’s product from the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office! Indeed, as Coates notes, Trump’s ascension is the ultimate rebuke to Respectability Politics: “Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive—work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.”

Whether or not Obama’s optimism or Coates’s pessimism will be borne out by the country’s future, I do think that Coates makes an essential point: that racism is deeply rooted in the country, and will not simply disappear as African Americans become less impoverished or more ‘respectable.’ Communities across America remain starkly segregated; incarceration rates are high and disproportional; the income, unemployment, and wealth gaps are deep and persistent; and we can see the evidence of all of these structural inequalities in the elevated mortality suffered by the black community during this pandemic. The intractability of this problem is bleak to contemplate, but an important one to grapple with. And it helps that this message is delivered in some of the finest prose by any contemporary writer.



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Review: Rage

Review: Rage

Rage by Bob Woodward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes.

Under normal circumstances, I would not subject myself to a single book about Donald Trump, much less two. But I happened to finish A Very Stable Genius—written by two of Woodward’s fellow reporters at the Washington Post—during one of the most bizarre weeks in Trump’s very bizarre presidency.

The week began ordinarily enough, with the revelation in the New York Times that Trump was using his business failures to avoid taxes. Big surprise. This scandal was quickly eclipsed by Trump’s unhinged performance in the first presidential debate, which even some keen supporters found unpalatable. And then Trump managed to top his own performance, by announcing his coronavirus diagnosis. Somehow, even this potentially solemn event quickly devolved into a carnival of lies, as various reports on the president’s health conflicted. The farce was capped off by Trump’s tweeting “Don’t be afraid of COVID” after leaving the hospital.

I mention all this only to show that, even after four years and four thousand scandals, Trump has retained his ability to completely absorb my attention and, yes, to shock me. Hoping for some more insight or clarity, I reached for this book—yet another in the long list of Trump exposés. And I did find that Rage complemented the story told in A Very Stable Genius quite nicely, covering much of what is left out in that earlier book. Whether I am any the wiser for having read these books is another question.

The basic story is simple: Trump relentlessly wore down his advisors and officials through unreasonable and often contradictory demands, until they either resigned in frustration or were fired (often via a Tweet). As the authors of A Very Stable Genius put it, Trump ground through his human guard rails. This way, advisors willing to oppose or moderate the president were gradually replaced by sycophants who did little to curb his more destructive whims. Thus, when a real crisis hit the country, one requiring a complex and coordinated response, the White House was completely unprepared.

However, it is also apparent that this was not originally the story that Woodward set out to tell. The first half of the book focuses quite steadily on foreign policy, and is clearly the fruit of much careful research. There are the usual stories of Trump snubbing allies and pining after Putin. But the real surprise comes when Woodward reveals that he somehow obtained the letters exchanged between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Though containing little of substance, these letters are quite surprising in their affectionate and even flowery tone. Even so, this is one section of the book where Trump does not come off so badly. Nothing was gained from the meetings and the letters, but nothing was lost, either; and arguably it was worth a try to extend an olive branch.

Like so much of life, the book gets severely derailed in its second half by the arrival of the coronavirus. It was around this time, too, that Woodward gained access to Trump himself. From January to shortly before the book’s publication, Woodward interviewed the president eighteen times, for a total of over nine hours. This meant that Woodward had a direct line to Trump during the greatest test of his presidency. The book thus becomes a kind of character study in a time of crisis, with Woodward pushing and probing, trying to understand why Trump is handling the pandemic so badly.

The closer a look one gets of Trump, the stranger he appears. To use Woodward’s phrase, he is a “living paradox”—or at least bafflingly inconsistent. One obvious example of this is Trump’s decision to do these interviews in the first place. After all, Woodward had already written a book highly critical of Trump, and is an associate editor at the Washington Post, a paper Trump routinely derides as liberal media spouting fake news. Was it simply bad judgment? More likely, in my opinion, Trump thought that by personally speaking with Woodward, he could convince the journalist to change his tone. (Trump hoped to do the same with Mueller, Putin, and Kim Jong-un, after all.) Either that, or he simply found the publicity and prestige offered by a Woodward book irresistible.

Another tension in Trump’s personality is that between authoritarianism and negligence. Trump’s admiration for strong-men around the world has often been noted, as has his demand for loyalty and praise from his subordinates. And his response to the Black Lives Matter protests—threatening to send the military, and using federal troops to illegally detain protesters—is broadly authoritarian. On the other hand, Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis reveals a man quite averse to real responsibility, as he often left it up to the governors to deal with the problem. An aspiring autocrat could easily have used the emergency to appropriate more power for himself, but Trump did no such thing.

But this apparent paradox is resolved when one realizes that Trump’s conception of authority is very superficial. Being praised by subordinates, being the center of attention, being declared the best, being seen as a tough guy—this is the extent of what Trump demands from the world.

This superficiality is pervasive in Trump’s makeup, and has much to do with his (almost non-existent) relationship with the truth. It is common to call Trump a “liar”—and, of course, the major revelation of this book is that Trump apparently knew how dangerous the coronavirus was in February, and did not take action or warn the public. Yet for me this term is misleading, as it implies that Trump is fully aware of the truth and is carefully concealing it. I am sure he does that sometimes, of course. But more often it is as if he is speaking as a person might when totally overcome with emotion—in extreme rage or ecstatic joy—without even considering the truth.

The reason I say this—and I hope that I am not getting carried away here—is that, when Trump speaks, the words do not seem to come from some deep place inside himself, as happens during a thoughtful conversation. Rather, the words seem to pop out of thin air, determined only be the immediate needs of the present. To put it slightly differently, Trump never seems to be searching inside himself as he speaks—turning an issue over mentally or finding the appropriate phrase—but instead his mouth goes off by itself, like a machine gun, in its predictably staccato rhythm. The following excerpt captures this quite well:

“I’ve talked to lots of your predecessors,” [Woodward] said. “I never talked to Nixon, but I talked to many, many of them. They get philosophical when I ask the question, what have you learned about yourself? And that’s the question on you: What have you learned about yourself?”

Trump sighed audibly. “I can handle more than other people can handle. Because, and I’ll tell you what, whether I learned about it myself—more people come up to me and say—and I mean very strong people, people that are successful, even. A lot of people. They say, I swear to you, I don’t know how it’s possible for you to handle what you handle. How you’ve done this, with the kind of opposition, the kind of shenanigans, the kind of illegal witch hunts.”

I find this response so telling, because we can safely ignore the truth or falsity of Trump’s words. Indeed, I am inclined to think that questions of this kind usually elicit bullshit. But if I were asked this, I know that I would have to pause and search within myself for something that at least appeared to be self-knowledge. I would have to at least simulate speaking from the heart. And it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to do this. Trump’s answer, meanwhile (which essentially amounts to “I am better than other people”), pivots almost immediately from self-knowledge to what anonymous “very strong people” are telling him. In other words, it does not even betray the modicum of self-knowledge necessary to plausibly bullshit.

I am writing this to fully express these thoughts for myself, even though I am painfully aware that I am falling into the tar-pit of Trump’s personality. But enough. Let us move on from Trump to the secondary question of whether Woodward is guilty of journalistic malpractice for sitting on the information about the coronavirus. And I think he is. Woodward has given multiple reasons why he did not go public with the Trump tape, such as that he needed to give the story more context, or that he thought Trump was just talking about China. Neither of these make much sense to me. And I do think it could have made a difference if the recording of Trump had been released in, say, March.

Be that as it may, this book is still a valuable and alarming look into Trump’s White House and character. After such a steady inspection, it is difficult to disagree with Woodward’ conclusion: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”

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Review: Manufacturing Consent

Review: Manufacturing Consent

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Convenient mythologies require neither evidence nor logic.

Once, I worked at a market research firm that specialized in print media. I learned quite a few things. For one, there are magazines and journals for everything—from fly-fishing to industrial food-processing equipment, from alpaca farming to professional clown associations. One particular magazine, for yacht owners, taught me something about wealth inequality. But all of the magazines taught me about the importance of ad revenue. While I had naively thought that publications make their money from subscriptions, readers are more akin to television viewers than true customers: they constitute an audience for advertisers to sell to.

It does not take a conspiracy theorist to conclude that this must have some influence on the actual content of the articles. After all, if a publication hopes to make money by selling, say, Home Depot adds, they will be disinclined to rail against the evils of home improvement. Yet this is only one factor that the Herman and Chomsky identify as influencing media coverage. Not only are publications directly funded by large corporations, but these days they are themselves owned by large corporations.

Then there are simply matters of logistics. If a publication must maintain its reputation of credibility while churning out ‘important’ news in the requisite amounts, then it must have a reliable source of news. Sending out investigative reporters to every corner of the world is not cost-effective. Instead, media outlets have symbiotic relationships with government agencies, often merely typing up press releases with a few explanatory comments. This benefits both parties, since the news outlets have reputable and newsworthy information, while the government agency is able to directly shape the narrative.

But the strongest influence of all—at least when it comes to foreign affairs—may be the invisible pull of patriotism. A coworker of mine had a cartoon on his locker that summed this up very nicely. My brave explorer is your bloodthirsty invader, my freedom fighters are your insurgents, my noble traditions are, for you, barbaric rites, and so on. Humans have a nearly irresistible tendency to apply an ethical double-standard when group loyalty is involved. We are always the good guys in the story.

When you put psychological bias, economic incentive, and structural inducements together, you get what the authors creatively term propaganda. Now, it is not propaganda of the traditional sort, with the government actively writing, screening, and approving news stories. Rather, it is a system where the limits of debate are established within an acceptable range, and where certain events are deemed important and others unimportant. It is, in other words, a system of assumptions about what is newsworthy, what is outrageous, and what is acceptable. The authors call this description of media activity the “propaganda model,” and set out to prove it.

Manufacturing Consent has achieved its status as a classic, not because of its sophisticated theorizing, but because of its well-documented case studies in media bias. The first case study may be the most convincing of all: a comparison of the media treatment of the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest, and the killings of several religious personnel in Latin America. Popieluszko, who was murdered at the hands of communist police, was the subject of ongoing and enthusiastic media coverage, while the deaths of activist nuns, priests, and archbishops in El Salvador and Guatemala received only intermittent and relatively dry reporting. This is especially ironic, as the authors point out, as Popieluszko’s killers were brought to justice, while the vast majority of the murders in Latin America led to no conviction or even investigation.

The reason for this disparity is not far to seek. It is politically beneficial—not to mention emotionally gratifying—to focus on the atrocities of our enemies (the Soviets, in this case), while it is political damaging to consider that our own country is condoning or sponsoring similar terror. The double-standard reappears when it comes to elections. As the authors convincingly demonstrate, the US media went out of its way to praise quite flawed elections in US-backed El Salvador and Guatemala, while questioning the validity of much fairer elections held in adversarial Nicaragua.

The book culminates with two long chapters on the Indochina conflicts (the Vietnam War and its spillover). These chapters are especially powerful, since they contradict the popular narrative of how media coverage influenced the war. The standard story goes that the media, by showing Americans how brutal the war really was, effectively ‘lost’ the war by undermining public support.

But the authors show that the objections to the war presented in mass media insistently centered on whether it was ‘worth it’—whether we were gaining or losing from the endeavor—not, that is, on whether it was even ethical in the first place. There are many other examples of this bias: the use of Agent Orange to destroy crops was discussed in the press as a hazard to American troops, not as a war crime or a chemical weapon; and the lack of support for American involvement among the South Vietnamese was consistently sidestepped. The authors eventually conclude that the media’s portrayal of the war’s progress was more positive than the government’s own internal briefings.

Though the authors are convincing, I cannot help wondering whether the authors’ analysis still neatly applies to the present day. The media misdeeds analyzed in this book occurred during the Cold War, when the United States had an omnipresent enemy to defeat. Shortly after this book’s publication, the Soviet Union fell; but soon enough America had a new enemy in Islamic terrorism. This threat, too, now seems to be receding from public consciousness, and most Americans no longer have such a strong us-versus-them mentality are regards to the wider world. Lacking this evil adversary, does the mainstream media still use such an egregious double standard?

One major shortcoming of this book is its near exclusive focus on foreign affairs (something which, I fear, is of secondary importance to most voters). The exception to this is a short section comparing the media treatment of Watergate, which targeted the elite Democrats, and the simultaneous revelation that the FBI had been actively interfering with and harassing the socialist party for years. The former was a major scandal, while the latter hardly blipped the public’s awareness. But I would have enjoyed a deeper analysis of how issues in, say, presidential elections are framed by the media.

Another shortcoming is the authors’ sharp focus on proving their thesis rather than offering solutions. While the reader is convinced, by the end, of the double standard applied by the media in foreign affairs, we are left in the dark as to how to fix this predicament. Their account of media bias could have been balanced, therefore, by a look at organizations which manage to do a better job, and an analysis of how they do it. Lacking this—or even a list of sources that the authors themselves find useful—the readers is left in perplexity and despair.

The closest the authors do come to imagining a solution is their call for more democratically controlled media. By a miracle of technology, we now find ourselves in just this situation: virtually everyone can upload videos and pictures, write articles and blogs, and potentially reach a wide audience. Yet the evidence is rather unclear as to whether this has been a good thing.

To me it seems that the democratization of media has led both to the greater circulation of truth and falsehood. On the plus side, the growing awareness of police brutality could probably not have come about if people were not able to capture videos and upload them, thereby providing citizens with shocking and undeniable evidence of violence. On the negative side, however, this same easy access has allowed misinformation to be circulated just as widely, creating a kind of epistemological crisis where different political groups not only have different opinions, but believe in very different facts.

This has culminated in an alarming growth of conspiracy theories, most notably the Qanon movement, which Buzzfeed has recently taken to calling a “collective delusion.” As somebody who has witnessed a person fall through the rabbit hole of “alternate” news sources, from vaccine skepticism, to the JFK assassination, and finally to Qanon (complete with rabid Trump support, of course), I am fairly skeptical that democratization of news sources will suffice to save us.

There do not seem to be any easy answers. Good reporting requires resources—not only technology and capital, but trained personnel who are familiar with journalistic standards. The technology, capital, and training must come from somewhere, and it is difficult to imagine where it may come from that would not affect the information in significant ways. State-owned media are not beholden to advertisers, but to the state; and journals funded by subscriptions alone face the strong temptation to gratify their readers with sensationalist content.

One wonders, then, whether this critique of the main-stream media has ultimately backfired. Nowadays, one hears media skepticism most virulently from the right, not the left; and Trump has used this skepticism as a powerful weapon to escape accountability. Skepticism and democratization are blades that cut both ways, it seems. What can be done?



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Review: And the Band Played On

Review: And the Band Played On

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story of these first five years of AIDS in America is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.

Though this book has been on my list for years, it took a pandemic to get me to finally pick it up. I am glad I did. And the Band Played On is both a close look at one medical crisis and an examination of how humans react when faced with something that does not fit into any of our mental boxes—not our ideas of civil liberty, not our categories of people, and not our notions of government responsibility. As such, this book has a lot to teach us, especially these days.

Randy Shilts was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This position allowed him to track the spread of this disease from nearly the very beginning. Putting this story together was a work of exemplary journalism, involving a lot of snooping and a lot more interviewing. What emerges is a blow-by-blow history of the crisis as it unfolded in its first five years, from 1980-85. And Shilts’s lens is broad: he examines the gay community, the epidemiologists, the press, the blood banks, the medical field, the research scientists, and the politicians. After all, a pandemic is not just caused by a virus; it is the sum of a virus and a society that allows it to spread.

The overarching theme of this book is individual heroism in the face of institutional failure. There are many admirable people in these pages: epidemiologists trying to raise the alert, doctors struggling to treat a mysterious ailment, gay activists trying to educate their communities, and a few politicians who take the disease seriously. But the list of failures is far longer: from the scientists squabbling over claims of priority, to the academic bureaucracies squashing funding requests, to the blood bankers refusing to test their blood, to the government—on every level—failing to take action or set aside sufficient funding.

A lot of these failures were due simply to the sorts people who normally caught AIDS: gay men and intravenous drug users. Because both of these groups were (and to some extent still are) social pariahs, major newspapers simply did not cover the epidemic. This was crucial in many respects, since it gave the impression that it simply was not worth worrying about (the news sets the worry agenda, after all), giving politicians an excuse to do nothing and giving people at risk an excuse not to take any precautions. The struggle in the gay community over how to proceed was particularly vexing, since it was their very efforts to preserve their sexual revolution which cost time and lives. As we are seeing nowadays, balancing civil liberties and disease control is not an easy thing.

But what made these failure depressing, rather than simply frustrating, was the constant drumbeat of death. So many young men lost their lives to this disease, dying slow and agonizing deaths while baffled doctors tried to treat them. When these deaths were occurring among gay men and drug users, the silence of the country was deafening. It was only when the disease showed the potential to infect heterosexuals and movie stars—people who matter—that society suddenly spurred itself into action. This seems to be a common theme to pandemics: society only responds when “normal” people are at risk.

Another common theme to pandemic is the search for a panacea. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, there were many claims of “breakthroughs” and promises of vaccines. But we still have neither a cure nor a vaccine. Fortunately, treatment for HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically since this book was written, when a diagnosis meant death. Pills are now available (Pre-Exposure Prophylactic, or PrEP) which, if taken daily, can reduce the chance of contracting HIV through sex by almost 99% percent. And effective anti-viral therapies exist for anyone who has been infected, greatly extending lifespans.

Unfortunately, these resources are mostly available in the “developed” world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where resources are scarce, the disease is still growing, taking many lives in the process. Once again, a disease is allowed to ravage in communities that the world can comfortably ignore.

One day, a hardworking journalist will write a similar book about the current coronavirus crisis and our institutions’ response to it. And I am sure there will be just as much failure to account for. But there will also be just as much heroism.



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Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

… it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.

This is a difficult book to evaluate, since Veblen simultaneously gets so much right and so much wrong.

Everyone is already familiar with the book’s central concept, conspicuous consumption: the spending of money on useless goods and services in order to enhance one’s social standing. Veblen gave this concept a name and perhaps its most classic exposition, yet the idea had already been around for a long time. We can see a perfect expression of this phenomenon, for example, in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which features a vulgar businessman attempting to attain the cultural trappings of the hereditary leisure class—dancing, fencing, music, philosophy—and failing, of course, since he had spent most of his life working.

Veblen was writing in the Gilded Age, the era of Vanderbilts and Morgans and Goulds, so he had plenty of examples of ostentatious display to choose from. The best parts of this book read as a straightforward satire on the degraded taste of the superrich. Veblen restricts himself to certain facets of the life of leisure, such as the pursuit of sport—hunting, horse-racing, football—noting that these expensive and time-consuming activities are often justified as instilling positive moral qualities, even though they arguably only promote craftiness and cruelty (two features Veblen finds characteristic of the leisure class).

Fashion gets an extended treatment, of course, being the most obvious example of conspicuous consumption: expensive and delicate clothes, of dubious aesthetic merit, designed to make any sort of labor manifestly impossible. Veblen also focuses on vicarious leisure: how wealth is displayed, not only by allowing the wealthy man to avoid work, but also to allow his wife and even his servants to be inactive (thus the elaborate, impractical costumes of the lackeys). Veblen extends his analysis to the church, seeing priests in their vestments as the liveried servants of God, who must remain conspicuously inactive in order to properly convey God’s magnificence.

Yet it does not require a first-rate mind in order to see examples of conspicuous consumption nearly everywhere. Grass lawns are popular precisely because they are expensive and difficult to maintain. High-class restaurants use exotic ingredients and rococo preparations; but does the food taste any better? Romantic love is communicated with costly jewelry, and the ritual of matrimony must likewise be robed in expense. The human body itself conforms to this tendency to display. Whereas in the past it was desirable to be plump, since this showed an ability to afford food, nowadays we like to be thin, since junk food is cheap and time to exercise is a luxury.
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Indeed, you might say that today conspicuous leisure has become conspicuous anti-leisure. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pride themselves on working long hours, wearing minimalist clothes, and eating artificial super foods that provide nutrients without pleasure. Now that most of the things Veblen satirized are widely available the only option is to scorn them.

Anyone must admit that Veblen’s account does have a great deal of truth. At the same time, as a general theory of the economy and society, it is extremely limited. For one, the theory is not always borne out in practice. John D. Rockefeller, possibly the richest man in history, had a puritan disdain for fashion, art, and flashy mansions. More generally, Veblen’s account is laden with a moral evaluation which is difficult to accept. Though Veblen professes to be a neutral observer of economic life, it is clear that he finds the lifestyle of the upper classes to be frivolous and wasteful.

At first glance this may seem justifiable, until one realizes that Veblen considers virtually everything beyond industrial work to be wasteful. As the opening quote shows, Veblen even considers the reading of classics to be a mere trapping of the upper class—a flagrantly useless exercise—which is especially ironic, since Veblen’s own work is nowadays considered to be classic and is read for that reason. To my mind, virtually everything enjoyable in life, even Veblen’s work itself, falls within Veblen’s economic definition of “waste” and would thus classify as conspicuous consumption.

Considering this, the challenge would be to somehow separate “legitimate” taste from those degraded by the influence of conspicuous wealth. This is easy enough in extreme cases (such as the Vanderbilt family mansions or anything touched by Trump’s brand) but it becomes far trickier in others. To pick just one example, Shakespeare certainly considered financial gain as much as pure literary art when he composed his plays; and this may well have improved them.

Veblen’s hard line between the economically useful or wasteful is mirrored in his hard line between the industrious class and the pecuniary class. The former are the productive workers, the latter are the gaudy managers, businessmen, traders, and captains of industry who exploit these laborers to support a life of luxury. But this dichotomy is likewise difficult to justify. While a great deal of the “work” performed by this upper class can legitimately be called useless and exploitative, it seems difficult to accept that all management and financial activity is socially useless. Further, as often noted, Veblen’s analysis presupposes that there is a finite amount of resources to be divided. He does not take into account the growth of the economy (which is spurred by consumption, “wasteful” or not).

Putting all this aside, it must be said that many aspects of Veblen’s analysis have aged poorly. Veblen was concerned with making his analysis “scientific,” which for him meant using the evolutionary language of Darwin or Herbert Spencer. While his intellectual versatility is admirable, Veblen’s talk of “archaic” or “barbaric” traits or human “types” sounds both unconvincing and even alarming to modern ears.

I should also mention that I found the book to be surprisingly turgid. Though C. Wright Mills, in his excellent introduction, singles out Veblen’s prose for its quality, I generally found Veblen’s writing to be dense and unmusical. Here is a typical passage:

As between the various habits, or habitual modes and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual’s standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a given direction.

In the last analysis, then, this book stands as the classic exposition of a useful concept. At the same time, the theory is overly simple, and ensconced in too many outdated ideas, to be fully accepted. Read this book if you find the leisure to do so.

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Review: Gotham

Review: Gotham
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared.

When I began this book, I thought that I would speed through it in a summer month of dedicated reading, while there was little else to distract me. Yet after four weeks of slogging I had not even gotten a third of the way through. Worse still, I never felt fully engaged; every time I returned to the book it required an act of will; the pace never picked up, the writing never become effortlessly pleasurable. So I put it aside, to finish at the end of summer. When that didn’t work, I put it aside, to finish during Christmas break. And when that didn’t work, I bought the audiobook, to finish the remaining chapters on my runs. Now, 261 days later, I can finally tick it off my list.

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace set an ambitious goal: to write an authoritative, comprehensive, and accessible history of New York City. In their words, they want to include “sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime,” and that list is only the beginning. The amount of research required to assemble this vast and teetering edifice of knowledge is almost nauseating. When you consider that this book, heavy enough to serve as a deadly weapon, is the condensed version of thousands of smaller books, dissertations, papers, and studies, you cannot help but feel admiration for the many hours of sweat and toil that went into this pharaonic task. And in the end they have accomplished at least two of their three goals: the book is authoritative and comprehensive. But is it accessible?

This is where my criticism begins. Burrows and Wallace attempt to gather together so many threads of research that the final tapestry is confused and chaotic. In a single chapter they can pivot wildly from one topic to another, going from department stores to race riots to train lines, so that the reader has little to hold on to as they traverse this whirlwind of information. The final product is an assemblage rather than a coherent story, an encyclopedia disguised as a narrative history. Granted, encyclopedias are good and useful things; but they seldom make for compelling reading. What was lacking was a guiding organizational principle. This could have taken the form of a thesis on, say, the way that the city developed; or it could have been a literary device, such as arranging the information around certain historical figures.

Lacking this, what we often get is a list—which, as it happens, is the author’s favorite rhetorical device. To pick an entirely typical sentence, the authors inform us that, in 1828, the Common Council licensed “nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour.” Now, lists can be wonderful to read if used sparingly and assembled with care—just ask Rabelais. But overused, they become tedious and exhausting.

This is indicative of what is a more general fault of the book, the lack of authorial personality in its prose. Perhaps this is because Burrows and Wallace edited and rewrote each other’s chapters, creating a kind of anonymous hybrid author. Now, this is not to say that the prose is bad; to the contrary, I think that this book is consistently well-written. If the book is dry, it is not because of any lack of writerly skill, but because the prose limits itself to recounting fact rather than expressing opinion or thought. Again, the book is an encyclopedia without the alphabetical order, and encyclopedias are not supposed to contain any speck of subjectivity. Unfortunately, even the most masterly prose is dead on the page if there is no discernable person behind it.

I am being rather critical of a book which, without a doubt, is a triumph of synthesis and scholarship. If I am disappointed, it is because I felt that I could have retained much more of the information in these pages had it been presented with more coherence—a larger perspective, a sense of overall order, an underpinning structure. As it stands, I do not have that satisfying (if, perhaps, untrustworthy) feeling that an excellent history can provide: that of seeing the past from a high perspective, as a grand and logical unfolding. Though not exactly fair, I cannot help comparing Gotham unfavorably with another massive book about the history of the city, The Power Broker, which forever changed how I look at the city and, indeed, at the nature of power itself. Yet after finishing this, I am not sure if my perspective on the city has been appreciably changed.

But I should end on a positive note. This is a well-written, exhaustive, and thoroughly impressive history of the city. And despite all my complaints and headaches, I liked it enough so that I will, someday, drag myself through its sequel.



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Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books whose great merit was in undermining itself. When it was first published, in 1970, it must have been a shock to the Americans who grew up reading and watching movies about the heroic coy boys, settlers, and soldiers who settled the West. It was—and to an extent, remains—a key part of our national myth. But like so many national myths, it left unnoticed the people who were repressed, marginalized, or exterminated on the road to the country’s greatness. Books like this one, a people’s history, told from the perspective of the vanquished, are a necessary corrective to this, and perform an important moral function in our society: shining a light on the misdeed perpetrated by our national heroes.

The greatest testament to the success of a book of this type is to render itself obsolete, and I think this is what has happened in this case—at least, to an extent. For by the time I went to school it was the Dee Brown version of the West, not the Buffalo Bill version, that was taught to us. (Admittedly this must vary a lot depending on where you go to school; I come from quite a liberal area.) Thus the story told in these pages was, however depressing, entirely familiar: broken promises, cultural misunderstandings, blatant dishonesty, and wholesale slaughter. As a result I admit I did not enjoy this book as much as I expected, for everything that Brown narrated was fully expected. Of course, there were moments that pierced through even my dullness, such as the description of the Sand Creek Massacre, which was as horrible as anything I have read about the Holocaust.

Brown is a strong writer, and evokes people and scenes with the power of a good novelist. But I was disappointed at how much of this book is given over to descriptions of battles and skirmishes. The pattern was always the same: the Indians are promised land, the whites decide they want the land after all, tension escalates, and then conflict ensues—with the American military usually coming out the victor. I think it was important that Brown narrate this fighting from the other perspective, since it formed such a cherished part of our myth, but apart from sheer drama I did get much out of it. I would much have preferred that Brown dedicate space to the customs of the groups he is describing—the Navajo, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and many more. Without this, we get a sense of brave cultures being swept away, but not a sense of what was actually lost.

A few more criticisms come to mind. Though this book is well-researched and well-sourced, it is clear even at a superficial reading that Brown has imaginatively embellished quite a bit in order to get the novelistic style he was after. More importantly, now that we are (hopefully) moving past this Spaghetti-Western version of American history, I believe a different kind of book is needed. Any book that tells the story exclusively from one side, either victor or vanquished, will leave important parts of the story out. Apart from more ethnographic description of the American Indians in question, I would also have liked a much deeper analysis of the government and settlers. This would have given more insight into why these interactions played out the way they did.

But these criticisms are somewhat unfair, since they are predicated on the book’s success. Without a doubt this was a necessary book, and Brown did us a service in writing it—and in writing it so well.

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Review: The Great Bridge

Review: The Great Bridge

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn BridgeThe Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”

On the inside cover of my copy of this book its previous owner has inserted a little love note. The brief message is written in a very neat script, in red ink, apparently on the eve of a long separation. Now, you may think that a book about the Brooklyn Bridge is a rather odd gift for a lover—and, considering that the book ended up in a used book shop, this may be what the recipient thought, too—but, now that I have read McCullough’s chronicle of the Brooklyn Bridge, I can see why it might inspire such sentimental attachment. For it is a thoroughly lovable book.

This is my first McCullough work, and I am pleased. He is a fine writer. His prose is stylish yet unobtrusive, striking that delicate balance between being intelligible but not simplified. He has a keen eye for the exciting details of a seemingly dry story; and effectively brings together many different threads—the personalities, the politics, the technology—in such a way that the past looms up effortlessly in the imagination. The only parts which I think could have been improved were his explanations of the engineering, since he used too many unfamiliar terms without explaining them, perhaps thinking that such explanations might swell the book to unseemly proportions. In any case, he is a writer, not an engineer, and he shines most when discussing the human experience of the Bridge.

The bridge’s designer was John A. Roebling, who deserves a book unto himself. An eccentric polymath, who among other things studied philosophy under Hegel, he came to America to found a Utopian village and ended up the foremost expert on suspension bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge was his project; but tragically he died during the first year of the project, after his foot was crushed, his toes amputated, and he contracted tetanus. His son, Washington, immediately took over—in many ways just as remarkable a man. A Civil War hero with a tenacious memory, the bridge ruined his health, too, through a combination of stress and the bends.

In those days the bends were known as “caisson sickness,” named for the compartment sunk underwater in order to excavate for the bridge’s foundations. These were filled with pressurized air in order to prevent water from seeping in. Unfortunately, in those days the dangers of rapidly depressurizing were not understood, so many people fell ill during the construction—including Roebling himself, who spent the final years of the bridge’s construction as an invalid, observing the work through a telescope from his apartment. Luckily for him, his wife, Emily, was a remarkable woman—diplomatic and brilliant—and helped to carry the project to completion.

These personalities come alive in McCullough’s narration, turning what could have been a dry chronicle into an enthralling book. And this is not to mention the political corruption, the manufacturing fraud, the deadly accidents, and the glorious celebrations that took place during the fourteen years of the bridge’s construction.

Yesterday I revisited the Brooklyn Bridge, which is beautiful even if you know nothing about it. As a friend and I strolled across in the intense summer heat, elbowing our way through crowds of tourists, I blathered on about all the fun facts I had learned from this book—which I am sure my friend very much appreciated. Sensing his discomfort, I made sure to emphasize that a fraudulent wire manufacturer had tricked the engineers into using sub-par cables, and that a panic broke out a week after the bridge’s opening, which resulted in twelve people being trampled. You see this book has already helped my social life. Maybe next I can write my own love note inside.

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