Analysis Book Domestic Policy Nonfiction Review

debate isn’t trash, but “identity politics” might be

So-called “identity politics” have been on the rise for some years. Growing scholarship and discussion of systemic disadvantages against demographic groups has led to a rising and justified righteous anger against those forces. But especially in recent years this has resulted in a tendency for every social issue to be framed with a racist or sexist lens. The most outspoken purveyors of this framing are so sure of their analysis that their righteous anger has turned into self-righteous anger. Their quest to unite the disadvantaged through aggressive inclusion has actually backfired in division, an idea explored by the Guardian just last week.

My own sense of the perilousness of this approach has been growing slowly, but it crystallized in part while I was recently reading Tracy Kidder’s now-15-year-old book Mountains Beyond Mountains. While debating whether to write a full review of that work in the style of my previous book reviews, several editorials emerged which highlighted for me the most important takeaway: “identity politics” — which militantly reject debate and elevate tribalist and personal “truth” at the expense of individual liberty — at best waste time and at worst threaten the foundational principle of open debate in a free and progressive society.

Book Nonfiction Review

Book Review: “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser

The subtitle of Eric Schlosser’s latest work of investigative journalism, “Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” well captures the increasingly editorial arc of the book. Its centerpoint is a thriller-like recounting of the run-up to a non-nuclear 1980 explosion in Damascus, Arkansas; but the retelling of that event is interleaved with a long-form historical review of the design and implementation of America’s nuclear arsenal in the middle of the twentieth century. By degrees over its half-thousand pages the prose becomes increasingly critical of that history, culminating with the dramatic explosion at Damascus and the state of nuclear weapons in the United States after the end of the Cold War.

Based heavily on primary source documents and original interviews Schlosser himself conducted with weapons scientists and some of those involved in the Damascus accident, I find the actual text to be overlong and meandering. I would have preferred a more condensed and linear exposition, but reasonable people can disagree: Louis Menand wrote in his colorfully titled New Yorker review “Nukes of Hazard” that this suspenseful, achronological, and deeply personal narrative style is “how nonfiction should be written.” What we can agree on is that Schlosser convincingly argues that given the stunning degree of cognitive dissonance, bureaucratic impenetrability, and sheer number of nearly catastrophic nuclear accidents that have happened over the years, it’s truly a wonder that the last large-casualty nuclear event was deliberate, during wartime, and more than 70 years ago.

Analysis Book History Nonfiction Review

Book Review: “Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Subtitled The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan’s New York Times #1 Bestseller takes a purely secular look at the historical Jesus to draw the apparently uncontroversial conclusion that he was primarily a Jewish political agitator. Complete with exhaustive endnotes and a seemingly endless bibliography, Aslan shows he has studied the available literature in many languages — original source material in Greek and Aramaic as well as scholarly works in English and German. Because of its sometimes overly drawn out and mellifluous language, I don’t necessarily recommend reading Zealot unless the motivations of the historical Jesus in the context of his times and the evolution of his following is of particular interest to the reader. While not a novelization, the prose is both flowery and verbose, with chapters often repeating key facts probably with an eye to making them more independently consumable. Even so, the book is undeniably engaging and offers several profoundly interesting secular takeaways that help us to better understand how Jesus became the influential spiritual and religious figure he is seen as today. I offer a summary, or even a reorganization to taste, of the highlights.

Analysis Book Nonfiction Review Speculation

Book Review: “Six Amendments” by John Paul Stevens

Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution is the latest scholarly work from former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. The book is as spare and strictly to-the-point as its title: discounting an index, a few pages of acknowledgements, a few more pages of glossy colour photographs, and an appendix with a complete transcription of the United States Constitution (as amended), Stevens makes his case for six distinct constitutional amendments in just 133 pages. As a retired Justice, it isn’t surprising that the selection and emphasis of many of the proposals underscore Steven’s frustration with often recently decided jurisprudence and are targeted to undermine or reverse certain decisions. The no-nonsense prose, coloured with Stevens’s famed wit, makes for an engaging and insightful read.

No proposed amendment is immune to critique, and some are less immune than others. But a majority of them clearly address pressing contemporary issues that likely need profound and dramatic legal changes to adequately remedy. The biggest challenge to Stevens’s proposed remedies is one he himself addresses in a short prologue: namely that the amendment process has been very infrequently used, and never more infrequently since the Civil War than in the last forty years. But, by suggesting remarkably simple yet concrete changes we could actually act upon, Stevens makes a powerful case that there are ways we can effect change more more decisively than what the slow and piecemeal legislative process may afford and less unexpectedly than ‘law from the bench’ often provides. I’ll discuss each proposal in turn.

Analysis Book Foreign Policy History Nonfiction Review

Book Review: “Drift” by Rachel Maddow

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power is frank analysis by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow of the recent rise in American militarism. Fans of her television show will immediately recognize her snarky voice and can-you-believe-this incredulity, which translate effectively to the page. Maddow’s stated goal is encouraging a genuine debate about the role of the military in American life and foreign policy, the usefulness of which is echoed by many of the journalistic elite whose reviews grace Drift‘s covers, including Ira Glass, Tom Brokaw, and even Roger Ailes. I seriously question whether she’s laid on the disdainful snark a bit too thickly for this purpose — skeptics might be turned off rather than engaged — but the book is well researched and smoothly written. At the last, Maddow is hopeful rather than dejected. This creeping militarism, she concludes, is not the result of a conspiracy, but rather the cumulative effect of boneheaded but generally well-meaning politicians and officials doing their inadequate best to try to protect us. And as a result, the damage is reversible. We just need to frankly discuss what has happened.

Book Faith Nonfiction Review Science

Book Review: “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion is a fairly recent nonfiction work by the prolific evolutionary biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins. Published in 2006, 30 years after he rose to prominence with the work for which he is best known and which I highly recommend, The Selfish Gene, there is only a little biology to be found on the pages of the The God Delusion. Drawing from well-documented anecdotal evidence and swelling with reason rigorously applied, the book is an orderly and unapologetic assault on belief in God, organized Abrahamic religion, and a culture that sheepishly looks the other way when confronted with either.

A common criticism of Dawkins is that he’s just so nasty when he dissects religiosity; why, ask the faint of conviction, can’t he just leave well enough alone, or at least be respectful when he can’t? Having read several of his books, I can safely declare that Dawkins is actually eminently reasonable. He is deferential to individuals he respects, admits when he’s at risk of speculating more than analyzing, and draws distinction between harmless naivete and menacing intent. He successfully identifies real harms derived from faith-based world views and religious institutions and makes a case for his politely and eloquently expressed incredulity and outrage at them. A careful reading of the The God Delusion should convince the thoughtful believer, explicitly his target audience, not only of atheism but of his brand of powerful evangelistic atheism. Rather than respecting faith, we should all become foot soldiers in the war to eradicate it.

Book Nonfiction Review

Book Review: “The Influencing Machine” by Brooke Gladstone

The Influencing Machine is a work of graphic nonfiction, written by Brooke Gladstone of On The Media fame, and illustrated by Josh Neufeld, probably best known for a journalistic serial he drew about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I first heard about it when Gladstone was interviewed on the Colbert Report in support of the book last year. The interview was interesting and I’ve enjoyed On The Media, so when I happened to notice it at the Elliot Bay Book Company not long ago I picked up a copy. It was well worth the sticker price.

The goal of the book is to critically examine the nature of the American media, roughly beginning with the rise of print in the colonies. Its thesis is that there is no “Influencing Machine” if that phrase means to imply that the media are some kind of external, possibly sinister force that control or direct outcomes in public life. The media are instead a mirror, Gladstone argues: “We get the media we deserve.”

Book Nonfiction Review

Book Review: “The Bomb” by Howard Zinn

The Bomb is a posthumously published essay by noted historian (or “master of agitprop”Howard Zinn. It features a short preface, written by indie publisher and activist Greg Ruggiero, in praise of Zinn’s work and advocacy of civil disobedience ahead of the main text divided in three parts.

Part the first: Introduction. Zinn describes his return to the US for a month’s furlough following the end of the Second World War in Europe. While in New York, he read about the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and recalls rejoicing with his wife over that fact, not knowing what it meant except that his furlough was about to become indefinite since the war was surely over.

Zinn describes some of his experience as a bombardier, far removed from the people and buildings who were his targets from an elevation of 30,000 feet. Indeed, he makes the claim that “to this day, the vicious reality of aerial bombing is lost to most people in the United States,” as it was to him during the war. Despite improvements in technology, Zinn points out that innocent casualties still persist today when the lives of “suspected terrorists” and Afghan wedding parties alike are ended by drone missiles.

But Zinn’s “shock of understanding” came after reading John Heresey’s interviews with Hiroshima survivors. The grisly details of the effects of fallout and radiation poisoning caused him to recall his own bombing missions, during which he “mindlessly dropped bombs on cities without thinking what humans on the ground were experiencing,” and in particular the horror of his last bombing mission three weeks before that furlough, in Royan, France.

Part the second: Hiroshima. In typical fashion in this, by far the longest part, Zinn deconstructs the standard narrative of the need to drop the bomb. Moving from horrific descriptions taken from first-hand accounts of people without hands and feet and eyebrows, moaning and screaming after the shockwave of the explosion had passed, Zinn tries to understand how it is that such a thing could have been done. A major theme throughout the book is the individual’s ability to rationalize away personal responsibility, throwing themselves into the anonymous collective of the nation-state or the military united in common purpose against an enemy, be it facism, communism, terrorism, or whatever other demon is sufficiently established in the public imagination.

There is also a focus on military and government actors. Zinn summarizes his finding, also articulated in his masterwork, A People’s History of the United States, that the war with Japan was more likely a trade expedient than it was an existential defense or a righteous war against teutonic fascism and genocide. Zinn cites the racism of the barring of blacks from the military and the Japanese internment to debunk that last idea that WWII was a righteous crusade to save the Jews. Instead, the thesis appears to be that much of the brutality of the war can be explained by a desire of military elites to exercise new weapons technology and a “euphemism — ‘undermining of the morale'” to justify excesses.

To the first point, Zinn begins by attacking a common justification of the bombings — that they prevented a casualty-heavy and otherwise necessary invasion of the Japanese mainland — as without merit:

There has been endless discussion about how many American lives would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. Truman said “half a million.” Churchill said “a million.” These figures were pulled out of the air. Historian Barton Bernstein’s research could not find any projection for invasion casualties higher than 46,000.

The whole discussion about casualty figures is pointless. It is based on the premise that there would have to be an American invasion of Japan in order to end the war. But the evidence is clear that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender, that a simple declaration on keeping the position of the Emperor would have brought the war to an end, and no invasion was necessary.

So what then necessitated the dropping of the bomb? Zinn posits a host of explanations: pressure from Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project managers to put to use the fruits of their years of toil; questions over whether plutonium fission or uranium fission would “work better” (hence the idea that “no one ever considered the options of delaying the second bomb drop” three days after Hiroshima, the better to test out the plutonium bomb); Truman’s desire to end the war before the Russians entered it and hence take all the glory; a sense that this glory should include the total decimation and humiliation of the Japanese before American firepower (Zinn describes — in what is one of the most memorable takeaways from the book — the final bombing of the war, five days after Nagaski, which included explosives as well as leaflets declaring that “the war has ended with the surrender of your government”); Truman’s desire for personal legacy (his immediate reaction was “this is the greatest thing in history”); and, in that same vein, the nationalistic desire to the show the rest of the world what the enterprising Americans had made.

Part the third: Royan. After reading about these horrors in 1966, Zinn went back to Royan, the site of his last mission during the war, to learn more about his impact there more than 20 years before. The bombing was not tactically or strategically useful, and it happened when the impending end of the European war was all but certain. There are allegations of violations of the chain of command in ordering the raid; to the contrary, that the chain of command was blindly and happily obeyed; the notion that morale necessitated the destruction of a town, any town (“One of the local commanders wrote later: ‘It would have been more logical to wait for the surrender of Germany and thus to avoid new human and material losses,’ but one could not ‘ignore important factors of morale.'”); ending-of-the-war ruthlessness and recklessness (“each one wanted a last moment to distinguish himself and get a bit of glory; moderation was scorned, prudence was seen as cowardice”); and even the idea that it was all just a horrible mix-up, that Royan was “destroyed by mistake!”

But the Royan bombing is famous for being “the first [use] in warfare” of napalm, and this fact is the reason Zinn suggests as the main reason that the bombing occurred. He recalls seeing the bombs “flaring like matches struck in a fog” and being “completely unaware of the human chaos below.” A local journalist summed up the bombing: “Thus was accomplished a deadly work of obvious uselessness, and thus was revealed to the world the powerful destructiveness of napalm.” A doctor and former mayor addressed the controlling general after the bombing: “The Germans had to feel our power! Permit me, my general, to tell you, once and for all, in the name of those who paid the cost: ‘La Victorie de Royan’ does not exist, except for you.” It seems that the desire to showcase a new destructive force trumped prudence, just as seemed to have happened weeks later in Japan.

The book is a quick read and an insightful one. It suffers slightly from being poorly organized: each part is a dozens-page single chapter of paragraphs. Additionally, many assertions are uncited, or at least difficult to reconcile to the book’s own endnotes. The Hiroshima section, fully half the book, cites only two sources in the endnotes, compared with Royan’s 14. This is especially egregious since Zinn’s claims about the war, and in particular the end of the war in the Pacific, are far from mainstream. On the other hand, Hiroshima has been researched a great deal more than Royan, and Zinn has personal history in the latter event, so it makes sense that he would rely more on fewer, well-established accounts in his discourse about the former. In any event, the prose is easily consumed and primary sources do appear with frequency alongside Zinn’s analysis. Given its length, coming in at under 100 pages, it is well worth the few hours to be exposed to a dissenting interpretation of a pivotal period in world history.

Always the master of agitprop, Zinn concludes powerfully by connecting the threads and emphasizing the need for individuals to stand up and resist the groupthink that leads to atrocities like these:

Everyone can point, rightly, to someone else as being responsible… no one is positively responsible for the horror that ensues. But every one is negatively responsible because anyone can throw a wrench into the machinery. Not quite, of course — because only a few people have wrenches. The rest have only their hands and feet… This may suggest that those of us who have a bit more than our bare hands, and at least a small interest in stopping the machine, that we might play a peculiar role in stopping the social stalemate.

Published 2010, 91 pages.

Book History Nonfiction Review

Book Review: “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View” by Stephen Breyer

Making Our Democracy Work is the work of a left-leaning sitting Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer. Well-titled, the book is a treatise that explains the goals of the Court as set out in the Constitution and its successes and failures over the last couple centuries, as well as the means that its author believes ought to be emphasized today in order to realize a constitutional democracy based on civil rights, not simply on paper but in actual practice.  Justice Breyer suggests an arsenal of tools and focuses that he believes — convincingly — the Court can and should use to maintain a public trust in enforcing “our Constitution’s liberty-protecting limits.”

The book is just as no-nonsense as you might expect and require of a sitting high court judge: it is divided into discrete, functional parts that each build in their own way in spare but effective prose to the ultimate and multifaceted thesis.

The first part explores the historical basis for the remarkable trust and deference that the American people grant the Court, explicitly relying only on well-accepted but detailed historical accounts of a few important cases. Breyer explores in entertaining prose the first great test of the nascent Court in Marbury v. Madison; points out a miscarriage in the treatment of the Cherokees under the Jackson administration when he ignored a Court order protecting their rights; visits what is hailed as one of the worst decisions the Court ever made in Dred Scott; counters with a triumph of cooperation between the judiciary and the executive in Brown v. Board of Education and school integration in Little Rock; and concludes with an analysis of the contentious 2000 decision Bush v. Gore. The exercise was to demonstrate that ours is “a nation that has gradually come to place confidence in the Court.”

The second part is Breyer’s vision for the manner in which the Court ought to function to preserve Constitutional guarantees by maintaining the public trust while not yielding to political pressures. This is clearly easier said than done, and the proffered mechanism of emphasis on the purposes (whether determined or inferred) and the consequences (more often real than imagined) of legislation — as opposed to fealty to wording or precedent or archaic interpretation, which are acknowledged as well to have a place in crafting decisions — seems phrased specifically to convince strict constructionists like Breyer’s colleague Antonin Scalia. But it is easy to forgive the explicit emphasis on these tools given the herculean job Breyer performs in justifying their application both through specific examples and accessible abstractions. Breyer’s approach is multifaceted too, as he also explores justifications in depth for qualified deference to the specialized expertise of executive administrations, state authorities, and lower federal courts. I was struck by the breadth and restraint of Breyer’s judicial vision.

The third and final part is devoted to an exploration of the Court’s duty to protect individual rights. Between detailed and painful discussions of Court failures with WWII Japanese internment cases and recent relative successes with Terrorism cases like Hamdi and Boumediene, Breyer demonstrates how the Court has and (sometimes) uses the power to check executive excesses to guarantee constitutional liberties. Importantly, he underscores the tenuous successes of the Court in maintaining a functioning democracy by quoting Bush 43’s reaction to the Boumediene ruling: “We’ll abide by the court’s decision — that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.”

Overall, the book is an eminently readable, educational treatise unlikely to be less informative than any text book on the subjects it addresses, and it has an aggressive collection of notes. There are also a pair of appendices: the first is a collection of images relating to the cases discussed throughout the book that Breyer hopes will remind readers that they “were decided by, and the principles have a profound effect on, human beings” in order to drive home the real importance of these issues; the second is among the shortest and most effective descriptions of what it is the Supreme Court actually does that I have ever read, which is indispensable for anyone unfamiliar with or prone to needing to explain to others the function that our government’s third and ‘weakest’ branch (according to Hamilton) performs.
I fault the book for repeating certain phrases and themes a little too often, but that seems more like a failing of sloppy editors, a symptom of the desire to make the book exceedingly consumable to the layman, or perhaps a forgivable idiosyncrasy of the author; and it is my only major criticism. I recommend the book heartily, and close with the final passage from its conclusion, which summarizes its laudable purpose:
The stories this book sets forth are told from the point of view of one judge. I have drawn my own lessons from them. I hope that they lead others to study the stories and ponder their lessons about our constitutional history. Then they too will be better able to help make our democracy work. I hope so.
That is why I have written this book.
Published 2010, 270 pages.