BOOK REVIEW: “The Empty Throne” makes a better argument for not having one

I’ve said before there’s a seductive idea that some more competent version of American hegemony was once in effect and is desirable to return to.

Without meaning to, what Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay book The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership seems to persuasively advocate for is how bad of an idea it is for the United States to have a throne at all when the person in it is as likely as not to wield that leadership destructively.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: “The Empty Throne” makes a better argument for not having one”

Advertisements

BOOK REVIEW: The adults in the room have always been “Reckless”

In the Mel Brooks parody, “Space Balls”, the villainous character Darth Helmet brags to Lonestarr, the protagonist, that, “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

This trope appears in fiction often, and some writers rely on it almost entirely.

The medievalist historian and culture critic Steven Atwell has observed that one of the central differences between George R.R. Martin’s worldview in the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire and that of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the HBO adaption Game of Thrones is that Martin will stack the cosmic deck against his “good” characters to give them more adversity while D&D treat nobility itself as a handicap, where evil is synonymous with competence, cunning, with a willingness to make the hard and necessary choices.

The early 21st-century genre of “prestige television” with its white male anti-heroes is predicated largely on this worldview, from Vic Mackey in The Shield to Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but it continues today and goes back to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and beyond.

In contemporary reality, though, we have a president and administration that is an ever-overlapping Venn Diagram of racists, incompetents, and grifters rapidly approaching a perfect circle with every new cabinet departure and replacement.

Recently, that administration announced that Vietnam War refugees who’ve been living in the United States for 40 years or more are now subject to deportation. We can and should condemn that as yet another example of ethnic cleansing that it is. It’s the sort of behavior that’s cartoonishly evil except for that it’s actually happening and hurting real people.

That we are currently ruled by schmucks does not make their sadism less painful.

At the same time, there is a syrupy-sweet voice talking from the corners of New York Times opinion columns and conservative “former Republican luminaries” that suggests that everything could go back to normal if we just had the adults back in charge, that if people were a bit more civil and subtle as they went about pursuing policies that irreparably harmed marginalized people, and if they didn’t tweet rude, misspelt things, we’d all be OK.

Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam by Robert K. Brigham is a great corrective on that impulse.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: The adults in the room have always been “Reckless””

BOOK REVIEW: In “10 Strikes”, Erik Loomis demonstrates how American labor history is inseparable from American politics

Your short takeaway should be that A History of America in 10 Strikes is a good book in all the ways a history book can be good. You should buy it. You should read it. You should gift it to your friends and family, and stuff extra copies in Tiny Libraries you come across.

The author Erik Loomis is a professor at the University of Rhode Island and regular contributor to the politics and culture blog “Lawyers, Guns, and Money“, and he’s been writing his This Day In Labor History” series for some time. It’s not surprising that he was able to bring the same sort of conversational brevity to this full-length work as he managed on Twitter threads, but it’s impressive he was able to tie almost two centuries of history all together so coherently.

Now, Loomis has a point of view, and he states it outright and upfront: almost everyone in the United States is a worker, and labor unions have been the only force for workers in the past two centuries.

What’s enlightening is his thesis, hammered in time and again, that “the fate of labor unions largely rests on the ability to elect politicians that will allow them to succeed.”

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: In “10 Strikes”, Erik Loomis demonstrates how American labor history is inseparable from American politics”

BOOK REVIEW: It’s a lot easier to kick someone out into the rain than fix your own leaking roof

You’ll often hear, in reference to current events, that the Republican Party has its origins in the anti-slavery movement of the mid-19th century.

This is, strictly speaking, true, but bowdlerized.

The best an abolitionist Liberty Party candidate ever did for president was 2.3 percent of what was then the popular vote in 1844.

The Free Soil Party was anti-slavery but only in so much as it disliked enslaved people. It got 10.1 percent in 1848.

The Know Nothing Party didn’t care for slavery but what really got it going was anti-immigrant nativism, contemporarily aimed at Irish and German Catholics. In 1856, it got 21.5 percent of the vote, still only good for third. By then, the Republican Party was competing on a slogan of “Free soil, free silver, free men.”

Abraham Lincoln won the presidency as a Republican with less than 40 percent of the popular vote four years later.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: It’s a lot easier to kick someone out into the rain than fix your own leaking roof”

BOOK REVIEW: “How to Democrat in the Age of Trump” by Mike Lux is a suspiciously good read

You always ought to be wary of any point of view you consume at length where you find yourself agreeing with it completely, where it anticipates every question that pops in your head and answers it, to the point that at the end you can identify no daylight between your thoughts and its own.

The effect is something like riding to the airport after you’ve doublechecked everything you meant to pack and finding it was actually all already there. There’s no rational reason for you to be unsettled rather than comforted, but somehow you are.

Mike Lux has a written just such a book: How to Democrat in the Age of Trump, and it’s worthy of being recommended to anyone on the Left trying to find a way forward.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: “How to Democrat in the Age of Trump” by Mike Lux is a suspiciously good read”

BOOK REVIEW: In the future of “Unscaled”, AI will keep the rich different from you and me

“The rich are different from you and me.”

“Yes, they have more money.”

No exchange like that between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway ever took place, but it’s a lot more fun to imagine that it did. The initially curt put-down contains within it the germ of a much more intense concurrence the more you think about it.

Unscaled by Hemant Taneja, or “How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future” manages to embody both readings of that exchange.

The multimillionaire venture capitalist’s book often reads like a literal vanity-press product, talking of its subjects as an excuse to brag about all of the occasions Taneja’s investments thus far have paid off. That includes investments you’ve heard of like the temporary-messages app Snapchat as well as those you probably haven’t, like the “consumer digital health company“, Livongo.

In that way, the experience of reading Unscaled is very much like anyone who’s ever been cornered at a house party by someone you’ve just met, quite sure everything they do will be as interesting for you to hear as it clearly is for them to recount.

But, the rich are different from you and me, and what interests Taneja versus what does not is almost like reading an alien species talk about the implications of technology for the future.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: In the future of “Unscaled”, AI will keep the rich different from you and me”

BOOK REVIEW: “Activism, Inc.” and the sin of ideals procrastinated

There’s never a good time to tell people about how their sausages are made, but Dana R. Fisher’s “Activism, Inc.” came out at just about the worst time possible for its message to be heard.

Part research, part hunchy anecdote, this short work is largely a post-mortem on the failures of paid, third-party canvassing operations, especially as connected to the Democratic Party and progressive Left that used them during the 2004 Presidential Election between John Kerry and George W. Bush.

Democrats relied on paid—but still highly intrinsically motivated—mostly young canvassers working out of temporary offices around the country to mobilize voters quickly. Meanwhile, Republicans tapped more permanent civic institutions for mobilizations, such as white evangelical churches.

For Democrats, Fisher concludes, “very few enduring connections remain at the local level after campaigns are concluded that can be used in the next campaign cycle”. Unlike volunteers, people who rely on wages to do election work can’t be expected to show up when the money isn’t there.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: “Activism, Inc.” and the sin of ideals procrastinated”