Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
8 contributors to The Progressive share their favorite reads of 2015.
Ever since Dr. Ben Carson demonstrated that the ability to separate Siamese twins is a qualification for the presidency, I see helpful pairings everywhere.
I happened to read Paul Beatty’s scathing satiric novel The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) shortly before I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s must-read 2008 memoir Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (Spiegel and Grau). Both are about urban life, the civil rights era, and a father-son relationship. In The Sellout, set in a lost neighborhood of Los Angeles, the narrator teams up with a local legend, Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, to avenge his father’s death in a police shootout. They attempt to reinstitute slavery and resegregate a local high school and end up before the Supreme Court. The outrageous satire gave eerie complementarity to Coates’s memoir.
Coates’s 2015 book, Between the World and Me, is a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award finalist. Written as a series of letters to his own teenaged son, it chronicles Coates’s life, from his childhood in urban Baltimore to Howard University to his life as one of America’s most influential writers on race in The Atlantic and other publications. Coates gives context to the violence against black people in Ferguson and South Carolina, explaining the history and context of racism in America.
I have not yet seen the Broadway hip-hop musical based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, about a son of the Caribbean, born in British Nevis and raised in Danish St. Croix, who became one of the founding fathers of the United States. Rosamond S. King’s Island Bodies: Transgressive Sexualities in the Caribbean Imagination (University Press of Florida, 2014) provides contemporary analysis of the history of sexualities, violence, language, and repression in the Caribbean culture. I anticipate that King’s book will enrich my experience of Hamilton, if I ever get tickets.
The horrifying New York Times article “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape” prompted me to read Karen Armstrong’s 2002 work Islam: A Short History (Modern Library). But on the way to that book, in my own Pauline moment, I was miraculously sidetracked by her 2005 memoir, The Spiral Staircase (HarperCollins). If your busy secular life precludes deep reading, just spend time in her exultant final chapter. I plan to spend the winter homeschooling myself in comparative religions by binge-reading Karen Armstrong.
Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (Anchor), out in paperback this year, challenges the idea that religious differences must necessarily lead to bloodshed. She digs deep into the history of the world’s major religious traditions, and finds hope for peace.
Kate Clinton is a humorist who writes every other month for The Progressive.
Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story (Simon & Schuster) is David Maraniss’s love letter to his hometown.
I had the pleasure of listening to Maraniss describe how he got the idea for the book at a Progressive fundraiser earlier this year, and he includes this charming story in an author’s note.
He was in a bar in Manhattan, watching the Packers in the 2011 Super Bowl. (Maraniss, a Packers fan and Wisconsin resident, wrote the fantastic biography of the late Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered.) During a break in the game, he was suddenly captivated by a commercial that featured his birthplace.
“A series of images flashed by in rhythm to a pulsing soundtrack. Wintry landscape. Smokestacks. Abandoned factories. World-class architecture,” Maraniss writes. Then the singer Eminem stepped from the black, leather interior of a Chrysler sedan and walked into Detroit’s legendary Fox Theater, “down the aisle toward a black gospel choir, robed in red and black, their voices rising high and hopeful in the darkness from the floodlit stage. Then silence, and Eminem pointing at the camera: This is the Motor City. This is what we do.”
Maraniss stood fixated, and choked up. Then, he says, his wife punched him in the arm. You idiot, she told him, you’re crying over a car commercial.
Of course, what captured Maraniss was so much more. The story of Detroit, he points out, is the story of America. “The automobile, music, labor, civil rights, the middle class.” It is an inspiring story, and a story of terrible loss. “Life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable,” Maraniss writes.
The period he covers, when Detroit was at its zenith, tracks the rise of the auto industry, the UAW, Motown, American manufacturing and the black middle class, with loving attention to detail.
What does it mean for all of us—especially those of us who live in the Midwest, to live through the collapse of manufacturing, labor, and a large part of the enormously creative and definingly American black middle class? Global trade, rightwing union-busting, and a terribly insecure, increasingly unequal economy make this portrait of a bygone era particularly poignant. Remembering that Detroit is to remember how labor, civil rights, and organized working people made America what it is.
In Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (Knopf), Robert Reich looks into the future, at our post-industrial political economy.
He begins his book by dispatching the false idea of a “free market,” and explains how our political system sets the rules for the market. The vast majority of Americans need to rewrite those rules, he argues, to stop a growing American aristocracy from sucking up all of the resources in our country and turning us into a feudal state.
Reich’s optimism that we can and will rewrite those rules buoys me, along with a whole lot of other people who are big fans of Reich’s. May his bold, progressive vision help create another golden era in America—moving us past nostalgia and toward a more just society, in our lifetime.
Ruth Conniff is the editor-in-chief of The Progressive.
In his essay in the collection Why Crime Rates Fall and Why They Don’t (University of Chicago), editor Michael Tonry, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law, writes, “Almost no one except a handful of academic specialists seems to have noticed that crime rates are falling throughout the Western World. That is curious. It should be seen everywhere as good news. Fewer people are victimized. Fewer are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and punished. Hospital emergency rooms handle fewer intentional injuries. Insurance companies compensate fewer losses. Politicians have less incentive to propose and policymakers to adopt severe policies aimed at pleasing, placating, or pacifying an anxious public.”
Tonry notes, “No one has a really good explanation for why crime rates are falling.” This book explores some prevalent theories. One comes originally from Norbert Elias, who posited a “civilizing process” beginning in the European Middle Ages. As Tonry’s essay in this volume demonstrates, the drop in the homicide rate over the centuries has been large—from twenty to one hundred per 100,000 in the late Middle Ages to one in 100,000 by the first decades of the twentieth century.
And the uptick in crime from the late 1960s through the early 1990s that led to stark tough-on-crime policies in the United States occurred across other Western countries, as well. Tonry writes that the source for the crime rise during this period appears to be the breakdown and reconstruction in social structures, including decolonization, the Vietnam War, the youth rebellion, political and civil rights movements, enormous economic changes, globalization, and other forces. As he puts it, “In retrospect, it was all too much to be absorbed in a short time. As Chinua Achebe described colonial Nigeria, Things Fall Apart (1958). Crime rates rose as did support in many countries for neoliberal and xenophobic political movements. That harsh crime policies emerged in some countries is not surprising.”
But in the 1990s, Tonry writes, the civilizing process reasserted itself and has been dominant again across the Western world since then.
This important volume uses numbers to explore the meanings of, and reasons for, these long-term trends. One comparative study looks at behavior across cultures, strongly linking increasing self-control to the drop in homicides. Another looks at the effect of inflation on crime rates. A third suggests that better security, such as car-protection systems, is leading to less crime overall because many criminals get their start with property theft. The drop in the murder rate, one article shows, is linked to decreases in poverty and urbanization, as well as the aging of the population—with more older people monitoring the activities of younger ones. A cross-cultural comparison considers countries where the murder rate is not dropping (such as some Latin American and Caribbean countries); this study finds lethal violence linked to economic and political structures.
What’s striking in all of these explanations is how little they have to do with police and prisons and how much they have to do with societal trends. As Tonry notes, the stark drop in the crime rate across the Western world is occurring independently of numbers in prison and shifts in policing methods. What has changed, rather, is personal behavior and cultural mores. Over time, Western countries are learning to be less violent. This is an academic book, but an accessible and valuable one.
Anne-Marie Cusac is an associate professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and the author of Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (Yale University Press, 2009).
Being billed as “The Smartest Man in the World” carries a heavy responsibility. As evidenced by his widely and wildly successful podcast of the same name, comedian and Whose Line Is It Anyway stalwart Greg Proops stands effortlessly undaunted. The man can bring it, as he proves in his first tome, The Smartest Book in the World: A Lexicon of Literacy, A Rancorous Reportage, A Concise Curriculum of Cool (Simon & Schuster). If you’re a fan of take-no-prisoners humor, be prepared to chortle, snicker, snort, giggle, guffaw, and howl.
In Glen Merzer’s novel Off the Reservation (Vivid Thoughts Press), Indiana Congressman Evan Gorgoni collapses in a parking lot, and an epiphany compels him to get the hell out of Washington. He goes on Meet the Press to explain in blunt and unvarnished detail the reasons for his departure. The eight-term Democrat is amazed to hear from one of his precocious daughters that he has become an Internet sensation and eventually allows himself to be drafted into a presidential run. That’s when this keen, whimsical novel really takes off, as Merzer guides us through a sardonic roller-coaster ride of a campaign seen through the eyes of a truth-telling vegan idealist who makes Bernie Sanders look positively plastic. And there are recipes.
There was an old joke circulating the baseball community around 2010, that you could tell winter was over when pitchers and Molinas reported to spring training. Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty (Simon & Schuster), by Bengie Molina with Joan Ryan, relates the story of how three brothers, Yadier, José, and Benjamin, rose from poverty in a small Puerto Rican town to become Major League catchers who played in eight different World Series. It’s a family story of how the father, Pai Molina, who many claim was a better ballplayer than any of his boys, guided them through various pitfalls into the ranks of sporting royalty. The word heartwarming springs to mind.
Will Durst is an award-winning, nationally acclaimed comic. Go to willdurst.com for info about his new one-man show BoomeRaging: From LSD to OMG.
One of America’s best writers, Jon Krakauer, came out with one of the year’s most distressing books, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (Doubleday). It recounts a series of “date rape” sexual assaults involving members of the University of Montana football team, and the official response—sometimes noble, often deplorable. Krakauer documents the shocking frequency of these crimes, and the callousness of those who commit them. (One frat boy boasts of plying “our techniques” to incapacitate unsuspecting young women with alcohol, then having sex with them, all without a sliver of awareness that this is rape.) And he offers a withering assessment of a justice system that at times seems more sympathetic to perpetrators than victims. But mostly, he tells the story of these women, wounded but courageous, and ultimately triumphant over the adversity they have been forced to endure.
Scott Carney, a writer I’ve had the good fortune to edit, has an insightful book about the pursuit of spirituality, A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment (Gotham Books). Like Carney’s first book, The Red Market, about organ trafficking, his new work is essentially an investigation. The subject of his inquiry: How, in 2012, a Buddhist acolyte named Ian Thorson ended up dead at age thirty-eight from dysentery and dehydration in a remote part of Arizona. Carney uses the case to examine both the appeal and the danger of the quest for transcendence. In a world where much evil, and some good, is driven by religious belief, we need all the enlightenment we can get.
Patti Smith begins her new book, M Train (Knopf), with a nod to “writing about nothing.” It’s actually about everything. Smith tells stories about her life and pursuits, apart from her rock-goddess status. There are quiet moments in coffeeshops and remembered feelings, often those prompted by other books. This is not as focused a work as Just Kids, for which Smith won a National Book Award, but it is heartfelt and seductive. “I have always hated loose ends,” she writes at one point, describing how even insignificant unresolved issues in movies and literature leave her unsettled, “going back and forth and looking for clues” to resolve her curiosity. M Train leaves Smith’s life story with fewer loose ends.
My reading list this year was heavy on books about nature, and the role of humankind in relation to the planet. I’m especially fond of ruminations on my own state and region, which this year saw a lovely addition: Whispers and Shadows: A Naturalist’s Memoir (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), by Wisconsin writer Jerry Apps. It recalls a lifetime of noticing, and being rejuvenated by, the world we are so busily degrading. At one point, Apps writes, “My father taught me that land is something that can be loved, must be respected and revered and ultimately is in short supply,” adding, “He never used any of those words . . . ” Of course not.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive and the author of Cry Rape: The True Story of One Woman’s Harrowing Quest for Justice (University of Wisconsin Press).
When the real history of the post-World War II era in the United States is written, it will be recorded that Ralph Nader contributed substantially more to the health and welfare of the United States than a number of Presidents. Today, Nader is more than an “elder statesman”; he is our steadiest advocate for a set of values and ideals that are deeply rooted in the American experiment. Yet Nader does not speak with the lofty rhetoric of one who has disengaged from the struggle. He is idealistic, yet he is also specific—wading into the fights of the moment and offering proposals that ought to be considered. Unfortunately, much of the media and most of the political class neglect Nader, as he reveals in a remarkable 2015 book, Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015 (Seven Stories).
The dozens of letters contained in this book run through the issues and challenges faced by the United States during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and it is chilling to read them individually. On issues of war and peace, inequality, corporate abuses, and human needs, they are not just thoughtful and often visionary—they form the outlines of an alternative history where we might have gotten things right.
Read as a whole, however, Return to Sender is something more. It is a powerful and necessary indictment of what Nader refers to as “the disturbing trend of nonresponsive and discourtesy to citizens extends to many cabinet secretaries and agency heads.” Nader is right when he argues that this “indifference” represents “the degradation of an elementary relationship between the citizens and their elected officials and those agency heads appointed by those elected officials.”
Every 2016 presidential candidate should be asked when they will read and respond to Ralph Nader’s letters—and to those of other citizen advocates. And every 2016 presidential candidate should, along with the rest of us, read a couple of other books that came out in 2015 and explain the vital issues of our times.
Caroline Fredrickson’s Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over (The New Press) reveals the continuing cost to society of the sexism, racism, and classism that continue to tip the balance against working women. The president of the American Constitution Society makes the necessary case for a radical rethink and response to “the labor and employment laws (that) leave out so many women.”
Equally necessary is Erik Loomis’s Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe (The New Press), which details the how corporations avoid transparency and accountability by moving jobs overseas, subcontracting responsibilities, and lying and cheating. It is a detailed and devastating critique by a brilliant historian, which Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown correctly identifies as a prescription for “how activists can take back our country—for workers and those who care about the health of the planet.”
John Nichols is the Washington correspondent of The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. A new edition of his book The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism comes out this fall from Verso.
The very act of being an immigrant is not easy. From the family members left behind to the regular reminders that you don’t completely “fit in,” there are layers of complications that an average native-born person doesn’t have to cope with. Two books from the past year reveal to us the many facets of the lives of immigrants.
Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History (Simon & Schuster) is a magisterially sweeping chronicle that starts with the earliest Asian immigrants to the New World (sixteenth century Filipino sailors) and concludes with recent Asian American activism. In between these bookends are the myriad heartbreaks and triumphs that this community has dealt with in the past many centuries.
But The Making of Asian America is not just a historical saga. Lee also has interesting social insights. A particularly incisive observation is about how Asian Americans are redefining the very meanings of nationhood and citizenship.
“Contemporary Asian Americans are creating new, multilayered identities,” she writes. “They are simultaneously racial minorities within nations, transnational immigrants who engage in two or more homelands, and diasporic citizens making connections across borders.”
Muslim Americans form a unique group of recent immigrants to the United States because of the special scrutiny and treatment they have received. Moustafa Bayoumi gives them a voice in This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror (NYU Press). (Full disclosure: Bayoumi is a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and The Progressive and has graciously thanked me in his book, as well as having blurbed mine a few years ago.)
Bayoumi structures his book as a series of essays organized into four sections, riffing on a range of subjects from Muslim American history to his experience working as an extra on Sex and the City. Looming over the book is the impact of America’s never-ending war. “The War on Terror culture is obsessed with exploiting fear and with shaping the realms of politics, the law, and representation in its own image, and it feeds on the dubious and paranoid logic of scapegoating others,” he writes. His words ring truer today than ever with a number of GOP presidential contenders outdoing each other in their Islamophobia.
Immigrant life in the United States presents distinct challenges. The Making of Asian America and This Muslim American Life help all of us comprehend them.
Amitabh Pal, author of “Islam” Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today, is the managing editor of The Progressive.
The two books that captured me in 2015 on the surface could not be more different. One was a memoir about escaping poverty and injustice that made me cry. The other was a book about poverty and injustice that made me laugh.
The Education of Kevin Powell (Simon & Schuster), written by the bestselling author and journalist, tore my heart out. Powell spends the first half of the book describing his childhood in Jersey City. The rats. The roaches. The violence. And the sadness of being raised by a single mother more likely to administer a beating than a hug. The second half speaks about the utterly undercovered heyday of hip-hop activism in the late 1980s. Powell’s book is so searing because he is honest about the scars that, even with success, never heal.
The second book covers similar ground but the only tears produced were squeezed out when I was laughing. It is called Socialism … Seriously (Haymarket Books), by leftwing comedian Danny Katch. As discussions about what socialism means have exploded with the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, here is a read that goes through what “the S word” means laced with rapier sharp jokes that skewer the worst excesses of our system. If you want to read a discussion of capitalism more likely to quote Homer Simpson than Adam Smith, this is for you. ω
Dave Zirin hosts the podcast Edge of Sports Radio and is the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.