One thing I don't like to say in polite company is that I have a long-standing Richard Nixon addiction. This isn't to say I like him, mind you, but the combination of insecurity, criminal inclination, indecision, aggressiveness, political acumen, intelligence and many other seemingly contradictory characteristics are fascinating. Back in 1994 I sucked down Fred Emery's book on Watergate, and watched the excellent documentary that was linked to it.
I hadn't had much time for it in recent years--remission, you might call it--but on a recent trip I rented Frost/Nixon, which I had not seen before, and subsequently I bought the book of the same name that David Frost wrote about his interviews. More than anything, it is illustrative of how Nixon convinced himself that he was always in the right, and could do anything he wanted as a result. That culminated in the famous quote, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." Criminality simply melts away in his mind.
There is a chapter dedicated to a transcript of the interview that focused on Chile. It underlines the fact that a) his knowledge of Chilean politics was sketchy; b) he didn't think knowledge of Chilean politics was particularly important; and c) all that mattered was that there was a government friendly to the U.S. Frost accurately pushed back, but Nixon just didn't care, and mostly wanted to emphasize that LBJ had acted against Allende too.
I enjoyed the movie, but it does divert from the book for dramatic purposes. In particular, the Jack Brennan of the movie, played as an authoritarian figure by Kevin Bacon, does not match the Brennan described in Frost's book. Nixon did ask Frost if he had "fornicated" recently, but the movie shows it as a way Nixon tried to throw Frost off, whereas Frost's own recollection was that Nixon clumsily wanted to be one of the boys, and had no idea how to do so. At the very least, if you liked the movie I would suggest taking a look at the book.
Reading more about Nixon these days is also a reminder that, bizarrely, he would likely be considered too liberal in many areas to win Republican primaries.(less)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Informers annoyed me at times. It sagged in the middle, but is beautifully written and engaging enough to continue on. The plot centers on Colombia during and just after World War II, as Germans (both Jews and Nazis) arrived and sought refuge. The main character Gabriel Santoro published a book on the topic, based on the story of a family friend. His father, a famous professor of rhetoric, trashed the book publicly, and the novel is about Gabriel gradually understanding why.
Colombia had U.S.-provided blacklists for Nazi sympathizers, which is critical to the story. One family in particular was informed on, and the father's career--and life--destroyed. The overarching theme is that we choose to say some things and keep other things hidden, and that words (or the absence of them) have tremendous and sometimes terrible consequences--imprisonment, murder, suicide. That sounds banal, but Vásquez is very good at avoiding cliches, and weaving it into the extreme violence of Colombian political history (Jorge Eliécer Gaitán is a recurring reference). Gabriel constantly has to face a question from many different people: "You oblige people to know what they might not want to know. Why?" (p. 275). He has no good answer.
The last part of the book is worth getting to, as the characters try to make sense of why some people choose to say some things and refuse to say others.(less)
Some good food for thought, but no structure. In particular, she does not address how to identify "bad" history, or whether indeed everyone is guilty...moreSome good food for thought, but no structure. In particular, she does not address how to identify "bad" history, or whether indeed everyone is guilty of it.(less)
Started a bit slow, but was fun reading when it got going. It can strain credulity, but for me didn't break it, which might have been why I enjoyed it...moreStarted a bit slow, but was fun reading when it got going. It can strain credulity, but for me didn't break it, which might have been why I enjoyed it.(less)
Not surprisingly, novels about academia tend to center on English departments. I know political scientists are boring, but are English departments really so wild? I read Lynn Miller's Death of a Department Chair and wondered that again. There is a ton of sexual intrigue and lesbian jealousy that permeates the entire department and even its job searches. There is infighting and it is ridiculously intense.
For that reason, I spent much of my time happy I did not work in such a place where so many people disliked each other so much (it is UT Austin, with barely any attempt to disguise it). I didn't really get into the mystery part of it much, figuring that virtually any of them could be guilty and I'd be perfectly happy no matter what insecure faculty member it might be. The department chair was killed in the midst of a department debate about who to hire, and the narrative dives not only into sexuality but also into race.
All I'm saying is that I am a department chair and so I hope our searches don't end up with me dead and stripped naked at my desk.(less)
I like Thomas Walker and Christine Wade's Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle, 5th Edition (2011). It is clearly sympathetic to the revolution, but takes pains to remain even handed. That means having no illusions, for example, about the political direction Daniel Ortega has been taking while also praising successful policies he implemented in the 1980s. I highly recommend it as an excellent political history. I would be tempted to use it in a class, but I don't tend to go that far in depth in a country study to merit an entire book.
The first half of the book is historical chronology, and the second half is separated by different issues: economic, cultural, political, and international. Nicaragua has a fascinating history, and the writing is very good. Who can resist sentences like the following?
On September 20, a young poet named Rigoberto López Pérez infiltrated a reception honoring the dictator and pumped five bullets point-blank into Somoza's corpulent hulk (p. 28).
My only complaint, and a relatively minor one, is that the facts can really stand for themselves in Nicaragua so there were far too many uses of the words "alleged" and "apparently," usually referring to some nefarious connection to the United States. But there were so many such nefarious connections that including rumors weakens the overall argument.
I agree with their assessment of Ortega: "The Ortega government was both openly defiant and curiously submissive to the demands of its old enemy" (p. 213). The more things change, the more they stay the same. (less)
Imre Kertész is a Hungarian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, for his fiction on the Holocaust. However, he also wrote a book about Latin America, Detective Story, that was originally published in 1977 but translated into English in 2008. It is narrated by Antonio Martens, a police detective who became involved in torture in an unnamed Latin American dictatorship and now in the postauthoritarian period is on trial for murder. He was on the trail of Enrique Salinas, the son of a department store magnate, who the police believe has joined the opposition.
The essence of the novel is Martens' totally clinical and hard boiled tone. He narrates like a Raymond Chandler character, uninterested in others' pain (while complaining about his own headaches).
It's nasty work, I can tell you, but it's part of the job. We take away the offender's mind, shred his nerves, paralyze his brain, rifle through pocket and even his innards. We slam him into a chair, draw the curtains, light a lamp--in short, we go by the book. We didn't make any effort to surprise the offender with some original twist. Everything happened the way those ham-handed films would have prepared him for; everything happened the way he would expect (p. 83).
Martens never wants to mention the violence itself. Torture simply occurs, because that's the way it is, but he doesn't want to talk about blood or pain very much.
I won't spoil the ending, which has a twist, but suffice it to say the novel also examines what makes people seem guilty to paranoid and dictatorial authorities even when they have done nothing. The police start going after people, while torture and death pile up almost of their own accord.
I grasped that we had now cast away everything that bound us to the laws of man; I grasped that we could no longer place our trust in anyone except ourselves. Oh, and in destiny, in that insatiable, greedy, and eternally hungry mechanism (p. 103).(less)
Very good investigative journalism, examining the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. Provides a lot of insight into the obstacles to the rule of l...moreVery good investigative journalism, examining the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. Provides a lot of insight into the obstacles to the rule of law in Guatemala. The only drawback is that it can be hard to follow, given how many people are involved.(less)
David Mares' Latin America and the Illusion of Peace (2012) makes the case that although Latin America is often touted as more free of interstate war than any other region, there are a host of militarized disputes that are serious but fall short of war. He details a number of them, such as Venezuela-Colombia, Ecuador-Colombia, Nicaragua-Costa Rica, Bolivia-Chile, and UK-Argentina.
What would be great is a model to go along with the narrative. He discusses the likelihood of militarization in a number of interesting cases, what works as deterrence, and how they might likely be resolved, but doesn't quite put together a model to explain all of them. I would love to see all the variables assembled together outside the cases.
Nonetheless, the book serves as a good reminder about how conflict short of war is quite prevalent. He counts 21 unresolved interstate disputes in Latin America, any of which could escalate. Militaries are not commonly used for territorial acquisition, but they are used as threats to enhance bargaining positions.(less)
The first half went in fits and starts, but the second was really good. The different chapters are assembled in a way that allows for complexity but a...moreThe first half went in fits and starts, but the second was really good. The different chapters are assembled in a way that allows for complexity but also for coherence.(less)
I read Kristina Mani's Democratization and Military Transformation in Argentina and Chile (2011) to review for Perspectives on Politics. That review will be much longer than this one. The journal requests (orders?) that submitting my review confirms that it "has not appeared nor will appear elsewhere in published form." I hit "publish" when I blog but I don't tend to think of this as really publishing. I also don't think that readers of the journal will glaze over when it comes to them because they've already read this review on my blog. That is especially the case because I am about to send it to the editor but it will not appear in print for some time.
But I digress.
It's a worthwhile book that succeeds quite well in creating a framework to understand the rivalry between Argentina and Chile by connecting domestic and foreign policies. And although I have some quibbles about how it can apply more broadly in the region, it is thought provoking in that regard, which I appreciate (and I tried to make sure they were quibbles rather than complaints that she hadn't written the book I would want, which is painfully common in reviews). Two key paragraphs from my review:
Mani’s tracing of the intricate process of confidence building is excellent. Given how harmonious relations are now, it is perhaps too easy to forget that 35 years ago Argentina and Chile came very close to war, after decades of distrust and disagreement over South Atlantic boundaries. Armed conflict was averted only after international mediation, most notably from the Vatican. After the end of military rule, civilian leaders saw international military cooperation as an integral component of an overall strategy of democratizing civil-military relations. Democratically elected presidents therefore pushed hard to make internationalism a reality. Mani carefully traces the decision-making process in each country as newly elected leaders dealt simultaneously with potential international conflict and domestic resistance.
And on broader applicability:
Mani very briefly contrasts the Chile-Argentina success with the continued controversies Chile has with Bolivia and Peru. In Bolivia and Peru, we might reasonably argue there are empowered veto players (a high level of nationalism) and low regime costs (the authoritarian era is far in the past) yet both governments are increasingly resorting to the International Court of Justice for disputes with Chile, which implies “impulsive internationalism” rather than a “impulsive statist-nationalist” strategy. What this might suggest is that the “regime cost” variable may not be as relevant as time goes on. The Bolivian military left power in 1982 and although the era of dictatorship was traumatic, by now there is no real fear of regression. However, Mani’s model argues that low regime costs should correlate with a statist-nationalist response.
If you study civil-military relations or international security in Latin America, you should check it out. I hope First Forum Press (part of Lynne Rienner) publishes a paperback version to make it more accessible. Otherwise you will have to go to a university library or shell out $55. Such is academic publishing at times. (less)
I read Nora Gaskin's Until Proven: A Mystery in Two Parts because it was a murder mystery set in the fictional town of Piedmont, North Carolina. It is Chapel Hill, really, though I must say I didn't think of Chapel Hill much as I read it, perhaps because my experience was all about graduate school and the novel only just barely touches on its fictional university (though academia does make an important cameo in an unflattering way!).
I liked this book, and would recommend it with one caveat. First the good stuff. As the title notes, it has two parts: one set in 1963 and one in 2003. Both involve the murder of a young woman, albeit in different circumstances, but both with racial implications (and, in fact, homosexuality in the first part). What I particularly like is how she deals with race. She evokes not only the civil rights movement and all the prejudices that went along with it, but also how what we might consider sympathetic whites used race to their advantage when it came to protecting themselves in a court case. There is a lot of nuance there. It is a really good story about the south in that sense.
My caveat is the murder mystery part. Read it as fiction rather than as mystery because that part isn't so satisfying. There are two murders. Without spoiling much, one is unsolved and one is solved but without so much mystery. I may well be a prisoner of the genre, but I kept waiting for the unsolved one to be solved (and a key character of that earlier part of the novel never reappears). (less)
Very nice depiction of the mafia's influence in Cuba just before the revolution, but except for a few parts the novel drags without a clear plot. The...moreVery nice depiction of the mafia's influence in Cuba just before the revolution, but except for a few parts the novel drags without a clear plot. The end was also unsatisfactory, and left me wondering what the author's point was.(less)
First rate mystery with great characters and a complex but fast moving plot. The combination of current (well, late 1980s as "present") and flashback...moreFirst rate mystery with great characters and a complex but fast moving plot. The combination of current (well, late 1980s as "present") and flashback into 1953 worked really well.(less)
I read and really enjoyed Helen Marrow’s New Destination Dreaming. An anthropologist, Marrow conducted comparative research with a “context of reception” approach. To that end she examines the specific characteristics of two counties in eastern North Carolina, selected for variation. One exhibits characteristics of the new rural South (with rapidly growing immigrant populations) while the other is the old rural South (with relatively little migration and a majority of African Americans). She labels them pseudonymously as Bedford and Wilcox.
Her conclusions are more optimistic than most of the literature, and focus on assimilation, race relations, and the political and institutional responsiveness to immigrants. Her argument about rural assimilation is particularly interesting. Unlike their urban counterparts, rural areas are more working class, and so recent migrants find it easier to achieve some measure of satisfaction about upward mobility. In other words, their low wage employment is stable and not too far beneath the rest of the population. Plus, jobs like poultry processing are stigmatized by many, so there are more opportunities for internal upward mobility. Still, she tempers this relatively rosy picture with a nuanced analysis of the cross-cutting differences between different Hispanic populations, which include citizenship status, country of origin, affluence, and even gender. All of these strongly affect who can move up more easily and rapidly. Further, there is more upward mobility in poultry processing than in textiles (an industry that has been shrinking for well over a decade) so the structure of the receiving community can lead to significant variation.
She also does a nice job of contextualizing the rural experience of migrants, which vary not only by the receiving context, but also by the background of the migrants themselves. In particular, migrant perceptions are colored by their own urban or rural origins. More specifically, people from Latin American cities tend not to like rural North Carolina, while those from rural Latin America have a much more positive view. For me, it raised a question about whether such a response would be common for much of the urban South as well. Some interviewees compared rural North Carolina unfavorably to Chicago or Miami, but most southern cities (such as Charlotte or Raleigh) are smaller and more sprawling than those larger counterparts.
Her conclusions about race relations are more sobering, but reveal less hostility than is commonly assumed. Marrow notes a larger gap between Hispanics and Blacks than between Hispanics and Whites, with a growing sense of a black-nonblack color line. This is particularly pronounced in the minority African American county she studied versus the majority counterpart. When in the minority, African Americans perceived a political and economic threat more acutely.
With regard to political representation, newly arrived migrants—especially those who do not speak English well—face daunting challenges. Marrow argues that elected officials have shown relatively little interest in reaching out to the Hispanic population or addressing it needs, but that public bureaucracies have done so. Since relatively few Latinos are eligible to vote, they are of less interest to politicians, but many individuals in bureaucracies view their own role as service-giving, and so often reach out to the immigrant population, even to the point of bending rules (it should come as no surprise to anyone that DMV officials were the least likely to be helpful!). This contradicts political science literature, which would expect bureaucracies to follow political dictates. That highlights the usefulness of a multi-disciplinary approach for understanding Latino immigration to the United States. Nonetheless, as more restrictive laws were passed, state and local employees found it increasingly risky to do so, thus negating some of the more positive effects.
Notwithstanding the shrill media attention to restrictionist legislation being pursued at the state level in the South (as well as elsewhere, most famously Arizona) research like Marrow’s is pointing to more positive outcomes. There is more work to be done to better understand why, but also to determine whether it is something that changes much—for better or worse—over time. In sum, the book provides much food for thought as we try to understand the “Nuevo New South.” As such, this and other works can provide a foundation for more comparative research on the political, economic, geographic, racial, and cultural impacts of Latino immigration to the South.(less)
Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008) has been very widely reviewed (there was a good review in the NYT). I...moreAndrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008) has been very widely reviewed (there was a good review in the NYT). I found it a thought-provoking jumble, a book that is perhaps most interesting for the discussions that can ensue from examining its virtues and shortcomings together.
The book's primary virtue is its hard-hitting examination of failure, combined with the utter refusal in the U.S. to accept failures as such. Americans want more and more, and are willing to allow their government to do anything that perpetuates accumulation. They are even willing to accept decreased freedom in the name of freedom. As long as we get more, we don't care.
I enjoyed the first half of the book more, as he explained these problems. The second half wandered, from dislike of Douglas Feith, criticism of high-ranking generals, discussion of the all-volunteer army, etc. He periodically tosses in policy prescriptions, but some (like environmental issues) suddenly appear without clear connection to his overall argument.
The most serious shortcoming is that it is ahistorical. For Bacevich, U.S. foreign policy begins with James Forrestal. Interestingly, he makes brief (and accurate) reference to U.S. policy in Central America in the 1920s as a model for our nation-building wars (p. 135). But he never elaborates, which is unfortunate because a more detailed look would bring out the failures of democracy that ensued, the resentment that built, and the continuity that those Central American occupations represented. Brian Loveman has a forthcoming book, No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776, that delves deeply into that continuity. This isn't new to the post-War II era, or even the post-9/11 era. American exceptionalism, preventive war, and "democracy promotion" have always been there.
As a result, we help create many of our own problems. That has certainly been the case in Central America, where our occupation of Nicaragua in the early twentieth century can only be called disastrous, both for the security of the U.S. and for the Nicaraguan people. It was unnecessary and poorly conceived. We want to bend the will of the world, or even of a region, and very often we just make things worse. That's the book's most important (and pressing) message. Read more... (less)
It is very hard to say something new or original about U.S.-Mexican relations (as is the case with U.S.-Cuban relations). Books and articles are churned out at a rapid pace, all with variations on a "we're partners and need each other whether we like it or not" theme, with a laundry list of things to do. What Shannon O'Neil does in Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead (2013) is to carve a niche she had been showing on her blog and elsewhere. Her take looks primarily at the way in which Mexico is perceived in the United States.
Basically, she argues that Mexico is ascending, but that too few in the United States recognize this. Instead, they are stuck on the idea of a backwards country on the road to nowhere. Instead, there is a strong economy and growing middle class, a persistent expansion of democracy, and a highly cosmopolitan population. She makes this argument through a narrative that takes care not to exaggerate claims (and places drug-related violence in perspective). It takes the reader through economic reforms, the fall of the PRI, and the cracking of soft authoritarianism, all of which make Mexico a very different place than it was just a short time ago.
The policy prescriptions that flow from the narrative aren't really new, but those aren't really the point of the book. Instead, the idea is that the relationship can't move forward productively until false images are dispelled. Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans don't know Mexico much at all. And I would wager that many think they understand Mexico when in fact they don't.
Toward the end she mentions a trip she took with House and Senate staffers to Mexico City, and how they expressed surprise at how nice the city was, even more impressive than the places they came from. Getting over that hurdle, she argues, will help policy a lot. This makes sense, as the pervasive popular image is a Mexico of dirt streets and ragged children. They do exist, but more and more Mexicans are equally educated and prosperous as their northern counterparts.
I've cautioned before about overly optimistic views of the middle class in Latin America. Aside from measurement questions, aggregate figures can obscure the number of people who are on the brink of falling back. But O'Neil provides plenty of evidence for her glass-half-full perspective perspective. In the end, the book plus a trip to Mexico would be a good thing for most members of Congress and their staffers. (less)
I read Francisco Toro and Juan Cristobal Nagel's Blogging the Revolution, a book comprised of posts from their very well-known opposition Caracas Chronicles blog*. They started the blog in 2002 so there was plenty of material to choose from.
It's an odd exercise to review a book that is a collection of posts (jumping around chronologically), though certain patterns do show themselves in place of the kind of central argument you'd find in a conventional book. It's a good read, rich with detail (their interpretation of the coup events is an especially interesting read) and sometimes also with snark. Here are some themes I found in this not-exactly-book-blog-book:
First, Hugo Chávez's political use of oil revenue represents strong continuity with the past, even if the recipients are different. One of the nice things about the blog is the keen sense of history. Toro and Nagel really dislike Chávez, but they don't sugarcoat the past. You read about historians, novels, and all sorts of people the authors interview, both formally and informally. Even if you disagree with the posts, they are generally very thoughtful. The authors also don't tend to offer much hope that the opposition would do any better if it took power. They periodically come back to the question of how Venezuela can break out of it.
Second, past leaders were corrupt, but Chávez takes it to a new level. The corruption is supported by many anecdotes, though with less of the historical comparison (how much did the dominant parties shake people down for political support or money in the past?). From the neighborhood level to the top echelons of government, corruption abounds. Demonstrating that it is worse, however, doesn't always come out. Could it be that corruption also represents continuity?
Third, the country is moving toward authoritarianism. This tends to veer around, and the lack of chronological order of the posts exacerbates it. There are discussions about how totalitarianism is a totally inappropriate term, then later "we really do have all the characteristics of leftist totalitarian communications here" (electronic page 142). But there is a lot of interesting discussion about the disjuncture between the precise wording of the Venezuelan constitution and the way politics actually works.
I like the idea of taking a blog and trying to contextualize it. If a few people write for years, they do develop certain ideas and themes that persist, and they help orient unfamiliar readers. If the blog is, and this one is, then it's worth the read.
* FWIW, I was given an ebook version for free.(less)
I read Peter Bryant's 1958 novel Red Alert, which was the inspiration for the movie Dr. Strangelove. The two diverge in very significant ways that ultimately highlight Stanley Kubrick's creative talents, not to mention Peter Sellers'. The novel is earnest and dead serious. A rogue general (the novel's Quentin becomes Jack D. Ripper in the movie) decides the only way to save the world is to destroy the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, even though that means killing millions of people. He uses a top secret plan that tells bombers to attack, then puts his base on lockdown so that no one can recall them.
What Kubrick saw was that the story was so serious, crazy, and yet ultimately rather believable that the narrative deserved to have a mocking tone. Dr. Strangelove is not in the novel, nor are there references to "precious bodily fluids," or George C. Scott's goofy gum chomping general, or the Colonel Bat Guano's constant references to commie "preverts." The novel, in fact, does not have the Doomsday Machine either. Instead, there is the very human drama of a U.S. president agreeing to allow the destruction of a U.S. city (Atlantic City) if a Soviet city were hit first. It shows some optimism about how human beings can work together, whereas the Doomsday Machine is out of any human hands.
The most important difference between the two is that the serious work had a happy ending and the farcical work ended with the destruction of the planet.
Anyway, if you haven't seen Dr. Strangelove, or haven't seen it recently, check it out again, as I did. There's always something new to find in it. (less)