I read Fernando López's The Feathers of the Condor: Transnational State Terrorism, Exiles, and Civilian Anticommunism in South America (2016) for reviI read Fernando López's The Feathers of the Condor: Transnational State Terrorism, Exiles, and Civilian Anticommunism in South America (2016) for review in Journal of Cold War Studies. Here's how I start the review:
As previously classified or hidden documents slowly reach the light of day, we’re starting to understand more about Operation Condor, which was a coordinated effort by South American dictatorships to exterminate their political opponents during the mid-1970s. Fernando López has written an exhaustively researched book that aims to provide a fresh perspective on the existing literature (especially the work of J. Patrice McSherry, who wrote the preface).
The book has three intertwined arguments. First, it was much more difficult for these countries to join forces than typically realized. Second, the role of civilians needs more attention. Third, the militaries intentionally overstated the threat posed by the Junta de Coordinación Revolucionaria, a regional effort to unite guerrilla forces. Instead, the primary goal of the endeavor was to attack their political opposite and disrupt their connections to transnational human rights organizations.
It can be a bit of a dense book at times, but it successfully broadens the discussion beyond just the dictatorships that formed Operation Condor and the assumption that naturally they should get along. It was not just a military operation but rather was deeply connected to the radical civilian right as well.
It was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (which I had not heard of) and at least right now doesn't seem available on Amazon US. That's unfortunate, because I think a lot of people could find it interesting but it's not so easy to find.
Book 4 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-book My Struggle deals with his late teenage years, as he leaves home and works as a teacher for a year in a remotBook 4 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-book My Struggle deals with his late teenage years, as he leaves home and works as a teacher for a year in a remote area of northern Norway, which he sees as an opportunity to get paid while spending his free time writing fiction. There are two intertwined themes: the disintegration of his father and his awkward efforts to become an adult, which means writing and women.
His father was clearly a terribly troubled person, who was mean to his children and left his wife, and who later started drinking (which made him maudlin and annoying) and remarried. Knausgaard tries to connect and eventually realizes it isn't possible.
In northern Norway he's an 18 year old teacher and worries about his future and sex (there's more on premature ejaculation than you will likely see anywhere else). As always, he captures angst so well, so even when you dislike him (which definitely happens, I think more so than the previous books) you feel what he's feeling. He is trying to find his identity and deal with intense emotions, and Knausgaard just lays it all out without editorializing. And as always, the honesty is breathtaking and a little scary.
Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts (2015) is a memoir that digs into the fluidity of gender, the experience of pregnancy and childbirth (which of course coMaggie Nelson's The Argonauts (2015) is a memoir that digs into the fluidity of gender, the experience of pregnancy and childbirth (which of course connects to gender, but not in the same way for everyone) and death. She is very smart and very funny, which makes it a thoughtful ride.
Part of the smart/funny combination is taking existing texts about gender and writing about how they do or don't fit her. I tire of the self-consciously multi-syllabic mashing language that I see in academia (e.g. "pharmacopornographic," from p. 111) but although she uses quotes from such texts, she is a good writer and goes easy on the jargon. Indeed, in the last part as she brings in her partner (whose gender fits no "standard" norms) whose mother is dying, and all that language dissipates completely.
This book made me think, and I read bits to my wife. The pregnancy parts (such as castor oil, which my wife also ingested in desperation with one pregnancy) led organically to the questions of gender roles and assumptions. Especially in this HB2 era, I highly recommend it. Gender is not so simple, not so obviously binary, but still so human.
Book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard's memoir (which is somehow fictional non-fiction) is exclusively about his early childhood, up until he is about 12-Book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard's memoir (which is somehow fictional non-fiction) is exclusively about his early childhood, up until he is about 12-13 years old. It started very slowly for me, and then gained steam.
The two main themes are grappling with his abusive father and dealing with early adolescence, which for him involved a lot of shame. Shame at how he cried easily, was weak physically, and was seen as effeminate. His father, who was cruel in many ways, also made him feel worse about all those things.
The real hook of this book is how well he makes you feel what he feels. I cringed more than once as I read, because he puts you inside his own mind and you know this encounter with a girl will turn out badly, or that his father is going to get enraged at what he's doing (such as losing a sock at the pool--as soon as it was clear the sock was gone, we all knew his father would go after him). It doesn't help that you know he eventually becomes a successful writer, gets married, has children, etc. When you're reliving puberty you don't think about that.
In all this his mother is a bit of an enigma. He is close to her, but she seems to lack empathy, and she does not seem to come to terms with how horrible her husband is to their children (perhaps that gets clarified in later books). Meanwhile, you get a clear sense of how much he loves his brother, to whom he always goes when he has problems, and who finally stands up to his father.
Patrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (2015) examines the intellectual struggle the U.S. and the Soviet UniPatrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (2015) examines the intellectual struggle the U.S. and the Soviet Union waged in Cold War Latin America. More importantly, it examines how the results were unpredictable. Many people associated with the organizations did not share the views of the funders, which found them difficult to control--local interests sometimes trumped the funders. It's a very good read.
The two big players were the Soviet-funded World Peace Council (WPC) and the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). These were, as Iber, points out, imperial projects. The people in the front organizations, however, did not feel that way. They felt, only occasionally correctly, that they were struggling on behalf of peace and liberty.
Yet all this did not mean they were "working for" the U.S. and the USSR. They were publishing and talking in ways they believed, which happened in some manner to overlap with these powerful countries. Yet sometimes they didn't overlap. This is the point that I think needs to be remembered the most. People are not necessarily just puppets, and during the Cold War many Latin Americans were trying to figure out how to get the money necessary to reach a wider audience. At the same time, if someone exposes your funding to be CIA or the Kremlin, then your credibility gets hit. That started to happen at the end of the 1960s for the CCF.
Oddly enough, the adamantly anti-Communist CCF helped encourage the Cuban revolution (with money from the CIA!) because it was anti-Batista, then of course grew disenchanted with it. Especially after the revolution, the CCF and WPC touched directly or indirectly a seemingly endless spiderweb of political and cultural organizations. In the midst of all this, the Cuban government launched its own cultural war (through the Casa de las Américas).
The cultural war in Cold War Latin America was a messy business, indeed so complicated ideologically that it led to the decline of intellectuals' influence in Latin America. Iber's book is a reminder not to assume that anyone ultimately gets what they want.
As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 2 (here is my review of book one), I kept thinking about how keeping things to ourselves is what holAs I read Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 2 (here is my review of book one), I kept thinking about how keeping things to ourselves is what holds civilization together. If we all said or wrote in the manner he has done, we'd all end up hating each other. Honesty is in fact not always the best policy. In large doses (like the 3,000+ pages he has written) it's even disconcerting
More so than in Book 1, Knausgaard writes in unsparing detail about the people closest to him, especially his wife Linda. It is hard to imagine a relationship holding together after such a public rendering of its most intimate and intense moments, dealing even with mental illness. We don't show these parts of ourselves to the world, and more importantly we don't expose those that we love. But Knausgaard needs to write, and so he does.
Yet the book is so fascinating precisely for these reasons. Periodically I saw myself in the narrative, sometimes laughing out loud (such as descriptions of dealing with very young children in public) but even when I couldn't really relate, I enjoyed the very deeply thought out way he describes his own feelings and actions.
It ends with him starting on book one (none of them are chronological). I'm now going to order book three. We'll see how far I go with all these.
I read Tom Long's Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (2015) which is worth your time (and which I hope gets a paperbacI read Tom Long's Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (2015) which is worth your time (and which I hope gets a paperback edition). His argument is that Latin American foreign policy initiatives have received too little attention, and that they've been strikingly successful in setting the political agenda and achieving policy goals. He uses detailed case studies Operation Pan American, the Panama Canal treaties, NAFTA, and Plan Colombia.
There are several things that set the book apart.
First, it is based on some excellent fieldwork, with extensive archival research and interviews with key participants. So beyond the analysis itself, it's an interesting read.
Second, it is a book about policy makers. In the case of Panama, for example, it's even about an individual (Omar Torrijos) overcoming concerns about Cold War security, which is typically seen as an almost overwhelming structural constraint.
Third, coordinated Latin American lobbying matters. This is a variable that Michael Grow uses in his book U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions and which deserves much more attention than it gets. Knowing how to deal with U.S. political institutions (especially Congress) and the public is so important.
Fourth, it takes on a lot of existing literature (including my own). Long argues that he is part of an "internationalist" school of thought, versus "establishment" or "revisionist" schools. Both of the latter tend to downplay Latin American agency, albeit for different reasons. That's true, but I think there's actually a lot more potential than Long even gives himself credit for, especially in theoretical terms.
More specifically, one point I would've liked to read more about was the critical obstacle Latin American policy makers found in each case. For each, I found the following, in an obviously simplified manner:
1. OPA: overcoming US resistance to providing large amounts of aid 2. Panama Canal: overcoming US concerns about security 3. NAFTA: overcoming US caution about an FTA with a developing country 4. Plan Colombia: overcoming US suspicions of Colombia
These are all different, so what strategies mattered most? Some of these are economic, and some are political. This stuff could get modeled on some way that could provide a new strand of literature but also potentially contribute to theories of foreign policy more specifically.
Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 1 is one of the most intriguing books I've read in a long time. It is often compared to Marcel Proust, as it iKarl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 1 is one of the most intriguing books I've read in a long time. It is often compared to Marcel Proust, as it is the first of six autobiographical "novels." He details his life, bouncing around chronologically, in a way that kept me reading even when the particular topic was mundane (and some, like his father's death, are not mundane at all). He is an excellent writer, and has a knack for simultaneously remembering, explaining (in one part, he acknowledges the "meta" aspect of that sort of introspection) and putting it all into almost a spiritual context.
Of course, for such writing to work it has to be honest, and he doesn't spare anyone, including himself, and he is often filled with shame and doubt. Many people now hate him for his brutal truth (which seems to be the reason he left Norway for Sweden). Even in what we typically consider an age of narcissism, with selfies everywhere, we're still faking it--we don't much want people seeing us naked, so to speak.
It's the sort of book that makes you feel more aware of how you're dealing with any particular situation. I've already ordered book two.
Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer's $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015) is an excellent examination of "welfare" and the workingKathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer's $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015) is an excellent examination of "welfare" and the working poor. The authors combine different methods (including in-depth interviews) to provide a compelling, measured, and very readable picture of people who are literally surviving on the equivalent of $2.00 a day. They examine everything from every angle, always thinking about how people might reasonably argue against them. So you get both analysis (with 20 pages of endnotes, which never disrupt the flow of the narrative) and the stories of people struggling on almost nothing.
There are so many lessons to pull out of it. Three stood out for me in particular. First, contrary to popular opinion it is incredibly hard to keep a job when you're very poor. Already you face serious problems of transportation, clothing, and other basics (dental care, for example, as some lost teeth when they were children and cannot afford to replace them). But in recent years the nature of low-wage work has changed and become highly contingent. Your hours are unpredictable, so you can be employed yet unable to pay your bills. If you complain about bad hours, you're fired. Done. The low-wage service economy has no mercy. People want to work but it's an uphill battle.
Second, a cash-less welfare system forces people to make choices they don't want to make. If I need a new outfit from Salvation Army to go for job interviews but have no cash, I may have to barter my SNAP card. I can't get a job in raggedy clothes, so I have to break the law in order to get a job. The authors note how the current welfare system goes against many of our basic values. Providing such benefits is one of the policy prescriptions, and they have some interesting ways of conceiving it.
Third, and most importantly, President Clinton's 1996 welfare reform was a disaster for the very poor. It was intended to promote work but provides no safety net. It also provides no public service jobs for those who cannot get private sector jobs. The reform makes it very, very hard for people who want to work to actually do so. Creating those jobs represents one of the main recommendations of the book. Recipients want to work and contribute, and we need a system that facilitates it.
I read Russell Crandall's The Salvador Option: The United States and El Salvador, 1977-1992 (2016) and it is worth your time. The book is an exhaustivI read Russell Crandall's The Salvador Option: The United States and El Salvador, 1977-1992 (2016) and it is worth your time. The book is an exhaustive (500 pages plus 100+ more of endnotes) analysis of U.S. policy toward El Salvador, using declassified documents in addition to the massive literature on the topic. The guiding question--contained in the title--centers on how El Salvador is held up (especially by the U.S. military) as a counterinsurgency and state-building model (not unlike Plan Colombia).
This is "thick description," like a number of other very good books in the past few years on U.S. policy (like Morley and McGillion's book on U.S. policy toward Chile, but also books by Brian Loveman, Lars Schoultz, Bill LeoGrande, and others). One important point is that the Reagan administration was not monolithic at any time and evolved, especially when George Shultz replaced Alexander Haig, and when Jeane Kirkpatrick left the administration, not to mention when different ambassadors were in San Salvador.
Crandall dives into the context in detail. So we simultaneously have to come to terms with the fact that the U.S. wanted a moderate (José Napoleón Duarte) in office rather than Roberto D'Aubuisson, and used money to make it happen undemocratically; that it held fast to Duarte even as the army's extrajudicial killings went on; that the army and oligarchy were violent and inflexible; that the FMLN used vicious tactics of its own and did everything it could to disrupt elections; that the Salvadoran army was inept in the field no matter what kind of training it received; that the Cold War dominated the motivations of virtually everyone; that Cuba and Nicaragua were major players as well; that Washington had no serious plan for changing the conditions that generated armed conflict in the first place (despite knowing quite well what those conditions were and paying lip service to land reform); that for years no one could even agree on what "negotiations" should mean; that U.S. policy in El Salvador was often ad hoc; and that the money flowing in made the U.S. Ambassador into a proconsul.
The result was carnage that went on and on until both sides were worn out, and the Cold War was over so Washington didn't care so much anymore. Everyone sought to take credit for the peace agreement (though no one wants to take credit for the bloody aftermath we see now).
Crandall's goal is to lay it all out, sparing no one and trying simply to understand motivations, causes, and effects, which is not easy. The civil war has hardened into caricature for many people depending on their ideological orientation. He does not try to show how his analysis might fit into existing IR theory, which I think would be a fascinating exercise. For example, Kathryn Sikkink's work on "green lights" would be interesting, where the actions of the Salvadoran army and civilian elites might be guided by their belief of what Ronald Reagan wanted to happen in the country.
And what of that original guiding question? The main answer as I see it from Crandall is that the "Salvador Option" makes little sense when taken out of its own specific context, besides the conclusion that inserting yourself into civil war carries heavy ethical and practical implications that are rarely taken into consideration. Sadly, that is a point that gets forgotten by too many policy makers.
I greatly enjoyed Héctor Abad's Oblivion: A Memoir. It is a story that takes place in Medellín from the 1960s until Abad's father is assassinated by paramilitaries in 1987. It is a love letter to his father, who he believed was perfect, and it is also a tragic portrait of dysfunctional Colombian politics and society, where there was no room for the center-left position his father was trying to carve out.
It's touching how much he loves his father, and the story is always emotional, especially because you know how it's going to end. His father was a doctor who believed in going out to see the poor, which alone made him Marxist in the eyes of many. Later he protested paramilitary murders, which sealed that impression. Marxists criticized him for rejecting violence, so he was always stuck in the middle.
The title refers to a poem by Borges, which centers on how eventually even memories of us disappear and we are truly nothing. This was Abad's way of pushing back against that a bit, to make sure his father was memorialized. I certainly won't forget him....more
I read Jess Bravin's The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay (2013). It tells the story of how The Bush administration envisioned military courts being a way of dispensing loose justice, but then also how highly ethical military lawyers worked to reject evidence based on torture. It's a great read, though disappointing how its common sense lessons don't penetrate more into the public consciousness.
Bravin is a Wall Street Journal reporter. His narrative keeps coming back to Lt. Col. Stu Couch, who was one of those lawyers. He was dedicated to holding people accountable for 9/11 but then discovered that for the most part these were low level Al Qaeda operatives and that they had been tortured. Meanwhile, the military justice system itself was ill-equipped to deal with the prisoners. The obvious point was that anger about 9/11 should not mean throwing our constitutional values out the window.
For me, perhaps the most important lesson of the book is that federal courts are much more effective than military courts for effective prosecution. This is critical in the current debate over Guantamano. There remains a perception that holding people there somehow is "safer" or more effective. Federal prosecutors wanted to get their hands on some of the suspects, but instead they were tried in a chaotic and sometimes even bungling military commission system. All to our detriment....more
I read Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner's Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum (2015). It's pretty hard not to be impressed at the way these two young people came together and built community projects (through an NGO they founded called Shining Hope for Communities) in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.
She was a Wesleyan student who visited Kenya and was stubborn enough to demand to live as other people did, rather than in comfort. He was a very poor but remarkably resourceful and dedicated member of his community. One sometimes jarring aspect of the book is that the writing moves long quickly, sometimes breezily, even as the events themselves are sometimes brutal: rape, decapitation, you name it. The book flies through events, though perhaps that is appropriate given their own desire not to let disasters stop them from helping people. ...more
I had meant to read this book for the longest time, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are so many themes--medical ethics, race, religion, family, etc.I had meant to read this book for the longest time, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are so many themes--medical ethics, race, religion, family, etc. I don't mind that Skloot becomes part of the story, as it made sense given how she was working with Deborah to get information that otherwise the family never would've discovered. I got sucked into the book immediately and could not put it down....more
I read David MacLean's The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia. Very good book. MacLean was in India and had a terrible reaction to the malaria drug Lariam. He suddenly became conscious in a train station, not knowing who he was or what he was doing. He spends the book describing how he tries to understand who he had been before.
The book made me think about how brain chemicals essentially construct reality. His descriptions of hallucinations conjured up images of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, who like other Beat writers (and many other artists of different eras) thought hallucinogens took them to a higher level. MacLean felt he was close to solving a riddle God had given him, and God looked like Jim Henson. Who's to say he's wrong?
But it also means that chemicals dictate how we feel about people. He couldn't remember his girlfriend, and so suddenly they had no past. It didn't matter if they had spent months together: his brain chemicals wiped out all the memories, so for him that time never occurred. It's scary to think about, and he was badly scared.
He spends much of the book using other chemicals, mostly nicotine and alcohol, to counteract the chemicals that are messing him up. As you might guess, they really only make things worse. In the end, he needed to forge a new romantic relationship to center himself. Past ones simply could not work because knowing that memories were missing created a chasm....more
I read Edward Dallam Melillo's book Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection (2015) to review for Journal of Interdisciplinary History. It's a history of bilateral relations, and he paints a really interesting picture of how much California and Chile have influenced each other, but also how much of that influence doesn't get acknowledged. So, for example, the building of San Francisco during the Gold Rush had a lot to do with Chilean labor and agriculture, but few are aware of that.
That relationship is not always positive. A snippet from the review:
Chileans (like other foreigners, especially Mexicans) were also harassed, attacked, hanged, and lynched, all in the name of civilization. Indeed, the tone of the book tends toward the negative, where Chile gets the short end of the transnational stick. Californians brought wine knowledge and Monterey pines to Chile, for example, but that had all sorts of negative social and environmental repercussions. Californian academics in the 1960s celebrated scientific exchanges that took more than they gave (though, to be fair, they called for their termination after the 1973 coup). As Melillo notes, “Chile’s landscapes underwent profound transformations to supply the ingredients for California’s increasingly ravenous metabolic cycles” (200).
It would be interested to do an analysis of the post-dictatorship era. How much is that ravenous appetite still going?...more
I read Joseph Tulchin's The Aftermath of War: World War I and U.S. Policy Toward Latin America, written way back in 1971. His main argument was that the U.S. was concerned about European influence in three main policy areas--banking, oil, and cables--and that after the first few years after the war that influence waned to the point that the U.S. felt it need not intervene as much anymore. He ends on an almost idyllic note, about how all helped "provide the basis for mutual understanding and the hope for meaningful cooperation in the hemisphere" (253).
Given where U.S.-Latin American relations stood at the time the book was being written--intervention everywhere--this is a very curious conclusion. Tulchin notes repeatedly how the State Department worked to push U.S. companies onto Latin American governments, and how armed intervention continued in Central America and the Caribbean. For the most part, though, these are considered exceptions rather than the rule.
So it was an interesting read about a topic I enjoy--I just had to focus on the extensive archival work he did, which is thorough, and more or less ignore the broader theme of U.S. policy goodness....more
I read Morris Morley and Chris McGillion's Reagan and Pinochet: The Struggle Over U.S. Policy Toward Chile (2015). I'm finishing up a review for Latin American Politics & Society. The upshot is that I enjoyed the book.
The book makes two main contributions. First, it explains why U.S. policy toward Chile evolved in ways that were not obvious when Reagan first took office, and how that was shaped by internal administration schisms. Second, it explores the difficulties and frustrations U.S. policy makers had influencing events in Chile.
It is based on extensive archival work and interviews, so it's a very nice insider view of the bureaucratic machinations going on. I actually found it more useful than the authors themselves give it (or seem to give it) credit for.
I don’t believe I’ve ever had reason to criticize academic authors for being too modest, yet that’s what I felt as I read. Morley and McGillion don’t situate themselves in any particular scholarly context. It is a bit frustrating that the introduction begins immediately with a chronological account of U.S. policy toward Latin America but does not first lay out the book’s key arguments, contribution and structure. In fact their foreign policy analysis is more useful than they even try to claim.
Stephen Dando-Collins' book Tycoon's War chronicles William Walker's infamous effort to become president of Nicaragua and to colonize the country in the mid-1850s. What a miserable affair: I mean that effort, not the book, which flows well. We see 19th men in all their vainglory and extreme prejudices. Walker wanted glory over "uncivilized" people, Cornelius Vanderbilt (who helped defeat him) wanted unfettered access for his transit company across Nicaragua, soldiers of fortune wanted violent adventure and spoils, the American public wanted accounts of how superior they were to Central Americans, while Central Americans themselves mostly wanted to be left alone.
There's not much good to be said of anyone in the book. The Central American (and I refer to the region because it united briefly to drive Walker out) leaders themselves stabbed each other in the back constantly. It's telling that the end of the book describes all the executions that took place, including Walker's. It seems most of the protagonists soon ended up against a wall. Meanwhile, the bulk of Walker's soldiers ended up joining the Confederacy. Indeed, Walker had ended the ban on slavery in Nicaragua precisely to gain southern support.
Page after page shows the lives lost, sometimes in horrific ways (such as burning) for no real purpose at all. Filbusters came with bloodlust, taking enormous risks and dying (often of disease) for nothing. There was no way Walker would maintain any sort of government long-term. Even though he was self-proclaimed president, he had no government, no policies, no popular support, and no knowledge of governing. He was emphatically uninterested in Nicaraguans themselves.
In the U.S. we've forgotten the sordid story entirely. In Nicaragua, September 14 is San Jacinto Day and a national holiday because it remembers a key Nicaraguan victory against Walker's forces in 1856. The assault on sovereignty Walker represented means nothing to us, which is unfortunate. And all too common. ...more
I read Julie Shayne's edited volume Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (2014). The title is intended to convey both the risks that activists take and the professional risks scholars make when they engage in this type of research. The book centers on story-telling as part of transnational feminist methodologies and is organized in three parts: Texts, stories, and activism; performed stories of social justice; and activist stories from the grassroots. The authors come from all over the hemisphere and the line between activist and academic is blurred.
As someone with little background on the topic, I was particularly interested in the diversity of views. All the authors are committed to social justice, but how they approach it varies considerably. Goals include giving voice to the voiceless, simply helping others, creating an archive by which these stories become permanent, and understanding yourself better and becoming more self-aware, even methodologically. The authors also discuss ways in which their own thinking is challenged and how they deal with that. As a result, the stories of activism and activists are compelling but the self-reflection is perhaps more so.
Interestingly, no author is a political scientist. That's unfortunate because there are scholars doing work in this area (e.g. Christina Ewig, who I went to graduate school with) who seek to bridge the activist/positivist divide that Shayne outlines. Nonetheless, the chapters offer a lot of food for methodological thought....more
I read Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century! As is too often the case, the sentence after the colon sounds pompous but the book doesn't. I really enjoyed it because he provides clear yet undogmatic explanations about how to write in a way that makes your ideas understandable. Years ago I read Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which I found sometimes funny but also pissy. Apparently the latter aspect generated all kinds of reviews about how her own writing violated her own rules.
Pinker makes plenty of assertions but he makes clear that rules shouldn't be concrete just because people say they should be. The English language is constantly evolving, and in fact many of the so-called "rules" are myths, unsupported by anything (take, for example, the split infinitive). He tries to cut through the pedantry to make writing do what you want. Poor writing leads your reader in the wrong direction, which is precisely what you need to avoid. Make word or punctuation choices based on where you want the reader to focus. Think about prosody, especially with commas. Ask yourself if you are being unnecessarily posh/stuffy. Don't fall into what he calls "professional narcissism" (p. 186) where your own expertise leads you (even unconsciously, I think) to become lazy abut organization and jargon. On that point he also writes, "The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose" (p. 61).
Finally, I like how he cites the ways in which young people have for centuries been accused of butchering the English language. As we get older we get set in our ways and look down on those coming after us. We're always wrong....more
Swedish journalist Erik Jennische's book Hay que quitarse la policía de la cabeza (roughly, You Have to Get the Police Out of Your Head) provides a detailed and sometimes personal view of Cuba's opposition and the challenges it faces. As the title suggests, his interviews with members of the opposition show how years of repression end up guiding people's behavior. Gradually activists have been more successful (though of course only within limits) in expressing discontent, but only once they can break free of that mental restraint.
Jennische interviews a wide range of people, from those who write political articles online to punk rockers. In at least one case this included someone who later turned out to be a government spy (which itself looks like a fascinating story). That example is indicative of how the state manages on a daily basis to make people suspicious of each other--you never know who might be listening. Organizing in any effective fashion and getting your message out is thus even harder. Meanwhile, the state keeps shifting to deal with potential "counter-revolutionaries" by shutting down avenues of communication or even music festivals.
Later, Jennische himself feels the effect when he is detained (and even accused of being part of the School of the Americas) and then deported. He didn't return to Cuba for over a decade afterward. This new edition of the book includes an epilogue that includes his return, which is sobering since he refers to a dissident who was imprisoned (for trying to let loose two pigs in the Parque Central with the names Fidel and Raul painted on them). Even though some in the opposite have been working to the get the police out of their heads, as he argues the state still treats them like children, incapable of their own independence.
This is a reminder that even as U.S.-Cuban relations evolve, we shouldn't expect quick results. The repression is still there and even if it eases there is a hangover effect. You can't get the police out of your head quite that fast.
On a side note, I don't think this book has ever been reviewed in English. Hopefully I can convince some others to check it out. Even nicer would be a translation....more
I read Juan Reinaldo Sanchez's The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years As Personal Bodyguard to El Líder Máximo (2015), which has been translated from the original Spanish (it was published in France). Coming from someone who was very close to Fidel, it provides a look into his personal life. As such, it's an entertaining and informative glimpse into Fidel's inner circle.
I kept thinking "L'état, c'est moi," in the sense that there is no line between his resources and the state treasury. He found a nice island, then ordered a massive amount of work to be done so he could travel there by helicopter, have people direct him to the fish, then help him catch them. He created a cow pasture in a building so he could do experiments to breed the best milk-producer. Is it crazy or extravagant? Either way, he did whatever he wanted, no matter the cost.
It can veer toward the gossipy. I'm not particularly interested in how Fidel juggled various women, for example. At the same time, it is interested to think about why his numerous children were not groomed for politics. Some of the gossip is funny, as when Sánchez walked around a North Korean hotel with a drunken Fidel trying to find him a softer mattress.
Sánchez seems to contradict the idea that the KGB built the Cuban intelligence apparatus. Sánchez talks about all the new exercises and plans he personally made, but did Cuba's security become famous through Cuban efforts alone? He suggests this on p. 104, scoffing at the KGB as low quality and saying Cuba took its model from the U.S., Israel, France, and Great Britain. None of those countries, of course, would've done any training.
Sánchez says he started to feel disillusioned after overhearing a conversation in 1988 confirming that Fidel Castro was directing a cocaine operation in the United States. Not long after, Castro executed several top lieutenants (especially Arnaldo Ochoa) for participation in an operation he claimed to know nothing about. All that has been reported before many times before, but Sánchez provides an insider's view. He also claims that Ochoa's death pushed Raúl Castro to drink so heavily that his wife feared he might be suicidal, and that Sánchez overheard Fidel reassure his brother that he wouldn't suffer Ochoa's fate. Sánchez was imprisoned for two years and tortured when members of his family emigrated, which put him under suspicion. He finally managed to leave Cuba in 2008.
One final point, from a research perspective. According to Sánchez, Fidel Castro saved voluminous files, from his daily calendar to recordings he made in meetings and phone calls. Given how extensive they are, is it likely they will all be destroyed? If not, once there is a transition we'll be reading some more very interesting books. ...more
I read Chris DeRose's The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them (2014). I like the idea behind the book, because I had never really thought about how former presidents related to the civil war (as in, we need to think more about how John Tyler was a traitor). While entertaining, in my opinion the book falls short for two reasons.
First, there is no framework or main argument to make things hang together. There is no exploration of how ex-presidents function in the United States, or precisely how the civil war shaped that. In the absence of a main argument, we just have a description of presidents and former presidents doing things. Further, as I read I realized there was another theme that DeRose depicts but never acknowledges, which is Abraham Lincoln's genius in ignoring former presidents. Indeed, DeRose periodically mentions how Lincoln assuredly received such and such letter from Fillmore or whomever, but didn't respond.
This is important because the former presidents had all kicked the can of slavery down the road in one way or another, and Lincoln was the first to refuse the same response. Lincoln was so much more farsighted than the others that he knew their advice would likely be bad. Making this the central theme of the book would've provided much greater clarity to the narrative.
Second, the book feels rushed. Major events get skipped over, so the narrative moves from John Tyler not feeling well to a funeral. He died somewhere in there of something but it never actually gets mentioned. Sometimes battlefield description are detailed and sometimes not, without any clear sense of why. Then the book ends very abruptly. I was left with the impression that DeRose had this neat idea and just wanted to get it into print as quickly as possible. This impression was reinforced by the acknowledgments, which indicate DeRose first go the idea in 2012, and the book came out in June 2014.
That said, it's well-written and still fun to read how the ex-presidents dealt with/felt about the civil war. ...more
I read Fred Kaplan's John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and greatly enjoyed it. It's very well written, and my main minor quibble is that he veers too often toward finding lessons for the present day. At the very end, Kaplan admits what is obvious after reading the book:
The opposition that he met, his successes, and his failures are part of the torn fabric of public discourse in early-twenty-first century America (p. 583).
This goes a bit far, especially since the book clearly sees him as a victim in this torn fabric. If anything, we see that U.S. politics have forever been characterized by nastiness so were torn from birth. What we also see is a man who dished it out as well as he took it. He was highly--even amazingly--moral but also incredibly uptight and prone to being thin-skinned. He was very introspective, writing voluminously in his diary (which constitutes the core source for the book) and he spent a lot of time thinking about how to dish it out (e.g. we learn about how much he detested Thomas Jefferson). Even if we agree with his causes, such as abolition, we should not see him as a victim.
Kaplan wants to show JQA as a writer and as a visionary for what the United States should become, particularly in terms of a unified country without slavery. In this he does an excellent job. JQA was widely read and even wrote poetry that was occasionally published. He was eloquent and loved public speaking, sometimes for several hours at a time.
gine someone with more lifelong dedication to public service. John Adams brought him abroad at a young age and he learned multiple languages that soon would serve him in diplomatic posts. Kaplan shows how these positions were often tedious--early 19th century Russia was not a place you wanted to be during winter. But JQA was there for several years. He later served as Secretary of State, President, and then was elected to the House of Representatives. Perhaps appropriately, he literally died in the House....more
Despite its hyperbolic subtitle, Malcolm Byrne's Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (2014) is a carefully constructed and highly detailed account of the Iran-Contra scandal, using both newly declassified documents (the author is Deputy Director at the National Security Archive) and interviews. It's not a fast read, but it's a very good one. The core contribution is to cement the answer to the classic Watergate question, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" The answer for Ronald Reagan was "A lot, and early on, then he lied about it."
The overriding factor was Reagan's fervent desire to free the hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon and his utter disinterest in whether the actions--selling arms to the Iranians for their help, then using proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua--aimed at doing so were legal. It becomes clear that he never expressed doubt about legality. He pushed for action and wanted results, so everyone took that as permission, even though they even would write that it was all illegal. Byrne notes concerns about Reagan's mental state, but also shows how Reagan kept up with key details and kept pushing. Basically, if policy was intended to free hostages, then for Reagan by definition it was legal.
Others knew better, but didn't stop anything because the president wanted this done. Once it became clear the illegal activities would become public, they started lying and destroying documents like crazy. As John Poindexter described this destruction, "I decided that it would be politically embarrassing to the President at this point because it would substantiate what was being alleged...and so I decided to destroy it" (p. 269). When asked about his lying under oath to Congress, Oliver North said, "I knew it wasn't right not to tell the truth on those things but I didn't think it was unlawful" (pp. 314-315).
North took Reagan's desires and ran with them, usually amateurishly. Sadly, he was well liked and respected (at the hearings later, one staffer testified and even entered a poem into the record about how he was thankful Ollie North walked the earth!) so had wide latitude. North, meanwhile, was a born liar. As soon as he helped get the entire project off the ground, he lied to anyone and everyone about anything, large and small. He literally lied constantly.
George H.W. Bush (who as VP was present at many of the same meetings as Reagan) lied as well, and initially pretended he didn't have a diary, which had a lot of damaging information. Ironically, in his diary he criticized Secretary of State George Shultz for keeping a diary. Then on Christmas Eve 1992, very soon before he left office, he pardoned six key participants, which also had the convenient effect of preventing any more testimony from emerging that would incriminate him.
A notable point of the book is how little anyone knew about Nicaragua, or Central America generally. And they didn't care. When Costa Rican President Oscar Arias started blocking Contra activity in his country, North wrote that "Boy needs to be straightened out by heavyweights" (p. 232). Iran-Contra is fundamentally about illegal actions in the executive branch, but it's also about U.S.-Latin American relations. The only reason North focused so much on Nicaragua was that Reagan (and all his aides) had a distorted, paternalistic, and simplistic view of what was happening there.
Byrne makes clear that only a small fraction of relevant documents have seen the light of day. This is a topic that will deservedly keep producing new analyses, and don't be surprised if they show even more how deeply President Reagan and many of his officials were aware and supportive of illegal activity. ...more
Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen's Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (2014) is an angry book, and you'll get annoyed--you'd better get annoyed--reading it. The book's core message can be summed up as follows:
"A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat" (p. 203).
The post-9/11 period, and especially the Iraq War, has destroyed many thousands of lives, greatly damaged the civil liberties of average Americans, all the while making many criminals, snake oil salesmen and shysters rich. It's this last point that Risen probes in particular, using investigative journalism to show how the U.S. government showered billions of dollars with almost no oversight to anyone who could lend support to the Global War on Terror.
He shows how we get "unsmiling men with shaved heads" and a testosterone-pumped sense of self-righteousness who are empowered to push people around in the name of national security. Abroad these same kinds of men torture and kill. Resistance will bring you threats and/or imprisonment. Meanwhile, the government has stripped away rights and spies on everyone without restriction.
He write about how the American Psychological Association abets torture to maintain government contracts; architects focus on security for the same reason; people work for shady private contractors because they're showered in cash from the US government; self-proclaimed terrorist experts go on TV spouting on about threats and thereby get contracting gigs; and we all dutifully do absurd things like meekly take off our shoes in order to get on airplanes. Talk back and you'll get arrested. Spread the truth and you will find, as Risen has, that the government will come after you.
Profiteering is nothing new, but the Bush Administration took it to entirely new criminal heights. Unfortunately, since then it doesn't matter who controls the White House or Congress--it goes on unchecked. And that's the really depressing conclusion of the book.
This is a well-written but ultimately very simple book that mostly just repeats what we hear all the time. Her argument is that we like to pretend we'This is a well-written but ultimately very simple book that mostly just repeats what we hear all the time. Her argument is that we like to pretend we're not wrong all the time when we are, and that we should embrace wrongness as optimism. I might try a really hard task and tell myself I can do it, even though it's entirely possible I can't. But that's good because it keeps me trying. And I suppose one day we'll be wrong about being wrong, and then succeed.
There are a lot of interesting examples but it doesn't get much deeper than that. I like the basic premise, but a good essay on the topic would do....more