I read Rory Carroll's Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela (2013) and enjoyed it. Carroll is a well-known journalist who reported from Venezuela for the Guardian from 2006-2012, and disliked by the left. Basically, if you think Venezuela is a thriving laboratory of revolution, you will hate the book. If you feel that Venezuela has tremendous promise that Hugo Chávez failed to harness, you will find it well-written and interesting, particularly because of his interviews. If you follow Venezuelan politics, it won't be new but you get a little deeper.
The book consists of vignettes with his interviews, which then serve to frame his larger point of a well-meaning revolution ripped apart by personalization of power, palace intrigue, and old fashioned cronyism. Carroll shows why Chávez was (and is) so beloved, the problems of personalization, and how utterly incompetent the opposition has been. Even the coup mongers screwed up. As one person who supported the 2002 coup put it, describing Pedro Carmona: "We won, or thought we had won. But then we made a terrible mistake. We picked that fucking dwarf" (p. 79). That encapsulates the basic sentiments of the radical opposition--failure to understand why Chávez was popular, or how even to attract support. Angry but clueless.
Carroll denies that Chávez was a dictator, and comes up with a counter-argument, namely that Chávez was so concerned about elections that he neglected details. Aló Presidente gave him a platform for votes but he didn't follow up. Lots of talking, no walking. He needed to win so badly that substance faded out while crime, insecurity, shortages, etc. soared. Those issues become the backdrop to judging the long-term success of the revolution.(less)
Rob Ruck's Raceball is an entertaining look at the development of black and Latino participation in baseball. He traces this from the Negro Leagues to Cuba to Mexican leagues the academies in the Dominican Republic. For baseball history, it's a great read--lots of interesting tidbits and interviews. Analytically, it falls a bit short.
The subtitle of the book is "How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game." This is obviously provocative and ends up more complicated than that. The essence of his argument about the Negro Leagues was that MLB integration destroyed them, which over time decreased African American interest in baseball. This stands in clear tension to the fact that African Americans were trying very hard to integrate. In other words, this isn't simply one agent acting upon another. As Ruck notes, Jackie Robinson is now considered a national hero--hardly an accomplice in colonization.
The part on Mexico was my favorite, not only for the stories but for the outcome, which unfortunately is less unanalyzed. A fight to attract American players in the 1940s eventually led to MLB agreeing to pay for Mexican players they wanted. That led to strong Mexican leagues, but Ruck jumps straight to Fernando Valenzuela without examining how Mexico succeeded so well.
The book ends with the suggestion that somehow MLB will destroy Latin American baseball: "And if it's lost, the last, best piece of baseball's soul may go with it" (p. 235). Sounds dire, but it comes soon after an interview with Juan Marichal--an icon of both MLB and the DR--says he thinks the Dominican academies are great. So how do we square that?
For a book that emphasizes three Latin American countries, one drawback is that there are virtually no Spanish-language sources at all--books, newspapers, documents, etc. (so that a chapter called "Viva Mexico!" relies on the NYT and WaPo) That is a major drawback for the thesis because it removes the Latin American voice from the equation--to what degree did they believe they were being colonized, or that the experience was negative in some form?(less)
I read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The reviews by economists intrigue me (Tyler Cowen, who wrote his own critical review in Foreign Affairs) links to a lot of them, which is useful). The book seems to have generated a lot of heat within the discipline itself. Most seem really annoyed by him:
"Piketty’s further policy views come in two chapters to which the reader is bound to arrive, after almost five hundred pages, a bit worn out. These reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal."
He does return throughout the book to criticisms of economics as a field, arguing it is so centered on empirical models that content is ignored (the same argument, it must be said, goes on within political science). So the reciprocal antipathy isn't any big surprise.
Others are haughtily dismissive. One example is here:
"The book is aimed at thoughtful non-specialists who don't know about all the cognitive illusions in the public finance literature."
Ah, that is me. I am smart but not as smart as him. Sorry for being reasonably smart but ignorant. Let me offer some ignorant thoughts.
1. This is a powerful argument that touched a big nerve. Critics are too tempted to attach ideology to it as a way to dismiss the argument. But I would say the massively defensive reaction demonstrates why we need such a conversation in this country. It's worthwhile for that alone, really. What he argues that if inherited wealth becomes dominant, then democracy will suffer and violent responses become more likely. When the rate of return on capital is high and growth is low, unrest becomes more likely. At the same time, I agree with reviewers who say he doesn't pursue that correlation enough--he mentions it multiple times but does not go into detail.
2. The debate over data doesn't refute Piketty. It just makes the conversation more interesting. In particular, it's a good thing to argue whether it's a problem to focus so much on labor income when so many people rely on more than that. People may not inherit wealth but they are vested in different types of retirement plans, for example, along with social security. Yet if people's wages are relatively low, they have little to contribute to those plans.
3. All the controversy about his policy prescriptions miss an important point--a core part of his argument is that we have the power to change things, which means we should talk about it. With regard to inequality, "There have been many twists and turns and certainly no irrepressible, regular tendency toward a 'natural' equilibrium'" (p. 274). And, incidentally, there are plenty of responses that are not Marxist! On the other hand, global catastrophe also changes inequality--the rich people who started World War I weren't aware of that at the time.
4. His policy prescriptions, such as the global tax, should be seen as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end. He makes it very clear he considers it utopian, as a reference point. Further, he also argues that making government a lot bigger isn't the answer because that creates organizational problems--not exactly a Marxist viewpoint. (less)
I bought Dirk Hayhurst's new book, Bigger Than the Game, as soon as it came out because I knew I'd like it. This is the third book in a baseball trilogy and the previous two were fascinating and funny.
This one is no different, but it's actually much less about playing baseball than about dealing with baseball. It starts with the self-inflicted shoulder injury (lifting too much weight) he got in the offseason after 2009 and how he dealt with injury during the entire 2010 season. That included depression, using pills to make himself sleep and get numbed, having people know about his first book, a run-in with an arrogant teammate who did not like him writing and talking to the media, and rehab (with a cameo by wrestler Triple H).
Baseball is a conservative game in many ways--players have their codes, things are done this particular way, and you must not rock the boat. The mere idea of letting people see inside scares baseball players, and seeing inside is what Hayhurst does. He goes off about the player who kept confronting him (different reviews speculate differently, but he may just be an amalgam) as well as a few others, in large because he's not respecting the game and instead is trying to be bigger than baseball, which is a sin.
In some way all of his books are about his efforts to figure himself out. You get the impression that he was finally getting there at the end of this one. He thought hard about what baseball means and how he should fit into it. He learned how not to care about others' perception of his role in it. Like many other entertainers--such professional wrestlers--the fans see you as a commodity and not as a person. Players buy into the image, which feeds their self-image and self-worth.
Everyday dumbasses get on the internet and debate your worth like you're a fucking commodity. But instead of trying to say we're not a commodity, we just want to be the most valuable commodity possible. Everyone wants to be the hyped, processed, nostalgia-injected product instead of being an actual fucking person (p. 125).
The player who didn't like him hated the fact that Hayhurst might puncture the bubble they live in and value so highly--just chatting too often with the team's own media person (who in many ways helps nurture the image!) was crossing the line. As he points out, though, this is already slowly changing. Glacially yes, but social media is here now and not going away. Way too few baseball players write real books but reality is spilling out in bits and pieces.
And like the rest of the books, it's funny and self deprecating. As he said to his book agent:
"My style is being honest about failing in a game that everyone thinks you're a winner in simply by playing" (p. 232).
I'm guilty of that feeling, and like how Hayhurst has made me think more broadly. If you're a baseball fan, you should check out all three.(less)
I read Heidi Tinsman's Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States (2014) to review for Journal of Interdisciplinary History. I don't know when that will come out, but here is a small taste. It analyzes what became a strong connection between the two countries based on grape exports and what I like in particular is that Tinsman consciously avoids easy answers and simplifications, which makes it a worthy contribution to the already large literature on Cold War Chile. There are a lot of contradictions and contrasts:
Academics from the United States are part of the contrasts. The Chilean grape industry grew substantially under the market-driven economy of the military government, but existed in the first place because of the state-driven policies of the Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende administrations. Universities in the United States played important roles in both, as researchers from the University of California at Davis gave extensive agricultural assistance in the 1960s and Chilean economists from the University of Chicago created the policy architecture for the grapes to be exported in the 1970s and beyond.
As Tinsman points out, consumption was central to the historical development of the grape export industry and the long-term responses to it. Depending on your vantage point, eating (or choosing not to eat) grapes could denote support for a government, opposition to a government, general nationalism, protest over a repressive global economic system, support for labor and/or recognition of the human costs of feeding the United States. Those perspectives shift if you are a Chilean or if you are a U.S. citizen, and if you are eating fruit from Chile or from the United States.(less)
I read David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? which was an impulse buy in a Washington DC used bookstore some months ago.
World War I is mindblowing. You can draw causal lines to such disparate things as women's suffrage, Adolf Hitler, the Cold War, class consciousness, the Soviet Union, and more. Yet it started in such a small way, a minor aristocrat--not even widely known--murdered by a young radical. It was a seemingly isolated incident that did not immediately alarm diplomats.
This book is a nice general history that looks at every country and major players, often coming back to General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff. Like a number of other German elites, he wanted war because he thought Germany would fade in influence without a pre-emptive strike against Russia in particular. He fought as hard as he could against dialogue.
Fromkin says the key to understanding war's outbreak is to see it as two wars. Everyone wonders how a little dispute between Austria and Serbia could suck in the world, but it was only the pretext. Germany wanted to declare war on Russia but needed to make it seem that Russia was attacking first. The archduke's assassination served that purpose. Austria wanted to wipe Serbia off the map, and Germany (especiallu Moltke) wagered that Russia would step in to protect Serbia.
Basically, the Germans wanted a European war and they got it. Be careful what you wish for.(less)
Jay Sexton's The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (2011) is a good synthesis of the history of the most famous doctrine in U.S.-Latin American relations. It's not exactly new, though I can't think how you would manage to say something genuinely new about it (I wonder, have any hitherto unknown archives yielded any new insights in years?). It's more about what angle to take.
One thing he does that I found interesting was to discuss how policy makers in the U.S. changed their views of the doctrine over time. The nineteenth century version was different from the twentieth because of shifting circumstances. At the time of its formulation, there was fear not only of geopolitical threat but also of the country breaking apart. By Roosevelt's time imperialism was in full force and the United States was well past the civil war.
He emphasizes the contradictory nature of the doctrine, since it was both anti-colonial and fundamentally imperialist. This didn't bother anyone in the United States, because based on our exceptionalism our tutelage was a positive force while the Old World offered outdated and unwanted models.
Reading the book might help understand why it's hard to believe John Kerry when in November 2013 he said the Monroe Doctrine was over.
I'll be including it as a recommended reading for the historical chapter of my U.S.-Latin America textbook. (less)
Stephen Kinzer is no fan of Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles. We already knew that from his previous books, which examine overthrow of one kind or another. His new book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and the Their Secret Cold War looks at the men more specifically to show how they were architects of a style of foreign policy that, though in many ways unsuccessful, became a model for the Cold War and even the post Cold War.
It's a very good read, though I must say I enjoyed the first half much more than the second. The first explores the Duller brothers in depth, whereas the second goes into more detail in specific operations, such as Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Congo. In those the brothers fade a bit from the narrative, though of course they are hovering around. Kinzer relies on secondary sources but the stories themselves are already very well known. The second half also touches quickly on psychological assessment, JFK assassination conspiracies, and other sorts of speculation that detract from the book.
The sad thing is that, though Kinzer explain clearly how so many of the Dulles brothers' interventions were in long run detrimental to the United States, there is little recognition of that now. I wish very much that there was public discussion of how overthrowing Mossadegh, for example, led us to where we are today, and how they thought only in the very short term. But there isn't. Instead, we talk about intervening in Iran again!
The point, then, is that consciously or not, U.S. policy makers have drunk deeply of the Dulles Kool Aid. The U.S. is exceptional (and Christian) and therefore needs to act as policeman; there is no need to understand the country you're attacking/undermining; short-term victory over your "enemy" (however defined) is all that matters. The Dulles brothers have never really gone away.(less)
Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 is a good read only because it was written by Bill Bryson. By this I mean it really has no stated point but that's OK because it's funny and sarcastic. Strangely missing from the lengthy prologue is any explanation about why he wrote it.
Beyond his writing, what made me connect to the book was its unrelenting insistence that the grand, glorious and glamorous 1920s, the heyday of which was 1927, was in so many ways either no better than now or much, much worse. That appealed to me since one of my pet peeves is hearing the pining for the good old days of fake nostalgia. You will not come away feeling nostalgic after reading this book. I have no idea whether this was his intent.
It is roughly chronological, though there is inevitable jumping, chock full of vignettes. That made it perfect for tweeting, which I did in the several days it took for me to read it.
The upshot is that America in 1927 was a place where people followed sensationalistic murder stories with excited interest while ignoring real news about other countries; where athletes were revered despite the fact that many of them were terrible human beings; where racism, anti-Semitism, and gender discrimination were rampant and often celebrated; where mindless desire for profit soon led to disaster; and where corruption was widespread.
There were good things, of course. Charles Lindbergh showed how much aviation could achieve, though he himself was odd, anti-Semitic, and pro-eugenics. Movie and television technology led to all kinds of innovation. So it wasn't all bad.
So don't read it if you want a recreation of F. Scott Fitzgeraldish Jazz Age images (incidentally, in 1927 he was on the decline and practically begging for jobs) but if you want to think about how far we have or haven't come as a country, then it's well worth it.(less)
Eric Pettis' Just A Minor Perspective was the perfect light, short book I needed around finals. It is his account for low-A short season baseball in Williamsport. In many ways it's about becoming a small cog in a very big machine, and becoming a set of numbers rather than a person. Even the numbers are hard to parse--he made the All Star team and his stats are good (the book ends on a high note) but he has not played since 2011. Baseball is just not a very forgiving profession.
He takes it all in, the college player suddenly thrust into professional sports, and is quite perceptive and funny. He was humbled by the draft (where he was first ignored and then picked very late) and remained level-headed, despite the grind and constant PBJs:
Even though we were assured by our trainer that "it's actually good pregame meal," my intestines didn't always agree. But humans are made to adapt, even it if is to peanut butter and jelly.
Why is it that pitchers, especially relievers, seem to have the most writing talent and eye for the funny and unusual? These are fun books but it would be great to see some more variety--don't tell me there isn't some smart catcher or power hitter. (less)
I read Jeanne Marie Laskas' Hidden America, which is a series of vignettes about people who make our lives go but are "hidden." A general theme is how much pride they take in their work, even though they recognize they're hidden. It's an interesting book--very quick read--but a mixed bag.
Coal miners: from this chapter you would think they are all relatively wealthy and happy. She mentions that coal is central to electricity but does not explain the process or how the workers view themselves in that process.
Undocumented blueberry pickers: good chapter but these days they are much less "hidden" than they used to be.
Cheerleaders: weird chapter. She veers between admiring and making fun of them, and could there be any profession less "hidden"?
Air traffic controllers: interesting chapter that basically becomes a critique of unions. I kept thinking of Pushing Tin.
Gun dealer: this is just about the opposite of "hidden." As with cheerleaders, she seems to alternate between mocking gun culture and enjoying it.
Beef ranchers: definitely more hidden, but a superficial chapter where you learn little, though I must admit I didn't know anything about bull semen.
Arctic oil rig: this was a great chapter--how we get oil for virtually everything we use from a desolate place and who the people are working there was fascinating.
Trucker driver: very sad chapter, in large part because it comes back to the death of the author's elderly parents. The "hidden" America of truck drivers gets a bit obscured.
Landfill: fascinating chapter. Where our trash goes and who deals with it is definitely hidden.
If you like books in this genre, I would suggest Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows, which is much more nuanced and he actually does the work to better understand it.(less)
I read Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline, in large part because it intersected with my view of U.S. policy toward Latin America. What Joffe argues, pretty convincingly in my opinion, is that there are waves of declinism--the USSR was going to overtake us, then Japan, then Europe, and now China--but they all concentrate on very short-term, unsustainable signs. People gleefully argued the USSR and Japan would overtake the U.S. precisely as they were falling apart. Overall, it is true that the U.S. does not simply dominate the world, but it is still overwhelmingly the strongest power.
What I find fascinating, and Joffe does not get into it much, is that declinism transcends ideology. Those on the left (such as it is in the United States) applaud it as a sign of international equality while the right deplore it as a sign of weakness. But they agree it is happening--exactly why is never clear, though politicians routinely pick up on it and exploit fear.
With regard to U.S. policy, it relates to my post about the Monroe Doctrine not being dead. Not being dominant is not the same as being in decline. The election of leftists and the creation of a few Venezuelan-funded international organizations is not the same as a new international order. At the very least it is premature to declare it. Which is more likely in ten years: a strong and effective UNASUR or an economically and militarily influential United States?
The book reads very smoothly, chock full of literary and cultural references (even a footnote dedicated to "Parker Lewis Can't Lose"!) though it could've been a lot shorter as there is plenty of repetition. It is also very boosterish about international capitalism (and wary of Barack Obama) without asking any questions about the long-term effects of growing inequality. But he does a nice job of poking at conventional wisdom.
Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is a breezy, enjoyable story about John Gilkey, who was caught stealing large numbers of rare books in stores around the Bay Area. What set him apart from your basic thief is that he had no profit motive. He just wanted to be seen as an educated, well-read man. He based many purchases on the Modern Library top 100 books, which he felt were a mark of sophistication.
He went in and out for prison both for theft, credit card fraud, and for writing bad checks, and was bizarrely amoral. He wasn't rich and could never own these books, so of course he had to steal them. Those dealers owed him! They were charging so much for these books, and he wanted them. How else would he get them? In all the interviews, he seems geniunely unable to see that he is doing anything wrong.
It's a glimpse into bibliomania. Since they were stolen, he could never really display them or show them to anyone else. Somehow just having them was enough. But eventually a dealer got on his trail and pursued him with the help of the police. One lesson from the book is not to mess with rare book dealers. They mean business.(less)
I happened to pick up John Dinges' Our Man in Panama, a 1990 book about Manuel Noriega's rise to power. The invasion itself is mentioned only briefly at the end, which was fine with me. What's more interesting is how the situation developed.
It is a reminder of how weird that invasion was. The U.S. government was split any number of ways about Noriega and only toward the very end did anyone consider him an "enemy." Even then, many still didn't. For the most part, he was the friendly leader who helped the DEA (including, ironically, the arrest and extradition of someone who later testified against him) and helped the Contras. He was a team player. That he was corrupt was no big deal--everyone was corrupt. Omar Torrijos had established the system that Noriega inherited. Noriega's own addition was drug trafficking, which the U.S. had first officially noticed in the early 1970s.
Dinges goes through all the evidence with care, showing how deeply involved Noriega was in the drug trade and how brutal he could be. As he notes, and it's still true now, no one feels sorry for him as he had almost no redeeming qualities. But going straight to invasion essentially for personal reasons is still amazingly disproportionate. Using similar criteria elsewhere, we'd be involved in even more wars than we are now.(less)
I've read a number of books on North Korea, and they are all harrowing but essentially similar. The population internalizes the cult of personality and suffers. Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14 provides a different and even more terrifying angle to the horror that is North Korea.
Shin In Geun was born in a prison camp. That meant no one even bothered to tell him about Kim il Sung or his offspring because he was too low on the caste chain to bother. His role in life was to work and die young. His parents did not know each other but were prisoners who came together for marriage (meaning sex, since there was no love, companionship, or much else attached to marriage) as reward for good work. He grew to hate them and by snitching was even responsible for his mother's death, an action that haunted him later, but all he knew was the regime's demand that you inform on others, especially your family. Shin did not even know the existence of such feelings as love, hope, gratitude, or trust. They are still very difficult for him to internalize.
You cannot even conceive of escape until you know there is anything to escape to. Chance encounters with two other prisoners at different times opened his eyes, and he embarked on a plan that had only an infinitesimal chance of succeeding. Amazingly it did. Ultimately he saw "freedom" mostly in terms of being able to eat regularly.
What made this book unique for me was to consider how difficult it is for this young man--since he is still young--to figure out how to live outside North Korea. For all defectors, paranoia is an instinct, but Shin has to learn emotions that 99.99% of the human population experiences at a very young age. It is frustrating to read of a government consciously inflicting such pain, but even more frustrating when you start trying to think about what could realistically be done in response.(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)
Joseph B. Frazier's El Salvador Could Be Like That is a memoir by a former Associated Press reporter who covered the country during the civil war. Its value lay in Frazier's descriptions of the people and how both everyday life and politics functioned "on the ground," with what I think is a balanced voice, pointing out inconsistencies or outright lies on both sides (though of course the lion's share of the violence was perpetrated by the right). Some of it gruesome, and all of it is sad. It was no easy job for reporters, who were attacked and, of course, lied to.
We gnawed through mountains of spin and did the best we could. There remained for a short time a 1950s-style naivete that told us if the U.S. government was telling us something, it must be true. The facts on the ground quickly educated us otherwise (p. 14).
It is mostly chronological but tends to bounce around a bit (with funny additions like Surfer Bob, a guy from Florida who came to El Salvador for the surfing and then stayed). I noticed that Tim, who writes at Tim's El Salvador Blog, had recently reviewed it and thought the structure made it more important to have some background. I think that's true, but if you're interested in El Salvador and/or the era it's worth a look.(less)
I went to a book sale of the Friends of the Mecklenburg County Library and came across a children's book on the Panama Canal, by Bob Considine. I bought it without hesitation because I find it fascinating to read about how Latin America was portrayed in the past in the U.S. Normally it is a lot of superior tone and chest thumping.
So I was surprised when the book actually rejected chest thumping. Could America just go in there and do the job easily? Well, no.
The Americans who believed that the hacking out of a canal across Panama would be a simple task, easily solved by American cleverness and drive, had many disappointments in store for them (p. 95).
It talks about labor conditions:
Deaths were greatest among the Chinese (about 400). Many of the Chinese either bought or were supplied with opium, to make them forget the hardships of jungle and mountain grade. The Chinese produced the greatest number of suicides (pp. 35-36).
It talks about race, with even a baseball reference:
Because of Jim Crow laws, Panamanians were unable to get proper schooling, housing, wages and equal opportunities. These unjust laws also applied to people who were grouped into the "Panamanian" class by Zone officials--notably the large number of Jamaicans who did so much of the manual labor attending the digging of the canal.
The color line was extended even to the American Negro who found work in the Canal Zone or visited there. When the Brooklyn National League baseball team appeared in the Canal Zone in the late 1940s during a Spring training tour, their Negro star "Jackie" Robinson was not permitted to eat with his teammates." (pp.157-158).
Finally, it even has extended quotes from primary documents. I had not heard of Bob Considine before, but my hat is off to him. We need a kid's book like this for the Middle East.(less)
If you like reading Dirk Hayhurst, and if you're a baseball fan it's hard to imagine not liking his stuff, then go buy Wild Pitches, a just released ebook with material that he had to cut from Out of My League because of space. At $3.82 you just can't lose.
My reviews of his first two books are here and here. Very funny, insightful guy.
His book chronicling his injury-plagued year with the Blue Jays is slated for 2014 release.(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)
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)
What you immediately feel in David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War is anger. He is really ticked off at Douglas MacArthur, whose megalomania and hiring of lackeys led to the needless deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers. He then blamed disasters on absolutely everything and everyone else rather than on himself. By the time you get to his firing (around page 600) you practically drip with disdain.
One of the great problems with Douglas MacArthur, something that had bedeviled those who had dealt with him for years, was that he did not always tell the truth...The truth posed a great dilemma for a man who always had to be right (p. 613).
I have read very little on the Korean War, but I suspect this argument is not terribly original. After all, MacArthur was fired and he is on record as saying such things as the Chinese would never enter the war, generally based on racism. But Halberstam does a great job introducing you to many, many people, some famous, some just privates following the orders coming from Tokyo (as MacArthur disliked going to Korea). The book is chronological and organized as very well-written vignettes. That includes Harry Truman, who had an aide go to the Library of Congress and get him information on how Abraham Lincoln had fired George McClellan.
It is a book squarely on the side of the soldiers, not focusing on the details of battles (though it does do that to a degree) but rather what they were experiencing, how they felt, how cold they were, how confused. I kept thinking of The Best and the Brightest because so many people were dying because of the decisions of political elites who thought they were much, much smarter than they really were. That, it sadly seems, just never seems to end.(less)
I am late to it, but just read Michael Lewis' The Blind Side, the story about how Michael Oher went from homeless to NFL left tackle through the intervention of rich people in Memphis. It's an unusual and intriguing story--Lewis makes the evolution of the left tackle really interesting--but ultimately the book didn't uplift me much, and Lewis didn't intend it to. It's a reminder that sports plays an absurd role in our lives. Oher is essentially a large piece of meat, viewed primarily in financial terms, as is the case with all his teammates at Ole Miss. Almost no one cares about them at all. They get sucked from the ghetto to entertain rich white people, and then go back to the ghetto once their playing eligibility ends. Absent his amazing size, strength, and speed, Oher would've gone nowhere. Lewis talks to men in the housing projects who once were phenoms, and now are drug dealers.
Therefore it's also a story about the strong racial divide that still exists in Tennessee, Mississippi, and elsewhere. Football brings the two together in ways that reinforce de facto segregation. So the "feel good" story is depressing. It's a reminder of how many lives are still being wasted.(less)
I read Doc Hendley's Wine to Water. What a really cool book. It is the first person narrative of a guy from North Carolina who felt pretty aimless until he decided to try and do something simple yet critical for people in the most poverty and conflict-stricken parts of the world: get them clean water.
The bulk of the book focuses on his work in Sudan, where he helped fill large water bladders, restore wells, distribute chlorine tablets, and otherwise help get clean water to people suffering from all kinds of water-borne ailments (not to mention go to parts of the country no westerner--and not even most Sudanese--ever sees). Then he built an organization to support it. What he did (and continues to do) is pretty remarkable, but this is not a braggart's account. He's frank about his shortcomings and failings along with his successes. The writing is engaging and conversational.
For Hendley, one key to his work was helping other people become self-sufficient. You help install wells, but you teach the local population how to do it in the future and then maintain them. As he noted, it is both cost-effective and empowering. His work continues, as you can see here. (less)
Tuesday, November 12, having difficulties in Latin America or the Alliance for Progress. The Argentines threatening to expropriate our oil. The Brazilians, the Brazilian [João] Goulart, ignoring the Alliance for Progress. Obviously, both playing a very nationalist game. And then the rumor that the Dominican Republic may break relations with us. They're irritated with the United States for not recognizing and making their lot more difficult. All this is, indicates a rising tide of nationalism and a lessening of their dependence upon the United States. In addition, they have a radical left who [unclear] at home, so that our lot becomes more difficult.
John F. Kennedy dictated that privately on November 12, 1963, only ten days before he was assassinated. It's part of a series of recordings he made, including conversations, that are in the new book Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy. Very cool book, which includes quite a lot on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
That particular quote is interesting for a number of reasons.
Latin America was weighing on his mind. He did personal dictations on issues that he was really concerned about. We tend to view the Cuban Missile Crisis as a US-Soviet problem, and he had a lot of other global problems on his plate, but clearly he saw serious problems on the horizon in Latin America that required his attention.
The concerns are so similar to today, though fortunately we don't have the Cold War framing it. But the "lessening of dependence" and fear of "a radical left" are echoed all the time now.
LBJ rightly is criticized for his aggressive stance toward Latin America, but JFK was thinking about the same problems. JFK was unhappy about Goulart and had a wary eye on the DR. He almost certainly would've followed the same path in Brazil (strong support for the coup). Would he have invaded the DR? Given how shaken he was by Cuba, it's entirely possible.
The book comes with CDs, and for the excerpt above he sounds incredibly tired, talking slowly and without enthusiasm.(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)