In dogged, fascinating, and sometimes agonizing detail, Rick Perlstein shows how Nixon developed and deployed his greatest strength: exploiting the teIn dogged, fascinating, and sometimes agonizing detail, Rick Perlstein shows how Nixon developed and deployed his greatest strength: exploiting the tensions and anxieties between different groups of Americans. He didn't invent "us and them" politics, but he reified it right and a time when the old white male power structures were beginning to tremble amidst cultural upheaval—driven in particular by the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Nixon told a worried white majority, Don't worry, this is still "our" country.
The book opens with the 1965 riots in Watts, and racial tension is the major leitmotif that plays throughout, beginning with Martin Luther King and continuing in student organizations and Black Power groups. Nixon's genius was to sidestep the poisonous, outright racism being spouted across the country and instead unify the "enemy"—i.e., those who were threatening the way things had been in the genteel '50s—under the banner of a lamentable disrespect for "law and order." That way, you hated the "other" not because he was Black, but because he was threatening America's greatness. "Nixonland" is a place where America is firmly divided against itself and the only currency is outrage, a place where we still live today. In Perlstein's formulation, Nixon molded the acridly divisive politics that still holds sway—not necessarily because he was a racist or a misogynist, but because he was desperate for power, which he consolidated by taking what otherwise would have been everyday worries and enflaming them into all-out culture war.
Another leitmotif that plays throughout the book is Nixon's lying and "dirty tricks," which he seems to've been almost addicted to, as though his real power lay in ensuring that he was the only one who really knew what was going on. This theme reaches its climax with the tragic opera of the Vietnam War, which Nixon was obsessed with "winning" even while telling the nation that his goal was to retreat. It's chilling to read how relentless Nixon was in pursuing this fruitless task, overseeing the murder of tens of thousands in Southeast Asia while self-righteously lying to the American public about it. Perelstein is merciless in his take-down, even making a compelling if somewhat cynical argument that the few good things Nixon did in office—environmental protection laws, opening the door with China—were essentially ploys to distract the populace from the horrors of Vietnam, some of which inevitably leaked despite Nixon's efforts to obscure them.
Nixonland is part of Perlstein's admirably if disturbingly thorough tour of modern conservatism, beginning with Goldwater in his book Before the Storm, and continued most recently in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. So, Nixonland ends rather abruptly with Nixon's second inauguration, amidst the Watergate scandal (also fascinatingly detailed—in an amazing setpiece, Perlstein shows how Nixon put the toady L. Patrick Gray in charge of the FBI in order to insulate himself from the investigation, but never told Gray the truth; so Gray, loyal like a puppy dog and naively convinced of Nixon's innocence, pursued the case to its utmost in order to exonerate his boss and unwittingly helped to incriminate him instead). You have to read the next book for what happens then: the transfer of power to Reagan, in a story just as fascinating. Perelstein absolutely has an agenda in these books, and a deep well of his own outrage that underlies them sometimes shows through. But it's a righteous outrage that he bolsters with intensive research and myriad verbatim quotes from key players that support his points. The bizarre and awful phenomenon of Richard Nixon has often been explained away—he was an evil anomaly, a villain driven by his own unique demons. Perlstein's accomplishment in Nixonland is to show that in fact Nixon is, in tragic ways, the apotheosis of America, which he was shaped by and shaped in return. ...more
A harrowing, fearless, and somehow hilarious story of modern-day debt slavery in the South at the farm of a giant, mysterious food corporation calledA harrowing, fearless, and somehow hilarious story of modern-day debt slavery in the South at the farm of a giant, mysterious food corporation called Delicious Foods, which "hires" employees by sending out recruiters to the slums of southern metropolises, where they gather up crackheads by offering them a steady job and a free place to stay, then driving them out to a massive farm in the middle of nowhere, housing them in a rank chicken coop, working them, well, like slaves in the fields, punishing them brutally when they step out of line or fail to pick the day's quota of fruit, paying them not in cash but in company scrip, providing them with meager rations but a steady supply of crack, and keeping a tab in which the employees' debt racks up inevitably more rapidly than their pay. This is what modern-day slavery looks like. It sounds like some horrific Orwellian dystopia, a warning about where we might be headed, but more horrifyingly, Hannaham's fiction is based on fact (a portion of the proceeds benefit an organization called Free the Slaves, which is worth checking out). But what sets Hannaham's book apart in terms of sheer audacity is that a portion of it is literally narrated by crack cocaine. Crack, it turns out, goes by the name of Scotty, and talks in a street hustler's voice, slipping like smoke into and out of the thoughts of the people whose minds he's taken over. It's a wild device that Hannaham not only pulls off but makes entirely convincing—Scotty does seem like he'd be fun to hang out with, that is until he destroys all of your relationships and keeps you a willing prisoner of your circumstances. Delicious Foods is an important and timely book, but it's also that rarer thing—a work of art....more
In a way that reminded me of both Salman Rushdie and The Arabian Nights, Musharraf Ali Farooqi's novel Between Clay and Dust is dreamlike enough thatIn a way that reminded me of both Salman Rushdie and The Arabian Nights, Musharraf Ali Farooqi's novel Between Clay and Dust is dreamlike enough that it reads like a fable, yet so sensuously detailed and rooted in history that it also felt like truth. Which is just another way of saying that it's artful and accomplished storytelling. There's serious Indian mud wrestling (really), geisha-like courtesans, brotherly love/hatred/competition unto death, a wrestling promoter who's like an unctuously evil Pakistani Don King—all set against the backdrop of a country that's just been partitioned into two, its people falling into the freshly torn-open gap. ...more
If you imagine a Russian Tin Drum—set largely in the Moscow Underground as the Soviet Union is about to fall—mixed with the absurdism and heart of GarIf you imagine a Russian Tin Drum—set largely in the Moscow Underground as the Soviet Union is about to fall—mixed with the absurdism and heart of Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure, you're approaching the strange and intriguing wonder of Hamid Ismailov's The Underground. ...more
A fascinating and quick read: In the 1960s, an Iranian intellectual who later helped foster the 1979 Iranian Revolution travels to Israel—and in the mA fascinating and quick read: In the 1960s, an Iranian intellectual who later helped foster the 1979 Iranian Revolution travels to Israel—and in the modern theocracy he encounters, he sees a model for Iran to follow. Needless to say, he stirred up plenty of controversy when he came back to Iran and published a series of travelogues extolling the governmental virtues of the land of the Jews. It's definitely an enlightening, historical take on the fraught relationships in the Middle East—and Jalal Al-e Ahmad does not tread lightly with his incendiary opinions. Intriguing from beginning to end. ...more