Deserved its Pulitzer Prize. Larson organizes his history of the Scopes Trial focusing on the prelude, the trial itself and the aftermath with a new a...moreDeserved its Pulitzer Prize. Larson organizes his history of the Scopes Trial focusing on the prelude, the trial itself and the aftermath with a new afterword dealing with the status of the "evolution vs. creation" debate, especially involving public schools, in the early 21st century. Like Ronald Numbers' larger history The Creationists, Summer for the Gods presents the arguments of "both sides" in terms that would be recognizable and acceptable to the adherents. The quotes reflect the deeper importance of the book: there were multiple perspectives on each side and the way they played out depended to a surprising extent on the personalities of the adherents. Most of the defense team disagreed with Clarence Darrows's militant agnosticism which fed into his open attacks on Christianity. Although he's gone down in history as the star of the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan paid almost no attention to the solid legal advice he got from the rest of the team. As Larson makes clear, public memory of the Trial is only loosely connected to what happened, thanks largely to Frederick Allen's thinly or un-researched (but really enjoyable) popular history of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, the play and movie versions of Inherit the Wind. I was left feeling like the circus--and that's pretty much what it was--surrounding the trial was a minor disaster for the science-religion discussion in the U.S.
For readers who don't have a clear sense of the major political and economic cross-currents that shaped 20th century Europe and in a slightly less dir...moreFor readers who don't have a clear sense of the major political and economic cross-currents that shaped 20th century Europe and in a slightly less diredt way America, this is an excellent place to start. A set of extended conversations between European historians Timothy Snyder (best known for Bloodlands) and Tony Judt, who was living with ALS and could no longer write on his own, the book tracks the long and convoluted evolution of 19th century liberalism through socialism, communism (in its authoritarian incarnations), social democracy, and the free market ideologies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Judt and Snyder pay close attention to many figures--French socialist president Leon Blum's representative--who pursued options at particular historical moments, recreating the social and political logics that informed their approaches. One of the most important themes of the book is that during the early 20th century, there were good reasons to see the fundamental historical choice as that between communism and fascism and that an intelligent observer might well have concluded that liberal democracy had no real future. Another major story involves the ascendency of Hayek's de facto victory over Keynes in the struggle for influence over economic policy, especially in the U.S. and Britain. The story they tell verges on tragedy as it nears the future; they're unsparing in their analysis of how the conflation of economic rights and individual rights has contributed to the abandonment of notions of "social good" and the horrifying polarization of wealth in the Anglo-American sphere.
The book's fundamentally Judt's, but Snyder's an invaluable part of the conversations, in part because he proposed them and saw through what must have been great difficulties in putting the manuscript together. I sympathize both with Judt's notion of what the intellectual's role should be--he holds to a high standard of rigor without abandoning the commitment to the public sphere. And his case for some form of social democracy strikes me as the best option for where we stand now; he rightly points out that even the most ardent anti-government conservatives happily embrace big government in the forms of "security," "defense," and public works such as interstate highways. The question isn't whether government's a big player in our economy; it's how the involvement is directed and in whose interests.
There are some weak points, however. The most important is that Judt's focus on Europe, and especially Eastern Europe (which is one of the valuable things about the book), leads him to overlook and almost entirely ignore the broader global context. He and Snyder say very little about the Mideast, other than excoriating (properly in my view) the Bush-Blair debacle in Iraq; nothing at all about the rest of Africa; little about China or Japan or Korea; not a word ob substance about India. And his glib dismissals of multicultural scholarship and teaching in the U.S. are simply ignorant. In fact, African Americanists have been conducting precisely the type of serious scholarly research he endorses. But Judt treats the entire field--and by extension other "hyphenated-American Studies" as if they're politically correct fiefdoms trafficking in white guilt. That would piss me off less if he hadn't occupied a position of real academic power at NYU and if he hadn't positioned himself as someone who benefits from his outsider status. That's just nonsense; he's been in positions of real power and privilege throughout his career; he condescends to anything that happens in the U.S. outside New York; he had a very visibile platform at the New York Review of Books. It doesn't really harm the value of Thinking the Twentieth Century, but it does account for why I decided on 4.49 rather than 4.51 stars for the rating.(less)
I doubt there'll ever be another presidential biography as intimate and honest as this one. That's why, despite some disagreements with Goodwin's inte...moreI doubt there'll ever be another presidential biography as intimate and honest as this one. That's why, despite some disagreements with Goodwin's interpretive framework, I'm giving the book five stars. Goodwin was a young intern at the White House during LBJ's last years in power and it's clear that he liked her despite some profound political disagreements, doing everything in his power to convince her to move to Texas to work with him on his memoirs after he left office. (She did wind up working on his disappointing--to be kind--memoirs. She does a nice job tying that book's failure to LBJ's inability to communicate clearly with large groups, which contrasts with his mastery of one-on-one or small group meetings.) Despite her refusal, LBJ gave her access without censorship, and Goodwin does a brilliant job painting a detailed, nuanced picture of one of America's most fascinating, effective, and ultimately tragic politicians. She reports on Johnson's haunting dreams--of being paralyzed, of being caught in a cattle stampede; breaks down the strategies that allowed him to establish unprecedented power in the Senate; provides convincing discussions of his reasons for accepting the Vice Presidency; chronicles his hatred--not too strong a word--of Bobby Kennedy and the JFK advisors he referred to as "the Harvards"; tracks the truly visionary elements of the Great Society agenda as well as its built-in shortcomings; and, most importantly, details the twisted logic that led him deeper and deeper in Vietnam. Essentially, he was convinced that not to stand up to the Communists would lead to World War III.
My problems with the book, which don't really undercut its value, have to do with Goodwin's reliance on Freudian theory to analyze Johnson's character. While it's true that his relationships with his father and mother were central, I found Goodwin a bit reductive. Similarly, while her political analysis is cogent, it's not particularly insightful. It's definitely worthwhile making sure that you read the version with Goodwin's "New Foreward." And I found the author's analytical "postscript" a bit redundant and skip-able.
Obviously not as detailed as Robert Caro's massive multi-volume biography, but for most readers this is the best place to start reading about LBJ.(less)
Disappointing. Achebe is universally and justly honored as one of the crucial elders of African literature; Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease st...moreDisappointing. Achebe is universally and justly honored as one of the crucial elders of African literature; Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease stand at the head of what's become a vibrant tradition. I was hoping for a retrospective book equivalent to Wole Soyinka's "Of Africa." This isn't it. As the title suggests, There Was a Country combines a bit of memoir with a brief history of Biafra, the Igbo nation which was defeated in a civil war with Nigeria that lasted from 1967-70. In addition, Achebe includes previously published poems which reflect on the prose. Sadly, other than the intrinsic interest of hearing what Achebe's up to, there's nothing here that deepens our understanding of Biafra and his portrait of his childhood and education during the transition from colonialism to independence is entirely familiar. Far too much time is spent on what reads like gossip about the various people who Achebe knew in the world of African intellectuals and Igbo politics. Maybe a specialist would get something out of it, but there's simply not enough information to raise the portraits above cliche. Similarly, Achebe's reflections on the sorry state of Nigerian politics today don't offer anything beyond the obvious message of "we have to get this mess cleaned up and the first step is stopping corruption." True, but nothing that's not already obvious.
The book does serve as a reminder of the Biafra war, which should be much-better remembered than it is.(less)
Read chapters two and three (and skim the final chapter). Those parts of The New Jim Crow are crucial, illuminating, necessary. Don't bother with the...moreRead chapters two and three (and skim the final chapter). Those parts of The New Jim Crow are crucial, illuminating, necessary. Don't bother with the rest.
The New Jim Crow is an odd book. The central message is one that should be heeded by everyone interested in making democracy a reality: the "War on Drugs" has resulted in the erosion (destruction's probably not too strong) of our Fourth Ammendment rights. (The Fourth Ammendment's the one prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure.) Alexander documents the series of court decisions which have made it all but impossible to resist police actions dressed up as the war against drugs. As she makes clear, the new procedures have been directed disproportionately against black and brown citizens, especially young African American men who are imprisioned for trivial offenses that result in the loss of their rights as citizens and cripple their ability to function in society after their release.
I want to emphasize the word trivial in the previous sentence. I teach at a major university where most of our students are white and/or privileged economically. If the same standards were applied here as they are in black and brown neighborhoods, I'd estimate that 80% of our students would be incarcerated at the end of four years. It's important to understand that you don't have to *use* drugs to get busted under the current rules; it's enough to be associated with those who do. Obviously, if the police treated our students (or the many many thousands of affluent whites who use drugs recreationally) in such a manner, there'd be an immense outcry.
The point is that taking rights from one group renders everyone vulnerable. It's a shame--and I mean the word literally--that we've let this happen in the name of political expediency. To make things clear, as Alexander does, this isn't a partisan issue. The policies that led to this situation, while originating under Reagan (and tracing back to Nixon) were shaped largely by Bill Clinton.
That's the good news on The New Jim Crow. There are two problems that made me think more about giving it three stars than five. First, Alexander's treatment of history is at best problematic. The first chapter, where she argues that mass incarceration is the new version of Jim Crow which was the new version of slavery isn't exactly wrong, but it's superficial and there are dozens of places where someone who knows the history well will want to add three or four layers of footnotes. This relates directly to the second major problem, which is Alexander's rhetorical overkill. Large stretches of The New Jim Crow are shrill, a word I don't like to use but which, sadly, applies. I absolutely agree with her point but stating the same abstractions over and over is going to alienate many readers who don't already agree. And the fact is she doesn't have a very clear idea of how to mobilize for a solution. She's right that the "politics of responsibility" --the Obama approach--won't change anything, and that we need to address much deeper problems (education, employment, etc.), but none of that's of much use in making it happen.
I hope this is the start of a conversation. Thinking how to contribute.(less)
Okay, I'll get this out of my system first: skip chapter 6. There, that's better.
It's not often that I read a book that fundamentally changes my sense...moreOkay, I'll get this out of my system first: skip chapter 6. There, that's better.
It's not often that I read a book that fundamentally changes my sense of a major part of American history, especially not in one of the areas I read a lot in. PH's reconsideration of the history of the southern plains and Southwest does just that. The basic argument is clear: in order to understand the history of the region she (he? Finnish names confuse me) focuses on the areas encompassing Texas, New Mexico and extending both north and south, concentrating on the 18th and 19th centuries. The way I was taught the story, it focused on the struggle for dominance between Spain, France, the United States and the Republic of Texas. If the Comanche appeared at all, it was as a savage tribe impeding the march of European conquest: what PH refers to as the "barrier hypothesis."
Toss that one in the dumpster.
What PH shows is that Comanche were in fact the controlling presence in the story. Not simply warriors and raiders, they constructed a complex multi-ethnic, economically diversified society capable of manipulating the other players in the game for its own needs. It was far more important for settlers around San Antonio or the pueblos around Taos to accommodate the Comanche than Mexico City or Washington. The Comanche formed alliances with various powers (Native and European) at various times; by the early 19th century they pretty much ran the joint. As PH argues, the key is recentering our attention to the interior and rethink events from there. It's a brilliantly executed book, one that illuminates all sorts of moments. To cite just one example, she argues convincingly that the American victory in the Mexican war happened in large part because the Comanche had already routed Mexican defenses. Equally fascinating and convincing is PH's discussion of the decline of the Comanche power, which took place in two waves: the first caused in large part by economic over-expansion and drought; the second by the ascendency of American military power in the 1870s.
Back to chapter six. The one clunker, and it's not trivial, is PH's superficial treatment of Comanche culture. In the rest of the book, she deals very nicely with sources that are pushing their own agendas: Spanish bureaucrats and governors, trappers, captives. IN chapter six, she goes simplistic, relying on reports from white outsiders who very clearly don't understand the difference between various Native cultures. She glides over Comanche religion in a couple of superficial pages. I don't know the literature on Comanche culture in any detail, but I do know that any treatment that purports to reflect the internal dynamics needs to know something about how the Comanche themselves understand the story. Oral tradition is key to that. It's not a minor glitch because the image of the comanche in chapter 6 reduces them back to stereotype. PH contradicts herself on the nature of Comanche slavery and the question of hierarchy within the tribe. It's just a mess.
On a more general level, while I'm convinced of PH's argument, I'm not convinced that what they had was an "empire" in any meaningful sense. In the epilog (which is a nice overview in general), she defends the phrasing, but to my mind undercuts it every two or three sentences. The Comanche relationship with the ethnic groups (Native and European) they incorporated into the tribe differs so starkly from that of the Brits or Romans (take you pick of other clear empires) that what's left doesn't feel imperial at all tome. The key to Comanche relations with the world, as PH makes clear, was in kinship, fictive or otherwise. Not in simple domination. I'm guessing that a deeper understanding of the culture would result in a clearer sense of the differences.
Despite the quibbles, this is a major work of Native, Western and American history.
Update: After having read most of Pekka Hamalainen's The Cherokee Empire (review to come fairly soon), I'm knocking this down to one star. Gwynne's si...more Update: After having read most of Pekka Hamalainen's The Cherokee Empire (review to come fairly soon), I'm knocking this down to one star. Gwynne's simply wrong about huge pieces of the picture. His mis-characterizations of Cherokee culture and politics create a dangerous image. The fact that the book's well written make that all the more problematic. It's going to take a lot of hard work to counter the story he tells.
Original review follows:
The problems start with the title. What the Comanche had was nothing resembling an empire in either the popular or the technical senses of the word. And, while Quanah Parker is a fascinating historical figure, he doesn't make an appearance until 75% of the way through the book.
Those are symptoms. The real problem is that Gwynne has virtually no clue about the cultural dynamics of Native Americans generally or the Comanche specifically. Although he clearly *wants* to write a reasonably balanced book, he continually defaults to the most irritating kind of nineteenth century anthropological language, referring to Indians as barbaric, savage, yadda yadda yadda. This isn't to romanticize the Comanche, but you have to have at least a bit of context to understand what actually happened. I'm going to read Pekka Hämäläinen's The Cherokee Empire which my trustworthy friend Tim Tyson promises is a more satisfactory historical treatment (though I'll admit to be nervous about the "empire" in the title).
Having said that, I will acknowledge that this is the best-reading book on my two-star list. Gwynne, who's a Dallas-based journalist, has a fluid narrative voice, and he can bring characters alive. The story's fascinating on numerous levels. I'm not sorry I read it, but I came away feeling like the Pulitzer Prize nomination was a bad joke and that I'll be spending a certain amount of time in the future counter-acting stereotypes which can be traced back to the book.(less)
Beyond Combat is the definitive book on women and gender in Vietnam. Based on extensive interviews and archival research, the book demonstrates the wa...moreBeyond Combat is the definitive book on women and gender in Vietnam. Based on extensive interviews and archival research, the book demonstrates the ways Cold War notions of gender contributed to the policy decisions that put American military personal in utterly untenable positions. The book balances personal testimony with analysis of the enveloping social and cultural contexts which effected individual experience. While her emphasis is primarily on Americans in Vietnam, the framing chapter on Madame Nhu as Orientalist dragon lady. Similarly, she considers the image of the "girl next door" in need of protection in relation to the actual positions of donut dollies nurses and WACs in Vietnam. Turning her attention to gender in relation to male troops, she focuses on the inexorable collapse of the John Wayne image of heroic manhood. It's a beautifully written book which places narrative in the foreground without neglecting the significance of the stories she tells.(less)
Disappointing. The "short history" format is a challenging one and it's unreasonable to expect a volume like this will necessarily be selective, both...moreDisappointing. The "short history" format is a challenging one and it's unreasonable to expect a volume like this will necessarily be selective, both in terms of what it deals with and the sources it draws on. However, a good short history should do more than choose the most obvious case studies and provide superficial summaries drawn mostly from single sources. That's basically what Lambert does. His "two main arguments" are something less than stunning. "The first is that religious coalitions seek by political means what the constitution prohibits, namely a national religious establishment" and second "that religion in American politics is contested." Might have guessed both of those on my own.
I picked the book up partly because I don't have a lot of background in the early (17th-19th century) parts of the story, and partly because I assumed (wrongly as it turns out) that the Princeton UP would enforce reasonable intellectual standards. Viewed from 40,000 feet, there's nothing wrong with the focus of Lambert's chapters; he moves from the arguments between Madison and Patrick Henry and later Adams and Jefferson concerning the role of religion in the young Republic, through the clash between "the gospel of wealth" and the "social gospel" and on to the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the Religious Right. Drop down a bit closer to earth--15,000 feet, say--and the problems start to come into focus. Each chapter begins with a *very* large summary of the main currents of the era, and there's no real attempt to nuance what amount to cliches. It's impossible to do a decent job with the "rise of secularization" in the New Deal and Cold War eras in two or thee pages. In addition, there's no sense at all of how one era relates to the ones that preceded it.
The more I knew about the topic of a chapter, the less happy I was with it. The treatment of the splits within protestant denominations in the years leading up to the Civil War is thin; the treatment of the science vs. religion arguments (evolution) simplify a multi-faceted debate into a binary choice. I got just enough in the way of detail to keep me reading. Probably wasn't worth the time.(less)
Great great book. The question of Lincoln's attitudes toward/beliefs about race has been one to he central concerns of American history since I starte...moreGreat great book. The question of Lincoln's attitudes toward/beliefs about race has been one to he central concerns of American history since I started payiattention back in the late 1960s. Foner comes close to resolving the outstanding questions. The central theme is that Lincoln's perspective changed in response to his personal experience and the rapidly (to say the least) changing external pressures. Whatever his political positions, Lincoln was consistent in saying that every individual should enjoy the fruits of his labor, a position that stemmed tfrom his relationship (bad) with his father. Foner emphasizes Lincolns relative indifference to race as he embarked on his legal and political career in a part of Illinois where he had little contact with Africna Americans. He does a great job tracking the changes in Lincoln's ideas when he moved from the provinces to Washington and the impact of actual contact with blacks (notably but not only Frederich Douglass). Clearly, Lincoln's primary concern at the outset of the Civl War was saving the Union and he was willing to subordinate the end of slavery (and had absolutely not interest in pushing the issue of black equality, which would have undercut the battle against slavery.)
The Fiercy Trial is a great book about the contingency and complexity of progressive political action. It's both a majestic contribution to American history and a book that demands the attention of anyone thinking seriously about the possibility of fundamental political change.(less)
Orwell spent six months fighting with an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War, an experience which contributed greatly to his hatred for Communi...moreOrwell spent six months fighting with an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War, an experience which contributed greatly to his hatred for Communism, which he saw as a right wing, essentially fascist, political ideology. His chapters on life in the militia give a clear picture of the deadly boring experience on the front lines, effective but not as powerful as numerous other war novels and memoirs. His chapter on the internal political conflicts that doomed the Spanish Republican government is first-rate, as good an introduction to the tangled politics on the left between the two World Wars as any. Good Orwell, not great Orwell.(less)