politics

Review: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this HalloweenOn_Tyranny (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.

That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.

Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.

The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”

Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.

“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.

Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.

“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.

“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.

“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.

And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”

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Recommended Reads: 03.15.16

Redskins: Insult and Brand
C. Richard King

RedskinsUnder Roger Goodell’s watch, the NFL has done all it can to insult and offend its fans. As much as I love football, it’s getting harder to support the NFL and Goodell’s funhouse-mirror morality. One of the most egregious offenses is the league’s continued use of the “Redskins” team name.

In Redskins: Insult and Brand, C. Richard King explores the term and its unfortunate intersection with professional football. King expands his study beyond the current debate to reflect on the complicated views white Americans have of minorities and the role economics and brand value play in the inexplicable defense of a racial slur.

 

Why Quark Rhymes with Pork and Other Scientific Diversions
N. David MerminWhy Quark Rhymes with Pork

Yet another example of a book that, had I read this in high school, would have steered me toward the sciences. Mermin is a heavyweight theoretical physicist, and in this volume collects 43 essays, some not previously published and many of them culled from his columns in Physics Today.

Technical, yet light-hearted and accessible, Why Quark Rhymes with Pork will be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers, not just the science-minded. Fans of Sam Kean and Mary Roach should get a kick out of Mermin’s essays.

Recommended Reads: 01.26.16

New year, new reading list. Here are some January releases to kick-start 2016.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Jane Mayer

In recent years the Koch brothers have become liberal bogeymen, invoked in political ads, petitions and editorials to maximize fear factor. Certainly, the truth behind these billionaire brothers is more complicated than that, but they are rightly the focus of Mayer’s history of how the wealthiest Americans have rigged the political system in their favor. Folks of different political persuasions may disagree on ideology, but we should all be able to agree on the importance of transparency. That is what Mayer hopes to provide in this highly acclaimed investigation.

 

DemocracyinBlackDemocracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul

Eddie S. Glaude

Staying in the political realm, Princeton professor Eddie Glaude offers this poignant and difficult narrative about the state of race relations in America. For a brief time, we lived under the comfortable illusion of a post-racial country, but since electing its first black president, America has grown more racially divided. Glaude chronicles recent injustices and proposes a bold fix in Democracy in Black.

 

TheConfidenceGame

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time

Maria Konnikova

At some point, the market will grow weary of the Gladwellian genre, but not yet. There’s a good reason for that. We are learning more about our brains and our behavior every year, and the findings are compelling. Perhaps the mind has its own ego that loves to read about itself? So much for navel gazing. Now it’s all about the brain gazing, and in Konnikova’s new book she shows why even the brightest among us are capable of being conned.

Author Interview: Joanna Mishtal, The Politics of Morality

Growing up in the west, I had a fairly uncomplicated view of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, they were the EvilThe Politics of Morality Empire. Then down comes the Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain crumbles. Freedom wins the day. Roll credits.

Of course, history is never that simple.

Anthropologist Joanna Mishtal grew up in Soviet Poland, defected to the United States as a teenager, and now studies reproductive rights in her country of birth. Her research uncovers a thornier narrative of post-Soviet Poland. Rather than a secular democracy, the Catholic church has assumed a dominant political role.

As a result, Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws of any European Union country, and Mishtal explores the effect this has had on women and women’s rights in her first book, The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland.

The book, published by Ohio University Press, blends politics, personal narrative, Polish history and peer-reviewed research. Full disclosure: I have known Mishtal for close to a decade and I proofread early drafts of a few chapters.

Mishtal provides a unique view of Polish politics, having experienced both Soviet and post-Soviet culture as well as having lived in the west. Most impressively, she is able to switch easily between detached observation and insider familiarity, lending a unique voice to her research. Her personal insights enhance the narrative while her use of case studies give flesh and bone to the academics.

With Russia once again a wild card, the EU in crisis and Poland’s recent swing even further to the right, The Politics of Morality is a timely and important read. We are still figuring out both the history and consequences of the end of the Cold War, and Mishtal’s is an important and necessary voice in the discussion.

She recently sat down with Ensuing Chapters to discuss The Politics of Morality.

 

Recommended Reads: Apocalypse Edition

 

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear

Revelation is one of the most vivid works of literature ever etched into papyrus. It has inspired artists for nearly Picturing the Apocalypse2,000 years, stoking the fires of Michelangelo, Blake and Bosch and establishing the premise of countless bad horror films. In this impressive study, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear examine 120 works of art rooted in the closing chapter of the New Testament. The authors (a father-daughter tandem) breakdown the works into 10 different themes, including the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals and modern popular culture.

Picturing the Apocalypse is well-written and beautifully illustrated with all of the artworks discussed. I was personally drawn to the religious history of the book, but also enjoyed the art history and theory, the literary and cultural development of Revelation and, ultimately, a fresh look at the text through the modern lens.

If not for you, this is a great gift for fans of art, history, philosophy, literature or anyone looking to upgrade their dinner-party conversation.

 

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Ulf Schmidt

Few things whet the American appetite more than atrocity and conspiracy, and readers get a hearty portion of both inSecret Science this comprehensive account of 20th-century military research. Germany’s use of chlorine and mustard gas in WWI may be the most salient example of chemical warfare, but what makes Schmidt’s account so compelling is his emphasis on Allied experimentation.

The narrative revolves around the British research center, Porton Down, and chronicles the moral dilemmas created and ethics breached in the shadow of two world wars and a global nuclear standoff.

Secret Science is both history lesson and cautionary tale, though I imagine most readers will enjoy it for the former more than the latter. History tells us that ethics usually lose out to expediency. Note the use of torture, indefinite detention, drone warfare and citizen surveillance in response to the War on Terror.

When it comes to safety, there are always extenuating circumstances (politically speaking), so I’m doubtful that the lessons of Secret Science will make inroads where they’re most needed, unfortunately. Schmidt does, however, provide us with a darkly entertaining history of the uncomfortably recent past that should chill (and in some cases vindicate) the most hardcore conspiracy theorist.

Secret Science is not light reading (I’m referencing the text itself now, rather than the content). It’s an exhaustive academic study that may not grab casual readers.

But if you’re into military history and government cover-ups, this book is worth flexing a few more of those reading muscles.

 

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad

Sami Moubayed

The dialogue on terrorism has taken a sharper tone in the aftermath of Paris. Piled on top of the horror and despair Under the Black Flaghas flowed a polluted stream of rumor, wrath and confusion. Which makes Sami Moubayed’s Under the Black Flag all the more important.

Moubayed is a Syrian journalist and historian with roots in the country’s past — and an insider’s view of its turbulent present. He provides an account of ISIS and the rise of jihadism with a depth that no cable-news sound bite or Internet meme could capture.

If you want to understand where ISIS came from and where they (and us) are headed, read this book.

Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

No words can make sense of the terror attacks in Paris. No cause, no religion, no prior offence justifies the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and “coward” isn’t strong enough a repudiation of someone who fires an assault rifle into an unsuspecting crowd and then detonates a suicide belt to dodge the consequences.

In lieu of words, we have images. They are horrifying, but, sadly, they are not unfamiliar. We’ve watched this play out too often in the past two decades, but if you take the longview from France, it’s a struggle that dates back to November 1954 and the start of the Algerian War.

And that leads us, inevitably, to the Algerian-born writer and philosopher Albert Camus.

Sure, I’m biased, as Camus is my favorite author, but nobody has spoken so eloquently about French-Arab relations and terrorism as the 1957 Nobel Prize winner. His most challenging work, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, details the rise of terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Terrorism is born of “nihilism, intimately involved with a frustrated religious movement,” he writes. “Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide. It can only be consummated by absolute destruction, of oneself and of others… the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated.”

Camus’ most poignant writing on the topic appears in his essay collection, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Camus was outspoken against French colonialism and the treatment of Arabs in Algeria, but he was disgusted by the actions of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which, in its efforts for independence, killed both French and Arab civilians. “Such terrorism is a crime that can be neither excused nor allowed to develop.”

He wrote the following passage in 1958, but it certainly applies to the cowards in ISIS who ordered and committed the atrocities in Paris on Friday.

“Whatever the cause being defended, it will always be dishonored by the blind slaughter of an innocent crowd when the killer knows in advance that he will strike down women and children.”

The most instructional of Camus’ writing on the topic is “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” written for his Arab friend Aziz Kessous. In it, he chronicles the transgressions of both the French colonists and the Algerian natives, imploring each side that the way to peace is not terrorism. “The inexcusable massacring of French civilians leads to equally stupid destruction of the Arabs and their possessions.”

This cycle of violence is difficult to stop, but Camus believed it was possible. It’s haunting to think that he wrote the following words 60 years ago, in 1955, and sad that they are as relevant today as they were when published.

“I want most earnestly to believe that peace will rise over our fields, our mountains, our shores, and that then at last Arabs and French, reconciled in freedom and justice, will make an effort to forget the bloodshed that divides them today.”

Recommended Reads: August Adieu

As we careen toward September, let’s take a moment to reflect on some August titles you may want to add to your late-summer reading list.

Building God’s Kingdom

Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction

Julie J. Ingersoll

From Oxford University Press comes the most detailed account of Christian Reconstructionism I’ve come across. In Building Gods Kingdomfact, I hadn’t heard of many of the major players in Ingersoll’s insider account. Rousas John Rushdoony? Cornelius Van Til?

The names may be unfamiliar, but their influence lives on in the policies of the Tea Party and the Christian Right.

Ingersoll has a singular view of Reconstructionism. Now a professor of religious studies, she was once a pro-life activist and married into one of Reconstruction’s most influential families. Building God’s Kingdom is neither an outsider’s critique nor an escapee’s expose. From her unique perspective, Ingersoll offers a deep, honest look at the history of the belief, its adherents and rather than editorializing, she lets the movement’s leaders speak for themselves.

This is a fascinating, enlightening read that taught me new things and inspired me to research them on my own. Perusing the teachings of Rushdoony, his continued influence on faith-based politics is apparent.

This thorough study should adorn the nightstand of anyone interested in the intersection of politics and religion.

Code Grey

Clea Simon

Though cozier than my usual bedtime stories, if you love books, cats and mysteries more cerebral than chilling, CodeCode Grey Grey belongs on your bookshelf. This novel ticked the first two boxes for me (books and cats… I would have liked more chill factor).

Simon is a prolific author specializing in cat-themed mysteries. This is the ninth installment of the Dulcie Schwartz series. Schwartz, a grad student working on her dissertation over spring break, gets caught in the middle of a book theft, a wrongful arrest and receives guidance from a deceased companion animal.

To quote one of my heroes, Alice Cooper, “That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life” (if you didn’t sing the melody just now, do yourself a favor and listen to it ASAP).