politics

Review: American Hysteria

American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States

Andrew Burt

For most, Jade Helm 15 may sound like the newest MMORPG, but for Chuck Norris, recipient of many kicks to theAmerican Hysteria head, the upcoming military training exercise is something straight out of Gray State (in other words, B-grade survivalist porn).

“It is neither over-reactionary nor conspiratorial to call into question or ask for transparency about Jade Helm 15 or any other government activity,” Norris wrote in an op-ed for WND.

Sadly, it’s not just over-the-hill actors. Some politicians have been swept up in the paranoia as well. It’s disappointing, but not surprising. As Andrew Burt writes in his new book, American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States:

“Every few decades, a striking political phenomenon emerges, based upon the fear that a secret network has infiltrated American society and threatens destruction from the inside. Even more fascinating is the fact that this type of movement is not relegated to the fringes of the political arena — it routinely takes center stage.”

While there are plenty of examples to choose from, Burt focuses on five less-than-dignified instances of American witch hunts: the anti-illuminati and anti-mason movements from the country’s earliest days to 20th century’s Red Scare and its bastard sequel, McCarthyism, and finishing with the anti-Islam sentiment of the modern day (specifically, the anti-Sharia movement).

In this excellent study, Burt seeks the common ground between these manias. What he finds, not surprisingly, is that “hysteria arises at times of profound change in America’s national identity,” predictably when a fading social group is losing its leverage. They perceive an outside threat that has penetrated the establishment.

Jade Helm 15 is a perfect example. Since the Civil Rights movement, a culture war has been festering, particularly among aging white men threatened by new demographics and the embrace of multiculturalism.

This war went nuclear when Americans elected a black president who was acquainted with Islam. The enemy wasn’t at the gates — it was inside the White House!

So, despite the fact that routine military exercises have been occurring in Texas for years, under the direction of a black commander-in-chief, ostensibly sane politicians are buying into Norris’ nonsense.

This, Burt writes, is what separates hysteria from extremism. Extremism is always present, but generally marginalized. Political and cultural battles can be contentious, but they typically occur within an agreed-upon scope of reality.

The time to get nervous is when legitimate mainstream figures get caught up in the crazy (e.g. a viable presidential candidate believing that Obama and the CIA are plotting a takeover of Texas and Utah).

In other words: It’s time to get nervous.

But back to Burt. There is no knocking his narrative and reporting skills. American Hysteria is well-researched and -written, and I hope to see more from him in the future. He has written for such outlets as U.S. News & World Report, the Atlantic, Slate and Politico, but this is his first book-length work. My only knock on this book is the overlap between some of the episodes (e.g. the Illuminati and the Masons, the Red Scare and McCarthyism). I would love to see Burt take on other manias, such as the Satanic Panic, perhaps in later books.

After giving us the history of hysteria, Burt goes one further and offers us tips in handling the manias that haven’t happened yet. “The first rule of hand in approaching movements of hysteria is thus to accept them for what they are, rather than dismissing them outright, as is so often the temptation.”

As much as I am amused by Norris’ rants, it would be wrong to dismiss his views out of hand — not because there is any substance to his op-ed, but because there is something important to be learned from the subtext.

“Hysteria, after all, is about exclusion — it is the story of groups of men and women, like McCarthy and his supporters, confronting profound changes within American society and then excluding other groups as a result.”

To prevent the next Red Scare, we’ve got to recognize it in its infancy, understand the true interests of its followers and confront the unreasonable with reason.

It may work, it may not. The upshot of those times when it doesn’t work is that it makes for colorful history — a history skillfully explored by Burt in this must-read book. I can’t think of anything more patriotic than reading this book in time for July 4, to learn from our missteps to avoid repeating them again and again.

Recommended Reads: Rich People’s Movements

Isaac William Martin

Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent

Though originally published in 2013, tax season is the perfect time to reissue this compelling look at the anti-tax movement in America, as documented by rich peoples movementsa sociologist specializing in public policy and social protest. Rich People’s Movements begins with the Tea Party protests of 2010 and traces the history of anti-tax sentiment back to the Sixteenth Amendment. More than mere history, this book examines the ways the affluent borrowed the tactics of the poor and powerless, who, without the ability to confront power with money and influence, took to the streets to make their voices heard.

Why would those with power and influence rely on a protest movement? Martin answers this question and many more, such as why the working poor will sometimes rally to the defense of the 1 percent and their economic policies.

Also available is Martin’s new book, Foreclosed America, co-authored with Christopher Niedt. This is a collection of portraits of Americans who have lost their homes to foreclosure since 2007 — and a look at the housing crisis that still affects our economy and way of life.

Dispatches from the War on Drugs

Two new books explore the macro and micro effects of failed drug policy

In 1996, Dan Baum published the definitive account of America’s complicated relationship with psychoactive Drugs Unlimitedsubstances. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure is an exhaustive, apolitical narrative history of the war’s origin, evolution and cost, and though public opinion has changed (a recent Pew Research study found that Americans now favor treatment over prosecution and are against mandatory minimum sentencing by a two-to-one ratio), the book remains an important document of the human toll of the drug war.

I bring up Baum’s work because Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, by UK journalist Mike Power, is its 21st century bookend. At the time Smoke and Mirrors was penned, the Internet was in its infancy, data transfer rate was measured in kilobytes and computer literacy was limited.

In the decades since, the Web has expanded the chemical landscape, altering which drugs we do, how we acquire them, and in an effort to stay a step ahead of the law, Power writes, producers, suppliers and consumers have shifted into the wildly erratic world of “research chemicals”—legal alternatives to and analogues of illegal compounds sold widely over the Internet.

The consumption of psychoactive plants is nothing new (the earliest known head trip dates back about 13,000 years), but until the 1970s and ’80s, recreational drug users had only a handful of chemicals to choose from. In 1971, the United Nations identified just 234 legal substances; 243 new compounds have been identified in just the past four years.

Accelerated culture, indeed.

These new chemicals are often untested, of shady origin and composition and can be far more lethal than their outlaw counterparts. They’ve also inspired media-invented “epidemics” of bath salts and synthetic marijuana—fueling a digital age reefer madness that keeps drug policy mired in the past.

But Drugs Unlimited is as much about hypertext transfer protocol as politics. The psychonauts who once explored inner-space have journeyed into cyberspace, and the market has moved from the corner to the CPU.

Power’s narrative is thorough and engaging, but at times can be too thorough, particularly when it comes to the chemical names. For example, Power is compelled to include a complete stock list from a chinese distributor, which includes more than 90 compounds with names like 5-MeO-DALT, Methiopropamine (MPA), Fluoromethamphetamine (and its analogues), Desoxypipradrol (2-DPMP) and so on.

Granted, he does this for effect: “Among that unreadable alphabet soup of drug names there are hallucinogens, stimulants, empathogens and cannabinoids. Working out which of them are legal or which have been outlawed in various countries would require thousands of hours of legal time or case law study.”

This certainly helps shed light on the challenges facing consumers and law enforcement, but at times, the emphasis on product names can be overwhelming.

Aside from that, Power crafts an accessible narrative that is one of the most important books of the millennium. What Baum did for the American drug war, Power does for the U.K., from the digital age to the Deep Web.

The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips

Kevin Deutsch

While Drugs Unlimited operates at a broad level, The Triangle goes micro. For a harrowing year, journalist Kevin The TriangleDeutsch shadowed the gang-bangers of Hempstead, Long Island, in a place known as the Linden Triangle—ground zero of a 2012 turf war that turned an already rough neighborhood into a slaughterhouse. Forget the stereotypes of suburban Long Island. Think The Warriors rather than The Great Gatsby.

Dramatically reconstructed from interviews, legal records and first-hand experience, The Triangle is as fast-paced and action-packed as a first-rate thriller—a literary narrative as entertaining as it is troubling. The cast includes leaders, hitters and corner crews from both the Bloods and Crips; the terrorized residents of Hempstead; cops, criminologists and others in the justice system; and a minister who leads midnight prayer groups on the corners.

Deutsch stitches together their stories with a novelist’s skill. He’ll (rightfully) earn high marks in the press for his research and daring, but his ability to manage this Dostoyevskian cast without disrupting the narrative flow is worth noting.

Racial and social problems emerge that are intrinsic to the drug war. Incarceration and surrounding gentrification has turned Hempstead into an island of poverty. The gangs are the biggest employers in the Triangle, and those who would oppose the gangs are financially trapped in their territory.

Deutsch doesn’t give us an easy out. The reader is forced to confront the capriciousness of life in Hempstead, the social and legal conditions that created it and the self-defeating strategies of the gangsters that maintain a vicious status quo.

There is something heroic about the ability to survive in this environment, particularly in defiance of hateful neighbors (one Nassau County government official recommends that they “carpet-bomb Hempstead”: “Let the blacks and Hispanics go back to New York City. They’re better off there. Long Island isn’t that kind of place.”) Yet, Deutsch is wise to avoid romanticizing thug life, and not afraid to reveal the cowardice of its so-called soldiers:

Tyrek, leader of the Crips set, earned his membership by stabbing a pregnant teenager in the stomach. His ace card in the turf war is a suckerpunch, not a fair fight. J-Roc, a rising soldier in the Bloods, talks a big game, but struggles to intimidate a senior citizen. Ice, leader of the Bloods, helps promising kids get an education, yet orders the kidnapping and gang-raping of his rivals’ sisters, girlfriends and mothers.

Sadly, for all the lip service about honor, the Crips and Bloods mostly prey on the vulnerable. The true casualties of this war are the women in the crossfire. “The gangsters see sexual violence as a strategic and tactical weapon, as important to their arsenal as guns and blades,” Deutsch writes in the chapter “Extreme Tactics,” which includes the retaliatory abduction and gang rape of a female Crips employee.

At least the victim, in this case, actually works for the gang. That is not a prerequisite. Flex Butler, a Crips lieutenant, brags about assaulting the 15-year-old sister of a guy who’d stolen $2,000 worth of cocaine.

“‘[He] was hiding from us,’ Flex says. ‘So we got his sister when she was walking home from school. She fought hard, but there was a lot of us.’”

So yeah, these are not sympathetic characters. Deutsch doesn’t condemn, patronize, glorify or victimize, but presents the residents of Hempstead in all their unresolved moral complexity. For the most part, he avoids the cinematic histrionics common to gang narratives. The lone exception is D-Bo, a promising kid whose attempt to escape the corner gets a bit of the Hollywood treatment. Much is made of the timing of a confrontation with his gang (even though he’d been at home for a month), which leads to a chase scene, a misunderstood shooting and a dramatic exchange between the corner boy and the officer who tried to help him escape while awaiting the paramedics.

But I’ll forgive Deutsch this one instance of going for the heart strings. Otherwise, this is an unflinching look at the fear, fame and futility of gang warfare.

Strong writing, compelling characters and front-line reporting make this an entertaining read, but Deutsch’s detached, yet compassionate handling of the material makes The Triangle an important one as well.

Both Drugs Unlimited and The Triangle are worthy books on their own, but for anyone with a love of history, sociology or just damn good journalism, this is a one-two combination that, together, offers a wide perspective of the War on Drugs.

Review: The Perfect Kill

The Perfect Kill

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, by former CIA case officer and best-selling The Perfect Killauthor Robert Baer. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up.

But before you start stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of The Perfect Kill as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook. This is an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

The assassin, though, is not Baer, but rather Hajj Radwan (aka Imad Mughniyeh), a notorious Lebanese terrorist affiliated with Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization. He is the man responsible for the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and marine barracks, and Baer links him to a number of kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations in the 1980s and ’90s.

Despite being an international fugitive (he was on the “most wanted” list of dozens of countries) and the focus of numerous arrest and assassination attempts by the U.S. and Israel, Radwan was able to execute successful terrorist attacks for a quarter-century before being killed by a car bomb in 2008.

His ability to elude justice for so long is frustrating to fans of instant karma, but for an experienced CIA operative (Baer himself was in pursuit of Radwan), he authored a playbook for political murder.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

And Baer’s got the bona fides to back it up. He writes for Time and other news outlets; he has produced documentaries for the BBC; and he has authored nonfiction best-sellers like See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil.

Oh, and George Clooney played Baer in Syriana. Not a bad resume.

Each chapter begins with a “rule” for assassins, such as “The Bastard Has to Deserve It” (Law #1), “Every Act a Bullet or a Shield” (Law #4) and “Nothing Wounded Moves Uphill” (Law #20). Also included are “notes” to help one stick to each law and historical lessons (successful and otherwise) enforcing its importance.

But always, the primary narrative is the chess match between Bear and Radwan, and it is one that spans decades and continents. It’s a fascinating tale, and not surprisingly, the TV rights to the book were sold months before its publication.

I’m excited to see its adaptation, but there’s no substitute for the source. This is a stellar book that is a must-read for fans of history, the Middle East, the military and U.S. foreign policy.

Review: We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feministsand Purple Hibiscus is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. It was adapted from Adichie’s famous TEDxEuston talk, and whether you prefer the visual or the text, make sure you get a hold of one of them.

“Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

Reading this essay brought me back to my first day of Human Sexuality class at Penn State. “How many of you consider yourselves feminists?” the teacher asked. None of us men raised our hands (I hadn’t yet learned that, by definition, men could be feminists), and maybe only half the women raised theirs.

The teacher asked the hands-downers why they weren’t feminists, and though the reasons they gave were myriad, every response was prefaced with some variation of “I support equality and fair treatment and don’t believe that women are inferior to men, but…”

Interesting.

The teacher’s point, of course, was to show the class how this word had been bastardized and appropriated by so many groups for so many reasons that half the women disowned the label. Adichie shares similar anecdotes of her own struggles with the term.

This was almost 20 years ago, and the word “feminist” is more loaded than ever. With one or more women expected to compete for the presidency in 2016, attack-ad narrators are surely practicing their intonations for the coming voice-over work.

The Nigerian-born Adichie addresses one of the most common criticisms of feminism: Why the gender-specific language? Why not humanist? Or equalist?

“Because that would be dishonest,” Adichie writes. “Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.”

But this isn’t an essay about terminology. It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.

Douglas Murray, Islamophilia

I must confess: About a third of the way through Douglas Murray’s Islamophilia, I tossed it onto the discard pile. (islamophiliaOK, not really, since I was reading it on my Nook.) But before I abandoned this book, my conscience got the better of me. I re-launched the file and read to the end.

I am very glad I did.

If I were to blurb Islamophilia, I would say, “Douglas Murray has provided us with a document that is challenging, bitter, distasteful, and difficult to digest. And it may well be one of the most important books of the past few years.” (Hey Mr. Murray, don’t forget me when the print edition goes to press.)

In this short book (more of an extended essay), Murray vents over post-9/11 media treatment of Islam, which he considers to be inconsistent with treatment of other religions. For Murray, Islam is like an update on the Seinfeld episode when a reporter thought Jerry and George were a couple, prompting qualified denials (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”).

Unfortunately, this is not a book with a strong sense of humor, and it reads more like a polemic than an essay. In the early pages, Murray’s anger overshadows his argument. For example, Murray expends much energy going after the 1001 Inventions multimedia education project, which spotlights Muslim contributions to science and technology. He argues that the exhibit crosses over into historical revisionism, and perhaps he’s right. I’ve never seen the exhibit myself, but he’s not the first person to make this critique. But regardless of the factual accuracy, his mocking tone is more befitting a late-night drunk dialogue.

Here is where I shut it down.

I intentionally avoid politics in this column, particularly because I believe—excepting the extremely polarized rants on the nonfiction bestseller list—that literature is one of the few uniting or at least neutral spaces remaining. (I would say animals and football are the others. Folks love their dogs no matter where they stand on universal health care.)

But due to the subject of this book, I feel some disclosure is appropriate. I am a liberal, yet what drew me to this book is that I agree with Murray, a neoconservative. It’s an area of contention with my liberal friends, who apply inconsistent standards toward Islam. Were the Catholic church to require women to wear hijabs and be accompanied by men in public, it would be denounced as part of the church’s war on women. But when mandated by Islam, it’s dismissed as a cultural difference.

I’m not asking my liberal counterparts to feel one way or another about these religions, but as a matter of intellectual integrity, I do expect them to be consistent.

So, I was drawn to the thesis of this book, but turned off by the tone. What made me pick it back up?

Cartoons.

When it comes to Islam and art, there are three events that are indefensible: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (for writing a novel); the brutal assassination and near-decapitation of Theo Van Gough (because of an 11-minute film); and the more than 200 people who have been killed in response to Danish cartoons.

And then there was the censorship of the animated show South Park and the death threats aimed at the show’s creators. Murray writes:

“This, however, is the new normal. Cartoons are censored. Any possible offence to Muslims is averted by series and broadcast networks that routinely and enjoyably satirise everything else under the sun, including all other religions.”

Here, Murray hits his stride. He addresses the violent backlash against artists and how it has led to pre-emptive self-censorship. For example, The Jewel of Medina, a book Random House dropped for fear of attack—a merited fear as weeks later a book publisher in Britain was fire-bombed for agreeing to release the book (which Murray says has still not been released in Britain).

What’s happening now, he argues, is self-censorship for fear of reprisal. Something absent following critiques of other faiths:

“Artists and writers have been caught off-guard. Having poked at empty hornets’ nests for so many years they have forgotten the courage required to do the necessary poking at full ones.”

Murray then sounds the call for bravery and the courage to support artistic freedom. He closes with some of the book’s most thoughtful passages and proposes solutions to overcoming both phobias and philias.

It is this last part that really elevates Murray’s argument, and makes me glad I stuck with the book.

Like I said, this is a difficult read, but an important one. I often disagree with Murray, and at times he made me cringe, but in the end, his argument is thorough and thoughtful and worthy of consideration.

Review, On Dissent: Its Meaning in America

On DissentNot many books from Cambridge University Press make it to the summer reading list, but On Dissent: Its Meaning in America is one of the better ways to revolt against the light-hearted beach-readers out there. Hell, it’s patriotic. America was born in dissent, and we celebrate it still. With fireworks—even illegal ones (though from now on I argue that M-80s are not outlaws, but rather the tools of dissent).

But why is dissent so much of our DNA? What does it even mean to dissent? These were the questions nagging at Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, two esteemed political scholars who were surprised to find that there was no true analysis of the concept of dissent.

That’s what they set out to create with this short, thought-provoking work.

For the most part, Collins and Skover accomplish their goal. The tone is philosophical in nature, and the authors begin by attempting to define dissent and identify its practitioners. Sure, anyone can point to the examples of Thoreau, King and Paine, but the authors take on trickier issues, such as how clear the line is (or isn’t) between civil disobedience and criminality. What role does violence play in dissent, or does an action cease to be dissent once it becomes violent?

Collins and Skover do a great job, and scholarly service, by identifying the fundamental traits of dissent, such as its being goal-oriented and indicative of a power dynamic. They buttress their definition by exploring hypotheticals and philosophical dilemmas (is a hired protester a dissenter?), and they do it all with an accessible writing style that will appeal to non-academic readers who might not otherwise seek out this book.

Of course, it’s not perfect, and the biggest issue I have is with the authors’ overreliance on expert commentary, such as that of Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader. The quotations are often redundant and unnecessary. The collective intellect of Collins and Skover is authoritative enough, and I recommend skimming through the offset commentary.

But there’s nothing else I would skim over in this book—particularly the epilogue. Here, the authors move away from definitions and thought experiments and present their own take on dissent—that contrary to rebellion, dissent is a vital and cohesive component of a democracy:

“Consent and dissent are two sides of the same coin. Without dissent, consent is meaningless; without consent, dissent loses much of its animating purpose” (152).

On Dissent is a quick and wonderful read. It will get you thinking. It will get you talking. It will remind you that though we may disagree, the freedom to disagree and express opposing viewpoints is what makes us strong.

The End of Righteousness

OK, the title of this book review is admittedly ambitious, but now that the election has finished, perhaps we can all sheath our knives for a week or so–and stop screaming long enough to breathe.

Or better yet, to read a good book.

To nurse that campaign hangover, I recommend moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I read this over the summer, and I think it should be required reading for anyone running for office. And it’s the perfect antidote for any residual post-electoral rage.

Haidt begins with a simple, yet quite genius premise. He looked around at his countrymen, divided by a vicious culture war, and discovered more commonalities than differences. For all our diversity, American culture is quite homogenous. (No surprise: “Melting pots” are designed to synthesize many ingredients into a unified whole, not keep them separated.)

We have common experiences, languages, and yes, values. No matter what the campaign ads say, is there anyone on either side that doesn’t want the economy to improve, for their family to be safe from attack, to have excellent health care and receive a good education?

There are philosophical differences on how to achieve these goals, true, but when it comes down to it, all any sane person wants is to be happy, to provide for their loved ones and live a good life.

So why all the vitriol? How can a society with such common goals claw at each others’ eyes with such entitlement? How can we so easily demonize and dismiss someone who disagrees with us?

Well, it’s complicated, to be sure. But Haidt sifts through scientific research, anthropological findings and the evolution of intellectual thought to divine some underlying truths. One of the biggest is the notion that intuition guides our beliefs more than reason. This is why logical arguments are often ineffectual against deep-rooted beliefs–why discussions become debates, and debates devolve into bumper-sticker slogan shouting.

“…don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

In other words, it is not evidence that shapes our worldview. We are naturally and subconsciously drawn to evidence that confirms are worldview. We intuit our morality first and support it with arguments later. That’s why it’s so easy to become entrenched in our beliefs and intolerant of opposing viewpoints.

The Righteous Mind does skew toward the academic, and can be challenging at times. But hey, nobody said bipartisanship was easy! Once you’ve grasped the science and moral theory, you’ll have a better grasp of Haidt’s conclusion.

And this is where the author truly shines.

“Part III: Morality Binds and Blinds” synthesizes all that came before and presents an insightful view of human beliefs and behaviors. How would conservatives fare without liberals? Liberals without conservatives? Haidt makes a compelling case that each would fail without the other. This book is worth it for this section alone.

Here, Haidt summons the great utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill and his take on both sides of the aisle. “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

Perhaps after reading this book, we’ll treat one another with a little more respect and a little less righteousness.