Book Review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016)

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Where do we go from here?

five out of five stars

From the mutual foundation of slavery and freedom at the country’s inception to the genocide of the Native population that made the “peculiar institution” possible to the racist promulgation of “manifest destiny” to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the codified subordinate status of Black people for a hundred years after slavery ended, they are all grim reminders of the millions of bodies upon which the audacious smugness of American hubris is built. Race and racism have not been exceptions; instead, they have been the glue that holds the United States together.

Pathologizing “Black” crime while making “white” crime invisible creates a barrier between the two, when solidarity could unite both in confronting the excesses of the criminal justice system. This, in a sense, is the other product of the “culture of poverty” and of naturalizing Black inequality. This narrative works to deepen the cleavages between groups of people who would otherwise have every interest in combining forces.

— 4.5 stars —

I picked up From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation expecting a discussion about police brutality, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of blackness and poverty; what I found was a little different, and much more far-reaching.

While Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor does talk about recent, high-profile cases of police brutality and murder – and the protest movement these injustices have birthed – she also goes further back, in order to examine the current wave of activism in its historical context. Reaching as far back as Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1920s and LBJ’s “Great Society” reforms in the 1960s, Taylor shows how each came about as a result of social unrest – and was later undermined and dismantled as activism waned (or was routinely suppressed by the government), often under the guise of some utopian, post-racial colorblindness. Tracing the beginning of harmful racist stereotypes to the rise of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, she argues that the path to black liberation is primarily economic, i.e., dismantling the capitalist system and/or embracing socialist initiatives (presumably resembling the People’s Platform recently presented to the Democrats).

The early chapters on politics that predate me were a little rough to get through, I’m not gonna lie. But this is a personal preference, and you or may not feel the same. Once Taylor hit more contemporary events, my interest picked up too. Her argument is shrewd, impassioned, and all but guaranteed to make you think – even if you don’t agree with her conclusions 100%.

Before my reading, I perused the reviews on Goodreads to get a feel for the material. My attention was drawn to the lone two-star review, which took Taylor to task for ignoring the racism of early leftists, “equating racism by whites & black people’s response to it as if they are on the same level” (which I definitely don’t remember seeing). I think maybe some of the confusion lies in the terms; for example, Taylor frequently criticizes liberals for erasure (e.g., ignoring racism and racial identity in their policies and agendas), or engaging in racism themselves. Can the terms “liberal,” “progressive,” and “socialist” be used interchangeably, though? More importantly, are they here? It wasn’t always clear to me.

To this first point – erasure, for example, by focusing on class instead of race – I wondered what Taylor would make of Bernie Sanders, who has been roundly criticized by women and people of color for throwing these groups under the bus (‘identity politics are divisive’) in order to attract white, middle- and working-class Christian men (i.e., Trump’s base). Taylor does mention Sanders briefly, only to dismiss him as part of the “right wing” of the socialist party. I have to wonder how different (if at all) this book might have looked it it was written and published a year or two later. (fwiw, I supported Sanders in the primary, but voted for Clinton in the general election. I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with Sanders’s focus on white men to the exclusion of marginalized groups. It’s almost like the Dems didn’t learn anything in November!)

Though not without some minor flaws, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is a book that informs, educates, and challenges. I really hope it gets published with an update four or eight years down the line.

 

Table of Contents

Introduction: Black Awakening in Obama’s America

Chapter 1. A Culture of Racism
Chapter 2. From Civil Rights to Colorblind
Chapter 3. Black Faces in High Places
Chapter 4. The Double Standard of Justice
Chapter 5. Barack Obama: The End of an Illusion
Chapter 6. Black Lives Matter: A Movement, Not a Moment
Chapter 7. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

Acknowledgments

Notes

About the Author

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, Veronica Chambers, ed. (2017)

Friday, January 13th, 2017

A bittersweet love letter to the outgoing FLOTUS.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and misogyny.)

Barack and Michelle Obama served this country for two terms as President and First Lady of the United States of America. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man—with a black woman by his side. Even after eight years of watching them daily in the press, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is a Black man is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a Black woman is soul-stirring. That woman is Michelle. Michelle! That name now carries a whole world of meaning. And a whole world of memory. And a whole world of a magic.

(“Preface,” Ava Duvernay)

Thank you, Michelle, for showing a generation of women, including me and my daughter, what it means to dwell in possibility.

(“Acknowledgements,” Veronica Chambers)

For all of my adult life – the entire time I’ve been paying attention to politics, really – I’ve vastly preferred our president’s wives over their husbands: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and now Michelle Obama. (The same will probably hold true of Melania, but it’s an impossibly low bar, okay.) No matter their political allegiances, the FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) tend to be a least a shade more progressive than their men, especially when it comes to “women’s issues” like reproductive freedom. Not that they’re allowed to voice these views: American prefers its First Ladies be seen, not heard, functioning as little more than their husbands’ appendages or cheerleaders. “Stepford Wives-in-Chief,” Tiffany Dufu puts it. Remember how viciously then-FLOTUS Hillary was shot down for daring to advance health care reform?

Michelle Obama is in a league of her own, though. Like many Americans, I was captivated with her from Day 1. I loved that she refused to play the role of the bland, devoted wife; a blank canvas onto which Americans/voters could project their versions of ideal femininity. She spoke of Barack like he was a regular guy, rather than an up-and-coming rockstar politician. Yet it was evident that these two crazy kids were deeply in love. She (and her family) was a lightning rod for every bit of racist and sexist excrement the right could throw at her, yet Michelle handled it with grace and finesse. We watched as Lady O. – and her style – evolved from first to second term; she went from high-power lawyer to high-fashion mom, as described by Tanisha C. Ford (“She Slays”). She had fun, was comfortable in her skin, and was perfectly imperfect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Last Seen Leaving, Caleb Roehrig (2016)

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

What happened to January Beth McConville?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and rape. This review contains a spoiler in the form of Flynn’s secret – but it’s revealed so early on that it’s not much of a spoiler, imho.)

“I won’t be your safeguard or your excuse or your problem anymore,” she spat suddenly, venomously. “Either admit the truth, or find a new place to hide, because I’m done!”

Her feet pounded across the shadowy hayloft, then descended the ladder, and then crossed the barn underneath me. I heard the door creak open, and caught a glimpse of her glowing blond hair as she jogged from the barn back into the trees, heading toward the meadow.

It was the last time I saw her. Those were the last words she spoke to me.

One crisp October afternoon, fifteen-year-old Flynn Doherty returns home after school, only to find a cop car parked conspicuously outside. Flynn’s girlfriend January McConville has been missing for nearly a week, and Flynn may have been the last person to see her. As if that fact isn’t damning enough, Flynn claims not to have known about January’s disappearance: since her mother and stepfather forcibly transferred her to Dumas, a private school for rich kids located on the other side of town, they’d been growing apart. In fact, January broke up with him right before she vanished. (Strike three!)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Christian Nation: A Novel, Frederic C. Rich (2013)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

I really wanted to like this book…

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. )

I really wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean, it’s right up my alley: Speculative fiction. The rise of an American theocracy. The erosion of civil liberties and rights. The misuse of technology by the government to spy on its citizens and force them into submission. Misogyny taken to its logical extremes. When I first read the description on the book jacket, it brought to mind some of my favorite dystopian classics: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an obvious one, as is George Orwell’s 1984. While these books do share some similarities, what sets Christian Nation: A Novel apart is that it’s surprisingly boring.

Caution: Minor spoilers ahead!

What might have happened had John McCain and Sarah Palin won the 2008 election? In Frederic C. Rich’s vision of one possible America, a McCain/Palin victory is the first step on the path to an American theocracy. Not long after his inauguration, President McCain drops dead of a cerebral aneurism while giving a speech in Moscow. In a nightmare scenario, the ill-prepared Sarah Palin is swiftly sworn in. During her presidency – which lasts two terms, thanks to a series of especially brutal and conveniently-timed terrorist attacks on American soil – Palin begins to lay the groundwork for what will become the unraveling of American democracy. Among other things, Palin declares martial law, and with her leadership, Congress passes previously unthinkable pieces of legislation, including the Houses of Worship Act, the Constitution Restoration Act, and the Defense of Freedom Act – most of the provisions of which are upheld by a Supreme Court now dominated by conservatives.

Palin is succeeded by her mostly-invisible adviser, Steve Jordan, under whose leadership America undergoes a radical transformation. On July 4th, 2017, he introduces a series of fifty proposed rules organized around ten assertions. Based on an evangelical Christian reading of the Bible and collectively called The Blessing, these are to act as each citizen’s covenant with God, as well as the basis for more concrete state and federal laws. The Blessing is a sort of conservative Christian wishlist: among other things, it establishes “God’s law” as the law of the land; restricts judgeships to born again Christians; expels the UN from US soil and nullifies existing international treaties; solidifies marriage as between one man and one woman; outlaws abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, adultery, pornography, and “sexual perversion”; eradicates hate crimes legislation; establishes abstinence-only education as the only legal form of sexual education; and demands that wives must obey their husbands and children, their fathers. While Jordon doesn’t unilaterally enact The Blessing – it comes up for a vote in Congress, much like any other piece of legislation – it easily passes in a House and Senate dominated by conservative Christians (many of whom were swept into power with the help of politically active churches, thanks to Palin’s Houses of Worship Act).

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some, Glenn Greenwald (2011)

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

A must read for anyone who professes to care about “democracy.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

If you read just one book in 2012, let Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some be it. (But really, please read more than one book this year. Reading is the best!)

Greenwald – a political columnist for Salon who previously worked as an attorney specializing in constitutional and civil rights issues – shows how, over the past several decades, the legal system has been bent, twisted, abused, and exploited to serve the interests of the privileged few at the expense of the many. Beginning with the Watergate scandal, he traces the evolution (or devolution, as it were) of “elite immunity,” an increasingly accepted principle which holds that some people – and companies – are too large, too important, too powerful to be made to follow the same rules as the rest of us. While this exception initially only applied to those in the highest levels of government, it’s gradually expanded to encompass government officials at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as large corporations and their earthly representatives. Thus, the law – meant to be the great equalizer (of white, cissexual, Christian men … and, eventually all American citizens) – instead works to perpetuate inequities in all realms of life.

In his discussion of elite immunity, Greenwald explores the idea through the use of two recent examples: the so-called “war on terror” (particularly the use of torture) and the financial crisis (including the fraudulent business practices that contributed to it). However, examples of elite immunity can be found far and wide: companies flout environmental regulations, face no criminal penalties for doing so – and, to add insult to injury, taxpayers foot the bill for cleanup. (That is, if the mess is even cleaned up.) Animal ag ignores the paltry animal welfare laws that exist, and are lauded for their “good” (read: profitable) business practices. (All while receiving handouts from the taxpayers in the form of subsidies and complimentary “pest” control programs, such as plans to wipe out wolves who dare dine on cows.) Police officers assault largely nonviolent Occupy protestors, in some cases forcibly holding their eyes open so that they can harm them with pepper spray, and no one but the occasional scapegoat is held accountable. (Of course, police brutality is nothing new; men and women of color, trans* people, sex workers, the homeless, those with mental and physical disabilities – all have been and continue to be targets of police abuse, with little hope of recourse from our legal system.)

Normally this is where I’d include a few excerpts or choice facts – but it’s difficult to quote any one passage, because it’s all compelling. (Insert the rage comic “I’ll highlight all the important parts.” / “IT’S ALL IMPORTANT.” here.) Really, if you’re even the least bit interested in politics, justice, or democracy, With Liberty and Justice for Some is a must read.

My only complaint is that, after working the reader into a frenzy of fury-slash-depression, Greenwald doesn’t so much as hint at a how we might go about fixing this mess. Granted, any solutions are likely to be complicated and multifacted and require more than a chapter (or even a book) to adequately explain, but just a taste of hope and optimism would be nice. Personally, I wish he’d touched upon electoral reform – particularly the public financing of elections – as a start, but I’m also curious as to what he’d suggest. Ah well, next book perhaps?

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser (2002)

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Sarah Palin in a Corset

five out of five stars

Though I’m not what you’d call a seasoned history buff – French history, in particular – I can confidently say that Antonia Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY is the definitive biography of Marie Antoinette. It’s hard to imagine that any historian can top this exhaustive look at the life and death of France’s most infamous Queen.

Fraser traces Marie Antoinette’s life, from privileged birth to tragic death, in great detail. (The story actually begins well before Antoinette’s birth, with a look back at the Princess’s ancestors, and ends not with the Queen’s beheading, but with the fate of her daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte.) Fraser makes extensive use of contemporary documents, most notably correspondence between Marie Antoinette and her friends and relatives, including her mother, the politically ambitious Maria Theresa. She also cites – sometimes critically – the work of historians before her. The result is a keen, nuanced examination of the life and legacy of Marie Antoinette, to whom history has not been kind.

While Antoine was, like all people, a flawed individual, she was far from the she-devil caricature drawn by her opponents. The Queen did waste the taxpayers’ money on all manner of frivolities; but then, so did her husband and other assorted members of their royal circle. (Indeed, much of this expense went towards “traditional” or “customary” labor and favors; had she tried to do away with these French traditions, the Austrian-born Queen would have been vilified just the same.) Born into privilege, she knew little of poverty, famine, or hard labor – the lot of most of her subjects. Most damningly, she actively defended France’s monarchy, positioning herself directly opposite freedom and democracy.

Even so, Marie Antoinette was a scapegoat, a receptacle for the political unrest, violence and hatred of the time. Much of the criticism directed at the Queen was predictably gender-based: she was at once stupid and frivolous – and a political mastermind capable of manipulating and cuckolding the King; a cold, frigid lover, the source of her husband’s impotence and/or asexuality – and a ravenous, insatiable whore, who either engaged in orgies with men or women, depending on whom you believe. (At her trial, she was even accused – along with her sister-in-law – of sexually abusing her own son!) Pamphlets of the time depicted the Queen in all states of undress and sexual positions, and her physical appearance was often a topic of discussion. Naturally, her body – or rather, the contents of her womb – was also a point of public interest, as her primary “job” was to bear France the next King. Sound vaguely familiar? (Hence the title of this review, which could just as easily read “Hillary Clinton in muslin.”)

Marie Antoinette was the victim not just of misogyny, but of xenophobia as well. Prior to Princess Antoine’s marriage to the Dauphin, Austria and France were rivals. The future King Louis XV had been raised on tales of “those evil Austrians,” a factor perhaps contributing to his initial indifference towards his new wife. The Princess drew no small amount of suspicion as an Austrian upon her marriage to the Dauphin, and the hatred and discrimination only grew with her unpopularity. The Queen’s loyalties were often called into question, despite the many sacrifices she made in order to become the “Mother” of France. (Imagine being forced from your family and homeland, thrust into a strange place with no friends or allies, and treated like the state’s baby machine. The Queen may have been privileged, but she was also very much oppressed.)

At 544 pages, MARIE ANTOINETTE is a hefty book; so much so, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t have “read” it had it not been available in audiobook format. Even so, it took me also a month to finish the audiobook, which clocks in at over 20 hours. Fraser’s take on Marie Antoinette is astute, informed and fascinating. Even so, I don’t think I would have made it through the print book. English is my primary language, and with no training in French, I’m certain that I would have found the French (and Austrian) names, places, words and phrases difficult to enunciate and follow. Donanda Peters makes for an engaging and charming narrator, transitioning from French to Scottish accent with ease.

My only real complaint is in Fraser’s coverage of France’s political climate during Marie Antoinette’s reign. Fraser does talk politics, but these discussions are usually framed and presented in terms of Marie Antoinette’s life, as a sort of backdrop. With no real foundation in French history, I found this rather confusing and choppy, but again, I’m a novice – history buffs will probably come to the table with all the background knowledge they need.

That said, I think hardcore history buffs and novices alike will enjoy MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY. The book is rife with feminist undertones (Fraser seems no stranger to patriarchy blaming!), so methinks it might make great leisure reading for feminist-minded women, as well. I look forward to devouring more of Antonia Fraser’s political biographies!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Movie Review: Marie Antoinette: A Film by David Grubin (2006)

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

The condensed version of Antonia Fraser’s biography

four out of five stars

After listening to Antonia Fraser’s excellent and exhaustive biography of Marie Antoinette on audiobook (MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY), I immediately hopped onto Netflix in search of a related documentary or two. The only one to catch my eye was David Grubin’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM. Try as I might, I can’t help but critique Grubin’s film in relation to Fraser’s biography.

Grubin’s MARIE ANTOINETTE clocks in at about two hours, compared to the 20+ hour narration of Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE. While it might seem unfair to compare the two for this reason alone, they do share a similar story arc and cover much the same ground. In fact, Grubin includes snippets of interviews with several French historians in MARIE ANTOINETTE, one of whom is Antonia Fraser herself!

Given the time limitation, Grubin does a decent enough job of detailing the life and death of Marie Antoinette, starting with her childhood in Vienna, Austria, and ending with her death at the hands of “revolutionaries” in Paris, France. Even so, Grubin barely scratches the surface; for example, though he attempts to examine Marie Antoinette’s psychological, social and intellectual development, the audience is only beginning to get a feel for Marie Antoinette the person by film’s end. Additionally, Grubin raises a few controversial points – such as Marie Antoinette’s relationship with Count Ferson – which is unfortunate, because he’s unable to examine points of contention on anything but a superficial level. For example, Fraser dealt with historical controversies by returning to contemporary accounts of the events (diaries, letters, etc.), detailing various modern views on the issue, and then concluding with her own reasoned interpretation of the evidence. Grubin simply doesn’t have enough time to do the same.

On the plus side, Grubin’s film boasts one momentous advantage over Fraser’s (audio)book – visual aids! Grubin interlaces interviews and narration with video and stills for stunning visual effects. MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM highlights a number of contemporary images, including portraits of Marie Antoinette and her friends and family, as well as scores of pages from then-scandalous pamphlets and propaganda – much of which contains nudity and sketches of a sexual nature (thankfully, none is censored). Grubin juxtaposes modern video of historical places – Versailles, Le Petit Trianon, Vienna – with these historical images, thus allowing the audience access to the places significant to Madame Antoine’s child- and adulthood.

Additionally, I thought that Grubin’s recounting of the French Revolution was more linear and easier to follow than was Fraser’s. Fraser interspersed her accounts of the revolutionary political climate in France with its effects on Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, while Grubin offered a lean – but informative – summary towards the end of his film.

All in all, I enjoyed MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM, but coming off of MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY, felt as though I’d already heard much of Grubin’s story. Newbies will probably find MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM a nice introduction to the topic, while history buffs might like the film’s visuals. All in all, a keeper.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers, Susan Morrison, ed. (2008)

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

The Pantsuit Makes the Woman?

four out of five stars

Whether you love Hillary or hate her, no doubt you’ve got a strong opinion about the woman. But the emotions evoked in you by Hillary Clinton probably speak less to Hillary’s character than to your underlying attitudes about strong, independent, self-reliant women. So goes the premise of THIRTY WAYS OF LOOKING AT HILLARY: REFLECTIONS BY WOMEN WRITERS. (And, um, pretty much anyone who’s been overwhelmed by the misogyny and racism permeating this year’s election cycle, natch.)

In THIRTY WAYS OF LOOKING AT HILLARY, thirty prominent female journalistas wax poetic on what Hillary means to them. No aspect of Hillary’s life and character is too mundane or sacrosanct: everything from Hillary’s infamous pantsuits to her marriage to Bill (or “secret pact,” as some paranoid pundits might call it) and her every-changing coif goes under the microscope. As a result, some of the pieces are rather fluffy (Mimi Sheraton’s “How Hungry is Hillary?: Reading the Culinary Clues” and Susan Orlean’s “Political Animals: Is Hillary a Cat Person or a Dog Person?” spring to mind), but it’s all in good fun. In this vein, Patricia Marx’s satirical “From the 1965 Eyrie Yearbook” is especially entertaining; it reads like a transcript of an SNL segment. (Hello, Amy Polar!)

Most of the thirty essays, while entertaining, are far from frivolous. While many of the writers tackle seemingly trivial topics (pantsuits, hairstyles and surnames, oh my!), these are usually circuitous routes to grander points; the way in which changes in Hillary’s wardrobe correspond to her increasingly moderate (pandering?) political positions, for example, or what Hillary’s favorite books reveal about her child- and adulthood. The pieces of Hillary expounded upon by each individual author also say a great deal about that author; in “Hello, My Name Is…,” Cristina (no “H”!) Henriquez speaks eloquently about her conflicting identities as an Panamanian woman born and raised in America.

While I expected that most of the thirty essays would touch upon the misogyny that’s colored this campaign season, not all of the writers deal explicitly with the anti-woman backlash that Hillary inspires in so many men (and not a few women). However, there are a few great pieces on the subject, including an essay by the always-awesome Katha Pollitt (“Hillary Rotten: Sexist Sticks and Stones”) and must-read from Leslie Bennetts (“Beyond Gender: The Revenge of the Postmenopausal Woman”). Though I’m not familiar with all of the contributors, most seem somewhat feminist-minded, with the sole exception of Robin Givhan (“The Road to Cleavagegate: What Do We Want Female Power to Look Like?”). Givhan, you might recall, is the Washington Post reporter who “broke” the Cleavagegate “story.” (Scare quotes because it’s neither breaking nor a story. “This just in! Hillary Clinton, the female Senator from New York, HAS BREASTS! More on this shocking development at nine!”) She spends much of her essay defending her own misogyny, arguing that it’s perfectly a-ok to judge Hillary – and, by extension, all women – on her physical appearance. What’s next, repenting to the Fashion Gods for wearing scrunchies and headbands after 1991? I don’t agree wholeheartedly with every sentiment expressed in THIRTY WAYS OF LOOKING AT HILLARY, but Givhan’s was the only essay that truly strikes me as out of place.

The other twenty-nine essays, on the other hand, represent a diverse and enjoyable read. At the end of the book, I found myself wistful for ’70s Hillary, in all her radfem blamer glory. 2008 Hillary, not so much.

Full disclosure: I voted for Kucinich in the primaries. I’m not crazy about Hillary or Barack, but I’ll most likely vote for the Democratic nominee in November. Unless it comes out that Barack eats puppies or Hillary is a closet Ann Coulter fan. And, for the record, I’m disgusted with the misogyny and racism emanating from either side of the Dem aisle.

P.S. Dear Mimi Sheraton – If your Boca Burgers resemble “miserably limp, grassy-tasting little disks that might be produced by Rubbermaid,” then you’re doing it wrong. Unless you’re rubbing defrosted Boca Burgers on your lawn, ain’t no way they come out tasting like grass. As for the so-called “limpness,” the only time I’ve cooked up a limp Boca Burger is by over- or under-cooking it in the microwave. Grilling and pan-frying them, not so much. So stop hating on the Boca Burgers when it’s clearly the cook’s fault. (Yeah, I’m a vegan. What of it?)

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China, Monroe Price and Daniel Dayan, eds. (2008)

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

The Olympics as Political Theatre

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Much more than a series of sporting competitions, the Olympic Games are a political and media event. The Olympics have a rich history; while the original games date back almost 3,000 years, the Olympic Games as we know them, complete with the governing International Olympic Committee (IOC), have been held every 2-4 years since 1896. Over their 100+ year history, the Olympics have evolved with the times. Increased athletic participation and spectatorship has placed a growing burden on Olympic host cities – but it has also allowed them the opportunity to present their own mediated image to the world. This is steadily apparent as globalization aids the flow of information between borders, so that knowledge knows fewer and fewer boundaries. The advent of the Internet and other new media paradigms have also loosened the grip host countries may previously have kept over their tightly controlled and highly managed constructs (which oftentimes border on outright propaganda).

It is in this context that the authors who contributed to OWNING THE OLYMPICS: NARRATIVES OF THE NEW CHINA examine the looming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The overarching theme of this anthology is the ways in which China is utilizing the Olympics to affect how their nation is perceived in other venues. For example, Briar Smith views Beijing’s relaxed restrictions on journalists as a means for China to counterbalance the negative publicity surrounding the Chinese government’s human rights abuses (“Journalism and the Beijing Olympics: Liminality with Chinese Characteristics”), while Alan Tomlinson examines the increasingly corporate/capitalist economy of the Olympics – which stands in stark contrast to the 2008 host city’s own Communist system (“Olympic Values, Beijing’s Olympic Games, and the Universal Market”). Additionally, there are some fascinating pieces that deal with the role of new technologies on the Games; in “‘We Are the Media’: Nonaccredited Media and Citizen Journalists at the Olympic Games” (Andy Miah, Beatriz Garcia, and Tian Zhihui), we learn that, starting from the 2000 Games in Sydney, nonaccredited journalists – including “Web-based journalists” – have been allowed greater access to the Games, with their own special (non)accreditation and Media Centers.

The sixteen pieces that comprise OWNING THE OLYMPICS present an interdisciplinary, multicultural lens through which to view what on its face might seem like just another sporting event (the world’s largest sporting event, granted, but a sporting event nonetheless) – yet is in fact diplomatic dance, political theatre, and an entertaining competition all rolled into one. The material can be dense at times, perhaps better suited for academics and media studies students than laypeople, but it is an enlightening and timely volume.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Imperial Life in The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran (2007)

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Broken Promises & Missed Opportunities

five out of five stars

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY: INSIDE IRAQ’S GREEN ZONE is an important piece of investigative journalism; indeed, it should be required reading for every politico on Capitol Hill. IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY is an account of what went wrong in Iraq – politically and practically speaking – in the aftermath of the American military invasion. It’s a story of broken promises and missed opportunities, nepotism and cronyism, bureaucracy and incompetence. The Green Zone, much like the Bush administration’s vision of a post-war Iraq, is a fantasyland, a veritable Oz, subject not to the realities of the times but only to the whims of its creators. Day-to-day life in Iraq’s Green Zone, then, is emblematic of our failure in Iraq.

But let’s start at the beginning. After the invasion of Iraq, American forces set up shop in the Green Zone, a 4-square-mile gated area of villas and palaces in central Baghdad which had previously been occupied by select government officials, ministries, and Saddam Hussein and his family. From here the so-called “coalition of the willing” (read: America) tried to rebuild and restructure Iraq via a transitional government called the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA), which was formed on April 21, 2003 and disbanded on June 28, 2004. By chronicling the CPA’s exploits in the Green Zone, Chandrasekaran explains how our utter lack of post-war planning stretched a war that was supposed to last “weeks rather than months” into an occupation that recently passed the five-year mark.

The CPA was doomed from the start. Instead of sending out best and brightest minds to help the Iraqis build a democracy in their newly-liberated country, the Bush administration vetted recruits for loyalty and partisanship. Rather than cooperating with the Iraqi people, CPA eggheads tried to foist changes upon them – and radical changes, at that (e.g., a shift from a socialist to capitalist economy…in a period of months, not years). Programs were underfunded, or not funded at all. Sectarian differences were stressed and reinforced by clueless newbies, leading to a highly fractured and contentious interim government. Meanwhile, de-Ba’athification purged the Iraqi government of all experienced politicians.

Bush loyalists, charged with recreating Iraq in America’s image, had little or no knowledge of Iraqi culture and society – an oversight that was not corrected once CPA employees arrived in Iraq, as they were rarely allowed to leave the Green Zone and experience Iraq first-hand. Instead, they remained sequestered in the Green Zone, which had been remade into a “little America”, a “bubble”, an “American subdivision”. Though many of the cafeteria workers in the Green Zone were Muslims, CPA employees expected them to serve pork dishes with a smile. (Even this secular atheist is aghast at the religious and cultural insensitivity!) Whereas the economy of Iraq could have benefited by providing for the CPA’s needs in the Green Zone, much of the work was outsourced to American companies, and most of the supplies were imported. All the while, essential services (for the Iraqis, that is) suffered; water, electricity, food, jobs – to date, Saddam has proven more able to provide the necessities for the Iraqi people than have the occupying American forces. This is perhaps why we have lost their hearts and minds – and why America is still engaged in warfare with militia groups five years after the invasion.

Watching the Senate Armed Services hearings on Iraq on the teevee today, it’s striking how quickly the Democrats and Republicans alike are to blame our current problems on the Iraqis themselves. It’s almost like listening to a spousal abuser blame his wife for her beatings. We invaded Iraq – and then we failed to help them rebuild a country, a government, that was already in rough shape to begin with; one that we further decimated by waging war upon it. Afterwards, we tried to ram our version of a democratic, free society down their throats, instead of working hand-in-hand with the Iraqi citizens to build a viable and stable country. The problems that we face today are our own, as is illustrated in IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY.

Whether you believe that the war in Iraq was a justified pre-emptive strike or an impeachable offense, there is no denying that America has a responsibility to the people of Iraq. By showing us the many ways in which we have failed to fulfill these obligations, Rajiv Chandrasekaran also gives us an important roadmap for change and success.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: What Liberal Media?: The Truth about Bias and the News, Eric Alterman (2003)

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Don’t believe the conservative talking points!

four out of five stars

Even though it was published in 2003, Eric Alterman’s WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA?: THE TRUTH ABOUT BIAS AND THE NEWS is just as relevant and insightful today, as the 2008 election cycle begins to heat up. From the mainstream media’s misogynist slurs against Hillary Clinton to their love affair with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain (note to Chris Matthews: the media isn’t supposed to be ANY candidate’s “base”), the total lack of a liberal bias, even among ostensibly moderate-to-lefty journalists, is painfully evident.

Alterman debunks the myth of the liberal media from a number of angles. From the rise of right-wing pundits and well-funded conservative “think tanks” (an oxymoron if ever there was one), to the political leanings of and corporate pressures faced by individual journalists, Alterman illustrates how the Republican Party seized control of the mainstream media, all the while decrying its supposed bias in favor of liberal causes.

Especially timely is his discussion of how the media has treated George W. Bush with kid gloves, previously having eviscerated (sometimes, rightfully so) Bill Clinton for lesser evils. Yes, Bill Clinton deserves scorn for taking advantage of an awe-struck intern (power disparity, anyone?); but a BJ pales in comparison to an unjust war. (Mind bogglingly, the media’s slant has only veered further to the right in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) Shortly after the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq passed 4,000, Dick Cheney declared “It places a special burden obviously on the families, and we recognize, I think — it’s a reminder of the extent to which we are blessed with families who’ve sacrificed as they have. The president carries the biggest burden, obviously.” Bush himself said – with no hint of irony, compassion, or remorse – that he’s found his presidency “joyful” and he sleeps “a lot better than people would assume.” And the MSM didn’t even blink.

*head desk*

Seriously, WHAT liberal media!?

As the primaries drag on, it’s a whole lotta history repeating.

While WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA? probably won’t sway any hardcore conservatives, it is a useful tool for liberals who wish to quash the myth of the liberal media, and might help to educate misinformed moderates and independents. Generally speaking, it’s a good read and a persuasive argument, but I wish Alterman had included more hard statistics and fewer anecdotes. Then again, there seems to be a dearth of research in this area; perhaps WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA? can serve as a starting point for some enterprising young journalism or social science students looking to study the issue further. An update for 2008 would be a welcome addition as well; Alterman has four more years of dubya’s shenanigans to document, not to mention the farcical 2008 primaries.

To the content of the book, I bequeath four stars. To the format, which was for me an audiobook, one lonely star. I’m normally a huge fan of audiobooks, since they allow me to “read” 2-3 times as many books as I might otherwise. Yet Alterman narrated WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA? himself, and the result is almost un-listenable. It’s truly awful. (His Bill O’Reilly impression is spot on, though. Hey, credit where credit’s due.) And this comes from someone who has a high tolerance for non-professional narration; I usually prefer that authors record the audio versions of their own books, since it lends an added authenticity to the reading. I loved listening to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s INFIDEL and Christopher Hitchens’ GOD IS NOT GREAT, both of which were read by the respective authors, thick accents and all. But Alterman’s publisher really should have shelled out the extra money for a pro.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Hillarious: The Wacky Wit, Wisdom and Wonderment of Hillary Rodham-Clinton, George Grant (1992)

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Retro Right Wing LOLZ: Not So LOL-y.

one out of five stars

HILLARIOUS: THE WACKY WIT, WISDOM & WONDERMENT OF HILLARY RODHAM-CLINTON sure is hilarious, though probably not in the way “author” George Grant intended. Rather than lol-ing over Ms. Clinton’s “wackiness”, I found myself laughing over the effort Grant boasts he put into this sad attempt at right wing humor.

To wit: “‘It is crucial that we be able to find humor in the doings of the modern world,’ the great wag G.K. Chesterton once remarked. ‘It is a profound testament to our confidence in providence that we be able to acknowledge the sheer absurdity in the things of fallen creation. This is not a spirit of meanness, rather it is a sober-minded recognition that if a thing is not right, it is silly as well as wicked…this is our apologia, not our apology.’ I must confess that I never fully understood what he meant by that remarkable epistemological quip until I experienced the wild ride of this project. Thankfully, I had a number of kind-hearted souls who helped me see the lighter side of these dark and dire days – and thus made this book possible.

“Several friends – old and new – scoured the countryside to help me gather the necessary research and pull together the necessary resources. Mary Jane Morris, Jerry and Linda Bowyer, Bruce Tippery, Bob Pambianco, Michael Skaggs, John Gissy, and Clark Eberly selflessly combed the files, manned the phones, loaded the faxes, scanned the microfiche, and ran the copiers – all gratis and at a furious pace. Stacy and Coby Owens dropped everything and performed yeoman’s duty for me by excavating sundry arcane and esoteric absurdia on a moment’s notice.” (And on and on and on.)

Only in the mind of a fundie Christian conservative would a hundred page book consisting mostly of quotes be considered a “wild ride.” Man the phones? Load the faxes? Scan the microfiche? Yeah, compiling quotes from Newsweek is one tough job. Lawdy knows how the fearless George Grant survived that crazy week in July 1992! I bet the man – now surely a first-class chickenhawk – still has nightmares about the ordeal.

In all seriousness, Grant wrote just 30 pages of original text (set in 12-point font, mind you) for this book, while the rest of the volume consists of supposedly silly, hypocritical, or downright stupid Hillary Clinton quotes. One per page (or maybe two, for the lengthier ones). Set in 14-point font. I put more work into my HIGH SCHOOL senior thesis.

The Hillary Clinton quotes Grant chooses to include have me wishing for the days when Clinton was a true, non-pandering, unabashed liberal. Perhaps then I’d be more excited about her 2008 presidential campaign. (I voted for Dennis Kucinch in the Democratic primary.)

At least half of the quotes concern Hillary’s support for children’s rights; given that Grant opens each chapter with a Biblical verse, this fixation probably stems from his paranoid fear that Planned Parenthood wants to force abortions on the daughters of God-fearing Republicans. I wonder whether parents such as these – i.e., Christians who think they ought to be able to force their pregnant daughters to give birth against their will – also hold the “rights” of religious minorities in such high regard. Should Christian Scientists be able to refuse medical treatment for their children, even if the consequence is death? Is it the Mormon father’s right to marry his girls off to much older polygamist men? Is it ok for Muslim fathers to kill daughters who have dishonored the family? All of this happens routinely, both in the United States and elsewhere, and is exactly why children’s rights laws, such as those envision by Ms. Clinton, are a good effin’ idea. Daddy doesn’t always know best, nor does he always act with his children’s best interests in mind.

The rest of HILLARIOUS follows this same line of logic: Feminists are out to destroy the family! ZOMG, working women are destroying the family! The liberals want to steal your kids and destroy your family! These crazy socialists want to steal your money, give it to brown people, and destroy your family! The American family is under attack! Oh noes!

HILLARIOUS is at once both hilarious and sad: hilarious in that such progressive ideas send Grant to his fainting couch in a tizzy, and sad inasmuch as, 16 years later, Hillary is more Republican lite than radical liberal progressive.

Oh, and the pictures kick it. Hill was one groovy hippie back in the day.

By way of a disclaimer, I should note that I picked this up at a library book sale ages ago, and started flipping through it the other day while loafing ’round the house with nothing better to do. It occupied me for about 20 minutes, half of which was spent writing this review. Don’t pay more than 5 cents for a copy, is what I’m saying.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)