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Book: Unspeakable by Chris Hedges

mardi 28 février 2017

Chris Hedges is someone I respect a hell of a lot. He is one of the few people today who is not afraid of really just speaking the truth. Despite all of Trump's talk about how the media is all fake news, the mainstream media in fact really just toes the party line as far as corporate interests. The sad truth in American politics today is that once you get past all the little details that the two political parties try to get people all worked up about the two parties really agree on most economic issues. The two parties get their constituents all riled up about issues that honestly won't really effect people's lives that much - and while everyone is busy arguing over who can urinate in what bathroom they conduct the real work of the government which essentially is catering to large corporations.

Very few people in America are willing to even acknowledge this. Third party candidates are dismissed as "throwing your vote away," which is largely true, but only because the media doesn't take any third party seriously enough to give them any real chance. Granted this is largely due to the US winner-take-all electoral system, which I would argue only exists because the founding father's didn't foresee the rise of political parties, but the end result is that if you disagree with the two parties in any substantial way you won't be heard and won't be covered.

With Donald Trump calling any negative media coverage of him "fake news" he is distracting from the very real biases of the press. Hedges describes one example which was how the media was basically forced to act as a proganda arm of the Bush administration in selling their now disproven fiction about Iraq having WMDs in the early 2000s. The media was not forced to do this by the government, but by the corporate elite who own and run the media. After 9/11, in the ensuing wave of patriotism, any questioning of government policy was viewed as un-American, and strongly discouraged by the media, as Hedges personally experienced when he tried to protest the war.

The political parties can squabble all they want over whether to build a border wall, but when it comes to promoting the interests of multinational corporations there is little to no disagreement. When it comes to promoting unfettered free-market capitalism they are in lock step. The Republicans and Democrats may disagree on how much regulation there should be on Wall Street, and how high the corporate tax rate should be, but they will never question whether corporate interests are really best for the country, much less question whether capitalism as a system has inherent flaws.

Unspeakable: Chris Hedges on the Most Forbidden Topics in America is a rather short book, but it touches on many of the issues that I think about a lot. I think we are lucky that someone like him exists and is not afraid to question the prevailing economic dogma although he will be ostracized and ridiculed for it.

Libellés: books, politics
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Book: The Reactionary Mind

dimanche 26 février 2017

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin, is a book of essays about conservatism from the 17th century to today. I have often struggled to try to figure out exactly what "conservatism" as a political philosophy actually means and I thought this book might shed some light. While it did have some interesting ideas, it didn't really do that great of a job answering my question.

The traditional idea of conservatism is about trying to preserve existing orders and traditions. Robin argues that modern conservatism is more of a reaction to radical ideas and movements than any real sort of ideology. While there are serious conservative thinkers, he draws a distinction between them and th conservative political movement, which seem more aimed making sure that those with money and power keep their wealth and influence than in instigating any real cultural or social changes. 

He says that traditional conservatism, as epitomized by Edmund Burke, was about having change be gradual and organic, about being more pragmatic than idealistic and in general preferring the known, no matter how good or bad, to the unknown - which has the potential to be much better, but also to be worse. Essentially it is a fear of change. Traditionally conservative movements have arisen in reaction to revolutionary ideas - when things start to change people start to mobilize against change, and in favor of keeping things they way they were. These types of counterrevolutionary movements have occured in reaction to things ranging from the French Revolution, to abolitionism, to women's suffrage, to civil rights, and even to the 1960's anti-war movement. Taken in this context, the recent radical populist conservatism in the US is just another reaction to social and economic changes, not a new ideological movement as the Tea Party, the "Alt Right" and Donald Trump like to think of themselves as.

In this book Robin gives some interesting analyses and thoughts on conservative movements through the years, but he is largely preaching to the choir. The book is not going to change anyone's mind, nor does it really aim to. It is an interesting read, and I agree with most of his points, but I didn't really get much out of it that I didn't already have going in.

Libellés: books, politics
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Book: The Trial of Henry Kissinger

mercredi 08 février 2017

There's nothing I dislike more than people who are always 100% sure that their opinion is correct. When people are sure that they are right they tend to disregard any facts or evidence that contradict their beliefs and grab onto anything, however flimsy, that supports their beliefs. This leads to a situation which we see in the US now where "alternative facts" are made up to support an existing position, in clear contradiction of the actual evidence. This is why I hate so much that I so often agree with Christopher Hitchens - he comes across as so sure of his position that it just unsettles me, and it unsettles me even more that I usually can't argue with his reasoning.

This book is actually more of a long essay outlining alleged war crimes committed by Henry Kissinger. The biggest one is how he gave Richard Nixon information that allowed Nixon to torpedo the 1968 peace talks aimed at ending the Vietnam War. Nixon, at the time a private citizen, passed along information to the South Vietnam government that if they did not agree to a peaceful settlement he would be elected, and after election would provide better terms for them. So South Vietnam boycotted the talks and the Vietnam War went on for an additional four years before the exact same terms were finally agreed to, at a cost of twenty thousand American troops and maybe half a million or more Vietnamese casualties. Hitchens claims that Kissinger also provided information to the Humphrey campaign, playing boths sides so that no matter who became President he would have an in with them. I'm not sure who comes across worse in this whole mess - Nixon for meddling in foreign affairs as a private citizen and sacrificing an enormous number of lives for his political ambitions, or Kissinger who played both sides, again for the sake of his own ambitions.

This is not the only case of Kissinger doing things that would seem more appropriate for a murderous dictator than for the government of a supposedly democratic country. He was also complicit in the Indonesian massacre in East Timbor, the military coups in multiple South American countries, the coup in Cyprus, and others.

What strikes me the most about this long list of atrocities, most of which were justified in the name of anti-communism, is that the American government got the problem with communism exactly wrong. In my mind the problem with Soviet communism was the fact that it was actually a repressive authoritarian dictatorship, not the fact that this dictatorship was paying lip service to a different economic model. Kissinger and Nixon apparently took the exact opposite viewpoint - the US supported numerous brutal, murderous, totalitarian dictatorships - so long as they espoused free market philosophies. In Chile they supported a coup against a democratically elected government which had slight socialist leanings - Kissinger said that there was no need to let the country "go Marxist" just because the people "were irresponsible" - and supported Pinochet's government which was later charged for numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from it's brutal repression of any dissent and political opposition.

Who benefits from US support for repressive military dictatorships? Certainly not the people of the country who trade in democratic government for totalitarianism. The people who benefit are the multinational corporations who want to either privatize industry or keep their own business from being socialized. The US is supposed to be an example of "freedom" on the world stage - but in reality what they advocated was freedom for corporations and individuals to make money at the expense of the people, who were systematically impoverished and repressed, or in the worst case tortured and "disappeared." 

While I knew of some of Nixon and Kissinger's misdeeds in foreign affairs, reading this list of the worst of them made me horrified and ashamed to be an American, and glad I no longer live there.

Libellés: books, politics
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Book: Insane Clown President

mardi 07 février 2017

When I first heard of this book I assumed it was an anti-Trump gimmick, designed and written solely to sell copies by capitalizing on the anger at Trump's election. It wasn't until I discovered that the book was written by Matt Taibbi that I actually decided to read it. Matt Taibbi is the author of what I consider to be one of the most important books on politics in this century "The Great Derangement," which analyzes recent fringe conspiracy movements in the light of what US politics have become. In "The Great Derangement" Taibbi investigates one right-wing movement - apocalyptic religious fundamentalists - and one left-wing movement - 9/11 Truthers - and concludes that both stem from the fact that the American political system has become so corrupt and so removed from any real democratic influence. Rather than getting angry that the government acts mostly in the interest of the multinational corporations and monied interests who fund the politicians and agitating for any real change, people instead focus on fringe conspiracy theories and become obsessed with the coming of the rapture or trying to figure out who was "really" behind 9/11. In the meantime the political parties promote the idea that they are idealogical opposites by getting the people to focus on and get angry about social issues like what bathrooms transgender people can use, gay marriage and abortion while both parties take jam through their agenda which benefits the very wealthy and the multinationals. But enough about that book...

This book seems styled after the campaign work of Hunter Thompson and consists of a series of dispatches written by Taibbi during the campaign of Donald Trump. I was pleased to see that the dispatches were printed as they were originally written and not updated with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that after the release of Trump's comments on grabbing the genitals of women, Taibbi writes as if the campaign is over, as most people thought at the time, makes the fact that somehow Trump went on to win even more shocking and upsetting.

Even Taibbi's writing style seems very reminiscent of Thompson - full of bizarre and sometimes obscene descriptions of things - like describing Donald Trump's speeches as "turd clouds". Like Thompson's work, this book is fun to read, yet inside the florid metaphors it contains deep and profound analyses of the state of politics and the world. The only gripe I have with the book is the title, which to me seems more appropriate to tabloid journalism than to a serious political work like this. Even so, I highly recommend this book, and also highly recommend "The Great Derangement."

Libellés: books, politics
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Book: The Way We Never Were

dimanche 05 février 2017

Hearing about how Donald Trump wants to "make America great again" for the last year and a half made me think when was America great? Since the 80s, conservatives have loved to talk about the decline in "family values" and how all social and economic problems stem from the lack of "traditional" families, usually referencing the 1950s Leave it to Beaver sitcom-style family as their model of what a good, decent traditional family should be. I suspected that such a family never really existed other than on TV, and I decided to read this book, "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" by Stephanie Coontz to get another opinion on this issue.

The book basically concludes that the "traditional nuclear family" consisting of a working father and a stay at home mother was a relatively recent invention, only really existing in the years after WWII, and that contrary to popular nostalgia of the 1950s as a period of good, decent, family values the rates of poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence and marital dissatisfaction were significantly higher than they were in the early 1990s, when the book was written. In the 1950s wife beating was not even considering a "real" crime and battered wives who saw psychiatrists were often counseled to stop provoking their husbands. 

During the Reagan era you would often hear that social and economic problems were due to the end of the traditional family - as seen in rising divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and the rise of out-of-wedlock births. In fact the rates of teenager girls having children was higher in the 1950s than in the 1990s, although back then many teenage girls who got pregnant would either be forced to marry or live with their parents, in which case their children would not be counted as being raised in a single parent home.

Ms. Coontz makes a case that the social and economic issues of the 1980s were in fact directly related to rising income inequality and poverty caused by the deregulation and privatization of the Reagan years, which tie in to the idea of a nuclear family as the basic unit of society. In the past extended familes were much more common and communities and social ties were stronger. It was really only in the post-war years that the self-contained nuclear family which only cares about itself became prevalent, and the idea was really promulgated, largely by advertisers, who wanted to sell goods to housewives, and mass media, which wanted to have the least objectionable programming to appeal to the widest possible audience and thus appeal to advertisers. She argues that the privatization of the family was just part of a wider trend of the economic privatization of everything which is still ongoing. Divorcing families from their communities and their wider social ties was just a manifestation of the emerging neoliberal economic agenda where profit is the driving force behind and measure of everything. 

In this analysis "traditional" family values were just another piece of the commodification of everything and the shift of priorities from concern for wider social issues to everyone being obsessed with making as much money as possible for themselves. Ironically, this implies that the "traditional" family, by shifting the focus from the community to the individual, was involved in the destruction of the "traditional" family values which are often tied to the family. In fact, neither the "traditional" family nor the "traditional" values associated with that family ever really existed in reality, so the whole issue becomes largely moot.

One story I found very interesting in the book was about how different cultures have different approaches to things like family. When the Europeans arrived in America many of them were aghast as the way the Native Americans viewed family and marriage and women. The Native American women were free to do as they wanted whereas the Europeans were the property of their husbands or fathers and were very tightly controlled. The Europeans were taken aback by the fact that the women could make their own decisions and sleep with whomever they wanted. They asked the Native American men how they could know if their children were biologically theirs if they didn't enforce monogamy. The Native Americans replied that while the Europeans only loved their biological children the Native Americans loved all the children of their tribe. I would argue that, as Hillary Clinton said in the 1990s, "it takes a village" to raise a child, and Ms. Coontz provides evidence that this is in fact true, and that children who are part of a wider family than just their parents often turn out better than those raised in isolation with only their biological family.

The bottom line of the book is that the yearning for the "traditional" family of the 1950s is a trap, and distracts people from thinking about real problems and solutions, by imposing an unthinking nostalgia for a past that never really existed while ignoring the numerous problems that existed in that past. To answer my original question, the America that some people so desperately want to go back to only existed on TV and in their imaginations. 

Libellés: books, politics, economics
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