Jon Wiener: Five Best & Worst Political Books of 2011



Jon Wiener: Five Best Political Books of 2011

Source: The Nation, 12-15-11

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin.
A frightening work on the post 9/11 “terrorism-industrial complex,” a world of secret agencies so vast that no one knows how big it is or how much taxpayers are spending on it. Two Washington Post journalists found more than 1,200 top-secret government organizations that are supposed to be tracking and capturing terrorists, but in fact are keeping track of ordinary citizens—with money and high-tech tools Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover never even dreamed of. And then there are the private contractors, making billions while claiming to save the government money. Their estimate of the total cost: more than $2 trillion.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918, by Adam Hochschild.
I loved this story about a big war and the small number of people who said it was wrong—not the Iraq war or the Vietnam war but World War I, one of history’s most senseless exercises in violence. Hochschild focuses on Britain and on those who were jailed for trying to stop the war that killed so many millions and broke so many of the barriers to what we considered permissible. Written with impressive narrative power and moral clarity, thke book offers an unmistakable lesson for our own time.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinventionby Manning Marable.
Lots of striking new stuff in this biography of the man who embodied “the very ideal of blackness for an entire generation.” “The greatest compliment anyone can pay me,” Malcolm said, “is to say I’m irresponsible, because by ‘responsible’ they mean Negroes who are responsible to white authorities.” And yet, after his “Autobiography” became a best-seller, whites came to admire him for his conversion from militant black separatism to a kind of “multicultural universalism.” Marable, the Columbia University historian who died as his masterpiece was being published, shows that The Autobiography of Malcolm X was as much the work of Alex Haley, a liberal Republican, as of Malcolm himself.

Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks.
An unforgettable novel about an unexpected subject: the injustice of our laws restricting the lives of convicted sex offenders. Banks’s central character, “the Kid,” is never going to harm anyone, but he is forced by the law to live in a homeless camp under a freeway bridge with other convicted sex offenders—some of whom have indeed done terrible things. Banks has never been more courageous than here, where he brings to life the dehumanization and suffering of a true outcast.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens.
Assembled in the last months of his life, this collection consists of essays written before his cancer diagnosis in June, 2010 and after his split with The Nation in 2002 over the Iraq war.  Hitchens supported that war not because he liked George Bush, but because he hated Saddam’s tyranny and loved the cause of Kurdish freedom.  This collection however barely mentions Iraq or Bush or “Islamo-fascism.”  Instead, in these 750 pages he engages with novelists, politicians, intellectual heroes, and injustice and hypocrisy in high places.  He was a wonderful writer and in many ways an inspiring person – this book reminds us how terrible it is to lose him now.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post included Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, by Andrew Bacevich — which, it turns out, was published in 2010.


Jon Wiener: Five Worst Political Books of 2011

Click here to view a slide show of the five worst political books of 2011.

Back to Work, by Bill Clinton
Clinton’s argument about “why we need smart government for a strong economy” begins at the end of his presidency in 2000, when employment was booming. But to understand what has happened since then, you need to understand what Clinton did. The financial crisis of 2008 had its origins in the deregulation he championed, especially his signing the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had set limits on speculation by banks and insurance companies. The longer-term disappearance of good jobs had its origins in Clinton’s NAFTA, which sent jobs to Mexico, and eventually to China. And the rise in poverty and homelessness has been greatly exacerbated by Clinton’s “ending welfare as we know it.” None of these get more than a mention in this book, which proposes a lot of small programs that won’t solve the big problems Clinton helped create.

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, by Chris Matthews
A fan book that focuses on “charm” and “charisma” and avoids the big issues: when Kennedy called on Americans to “pay any price, bear any burden,” he wasn’t talking about civil rights, the biggest issue of the day; he was talking about fighting communism—and what did that get us? A near-war over Cuba, and then a real war in Vietnam. Yes, Kennedy does deserve credit, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, for rejecting the advice of the hawks who wanted an invasion and war—but if Kennedy had called off the Bay of Pigs invasion the previous year, the Soviets never would have sent missiles. He regarded the civil rights movement as an irritation and a distraction until almost the end of his life. Matthews admits Kennedy had some failings, but the hero-worship on display here is embarrassing.

George F. Kennan, by John Lewis Gaddis
Yes, this massive authorized bio landed on many year-end “best” lists, but most reviewers didn’t know much about Kennan beyond his authorship of the containment doctrine at the dawn of the cold war. The problem with this book: it minimizes Kennan’s forty years of criticism of the cold war. “Containment,” he said, should have focused on economic and political competition with the Soviets, rather than on a military arms race. Gaddis portrays the older Kennan as morose and self-absorbed, but barely mentions Kennan’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his endorsement of Gene McCarthy for president in 1968, and his last political statement, in 2002, at age 98, criticizing George W. Bush’s plans for a war with Iraq. Perhaps relevant in explaining these gaps: George W. Bush awarded Gaddis the National Humanities Medal in 2005 in a ceremony at the White House. For a critique of the book, see Frank Costigliola in The New York Review of Books, here.

Area 51, by Annie Jacobsen
Jacobsen makes the intriguing argument that the Air Force welcomed the alien abduction stories about Nevada’s Area 51 as a cover for what was actually going on there: testing of secret aircraft. But supersonic jets are kind of a letdown compared to little green men, so the book goes on to make a ridiculous argument: the “aliens” witnesses thought they saw at that plane crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 were actually Russian mutants, surgically altered by Josef Mengele–who, she says, had gone to work for Stalin, who sent the mutants in a Soviet “flying saucer” to New Mexico. (Never mind that the little green men were probably Air Force crash test dummies, and that Mengele hated the Soviets and escaped to South America after the war.) For a thorough demolition of the book, see Robert S. Norris and Jeffrey T. Richelson, “Dreamland Fantasies.”

In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, by Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney
Widely trashed for arguing that the Iraq war was a triumph, that waterboarding is humane and that Cheney’s critics are all contemptible liars, the book is predictable and fairly boring. Unfortunately Cheney left out the really interesting part, as Bart Gellman, the go-to man on Cheney, pointed out: George W. Bush learned in 2004 that FBI Director Robert Mueller was about to resign in protest over Cheney’s effort to revive a secret NSA program monitoring the phone calls and emails of US citizens without a warrant. At that point, George Bush turned against Cheney, and froze him out of the big decisions for the rest of his term. That story would make a terrific book.

NOTE: Omitted from consideration for the “worst” list: all of the books written by Republican candidates this year.


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