Progressive Stocking Stuffers for Year Two of the Trump Era: Reading for Dark Times

by on December 18, 2017 · 1 comment

in Under the Perfect Sun

Moveable Type Credit: Richard Eriksson / Flickr

If you just can’t bring yourself to give up on the sordid consumer frenzy and go all in for a Buy Nothing Christmas, then perhaps getting your loved ones a few good books to help them navigate our dark times is the next best thing.

Here is my list of a handful of some of the best books of the last awful year:

As I noted in my first column on this fine book, “Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America is the single most important new book for progressives to read this year if they want to understand how we got to the dark moment of the present . . . MacLean takes us to the roots of the current crisis via an intellectual history of James McGill Buchanan, the thinker whose work, more than anyone else’s, informs the machinations of the Kochtopus, that shadowy network of interlinked billionaire-funded right-wing think tanks that is driving American politics.

If you want to know the central ideas behind the ‘dark money’ that Jane Mayer’s seminal book addresses and the philosophical origins of the neoliberalism that Naomi Klein analyzes in her work, MacLean’s text is the key. In it, we learn that Buchanan is the intellectual godfather of an intentionally dishonest, stealth movement by the right to ‘save capitalism from democracy—permanently.’”

MacLean has the goods and she provides us with a starkly accurate map of the current political terrain. It is an indispensable tool for the resistance.

Earlier this year, I wrote of Klein’s latest project, “In the introduction to No Is Not Enough, Klein is very clear that in her estimation, ‘Trump, extreme as he is, is less an aberration than a logical conclusion—a pastiche of pretty much all the worst trends of the past hhalf-century’ She argues that Trump is simply ‘the product of powerful systems of thought’ that have used racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry to ‘advance brutal economic policies.’ Trump is also the pure product of the ‘merger of humans and corporations’ that marks our era and the embodiment of ‘the belief that money and power provide license to impose one’s will upon others.’ His chaotic machinations are completely in line with ‘a business culture that fetishizes “disrupters”’ and his fundamental philosophy is also quite recognizable.”

But Klein goes further than simply diagnosing the problem, she also argues that what is needed is, “A captivating ‘yes’ that lays out a plan for tangible improvements in daily life, unafraid of powerful words such as redistribution and reparation, and intent on challenging Western culture’s equation of a ‘good life’ with ever-escalating creature comforts inside ever-more-isolated consumer cocoons, never mind what the planet can take or what actually leads to our deepest fulfillment.”

As usual, Naomi Klein has a gift for pivoting from hard analysis of the world-as-it-is to dreaming and demanding the impossible.

In my Thanksgiving column, I wrote of Walls’ excellent, ground-breaking and courage-teaching work:

In the fine new biography, Thoreau, a Life Laura Dassow Walls reminds us of how Thoreau:

[I]nsists that the choices we make create our environment, both political and natural—all the choices, even the least and most seemingly trivial. The sum of those choices is weighed on the scales of the planet itself, a planet that is, like Walden Pond, sensitive and alive, quick to measure the least change and register it in sound and form.

As Walls takes us through his life in this essential biography, we learn many new things about Thoreau the Hindu-influenced mystic, inventor, educator, natural scientist, walker, writer, and human being profoundly dedicated to the discipline of living. We see how the young man who came to find “alienation oddly liberating” learned courage from the example and voice of Fredric Douglas, helped fugitive slaves, assisted those fleeing the law for aiding John Brown, was molded by the strong women in his family, bucked up against religious dogma, visited with the dispossessed workers on the social margins of Concord in shacks near his own by Walden Pond, and never ceased searching for the right way to live as an individual and a citizen.

This great book provides us with much needed historical perspective and, more importantly, intellectual ballast in the face of the current onslaught of attacks on so many things we hold dear.

As the New Yorker review of this excellent novel observes, “Parts of ‘New York 2140’ are familiar. In one scene, workers put on diving gear to check on a sandbar they’re building near Ocean Parkway: in their headlamps, they see the submerged remains of Brooklyn, including ‘an armchair, resting on the bottom as if a living room had stood right there.’ It’s the kind of uncanny, elegiac image we’ve seen in a thousand dystopias.

What distinguishes Robinson’s novel is its vitality, its sense that life goes on. Today’s New Yorkers get a charge out of living amid the city’s history of struggle. Similarly, New Yorkers in 2140 love ‘motoring across the shallows of the Bronx,’ dodging ‘roof reefs.’ Watching waves break against the submerged apartments of Coney Island, they feel alive. They’re just like us, in other words. If they can fight climate change, why can’t we?”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Roderick T. Long December 19, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Good books except for the MacLean, which repeatedly attributes to people the opposite of their actual positions. Just one example out of many, many: writing about economist Tyler Cowen, MacLean writes: “‘The weakening of the checks and balances’ in the American system, Cowen suggested, ‘would increase the chance of a very good outcome.'” And she leaves the reader with the impression that Cowen must favour weakening those checks and balances.

But in fact the passage she quotes is from a section where Cowen is explaining why he’s AGAINST weakening checks and balances. And here’s Cowen’s original full sentence:

“While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it would also increase the chance of a very bad outcome.”

MacLean does this over and over, with most of the people she writes about in the book. And she’s done this in other books as well. She’s not a reliable historian.


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