My interest in politics and history is fairly superficial, my interest in economics even less. Unfortunately, these subjects are of such overwhelming importance to life in the United States that they are virtually unavoidable. As will be seen below, I’ve been totally unsystematic. I started into these areas through the books of John Caldwell Holt, who wrote mostly about education. Holt was highly critical of the practices of public education, and I found that I agreed with his criticism; his books are considered in another section of this series (at the moment, not yet written). Holt led me to Jonathan Kozol, who also criticizes education, but his interest expanded beyond the classroom to the lives of his economically-deprived students. Kozol leads one to economics and politics. And here we are.
I found that the more I read of American history, economics, and politics, and especially foreign policy, the sicker I felt about our past and our present. Most Americans, I believe, live in “blissful ignorance” of the truth. Now, more than ever, such ignorance is both dangerous and inexcusable. These books provide a basic foundation. An additional volume that could have been listed here is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, which I will consider under “Children, Education, and Feminism” in a a couple of weeks, probably.
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine
The “shock doctrine” is Naomi Klein’s term for the practice of, essentially, imperialism through tactics just short of war. She tells how the United States has created and exploited political and economic chaos in South- and Central-American countries by generally secretive and despicable tactics ranging from counterfeiting to coups. I found the book to be distressing and disturbing, as truth sometimes proves to be. I am in no position to say how accurate or fair this book is, but apparently it is used in college courses, and college professors don’t generally assign bad books. However, to be fair, you might want to read the one-star reviews at Amazon (where most reviews are overwhelmingly positive).
Noam Chomsky: The Chomsky Reader; Who Rules the World? (and many others)
Noam Chomsky has been one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This importance is essentially twofold: linguistics and politics, especially US foreign policy. His linguistics is something I have not much explored; the main point I’m aware of is his view that children have an inborn “language acquisition device,” about which I have nothing further to say. His politics, however, in the form of his books, has been very important in forming my view of the United States in the world. His books are highly critical of US practices. It seems that we (meaning the US) do not practice what we preach, and this failing seems to be his main focus in most of his books. Who Rules the World? is his most recent (2016) comprehensive overview of the US, at home and abroad, covering such things as class war, Israel-Palestine, the US as a “terrorist state,” the Doomsday Clock, and much more. He is, naturally, very controversial and almost completely ignored by “mainstream media.”
Jonathan Kozol: Rachel and Her Children, The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home
Jonathan Kozol came to national attention with the publication of Death at an Early Age, for which he was awarded the National Book Award, a searing look at his experiences as a young teacher in the Boston Public School system. The Night is Dark… criticizes college education. His later books focus mostly on the effects of poverty and the causes of deficiencies in public schooling, with an emphasis on the black experience. Sometimes the stories he tells are very painful to read, and unforgettable. (Note: my use of the word black, uncapitalized, to refer to African Americans is discussed in my book chapter, I am Racist.)
Greg Palast: Armed Madhouse; Al Franken: The Truth (with Jokes); Michael Moore: Stupid White Men
I am lumping these three books together because I have not read them recently enough to comment on them in any detail. They all are critical of the government of the United States in some way, and thus are required reading. Why do I say that? Because any politician or schoolteacher will provide all the uncritical praise of the US that anyone could ask; becoming an educated person, to me, means getting beyond such conventionalities and platitudes, and these books are seriously educational in that way. Of course, there are many such books; I respect these, and each provoked me to serious emotional heights, mostly anger.
Doris Kerns Goodwin: Team of Rivals
I’ve read a number of books about Abraham Lincoln, including David Donald’s lengthy biography and a couple of shorter works, but I never understood “the greatness of Lincoln” until reading this book. It tells the story of Lincoln and his Cabinet, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s as entertaining as any novel covering this material could be. Perhaps it is nothing beyond that; unlike many of the books on my list, this one will probably not change many lives. It’s just that I like it well, and would encourage anyone and everyone to read it.
Rachel Maddow: Drift
Rachel Maddow is the most popular newscaster on cable TV at the moment, and rightly so. This book is an examination of American military power that I would call “incisive” if I knew what that word meant. I looked it up, and it works well here. Naomi Klein (see above) says on the cover, “With her savage wit, dazzling command of facts, and eye for the absurd, Maddow tells the epic story of how American warfare came to be both never-ending and practically invisible.” What could be more important that that?
Matt Taibbi: The Great Derangement
This book has a subtitle: “A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire.” Wikipedia doesn’t say much about it, and I can’t remember a thing about it except that like all of Taibbi’s work, it’s damned funny and smart. I could quote from Amazon, but better if you read there for yourself. Here’s the link.
Chris Harman: A People’s History of the World
This book is all about class war; it is written by a communist. It is essentially a Marxist view of history. As such, it was sure to be controversial. To me, it helped me understand world history as no other book has done. I think that most of the important things in history and the present can only be correctly understood by someone who is conversant with class-war thinking. I haven’t read Marx, except for the very brief Communist Manifesto (which is also well worth reading), so whatever understanding I have of class war came from this book, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I’ve read twice, and Noam Chomsky (above). I found Harman’s book both more interesting and more informative and important than Zinn, and far more comprehensive than anything by Chomsky. I suggest reading some reviews on Amazon to get other viewpoints; most of the reviews are five stars.
Helen Caldicott: If You Love This Planet
This is a somewhat dated but still very relevant cautionary tale; I haven’t read the 2009 updated edition. Quoting Amazon: “Exploring dangerous global trends such as ozone depletion, global warming, toxic pollution, food contamination, and deforestation, Helen Caldicott presents a picture of our world and the forces that threaten its existence.” When I read the earlier version, I had of course known about the possibilities and dangers of nuclear war and environmental degradation, but this book really scared me. Let’s face it, we need to be very afraid; anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. In my opinion, of course. I’m sure there are other books about these subjects that are equally scary and well written and essential. If you’re rather blasé about climate change, for instance, thinking that “it’s no big deal,” I urgently recommend that you read Six Degrees by Mark Linas.
Next time: “Science, Mind, and Human Nature”