Over the past year, MediaMouse.org has reviewed 57 books on a wide range of topics from the elections to the history of the Civil Rights movement. Since our book reviews often get buried below daily news stories, we thought we’d highlight some of the more interesting books that we reviewed. Moreover, any purchases made–say for holiday shopping or what not–generate a small amount of income for MediaMouse.org, which of course keeps us going.
While much of the focus was on the presidential campaign and electoral politics, there were a number of good books released this year that cover grassroots organizing and activism:
Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland
The focus of this collection is on the lively grassroots activism that is currently taking place in what are generally deemed Red States, but by no means does this book suggest that this grassroots activism is connected to the Democratic Party. In fact, there are numerous stories shared in Red State Rebels of grassroots resistance in GOP territory that is also in opposition to the Democrats.
The essays are arranged by region, such as Midwest, the Rocky Mountain States, the Southwest, the South, and Indian Country. The topics that are addressed are even more diverse. You might be reading about Native people fighting mining companies in the southwest and a few pages later African Americans are taking a stand against the use of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina. People employ all kinds of tactics in these battle stories, tactics that range from banner drops to direct action and civil disobedience. More importantly, what Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland provides us with is the message that there are plenty of committed and courageous people in this country who do not put their faith in partisan politics. They rely on critical thinking, organizing and action on behalf of justice. An important message that can keep us motivated while the Red State/Blue State madness is upon us.
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guide advocates radical sustainability that “recognizes the inseparability of ecological and social issues and the necessity of ensuring the solution to one problem does not create or worsen another.” So for instance, the authors argue that instead of just putting up solar panels, which uses materials that are not sustainable, people could find used lumber and construct a windmill. Overall, its an indispensible guide to living sustainably within a city.
Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and the New Path Towards Social Justice
Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice is an important book that examines both the history of the US labor movement and how it currently functions. The authors share a number of important historical examples of how the labor movement–beginning with Samuel Gompers of the AFL–shifted away from its original goals of social justice and adopted policies that often supported racism, imperialism, and the state. However, the book isn’t all doom-and-gloom, the authors outline some possibilities for a resurgence of social justice unionism.
Standing Up to the Madness
Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times is a collection of stories about people in the United States who are also choosing to take a stand against injustice. In their third book together, Amy and David Goodman have brought to life a wonderful collection of stories that tells us there are plenty of people in this country who are willing to take risks in order to stand up for justice. Many people have not heard these stories since they are generally not considered newsworthy by the commercial media outlets in this country.
It is so rare that we get to hear these kinds of stories even though they happen all the time. Amy and David Goodman have done us all a great service by documenting these stories and communicating the message that it is possible to stand up against the madness.
While Iraq largely fell off the news media’s radar and was barely discussed during the 2008 election, the occupation dragged on. Here’s some useful books for understanding the war:
Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan
Aaron Glantz and Iraq Veterans Against the War have produced an essential book on the United States’ occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan–so much so that writing a review almost seems superfluous. My first inclination is to simply tell people to just go and get the book–it’s that important.
Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations is essential reading for anyone who is interested in what is truly happening in Iraq as well as those who are looking for more effective ways of organizing to stop the war. It joins books such as Dahr Jamail’s Beyond the Green Zone and Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning in giving a critical glimpse into what is happening on the ground in Iraq.
Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians
Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians is an important book to help us all sift through the daily headlines of White House and Pentagon claims about the US occupation of Iraq. Collateral Damage explores what actually happens in Iraq and the daily violence and brutality that consumes much of the country. It is a “must read” for those who not only care about what is happening to Iraqis, but also for those who want to hear the voices of Iraq veterans who are important to building an anti-war movement.
Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, The Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq
If you were able to create a list of books that you think US policy makers, military planners, and even combat soldiers who are in or will be deployed to Iraq should read, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq should be on that list. Not only does this book provide great insight into the current situation in Iraq, it provides important historical background on one of the most important groups of people that make up Iraq – the Shia.
Patrick Cockburn, an author of several books, has been reporting for the British newspaper the Independent from inside Iraq since the beginning of the US occupation. Cockburn begins the book by telling readers about his experience of going to Najaf in 2004 to meet Muqtada and how he was almost killed by the Shia leader’s followers who thought he was an American journalist. Cockburn’s willingness to take risks not only makes the book an interesting read, it also means he has gained access to areas of Iraq that few foreign journalists have.
The Three Trillion Dollar War
It is always difficult to quantify human suffering, but The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict does a pretty good job of helping us understand what the monetary costs of the Iraq War are in human terms. The book is a valuable resource for those opposed to the US occupation of Iraq and an important contribution for the next generation of US citizens who will no doubt bear the burden of paying for the war. The book estimates the total cost of the war at $4.5 trillion dollars. When factoring in the Iraqi costs, the number is more like $8.6 trillion.
It’s no surprise that we read a lot of books on media. Here’s some of the more interesting ones we read this year:
The Complex: How the Military Invades our Everyday Lives
In The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, author and historian Nick Turse argues that the “military-industrial complex” has become far more pervasive and larger than the system described by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. While Eisenhower raised concerns about the “large arms industry,” Turse argues that the military now invades almost every facet of our daily lives. From the food we eat to the entertainment we watch, Turse outlines a far more powerful system–“the military-industrial-technological-entertainment-scientific-media-corporate complex or “the Complex” for short–that exists as “a real-life matrix” that touches every part of our lives without must of us ever realizing it.
Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio
Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio: America’s Ten Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive Alternatives demonstrates that hate speech that is directed against African Americans, immigrants, the poor, the gay community, and other oppressed communities is the norm for many of the syndicated radio. The author profiles what he calls the “Top 10 hate talkers on radio,” with a brief explanation of how each got started in radio and some of the more egregious statements they have made on air over the years. What O’Connor demonstrates is that these hate speech talk show hosts are so accessible, they are likely to be found in most communities in the country and many of us are unaware of it. In the radio market of West Michigan where I write from, five of the top ten radio shows that the book focuses on air Monday through Friday.
The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics
Theodore Hamm’s The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics is an interesting–and potentially inspiring–examination of the progressive media that has risen over the past several years in opposition to the Bush Administration. In the book, journalist Theodore Hamm explores several prominent progressive media outlets and media figures–The Onion, Air America, Michel Moore, MoveOn.org, the liberal blogosphere, and The Daily Show/Colbert Report–to discuss how they have provided a critical response to the Bush administration.
The New Blue Media is an excellent book that addresses an important component of the liberal and progressive activism and politics that has arisen in opposition to the Bush administration. Moreover, by looking back on how the “New Blue Media” has functioned over the past several years, it can help us assess its strengths and weaknesses as the country enters a new Democratic period of governance. The New Blue Media should be on the reading list of anyone seeking progressive social change, especially those who are hoping to pursue such change either by working within or with the Democratic Party.
If we’re going to move forward, it’s always important to look at where we have been and learn from the past. Moreover, history can often serve as an inspiration and a catalyst for transformative action in the present. Here’s some books we liked this year:
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman
Outside the United States, social movements of the left have used a variety of creative techniques–posters, puppet shows, songs, and art–as popular education tools to convey their collective goals and aspirations. Unfortunately, for much of the left in the United States, we have tended to focus our efforts on producing lengthy books and dense articles that are read by only a small number of people already sympathetic, thereby limiting the left’s outreach. Sharon Rudahl’s Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman is an important piece of popular education–taking Goldman’s autobiography, reducing it from its 1,000 pages and illustrating it. Rudahl’s work, by virtue of its accessibility, should help people learn more about Goldman–one of the more inspirational figures from anarchist and left history.
A People’s History of American Empire
A comic book adaptation of Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States might seem a little weird at first, but that’s what this book is–and it works really well. A People’s History of American Empire provides an excellent overview of the key moments in US history, focusing especially on the times when ordinary citizens organized and changed society. Moreover, with its comic book style it is an easy read that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. I could certainly see it being used in history classes in middle and high school.
A People’s History of Sports in the United States
There is an old argument in some left/progressive circles that sports are just another tool to keep us distracted from working for real change and that any time spent either playing or watching sports is a waste of time. Dave Zirin smashes that notion with his newest book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States: From Bull-Baiting to Barry Bonds… 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play.
What Zirin demonstrates in this book in that sports and politics have always been intertwined and that athletes have always been activists. People may be aware of the political stances that Muhammad Ali took during the Vietnam War, but Zirin illuminates a long tradition of sports activism starting in the mid-nineteenth century.
With the 2008 presidential campaign, much of the left focused their efforts on electing a Democratic president. As is generally the case, inherent contradictions were glossed over–for example the candidates’ position on the US occupation of Iraq–and the institutional resources of the left were almost completely focused on that goal. In the end, this got us the election of Barack Obama. To be sure, Obama’s election as the first black president is an achievement that should be celebrated. However, it remains to be seen if he is truly a “progressive” and if there will be real “change.” The following books can help us sharpen our analysis of the Democrats:
The Democrats: A Critical History
There is reason to be skeptical of all the recent talk of “change” according to author Lance Selfa. In his new book The Democrats: A Critical History, Selfa reviews the history of the Democratic Party and concludes that the Democrats are anything but a progressive or left party. Selfa offers a realistic assessment of the Democratic Party and the prospects for change within it, as well as a reminder that change comes from social movements, not from the Democratic Party. In the book, Selfa looks at the history of the Party, its relationship to social movements, and efforts to pressure the Party from both the inside and the outside.
Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics
During the 2008 campaign, Paul Street was one of the most prominent left critics of Barack Obama. In Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, Street provides a lengthy and highly critical assessment of Obama by examining his positions, his history in the Illinois and federal legislature, and his relationship with the ruling class. The book won’t win Street any friends, but it might go a long way towards explaining why Obama has surrounded himself with so many advisors and cabinet members who seem to contradict the message of his campaign.
Savage Mules: Democrats and Endless War
In 2008, despite overwhelming support among its base, the Democratic Party failed to produce a candidate who truly supported ending the occupation of Iraq. Still, many people in liberal or progressive circles tend to equate the Democratic Party with an anti-war platform. Even the news media will often frame Democratic candidates as anti-war or political “doves.” However, Perrin’s basic thesis is that Democratic presidents have always endorsed war and are not “anti-war.” Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War is not a scholarly book, but rather is a populist reading of the historical positions that Democratic presidents have taken in regards to war.
Books Reviewed in 2008 by MediaMouse.org
- 2008.12.11: Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and the New Path Towards Social Justice
- 2008.12.09: Short Reviews: Deer Hunting with Jesus and Speaking Treason Fluently
- 2008.12.02: Columbus and other Cannibals
- 2008.11.27: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power
- 2008.11.23: The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics
- 2008.11.16: Guys and Guns AMOK: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre
- 2008.11.13: A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium
- 2008.11.10: War Without End: The Iraq War in Context
- 2008.11.09: Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan
- 2008.11.08: Confrontations: Selected Journalism
- 2008.10.27: Plunder: Investigating Our Economic Calamity and the Subprime Scandal
- 2008.10.14: The Democrats: A Critical History
- 2008.10.03: Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics
- 2008.09.26: A People’s History of Sports in the United States
- 2008.09.26: Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice
- 2008.09.26: Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
- 2008.09.22: Bakunin, An Invention
- 2008.08.26: Bleeding Afghanistan
- 2008.08.18: Jews and American Comics
- 2008.08.13: Toolbox for Sustainable City Living
- 2008.08.06: Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War
- 2008.07.31: Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland
- 2008.07.31: Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan
- 2008.07.07: Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians
- 2008.07.03: Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection
- 2008.06.24: Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water
- 2008.06.16: Shock Jocks: Hate Speech & Talk Radio
- 2008.06.13: Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs
- 2008.06.06: Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto
- 2008.05.28: The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World
- 2008.05.20: A People’s History of American Empire
- 2008.05.19: Free Ride: John McCain and the Media
- 2008.05.19: A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman
- 2008.05.16: So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits–and the President–Failed Us on Iraq
- 2008.05.14: Bush VS Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela
- 2008.05.05: God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters
- 2008.04.28: Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming
- 2008.04.28: Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, The Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq
- 2008.04.24: Standing Up to the Madness
- 2008.04.24: The Corrosion of Medicine: Can the Profession Reclaim Its Moral Legacy?
- 2008.04.11: The Cold War and the New Imperialism
- 2008.04.06: The Complex: How the Military Invades our Everyday Lives
- 2008.03.31: La Via Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants
- 2008.03.23: From Outrage to Courage: Women Taking Action for Health and Justice
- 2008.03.21: McCain: The Myth of a Maverick
- 2008.03.14: The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict
- 2008.03.11: Swim Against the Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow
- 2008.03.03: Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: The New Liberal Menace in America
- 2008.02.25: Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests
- 2008.02.21: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Politics of the Chavez Government
- 2008.02.14: Less Safe, Less Free: Why America is Losing The War on Terror
- 2008.02.04: Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media
- 2008.01.28: Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign
- 2008.01.15: Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy
- 2008.01.15: Osugi Sakae: Anarchist in Taisho Japan
- 2008.01.14: Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism
- 2008.01.07: Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking